Photos courtesy Ian Collins Photography / @iancollinsphotography
Last week, we were headed to Santa Cruz, Calif. at the invite of Roval’s wheel bike launch by the brand’s parent company, Specialized. “Just Roval?” I asked. “Yup,” was the reply.
Fair question. I reckon I’m like many, believing that because Roval is tied to Specialized (The Big Red “S” bought the 80s wheel brand back in the late 2000s), it was just a deal of “hey, check out these wheels… on this rad Tarmac or Epic Hardtail!”
Nope. The bikes were just the vehicle; the wheels were the centerpiece. Roval is making a dedicated push to promote its wheels not because it’s a house brand spec, but because the wheels are amazing of their own merit. Says Roval Road Brand Manager Chris Riekert: “We want it be seen as the most complete, highest quality wheelset that there is. That’s a tall statement. We want these to live outside the Specialized brand, and we hope to see it spec’d on other bike brands. It really is to that level.”
Sure, he’s a company man, but he’s absolutely right. As our ride test revealed, the wheels are shockingly impressive. Zipp, ENVE, Hed, EDCO, look out. Also, Kona bike count: look out. Roval is coming.
Last month, the Roval CLX 50 was debuted to the public as the mid-depth (50mm) rim saw first light at the Tour Down Under. Last week’s press launch was to debut and ride-test the wheel, (as well as Roval’s new Control SL 29 mountain bike wheels) We had two days of (luckily) dry road conditions and amazing loamy (and a bit of muddy) MTB conditions to test both. And we are beyond impressed. Riekert is right: these CLX wheels belong on not just my Specialized, but on my Cervelo, my Canyon, your Trek, your Felt. They belong on any bike that wants some stiff, bolt-on speed… at a super competitive price.
Roval Senior Global PR manager Sean Estes echoed my initial sentiment, that many thought the brand would be marginalized to cut costs. “We get it, people thought it was there to preserve margin, but that’s not it at all.”
While the wheel stalwarts (Zipp, HED) have dominated the aero wheel space, and ENVE penetrated a fairly insulated industry segment on the strength of its aero acumen and overall build quality. The trio (the top three brands among the 46 brands on the pier in Kona) constitute a pretty elite truumvirate.
But to be clear, Roval’s the wheels are real. They’ve won races under Peter Sagan, and at this point is its own brand, with a direct sales website (rovalcomponents.com), it s own social channels, it is it’s own brand. Yes, it’s connected to Specialized, but, as Estes says, that’s a benefit; it has an incredible armada of resources at its behest; engineers, a wind tunnel, fatigue and impact testing rigs. Any other brand that would want to start up has to eat those start-up costs… or pass them on to the consumer. Roval doesn’t.
We are convinced that Roval—eighth in Kona last year—is on the precipice of joining that club (and experiencing a rise in the count); by our estimations, the wheels are just that good. And much of that will hinge on the CLX 50, debuted this January.
Specialized has been hard at work using those aforementioned resources, putting its Morgan Hill, Calif-based Win Tunnel to good use developing the Shiv and Venge. But Roval’s aero wheels have been front and center as well. The results a year or so ago were the CLX 64 (a deeper 64mm aero rim) and CLX 32 (a shallower 32mm climbers wheel). Developing a mid-depth 50mm rim carbon clincher isn’t earth shattering. It’s the silent collective of details that makes this wheel one of our favorite debuts in the new year.
It’s fairly common knowledge that a 50mm deep rim is the “happy” depth, which is why Roval settled on the depth for its new wheel. It’s deep enough to pay aero dividends on a flat race course, but shallow enough to be a light climbing wheel and handle well in crosswinds… all while potentially serving as a daily driver training wheel. It’s the reason Zipp’s 404 has been the company’s bread and butter aero wheel. So for Roval, the 50 is the new do-it-all wheel.
Specialized them moved on to aero shape, an area it has a ton of experience; with its own in-house wind tunnel, its engineering team threw its weight and time behind the CLX 50. The cross section looks sIn the end, it claims drag numbers lower than that of the Zipp 303 (not a surprise, though they should have tested against the 404), Enve 4.5 and Bontrager’s Aeolus 5.0 from 5 to 15 degrees yaw. The entire CLX range was developed around Specialized’s 24mm Turbo tire in terms of tire-to-rim aero interface and rolling resistance.
