ENVE 3.4 AR – PERFORMANCE IS IN THE FRAME OF THE RIDER
After an initial scan of fellow tester Nate’s and my evaluation notes for the ENVE SES 3.4 AR Disc wheelset, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to the saying about how beauty is subjective, being in the eye of the beholder and all that.
Even though we’re both “road cycling enthusiasts”, he and I are very different riders. He’s one of the fastest non-pro roadies, best climbers, most practical gearheads, and highly analytical people I know.
Me? Not so much. Average speed (18-20mph) and climbing ability. Home wrenching skills, etc., Very enthusiastic though!
It’s actually kind of surprising when our evaluations reach similar conclusions about the performance characteristics of the gear we independently test. I always welcome his take and those of my other fellow testers Miles, Dave, and Moose because they add breadth and depth to my own. Together, I hope we cover the range of vantage points and rider profiles of those of you who read our reviews. (And yes, I’m also looking to add women to the test team.)
When it came to the ENVE 3.4 AR disc wheelset, Nate didn’t care much for it. I liked most of what it had to offer.
Looking closer at our evaluations of this ENVE wheelset, it became clear to me that what set us apart was probably more about our different bike frames and riding profiles than our mental frames or subjective views of what makes for wheelset performance “beauty”.
I point this out rather than try to write some compromise of a review as these distinctions may also apply to what you would experience riding this wheelset.
The 3.4 AR doesn’t fit neatly into a single wheelset category. At about 40mm (39.5mm front, 43.5mm rear with my calipers), it’s close but not as deep as most all-around road disc wheels that go 45-50mm both front and back these days.
While it’s light (1432 grams with ENVE alloy hubs on my scale), the 3.4 AR is also not a dedicated climbing wheelset. ENVE sells the 3.4 disc (no AR) for that purpose and there are certainly others making light, stiff carbon road disc wheels intended for your alpine climbing adventures.
What separates the SES 3.4 AR is its 25mm internal (25.0 measured) and 32mm external rim widths (actually 32.1 front and 32.5 rear). That, along with the similarly wide, deeper ENVE SES 4.5 AR (review here) makes it far wider than most road wheelsets being made these days that measure 19-21mm internal and 27-29mm external.
It is also as wide and often wider than most modern “gravel” wheels that range from 21mm to 25mm internal width.
So is it an all-around, climbing, and gravel wheelset triple-threat that’s great on all roads as suggested by its AR name? Or, is it the wheelset equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife, one that gets high marks for its versatility but doesn’t perform as well as those dedicated to either the all-around, climbing or gravel mission?
Whether on paved or gravel roads, both Nate and I agreed the 3.4 AR is a laterally stiff wheelset. Yet in Nate’s already very stiff Specialized Venge aero frame, this strength didn’t add any benefit. In my Parlee Altum, as quick and light as a road racing frame with the comfort of an endurance one, I enjoyed how the added stiffness of these wheels helped me accelerate uphill and start above-threshold intervals (or sprints for all you racers).
Mounted on my Giant Revolt Advanced carbon gravel frame, the SES 3.4 AR disc’s stiffness was further apparent in the bike’s improved responsiveness compared to how it feels with most of the gravel alloy and carbon wheelsets I’ve been testing lately.
Vertical or radial stiffness, better known as compliance or comfort was a joy for me and a disappointment for Nate. With the latest model Schwalbe Pro One TLE 28C tires on the 3.4 AR’s 25C wide rims, you’d think they’d to soak up every imperfection on our New England paved roads.
Tire pressure is key to optimizing wheelset comfort on any set of rims. It’s hard for some to wrap their heads (and pumps) around how low you should inflate a wheelset as wide as the 3.4 AR. I pumped it to the 48psi ENVE’s tire chart recommends for my combination of body weight (145lbs/66kg), the Schwalbe’s inflated tire width (29.0mm @60psi), and the 3.4 AR’s 25mm internal width.
Yes, 48 psi. That’s not a misprint.
Nate, with his racer’s mindset, went about 8psi higher than his recommended level. (Details withheld to maintain the friendship.)
While the wheels soaked up large bumps and small potholes better than most, for me they were also notably more comfortable on paved roads than narrower wheels also run tubeless. For Nate, they were less comfortable than 19C and 21C carbon road disc wheelsets even though the 3.4 ARs were inflated at least 10psi less than the level he pumps those to, also with tubeless tires.
