CHOOSING THE BEST ALL-AROUND WHEELSET FOR THE ROAD CYCLIST
For this review, I considered 36 wheelset models from 23 different companies and closely evaluated 17 all-round models against a unique set of criteria to choose the best all-around wheelset for the road cyclist.
“Let’s take this right hand turn,” I thought to myself. Signal. Turn. “Back wheel is sliding out. Bring her back in. Agghhhh, I’m going to lose it. *!@#.”
It happened that fast. I was coming down a road I’d ridden a hundred times before. It was a moderate downhill, about a 5% grade. Except this time, I made a quick decision to take a right I had only taken before in my car.
I came into the turn too fast and with a bad line. Overcooked it. Back wheel went out. Moved the bars to compensate and then flipped over on my other side. I landed on a grassy median. Stood up. A little wobbly, but only a few scrapes. Nothing serious.
And then I looked at my bike. My rear wheel was twisted like a pretzel. My first thought: that’s going to cost a few bucks. My second: now there’s the excuse to finally upgrade my wheels.
I had been thinking about getting some new wheels for a while. I hadn’t really done much more than read up a little, look around at my bike shop and ask a couple of my riding buddies about their wheels. Now that I needed new wheels, or at least a new rear wheel, I began what became the odyssey that led me to start this blog.
CLICK TO NAVIGATE THE BEST ALL-AROUND WHEELSET FOR THE ROAD CYCLIST:
My trusted bike shop had a good selection but didn’t carry some of the major brands I was interested in. My go-to guys there – the one who runs the shop and the one who runs the service operation – were both wearing the same wheel manufacturer’s T-shirt the day I went in to talk wheels with them. Guess which kind of wheels I walked out with to try? Never rode them a mile.
I started doing some serious research and went through a lot of product reviews in magazines and websites that mostly highlighted what the writer liked about the wheels he was reviewing. But, he normally didn’t compare or rate the wheels he was reviewing against any others. A couple of high-end bike stores blogged reviews about the wheels they sold and surprise, they rated their wheels highly. Some online stores cut and pasted the wheels’ product descriptions and marketing points as “reviews.”
I did come across some good, mostly independent reviewers and useful comments from experienced riders on online forums. It took a lot of time to find these proverbial needles in the haystack. Unfortunately, most of these reviewers and commentators had different views on what the most important criteria were in choosing between wheelsets and even what type of riding the same wheels would be best for.
Bottom line – I couldn’t find any shop, magazine, reviewer, site or online forum that comprehensively outlined the criteria for choosing a wheelset, reviewed and compared the best wheels generally available out in the market, told me what kind of riding they’d be best for, and provided a price comparison from reputable retailers.
Oh, if I’d not made that quick decision to turn right. Now, it felt like I could make a really bad and expensive decision if I didn’t do something about the problems I’d come across in my search to find my next set of wheels. So I set out to come up with the right set of wheels, priced right and from the right place. In the process, I started this blog to put you (and me) in the know, so to speak, about what and where to make our next cycling purchase.
At the end of the day, I’m probably a lot like you and most other riders you know – a committed and enthusiastic regular cyclist with a job, a family, and a few other passions; generally, a pretty full life. But perhaps unlike you, spending the hours needed to research and check out cycling products has become a passion all its own for me.
You can learn more about me and what goes into my reviews here. If you find this or other reviews valuable, you can support the site by buying your gear through the links to the stores that I’ve found offer the best prices and good service. You’ll find these store links in the reviews at the end of each product evaluation and in the right hand column of the site pages for the recommended gear. More about how that works here.
I’ve now spent countless hours researching different wheels, talking with product experts and experienced cyclists, pulling the nuggets out of expert reviews and user comments, riding different wheels and trying to figure this all out the way any cycling enthusiast would, given the time, approach and experience I bring to it. But, if you don’t feel I’ve got it right on some point or another or if you think I’ve overlooked something, please let me know and I’ll dig into it. I plan to update this review a couple of times a year as new products come out and more feedback – hopefully including yours – comes in on what’s out there.
For this review, I considered 36 wheelset models from 23 different companies. Of these, I closely evaluated 17 all-round models from 15 companies against a unique combination of criteria established for this review. First, let me tell you which ones I recommend, why and where you can get them at the best current prices from online stores with good customer service. After this, I’ll provide you much more detail about what went into this review and provide you summary evaluations of the other wheels considered and tell where you can get them at the best prices.
WHAT I RECOMMEND
For In The Know Cycling reviews, I evaluate product-specific criteria in four groups – performance, design, quality and cost. The criteria that matter most in those categories for all-round wheelsets are:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, compliance, and braking.
Design: Wheel weight and material, rim depth, opening width and profile, hub and spoke selection, and wheel finish.
Quality: Durability, warranties and service/support.
Cost: Purchase price, cost of ownership and replacement cost.
I detail what I mean by these criteria later in this review.
Considering the range of options the road cycling enthusiast has in choosing an all-around wheelset (or all-round as it is frequently called), I’m recommending products in three categories: the Best Performer, Best Value and Best Alternative.
The Best Performer is selected independent of cost and based on the performance group criteria mentioned above. The Best Value considers both performance and cost criteria. Design shows up (or not) in performance so I don’t judge it alone. Two products with similar design parameters may perform similarly or very differently so the design is a means to an end. And quality is either a go or no go in my recommendations. I won’t recommend anything that doesn’t have an acceptable level of quality according my criteria but I’m not going to recommend something that has superior quality but under-performs or has higher costs. When two wheelsets perform more or less the same, I do consider quality and cost criteria in recommending one as a Best Performer.
Finally, because I’m looking at carbon-alloy wheelsets as an alternative to all-carbon wheels in this review for reasons that will become clear later, I’m recommending a top performing, well priced wheel carbon-alloy wheelset as a Best Alternative to the all-carbon Best Performer and Best Value all-around wheelsets.
The Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher is the Best Performer for the road cycling enthusiast who wants an all-around wheelset. It has become the standard by which all other all-around wheels are measured. Most everyone you talk to and every reviewer you read loves them. I do as well. There is real passion for these wheels. Their speed, stiffness, responsiveness, comfort, aerodynamics, and braking are all top of the charts. Their price (MSRP $2725/ £2300) is near the top end too, although there are others that don’t perform nearly as well that cost more.
The 303s are among the technology leaders in design with wider wheels that improve speed, comfort and handling, and a rounded rim profile that is unaffected by crosswinds for all but the lightest riders. Their warranty and service responsiveness is middle of the pack, but these wheels are well-built and durable as most modern carbon wheels are today. It’s hard to objectively say they are better than all the others, but it’s also hard to deny that nearly everyone raves about their performance in a way they don’t do for any other wheelset in this category.
After doing for the research for this review, it’s become clear to me that design specs like weight, rim depth, number of spokes and the like are all trumped by wheel performance. Wheelsets with virtually identical specs in this category can and do perform very differently. And while some people put a high premium in making their choice on how the wheels look when they are standing still, it’s how they perform when they are moving at speed (and look like a blur) that really matters. I don’t recommend letting specs or looks sway your opinion. For the record, however, the rims on the 303s measure 45mm deep and 25mm wide at the opening where they meet the tires. Like most good all-around wheels, they weigh in the 1500-1600 gram range. The hubs are much improved for the 2014 model. And they say Zipp on them, which to a lot of people looks real good because they speak to a high performance and innovative engineering heritage well-earned by the company.
