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Don’t call it a Specialized wheelset.
That was the takeaway message from a recent Roval Components press camp, held in Santa Cruz, California, which saw four separate groups of journalists invited to test ride three new carbon road wheelsets and four new mountain-bike wheelsets.
There’s no escaping the fact that the Roval brand is owned and operated at Specialized headquarters in Morgan Hill, California, with shared resources such as manufacturing and distribution channels, and R&D facilities that include an in-house wind tunnel. Nevertheless, the engineers and product managers who sit on the Roval side of the building see themselves as part of a separate and distinct, standalone wheel brand, not a Specialized offshoot. To that end, they’ve recently launched a standalone web site and separate Instagram account, in the hopes that the rest of the cycling world will begin to view Roval in the same way.
“The goal is to see these wheels being spec’d on other brands,” said Chris Riekert, marketing manager. “We hope to see another company pull them in as an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] brand.”
That’s a tall order.
Major bike brands rarely spec their frames with wheels (or components) from a competing label. In order to be viewed as an established wheel brand, Roval will not only have to reverse years of public perception regarding its relationship to Specialized; it will also have to provide performance and pricing that are at least on par, if not better, than existing options. Roval’s new trio of high-end carbon road wheelsets — the CLX 32, CLX 50, and CLX 64 — make solid arguments for the performance and pricing requirements.
But changing how the brand name is perceived — to get to the point where consumers consider Roval wheels in the same category as Zipp, HED, or Mavic — may prove to be a bigger challenge.
The CLX line
Roval had a strong reputation for innovation well before Specialized purchased the brand in 2005; even in the 1980s, the French company was a pioneer in so-called integrated wheel systems, using dedicated straight-pull bladed spokes, two-to-one lacing patterns, aerodynamic hub shapes, and custom hidden nipples all designed to help cheat the wind. That sort of systems approach isn’t nearly as novel today, of course, but the latest Roval CLX range of carbon road wheels is nevertheless still admirably progressive.
Each CLX wheelset will be available as a tubeless-ready clincher or tubular, in both rim-brake and disc-brake models with specific rim lay-ups for each version; however, the only disc-tubular model is the CLX 32. All of the CX wheelsets will use custom Roval AF (Aero Flange) hubs with DT Swiss Star Ratchet internals, straight-pull stainless steel spokes (with external nipples for ease of maintenance), two-to-one lacing patterns, and CeramicSpeed hybrid ceramic cartridge bearings.
Wide profiles are found across the board. Clinchers feature a 20.7mm internal width to better match with higher-volume tires, and external widths measure a similarly generous 28.1mm, 29.4mm, and 29.9mm to maintain aerodynamic performance with the increasing 32mm, 50mm, and 64mm rim depths. Not surprisingly, that aerodynamic performance is a key selling attribute for all of the new Roval CLX wheels. According to Roval, the 32s, 50s, and 64s all test faster than their direct competitors (Zipp 202s, 454s, and 808s respectively), and at every yaw angle.
Rider weight limit on CLX wheels is 240 pounds, or 109 kilograms.
The CLX 32 wheelset is the lightest in the line, launched last summer to replace the CLX 40. Claimed weights range from 1,155g per set for the rim-brake tubulars, to a still-feathery 1,350g for the disc-brake clinchers. Although 8mm shallower than its predecessor, Roval claims that its new wide-profile shape makes it more aerodynamically efficient, even outperforming some competitors’ wheels twice its depth. Moreover, it’s supposedly built for genuinely serious abuse; in fact, the CLX 32 was first spec’d on the Crux cyclocross bike.
The newest wheel, the CLX 50, is Roval’s self-described “quiver killer”. At just 1,230 to 1,415g, depending on configuration, each set is only marginally heavier than the CLX 32, while offering better aerodynamic performance to boot — roughly on par with the CLX 64, in fact.
The CLX 64 is the oldest in the line – and the fastest, although not by much. Developed in conjunction with Specialized’s Venge aero road platform, it was ridden to rainbow jerseys at the 2016 men’s world championship road race (Peter Sagan), individual time trial (Tony Martin), and team time trial (Ettix-QuickStep). Claimed weights range from 1,375g for the rim-brake tubulars, to 1,615g for the disc-brake clinchers.