And a point of clarity: while we tested the carbon clinchers, they also have the disc brake version (which has the same rim shape) and tubular version (with a slightly different sidewall to better mate up with a tubular tire).
It’s also built with a wide inner rim width (20.7mm); wider rims with commensurate wider internal widths allows for large 24mm or 25mm tires to not only present a more aero frontal profile, but also delivers decreased rolling resistance and better cornering and general handling feel. A happy benefit is the increased internal air volume makes for a bigger cushion of air, and thus a more comfortable ride. Roval isn’t the first, but they recognize wider is better.
The rim external width of 29.4mm is wider than Zipp (26.4mm on the 404 the 454) HED (25mm on the Jet Black) and ENVE 4.5 (27mm on the 4.5) Specialized says it’s ideally paired with a 24mm tire for optimal frontal aero profile, but with ample inner air volume, provides a super low rolling resistance setup. Want to even get a better ride? The CLX 50 also includes a set of rim bed buttons that cover the spoke holes, allowing for the conversion to road tubeless.
Then you have manufacture, an area that doesn’t get enough attention. There is a marked difference between a wheel with structural integrity—one that just feels like it can take a beating, can stand up straight when climbing a short, punchy hill, take a bit of a bang in the back of your car—and ones that’s a bit fragile. The CLX50 is, like the CLX 64 and CLS 32 are handmade, tubeless-ready and stiff in hand like an ENVE (our high water mark brand in this category), and the hubset is done properly, with Roval’s own aero hub packed with proven DT Swiss 240s internals, and finished with quick Ceramic Speed bearings and SwissStop Black Prince carbon brake pads. For practicality, the wheels feature standard nipples. On the whole, it’s a premium, bulletproof build, with a level of attention to detail that few are delivering.
Weight? It’s lighter than ENVE’s 4.5 carbon clincher (by 151 grams) at 1,375 grams per pair. Additionally (and considering the CLX 50 is a slightly shallower depth rim than the Zipp 404 NSW), it’s at a claimed 180 grams lighter than the 404 NSW, and 150 grams lighter than the 454 NSW carbon clinchers. And it’s nearly 300 grams lighter than HED’s Jet 6 Black.
While the CLX 64 was amazing in past testing (and is our favorite of Roval’s fleet), we think this new 50mm version has the propensity to be the flagship wheel that is every bit the foil to the big brands. It’s the perfect tunnel-proven, do-it-all wheel ready for anything from a cruisy training ride to hilly course race-day (think Alcatraz, etc.), with all the tech and toughness we’d want. Can Roval punch into the upper echelon of the wheel brands? ENVE did it. We think Roval has a product every bit as good as (or in some cases, better) than the others, at a price that, at a very competitive $2,400 per pair (rim brake, disc brake or tubular), beats its competitors by hundreds of dollars (or as with Zipp’s $4,000 454 NSW, a whopping $1,600).
On our ride through the mountains east of Santa Cruz, we found the CLX 50 to be as advertised. The Roval team said that weight had a slightly greater focus over aerodynamics for the 50, and on a hilly (3,800ft of vert), 53-mile loop around Eureka Canyon, it was a light, stiff wheel whether climbing steadily (which there was a lot of) or punching up short climbs out of saddle (of which there weren’t many). On the flats and downhills, it rolled quick and kept its speed, and happily, was on rails through snaking descent out of the mountain back to Santa Cruz. It’s a top-shelf jack-of-all-trades, fast everywhere.
50mm not your depth? Want more depth? Happily, the 50mm simply rounds out Roval’s collection; a mid-depth to compliment a deeper CLX 64 and that shallower, lighter CLX 32. As we said, we really, really like the CLX 64, and think triathletes should look at it as the centerpiece tri bike wheelset, but ought to look at the CLX 50 for hilly courses like Cannes International, Escape from Alcatraz, 70.3 St. George and the like where a mountainous ride is the signature.
From strength, weight, and ride to the power of Specialized’s resources to prove the product, and Roval is every bit the wheel brand as the others. Add that competitive price and a direct-sale model (yep, you can order them directly online at rovalcomponents.com) and you’d be negligent to not put these on your wheel upgrade radar.