The review from Feed the Habit’s Jason Miller is typical of the high regard this wheelset is held in:
“While I may feel outgunned talking up the technical details of the 303′s, there’s no getting around just how amazing these wheels are. Every millimeter of these beauties is optimized for speed and performance and it shows. I’ve never felt so fast and won’t again until I have a set of my own.”
Bike Radar summarized their five-star review as follows:
“Light, robust and stable in the wind, the 303 Firecrest is the best all-round road wheelset we’ve tested.”
Red Kite Prayer’s Patrick (“Padraig”) Kelly, after a rather technical review, ended by providing a metaphor befitting the love many have for this wheelset:
“When last I dated I ran across any number of women who described themselves as ‘the whole package.’ They were bright. Well-adjusted. Educated (graduate degree). Professional. In child-bearing years and willing. Not just healthy, but hot. They knew what they were and they weren’t going to date some guy writing a screenplay at Starbucks while on unemployment. These Zipps are kinda like that. Which is why they can ask $2700 for them.”
By all accounts, this is an outstanding wheelset and the clear winner as our Best Performer.
Zipp wheels aren’t regularly discounted off their manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) or recommended retail price (RRP). You can occasionally find a deal. The online stores listed below provide the best prices I’ve found for these wheels and have them in inventory. I update this list regularly in this article and in the website sidebar.
As of 9/22/2014
MSRP/RRP $2750, £2300, €2800
Current model introduced in 2012, hubs updated in 2014
Merlin Cycles $2196, £1600, €2037, A$2438
If both performance and cost are a consideration, then I recommend the Reynolds Assault SLG as the Best Value all-around wheels. Reynolds is one of just a few companies that offers a “mid-priced” all-carbon, all-around wheelset (ENVE is another notable one). Priced at $1800 (but often available for less) and newly designed for 2014, the Assault SLG is about $900 less that the Reynolds’ top-of-the-line 46 Aero, also newly designed for this season.
The new Assault’s claimed weight, rim depth and width are all within a hair of the higher priced Aero and both have rim specs common to today’s high performing all-around carbon clincher – 1500+ grams, 40-45mm deep and 25+ wide. Interestingly, the rim profiles of the two Reynolds models are different. The Assault is more rounded, similar to the newer breed of wheel while the Aero has the more traditional V profile. Reynolds has given its reasons for this, but it’s a lot of geek-speak and perhaps a bit of ad-hoc explanation. I’m more concerned with how they perform than how and why they are designed.
The Assault SLGs do perform well. Comfort (known as ‘vertical compliance’), handling and acceleration are all very good. They are stiff but not so much so that you’ll feel all the bumps. The wider rim and the ability to set these at lower tire pressures (around 90psi), allows for this. Reynolds has a reputation for quality built products and good carbon track braking. I’d expect these wheels will live up to this reputation and have seen nothing from reviewers or in user forums to the contrary.
Do they perform with the best? No. Will you notice a big performance improvement coming off a pair of stock wheels on a $2500 to $4000 bike? Definitely. If you aren’t willing to pay $1000 more (depending on available deals) for the Best Performer Zipp 303s, this is the best value – the best performer in this price range.
So how do they get this kind of performance at 2/3rds the price of the top end carbon clinchers? My guess: they don’t use the highest cost resins, they use fewer layups and therefore less labor in the composite manufacturing, and they use external nipples instead of internal ones with the extra labor that goes with it. Reynolds is also a large shop that makes rims that others brand and build into their own wheels so they have a significant volume advantage. Finally, Reynolds appears to follow a multi-tier product line, high manufacturing volume strategy rather than a top of the line, low volume, high margin one. The carbon clincher market is a growing segment and Reynolds appears to be going after it at many levels (high-end, mid-priced, outsourced rims, etc.), perhaps each with their own margin targets. The result is a Best Value all-around wheel in the Assault SLG.
Here are some of the best prices from reputable online retailers
As of 9/22/2014
MSRP/RRP $1800, £1300, €1612
Current model introduced in 2014
Not sure you’re ready to spend in the neighborhood of $2500 for a top performing all-carbon clincher like the Zipp 303? Not crazy about less than confident braking and potential warping of some carbon clinchers that you’ve heard about (and can read more about later in this review)? Ready to move up from your stock wheels but don’t think you need or will get all of the benefits of top performance or mid-priced all-carbon wheels?
I hear these kinds of considerations and have had some myself. Fortunately, a hybrid carbon-alloy wheelset is a real alternative that provides good answers to these questions. Hybrids offer the confident braking you are used to in an aluminum wheel, the rim depth from a carbon overlay to get some aero benefits, hubs and acceleration nearly as good as many on much higher priced wheels, and pricing closer to an all-aluminum wheelset than an all-carbon one. They will safely improve your performance without zapping your budget.
The ‘penalties’? Most (but not all) carbon-alloy wheels weigh more than the all-carbon clincher to the point where it is noticeable. Few of them come with a rim width or profile designed to provide the improved aero or handling performance of most modern all-carbon wheels. And, for some, anything that isn’t ‘all carbon’ is not ‘all cool.’
From a performance and budget standpoint, I find the Shimano Dura-Ace WH-9000-C35-CL wheelset the Best Alternative to the all-carbon clincher. It brakes superbly, better than any of the best all-carbon wheels. At a 35mm rim depth, it’s aero enough for a good all-around wheel and provides no weight penalty. It climbs well, cruises and holds its speed on the flats, and spins up quickly on its Dura-Ace hubs. While plenty stiff and responsive, perhaps one of its best features is its comfort, on par with wider rimmed wheels. They are built well and durable, typical of a Shimano product.
Wade Wallace summed up his feelings about this wheelset in his Cycling Tips review:
“Unexpectedly one of my favorite carbon clinchers wheelsets in its class that I’ve ridden, hands down. Comfort and performance all in one, without compromising anything. If you’re light, you’ll benefit from the stability of these 35mm rims in the crosswinds. No matter who you are, you’ll enjoy their comfort. If you’re looking at a wheel for road racing and training without the hassle and expense of owning two sets of wheels, I’d strongly consider the C35s.”
You can usually find them at least 20-25% off their $2000 MSRP or RRP from good online retailers, as you can see below:
As of 9/22/2014
MSRP/RRP $2000, £1400, €1700
Current model introduced in 2013
In the sections that follow, I’ll profile the road cycling enthusiast that this review is geared for, outline the categories of wheelsets you can buy, describe the criteria that matter most in choosing between different all-around wheelsets, tell you about developments in this wheelset category and then provide summary evaluations of the wheels considered but not recommended.
THE ROAD CYCLING ENTHUSIAST
I think of road cycling enthusiasts as serious riders like me who rack up between 2,000 to 5,000 miles (3,000-7,000 kilometers) a year. We ride on flat, rolling and mountainous terrain and do interval, strength and endurance training. We will generally be on our bikes 4-6 days a week outdoors in decent weather. In lousy weather, about half of us will ride on a trainer or at a club. Some will still ride outside and the rest will sleep in. We ride on our own, with regular partners, and in group rides.
