There is a good chance that you have heard the name Crankbrothers before. Typically though, it is when referring to their pedals, multi-tools, pumps, and even dropper posts. They might not be the first to come to mind when looking into carbon wheels or wheels in general, however, times have changed. Introducing the Crankbrothers Synthesis carbon wheelset. A new type of carbon wheel system designed to improve compliance, tracking, and overall ride quality.
The Synthesis wheel line is changing the way we think about our wheels and what they should do, blending ride quality traits like compliance and stiffness together into a front and rear specific wheel package. With carbon wheel experts Jason Schiers & Mello Bouwmeester behind the design process, it is no surprise to see Crankbrothers come out with something this game-changing. Although their philosophies for wheel making differ, with Jason crafting stiff wheels for ENVE and Mello designing more compliant single wall trail rims, they were able to come together and compromise on a combination of the two. The combination of these two philosophies is the essence behind the Synthesis wheel line. By tuning the front and rear wheels specifically to the unique loads each one is subject to on the trail, Crankbrothers has been able to develop a wheelset that gives you the best of both worlds.
Looking at the front and rear wheels individually and tuning them to handle different loads and ride characteristics is a new way to develop carbon wheels – one that is so seemingly obvious, and yet no brand has offered it in a complete wheelset before. Crankbrothers, with Jason Schiers and Mello Bouwmeester at the helm of the design process, is the first company to put the tuned front & rear theory into action.
What does it mean to have your front and rear wheels tuned specifically for their jobs? In a nutshell, the front wheel is more compliant giving you more control when in rough terrain, while the rear wheel is stiffer to handle the harder loads that the rear takes, from square edge hits and hard corners. After talking to Jason a bit, he explained that when they began designing the first iterations and testing, there were mixed opinions between the testers. Some liked the stiff wheels, many of whom usually choose to ride carbon, and some preferred the softer, more compliant wheels, many of whom like to ride aluminum rims. Their testing included trying a stiff wheel up front and a softer one in the rear, and vice versa. It didn’t take long for a unanimous preference for the softer compliant wheel up front with the stiffer wheel out back.
Not only are those compelling results, but Jason said that he has never seen an entire group of riders and testers come to the same conclusion in his 20 years of making bicycle products. With that in mind, it was time to make front and rear wheels tuned for their jobs. The front is built with a more compliant carbon layup, 28 lightweight spokes, and a wider internal rim width, while the rear wheel is constructed of a stiffer carbon layup, 32 more standard spokes, and a slightly narrower internal rim width. Knowing a few pro racers, I know there have been some experiments with front and rear spoke tension with a similar theory behind it, but that seems like a band-aid solution compared to the front and rear tuned wheels from Crankbrothers.
For the past few months, we have been riding the Crankbrothers Synthesis E 11 wheels. Currently, they have three different models and two different price points with a rim-only option as well. There is an XC wheelset, an Enduro style wheelset, and a Downhill wheelset, with options for all styles of bikes. The Synthesis rims have a lifetime warranty (within reason), regardless if bought as a wheelset or a la carte.
The XC wheels have two price points at $1699 and $2399, with the higher priced wheels coming with either an Industry Nine or Project 321 hubset and some of Sapim’s nicest spokes. The entry-level option is specced Crankbrother’s own Formula-style hub and Sapim D-light spokes. The rim only option retails for $699.
The Downhill wheelset is only offered in the higher price point at $2399 or as a rim only at $699. The downhill wheels have a very similar spec to the Enduro wheels but are stronger and slightly heavier for the specific demands of pure downhill racing. Being piloted in UCI World Cups under Greg Williamson, from prototype to production, the downhill wheels have been put to the test under some of the world’s fastest and hardest riders.
The Enduro wheels, specifically the Synthesis E 11 wheels, retail at $2399 and like the others, there is also a $1699 option with Formula hubs and Sapim D-Light spokes, and a rim only option at $699. Having spent about 5 months on the E 11 wheels, we have had time to experience all that they offer. Our wheels were fitted with the Project 321 hubs and internals instead of the Industry Nine Hydra hubs. Both hubs have amazing levels of engagement and are some of the fastest rolling on the market. Let's check out the exact specs of these E 11 wheels.
Not only are the front and rear wheels tuned specifically for width, spoke count, and carbon layup, but they have also been tuned to withstand the abuse each wheel will be taking. Both rims have much thicker carbon flanges than we are used to seeing - being strong to prevent failure is a great thing to see, but they took that a step further. Not only did they make the rims thicker to prevent failures, but the way they fail has also been meticulously designed. Schiers wanted to make sure when designing a rim that it takes the rider’s safety into account first, having a slow decaying failure mode, rather than an abrupt explosion of carbon pieces. If you ride hard and destroy wheels, you know that breaking carbon wheels are not an if, but when - that is just the truth of all wheels but even more so with carbon. When that does happen, knowing they have been designed to fail at a slower rate, rather than an explosion of carbon puts some of my late night worries to rest.
Having ridden the crap out of these wheels for the last 5 months, they have seen the amazing dirt and trails from our SoCal winter, into the now dry, overgrown summer. They’ve been swapped between bikes, ridden in Phoenix, AZ super rocky trails, shuttled down Mt. Wilson’s tight and sharp rocks, and generally abused as bike parts should be. Needless to say, they have withstood all that riding, with only a tension check up and a few scratches/scars and they remain in perfect condition!
It only took a few rides on them for me to notice the balanced feel the Synthesis wheels offer. Having ridden more aluminum wheels recently than carbon, that snap from the carbon wheels in and out of corners is a great feeling. When getting into chunky trails, from rocks to deep compressions, they have a different feel than most carbon wheels, especially up front. The front wheel feels stable and controlled in these situations, where normal carbon seems to be harsh, and bounce around, resulting in you bouncing around the trail with more fatigue and energy expelled to stay in control. When I think about the wheels compared to others, it seems like you have the best of both options, you have the lateral stiffness from carbon and that quick snap of power and speed from the rear wheel, but also the compliance and comfort you would get from aluminum out front. Crankbrothers might just be onto something there, but that's another theory altogether.
The big difference for me is doing the comparison jumping back on a full alloy wheelset like the DT Swiss 1501 wheels, and also jumping on a more standard carbon wheel like the Raceface Next R wheels. Both are amazing wheels and ride great, but are more on the standard design side of things, with the DT Swiss 1501 and Raceface Next R being very traditional boxed wheels. You notice the rear wheel flex of the alloy 1501 wheels very quickly and have a slightly more “mush” feel, especially in corners. While the Next R wheels provide that stiff carbon feel, it also provides that hard carbon feel, making the front wheel not as stable in rough terrain. Jumping back onto the Synthesis wheels, it’s a set feeling that you get the best of both having a front and rear tuned wheelset.
When you think about the demands of the front and rear of your bike, it's funny that this hasn't been done sooner. We don't use the same suspension front and rear, many times don't even use the same tires and tire pressure front and rear, so why should our wheels be the same? Tuning your wheels for the demands is a genius idea, and it took the team at Crankbrothers with Jason Schiers and Mello Bouwmeester to put that idea into production. Rim only options and two price points make these wheels within reach for many people as well! Having zero wheel issues with 5 months of hard riding, and improving our ride quality, it's safe to say we are sold on the Crankbrothers Synthesis wheels and look forward to the continuation of this specific front and rear wheel tuned wheel package.