CHOOSING THE BEST ALL-AROUND WHEELSET FOR THE ROAD CYCLIST

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The post that appears below is an abbreviated version of the first one for I wrote for In The Know Cycling.  Since then I’ve updated it for 2015 and written several others about wheelsets and tires.

UPDATE: See a newer, updated version of this post reviewing the latest models HERE.

Here are the links to all the reviews I’ve written on wheelsets. Hopefully you’ll find the one or ones that best fit your interests.

WHEELS AND TIRES
– All-Around Carbon Clinchers (the 2015 update of this post)
– Aero Wheels for Enthusiasts
– Climbing Wheels
– Alloy Upgrade Wheels
– Road Tires

There are a number of other posts on bikes, groupsets, power meters, how to ride faster and online bike stores that you may find interesting.  You can find them here.

DISC BRAKE ROAD BIKES
– Wheels for Disc Brake Road Bikes
– Disc Brake Components
– Disc Brake Road Bikes to Consider
– Why Buy a Disc Brake Road Bike

COMPONENTS
– Top Tier Groupsets

POWER METERS
– What Power Meter You Should Buy
– Costs, Combinations, Compatibility
– New Power Meter Developments

MY TAKE
– How to Ride Faster: Gear & Kit
– How to Ride Faster: Training &Technique
– The Best Online Bike Stores

If you aren’t yet familiar, In The Know Cycling is a site for road cycling enthusiasts who want to know – but don’t have the time to do all the research, product and price comparisons to figure out – what gear you should get next and where you should get it.  I bring a fellow rider’s perspectives to my posts that evaluate and inform you about an entire category of products at one time.  I have no industry ties, don’t run ads or go on company paid trips, and buy or return everything I test.

If you like what you see, you can save yourself money and keep more reviews like this one coming by clicking on and buying your cycling gear at the stores in red that you see throughout this site or by buying anything at all through these links to eBay Cycling or Amazon.  The cycling store links take you directly to the listings of the gear I’ve evaluated and have the best prices I’ve found on that gear, the products in inventory, and good service records.  Some of the over 50 stores I’m regularly reviewing pay a small commission to the site when you buy through them and some don’t, but I’m always working to link you to the ones with the best prices, inventory and service.  There’s more on all of this on the about and support pages.

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.

With that overly long introduction, here are my recommendations:

Best Performer

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.

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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.  I list and regularly update the store or stores that have these wheels at the best prices and have good customer service performance.

UPDATE: See a newer, updated version of this post reviewing the latest pricing on these and other models HERE.

Note: With the advent of 11-speed groupsets, any 11-speed wheel with a Campagnolo free-hub and cassette can be used without modification on any 11-speed Shimano/SRAM drive train and vice versa.  VeloNews’ respected tech writer Lennard Zinn did compatibility testing to reach this conclusion.  You can read his column on this here. The manufacturers still make the distinction between 11-speed Shimano/SRAM and Campagnolo wheelsets but Zinn’s testing shows that it is not functionally relevant.

Best Value

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.

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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

UPDATE: See a newer, updated version of this post reviewing the latest pricing on these and other models HERE.


Best Alternative

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.

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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:

UPDATE: See a newer, updated version of this post reviewing the latest pricing on these and other models HERE.

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.

MOVE TO:

Top

What I Recommend

– Zipp 303 Firecrest

– Reynolds Assault SLG

– Shimano Dura-Ace C35

The Road Cycling Enthusiast

Wheelset Categories

Selection Criteria Explained

Wheelset Market and Trends

All-Around Wheelset Review Summaries

Want to Save Money on Whatever Gear You Buy Next?

Comments

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.

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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.

Does that about describe you?  If so, good.  If not, tell me more about your profile in the comments section at the end of this post.

WHEELSET CATEGORIES

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.

SELECTION CRITERIA

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.

UPDATE: See a newer, updated version of this post reviewing the latest models HERE.

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 May 1, 2015 from online stores 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 Trek, Bike24

Corima S+ 47MM (previously called the Aero+)
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 Amazon, Competitive Cyclist

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. Comes with choice of DT 240 or 350 hubs. Best prices on these wheels currently in inventory at Compeititve Cyclist (DT 240), Hargroves, Westbrook, SigmaSport.

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 eBay, Competitive Cyclist, Hargrove Cycles.

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 eBay, Competitive Cyclist, Hargrove Cycles.

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 from ProBikeKit, Competitive Cyclist.

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 Merlin.

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 Amazon, Winstanleys.

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 from Cyclestore, SigmaSport (only available in UK and EU).

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 ProBikeKit, bike24, Starbike.

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.  Better than most but still have some crosswind effect for lighter (<68kg/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 REI, Westbrook, eBay.

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 Merlin, Wiggle.

DT Swiss RRC 46 DICUT
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.  Distributed but not currently in inventory at Bike24.

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, eBay.

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.  Available at Competitive Cyclist or direct from HED.

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 REI, Hargroves, 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 Chain Reaction.

 

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.