During the year, we’ll normally ride for the pure love of it and for the way it energizes us (and reduces stress). Some of us will also add in a few races, club rides, centuries, Gran Fondos, Sportives or charity events to motivate our riding and measure ourselves. As a road cycling enthusiast, we average speeds in the high teens to low twenties (mph) or 28 to 35kph over the course of a typical 35 to 50 mile or 50 to 80km ride, depending on terrain, conditions, fitness and training objectives. About a third of us have been hit by a car and one in eight have broken a collarbone riding. (Yes and yes). And, of course, we enjoy a beer or two every now and then. (See this funny and informative set of infographics from Bicycling magazine about their readers, many of whom can be also considered ‘cycling enthusiasts’.)
Most cycling enthusiasts will have modern composite bikes or high-end alloy or titanium ones costing $2500 to $5000 and have electronics that allow us to track distance, speed, cadence, heart rate, and increasingly, power. Most of us are male, weigh between 150 and 200lbs (68 to 90 kilos), are pretty fit and use cycling to help stay or get there. Yes, we’re probably a little vain and selfish with the clothing we wear and the time (and money) we spend on cycling. We’re also dedicated to our cycling to the point where most of our family and friends know that riding is something we do and for some, do a lot of.
Wheels that come on almost all new bikes that sell for up to $5000 are what I would hesitantly call stock wheels. Suffice it to say that you are paying for the frame and groupset (shifters, derailleurs, cranks, brakes, etc.) on a new bike and not for the wheels. The wheels on any $2500-$5000 bike are typically all aluminum, shallow section rims with durable hubs. They are well-built but not typically ones you are going to be happy with as you get more serious about riding. For anyone, they can work well as a winter, early or late season training wheel when the road surface may be rough, sandy or wet and when you are just ramping up or ramping down training and want to save a few miles on a set of more expensive wheels. I still use my stock wheels this way. Most wheels coming on bikes in this price range should last 7,500 to 10,000 miles (12,000 to 15,000 kilometers) or a lot of seasons if you were to ride them as off-season wheels. Typically stock wheels would sell for $400 to $800 if you were to buy the set without the bike, though most stock wheels are made to be sold on new bikes rather than in the aftermarket.
All-around wheels, as the name suggests, should work well for the broad range of regular training and events that most road cycling enthusiasts will do. The best performing, most versatile and reliable ones have carbon or carbon-alloy rims that measure 35mm to 50mm in depth (considered ‘mid-depth’) and are “moderately aero” wheels. They are designed to perform well on the flats, rolling hills, mountain roads (going up and coming down) and to handle well in and out of curves, bringing you added speed, handling and comfort. They will definitely make you faster and feel (and look) like you’ve stepped it up a level or two.
Event wheels, on the other hand, are designed to optimize performance for a specific type of race, from a very hilly or mountainous one (both light and stiff, with great handling and braking) to a time trial or the bike portion of a triathlon (very aero, 50mm to 70mm+ mm deep wheel sections).
A criterium, club race or multi-day stage event usually demands the versatility of a high performing all-around wheel, which some people choose to save for those races and not train on. You usually put event wheels on your bike the day of the race or for the few days a year you want to train in conditions that simulate your race. Most event wheels are less versatile than all-around wheels and are therefore not designed to do well in situations other than the events they are designed for. For example, a time trialing wheel will be heavier than you’d like on a hilly course and not handle well when you are riding a criterium with lots of turns. A climbing wheel will not be as fast as deeper section wheels in time trials. And, some people will put high-end hubs or thinner racing tires on mid-depth wheels saved for criterium or club races, wheels that otherwise would be perfectly good for all-around use.
Carbon rim wheels have evolved quickly. Until the last few years, nearly all carbon wheel rims were designed to use tubular tires. Tubular tires come with the tube sewn into the tire and then the tire is glued by the cyclist or his shop mechanic to the rim. Tubular wheels are light and perform at the highest level but they are more costly to purchase and require more maintenance than clincher rims and tires. And, fixing a puncture with a tubular tire out on the road is a lot of work unless you are quite experienced gluing your own. Most people don’t do it.
With clinchers, the most widely used wheel type on road bikes, the tube is placed freely inside the tire and the tire’s outside bead hooks up with a fabricated groove in the wheel rim. While I never find them fun to put on, most anyone can put a tire on a clincher wheel whether you are doing it at home or on the side of the road after a flat in your tube. There is also a broader range and more competitive market for clincher tires than for tubular ones.
Tubeless tires, a third type, attach to clincher style rims but don’t use tubes at all. You see tubeless tires quite frequently on mountain bikes and kids bikes but they are still a minority in the road cycling world and are not typically used on performance wheels, either on all-around or event wheels. They are progressing in design and acceptance but are still used by small minority of cycling enthusiasts.
The technology for making carbon clinchers has advanced considerably in recent years and many all-around carbon rims are now made for both tubular and the easier to install clincher tires. Tubulars aren’t going away, especially amongst the more racing oriented end of the cycling enthusiast crowd, but more and more all-around clincher wheelsets are being introduced. I’ll go out on a reasonably strong limb and say most of us road cycling enthusiasts won’t make the time to become good at gluing and maintaining tubulars themselves or spend the money to have a shop do it.
We will go with clincher rims instead despite what are typically a hundred or so dollar and gram premiums over tubular wheels. Serious racers (and traditionalists) will deal with tubulars to get small weight saving. But for most road cycling enthusiasts today, the added convenience of the much improved all-around carbon or carbon-alloy clincher makes them the way to go for all-around use. This is the way I suggest you go. For this review, I’ve only considered clincher rim wheelsets to come up with the all-around wheels I suggest for you.
You may be thinking: Do I really need a set of carbon or carbon-alloy all-around wheels or am I about to blow a lot of money on hype to get only a small gain in my performance? A lot of people ask this question when they see the price of these wheels. The lead technical writer at VeloNews posted his view that carbon clinchers (vs. aluminum wheels) are heavier and far more expensive, are prone to blow-outs and are really all about playing to the vanity of cycling enthusiasts (that’d be you and me).
Since his piece ran, it’s been over two years and the latest generation of carbon clincher technology has come to market. Today’s all-around clincher wheelsets are much faster, handle more confidently, and brake better than prior generations. Aluminum wheels can’t be made to match the 35mm to 50mm wheel depths of all-around carbon clincher wheels and the deepest all-aluminum wheels weigh as much or more than carbon or carbon-alloy clinchers 20mm to 25mm deeper. Aluminum wheelsets under-perform modern carbon wheels in all areas but braking.
The price and vanity of carbon clinchers hasn’t changed but the improved performance is such that they justify their value far more now and really shouldn’t be compared to the high quality 25mm depth aluminum clinchers that used to be considered the standard ‘all-around’ wheelsets.
If you want to go faster, and you regularly get into the 20mph or (about 32kph) and up range on your bike, a set of mid-depth all around wheels will help you go faster for the same amount of effort you would put out on a traditional shallow depth aluminum wheelset.
