It could be argued that wheels are a more important element of your bike than the frame itself, in terms of how the thing performs as a whole. Putting a decent set of wheels on an OK frame will always prove more rewarding than installing a ‘starter’ set on a top-of-the-range bike.
This is because your wheels do an awful lot more in terms of moving you than any other part of the bike, with the exception perhaps of you. This is also one of the reasons the cycle wheel industry is booming, with new wheel brands rolling out all over the place. But only a fool would believe that they all offered a similarly rewarding upgrade.
It has traditionally followed that the performance of a wheelset improved in direct correlation to the escalation of the price tag. This is still true, to an extent. You would never, for instance, compare a set of Fulcrum Sevens to a set of Lightweights.
Knight Composites is setting new parameters here. This is a sub £2k wheelset built with the quality of parts and rim construction that should put it in a much higher price bracket. Hubs, for instance are the highly-regarded DT Swiss 240s, a tried-and-tested component that is renowned for reliability (you can upgrade to the DT Swiss 180 hubs for an extra £500). Same with the spokes (20/24 front/rear), which are Sapim, and the nipples, which are Pillar.
But it is the rims that will attract the most attention, both in terms of looks and operation. These are of a composite construction, using aerospace-grade Toray carbon fibre, which is the same stuff used in Boeing’s 777 airliner. The aerospace comparisons don’t end there - Knight have used the same technology used in the development of military jet fighters, specifically the F35 Lightning II which is itself built out of carbon, to perfect the aerodynamic qualities of their rims.
It’s all about the Trailing Edge Aerodynamic Manipulation Technology (TEAM Tech) apparently - we do love an acronym. Essentially it boils down to looking at how aerodynamics affect the entire cycling package - tyre, rim, fork, frame - rather than working on the wheel in isolation. Makes sense really.
The result is a “parabolic” cross-section (a bit like a stretched out avocado) on wheels, in 95, 65 and 35mm rim depths that offer “superior aerodynamic benefits.”
Knight do of course have the numbers to back these claims of superiority up, alongside the know-how and the facilities, because this is as far from a Chinese backyard carbon fibre chopshop as you can get.
The brand, based in Bend, Oregon, is headed by Beverly Lucas, a woman with more than 15 years in the upper echelons of the US cycle industry. During this time she helped develop the Felt brand, before moving to Enve Composites, where she brought in an aerodynamicist and masterminded their revered Smart System.
Founding partner Jim Pfeil already has co-development of the hugely successful Reynolds Ouzo Pro forks on his CV, and Kevin Quan helped design the Cervelo P3C time trial bike.
So there’s a bit of industry knowledge in the team, which is why they were confident enough to develop their wheels from the ground up. All this borrowing of aerospace technology results in maximised “laminar flow”, with a reduction in “dirty air” - the stuff that produces drag. The result of all this research, they say, is a pair of wheels that requires the rider to produce less watts to achieve the same speed.
In other words, you go faster with less effort, which is what we’re all after at the end of the day. That avocado shape has resulted in a 25.5mm rim width, a smidge wider than the 25mm tyres you’re likely to shoe them with. This makes the rims appear slightly bloated when you look at them from above (think airflow). The ride itself is smooth and forgiving while remaining solid and responsive and the wheels have so far proved bombproof, staying true even after hitting a pothole that no-one pointed out.
Are they fast? They certainly feel it. They roll up to speed incredibly quickly and while we haven’t been testing in lab conditions, Garmin data reveals a significantly improved performance compared to comparable Dura Ace C35s on the Times Mustard test bike. Also, at a claimed 1.4kg for the set they come in 79g, or 2.75 ounces lighter than a pair of Enve Smart System 3.4 rims, compared to which they run very closely in terms of build.
Fast wheels demand decent braking and this has traditionally been where some full carbon rims have added a few grey hairs to riders’ heads, especially when going downhill, when the friction of the brake pad on the rim can produce excessive heat. Knight has addressed this by “overbuilding” the carbon structure on the braking surface - doubled it, in fact, from an average 1.5mm to 3mm. Knight believes the added weight of the carbon is a price worth paying for rims that won’t let you down when you’re hurtling down a mountain at 50mph, and we’re inclined to agree.
What you are getting here is a wheelset which looks, behaves and performs well beyond its price grade (if you go for the 240 hub). Knight are competing with the £2k+ wheelsets on the market such as Enve and Zipp while delivering a price more in line with Mavic and Dura Ace, which they quite frankly are a league above.
The only surprise here is that given the phenomenal componentry and built quality, they don’t appear very easy to come by in the UK. Hunt them down, seek them out, use any means necessary to find them, but do. Before you lose the advantage to someone else, or they put the price up.
Summary: A wheelset that looks and performs far in excess of its price point. Knight claims to have made the fastest and safest wheelset in existence and we found nothing to dispute that. Very highly recommended.
5 / 5
£1,648 (DT Swiss 240 hub option)
UPDATE: We've been running these more than a year now after being so impressed that we bought them. Since then two spokes have gone on the same wheel. Once a couple of months after the review and again in April 2016. This is not especially unusual with handbuilt wheels. Also, with this type of wheel, the failure of one spoke will often set off a chain reaction. It's to do with the tension, apparently. But most importantly, they're still fast as hell and a pleasure to ride.
This article first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk on April 24 2015.