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103 comments

  • Thank you so much for this very in depth and great review of wheelsets. You have clearly put a lot of work into this. I am currently, and have been for the past 12 months, looking at wheels in this category. Your down to earth and layman’s terms certainly help with my decision making process. For me the Reynolds are indeed looking like good value for money, in carbon clincher terms anyhow, but the lore of the Zipps is large. The price difference for me is 30% by way of a comparison. However, according to figures there is only a 2 watt difference between the Zipp 303 & 202, and there lies my problem. ☺ Here’s an interesting link comparing the Zipps: http://redkiteprayer.com/2012/12/the-numbers-game/

    • Alan, Thanks for your kind comments and the link to the post on Zipps at Red Kite Prayer. Padraig writes a great piece about which Zipps are best depending on the kind of terrain you ride. It’s a hard choice you are trying to make indeed but the introduction of the Reynolds Assault SLG this year has certainly provided a high performing value option.

    • One Wheelset is missing:
      The Shamal Ultra Two Way Fit (Yes, you get them with Shimano or Campa)
      Cheap, Ceramic Bearings, Tubeless if you like, light (lighter then all above Wheelsets), sprint-reactive, superb braking-performance, extremly sturdy (crashes do not do anything to these).
      Next Wheel that I would consider what would really be an upgarde, are all the medium aero-wheelsets above 3 to 4k … and up.

      • Parentesi, Thanks for your comment. I evaluated the Shamal Ultra as part of my climbing and descending wheels review here and mentioned it and the whole Campagnolo alloy wheel family as part of my upgrade wheel review here.

        Anyone can always enter the name of a wheelset (or any piece of gear) you are interested in the search box at the top of any site page to see if I’ve mentioned or reviewed it or readers have commented on it anywhere on the site. Thanks, Steve

  • Hi mate, great write up. I am in the process of trying to figure our whether I buy the 2014 202 or 303 fc clinchers. From what I have read, people are calling the new 202 the new all rounder! 150g lighter than the 303, some say stiffer with better braking and also almost just as aero! What do you think?

    • I think it depends what kind of terrain you ride. If you are on the flat to rolling hills (3-5% grades) most of the time with a few mountain rides thrown in from time to time, I’d go with the 303s for their added aero benefit. If you do a fair bit of real climbing (>7% average grades) go with the 202s. If you ride mostly flat, go with the 404s. Also check out the link that Alan provides in his comment above. I personally think the of the 202 as more of a climbing wheel in the hands of someone who really knows how to brake a carbon clincher and prefer my all around in the mid 40mm depth range for the aero benefit it gives you. I think the 303 is more versatile and therefore more ‘all-round’ than the 202 especially if you plan to do the occasional amateur race. I don’t think the 202 would be nearly as aero and don’t know why they’d be any stiffer or better at braking.

  • If I buy the Shimano Dura ace wh9000 c35 clinchers from one of the UK based companies you suggest will Shimano still honor their 3 year warranty here in the states, or if I have problems will I need to return them to the UK?
    Thanks, Ron

  • Ron – Shimano will honor the warranty globally. Doesn’t matter who you buy from as long as they are an authorized dealer, and I only give you links to stores that are. These shops provide great customer service and do it globally. I’d suggest you go to Wiggle or ProBikeKit site in the morning; you can do an online chat with Wiggle or call a customer service rep at ProBikeKit. They can answer your specific questions. (Bike-Discount is actually German based but you can also talk with them). Shouldn’t be a problem.

    • Thank you very much. I want you to know that I have spent many hours, days, weeks on the Internet as I have saved to buy this wheelset and your site is hands down the best I have found. When I purchase it will be from one of these sites so that it will help your site in a small way. Thank you very much!

      • Ron – Thank you for your kind words and I appreciate your support of the site. I failed to mention that If you decide to buy from ProBikeKit, you can get an extra 15% off your entire order as a first time customer if you enter the code FIRSTUS on the checkout page. Same goes for anyone else from UK, CA, JP, NZ or AU – just enter FIRST followed by your two letter country code. Enjoy the wheels. Steve

  • ron im aware that you were only rating the 40 45mm width wheelsets for the column, but how do you rate the 303s against the 404s 58mm in regards to your grading level? I live in texas deeeep south tx leave close to the beach about 22 miles we battle against strong headwinds ranging from 15 to 18mph as well as sidewinds and its mostly flat which wheeslet would you recommend. which is would you consider a better all around wheelset between the 303s and 404s and which would you choose?

  • ron hello again,

    How would you rate the bontrager Aeolus 5 against the 404s and 303s? Im trying to make up my mind between the Aeolus 5 the 404s and 303s I have a trek madone 7.9 series and just having a hard time choosing between them. I know the Aeolus was made to compete against the 404s but whats your take I whish you would have rated the Aeolus 5 wondering how you would have rated them against the both zipp model

    • Rick – If you are riding pan flat Texas terrain, go with the 404 over the 303. They are both pretty good in cross winds but the extra depth will be more aero downwind. For the headwinds, your position on the bike will be more important than the wheels. The Bontrager Aeolus 5 is comparable but typically more expensive. The best price/store I show for the 303 sells the 404 (and 202) for the same price. Steve

  • Hi there thank you for the detailed analysis! I am considering zipp 303 vs campagnolo ultra bora 35mm, i ride a fair bit of hills here in HK and I was told that campagnolo ultra bora 35mm has ceramic bearing so it should perform better than 303 but bora 35mm i guess is less aerodynamic then 303. On the other hand, 303 has 45mm rim so I am not sure for climbing purpose i should get bora 35mm. How do you compare the two? Thank you in advance!

    • Ceramic bearings affect durability not performance. Bora only comes in tubular so I assume you are comparing it to tubular version of 303. Both are all-around wheels which should be fine for hills. Zipp is more aero due both to its rim profile and width and handles a bit better. Can’t go wrong with either though I’d prefer the 303.