Alternatively, you could improve your speed and performance by spending your money on coaching, a better frame or perhaps a new set of components. You could certainly go faster and do so more efficiently by being more dedicated to your training, doing more intervals and hill repeats, improving your pace line technique, riding 6 inches closer to the guy in front of you, spending more time in your drops, or losing 5 to 10 lbs or kilos. But going faster from doing any of these and putting on a new set of high performing, all-around wheels are not mutually exclusive. Improving your training or losing some weight isn’t going to deny the fact that you’ll go faster with a set of mid-depth all-around wheels.
What matters most in choosing between all-around wheelsets? In some ways, this is much like choosing a car. Depending on who you talk to, there are a lot of different factors to consider. Depending on who you are, some of these factors are more important than others.
Let me try to simplify and organize the many selection criteria into four groups: performance, design, quality and cost. In the all-around category, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice on any one of the first three of these. For example, you can find high performing wheels that are also made well and wheels designed to go fast on flats that also climb very well.
Cost, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to be directly related to performance or quality for all-around wheels. As with many other cycling (and non-cycling) products, higher priced wheels often get you distinctively designed, appearing and branded wheels that might or might not perform or hold up a whole lot better than lower priced ones. Let’s just say that mark-ups are crazy in the cycling business and marketing strategies at specific brands tend to drive prices as much or more than performance in some cases.
Here are the selection criteria that make up each of the groups mentioned above:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, compliance, and braking are the key measures I’ve used to assess all-around wheelset performance.
The most desirable all-around wheels will provide the versatility to ride all the different types of terrain (hills, flats, false flats, turns, sprints, mountains, fast downhills, windy roads) that you’ll experience and a range of training and events (club races, centuries, club, charity, group rides) you’ll do, without compromise.
All-around wheels will be aerodynamic enough for you to notice a significant difference in speed (>1mph or 1.6kph) and your ability to hold that speed with much less work when you are well underway on flats and downhills. Many promoting mid-depth and deep section or more “aero” wheels will correctly tell you that 70-85% of your energy goes into overcoming wind resistance but won’t tell you that aero wheels won’t make you any faster until you are going around 20mph (or 32kph). If you average 18mph+ you probably will be riding at 20mph+ at least 1/3rd of the time (on flats, downhills and perhaps at the front of a pace line) and benefit from aero wheels. If you aren’t going that fast, you really won’t benefit from buying wheels deeper than 25-30mm. For the purpose of this review, I’ll assume most of you will be going fast enough to get aero benefits.
For those of us measuring our power output, recognize that independent tests (here is one) show you will reduce your drag (and improve your aerodynamics) somewhere between 10-15 watts going from shallow depth aluminum wheels to mid-depth carbon ones. Very roughly and unscientifically speaking, that could yield a 5% wattage improvement for the average cycling enthusiast putting out an average of 200 watts during his ride. Sounds like the bump you’d get riding every day with ‘good legs,’ non? Note also that your choice of inner tubes and tires, and setting your inflation pressure right can reduce your rolling resistance to create an additional 10-15 watts of benefit. So, there’s lots of ways to improve your aero performance (re-read the paragraph above the Selection Criteria header above).
The flip side of going faster with a deeper, more aerodynamic wheel is that taller rims catch more of the crosswinds out on the road and can affect your ability to control your bike. A great deal of the development in recent years has focused on creating rim profiles that deflect crosswinds to maintain your ability to steer the bike when winds come at you from different angles. So handling in crosswinds, in addition to going straight ahead on a calm day, is an important part of the aerodynamic performance consideration.
Stiffness determines your ability to transfer your power to your wheels without them deflecting laterally or side to side (and therefore wasting energy) under the load applied by your pedaling. A stiff wheel will do a great job of transferring your energy and power when you really step on it to sprint, throw in a dig, close a gap or when you stand up to get up a hill. How responsive your wheels are when you engage the pedals or ‘spin up’ to go harder or faster is an indication of their acceleration, determined not only by how much the wheels weigh, but also by how much of the rear wheel’s weight is in the rim and the performance of the hub.
You will also want enough compliance or vertical deflection in your wheels so they handle well in the turns and are comfortable on long rides and over uneven road surfaces. Some people believe that stronger, heavier riders need a stiffer, less compliant wheel to support them, and lighter riders need the opposite to accommodate them. That’s probably true at the extremes (greater than 220 lbs or less than 110) but most riders weigh well between those extremes. If you are in that weight range (and fortunately I am), I’ve learned you can have a sufficiently stiff and compliant wheel to get great power transfer and a comfortable ride within the same wheelset. How hard you are on your pedals can discount the stiffness, and how high you run your tire pressure can negate the compliance designed into even in the best wheels. So don’t mash you pedaling during shifting or over-inflate your tires if you want to get the most out of your wheels.
Braking is a critical performance criterion. When first introduced, wheels with carbon brake tracks were clearly inferior to aluminum ones, some said say dangerously so. The joke went that brakes would only slow but never stop a carbon wheel, that is until the heat generated from braking either blew out the tube or deformed the rim.
Here again, technology and design have advanced considerably, improving carbon wheel braking performance through the use of new resins, weaves, brake track finishes and brake pad compounds. While most believe that braking on a bike with an all carbon wheelset is still inferior to doing so an aluminum one, the gap has narrowed significantly and the risk of explosive blow-outs has been reduced on current generation wheels. Perhaps just as important, riders using carbon wheels have also learned they need to use the pads designed and sold for their specific model of carbon wheels, allow more distance to brake on dry pavement and even more when the roads are damp, and not hold on the brakes for long periods of time on downhills (alternate between front and back wheel brakes).
Some riders have concluded that for the kind of riding they do, the best solution is a carbon wheel with an aluminum alloy brake track that safely dissipates the heat from braking and allows them to stop more quickly. There is more about this debate, where all-carbon and carbon-alloy clinchers fit in the evolution of the all-around class of wheelsets and my recommendations about what you should do now and plan on in the future in the trends and wheelset recommendations below.
Design: Design determines much of how manufacturers want their wheelsets to perform. Sometimes they perform as designed, sometimes not. The key design criteria are wheel weight and material, rim depth, opening width and profile, hub and spoke selection, and wheel finish.
The best all-around wheels will be among the lightest, principally to enable quick acceleration each time you shift gears on the flats, increase your cadence or head up a climb. Weight is determined primarily by choosing between carbon or alloy rim material, the hub and number of spokes on each wheel, a tubular or clincher rim design, the layup and resin choices, and the rim depth, opening width and profile (which in turn determine the amount of material used in the wheel). At the end of the day, rim depth will determine weight differences more than the other factors since most high performing all-around clincher wheels are now carbon, come in the same spoke range (16-20 front and 20-28 rear), and we’re focused on clinchers rather than the admittedly lighter tubular rim design. So a wheel with a 35mm rim depth will weigh less than a 50mm wheel, all else being equal, which of course they aren’t from model to model. Some of the deeper wheels in the all-around category weigh as little or less than some of the shallower ones.
