In 1998 I was contacted by the owner of a new wheel company called Velomax. He proceeded to tell me how he was a cycling enthusiast who bought the company from the founder and believed that the wheels were revolutionary. I was a bit skeptical if only for the reason that the company founder had sold out. As it turns out, the company’s founder had been overwhelmed by production issues following a single favorable review.
You all know where this story goes: Company owner Brad Hunter conquers the production issues, gets OE spec and then sells the whole shebang to Easton. Bein jouer, as the French say.
Velomax wasn’t the first into the complete wheel game. Others, such as Mavic, had better distribution. Others made lighter wheels, though Velomax produced some very light stuff. They eventually abandoned their trademark T3 Technology (twin thread spokes, that is, they were threaded at each end to eliminate elbow breaks). So what made the wheels worthwhile?
They stayed true better than any other wheels I’ve ridden. Name a company making complete wheels: Campagnolo, Mavic, Reynolds, Zipp, DT. Velomax and now Easton wheels stay true better than any other wheels I’ve ever ridden. The secret is one I learned at Bill Farrell’s New England Cycling Academy back in the early ’90s: spoke tension. The secret to building a wheel that stays true isn’t high tension, it’s even tension. A wheel built with equal tension on all the spokes balances the forces working on it. Put another way, when I notice a wheel is out of true, the first thing I look for is a loose spoke; a low-tension spoke is a frequent culprit.
Tensiometers can tell a wheel builder spoke tension in broad terms. Most can be fairly difficult to read to single increments of Kilogram force (Kgf). A half-Kilogram force difference in spoke tension can result in a wheel that the average rider would consider to be significantly out of true. However, changes in pitch can be detected down to fractions of a cycle with ease. Velomax began truing wheels with the aid of transducers.
Velomox wheel builders would pluck spokes and check their pitch with the aid of what was essentially a guitar tuner. In the plainest of terms, Velomax tuned their wheels.
Naturally, I was curious to see if Easton kept up the practice of hand-built wheels after acquiring Velomax. The answer is yes. The EA90 SLX wheels feature 18 spokes front and 24 spokes rear, making truing especially difficult; the fewer the spokes, the harder it is to true a wheel and the more important equal tension becomes. A single spoke of high or low tension can pull an 18-spoke wheel out of true.
I’ve ridden more than 2000 miles on these wheels and while these shots were taken when this set was new, they still look good and run true. Why aren’t more wheels this reliable?
Products I review must run yet another gauntlet, one many of you don’t suffer. I live two miles from the ocean and the salt air will corrode any alloy part that isn’t properly plated. The EA90 SLXs are the only wheels I’ve reviewed featuring alloy spoke nipples that didn’t show corrosion after a year of use.
The front wheel features the single widest-spaced hub flanges of any wheel I’ve seen in years. Placing the hub flanges so far apart results in a wheel better able to stand up to side loads and with only 18 spokes, it needs all the strength it can find. I won’t lie; I can feel the front wheel flex in sprints and was able to flex it significantly under hard descents. What I didn’t detect was any twisting, which has a tendency to unnerve me because I’m not confident about my line; a bit of flex doesn’t seem to bug me.
The EA90 SLX wheels roll on ceramic bearings and while there is some valid criticism of lousy ceramic bearings that drive up cost without adding any real performance, I can say these wheels roll with little bearing drag. Wheel weight was a bit more than advertised; they claim 1398g but my set weighed in at 1436; not a capital offense.
Almost every company out there claims their wheels can be converted from a Campy freehub to Shimano and vice versa. Claim is the crux move in this phrase. On some wheels it’s so damn difficult I’d really rather try to run phone line through a crumbling 14-century Italian abby. Not so on the Eastons. I managed to do it in minutes and with a minimum of fuss. It took roughly as long as changing out the cassette. I’d have spent more time putting on a new set of tires front and rear.
I do have one criticism of the EA90 SLX wheels, but it’s not so much with the wheels themselves. It’s the rim strips. Like most companies, Easton is spec’ing a woven mylar rim strip that can get pushed to the side, exposing the rim holes, if you mount a tire with a particularly tight fit. It seems I can’t go more than about six months without writing some sort of rant about the worthlessness of these things, but they aren’t Velox, nor will they ever be. Technically, they have a value proposition roughly equal to feces. Whenever I receive a set of wheels, I use the rim strips included until I get my first flat caused by a rim hole and then I throw them away. This leaves me the opportunity to say I gave them a chance, while forcing me to chase the group like … well, like a guy who flatted. It’s good training I suppose.
The EA90 SLX wheels have a suggested retail of $1045. That’s a fair chunk of change, but I think they are more than worth it. They’re lighter than some frames, stay truer than a Supreme Court justice and because they feature an aluminum rim can be run anywhere on any day and with any amount of braking. Light enough for racing and yet all-purpose enough for daily riding and compatible with any bike you own—is there a better combination? I think I’m going to ditch some of the wheels I have to get another set of these.