Seven years ago Enve Composites began an R&D project that transformed the brand from a small carbon fibre specialist to being one of the leaders in aero wheel design today. Jamie Wilkins followed that R&D project for a feature at the time and returned to Enve earlier this year to revisit the company on its tenth anniversary, see how it has changed and find out what’s next.
To appreciate the scale of Enve’s success, you need look no further than the new headquarters in Ogden, Utah. It opened last October and houses everything - manufacturing, design, testing, marketing and management - under one roof. The building looks very Enve: smart but unfussy. Functional. There’s a vast embossed logo down the side yet it isn’t showy and doesn’t grate with the magnificent mountains that frame the building when stood in the car park. Nearly everyone here rides and also skis; flexible working lets staff make fresh tracks on powder days and in summer the lunchtime rides are legendary. Best of all, Enve has the ideal testing ground for all its products right outside the door.
The building represents a $10 million investment, with a further $700,000 ploughed into tooling to enable almost total self-sufficiency and a potential tripling of production capacity. It was built to spec on reclaimed land that was once a huge rail freight terminal for livestock, trading the equivalent of $1.2 billion per year in today's money. The terminal had been closed since 1971 and it's appropriate that Enve, one of big success stories in Ogden, a small city 40 miles north of Salt Lake, is leading the way back into it. Other bike brands are set to follow, that in itself a metaphor for Enve’s status in the industry.
Enve’s early wheels drew on its composites expertise to achieve low weight and high strength but the aero element wasn’t yet in place. When the team first visited a wind tunnel in 2009, the V-shape profiles didn’t test brilliantly and they faced a fork in the road: stick to what they knew or aim to compete with the aero leaders, Zipp and HED. Enve chose the latter, raised the necessary capital from its trusting investors and started looking for the right expertise.
As is so often the case, it was a mix of coincidence and contacts that led to the connection with ex-Formula One aerodynamicist Simon Smart. At the time, Enve was sponsoring the Fly V cycle team which also had backing from Virgin. Watching a Formula One report on the news in an airport, the then VP of marketing spotted the Virgin logo on the nose of the cars of the dominant Brawn F1 team, which clearly knew a thing or two about aero. A hugely speculative call, set up by the mutual sponsor, produced a lucky hit. Smart had recently setup his own cycling business, Drag 2 Zero, offering design consultancy and rider positioning expertise from a premises at Brawn’s Brackley headquarters in the UK. It quickly turned out to be a perfect match and such a fruitful partnership that the resulting new range of aero wheels was named the Smart Enve System (SES).
“I really enjoy working with Enve and it’s certainly one of the most special journeys that I’ve been on," Smart tells RCUK. “It was a really steep learning curve as we had no previous product. For the first generation we just had the tunnel and some competitor wheels. We were a tiny company and didn’t have the resource to make loads of different shapes of rideable rim, just lots of foam shapes. That’s where we have such an advantage now. We can say ‘I wonder what this wheel would be like’. And they say, ‘Well let’s make it and find out’
“The first time I saw the new factory it was a really special moment, seeing all those people making shapes I’ve designed," he continues. “I never thought I’d be impressed by a wheel manufacturing operation but it stands comparison to F1 facilities. They have that spaciousness and the engineering department is a really creative environment.
“Enve was only 15 or so people then and it’s so much bigger now but a lot of the key people are the same. Sarah [Lehman, CEO] has done a great job of growing the company without damaging the roots of a group of engineers who love riding bikes and love making fast wheels. I’ve been working with Kevin [Nelson, chief engineer] since 2009. It doesn’t happen often in a lifetime that you get to join a brand for a journey like that."
While the early R&D was taking place for the first SES wheels, the company hung by a thread. They’d bet it all on black. It was a pivotal moment and one hell of a time for a new CEO to start, as Sarah Lehman recalls.