While I’ve been told that a 100 gram (or 3.5 ounce) weight difference in a wheelset is noticeable, for me and I’ll guess for most of you, it’s hard to feel that weight difference between different wheelsets on a bike. I think it’s more likely that you can really feel something at around 200 grams of difference (or roughly a half pound), typically the weight premium you pay for the convenience of having a clincher vs. a tubular set of rims. That said, lighter is always better but at some point it’s more about marketing than real performance.
Wheelset weight is surprising hard to number to pin down. Why? There’s no standard for what should be weighed and companies measure it (and market it) differently. Some publish just the rim weight without the weight of the quick release (QR) skewers, rim tape, spokes and hub feeling that the difference between the rims is the weight that matters most. Many publish the weight with everything except for the QRs or the QRs and rim tape. And then the wheels can be built up with different hubs and spokes. Some make essentially the same wheel in tubular, clincher and disc brake options but they will only publish the tubular (or lightest) model weight.
In general, the weight claimed by the manufacturers is almost never the same as the weight measured by reviewers. Of those reviewers who measure the wheels (rather than just report what the wheel manufactures have told them), the weight differences can be up to 100 to 150 grams more than the “claimed weight,” a term used by many reviewers and retailers to apparently absolve them of responsibility for you getting something different from what has been marketed.
I’ve studied the claimed weight and weight measured by reviewers for many of these wheelsets. The bottom line is that most of the all-around wheelsets I’ve evaluated are going to be within 100-150g of each other, an amount I think you could certainly brag about but most of us aren’t going to be able to notice on the road.
The rim opening width, the width of the rim where it meets the tire, has increased significantly in the last two generations of carbon wheel design. Research has shown that a wider tire improves the aerodynamics of the wheel by decreasing the rolling resistance, and improves traction and stability important to cornering performance. Two generations ago, most carbon wheel rim opening widths increased from the traditional width of 19-20mm to 22-23mm. The current generation of carbon wheels have opening widths of 25-27mm and ride on new 25mm tires designed for them.
A wider wheel also improves ride comfort and life span of the wheel. You inflate a wider wheel and tire with a greater volume of air which dampens the ride. You also inflate it to a lower pressure (85-95psi) to get a sidewall shape and contact patch that provides better aerodynamics and handling performance. Running a lower pressure also puts less stress on the wheel structure and extends the life of the wheel.
As mentioned earlier, crosswinds can affect your ability to steer a bike with a set of 35-50mm deep of wheels. Using carbon allows wheel designers to shape the profile of their rims to offset this effect. Traditionally rims had a ‘V’ profile, with rim linearly flaring out from the narrower inner edge, where the rim meets the spokes, to the outer one, where it meets the tire. To deflect crosswinds, the newer design wheels have focused on making the inner edge wider and more rounded (somewhat like a ‘U’) or by bulging the rim wall from inner to outer edge like a bulb, or by doing both. Some have kept with the V profiles but made other adjustments along the inner edge.
Finally, spoke and hub choice, and rim finish are clear design choices, though I think they drive perceived performance more than actual performance. Most quality all-around wheels including many of the ones I’ve covered in this review, come with spokes and hubs made from one of only a handful of manufacturers. The larger, integrated cycling product companies typically make their own hubs to put on their wheels.
Spoke number, alignment, and shape (round, elliptical or flat) do vary considerably from wheel to wheel. The number of spokes used and how they are aligned or ‘laced’ is part of the overall design used to create a wheel’s strength and stiffness. They have a minor effect on weight (were talking a few grams here and there) and their shape has minimal influence on aerodynamics. So while having fewer spokes, having them laced in a unique pattern or having flat ones may set the wheels apart for the rest of the crowd, focusing on spokes in isolation really doesn’t get you any closer to choosing between one wheelset or another. If you true your own wheels, it may be more important to you whether the spoke nipples are accessed outside or inside the rim, but that may be something to know rather than use to make a choice.
Hubs used on these bikes are generally very good and many come from the leading manufacturer DT Swiss, although some wheel companies rebrand them or use only their internals. Some come sealed and others not, while some offer a hub with ceramic bearings as an option. These choices largely affect durability and maintenance, which shouldn’t be issues if you own these wheels. At the extremes, hub choice can affect weight and acceleration but in a minimal and hardly discernible way.
Rim finish (everything from to mat and glossy and with bold white lettering or ‘blacked out’) is a personal choice. While it has no effect on performance, I understand that looks and brand will matter to some road cycling enthusiasts, especially if it makes you think you are going faster or more excited about riding your wheels and bike with some of these distinctive design touches.
At the end of the day, evaluating and comparing wheelset performance is very subjective. Wheelset aerodynamic performance, for example, is probably one of the most marketed characteristics and provides an example of why you need to be careful buying into the hype. While aerodynamics is one of the most important and distinguishing criteria in a wheelset’s overall performance, it is also one of the hardest characteristics for the cycling enthusiast to objectively assess and compare.
Here’s why. Most companies have done extensive wind tunnel testing in a controlled environment on their own wheel designs and against competitors’ wheels to help develop the current generation of carbon wheels. Some have published the results in white papers, often on incompletely labeled charts and with little detail about their testing protocol. While most tests look to see how much drag the wheels produce at different angles to the wind (‘yaw’), there is no common approach to testing the wheels, for example either on and off a bike or on specific brands and types of bikes and tires. Of course, some bikes and tires are themselves more aerodynamic or less aerodynamic.
You are really only getting a true measure of the front wheel’s aerodynamic effect. On the road, your rear wheel is sheltered by the ‘wake’ created from the front wheel and bike tubes ahead of the rear wheel. You are also creating a good deal of turbulence at the intersection of the rim and spokes as your legs pedaling like egg beaters. Go ahead and try to model the aerodynamics of that situation!
With wind tunnel testing in hand, wheel manufacturers market the most flattering parts of this incomplete, non-comparable wind tunnel aero information and often market the qualifications of the engineer who led the aero design and supervised the wind tunnel analysis along with a combination of “unique” technological breakthroughs available only in their wheels. I understand that companies must have some tools around which to design and that wind tunnels provide necessary baseline measures, (and that all of this makes for good marketing), but how well these tests relate to the real world of on-the-road cycling with varying road, wind, bike and rider conditions seems very hard to correlate.
While most people will say aerodynamics and weight are two of the most important measures of a wheel’s performance, as you can see, neither of them are conclusive based on their numbers alone. You really have to take what the wheel manufacturers and their retailers tell you about these performance and design features with a great deal of skepticism. In place of their claims, which the buyers guides and some bike shop salesmen repeat back with great enthusiasm, I’ve drawn from the experience of independent reviewers and enthusiasts who have ridden many different wheels in different conditions on the road over many miles.
Quality: Durability, warranties and service/support are the selection criteria that define wheelset quality.
Rim, spoke and hub durability all matter though rims and especially carbon rims are usually the weakest link and most expensive to deal with. Most hubs put on all-around wheels sold in the performance all-around category are very durable and easily serviced as part of an annual bike check-up or if there is a problem. Modern day spokes are strong and relatively easy and inexpensive to replace.
