THE BEST ALLOY WHEELS FOR CLIMBING AND DESCENDING

Solo Rider - thefootdown.com blog

I’ve posted a more recent review on climbing wheels (click here).

It focuses on carbon clinchers.  The one below focuses on alloy wheels.

You may want to read the newer review along with the one below.

For long, steep climbs in the mountains and the long descents that follow them and need a lot of braking, I recommend the Dura-Ace WH-9000 C35 CL as the Best Performer of alloy road wheels for climbing and descending for its combination of superb stiffness, comfort, handling, braking and downhill speed.  Its best market prices as of February 23. 2017 at Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle front, Evans Cycles rear are well under its MSRP/RRP and in the range of all the brand name wheels reviewed while its performance is clearly superior.

The C35 CL is also one of the best all-round wheels available so you only need spend money on this one wheelset upgrade for many of the things a road cycling enthusiast might want to do on a bike.  For this review, I evaluated 10 alloy or carbon-alloy clincher wheelsets that would be suitable for climbing and descending mountain sections that go on for many miles and average 7% and higher grades.

For riding that includes shorter and less steep climbs and descents where you don’t need to use the brakes much if at all to slow yourself for switchbacks or intersections, a good all-round wheelset (reviewed here) like the recommended Best Performer Zipp 303 Firecrest (Competitive Cyclist, ebay, UK/EU ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles,Westbrook Cycles) or the Best Value Reynolds Assault SLG (ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, ebayWestbrook Cycles) will be fine and provide versatility for your everyday riding.

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Photo: skedaddle.co.uk

Photo: skedaddle.co.uk

I love to climb.  A lot of road cyclists do.  Climbing tests your strength, your fitness, and your will.  Climbing can bring you to places less traveled, cool mountain air and away from the traffic of life.  The views along the way can refresh or even change your perspective on a lot of things, and the feeling at the top is often one of accomplishment that makes up for the fatigue.

I love descending nearly as much.  The speed and cornering is exhilarating and makes the climb all the more satisfying. If you are serious about riding, climbing is often a race within a race.  Who gets to the base of the climb first, who gets to the top first, and who gets to the bottom first can be the measures of the success of your ride regardless of whether you are in an organized race, competing against some unknown KOM champ or riding with a group of friends.

Nothing ruins a great climb or descent more than a lack of belief in your wheels.  Thinking that your wheels are making you work harder than you need to going up or are holding you back from confidently speeding down cause some cyclists to want dedicated climbing wheels.  That’s where my head was at after doing a lot of riding in the mountains.  This review describes what I found: the best alloy wheels for climbing and descending.

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For this review, I evaluated 11 alloy or carbon-alloy wheelsets against a unique combination of criteria.  Below, I first cover some of the key topics that come up when riders talk about climbing.  I then lay out the key criteria you should consider when evaluating wheels for climbing and descending more so than for other wheels and recommend the wheelsets I think would serve the road cycling enthusiast best.  Finally, I provide you summaries of the other wheelsets evaluated and what developments may change the picture in the next couple of years.  You can also find updated best prices for all the wheels I’ve reviewed by clicking on the red links to online stores.

Table of Contents (click on any section to go directly to it)

When to buy wheels for climbing and descending

Which weight savings matter most for climbing

The evaluation criteria

Recommendations

Wheelset evaluation summaries

What are the key developments

Where to save money on wheels and other cycling gear

Comments

WHEN TO BUY WHEELS FOR CLIMBING AND DESCENDING

While you hear the term often, there really isn’t a category of wheels called “climbing wheels.”  Most companies don’t promote or organize their wheels to include a climbing category the way they do wheel material (carbon or alloy), tire type (tubular or clincher), purpose (racing or training) or event (road, triathlon, cyclocross, etc).