  • Hi Steve, any issues with the Reynolds hubs that you are aware?
    I’ve read some poor comments from claimed long time wheel builders re: hubs on the Zipp 303s.
    What are your thoughts on this matter? You buy carbon for the wheels not for the hubs as the hubs can be replaced relatively inexpensively unlike the rims?
    Cheers
    JAMES

    • James, Zipp redesigned the hubs on their Firecrest wheels for 2014. Haven’t heard of any issues since then. Not aware of any issues with Reynolds hubs either. Someone may prefer a different design or have a problem from time to time, but I’m not aware of any regular issues with any of the hubs or wheels I’ve recommended, otherwise I wouldn’t recommend them :). Thanks, Steve

  • Not sure if my earlier post came through. I really appreciate the effort you have gone to here.

    I weigh 105 kg. I am looking for a sub $1000 wheel set for general riding and the odd charity ride. After reading here I am leaning to the Fulcrum 3s, but wonder about the Shimano ultegra 6800?

    I can ride comfortably at 30 plus km/h on the flats.

    Any advise greatly appreciated,

    Cheers

    Peter

    • Peter. Just caught up and responded to your comment on the upgrade wheels post. Agree that the Fulcrum Racing 3 would be good choice for you, better than the C24 or 6800 considering your weight. You can find links to the best prices I’ve found on the Fulcrum wheels at shops I trust to provide good service up in the sidebar. Happy Holidays, Steve

  • Hi Steve thanks for the review, been searching the web for 3 days straight looking for an article comparing all options (or at least the main ones). Been very helpful. You haven’t mentioned the Zipp 30 (understand they don’t fit the criteria (ie 35mm), but they are close, any option on those as an option?

    • Jared, Glad you found us. You can always use the search tool at the top of the page to find any of the gear I’ve written about. I evaluated the Zipp 30 in my review of upgrade wheels. Follow this link http://intheknowcycling.com/2014/11/08/best_road_wheel_upgrades_under_1000_750_500/#Zipp. Steve

      • Hi Steve

        So I’ve gone back and found my original question, 3 1/2 months ago. Since then I’ve done a lot of research, read a lot of articles and just wanted to say that I keep coming back to your reviews; they are clearly independent, detailed and very helpful.

        Just wanted to say thanks and I’ve decided to go with the Reynold Assault and it looks like you have found a very good price for me; hanks!!

        Jarred

  • Hi Steve
    Thanks again for your very informative article.
    did you consider the Bontrager Aeolus 5 (50mm) in addition to the 3 (35mm)?
    If yes can you offer any comment as a comparison? If not considered why?
    Best Regards
    JAMES

  • James. Thank you for reading and asking. I didn’t consider the Aeolus 5 or for that matter other wheelsets in the 50mm and up category like the Zipp 404 or Shimano c50. Many wheel companies like Bontrager have a wheelset in the 30mm or 40mm range (Aeolus 3, Zipp 303, Shimano c35cl, etc.) that are more versatile or all-around than their 50mm+ versions which are more intended for flatter riding, higher speeds, TTs/tris and the like. I have nothing against the deeper wheels; indeed, I’m planning them this spring. I just think the 5 is less versatile than the 3. But it all depends on what kind of riding you intend to do (here). Cheers, Steve

  • Steve, awesome write up. I’ll find some way to support your effort. I’m a box/type of rider you didn’t quite peg, hence this email. I’m 52 and an enthusiast; never a racer, but I like to go fast. My “most favorite rides” are 65-110 miles with 5,000 to 9,000 feet of climbing. My gangs’ short rides are 50/3500. We’ll average 15 mph on the long rides and 17-18 on the shorter ones that are flatter. On flatish ground, we roll 22 or so in our line. I’m one of the heavy guys, however 185+ (just back from too much beer and tapas in Spain). I’m about to replace a wonderful 30 year old Colnago steel frame with 5 year old Zondas to a sleek new carbon frame. Why? Why not? I’m 52, and can afford to spend any number I want, and the old Nag (as my friends and I call it) actually is not very good geometry for me (too long in the top tube mostly, but also too tall by a size probably in seat tube – the perils of buying when I was young and dumb). Anyway, on wheels, the braking issues on all carbon leave my stomach uneasy. So alloy or carbon/allow seems like the way to go. I’d put comfort and climbing ahead of anything aero-based. I don’t want to waste money, but like I said, I’m lucky enough to spend whatever I want and not worry. Recommendations (a question to you or any others who want to share their views).

    • Robert, Thanks for your kind comments. Sounds like you do some great rides… you’re the ‘type’ of rider I love to ride with! From what you describe, especially the climbing, weight and carbon wheel comments, I’d recommend your next bike be a road disc brake bike. Check out my post on why and when to get a road disc bike here. I’ll be out in the next 24 hours with a follow-up post on disc brakes, one early next week on disc bikes and in a couple weeks on disc wheel upgrades. Check them out. As the saying goes, I think there’s a pony in there somewhere for you. Steve

      • You must be a mind reader. I’m strongly considering the disc brake option. My reluctance is the rubbing and squealing I get on my MTB. Love the stopping power, however. What about a wheel recommendation. I’m at the front end of the build process, and I’m not in a huge hurry since I have the lovely old Nag at my disposal. But there’s this 100+mile/9,000 feet ride (“Grizzly Peak Century”) in early May. Would love to have the new rig built and ridden a bit by then.