“The CLX 50 is the best wheel for most situations,” said PR manager Sean Estes, adding that upon its launch in mid-January, Roval sold out of CLX 50 inventory, selling more wheelsets in 24 hours than are usually sold in a month. A rash of success on the race circuit for Roval wheels has further boosted the company’s visibility.
When Tom Boonen registered the first UCI victory aboard disc brakes, at the Tour of San Juan, last month, he ran a CLX 64 rear and a CLX 50 front. Peter Sagan sporting gold-painted CLX 64s on a custom Specialized Venge ViAS Disc at the Santos Tour Down Under didn’t hurt sales, either.
Two other selling points are the competitive asking price, starting at US$2,400 per set, and an unusually generous three-year warranty. Roval is also backing up its wheels with a strong crash replacement program, with U.S. customers paying just $330 for a new rim, spokes, and nipples at the company’s service center in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Our time on Roval CLX wheels was spent riding a hilly, sometimes muddy, 50-mile loop through the Santa Cruz Mountains in late January. Our test bike, a Specialized Roubaix Expert with Ultegra Di2, was set up with CLX 32 disc wheels, 26mm-wide S-Works Turbo Cotton tires with supple 360 TPI polycotton casings, and latex inner tubes. Given the cotton casings and the new Roubaix’s innovative front-end suspension, it’s needless to say it was a comfortable ride. (Worth noting, the $4600 Roubaix Expert UDi2 is spec’d with a DT R470 Disc aluminum wheelset, not a set of CLX carbon hoops.)
Previous experience has shown that those tires and inner tubes will make almost any wheelset roll well on the road, and the new CLX 32 wheels performed as expected. The scant 1,350g weight helped them spin up quickly on the climbs, and the wide-profile rim shape allowed for lower tire pressures (80 psi), and the traction and comfort benefits that go along with it. The wheels were stiff and predictable under braking, with no noticeable flex under load.
Following the climb up Eureka Canyon Road, a CLX 50 replaced the CLX 32 rear wheel. The deeper-section wheel felt stiff and sturdy, but less-than-ideal conditions made it difficult to ascertain any aerodynamic qualities. Weeks of rain storms meant that roads were wet and, in some instances, damaged; top speed on the ride was just 39mph (63kph), and the fact that only the rear wheel was swapped provided little insight into the CLX 50’s handling characteristics in crosswinds, of which there were few.
Regardless, first impressions were favorable, and CyclingTips has a trio of CLX wheelsets inbound to our Melbourne office for a more in-depth test.
Will consumers respond?
With its fully developed carbon road line, Roval is now being positioned as a player in the high-dollar, high-performance wheel marketplace. Roval’s challenge will be to target price-minded consumers looking for an upgrade, or assembling a custom build; cyclists with money to spend, yet slightly less concerned with brand cachet. Although that perception may be changing.
Roval wheels are being used by two of the most visible WorldTour teams, QuickStep Floors and Bora-Hansgrohe, both of which are captained by two of the sport’s biggest superstars: Boonen and Sagan. Nevertheless, both of those teams are also sponsored by Specialized bikes, and no other major team is yet using Roval wheels by themselves. The same is true for Bontrager wheels, used only by Trek-Segafredo, the American team sponsored by Bontrager’s parent company.
By contrast, Shimano wheels are being used by six WorldTour teams in 2017, with three teams on Campagnolo wheels. Mavic is supporting two teams, with Zipp and Enve each represented by just one of the WorldTour’s 18 teams, Katusha-Alpecin and Dimension Data, respectively.
The end goal, of course, is not just to put Roval wheels under WorldTour riders, but to put them under consumers. In a space where brands such as HED, Mavic, and Zipp are well established — and where Shimano continues to make progress — Roval may face a fierce crosswind battle for position.
All that said, the newly designed Roval CLX line is off to a good start, notching a few world championships and the first professional road-disc victory. Whether or not they’ll become a serious challenger in the upgrade/aftermarket category will be decided by consumers, one purchase at a time.