Carbon rims are far more durable than they used to be and most offer the same strength as alloy rims. While I’m not aware of any tests that compare alloy and carbon wheel life times, anecdotally most service shops will tell you that carbon wheels will last longer than alloy wheels under normal conditions. Wheels with fewer spokes will reduce the weight some but increase the stress on a wheel.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to the rim manufacturing quality and how well the company stands behind their product if something goes wrong. Most major manufacturers make pretty “bomb-proof” wheelsets in this all-around category and offer competitive 2 year warranties. Some companies are just more responsive than others to issues that require direct service or support. Online forums are filled with stories about company service, both good and bad, and most companies have established their reputation. Fortunately most are good.
Most established local bike stores and online retailers will typically stand behind the products they sell, but ultimately, the manufacturer determines the service response to a damaged wheel. I’ve tried to sort through both the durability ratings and warranties offered by manufacturers but also listened closely to what shops and other enthusiasts say about the durability and service/support response to different wheelsets.
The biggest issue continues to be overheating and deforming all-carbon wheels during extended braking, for example coming down a long mountain pass. Manufacturers do not warrantee damaged carbon wheels caused by overheatig. This, along with the safety that comes with more responsive braking, is one of the reasons why I recommend you consider carbon wheels with alloy brake tracks in addition to all-carbon ones.
Cost: Simply put, some all-around wheels cost a lot more than others with little relationship between cost and performance, design or quality. All-around, non-custom wheelsets north of $2000 appear to be priced based on their brand name, market positioning and product volume more than any other factors. Some companies spend a lot to advertise and sponsor professional cycling teams to create a distinctive wheel-focused brand appeal and purposely sell low volumes. Others look to be ubiquitous with a broad range of cycling products including wheels and use their large distribution networks to achieve higher volume sales.
Some manufacturers also dictate selling prices to retailers and threaten their distribution agreements if they stray from those prices. (I know, it’s illegal in many places but it still goes on). That said, many online retailers often sell high performance, all-around wheels at 20% off the MSRP and occasionally discount these up to twice that amount.
ALL-AROUND WHEELSET MARKET AND TRENDS
There are a lot of wheels on the market to consider. Generally speaking, wheels are made by large companies who also make or distribute a wide range other cycling products (like Shimano and Campagnolo) and midsized companies (including Mavic, Reynolds), who focus mostly on making wheels. There are also some multi-product companies that have acquired wheel manufacturers over the years yet maintained the wheel company’s brand and distribute the wheels through their broader network (for example, SRAM owns Zipp and Trek owns Bontrager). And, there are many, many low-volume, custom wheel makers.
The custom wheel maker group includes a lot of small companies, shops and individuals who often make very high quality wheels, but who distribute them directly to cyclists or through a limited number of independent bike dealers. Because of the sheer number of these providers, their low volumes and limited distribution, and the custom nature of their product, I can’t fairly evaluate these wheels or expect that you would have the same experience as I would if I did attempt to rate them amongst the higher volume and widely available ones. I’m saying nothing for or against the custom wheel maker market. I just have no way to fairly compare their wheels.
The carbon clincher all-around wheelset category has been growing in popularity the last five years with many companies adding new or updated wheels or adding clincher versions where they only had tubular ones before. Most companies have applied their carbon technology experience from first making tubular racing wheels and have combined that know-how with design improvements to make clincher versions. Use of higher performance resins, adding engineers with expertise from the aerospace and automotive industries, new brake track designs and finishes, and the learning from a couple of generations or more of new product design and customer feedback have all contributed to improved products.
In the past couple years, the biggest trend has been to wider rim openings and more rounded rim profiles, as mentioned earlier. Most manufacturers are introducing their latest wheels with wider rim openings to improve aerodynamics and handling but some of the established wheel makers are staying with a V profile or the modified U shape on their new wheels and using other approaches to fight crosswinds.
Two other developments bear close consideration. First, despite marked improvement in the braking technology for all-carbon clincher wheels, most reviewers and riders still feel braking performance still falls short of the standard set by alloy or carbon-alloy clinchers. It’s hard to know whether all-carbon clinchers will ever provide the same braking performance level and when they come close, as some wheels now appear to, whether they can overcome years of built-in concerns.
Excerpts from recent reviews on a range of all-carbon clinchers from selected independent reviewers give you a feel for where carbon braking is today and question where the value is coming from.
First, from a November 2013 review by Greg Kopecky at slowtwitch.com:
With carbon braking surfaces, that’s the rub (ha!). The braking can be very good, but I find that the performance can really change based on the rim, pad, caliper, and lever that you use. Oh yeah – weather conditions, too. We all read about the potential dangers of using a carbon clincher with the wrong pad, so most wheel manufacturers mandate that you use only their pad. The devil’s advocate in me asks: What if that pad doesn’t work well for my bike’s proprietary brake caliper, or the lever that fits my hand perfectly? What if that pad works well in warm weather, but poorly in cold weather? I’m not singling out Specialized in any way – it is a real consideration for the entire industry.
Next from a March 2014 review in road.cc by David Arthur:
Braking performance is always a compromise with carbon wheels, but the Reynolds Cyro Blue brake blocks provide consistent and reliable braking with no squeal or fuss. The performance was impressive right from the first time I touched the brake levers. There’s a decent amount of power with a good level of feel and they’re nicely progressive, with no snatching.
However, I did manage to highlight some pulsing feedback through the brake levers when dragging the brake on a very steep descent. This was due to the narrowness of the road and being stuck behind several vehicles, with no overtaking opportunity. Forced to feather the brakes, and alternating between front and rear brakes to reduce the temperature build up, the wheels began pulsing towards the bottom of the descent. I’m a light rider too, about 67kg, so if you’re substantially heavier and make a habit of heading down very steep descents regularly, this could be a concern.
Finally, this one from the independent thinking and ever opinionated Caley Fritz at Velo News:
The rundown is simple: carbon does not move heat well, resulting in overheating, nor does it brake well, resulting in excessive and unwanted forward motion, particularly in wet conditions. In addition to these safety concerns, carbon clinchers, due to various design constraints, are always significantly heavier than their tubular counterparts, and are often heavier than all-aluminum wheels, yet cost two to three times more. The consumer value is often just not there.
Some of the largest wheelset manufacturers (like Mavic and Shimano) don’t sell all-carbon, all-around clinchers, offering highly competitive carbon-alloy hybrid wheels using aluminum brake tracks. Some carbon wheel leaders (like ENVE and Reynolds) only sell, and actively promote the braking performance of, all-carbon wheels. Others (like Zipp, Bontrager and Campy) sell both all-carbon and carbon-alloy clinchers in their line to cycling enthusiasts. So, you can see there is no product agreement on this issue.
All-carbon wheel manufacturers will rebut the perception of inferior performing wheels and some of the wheels reviewed brake extremely well in all conditions. You need to ask yourself whether you are ok with the braking performance of the all-carbon clincher you are interested in or whether you should you go instead with a competitively performing carbon-alloy one. Much of it depends on what and how you ride. If you do a lot of riding in the mountains or ride in all weather conditions, you should strongly consider carbon-aluminum wheels. Alternatively, if you ride mostly flat and rolling roads or your climbing on rather short routes and ride in good weather, then you’ll probably be fine with a good all-carbon clincher. It is a personal choice. The Best Alternative I’ve recommended gives you a great carbon-alloy option and there are another half dozen carbon-alloy wheelsets I evaluated , if you decide to go that direction.
