Different, but not like Usual.
What’s the most striking aspect of the new Synthesis wheelset from Crank Brothers? That they’re not initially striking at all. In fact, we bumped into a couple of bike-industry peeps while riding the Synthesis E 11 wheelset prior to the embargo lifting and neither noticed the wheels…
This is especially notable because Crank Brothers are renowned for doing things differently, and it wouldn’t be completely unreasonable to question if some of their products have been different for the sake of being different, whereas these Synthesis wheels fly beneath the radar. Upon close inspection you might notice the quite-flat-profile rims, but otherwise the J-bend spokes in plentiful number, normal-looking hubs, and subtle branding are very understated, especially when underneath all this subtlety there’s actually a lot being done differently. Where to start? How about the name…
Synthesis is a cool-sounding “there is science in this product!” word, but it has at least one literal meaning when attached to this wheelset. If there’s one thing riders like about the feel of carbon wheels its: “these things are stiff and fast!” and if there’s one thing riders don’t like about carbon wheels, it’s “these things are stiff and jarring!” (and maybe “these things are cracked!”). Crank Brothers have sought to solve this issue. How? First the front and rear wheels have been ‘tuned’ for their different roles. The rear is focused on being stiffer, the front on being more compliant. The wheelset is a synthesis of these two approaches.
How is the compliant front wheel tuned for its role as the ‘control, handling and damping’ focused wheel? By having:
Reduced spoke count
Lower spoke tension
Lighter weight spoke
Wider inner rim width
How is the stiff rear wheel tuned for its role as the ‘stable, anchoring and responsive’ focused wheel?
Higher spoke count
Higher spoke tension
Heavier weight spoke
Narrower inner rim width
So, Synthesis isn’t just a technical sounding name, it’s a direct reference to the two schools of thought behind carbon wheels, and what caught my attention even more is that it also references the two individuals who came together to create Crank Brothers’ new wheelset, each of whom started in one of the two opposing camps. Jason Shears was co-founder of Enve and Mello Bouwmeester was founder of Bouwmeester wheels (a small Australian carbon rim manufacturer). Shears comes from the ‘stiffest is best because it’s most responsive and fastest’ camp while Bouwmeester comes from the ‘compliant is best because it’s more comfortable and less fatiguing’ camp. Obviously, together they’re aiming for the sweet-spot in between, though of course Crank Brothers are saying they’ve created a new spot, where both stiffness for speed and compliance for comfort are fully optimized.
It’s not all about the rims though, it’s also about the hubs. Crank Brothers has exclusively partnered with US hub manufacturer Project 321. These hubs are made in Bend, Oregon. An innovative freehub design using magnets creating low drag and super fine six-pawl, 144 points of engagement, which amounts to 2.5°. Unusually there is an option of free-hub volume (“whatever will they think of next!”). Quiet pawls are standard on Crank Brothers wheels, while loud are offered as an aftermarket accessory. FWIW, I thought the freehub sound was ace – not too high pitched, not clattery, just a warm quiet buzz.
In yet another interesting collaboration with these wheels, it’s worth noting that Crank Brothers have put their Synthesis DH wheels under the super-high-end Spanish Unno DH team for the 2018 season.
Synthesis wheels are available in both 27.5 and 29, in three ranges: DH, Enduro and XC/Trail, which each feature different width Synthesis carbon rims suitable for their respective disciplines. There are then two wheelsets within each of those categories; each of those two options use the same rims, but feature either the Oregon-made Project 321 hubs, or Crank Brothers own (cheaper) hubs. I rode the 29er E11 wheelset, which is the enduro-intended wheelset with Project 321 hubs. These wheels feature a 31.5mm inner width rim up front and 29.5mm inner width out back. Handily they would be the wheelset I would choose for my own needs.
How do they ride?
Smooth and fast. No pinging, no popping, from any spokes or the free-hub over my initial rides. Do they ‘feel’ fast? They feel crisp under pedal-power in a way that encourages hard efforts and they feel accurate when landing on the downslope just before that have-to-make right-hander after that quite-big root step-down (the one your friend (Simon) is always banging on about how he felt when he cleared it for the first time). They feel noticeably muted over rough root sections. So far, so great. They’re only a few rides in though and I am interested to know what the spoke tensions are, and if they’ll need any tickling up to maintain that tension after a few more rides. I’ll keep an eye on that and report back.
In terms of the drive, I have to admit I am not someone who seeks out a rear hub with lots of points of engagement, but it is nice when putting the gas back on after a corner. Perhaps after some techy climbing I’ll feel more excited about the Synthesis’ strong POE game. What I did notice is that despite the high engagement, there isn’t increased drag. Whereas I have encountered noticeable drag when freewheeling with at least one other high POE hub. Apparently, the magnets are responsible for the low-drag when freewheeling, and the high-quality Japanese bearings have got to be helping too.
The E11 Series we tested have an RRP of $3790, while the E Series (Crank Brothers hub) will set you back $2590.
Synthesis rims come with a lifetime warranty. We’re not sure yet whether any warranty rims or wheels will be stocked in New Zealand and what the turn-around time might be, but it’s something we’ll look into.
A new start
In a way, these wheels are more than just a set of wheels. Crank Brothers have pulled all the stops out, bringing together previously independent industry experts to create an incredibly top-end high-performance product. They might well represent a new approach to product design from Crank Brothers: less difference-focused and more performance focused. Fingers crossed...
Words and Images: Carl Patton and Cameron Mackenzie