The evolution of Roval Wheels

How history and innovation came together to create the fastest wheels around

In a sport so deeply anchored in its history and traditions, it should come as no surprise that Roval’s story goes back decades. And it should further come as no surprise that this was the brand Specialized chose to bring under its umbrella when it came time to push wheel technology forward. Specialized has always lived in the nervous and wonderful area between past and future. 

Roval can trace its roots to France in the 1970s. It was founded by Claude Lanhauer, who recognised the need for dramatically different technology than what was common on the market. Over the course of the next decades, Roval would help pioneer wheel technology we all use today: bladed spokes, aero rims, radial non-driveside spokes, and much more. 

Related: How to make the world's best cycling shoes even better

All of that tradition met Specialized’s thirst for research and innovation in the early 2000s. Now, Roval stays ahead of the competition by diving deep into engineering rabbit holes to find solutions verified in the lab — and on the podium. 

Rapid acceleration

In just the last ten years, wheels have undergone a dramatic transformation. They got deeper, then wide, then even wider. Hooked rims, hookless rims, carbon manufacturing…the rapid-fire changes make today’s wheels almost unrecognisable. And Roval has been at the leading edge of it all. That’s no accident. It was all part of the plan from the moment Specialized and Roval teamed up. 

How does Roval sustain that innovation? It’s a balance of investment in both facilities, and people. “We partner with the best riders in the world across all the cycling experiences we serve,” says Roval product manager Chris Wehan. “We focus on what the riders' needs are, what the performance attributes of the product needs to be to out-preform their expectations, and we pair that with a world-class engineering organisation dedicated solely to Roval.”

 

(Image: James Startt)

Some of that engineering capability comes from Specialized itself. An in-house wind tunnel (dubbed the Win Tunnel) is at Roval’s disposal, as well as testing, R&D, and manufacturing resources Specialized developed over the course of its own decades-long history. 

“Seven years ago, no one was modelling aerodynamics as it related to wind gust,” says Wehan. Yet that is a critical factor in the handling and ultimate performance of a wheel. With our current systems, we can do that, and you see it embodied in the shape, size, and width of the Rapide CLX wheel.” 

That wheel, according to Wehan, became one of the fastest, and winningest, wheels in the pro peloton. That all happened while Roval was working to develop a reliable tubeless wheel system. But the pros want to go fast, and they want to do it now. So Roval equipped pros with non-tubeless Rapide CLX wheels while it continued to develop a tubeless system that would exceed all expectations. 

That happened this year. The second generation Rapide CLX II and Alpinist CLX II wheels offer the light weight, stability, and aerodynamic performance of the original wheels, now in a tubeless package that makes them even faster. 

What’s the Hook? 

Everyone has an opinion about rim brakes versus disc brakes. But that conversation is so 2018. The debate du jour: hooked or hookless? 

With tubeless taking over the pro peloton as well as the local group ride, the question mystifies as much as it confounds. It’s a detail, but an important one: How should your tire mate to your rim? Hooked rims do exactly what it sounds like: They provide a hook for the tire to ‘grab onto’ so it doesn’t blow off the rim.

Hookless rims eliminate the hook to save weight and simplify manufacturing. The outward force of the air pressure, coupled with tubeless sealant, serve to keep the tire on the rim. Which one’s better? 

Image: Chris Auld/Specialized

Roval believes a hooked rim makes the most sense for today’s riders. “We opted for a hooked rim instead of a hookless system to ensure secure bead retention and tyre compatibility with most brands on the market,” says Wehan. 

That latter point is vital for consumers. Tyre and wheel manufacturers haven’t historically been on the same page when it comes to mechanical tolerances. A hooked rim ensures you can use more tires safely and effectively. 

To Wehan, the hookless benefits don’t mate with Roval’s design philosophy. “Hookless designs only help with the ease of manufacturing, which is not acceptable reason to limit rider choice,” he says. “It wasn’t easy, but we spent years creating a manufacturing process that results in great hooks, great impact strength, and manufacturability.”

Nuts, bolts, resins, millimetres

The manufacturing process takes place behind the veil at just about all manufacturing facilities. Roval is no different; its recipe is guarded like grandma’s best meals. 

“We can't dive too deep in the resins or carbon / layup we use,” Wehan says, though he does reveal that “we do use carbon from some of the largest and best manufacturers, Toray as an example. The important thing to note is that you can use the best carbon, have the best manufacturing and tooling, but if you do not understand the rider use cases at a deep level, and have created testing that replicates it in a lab, then you won’t have a great product. This is what makes Roval different. We understand a rider's needs at a very deep level, we create test that replicate those needs so that we can develop hundreds of rim layups to get to the best answer.”

That testing and holistic understanding allows Roval to tailor its wheels to achieve certain ends. Take the rim’s width and depth for example. Roval learned that fast is important, but it’s nothing without stability. 

“The Rapide CLX is actually two wheels in one, each optimised for the unique aero challenges of its position—a 51mm-deep front rim with a 35mm external width and a 60mm-deep rear rim with a 30mm external width,” Wehan explains.  “The result is a tubeless wheelset that’s faster than most 65mm wheels but is 25% more stable than our CLX50 in heavy wind.” 

Remember that Win Tunnel Roval has at its disposal? All of that plays out in real-world situations because Roval can test its theories quickly with Computational Fluid Dynamics, then thoroughly in the Win Tunnel. 

Image: Chris Auld/Specialized

According to Roval, riders struggle most with short wind bursts. We’re talking 0.2 to .05 seconds. The front wheel of the Rapide CLX II wheels feature a 51mm depth and 35mm outer rim width to ensure stability in those particular conditions. Instead of relying on boundary trip layers that help reduce turbulent eddies of air, Roval relies on the rim’s shape. It’s a more elegant, simpler, and efficient solution. 

And that’s exactly the design goal for all Roval products: elegant, simple, and efficient. Wehan says every decision Roval makes is intended to serve the rider. Every design decision has a clear and direct purpose. When you ride a Roval wheel, you should feel the culmination of that collision of history and innovation. 

Cover image by James Startt

Promotional feature in association with Specialized