The second development to keep a close eye on is the move to disc brakes on road bikes. Disc brakes offer superior braking to rim braking systems even on wheels with aluminum brake tracks. This would certainly be a welcome solution for riders concerned about all-carbon clincher braking performance but still looking to get most of the aerodynamic performance improvement of an all-carbon wheelset. If you ride your road bike outdoors year round including in a fair amount of rain and the occasional snow or mud, you like to do the occasional cyclocross course, or you do a fair amount of long descending and don’t want to risk overheating the wheels, a disc brake wheelset would be something to consider.
Discs are well accepted on mountain and cyclocross bikes and are currently under review for use by the international cycling authority (UCI) for use on next year’s pro road races. Many of the leading, latest generation all-around wheelsets are available in disc brake versions and used on the cyclocross circuit at the highest levels. Disc brake equipped all-carbon wheelsets currently on the market add little to as much as 150g over the rim brake versions depending on the model. This is a penalty not unlike going from an all-carbon to carbon-alloy wheel but without sacrificing much in the way of aero benefits. According Zipp, the disc itself adds 2 to 3 watts of additional drag. There’s also a small ($50-100) additional cost for most disc versions.
I recently had an exchange with a representative at one of the leading wheel companies which shed some interesting light on the all-carbon braking performance and disc-brake wheel developments we’ve just discussed. When I asked her how she saw things developing over the next few years, she wrote:
Couple of things to consider: Race support for disc brakes is tricky right now (rotor sizes, pads…). Disc specific road frames are clearly the future. No carbon braking surface wear, longer rim life, no fade with time, no grabbiness, able to brake later with way more predictability. With the perfect rim brake set-up in dry conditions the stopping power between disc and rim brakes is equal. As soon as you get any wear, any moisture, any residue or grime the disc option is more reliable and repeatable. On a personal note – road riders that have made the leap to disc brakes are not going back to rim brakes.
High performance road frames and components that work with disc brakes are just now coming into the market and it’s probably 2-4 years before the whole ecosystem fully supports them. With the current weakness in the road cycling market, the total recall and redesign SRAM has gone through for their disc brake products, and the big investments made recently by all three of the major component manufacturers (Shimano, SRAM, Campagnolo) in electronic shifting products, it’s hard to know how fast we’ll see the disc brake road market come together. But, if you are concerned about braking performance of all-carbon clinchers, disc brake equipped bikes and wheelsets is a development to closely watch.
WHEELSET REVIEW SUMMARIES
In all, I looked at 36 wheelset models from 23 different companies. These all fell into the ‘all-around’ category largely defined by their 35mm to high 40s mm rim depth and their other design and performance attributes which made clear that this is way we as cycling enthusiasts should use them. And, they were all clincher models for the reasons I mentioned earlier.
Of these, I closely evaluated 17 models from 15 companies. I eliminated the other models for several reasons. Some are not widely distributed or there isn’t much independent commentary about them. If they aren’t widely distributed, relatively few people are riding them and reviewers and users aren’t talking about them. I can’t easily evaluate these and don’t want you to make a decision based on the marketing story. When I can get more insight into the performance of these on the road from reviewers and users including myself, I will add them to an updated review.
Other wheels have designs that may have been considered ‘all-around’ wheels in the past. These are all-carbon, carbon-alloy or alloy wheels that may have 19mm to 20mm opening widths, high 20s to low 30mm depths, or weights above 1700 grams that just don’t perform competitively against today’s leaders in this category.
Where companies sell more than one wheelset that could be used an all-arounders, I eliminated those that the company targets primarily as event wheels. These were typically 50mm and deeper wheels that are more often used by time-trialists or triathletes or wheels shallower than 35mm favored by climbers. In two cases, I included a second model from the same company, both sold as all-arounders but with different designs and at different price points.
After collecting this group of wheels to review, I put them in two subgroups, all-carbon rim and carbon-alloy rim, and compared them primarily on performance and price, only noting design or quality factors that made them stand-out from the crowd.
You might ask, why not group these by rim depth and weight? Fair question. A wheelset’s performance is driven by rim depth, width, and profile so separating them on the basis of the first of these is insufficient. A 35mm deep wheel can ride faster than a 45mm or even 50mm one. That said, most of the wheels evaluated are 40mm +/- 5mm. The good news is that these modern wheels will fly like the 50-70mm wheels of old but accelerate and handle as good as 25-35mm ones. That’s why this category is growing.
Second, the claimed weight is almost never what they measure out to be and you’ll be hard pressed to feel less than a 150g difference between wheels. And, with few exceptions, these wheels all claim to be within a couple hundred grams of each other.
So don’t trip yourselves up over any design differences around depth and weight. I’ve focused on the on-the-road performance criteria mentioned earlier.
At the end of each summary, I’ve provided you links to where you can get the wheelset in inventory and at the best prices as of 9/15/2014 from an online store with great service
CARBON ALL-AROUND WHEELSETS
Bontrager Aeolus 3 D3
Very versatile – Good as a climbing wheel but plenty aero despite their 35mm depth. More than aero enough to be used as an everyday and race all-around wheel. Relatively light, accelerates quickly and maintains speed very well, a distinguishing characteristic mentioned often by reviewers and owners. Superior stability in cross winds. Stiff but not rigid. Good, consistent if not stellar braking typical of carbon rims. Will cost you as much as a pair of Zipp 303 FCs. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Leisure Lakes Bikes with VIP membership and Evans Cycles.
Stiff, comfortable ride with only minor correction needed in crosswinds. Accelerates and climbs well. Efficiency appears to trump speed – easier to turn the pedals than to go faster with this wheelset. Braking is typical of most carbon clinchers – average. Wheels notably quiet in nearly all road conditions and absorb poor road surfaces without interruption. A solid wheelset, but no one getting excited about its aero, speed or acceleration performance. Premium price for a wheelset whose ride doesn’t stand out and has a mid-width (less aero) opening and average weight. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Total Cycling.
ENVE Classic 45
Very competent wheelset. Stiff yet handles well. Accelerates and climbs admirably for this depth (45mm) wheel. While price is 2/3rds company’s top of the line wheel, it’s not enough of a discount from most others in this category that perform far better. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at JensonUSA, Merlin Cycles and Hargroves Cycles.
ENVE SES 3.4
Perform best at speed – 25mph/40kph+. One of only a few wheelsets designed and sold as an integrated front and back wheel combination of different rim depth and width to give you a stiff ride with great handling. Light, fast accelerating, with excellent dry braking but disappointingly average wet braking. Bomb-proof durability. King 45 hubs option (DT Swiss 240 is standard) rated very highly by users although loud and take some getting used to. Can buy just the hoops (rims) and have them custom-built. 5 year warranty and crash replacement compares very favorably to everything else in this category. Amongst the best (and most expensive) you can buy. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at JensonUSA, Competitive Cyclist and Leisure Lakes Bikes w/VIP membership.
Profile Design 38/TwentyFour
Aero, stiffness, braking in dry conditions, quality all comparable to wheels priced $1000 more. Uses a decidedly hard braking pad that reduces initial grab but provides consistent braking in spring, summer and fall temps, working equally well in dry and wet conditions. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Amazon and Performance Bicycle.