        • Watch this space (or at least the site’s home page). I’ll have an answer for you about rubbing and squealing in the upcoming post (not an issue if bed in the brakes correctly), bike options next week, and wheel recommendations week after that. You should have plenty of time to build up a new bike in time for May. Meanwhile, enjoy the Nag.

  • Sorry, sent my reply before reading your link. I see now that you’re not quite ready to opine on the wheels. My bad!

  • Hi Steve, I’ll join the choir and let you know that this is an awesome summary. I wanted to ask if you have had a chance to try the (new?) Taiwanese Black Inc Fifty wheels? If yes, can you offer any comment as a comparison to the category front runners (i.e. Zipp 303, Roval CLX40 or even Vision Metron 40)?
    Many thanks in advance.
    Thomas

    • Thanks Thomas. You are very kind. I haven’t tried those wheels yet. Frankly, never heard of them and nothing comes up when I did a quick Google search. I tend to stay with wheels and wheel makers that are doing a decent volume and have an established reputation and service infrastructure so you have a pretty good idea of what you are getting and good likelihood you’ll get any issues taken care if there is a problem. I’m not saying the company you are suggesting isn’t that; they are just haven’t come across my radar screen before you question. If there’s more you know about this company and their wheels that you can share with me, please e-mail me at steve@intheknowcycling.com so I can check them out. Steve

  • Hi Steve.
    I concur with most of the comments above about your report, I like the fact you have detailed your thoughts in a non biased and informative manner which is concise and easy to make a sound judgement. I’m a keen rider and I’m looking to upgrade my wheels from the stock set I’ve managed on for the last few years. Interestingly I already had the 303 and C35’s in mind before reading your notes. I guess that confirms my suspicions and answers my queries which wheels to go for. I hear that Zipps are fragile, so I’m swaying towards the C35’s….all I need to do now if find some at a reasonable price. I have a query which is wheel related…..but not covered above…..my wife is considering purchasing some Zipp 808’s as she’s a triathlete and is competing in her first Ironman event this year, do you have any advice regarding her choice of wheel ,if this is a good move or does anyone reading this have any suggestions?

    Many thanks,

    Paul

    • Paul,
      Thanks for your comments. With my 10,000 word reviews, I’ve never been accused of being concise before but I’ll take it! Regarding the Zipps and most carbon wheels for that matter, they really aren’t fragile. I think we went through a period when carbon wheels were first made where they were lower quality, not as durable as alloy, came out of true easily, blew spokes etc to now where they are quality, durable, high performing wheels. Cyclocross riders beat the crap out of their wheels and they still prefer carbon ones. I think some old beliefs die hard (e.g. you should have separate race wheels and training wheels, carbon not as durable as alloy, etc.) but if you’ve got the coin to go carbon, do it. I love both wheels you mention but if I weren’t riding long descents or in the rain a lot and the purchase price didn’t matter, I’d go with the Zipps 10 out of 10 times.

      Regarding the tri-wheels, I’m no expert but if this is her first Ironman, I wouldn’t go with that kind of wheel just yet. That’s a huge investment and a huge wheel that mostly experienced riders take on. And when they do, most will go with a 404/808 or Enve SES 6.7 type combination – smaller wheel up front for handling. But a lot of triathletes go with wheelsets in the 40mm to 50mm range that give them a little more versatility for their training and riding that usually isn’t only on flat, straight roads. Steve

  • Hi Steve,
    First off thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experiences about bicycle components. I found your site yesterday in my search for the best components for my “dream” bike purchase. I’m in my mid 50’s and ride about 4k miles/year in the rolling hills of Northern NJ, and participate in one or two half 70.3 tri’s per year. My current bike is a 2001 Cannondale R1000 with Mavic Ksyrium SL wheels, so I have had a steep learning curve to understand the best frame and component options available on the market now. I wish I had found your website sooner because it would of saved me many hours of research. The frame I have decided on is the Parlee Altum Disc with Shimano Ultegra Di2 shifters with hydraulic brakes. After completing my own research it was good to read that your recommendations aligned with my thoughts – Ultegra Di2 with hydraulic disc brakes is the way to go and is the most likely the future of tomorrows road bikes. I’m still undecided on the best fit wheelset for the type of riding I do, which is how I stumbled upon your site. Based on a recommendation from my bike fitter I was looking at the Industry Nine C41 Disc. From my research Industry Nine has built their reputation and design their products to meet the needs of the mountain bike and CX community, and to me this means a sturdy and reliable product that would work well in the pot holed and rough roads where I do most of my riding. Also, I love the look of their hubs! The C41 uses Reynolds Assault SLG rims laced to the Industry Nine hubs, which is one of the wheelsets (Reynolds Assault SLG) recommended by you in this article. Here are my questions for you: Do you have any experience or thoughts on the Industry Nine C41 wheels? What is your opinion on thru axle versus QR for disc wheels on road bikes? My research leads me to think that the thru axle is safer. Lastly, do you know if the Zipp 303 Firercrest wheels come with a thru axle option? Steve, thank you for sharing your opinion and I love your site…keep up the great work!
    Kind Regards,
    Joe

    • Joe,
      Glad you found the site and thanks for digging in and giving me your feedback and questions.. Sounds like you are doing some good research and making some good choices. I’m working on a review of disc wheels now and have been looking at many including the Industry Nine. Will be out in a couple weeks. I personally think QR is fine for road disc and as you’ll see in my road disc bike review next week; most bike companies are doing QRs now on their road disc, Trek being the most notable exception. Most road disc wheels are available with QR including Zipp (no TA option), perhaps no coincidence. More to come… Steve

  • Heya Steve,

    Awesome articles. Good read on all the in depth reviews.