The market for a pure climbing wheel is really limited to pro and top amateur racers who use extremely light, all-carbon, low profile, tubular wheelsets.  Most regular riders – what I call road cycling enthusiasts (see here for my definition) – would find the kind of wheels top racers use impractical (meaning expensive and infrequently used).  But, depending on what you consider ‘climbing,’ I believe there are some wheels that are better suited for this purpose than others and that you should consider adding to your wheelset ‘quiver’.

climbing - small climb - atlasandsaharatours

Pretty mountain range but not a steep climb. Photo: atlasandsaharatours.com

Because most cyclists don’t live in the mountains, we usually ride on relatively flat or rolling terrain and occasionally up some short, moderate grade hills.  It’s often hard to find a section of road with a 5% or greater pitch for more than a mile.

That steady incline and distance would take most fit road cycling enthusiasts about 5 minutes to climb and would be a great workout if you did it 5 to 10 times as hill repeats every couple of weeks.

But even if you were to find three or four sections of road like that over the course of a typical 25-40 mile ride, your total climbing would only make up 10-15% of your overall ride distance.  For this kind of climbing, mid-depth (35-50mm) all around wheels will do just fine, better even than a so-called climbing wheel because you won’t be sacrificing the aero benefits during the flatter, hilly and descending portions that make up 85-90% of your ride.  I reviewed this category of wheels earlier in the season (here).

Climbing -1- Huff Post

Now here’s some serious climbing. Photo: Huffington Post

A wheelset for climbing and descending does make sense if you live and ride up from the foothills of mountainous regions, travel to do rides or events on mountain roads, or plan cycling vacations in the mountains. Riders who live near or go for rides or vacation in the Rockies, Sierra Nevadas, Cascades, Appalachians and White and Green Mountains in the US, the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites in Europe, and in mountains in other regions throughout the world will seek out and find many climbs that go on for 10-15 kilometers or 5-10 miles, regularly average 7% to 10% grades, and hit sections that reach the low to mid teens in pitch.

That’s some serious climbing and you really will benefit from wheels (and drive trains) selected with that kind of climbing and descending in mind.  I’ll detail why through the remainder of this review. ————————————————————————————————————————————————————- Sorry to break your concentration while you are reading uphill, but would you be good enough to answer the question below so I can better tailor these reviews to your needs? 

Thank you! ————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

WHICH WEIGHT SAVINGS MATTER MOST FOR CLIMBING?

Common sense (and basic physics) says you’ll get up a climb more easily if you are carrying a lighter load.  An ongoing question, and one well worth visiting here, is whether having a lighter wheelset will provide you a real benefit or whether saving weight elsewhere will provide bigger benefits.

Let me try to make this simple.  Shedding body weight will bring the greatest benefit to your climbing and will be the least expensive route.  Buying lighter wheels will bring relatively little benefit and will be one of the most expensive ways to go on a $, £, or € spent per gram and time saved basis.

In between these two options you could get a lighter bike but that will be an even bigger cash outlay than lighter wheels.  And, upgrading to carbon components from stem to stern (most notably cranks, handlebars, spokes, derailleurs and brakes) won’t do much for you either, other than lighten your wallet.

While dropping several hundred $, £, € or (choose your currency) on lighter wheels or a lighter bike may be easier for some than dropping a 5 pounds or 2.3 kilos off your midsection, you’ll be hard pressed to notice a significant power, speed or time improvement climbing with a 200g lighter wheel no matter what it cost you, unless you are already an incredibly lean, hot shot racer.

Quantifying this will hopefully bring the point home.  Take a look at the infographic below and then read the rest of the section below to follow the details behind it.

Where does it pay off to drop the weight

Lets start with the bike.  The $15,700, top-of-the-line, new Trek Emonda SLR10, touted as “the lightest production bike ever” weighs 10.25 lbs (4.65kg) including everything but the pedals.  The $5,200 SLR6 version weighs in at 14.50 lbs (6.58kg) or about 4.25lbs/1.93kg more than the SLR10.

The $5,200 SLR6 is about a pound or so under the weight of similarly priced bikes from other major manufacturers and close to the 15lb (6.8kg) minimum weight for all pro race bikes.  So, for bikes in this range, you spend about $2,500 per pound saved (or £3,250 per kilo saved).