“In January 2010 I was about to go back to work after having our third child," she says. "Paul (Sarah’s husband) and I had invested in the company and he was involved with strategy. One day he
called and said our new CEO couldn’t take the job. I knew I had to get involved because at that point everything was on the line. We had invested all our savings and really were on the brink of
bankruptcy. So I showed up on Monday and said ‘Hi, I’m Sarah Lehman and I’m your new CEO’.
“I found an amazing group of people with an amazing product and we just hadn’t yet figured out how to make it consistently. We were really living week to week from a cashflow perspective."
There’s a sense that, nearly eight years on, the fear is still fresh in the mind and that Enve and Lehman continue to be driven by the experience. Adrenalin is audible in her voice, triggered by the memory of the close call.
"It’s been the most amazing career opportunity that I think I’ll ever have and a real fairytale story," she says. "All the odds were stacked against us. We had to get the partners together and ask ‘Who has something to sell so we can make payroll?’ We sold our pick-up, our car, our house...and we never missed a payroll, ever.
“On top of that, we almost moved our manufacturing to Asia but we knew that we’d be giving up our IP around how we make the product, which is critical to the end result, so we decided we
would rather stay in the US than give up what makes Enve unique."
Enve in numbers
- 140,000 rims per year (maximum output)
- 76,000 sq ft HQ designed to expand another 36,000 sq ft
- 10,360 rims can be held in stock on racks made in-house
- 500 moulds in use across all products
- 140 complete wheelsets built per day
- 34 different QC checks through manufacturing process
- 20-30 rims laid up per technician per day
- 4-6 months to train a lay-up technician
- -23ºC in the carbon fibre storage freezer
The first SES range launched in 2011 - consisting of the 3.4, 6.7 and 8.9, featuring mixed depths and widths, and blunt profiles - and everyone held their breath. The wheels received strong reviews in the media and orders began rolling in. “I remember being so excited at getting
an order for 10 sets and I still have a copy of it," says Lehman. Enve was on its way.
The new wheels were lauded for their speed and also their stability, which meant riders were able to use their deepest and fastest wheels much more of the time. “We were the first people to develop with the metric of steering torque to improve stability," explains Smart. “Up to that point people had developed wheels in wind tunnels to be fast but they weren’t considering rideability. We were happy to no more than match Zipp and HED for speed so long as we could make a big step in rideability."
Developing new versions of the SES range could have presented Enve with the ‘difficult second album’ problem. Making the wheels even slightly lighter, stiffer and faster might have been enough for most, and even that looked like a big challenge after the first models. What’s more, at the same time the product range was growing rapidly, including an all-new line of carbon fibre mountain bike wheels plus aero bars shaped by Smart. However, that perennial ambition remained.
“We started thinking about generation two as soon as generation one was finished," Smart says. “But we had a bit of breathing space to ride the wheels and think about what we wanted to achieve. It was a turning point for us to appreciate how dynamic the wind is and the risk of developing a product for a condition that never exists, such as a steady 15 degree crosswind. Wheels which maintain attached flow to high angles are irrelevant in the real world because you never experience that condition.
“The other big change was deciding to develop around bigger tyres, 25 for racing and 28 for lots of road use. That led to the new shape. Going wider with the tyres enabled more rim width and more camber in the profile."
This time around the team was armed with far greater knowledge and more advanced R&D tools. Smart designed his own anemometer (wind sensor) for outdoor testing in combination with power and speed data, and devised new protocols in the wind tunnel.
It paid off. The first wheel from the second generation was the 4.5, in 2015, with depths of 48mm front and 56mm rear, and widths now boosted to 27mm and 25.5mm respectively. It matched the aero performance of the generation one 6.7 at a lighter weight, with claims of greatly improved stability and no drag penalty for running 25mm tyres. The 7.8 followed a year later, with class-leading speed (in independent tests) and unprecedented stability - here was a 71/80mm wheelset that you could race on a windy day without a care.
Indeed, Mark Cavendish, who joined the Enve-sponsored Dimension Data team in 2016, has called the 7.8 his favourite wheel. The partnership with the team, which kicked off a year earlier, began in the most flattering way, according to Lehman.
