We all know that high-end gear should last a long time. After all, it’s often made of the best materials available, draws on the most up-to-date engineering, and costs a lot of money. That said, we can all cite examples of exotic gear that is outperformed by less exciting kit even before the new gear smell has faded.
Back in the summer of 2008, I purchased the set of HED Ardennes wheels shown here. At a shade over 1,400g (615g F, 800g R), they were some of the lighter aluminum clinchers available at the time- and competitive with many carbon setups. When their then-novel 23mm wide “C2” rims were introduced, few believed HED’s claims of improved aerodynamics, a tubular-like ride, or an 18% reduction in rolling resistance when compared to the 19mm standard. Pass the break for one of our longest-term reviews yet…
Four years on, the Ardennes have proved themselves- and then some. Steve Hed’s wider-is-better approach has become mainstream, with countless companies approaching wheels and tires as an aerodynamic unit. This eases the transition between the tire and rim, changing the overall cross section from that of a lightbulb to a half circle/half ellipse, providing smoother airflow and improving aerodynamics under a wider variety of wind conditions. Because a given tire is wider when mounted on a wider rim, the contact patch shape changes from longer and skinnier to shorter and wider. As a result, less of the tire’s casing is being deformed at any given time, the thought being that this decreases rolling resistance. While it once seemed outlandish, even Pro Tour teams are turning to fatter tires for improved cornering, reduced rolling resistance, and decreased rider fatigue.
Because the tires’ (effectively shorter) sidewalls are doing more of the work on a C2 rim, HED recommending decreasing tire pressure by 10% front and rear. For me, this meant I would be riding about 80psi in the front, 85 in the rear when compared to narrower wheels. For simplicity’s sake, I tend to aim for 90/100 and can let the tires the tires run down to about 70/80 before noticing any negative effects. Though the comparison with tubulars may not be entirely fair to glue lovers, every tire I have tried on both the Ardennes and narrower wheels has felt a whole lot better on the HEDs.
As I was reminded on a recent group ride, the Ardennes roll far better than their non-ceramic bearings and shallow profile should alow. Though it’s hard to attribute too much to the wheels, at 145lb and on a non-aero frame, I regularly find myself out-coasting bigger, smaller, and more experienced riders. The original bearings are still quiet and smooth- and it’s not because they’ve been babied. After three years on my road bike (which also suffers the indignity of a 17mi year-round commute), freehub wear could only be felt through play when trackstanding at stoplights. After 42 months, I’d worn clean through the rear rim’s brake track. Following a week at HED, the Ardennes were back in the game- with new stickers to boot.
These wheels have been beat on. There are no two ways about it. Commuting in the dark means hitting things–hard–and the HEDs have taken the abuse like champs. Before the replacement rim, they’d been on a truing stand twice. The lower tire pressures encouraged by HED and the wheels’ comfortable ride makes them a great choice for dirt roads as well as paved. Semi-regular gravel riding hasn’t hurt them at all- though I am a relatively light rider. Despite my size, what I have noticed is a bit of flex while out of the saddle. Outside of occasional rub when my brakes are out of adjustment it’s not distracting- but HED have made a number of changes to up stiffness since 2008.
Since my wheels left Indiana, HED have expanded the Ardennes wheel range to five models- and those reviewed here are equivalent to the range-topping Ardennes FRs. Now $1,300, the Ardennes FR have gone to front- and rear-specific rims (lighter and heavier/stiffer, respectively). The front is still Scandium, but the rears are now built of aluminum, which can withstand higher spoke tensions over time (resulting in a stiffer wheel and better longevity). The updated Sonic hubs now use larger ball bearings, which improve lateral rigidity. At pro team request, a rear hub grease port has been added, to allow easier injection of fresh grease on frequently-washed bikes (or those ridden regularly in the rain). These changes are a wash weight-wise, with 2012 Ardennes FRs weighing in at 1,413g.
Addressing a little niggle with my wheels, the Ardennes are now shipping with (nonstandard width) rim tape. The quick release skewers now feature Ti skewers and the front hub a bling carbon fiber shell. The much-appreciated reflective labels remain. The Ardennes’ $1,300 asking price is a lot of money for a non-aero wheelset, and makes them a bit less competitive than they were a few years back and there are a several newer options in the 1,300-1,400g range. Still, the HEDs’ competitive weight, predictable braking, and performance in crosswinds have a lot to recommend them. Should anything happen to mine, there’s nothing else that I can think of to replace them with.