An entry level, $1500 road bike will be another 3 or 4 pounds heavier than the $5K bike yielding a slightly lower $ per pound saved figure.  Weight saving going from the entry level bike to something in the $2.5K to $5K level bike is just one of many benefits and, frankly, not typically one of the major ones.

A 150 to 160 pound rider putting out 200 to 250 watts on a climb with a 7% grade will save … wait for it … 2 to 3 seconds per mile per pound saved (or 2.75 to 3.5 seconds per kilometer per kilogram saved) according two independent studies (here and here).

A real world, though unscientific test (here) essentially corroborated these analyses, showing that a U23 rider training for the Tour de l’Avenir (the junior version of the Tour de France) saved just over 3 seconds per mile per pound with 4 lbs of less weight on his bike while putting out 275 watts going up the famed Alpe d’Huez, a 8.6 mile climb with an average grade of 8.1%.

As the advertising campaign goes, “there’s an app for that.” The Bike Calculator iPhone app and website will tell you how long it will take you to get from point A to B after adding in a number of variables including body and bike weight, road grade, watts, distance, wind, tires, etc.

All else being equal, 2 to 3 seconds per mile per pound saved can add up to a minute and a half difference on a ride the length and pitch of Alpe d’Huez using the $1,500 bike versus a $5,000 one or the $5,200 SLR6 Emonda versus the $15,700 SLR10 version.

That’s a hefty price to pay especially when compared to dropping that weight from your midsection, even if you add the fees for a personal trainer or dietician to coach you.  (I’ll give you the advice for free: Eat less, exercise more.)

It’s always a good choice to ride a lighter wheel, all other things (e.g., stiffness, handling, braking, cost) being nearly equal.  A lighter wheel will accelerate faster due to having less rotational inertia.  It will also feel less sluggish in handling through turns.  But, I’m convinced most road cycling enthusiasts won’t notice any difference in acceleration or handling until the wheel weight delta reaches about 150 to 200 grams.

You’ll want to do long climbs at a steady cadence and only infrequently accelerate to a higher cadence, perhaps to overtake someone.  You’ll almost never want to brake.  So the primary benefit you’ll get from a lighter wheel on a climb will be that you are carrying less weight, not any improvement in acceleration.

Dropping 300 grams is the about the most you might save going from the stock wheels that came with your bike to one of the 1500 gram, low profile ones I’ve evaluated for this review or by going from one of those to one of the lightest, stiffest, tubular wheelsets you could find on a pro racing bike.  But saving 300 grams, the equivalent of 2/3rds of a pound, would only save you 1.5 to 2 seconds per mile or 10 to 15 seconds overall riding up the Alpe d’Huez.

Buying a new set of extra light wheels for $2,000 would essentially cost you about $3,000 per pound saved or about £3,900 per kilo saved.  You’d spend about half that if you are moving up from your stock wheels to the rough average $1000 price of the wheels I’ve evaluated for this review.

As you can see from the chart above, you have to spend about 5x more to save a second taking the weight out of your wheels than would taking it out of your bike.  Of course, you pay next to nothing to take it off your body.

Shedding body weight also provides another benefit that should make you faster on the climbs.  When you reduce your body mass it typically comes from cutting fat, and with less fat, you improve your ability to take on more oxygen.  This added oxygen capacity allows you to generate more power than you would if you were to reduce the weight merely in the bike or wheels.  More power to the pedals means you’ll go faster.  If you put the same power out, because you can process more oxygen, you’ll feel less fatigue.

THE EVALUATION CRITERIA

So if a lighter wheel has only a limited benefit in climbing, is there any reason to use different wheels when riding in the mountains than on your other rides?

Most definitely. In my review of all-around wheels, I outlined four groups of selection criteria and detail 20 specific ones within those groups.  You can read those here.

