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Why It Matters: ENVE Custom Road

ENVE does not make a mountain bike ... yet

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By now, you’ve probably seen what ENVE has gone and done. They’ve made us all want road bikes. Their in-house custom builds, appropriately named ENVE Custom Road, are possibly the most beautiful objects you can put on two wheels outside of a bacon-wrapped-hot-dog cart. Our colleague, Ben Delaney at Velo News can tell you all about his. Given that every frame is custom made to order, the possibilities are literally endless, but there are technically only two models available; All Road and Race, one with more relaxed angles and more tire clearance and another that’s more focused on speed. The question that immediately sprung to our mind was whether ENVE is going to expand into mountain bikes. The short answer is an encouraging “maybe,” but that’s not the only reason we’re excited about what this means.

The way ENVE is going about this is pretty novel, and not just because they’re doing it in the U.S.. Nearly every dimension aside from frame angles and tire clearance are up to the consumer to decide. There are no off-the-shelf ENVE frames. Also, the Custom Road frame is not meant to work with cable-actuated derailleurs. Partly because cables generally aren’t that popular among road customers spending $7,000 on a frame or up to $12,500 for a complete. But also because ENVE didn’t want any cables running externally from the bars to the frame. They worked with Chris King for a specially designed headset to route Shimano Di2 wires and brake hoses from the integrated bar/stem, through the top cap and through the upper bearing and into the frame. But possibly what makes ENVE Custom Road so unique among carbon bikes is that it is not being manufactured by a bike manufacturer. ENVE, of course, makes rims. 

“A carbon rim is probably the most complex structure in bicycle manufacturing if you look at all that you’re asking that component to do,” explains Jake Pantone, vice president of product and consumer experience at ENVE. “It has to manage tire pressure, it has to manage impacts, you have spokes pulling on it, you have the rider on it and you have all the drive and brake forces going through it.” Suddenly, the idea of a rim manufacturer going into bike manufacturing made sense. In fact, it made even more sense than the countless bike manufacturers who have gone into rim manufacturing, which happens to be part of the motivation behind ENVE doing this in the first place. As more and more bike brands are making high quality carbon rims under their own roof–or the roofs of factories they contract with–there’s less and less OEM business for ENVE. The foray into making bikes is not simply a curiosity for ENVE. It’s not just an experiment like the trials bike that Santa Cruz built in-house for Danny MacAskill, or the small-size Ripley LS that Ibis made just down the street. According to Pantone, “The future for ENVE is not just a wheel and component manufacturer, but also a bike and frame manufacturer.”

And that, potentially, means expanding the lineup beyond Custom Road. Pantone is cautious about getting our hopes up for seeing an ENVE mountain bike, but he didn’t hesitate to say that it was a possibility. “We have mountain bikes on the radar but they are several bikes down the list. Gravel, all-road, and triathlon segments would come first.” 

The bigger question is what sort of mountain bike it would be, and as I pressed for answers, Pantone let that remain vague. “A hardtail is pretty straightforward and easy,” he starts. There’s really  nothing fundamentally different from a disc-brake-equipped road frame and a mountain frame other than the strength and the geometry. “XC mountain biking is the low hanging fruit where fit is really important.” Speaking of fit, not only are the geometry numbers different between road and mountain, exactly which numbers matter most are different as well. 

“On road, people are more concerned with fit and less concerned with angles, whereas on mountain bikes, people are more specific on the angles,” Pantone points out. “Roads are roads for the most part, while peoples’ trails and terrain are very different. Even the riding in southern Utah versus northern Utah is different.” Still, even if the hypothetical ENVE Custom Mountain doesn’t use full custom geometry, custom sizing isn’t only about fit. 

When you look at a Specialized [in a catalog], the stem is slammed and there’s no spacers, but that’s not the configuration most riders will end up on. With a custom frame, if you want to be upright, your bike can still look like a word tour race bike.” Although much of it was done in the interest of aerodynamics, ENVE’s frames look clean. There is no internal routing for traditional cable-actuated shifters, which it made it possible for them to run completely hidden lines. The brake hoses and Di2 wires go through the bars, through the stem, through the special headset top cap that Chris King made for them, and actually through the upper headset bearing. Instead of a traditional 1.125 upper bearing, it’s a 1.5 like the lower bearing, with the lines going between the bearing and the fork’s steerer tube. All of these sharp bends would be impossible for a traditional cable to make, and it’s a far more practical, easier to service approach than the bikes Gustav Gullholm (AKA @dangerholm) has been wowing us with on Instagram. Now that wireless shifting just trickled down SRAM’s price range, and is clearly coming soon from Shimano, this approach to cockpit cleanliness will likely influence production mountain bikes in the near future. 

Beyond the potential for refined fit and aesthetics, it’s hard to say, years down the road, where ENVE would go if it ventured into mountain bikes. But Pantone says designing a full-suspension platform someday is not off the table. There’s nothing fundamentally different between designing bottom brackets or brake mounts and designing pivot points and swingarms. In fact, ENVE has made them before. More than a decade ago, when Santa Cruz wanted a carbon rear triangle for the V10 downhill bikes its Syndicate team was racing, they turned to ENVE. The molds were designed by Santa Cruz, and ENVE scienced out the layup and the complicated process of bonding the extremely complex structure of a rear triangle.

So, they’ve technically made full suspension frame components before. The trick would be making a frame that’s better than what’s already on the market. Pantone had high praise for the full suspension bikes out there right now, including Santa Cruz. And he fawned over the new Salsa Blackthorn, even though he dreamed of a 150-millimeter version of it. “If you’re gonna make a suspension bike, it’s gotta be better than all of those,” Pantone stated. “I want to ride a mountain bike that I love.”

The bad news is, ENVE is not in a hurry to expand into mountain bikes. The good news is, they don’t have to be. As huge as it may seem that a rim and component manufacturer is moving into frames, it didn’t require a huge investment. “We have engineers who have built frames for other manufacturers,” explains Pantone. “Kevin Nelson, [ENVE chief engineer] was at GT and then Specialized, and was at Easton for a stint and did some work at Reynolds. We have other guys [formerly] from Trek who work for us.” ENVE didn’t have to hire a new team to make their frames. They didn’t have to build a new wing at ENVE headquarters. And they didn’t have to worry about mass production. ENVE expects to produce about 300 Custom Road frames in its first year. And according to Pantone, despite the long, hands-on sales process behind each of those bikes, 300 is enough for the project to pay off. “If we have one good year, we’ll be in the black on it.” 

ENVE is not the only brand making custom carbon frames in North America, but they are the most recognizable. Although custom will never be a mainstream option, that’s kinda’ the point. If domestic carbon manufacturing is ever going to catch on, maybe it will take several forms. There’s the ultra efficient, cost-effective approach that Guerrilla Gravity is taking, and then there’s ENVE on the opposite end of the spectrum. But that makes sense. Nothing ENVE makes is cheap, but everything has a reason why. With a brand like that going full speed ahead in the bike-building market, there’s no telling what innovations they’ll inspire, even if their tires stay skinny.