Reynolds 46 Aero
Reynolds stayed with the V rim profile for this new 2014 top of their line wheel despite most other makers of high priced wheels (and Reynolds own mid-priced line) going to a rounded ones. They did go to a wide rim opening (26.2mm) on this wheel. Handling and crosswind management are rated very highly by riders. In the mix as one of the better wheels out there. Many ways to skin the aero cat. Very good braking performance. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory is at ProBikeKit.
Reynolds Assault SLG – Best Value
Reynolds new mid-priced all-around rim is a bit rounder and shallower (41mm vs. 46) than the last generation. Company has a good rep for all carbon rim braking performance and have heard nothing to the contrary on these new wheels. Solid, good value all carbon rim option but not separating itself from competitors in any performance or design aspect other than braking. This is the value play. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at ProBikeKit and JensonUSA.
Rolf Prima Ares 4
By using few spokes and Ti free hub body rather than aluminum it comes in lighter by 50 to 150g than the other leading carbon wheels in this all-around category. Comes standard with a ceramic bearing hub. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at eBay and Evans Cycles.
Roval Rapide CLX 40
Specialized makes Roval wheels primarily for Specialized bikes rather than trying to compete with the leading carbon wheel brands. Good thing. These wheels appear to be an average performer. Compliant ride but not stiff or very responsive to a rider’s attempt to accelerate. Braking is no better or worse than the average all carbon wheel, which isn’t great, especially with the stock pads provided. Don’t perform well in crosswinds. Lighter (narrower) and cheaper than those from the major brands. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Evans Cycles and Leisure Lakes Bikes (Europe delivery only) w/VIP membership.
Vision Metron 40
Perform nearly as well as the Zipp 303s and similar to them and the ENVE SES 3.4 in their rim profile and width. Spin up very freely, on par with anything out there. Somewhat affected by cross winds, requiring some counter steer. Stiff, bomb-proof with equally good braking in dry and wet conditions. Priced 10-20% less than competitors making them a great value for this high level of performance. Very limited retail distribution in the US though you can order direct from the US sales office. More widely distributed by dealers in Europe. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Bike24 and Evans Cycles.
Zipp 303 Firecrest – Best Performer
The standard by which other high end carbon wheels are measured. Most everyone you talk to and reviewers you read absolutely love them. There is real passion for these wheels. Speed, stiffness, compliance, braking, aero all top of the charts. Prices are too. Wheel width leaves little clearance on some bikes and Zipp recommends against using them on Specialized Tarmac SLF and Venge bikes. Better than most but still have some crosswind effect for lighter (150lb) riders. Two year warranty and service responsiveness reported only average by cross section of users. Hard to say they are better than all the others using objective criteria but also hard to deny that everyone raves about their performance. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Merlin Cycles.
CARBON-ALLOY ALL-AROUND WHEELSETS
3T Accelero 40 Team
A stiff set of wheels with lots of spokes. Likely best for heavy riders. Only average in crosswinds. Rim holes in the carbon fairing create a whistling or rumbling noise while underway and easily take on water that doesn’t quickly drain. Slow to get underway and to accelerate. Keep their speed well on relatively flat roads and ride comfortably. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Wiggle and ProBikeKit.
DT Swiss RRC 46 DICUT H
Stiff and highly responsive yet harsh ride. Pushed around in cross winds. Brakes take a while to kick in on flats but won’t overheat on long descents. As/more expensive as any all-carbon wheel out there and 2x the price of equivalent or better performing carbon-alloy rims. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Chain Reaction Cycles.
Easton EC70 SL
Stiff and lively ride without feeling harsh. Confident, consistent braking. Handles and corners extremely well. Competitively priced for wheels in this category. But, one of the heavier and narrowest all-around carbon-alloy clinchers. Not going be an aero star. Spoke and hub durability an issue on Easton wheels and similar problems reported by some on this model. Service less than stellar. Recent change in ownership and change in leadership bears consideration before any purchase. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Wiggle.
HED Jet 4 Plus
Superior build quality. Highly responsive yet still very compliant. An alloy rim where non structural carbon is matted to the rim to make an aerodynamic fairing. Bulb rim profile and newly introduced 25mm wide rim makes these far more aero and better handling than anything else in this category. Pricey for a carbon-alloy hybrid at $1900 MSRP with no discounting seen in the market. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Competitive Cyclist and Amazon as of 9/1/14.
Mavic Cosmic Carbone 40 C
A lot of compromises in this wheelset. Key design difference is insertion of non-structural aluminum and foam to dissipate heat from braking inside structural carbon wheelset. Brakes noticeably better than other carbon clinchers, nearly as good as carbon wheels with aluminum brake tracks. Measured weight and price similar to Zipp 303 FC and Enve SES 3.4 but rim width still the traditional 19mm wide, V profile vs. the more modern 25mm wide, rounded profile of more aero competitors. Riders report they are plenty stiff but not crazy about tires provided as part of wheel-tire system or delay in hub spinning up when accelerating. Mixed views on crosswind performance. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Chain Reaction, Bike-Discount and Bike24.
Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 C35 – Best Alternative
Excellent comfort and performance in a low maintenance, high durability wheel. Rolls smoothly, accelerates well with excellent dry and wet braking, handling and lateral stiffness. Shimano wheels are well built, stay true and carry durable hubs. No maintenance issues. Relatively light vs. others in this category though not as aero as wider, deeper all-around rims. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Wiggle and Bike Discount.
Other all-around clinchers…
I researched a number of other wheels in this category including the 3T Accelero 40 LTD, DT Swiss RC 38 Spline C and RRC 46 Dicut C, Halo Carbaura RD 38, American Classic 40, and Miche SWR Full Carbon RC. These wheelsets aren’t widely distributed in bike shops and there aren’t many independent reviews or user comments about them on forums. I’ve not been able to ride any of them myself or know anyone who has. I’m not going to render an opinion about them until there is more to learn and say.
Was this review worth your time? Want save money on whatever gear you buy next?
If you plan to buy something I covered in this review or any piece of cycling gear for that matter, there’s an easy way to save money and keep the cranks turning on more reviews like this one. Simply click on the retailer links in red and buy any of your cycling gear through the online stores you connect to.
Each time you buy something from many of these stores, I get a small amount back for referring you and put that toward site costs. It doesn’t cost you anything more to do it this way and probably saves you money because I’ve found you a good store with a great price. It also re-energizes me after the countless hours I put into these reviews (when I could be out riding) knowing you are getting value from reading and acting on what I share with you.
I’ve picked these stores because they offer the best current prices I’ve found on gear covered in this review, they have the items I list in inventory, and they provide good customer service. They also typically offer very good prices on all their gear. Every couple of days I update the pricing on the gear I’ve recommended in the body of each review and in the sidebar.
Thanks for reading and supporting In The Know Cycling. Feel free to comment or ask any questions on what you’ve just read in the area below. And let’s stay connected! In the right hand column, you can sign up to get an e-mail when new posts come out, get them sent to your RSS reader or follow my comments on Twitter and Facebook.