Immediately below, I’ve highlighted which of those criteria are relatively more important for wheels you’ll want on long, steep climbs and descents.

What matters - Selection Criteria

As you can see from the criteria I’ve emphasized for picking wheels for the mountains, half of them – aerodynamics, compliance, braking, and rim profile – are not criteria you would consider in choosing what has been traditionally thought of as a ‘climbing wheel’.  These are important characteristics to ride fast and confidently on the high speed, steep descents you’ll experience going down a long mountain pass.  In these situations, you’ll want aerodynamic wheels for max speed with rim profiles that keep the bike stable in cross winds.

You’ll also want wheels that are compliant going down often rough alpine roads and handle well as you are whipping through the switchbacks.  You’ll want to be able to brake reliably at high downhill speeds and in all weather conditions and you don’t want any  fading or degradation in barking on long descents.

For climbing you might as well take advantage of light weight wheels but also ones that transfer your energy into power as effectively as possible.  That’s why stiffness is emphasized.  When you are cranking out 250 watts and more trying to keep upright going up grades ranging from 7% to 15% for long periods of time, you want stiff wheels and the right spoke count for your weight to convert as much of your effort as possible to the road.

As I hope you see, you have different and equally important needs going up and going down a long, steep mountain.  That’s why I think climbing wheels is a misnomer and you should really think about these as both climbing and descending wheels.

Handling in corners - Trek

Riding in the mountains requires wheels that can handle well in the corners at speed. Photo: Trek

Finding wheels that accomplish all of this requires some trade-offs.  Very light wheels aren’t usually the stiffest, for example.  And, aerodynamic wheels usually mean deep dish rims which aren’t usually the best at handling.

There are also some things that you really don’t want to compromise on.  Older carbon clinchers have no place on long descents where you need to do a lot of braking as they can overheat, warp, ruin the wheels and result in a blowout at speed.  Many of those introduced since 2015 have overcome this problem (read a review of them here) but you need to be sure you are on carbon clinchers that can handle extended braking conditions.

As I believe 90% or more of road cycling enthusiasts aren’t going to mess with tubular tires, you only want to be riding clinchers with either alloy brake tracks or the latest generation of carbon ones.  This is where the material choice criterion comes into play.

The heavier you are, the more these criteria matter because you’ll be putting more energy into the bike going up and will be able to travel at higher speeds going down.  A rider weighing 190lbs or 200lbs or more might want a stiffer wheel than a 150lb rider (or the same wheel with more spokes to further stiffen it) and may need more room to brake.

On the other hand, the lighter rider will be more prone to get pushed around on a windy descent if the wheel’s profile doesn’t handle cross winds well and will benefit more from an aerodynamic profile that cuts through both cross winds and the apparent wind created going down a mountain.

Looking to the pro racing circuit for guidance on climbing and descending wheels is a mistake.  The best climbers typically weigh 135lbs to 145 lbs, have 6% or less body fat, and are riding tubular rims on super-light, super-stiff bikes.

I’d guess most road cycling enthusiasts are 160lbs to 190lbs, have 15-20% body fat (the amount for a “fit body type”), are on clinchers, and more often are riding comfortable endurance bikes than stiffer race bikes.  Sorry to say, the pros and we amateurs live in two different worlds.  

RECOMMENDATIONS

For this review, I considered many different wheels that do well along some combination of the criteria I  emphasized.  At the end of the day however, I selected and then evaluated 11 clincher wheelsets I thought would do well enough on most of them to be great in the mountains.  I loosely grouped these candidates into three categories based on their design characteristics.