Dirt and gravel road comfort is principally due to tire and inflation choices. So while I found them very comfortable at 30 psi on the trail, I can’t attribute it to the ARs.
The 3.4 AR’s relative width and ability to absorb the bumps certainly created greater handling confidence that felt warranted cornering at speed on unevenly paved roads and when changing lines, with the right tires mounted, on gravel ones.
While even 21C road disc wheels are at their aerodynamic best on 25C tires, the ENVE 3.4 AR and 4.5 AR wheelsets are one of few truly designed (rather than marketed) for 28C tires. With the Schwalbe Pro One TLE pair inflated at 60psi (my measurement benchmark for 25C road wheelsets), the tires measured 29.0mm wide, well beyond the “rule of 105” rim-to-tire width ratio for optimum aero performance.
Note that the new Schwalbe Pro One measures a size down from the prior generation (i.e., current generation 28Cs measure what last generation 25Cs did) and are as much as 1.0 to 1.5mm narrower than many older model 28C tires I’ve measured from other brands. So depending on the tires you use, you may find them running very near or under than 105% ratio and closer to the same outside width of the wheels, though not likely beyond the 3.4 AR’s 32mm external rim width.
Either way, make sure you have about 38-40mm of room between your fork and chainstays for the 32mm wide rims and a 3-4mm buffer either side of them for lateral deflection when cornering.
Also, be sure to use tires that are compatible with the hookless rim design that these wheels use (see list here). More tires are compatible now than when the also hookless 4.5 AR was introduced and I believe most will before long as more road disc wheels go the hookless route.
All of that said, the 3.4 AR didn’t maintain momentum or otherwise feel particularly “aero” compared to better 50mm deep all-arounds and certainly not on par with still deeper aero wheelsets. On the plus side, it did feel a bit more sustained going forward than other wheelsets in the 35-40mm range. Also, the weeks of 10-20mph crosswinds we experienced during our spring testing rides didn’t affect this wheelset one bit.
The hubs ran smoothly with an average freewheeling sound from the ENVE alloy hubs that use Mavic Instant Drive 360 ratchet internals. You can also spend more to get these wheels with Chris King steel or ceramic bearing hubs with its signature sound and greater points of engagement that methinks is unnecessary.
Aerodynamics also plays a role in climbing, once thought to be only a battle of grams. For Nate, a very accomplished climber using a very aero frame, he felt no difference on steep, 2-4 minute climbs between the light ENVE 3.4 AR disc wheelset and his roughly 25mm deeper, 200g heavier Roval CLX 64 aero wheels. On punchy climbs less than 30 seconds, the aero wheels seemed quicker for him, perhaps due to the aero benefit he carried into those climbs.
For me, an average climber who goes uphill far slower than Nate, I had the sensation of ascending freely on the 3.4 AR wheels, limited only by my strength and fitness. From experience, I know that most 1600+ gram aero wheels hold me back, their weight perhaps overwhelming any potential aero benefit.
Going downhill, the width of the SES 3.4 AR rim and tire combination made for a worry-free, joy ride, the kind you feel on a rollercoaster knowing (or at least believing) the cart you are in is securely riding on rails.
Climbing dirt and gravel where speeds are far less than on paved roads, the 3.4 AR wheelset’s combination of light weight and stiffness provided the feeling of turbo-boost responsiveness.
Clearly, the ENVE 3.4 AR disc is a very versatile wheelset. If you ride both paved and gravel surfaces and do a lot of climbing, this one wheelset which lists for $2550 can serve you well and save you from buying one for paved and another for dirt and gravel roads.
But, if you spend most of your time riding on paved roads and at aero speeds and your mental and perhaps, physical frames are more biased to aero performance than climbing, the SES 4.5 AR disc would be a better choice.
You can get the 3.4 AR at the best prices from stores I recommend for their low price and high customer satisfaction ratings by clicking these links directly to this wheelset’s page at Competitive Cyclist and Merlin.
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First published on May 17, 2020. Date of the most recent major update shown at the top of the post.
You can compare my performance evaluation of the ENVE SES 3.4 AR Disc with other lightweight road disc wheelsets in this review.