    Makes me want to get my C35 for my Canyon bike :)

    Anyway, what is your opinion on those China wheels? They are selling it pretty cheap with really good tech.

    Examples like Yoeleo, Far Sports, Tokyowheels and etc.

    Appreciate your input on these! :)

    Cheers,
    Ken

    • Ken,
      Thanks for your feedback and question. Much appreciated. I haven’t looked into the wheels you mentioned but getting a few requests for that now so I’ll try to look into them and come up with something in the next few months.
      Best, Steve

  • What about zipp 202?

    • More of a hill (not mountain) climber or shallow all-around. If you are going to spend the money on carbon, my view is to get something that’s deeper and more aero than the 202.

      • thanx for the quick reply! would you still recommend something more deep if I live in an area that is rather rolling/hilly/smaller mountain area? and relatively to my height (1.90 M) i am pretty lightweight (72 Kg) and the majority of my rides involve a lot of climbing and descending?

        • Raz – If you haven’t already, take a look at my post on climbing and descending wheels here. Quantify what you mean by ‘majority’ and ‘a lot’ and compare against the pitch and duration numbers in that post. Your weight and height doesn’t really matter. Steve

      • Thanks for all the help! Both of the articles are really thourogh helpful and insightful. I think in the climber wheels article you were talking about what I like to call “real mountains” such as the ventoux, galibier, tourmalet etc. where I live is more rolling undulating hills that are pretty long and quite steep the type you see in tour of the basque country or tirenno adriatico or Paris nice, ruta del sol etc. therefore I think the all-rounders are more appropriate tool for the job. My only problem between the 202 or 303 is for lightweight guy such as myself is how will the deeper section affect me on the windier days?

        • Raz – You’re welcome. Sounds like you have some great hills to ride. The 303 will give you a little more aero/speed going down them and on flatter (<5%) grade but either will work well for what you are describing. The best price for the 202s I've found from a store with good service that has them currently in inventory can be found here.

          Note also that at 72 kg (160lbs) you are not light for a rider. I ride at 68 to 70kg myself and have no issues with cross winds on good wheels designed to minimize the effects of crosswinds like the Zipps, Reynolds, Enves, Bontragers, etc., don’t have cross wind problems for riders our weight. I’ve noted those that do have cross wind issues in the post. Women who are 58kg (130lbs) and under or guys who are ‘mountain goats’ at 64kg (140lbs) have more to be concerned about crosswinds but they fly up hills at that weight and are laughing at the rest of us…

  • Steve–thanks for your thorough and plain language explanations of the various factors to be considered in selecting new wheels. I fit your definition of cycling enthusiast. I ride several days of week in a flat road paceline (22mph) and also ride the hills with grades ranging from 5%-13%. I ride a 2013 Trek Madone 5.2. Do you think the SHIMANO WH-9000-C35-CL Dura Ace Wheelset would be a good fit for my bike.

    Again–much thanks for your column.

    • Hugh – Thanks for your positive comments and question. The C35-CL would be a good choice. If you don’t ride in the rain and your hills aren’t longer than a mile at 7-8% average downhill grade, the Reynolds Assault SLG would be even better. About the same price now, wider, deeper, a touch lighter, more aero. Equally good hub, handling, dry braking. Enjoy, Steve

  • Steve – Awesome job on your reviews. I’ve been overwhelmed by the plethora of information on the internet in search of my Holy Grail of wheel sets! I’ve short listed my selection to the Zipp 303’s, Enve SES 3.4 & Classic 45, Vision Metron 40 and finally the ROL C45R’s. I’m 56, weigh in at 175 lbs. and live in a valley with varying topography. Mostly a recreational rider who does Gran Fondo’s and lots of hills! Please help me so that I can finally put my mind at rest : )

    Your the best!

    • Robb, Thank you, you are very kind. Of those, I recommend the Zipp 303s for the reasons mentioned in this post. Enjoy, Steve

  • Steve–the specs on the SHIMANO WH-9000-C35-CL Dura Ace Wheelset refer to 11 speed; does it matter that my 2013 Madone 5.2 has only 10 speed? Thanks again.

  • Steve – Great write up! I’d like to suggest an alternative to your Best Alternative. The Dura Ace WH-9000-C35’s “little brother”: Shimano RS81-C35. Same rim, same spokes, same lacing pattern. But uses Ultegra-level hubs instead of Dura Ace. You gain about 200g in weight (all in the hub so not rotating weight), but save about $800USD. So a great choice if money is an object/constraint. I don’t race anymore and wanted an all-around set of wheels without having to spend a small fortune. The RS81-C35s fit the bill as my “one and only” set of wheels for my Felt FC and were sort of a “logical choice” since I built the bike with Ultegra. They don’t necessarily excel at anything in particular, but do everything really well. Love ’em! Cheers, Chuck

  • Steve,

    Amazing blog — thank you. I very much share your dislike for ‘amazing’ single-product reviews in magazines and websites. Your compares are incredibly helpful and I have learned a ton from the context.

