28 April 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: HED Ardennes wheelset

Sometimes, a product is so good that it becomes transparent. In performing its function reliably, ride after ride, without making excessive demands on the user, it fades into the background- unnoticed but for its unwillingness to draw attention to itself. In a category filled with products that draw attention to themselves with pro-style graphics, creative spoke lacings, space age materials and unsustainably light weights, HED's Ardennes wheelset is just such a workhorse.

Based in lovely Minnesota, HED bear no small responsibility for the aerodynamic and composite flights of fancy that make up much of the road wheel market. The company's iconic H3 tri-spoke wheel remains one of the most aerodynamic wheels available (nearly 20 years after its introduction) and its deep-section carbon-faired rims have been sought after time trialists for ages. I even remember working at a shop that had in inventory a 26in carbon fiber-faired downhill mountain bike rim, a remnant from the sport's high-speed, skin suit-wearing Kamikaze days. After a time on a similarly faired deep-section wheelset, though, I had some decidedly different requirements for its replacement.

Not being a racer I wasn't looking for a race wheelset. In fact, I have to wonder- what's the use of a race-only wheelset? Sure, I understand that the high-end kit can be pricey and that people want to keep their good stuff in good shape, but I have trouble wagering my big day on gear that I can't rely on for day in, day out riding. What I wanted was a reasonably lightweight, reasonably aerodynamic wheelset that rode well, could handle the desert's fierce crosswinds and would be not only durable but easily serviceable- as my only wheelset it would see not only the odd race but also weekend club rides and the daily commute. At only 145lb, I didn't need anything too stout, but I to like to think that I can tease a fair bit of flex out of whippier components, so noodly wheels were out of the question as well. After talking to a number of bike shops and riders and trying a handful of demo wheelsets, I decided to give HED a call.

The company's Ardennes wheelset, advertised at 1376g is fairly conventional in appearance. Using a HED-specific scandium rim, black bladed spokes (Sapim CX-Ray on the front / bladed DT Swiss on the rear), and the same HED hubs as their carbon hoops the look is is very understated. The only concessions to bling are a set of good-sized reflective decals at the rim and a their very cool low-profile Sonic front hub. They don't draw attention to themselves, but there's plenty to see if one looks closely.

What makes the 24mm deep Ardennes rims unique is what HED calls C2. In order to improve the aerodynamic transition between tire and rim, Steve Hed and company have widened the Ardennes' rim by 3mm over traditional rims to 23mm total. Not only does doing so improve the wheels' aerodynamics significantly, but it also improves the tires' ride quality and reduce their rolling resistance by a very significant (claimed) 20%. With the Ardennes, because the tire's sidewall is doing more of the work and its volume is increased, HED recommend reducing one's usual tire pressure (in my case 100psi front / 110psi rear) by 10%, which they claim gives the clincher Ardennes a tubular-like ride and a better compromise of comfort and cornering ability.

Unfortunately, I don't have any way to confirm HED's claims of lower rolling resistance or improved aerodynamics. That said, on a local 6mi descent, I find myself rolling away from similarly-built friends on more traditional DT wheelsets. Throw in a bit of improved cornering confidence and reduced fatigue and you've got what has to add up to a competitive advantage.

While I'm not ready to call the Ardennes' ride tubular-like, after 8 months and 2,500mi of use (for commuting as well as recreational/club rides), I can say that the Ardennes ride great. At 1415g (actual), the acceleration is a revelation. Not only are they lighter than Mavic's benchmark Ksyriums, but the finer spokes and slippery rim:tire interface cut through the wind better as well. It may be the construction, low tire pressures, low spoke count or magic Scandium in the rims, but the Ardennes are very comfortable, especially over moderately rough pavement. They aren't the stiffest wheels I've ridden, but are far from flexy- the only downside I have noticed is occasional front brake rub during out-of-the-saddle sprints when the caliper isn't quite centered. Unusual for any wheelset (let alone one this light or used while commuting), the Ardennes have yet to need a major true- I've thrown them on the truing stand a couple of times, only to find that a nipple or two needing a quarter-turn. Given that the Ardennes are some of the lightest metal-rimmed wheels available, thats pretty darn impressive.

An unintended consequence of the wider rim is that it seems possible to limp a bit further on a slow leak than with normal wheels. This will come in particularly handy during races or rides when the flat comes near the ride's end (as they often seem to) and the rider wants to get to the finish line or home rather than stop on a busy street or earn a DNF. I've been using a 22mm Continental Attack on the front wheel for about six months. While its unnerving to be able to see both sides of the rim at once, it rides like a higher-volume tire and I've had no problems at 90psi (touch wood). It also means that the front wheel can be removed without releasing the brake's QR, which could be helpful in the heat of a race (that is, if anyone still fixes flats during races).

