Ellsworth AM Wheels – The $1,000 Wheels Reviewed

Picture by regularJoe

Wheels are a very special part of the bike. The single handily control how your bike feels on the trail and how your power is transferred to the ground. After my review of the Ellsworth Evolve and my recorded interview with Tony Ellsworth, Ellsworth sent me a set of their new $990.00 all mountain wheels to review.

At $990.00, these wheels are in the top of the mountain biking price bracket so the standard is set pretty high. For a complete spec on these wheels, you can check out the Ellsworth site or my preview post. For reviewing purposes, the wheels were mounted to my Ventana El Terremoto 6.0 (150mm travel frame) and they wore the new Schwalbe Big Betty UST tires (a true 2.4 tire – tubed). I have been riding these wheels for over a month and a half now in varying terrain. They have seen everything from local loops to shuttle runs to heavy rock gardens.

A Little About The Ellsworth AM Wheels

ells frnt wheelells rear wheel

Highlights from the spec list include:

  • Each wheel is de-tensioned 6 times, and then re-trued and re-tensioned again by hand.
  • Each Ellsworth direct pull hub uses a full compliment of the highest quality Japanese EZO bearings.
  • All Ellsworth spokes are direct pull to achieve maximum tension and quadruple taper and butted for superior strength and stiffness to provide you with a faster rolling, more durable wheel.
  • Ellsworth rims have a wider rim profile that provides a wider stance of the tire on the rim. This gives the rider a larger contact patch of the tire on the ground. (32mm wide for this set)
  • Claimed 2,376 grams
    Weight as tested on Ultimate Digital (QR rear w/20mm Caps on the Front) – 2,420g
    Front w/20mm End Caps – 1,100g
    Rear w/QR Axle and No QR – 1,320g

They are only available in the polished stainless and black rim which ended up looking incredible on my bike. They are a 32 spoke, straight pull wheel. The front hub converts from a QR to a 20mm and the rear will swap between QR and 10mm. These are the provided parts with every wheelset (QR’s included).

ellsworth parts

The other parts were installed on the wheels which you will see later in the article.

Installing the Ellsworth AM Wheels

ellsworth 20mm end capellsworth 20mm front hub 2

Changing the front wheel over to a 20mm axle is an easy process. The QR axle unscrews from itself and the 20mm end caps are set onto the hub. A rubber o-ring holds the end cap to the hub body and you are all set to place the wheel in the fork and install the axle.

ellsworth end cap fell

Since the end caps are only secured by a small o-ring, they fall off very easily. As I was putting the wheel into the fork dropouts, the end caps kept on falling out (as seen in the above picture – the end cap is in the grass off the hub). Once I finally got them in, it was difficult to insert the Maxle all the way through because the end caps would not stay flush against the hub. There needs to be a better way to secure the 20mm end caps to the front hub.

Now that the front was taken care of…I moved to the rear. The cassette, rotor and QR went on like you would expect. I used the QR axle on the rear hub, but you can also use the 10mm bolt through.

ellsworth dropout

Once the rear was in, everything lined up perfectly and the Ellsworth supplied QR had plenty of clamping force.

If you are interested in changing the rear axle into a 10mm. The process is as easy as the front hub, but the difference is that both axle configurations screw into each other. Both axles stay very secure in the rear hub.

The Ellsworth AM Rims

ells rim focus

The 32mm wide, low profile rims gave the Big Betty’s a very wide profile (BB’s are 2.4 at the casing and 2.5 at the tread). It was actually so wide that at 60 psi, the tires rubbed the stays. That is the first time I have ever run into this on the Terremoto, but that brought a smile to my face. I love wide rims and at 26 lbs. there was no rubbing or clearance issues. The Ellsworth AM rims gave the Betty’s a very square profile which I really liked.

When I went to air up the tires, I did notice that the shallow depth of the rims did not let the retaining ring of the valve to grab enough thread. The result of this is a valve stem that moves from side to side…not that big of a deal really.

Ellsworth AM Wheel Hub Engagement

Whenever we talk about wheelsets, there are three areas that seem to be the most important in our groups.

  1. Weight
  2. Stiffness
  3. Engagement

Why is engagement so important? The faster the engagement, the faster the power from your legs moves the rear wheel. The more engagement a rear hub has…the fewer degrees the crank arms have to more to “engage” the drive mechanism and move the rear wheel.

ellsworth pawlsellsworth engagement

The Ellsworth wheels use a 3 pawl, 24 point engagement drive system. As you can see by the pictures, the pawls are set up in pairs and engage the ring in the hub body. This makes for a very strong engagement system according to Ellsworth.

I emailed back and forth with TE on the subject of engagement because his 24 point is much less than the competition at this price level. Chris King’s ring drive is 72 point and Industry Nine’s 6 pawl system is 120 point. Long story short…TE explained that he wanted durability and less drag over faster engagement. You can see his exact thoughts in this pdf file.