    Unfortunately my bike shop confirmed that the Zipp 303’s don’t fit my fabulous ’14 Tarmac SL4 Ultegra, and I’d love your view on the ‘next best choice’. My bike shop (of course) recommends the 202’s, and I indeed value weight more than aero (so wouldn’t consider the 404’s). I typically go on 40-60 mile rides with 3-5,000 ft elevation on the San Francisco-Santa Cruz peninsula.

    I’m thinking between the 202’s, the Shimano C35’s and the Reynolds Assault SLG. What’s your view? Many thanks in advance.

    Cheers — Malte

    PS: Hope your monetization works well… eBay should have a good Affiliates program, too, to complement the Amazon links. PPS: You have a typo in the text on 303’s — Tarmac SL4 (not SLF).

    • Malte – Thanks for you kind feedback, suggestions and corrections. (I can’t afford an editor!). I like all the wheels you mentioned; just a matter of how much you are willing to spend and how you want to use them. If you put weight ahead of aero (and there’s quite a bit of debate on that), the 202 is going to be best of that group. See my response to Raz for the best current deal I’ve seen from a great shop on the 202. Re: eBay and Amazon. I like and shop at both but they don’t have as much to offer the enthusiast level cyclist as the other stores I recommend. Thanks, Steve

  • Hi Steve, excellent article for newbie like me. I ride about 35km each time and about 2 – 3 times a week. My avg speed is about 25 – 30kph. My bike is giant defy advance 1. Do you think its worth the money for me to change my stock wheels if i want to go longer and faster? I prefer a more leisurely, comfort and edurance ride.

    What wheels would you recommend for my riding style if you think changing wheels will still help?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Edmund, thanks for visiting and reading. For the amount of riding you are doing, improving your general fitness will provide the biggest benefit to going longer and faster. That’s a great bike and a perfectly adequate set of wheels to get you there. When you find yourself riding 4-6 times/week for 50K or so each time out, you may begin to want more from your wheels. Some of the wheels in this post or in another post on upgrades under $1000, £700, €900, A$1100 here may be worth considering at that time. Enjoy your riding, Steve

  • Hi Steve
    I recently received an email from a very notable online retailer advertising Fast Forward carbon wheels.
    Any experience or knowledge of these wheels and where they fit into your assessments?
    Regards

    • Limited knowledge of FFWD wheels. Their product line is a little this and that without a clear identity or differentiation. Not on my radar. Sorry

  • So I ordered my new Assault SLG wheels last Wed. from your recommended EBAY store. They shipped within 24 hours and arrived in Houston by Friday, I would have had them on Friday however I missed the delivery. If you order from the store you should probably request Fed-Ex or UPS NOT DHL!! Not the EBAY merchants fault but the delivery process turned out to be pretty painful via DHL. finally got them on monday.

    Anyway the wheels arrived in great condition, with all required paperwork, pads, skewers etc. They look great on my bike! I hope the perform as well as they look.

    Thank you for your hard-work and input, I would not have considered this wheel nor found this merchant without your help, so i would have probably spent twice as much or more for ZIPPS which is honestly way more wheel than I need.

    Thanks again!

    -Josh

  • I damaged a wheel on my 09 supersix and need to find a good all around replacement. I ride several times a week training for a tri, weigh about 80kg and have about $600usd to spend. Suggestions and will they be able to tune these at a local shop?

    • Ceile, Suggest you read my review of upgrade wheels under $1000 (most well under that amount) here. Hard to find a very deep wheel for triathlon in that price range but suggest you consider the DA C24 and FLO 30 as best suited for your purpose, weight and riding. Most good wheels including those can be easily tuned (trued, hub lubed) at any good shop. Steve

  • Thanks for this page Steve, it’s really, I mean really helpful !!! Have you had a chance to test the new Powertap G3 AMP 35 or 50 wheelsets ? Apparently they’re made by Reynolds but I couldn’t find any review/feedback about them…

    • Brian, Thanks for your kind feedback and your question. I’m testing a G3 (on a HED Belgium) now for a sub $1000 powermeter post due out later this spring but have not tested either of the G3 AMP wheelsets. Reynolds makes great wheels but they make a wide variety of them so hard to know how the AMP ones would suit you. I’d expect you know that you can get a G3 built into one of several rims of your choice. What you might not realize is that the net additional cost to add a G3 into an all carbon rear wheel built for you with the rim you want versus buying a pre-built wheel is remarkably inexpensive (I calculated it at about $260) because you aren’t paying for the hub in the pre-built one. You can read more about this in the price section of my THE BEST POWER METER FOR ROAD CYCLING – PART 2 post here. Cheers, Steve

  • Hi Steve
    Do you know are the Vision Metron wheels tubeless compatible (with a rim kit & sealant to modify)?
    I can’t seem to find any reference on the web and have contacted Vision Tech USA but no reply.
    regards
    JAMES

  • James, No, they aren’t. While tubless tires have come a long way (for example the latest Schwable One), they won’t give you the handling performance or low rolling resistance levels of some of the best clinchers (tire and tube). For that reason, most all carbon wheels are best suited for the best tires to maximize the wheelset’s performance. Steve

  • For those of you who have been waiting, the Zipp 303 are back in stock at Merlin for $1966, £1600, €2247, A$2574

  • Great article!
    May I ask for an advice? I’m basically a beginner – I only hit the road last summer and rode about 5500km. I plan to ride more this year though.
    I usually ride rather slow (slightly over 20km/h) – just building my fitness so I don’t need any aero wheels.
    Still I’m thinking about upgrading my wheels. I guess I just like to buy new gear.
    Currently I have Fulcrum S4, which are Specialized OEM wheels.
    What do you think?