  • Traditional design alloy wheels – light, low profile, narrow width, box section rimmed wheels from the biggest brands. I put the Campagnolo Shamal Ultra, Fulcrum Racing Zero, and Shimano Dura-Ace WH-9000 C24 in this group.
  • Modern design alloy wheels – somewhat heavier and taller, wider rimmed wheels, some either ready or designed for tubeless tires from smaller wheel makers that have taken different design paths than the traditionalist group above. The American Classic Argent Tubeless, Bontrager Race X Lite TLR, Easton EA90 SLX, and HED Ardennes+ SL have many of these characteristics so went in this group.
  • Carbon-alloy wheels – mid depth, all-around wheels either wrapped with carbon or with a carbon fairing over a structural alloy rim and brake track that are more aerodynamic and nearly as light as a lower profile pure alloy wheel. The 3T Accelero 40 Team, Mavic Cosmic Carbone 40C, and Shimano Dura-Ace WH-9000 C35 fall in this group.

There are other wheels you might think I should include in the list above.  The Zipp 101 has always been considered a good wheel for climbing and all-around use.  It was discontinued at the end of 2013.  While I never had a chance to evaluate it, I have taken the input of others who did into account and believe the wheels I’ve recommended are superior.

The Zipp 202, Reynolds Attack and other well known all carbon wheels are considered in my review of carbon climbing clinchers, a link to which I’ve provided at the top of his post.

The FLO 30 is a wheel I evaluated and initially recommended as a great value but it is so difficult to buy that I can no longer recommend it.

climbing - Down 3 - roadcycling

Photo: roadcycling.com

As with all of my reviews, I update this one regularly so feel free to suggest any other wheels you think I should consider in the comments section at the end.  While being open to any suggestions, I’m quite confident that all wheels considered in this review are suitable for climbing and descending and the one I’ve recommended would be the best choice for your riding in the mountains.

The Best Performer is selected independent of its cost and based on the performance group 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 design is a means to an end but not an indicator of performance in its own right.  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.

Best Performer

The Shimano Dura-Ace WH-9000-C35-CL is the Best Performer wheelset for long and steep mountain road climbing and descending.  It brings the rare combination of excellent stiffness, great comfort, superb handling, outstanding braking and superior downhill speed.

Its stiffness is one of the keys to its uphill performance, translating the energy you put into the pedals to the output you see going up the road without wheel deflection.  Carbon fiber wraps the full depth of the alloy rim, rather than extending out from an alloy brake track alone, adding to the alloy’s stiffness.

photo: Wade Wallace

photo: Wade Wallace

The C35’s relative comfort is somewhat surprising based on a look at some of the design specs – as narrow as traditional alloy wheels and with a standard tube and tire set up.  That’s why I try to focus more on the actual performance and not on the design details.

Perhaps the Dura-Ace hubs, always considered a cut above and rolling so seemingly effortlessly, contribute to the comfort you feel on the road.  Regardless of the way they accomplished it, the combination of lateral stiffness and vertical compliance (or ‘comfort’) contributes to a great handling.

The braking is also confident, even and does not fade or require you to squeeze harder or deeper into your brake levers as you hold them for long distances.

At 35mm in rim depth, it feels more aerodynamic going downhill than the pure alloy wheels evaluated in this review but is within an unnoticeable 50 to 100g of the lightest low profile ones.

The C35s are built well and are durable. I also picked this wheel as the Best Alternative to the all-carbon, all-round wheels reviewed earlier this season (here).  The Best Performer and Best Value wheels in that review are both all-carbon ones.  It’s interesting to see one wheel, the C35, that bridges two different purposes so well.

While I don’t race, many of those who do are also comfortable both training and racing on these wheels for amateur road racing.  So, the C35s have a good deal of range and if you only can to buy one set of wheels, this one will suit a lot of purposes.

To top it off, while the MSRP or RRP of this wheel is as eye popping as most all-carbon clinchers, the best price this wheelset sells for from the leading online stores with the wheelset in stock (shown below) is more in line with those of the alloy clinchers evaluated in this review.

Here are the page links for this wheelset at the stores I’ve found have them at the best prices, have them in stock and have top shelf customer satisfaction records as of February 23, 2017: Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle front, Evans Cycles rear.

Shimano also announced the C40 will be much wider (28mm external rim width vs. 21mm for the C35), more rounded and about 150 grams heavier wheelset than the C35.  Nestor, one of your fellow readers, uncovered the Shimano line-up specs for the new wheelsets which told a different and more Shimano-like story.

