FLO Cycling Wheelset Review
Apr 20, 2011
article & images by Nick Salazar
(If you just want to skip ahead, the VIDEO IS ON PAGE TWO.) For quite a number of years, aerodynamic bicycle wheels have been sharply divided into two categories: smart-and-expensive wheels, and dumb-but-cheap. The descriptors "smart" and "dumb" here refer to the amount of engineering brainpower that went into the design of the wheels. On the one hand, you had cutting-edge brands like Zipp and HED pushing the limits of aero wheel tech. Accordingly, the fruits of their labor have come at considerable expense. In addition to the cost of retaining engineers, high tech wheels are often come with higher production costs, marketing costs, and other infrastructure costs.
On the other hand, there were plenty of players coming into the aero wheel game without a lick of design prowess. Dozens of Eastern manufacturers are now producing open mold rims with varying depths, which tempt buyers with their deep dish aero look, despite the fact that they may well under-perform much shallower wheels that have some more brains behind them. Still, a deep wheel is generally faster than a shallower wheel of the same profile, so even the cheap wheels represent an improvement over box-section rims. And what makes these wheels so popular is that they're so darn cheap. They strip the engineering brains out of the equation, and still manage to put together some well-manufactured wheels. And even if they aren't the lightest, or the stiffest, or the slipperiest wheels out there, they represent a budget option attractive to both consumers, and the resellers who connect with them. Planet-X is one such reseller - they take the open mold rims, brand them, and sell them on the cheap to all the willing buyers.
So the triathlon world was left with a big competition void. No one was really making high-performance, intelligently-shaped wheels cheaply. That is precisely the market segment that Jon and Chris Thornham set out to fill. The two are both experienced design engineers, and know a thing or two modeling a fast wheel. We talk a little more about their experience in a Q-and-A session on page three of this review.
Their goal was simple: create a blazingly-fast wheel design, and find a way to manufacture it at a high quality, as inexpensively as possible. If only it were so simple, right? But Jon and Chris persevered. Less than one year after their venture began, their new brand, called FLO Cycling, is poised to launch its first three products in the next couple months: a 60mm wheelset, a 90mm wheelset, and a disc rear. They sent us a prototype sample wheelset consisting of a 60mm front and a 90mm rear.
High Tech, Low Price
What FLO Cycling has done, in essence, is that it's become a student of the wheels that came before it. There's nothing radically new about these wheel shapes, per se, but rather fall right in line with the design themes of the fastest wheels on the market today. Don't think of these as a copy - FLO's engineering brains designed these from the ground up, using iterative CFD testing to validate the aerodynamics and refine the rim shapes. The result is something startlingly similar in some ways to the latest-generation wheels from Zipp and HED. The wheels use a much wider brake track than older wheels, to better mate with tires and improve the aerodynamics of the overall wheel including the tire. Further, they end in a more blunt, rounded edge rather than a pointed one. This improves the aerodynamics of the second leading edge of the wheel, at the back half of the wheel where the inside of the rim becomes a leading edge.
In order to build a wheel that wouldn't cost a fortune to build, FLO Cycling used a simple trick: they created a fairing. The functional part of the rim is a shallow, aluminum rim, which is as simple as it is robust. Its only feature worth mentioning is that it's wide, as noted earlier. The deep aero sections are made from a thin layer of carbon fiber which, because it isn't structural, doesn't have to be particularly fancy. The fairing isn't carrying any weight - that's all up to the aluminum part of the rim - so it just gets glued on. This is the same thing HED has been doing on its own Jet wheels, and on Bontrager's Aeolus wheels. It's a proven concept that works well.
These wheels look for all the world like a set of Zipp Firecrest wheels. But they are poised to retail at roughly one QUARTER of the price. When FLO shipped us a set of their wheels, we were giddy with excitement to get to ride them. They represent a type of competition not seen before in the aero wheels game, and we want to see whether these wheels are worth their salt. How did we like them? Hit up page two for the video review.