“Team Dimension Data approached us at Eurobike [the world’s biggest bike industry trade show]," says Lehman. “[Team principal] Doug Ryder had asked his riders what they want to ride and they’d said Enve. We got everyone together and talked about it. Three years ago that was a big commitment for us but we’ve never looked back."
How big a commitment? No less than 250 wheelsets per season, double the amount provided to Enve’s first pro road team, the second-tier US squad, United Healthcare. That commitment was rewarded as Dimension Data rode a fantastic 2015 season capped by Steve Cummings’s first Tour de France stage win on Mandela Day. The team’s promotion to WorldTour level, the signing of Cavendish for 2016, and then a spectacular Tour de France with five stage wins, all made the partnership one of the best decision’s in Enve’s history.
Many brands talk up the R&D value of pro team sponsorship but few can give an example of such direct influence as Enve. “Our engineering team were allowed to be present at camps," says Lehman, “and the experience of seeing the team sacrifice aero to run fatter tyres on cobbles inspired us directly to make the 4.5AR." That radically wide aero wheel, which has a plump 25mm internal width designed for use with 28mm and 30mm tyres, quickly earned many fans in the booming gravel sector.
Feedback from pro riders also helps with fine-tuning a product that’s in the final prototype stages. Before that, every new product must survive the test lab torture chamber. Wheels are mercilessly subjected to lateral loads, high braking temperatures and shocking impacts, the latter from a guillotine-like contraption which smacks a metal object into the rim (with an inflated tyre) with a 22kg barbell attached. The height of the drop is the measure. Four to six inches is equivalent to a monster pothole; Enve says competitor rims start failing at six to eight inches. We witness a new 3.4 rim reach 14" before finally breaking in a hit so brutal and loud that we’re given ear plugs.
The test lab is complemented by the R&D centre on the floor below. It’s like a mini factory, with CNC machines, carbon layup tables and autoclaves for making prototypes, scores of which hang hidden in wheel bags along the far wall. Others, though, are fitted to the bikes of the staff that comprise the internal testing team and we spot some really interesting new stuff, but we’re sworn to secrecy. Enve’s staff in Ogden includes pro-level and ex-pro riders in road, mountain bike and cyclo-cross - no wonder the lunch rides get lively.
Now with a reputation for making some of the most respected and lusted after carbon fibre wheels and components – proudly so in the US – it’s natural to wonder what’s next for Enve. We asked chief engineer Kevin Nelson what he’d love to do given free rein. “Probably throw out standards," he answers. “We’re kind of beholden to those. Doing the front end for the Cervélo P5x [triathlon bike] was exciting. It felt like the right kind of thinking."
And how will Enve strive to stay ahead with so many big rivals? “In everything we do, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this Enve worthy?’" he tells us. This is something of a mantra at Enve so we went to the top and asked CEO Lehman to explain.
“‘Enve worthy’ means I would rather do less and do it better," she says. “It’s meant to be a question that everyone in the company can ask themselves. It means, have you made compromises? It’s an internal compass. For me, it’s brand equity above all else – it takes years to build, minutes to destroy."
Back in 2011, days before the launch of the original SES line, Enve co-founder Jason Schiers told us that challenging Zipp and Hed was “like picking a fight with an 800lb gorilla". That underdog mentality has long since been replaced with confidence, a transition that must take place in the mind of every employee as well as at board level. Having successfully emerged from that chrysalis, the mission is clear to Lehman.
“We are committed to being the Enve we are today," she says. “We’re in this for a long game so it’s important that we don’t cash in our brand equity. We’ll increase our offering but not reach down market."
In practice, that means you will always buy Enve product for the performance, and pay accordingly. There will never be a set of ‘budget’ Enves that you buy for the brand name.
“We’re not ever satisfied. We’re always looking forward," concludes Lehman. “That’s ingrained in the culture here. There’s a constant conversation about ‘What’s next?’"
We put that exact question to Nelson and his face lights up as he tells us, “We have something really exciting on the way."
Enve at ten, it seems, is just hitting its stride.