    • Hi Jiri. Thanks for reading and sending your question. You rode a lot of distance for your first year. Congrats. You might consider a first upgrade which will give you better wheels and a better riding experience without breaking the bank! I wrote another post on wheels in that category that you can read here. Best, Steve

  • Hi Steve,

    Your articles have been very helpful – thank you. I’m trying to decide between Bora One 35s or 50s (carbon clincher). I live in Brooklyn and have about 15 miles of flats before I can get to the hills of northern NJ and Rockland County, NY. Once there, the teraine offers some decent climbs in the range of 5-10% grade. None are much longer than a mile. I’m 49 years old at about 160lbs. I ride a Time Ulteam RXRS which is currently fitted with a set of 2011 404 alloy clinchers. Any thoughts? Thanks so much, bud

    • Bud,
      Thanks for writing. Funny you should ask about those two wheelsets. I’m currently updating this review to include the new Bora 35 clincher and working on a 50mm aero review which will likely include the 50s. So I can’t comment on these yet. Generally though the kind of terrain you describe would be fine for a set of 50s or a 35/50 mixed set.
      Steve

      • Thanks very much, Steve – I appreciate the ultra fast feedback. Any idea of the timing on when your write up of these two wheelsets will be published? Cheers, bud

      • Hi Steve,

        Wondering if you might be able to help with advice (or point me in the right direction). I’ve been suffering a serious bout of chain suck which happens intermittently when shifting down from the big ring to the small. My bike shop has been pretty useless in identifying the root-cause. They tend to take things apart, clean it up and tell me it’s fixed. It will work fine for a month or so and then will start all over. When it occurs, the cranks completely lock up so naturally I’ve really lost confidence in the entire rig as well as the mechanics.

        My set up is as follows: Time Ulteam RXRS, Campy mechanical Super Record, Zipp 404 clinchers. The frame and group set are two years old and this problem has occurred from my second ride when it was brand new, up until now. The bike is back in the shop yet again. The 404s are four years old – I used to have the fitted on my Cervelo R3 and I never had a single issue on that rig so I don’t think it’s anything to do with the free hub.

        I’m at my whit’s end – after so much money and time, I don’t feel that I have a reliable bike. As mentioned, my shop has disappointed me and hasn’t offered any real solitons. I’m not sure where to turn – any advice would be greatly appreciated.

        Many thanks,

        Bud

        Sent from my iPad

        >

        • Bud,
          Sorry to hear about your issue. I’m afraid I’m not going to help you much as I’m not much of a wrench. Like most other enthusiasts, I go to the web forums or shop when I’m stumped. Wouldn’t think it’s got anything to do with the frame or wheels so I’d check to make sure you’re front derailleur, chain and chainrings are in good shape. Sounds like something is going out of tune after a short while so it may be that something is worn. As a minimum, I wouldn’t keep taking it to the same shop. Ask your cycling buddies for one they like and call in asking if they’ve heard of this before. You might also check out the BikeRadar forum and see if anyone has seen this kind of thing before. Let me and everyone else who reads these comments know how what you find out. Steve

  • Hi. Excellent review. I am in process of upgrading wheels and torn between zipp 303 which get great reviews and xentis squad 4.2. Have you experienced the latter? I always like great products which aren’t always the obvious brand …
    Many thanks

    • Hi Chris, I don’t know the Xentis Squad 4.2 wheels personally but I’m a little put off by their 21m width. Can’t see how they would be as aero or handle as well as the wider, toroid shaped Zipps. The edge swirl on the Xentis is distinctive but I’d like to see a wind tunnel tests to know how it affects drag at various yaw postions. Would also like to ride it or read a couple reviews from those who have to hear about its crosswind performance. Doesn’t seem to be much of a price difference either. The Zipps are a proven performer. Don’t think you can go wrong with those. Steve

      • Thanks. Think you are right and zipps make sense. I am going to ride Geneva to nice in June so want to get a new pair. I think the xentis are good wheels though just can’t get enough info.

        Really appreciate your help.

  • I am looking at Dura-ace c35s to replace or as a 2nd set, a stock set of Roval Fusee SLX 23 on my 2013 Tarmac. I ride a mix of rolling hills to mountain climbs and decents (decents for me rule out all carbon). I have no problem with my current wheelset and just wondering if you or anyone else reading this could clarify for me if the switch will be worth the cost. Or should I wait until next season to see if the c35s are updated with a wider width etc. Ideally I test them but I have not been able to find a way to do that, so I have to rely on others opinions and specs. Thanks for you input.

    • Tony, The DA c35 would be a good replacement for what you have and what you are riding. Better hub, deeper rim would help in the accelerations, over the road and descents. Wider generally makes for better handling and more comfort but unless you are doing a lot of crits and riding a lot of rough roads, you’ll find the DA c35s handle extremely well and are plenty comfortable. I think its just the best all-around today that doesn’t have a carbon braking track. Steve

  • Excellent review–didn’t know you were around. Now, here’s your next adventure: finding open tubulars that will not blow off wide rims. Dan

  • I fail the weight test (195) for the DA c24s and currently have a set of Mavic Equipe. I want to add 1mph+ to my pace line speed of 18 avg, does the Campy Zonda fill the bill or am I looking at the Assault SLG? Large price spread. Flo’s are not available till June and them it’s first come first served. Thanks.