What will be less useful while racing will be the inability to use neutral support wheels without brake adjustment. This will be less of a problem for some than others, but bears mentioning. The chunky barrel adjusters on most modern calipers (like our SRAM Red set) make it easy to take up cable to accommodate a narrower replacement- just make sure that some adjustment is left available during initial setup. The HED Sonic hubset has been fine- the rear is easily serviceable (though hasn't needed it) and both still spin beautifully. While I have a low tolerance for noisy wheelsets, the rear freehub is clicky without being obnoxious. If nothing else, it feels and sounds satisfyingly expensive- and at $1,050 for the pair, they Ardennes are far from cheap. That said, one would likely have to go to carbon rims to save any more weight, and up against their composite competition they seem almost a bargain.

Complaints? For over a grand, HED could probably throw in some $3 rim strips- something that's not a big deal unless the UPS guy comes at 6:00 on the night before a big ride. Newer (non-OEM?) rims also look to be coming without the reflective decals (though with a nicer looking rear hub), which is a shame. The QR's aren't heavy but look to have come out of the Tektro catalog from 1996- I replaced mine with some black Shimanos that were lying around and feel like the wheels are more rigidly mounted. These are small things that really don't detract from what has to be the nicest wheelset I've ridden. For anyone looking for a reasonably-priced training/racing wheelset, I'd happily recommend the Ardennes. HED suggest that "When you get your wheels, RIDE THEM. Train on them... If you only ride your fast wheels on race day, you might never get comfortable and truly fast on them." The cool thing is they've actually built the Ardennes so that you can.




daveb said...

Interesting review, and an interesting product.

Shame about the price, though. $1050 is just absurd.

bikefix said...

I agree- $1k is a good chunk of change for a wheelset when a perfectly serviceable set can be had for less than 1/4 of that. That said, when looking at other wheelsets in their weight range and doing away for the need for a 'training' wheelset, they start to look like a pretty good deal. I've sworn off disposable equipment but am happy to pay a bit more for solidly-made equipment that provides a very real weight/aerodynamic/comfort/control advantage...

Any suggestions for more budget-minded wheelsets?

Faceless Ghost said...

$1050 may be expensive for daily drivers, but it's pretty cheap for a good set of race wheels. However, since there's no special technology to hold the tires to the wider rim, you can try lacing Ultegra hubs to a Salsa Delgado Cross rim or something similar. The wheels will be much heavier, but they'll be tough and cheap and you'll get the benefits of wider rims.

Also, I spoke to someone at Hed about the need to adjust the brakes when replacing the Ardennes with narrower wheels from neutral support. Because of the wider rim, there's no need to open or close the brake calipers when installing or removing the Ardennes. So, set your brakes for standard (narrow) rims with the calipers closed. When riding with the Ardennes, open the calipers. The pads will clear the rim, and the wheel will still go on and off without problems. When riding with narrower rims, close the calipers. It's that simple.

daveb said...

Any suggestions for more budget-minded wheelsets?Here's one:


MUCH better hubs (Japanese made DA, vs. Hed's OEM Taiwan stuff), same weight, similar ride quality, roughly half the price. Better looking too IMHO.

You can get nice cotton tubulars for around $25 a piece these days (I use 220 TPI Vittoria Rallys, cheap and good).

bikefix said...

You make a good point about running your brakes open- there's little reason not to (besides aesthetics) if racing. Thanks!

Nice catch on the DA/Velocity wheelset- I'm a big fan of cup & cone hubs, though after snapping an XTR rear axle recently (all 145lb of me) I'm not as sure as I once was of Shimano hubs' superiority. Unfortunately, few of us are willing to deal with tubulars for the daily commute- particularly on our thorn- and glass-strewn Southwestern streets. Tub rims are almost always lighter than the clincher equivalent- a similar wheelset built with clincher rims will be closer to 1500g- not bad at all, but not 1400g. Still, for $600, they're worth a look.

daveb said...

few of us are willing to deal with tubulars for the daily commute I don't see why, personally.

Changing the tire on the road is faster with tubs. AND you have run-flat capability. Admittedly, I get few flats with clinchers OR tubs.

When people talk about the hassles of tubs, they really mean patching. The advent of cheap, high quality Thai cotton tubulars, and sealants that can seal small punctures means you can toss your tubs rather than patch them but still have a cost per mile only marginally higher (if that) than good clinchers.

Anyway, love the site, keep it up.

The said...

I'm looking at both the Ardennes and the Bastogne's. They seem to be very similar other than weight. What did you find are the biggest differences between the two and do you think the Ardennes are worth the extra cash? If so why?

Any insight would be very helpful. I haven't gotten the chance to ride the two and probably won't get to.

Thanks so much

bikefix said...


When I bought my Bastognes, the Ardennes hadn't gone to the wider C2 rim. Before the Ardennes' change to wider rim, I would have recommended the Bastognes, which been bombproof. As they likely now share the same rim profile and Scandium can be more brittle than more common aluminum alloys, it sounds like the Ardennes will serve you well. Just remember to knock 20psi off of your tire pressures... marc