Tony Ellsworth on Engagement PDF

From the email with Tony Ellsworth:

When I did my own hub, I wanted to really have the focus be on overall performance, and so, I made a conscious decision to go with a known low freewheel resistance and robust pawl for durability and reliability.  Nothing ruins a ride faster then to have your hub cease to engage…  I just wanted none of it.  And that’s why there are the 24 robust POE in my hub that there are.  When there’s a better way to do it all the way around–I’ll be looking to add that to my hub, but for now, my hub is dependable, durable and the mechanism that’s in there has millions of trouble free miles on it.  That was my objective, that durability, and the known fact that the 24 POE, three pawl mechanism is a freewheeling resistance cue!

Now I am going to tell you why I disagree. In my opinion, there is two types of drag.

  1. Drag that can only be seen on the stand.
  2. Drag that can be felt on the trail.

Drag that can be seen in the stand doesn’t always transfer to the feeling on the trail. In the case of Industry Nine and Chris King, they may stop faster when spinning the wheels on the stand in comparison with the wheels from Ellsworth, but on the trail…I felt no noticeable difference in drag between the three wheelsets (I own a set of the I9’s and Kings). On the trail…I would rather have more engagement. More points of engagement mean better control in rock, tech situations and less gaps in double clutches. These are two areas that I spend a lot of time riding in.

Overall Ellsworth AM Wheel Stiffness

ellsworth rear hub

On the trail…these wheels are stiff. The quadruple butted, straight pull spokes do a great job of holding the wheels together under hard load. They hold a great line through rock gardens and there is no noticeable flex through heavy carving. If Tony’s main objective was to build a stiff wheel…he did it. Even through all of the pounding, the wheels are still as true as the day they were dropped off at my front doorstep.

For more of Tony’s thoughts on wheel stiffness…check out this pdf.

Tony Ellsworth On Wheels

Once you had the wheels going, there was no noticeable efficiency losses. The weight of these wheels are what you would expect out of an AM build. There are a little bit more than a comparable Industry Nine build and just about on par with a Chris King build…so there are no surprises here.

What are my final thoughts on the AM Wheels?

ellsworth rear hub 2ellsworth 20mm front hub

Ellsworth AM Wheels – The Good

  • Very Stiff Build
  • Reasonable Weight for an AM Build
  • Look Great On My Black Frame
  • Wide 32mm Rim
  • Easy Axle Change

Ellsworth AM Wheels – The Bad

  • 20mm End Caps on the Front Hub Fall Off Without Warning
  • Only 24 Points Of Engagement
  • No Color Options
  • Proprietary Spokes
  • More Expensive than the Competition

Honestly…the positives of these wheels do not outweigh the negatives for me at this price. When I am paying almost $1,000 for wheels…they need to be almost flawless. The annoyances of the axles makes the set feel “unfinished”. Yes…they are stiff…but so is the competition at this price. When you are building wheelsets above the $800.00 range, there needs to be a multitude of options with near flawless manufacturing. The engagement of the rear hub also has to be 72 point or greater. I have had zero issues with the Chris King and Industry Nine hubs in terms of durability. There are people out there still using Chris King hubs that are over 10 years old. I was really missing the higher engagement on the trail.

I hope that TE and the guys over at Ellsworth can take my criticisms as constructive. They build an incredible frame, but these wheels need some work if they are going to compete in this price range. As they sit right now…they do not feel like $1,000 wheels.

What would make them $1,000 wheels?

So…now that I have said they are not $1,000 wheels, what do I think would bring them up to that level in the mountain biking wheel world?

It’s A Good Start

These wheels are a good start with the wide rim and stiff build. The problem is that at this price level, a stiff wheel build is expected not a luxury. I would not even consider buying an AM wheelset over 500 dollars unless they are very stiff and hold a line through hard corners and rock gardens. The wide rim is an added bonus, but the rim industry as a whole is moving in that direction already.

Engagement

You can have your reasons for going with a 24 point engagement drive, but it is not going to help sales at this price level. Engagement makes a huge difference on the trail. When we started sessioning a long rock garden, the gap in engagement started to become a huge annoyance. Up the engagement as soon as possible.

Finishing Touches

  • Find a new way to attach the front end caps where they won’t fall off…this is a must.
  • Offer Colors – I know that colors do not affect performance, but all of the wheelsets in this price range (minus Mavic) offer a range of at least hub colors. As riders are spending more money on frames and time picking out parts, they like things to match. If they are given two options with all things equal, they are probably going to pick the one that matches their frame if they can. I can’t tell you how many Ellsworth’s I have seen with multi-colored Industry Nines.
  • Make the rim tubeless compatible – The space at the valve stem does not allow these rims to run tubeless. Having the option to run a tubeless setup on an AM designed wheelset would be a great option. I have switched a lot of sets over to the Stans Flow rims for this reason. They are light enough to run tubes but also run tubeless easily.
  • Include several spokes with each wheel build – Having proprietary spokes is not as much of an issue if you already have some on hand.
  • Price – Bring the price down. 990.00 for mountain biking wheels is too high (even with custom colors).

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