    • John, I wish it were as easy as pick this or that wheel to add x or y mph. Unfortunately it’s not. Training and technique is the best and cheapest way to add speed and is really a prerequisite to getting more speed out of higher performance gear. If you haven’t already, I’d suggest you read through the posts on how to ride faster, part 1 and part 2. You can ride get to 18 (mph I assume) in a paceline or on your own with your Mavic Equipes. Those are the same stock wheels I have and have gone faster than that in both situations once I got my training and technique in order (part 1). If your Equipes need to be replaced, I’d suggest you get the Zondas for your weight and spend the season working on some training goals which could certainly inclulde reaching your 18 mph average and some others around fitness and technique improvements. Best, Steve

  • Great review Steve, wish I had read this a few months ago! Do you have any experience with the BH EVO C55 wheels? After less than 600kms and just 8 rides they have warped!

    • Sorry to hear about your wheels. Never heard of them. Carbon wheels will overheat and warp if you drag the brakes for long periods of time. If you don’t think this is what caused yours to warp, you should definitely take them back to the dealer and get them replace or buy something else. Steve

  • hi steve

    I am currently in the market for a set of wheel. I do mainly triathlons and looking to replace the stock (alu) wheels on my giant bike. i ride a mix of flats and rolling hills. nothing too flat or very hilly (odd tough hill). I am doing three half ironmans this summer with the view to progressing to the full ironman in maybe a year or two. I also do a few sprint, olympic etc triathlons through out the year and will use the new wheelset mainly for these events. I am open to alloy carbon or full carbon preferable clincher. have a budget of approx €1500. could push it a bit more for right set of wheelset.what would you recommend? great article above.

    • Stephen, Funny you should ask. I’m evaluating about a dozen carbon wheelsets in the 50mm to 60mm depth range now for an upcoming review that would serve you well for the kind of terrain and price range you are asking about. You can see this link for a preview I posted just last week. It doesn’t say much other than that I hope to post the review by late May or early June. Check back then for your answer. Thanks, Steve

      • ok thnaks for your reply but hoping to purchase in next few weeks.

        • Understand. At this point amongst the all carbon wheels, I can tell you that I am very impressed with the Zipp 404 Fieldcrest (best price for front click here, rear here, about €2100 for the pair), and the ENVE SES 4.5 and Roval Rapide CLX 60 both well above your target budget. Don’t think you can go wrong with any of these. The only all carbon wheelset within your budget is the Vision Metron 55 whose build quality and aero performance leave me enough doubts that I wouldn’t recommend it. Otherwise you’d need to go with a carbon-alloy wheelset which won’t give you the same performance of the all carbon ones.

          • and the best carbon alloy wheelset in your opinion would be?

          • Again, haven’t completed the review but a good one in your price range is the Shimano DA 9000 C50 available here

          • Hi Steve
            Your comments regarding the Vision Metron 55 wheelset are interesting considering you highly recommend the Metron 40s in the Best All Around Wheelset article above.
            Surely the difference is not considerable enough to recommend one but not the other?
            Regards
            JAMES

          • James, I don’t recommend the Metron 40s in my review. Also, two different wheelsets from the same company, in this case the 40mm and 55mm Metrons are designed to and will perform differently and may be built differently. While they will have some things in common, you can’t assume that because they come from the same company they will perform the same or to the same level. For example, Zipp 404, 303 and 202, while designed with similar aerodynamic characteristics (e.g. toroid shaped rim profile), are very different wheels when considered for their purpose (aero, all-around, and climbing respectively) and against other wheelsets also intended for those purposes. I will say more about the Metron 55s in my upcoming review. Best, Steve

          • Thanks Steve
            I’ll concede your second point regarding x2 wheelsets from the same company not necessarily exhibiting the same characteristics and benefits, however, your positive appraisal of the Metron 40s is, in my opinion, suggestive of a recommendation although not explicitly noted as with the Zipps or Reynolds.
            Your comments and website are greatly appreciated and I look forward to your upcoming review. Keep up the good work.
            Regards
            JAMES

  • also can the carbon wheels you recommended above run with11 speed shimano ultegra?

    • Yes, 10 or 11 speed.

      • thanks steve. your advice of great help. think if i can stretch the budget ill try and buy the zipps you recommended. Have had my eye on them for a while. just one last question. any opinion on what tyres to put on them?

        kind regards
        stephen

        • Stephen, Continental Grand Prix 4000 S II tires (at ProBikeKit, Merlin, Wiggle) in the 23C/23mm size with a Conti Race 28 80mm length Presta valve tube is about the best combination of low rolling resistance and aerodynamics out there and the best size for the Zipp 404 rim width. Steve

  • You are a bit out of touch if you think that MOST cyclists..even ones that do 2000-500 miles a year have $5000 bikes or anywhere near that.

    • My statement was that most cyling enthusiasts ride bikes that cost between $2500 and $5000 or up to $5000. Industry data shows this to be the case.

  • Wanted to make sure you all check out the 2015 update of this all-around wheelset post.

    It’s here http://intheknowcycling.com/2015/04/28/best-all-around-road-bike-wheels-2015/

    I’ve updated my commentary and added (and dropped) some wheelsets for review from last years review.

    All price and store updates can be found in this new post. I won’t be updating them here anymore.

    If you haven’t already, take a look and let me know what you think in the comments at the end of that post.

    Thanks, Steve