Jason Schiers, founder of ENVE Composites, really wanted a Santa Cruz mountain bike. For years he’d been trying to find an “in” with the company. While on business in Asia, Schiers finally got his chance at a dinner one night, when he met Santa Cruz engineer Joe Graney.
“I didn’t know it then, but I eventually figured out that Joe was working on carbon frames on that trip,” Schiers said. “I was talking up ENVE, thinking we could work out a deal where I could get a bike, and by end of the trip he had agreed to ride a pair of carbon mountain wheels if I sent them.”
The engineer called a couple of days after receiving the wheels and asked if he could hold onto them for a little longer. A few days after that, he ordered four sets. “Everyone at Santa Cruz is on ENVE wheels now,” Schiers said.
And Jason got his bike.
Despite the existence of a number of companies besides ENVE that specialize in carbon fiber components, the material and parts have a mixed reputation in the bike industry. Every year, riders hear claims that carbon fiber is “the future,” or is “here to stay,” but remain skeptical, and for good reason. There are many carbon parts on the market: bars, posts, stems, and wheelsets, but despite the healthy proliferation of product, they don’t always perform with the combination of strength, stability, and endurance that supporters have always claimed.
ENVE’s top priority? Making the best, most functional carbon parts on the market, period. Schiers’ take on the situation is to simply make wheels that don’t fail.
“One black eye for us can sour our whole reputation,” Schiers said.
ENVE has a staff of 50 people to help realize their goal of superior carbon components. (ENVE also has a whole road bike line that we’re not focusing on in this article.) Despite the current recession, the company has doubled in size every year since their inception in 2007. Four of the staff are full-time engineers (company co-owner Brett Satterthwaite is also a fluid dynamics engineer). Schiers estimates that over half of their staff are hard-core bikers.
Carbon fiber mountain wheel manufacturers such as ENVE face two significant challenges in the market: (1) The idea that mountain bike wheels are disposable and (2) the fact that a lot of faulty carbon fiber products have been on the market and hurt the materials’ overall reputation.
If you give two manufacturers the exact same carbon fiber, the different molding processes they use can make a 90 percent strength difference, Schiers said.
“(The molding process) is actually more critical than the quality of carbon fiber you use. We’re really good carbon manufacturers. We build the best possible products we can.”
“There are a lot of people that have had carbon parts and not had a good experience with them,” Schiers continued. “To avoid that, there’s an enormous amount of testing involved in what we do. We test the (competitions’) stuff and make ours better. People will grow to trust any product with our name on it.”
Part of this trust could stem from the fact that ENVE’s research and development happens under the same roof where the wheels are manufactured, in Ogden, Utah, essentially putting the engineers shoulder-to-shoulder with the machinists who produce the final component. Schiers chose an American production facility in part to streamline the overall process, thus cutting down on costs in labor, finishing, etc., and in part to prove some folks wrong.
“I was told American production couldn’t be done, but here we are,” he said. “I like to do things that other people say can’t be done.”
That includes making what he claims is a bombproof wheel that can take months, if not years, of abuse without coming out of true or getting flat spots.
And, according to Schiers, ENVE’s wheels are not disposable. He’s still riding the first carbon bike wheels he ever made five years later, even after flatting out numerous times and riding back to his car on the rims. This is a cost advantage that consumers don’t realize: the wheels will last as long as a rider wants them. They’ll want something new before they’re broken down, he claims.
Greg Minaar, from the Santa Cruz Syndicate (whom ENVE sponsors) is still riding the same wheels five races in to the World Cup season. Oh, and he’s also second in the rankings.
How did the sponsorship with Santa Cruz come about? According to Schiers, all it took was a couple days of Minaar and Steve Peat test riding the wheelsets at Northstar.
“Watching Peaty ride the wheels was a revelation. He’s so powerful,” Schiers said. “All I can compare it to is a really nice carve on a snowboard; his lines were so deep, and he was absolutely snapping his bike out of his turns.”
That was that. The team manager from Santa Cruz got a hold of Schiers and said that he’d eat some of the cost if ENVE could make the commitment, even though they were a relatively new company.
“It’s not a typical ‘throw-money-at-a-team sponsorship’,” Schiers said. “It’s a performance advantage for them. It’s big to (Santa Cruz) to get (their riders) on the best equipment.”
Since last year, when ENVE Components had the first carbon fiber wheelset win a World Cup DH race, they’ve added 50 more podiums to their résumé.
Schiers admits that he’s a better wheel-builder than businessman. The company had to change their name to ENVE from Edge after a name dispute arose from Europe. They also have a reputation as more of a road bike company (they sponsor the United Health Care team). Schiers said this reputation is accidental. In fact, the first wheels he made were for mountain bikes.
“I don’t shave my legs or anything; I’m a beer-swilling pig,” he said. “A number of guys at press camp were surprised to hear that we were mountain guys. I failed myself a little bit in that. I’m not good at marketing and business; I’m just good at making wheels.”
So what can we expect from ENVE in the future? They’ve been developing a DH wheelset for the past two years that will be unveiled soon. They’ll also release a full line of tubeless options. We can’t wait.
One last thing: in keeping with Schiers’ commitments to the durability of his carbon wheels, Jason Shiers is putting his money where his mouth is. BLISTER and ENVE have agreed to run a year-long test of their carbon AM wheelset, with ongoing updates from our stable of mountain bike reviewers. We are going to ride the hell out of these things, and we will keep you posted with monthly updates on their performance and durability.
See Marshal Olson’s review of the ENVE XC, AM, and DH Carbon Rims.
See Joe Hanrahan’s review of the ENVE Twenty6 AM Wheelset.