The specs state that the new C40s clinchers will actually be a 17C wheelset (17mm internal, 24mm external), 37mm deep with a claimed weight of 1485 grams excluding rim tape.  (The 1488 gram claimed weight of the C35 also excluded tape).  It also looks like they will be selling these wheels in separate clincher, tubeless and tubular versions as they are doing now. So only an incremental change for the better in the rims.

The bigger change according to techs I’ve talked to who have seen them is that Shimano has designed their new Dura Ace wheels to be stiffer and free-wheel with less friction or mechanical resistance through the introduction of new hubs.  The wheels won’t likely be available until 2017 and no price info is yet available. I’ll review the new C40 when it comes out and say more then.

WHEELSET EVALUATION SUMMARIES

Just below is a chart with the specs and my comparative performance rankings for all the wheels evaluated as part of this review and my key take-aways for the wheelsets I did not describe above.

Wheels Evaluated for Climbing and Descending

TRADITIONAL DESIGN ALLOY WHEELS

Campagnolo Shamal Ultra C17

Originally introduced a couple decades ago, this wheelset continues to flourish as one of Campy’s top alloy wheels. The newest model Shamal Ultra C17 widens to a 17mm inside width has very recently been introduced and has just become available (Note: 15mm wide Shamal Ultras are still being actively sold and some are billed as Shamal Ultra 2016.  The C17s are different, newer, wider 2017 models.)  The Shamals are a notably stiff and responsive set of wheels, important in climbing and its solid braking should provide every confidence on the descents.  Handling and aerodynamic performance are average at best – some might find the ride harsh.  Drop the air pressure down 5-10 psi or put on a set of tubeless tires for a more comfortable ride.  Best prices and inventory with good service from WiggleProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles.

Fulcrum Racing Zero C17 (aka LG)

These are rebadged versions of the Shamal Ultras C17s, the same wheels with a slightly different rear spoke pattern. They were originally made for Shimano and SRAM drivetrains, a difference that no longer matters with the common 11 speed freehub design both Shimano and Campagnolo use.  They will ride the similarly to the Shamals. Best prices and inventory with good service from Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10.

Shimano Dura-Ace WH-9000 C24

This wheelset combines comfort, handling, the best-in-class Dura-Ace hubs and is the lightest and least expensive of the wheels in this category.  It has a carbon wrap around its aluminum rim profile which stiffens the wheel but likely not stiff enough for riders weighing over 180 pounds (82 kilograms).  The wheel accelerates very quickly and the ride is quite comfortable.  For a rim of this size, it really has it all.  But, as with the others in the group, its low profile, narrow rim makes it less aerodynamic and leaves you wondering when Shimano will start delivering its next Dura-Ace line, hopefully with a wider opening where the rim meets the tire (likely 2016).  The current C24 comes in standard clincher (tube and tire) and slightly heavier tubeless versions rather than most other wheelsets that come ‘tubeless ready’ in one rim version. Best prices and inventory with good service from Competitive Cyclist, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles.

MODERN DESIGN ALLOY WHEELS

American Classic Argent Tubeless

These wheels, optimized for tubeless but also accepting a standard tube and tire set up, do everything well but nothing comparatively better.  Some of the unique aspects (e.g. thin bead hooks, hub design, quick release skewers) of these wheels may put people off, for example limiting the choice of tires or learning how to maintain the unique rear hub and skewers. To keep its weight down, these wheels use thinner than common aluminum rims and pinned rim joints rather than welded ones. Several people reported front brake pulsing, likely as a result of this design that eased for some over time.  American Classic provides a 1 year warranty (2 years is standard), the price is comparatively high, and much of the company seems to be marketed around founder and chief designer Bill Shook.  All of this makes me want to find other alternatives.  Best prices and inventory with good service from American Classic.

Bontrager Race X Lite TLR

The best characteristics of these wheels are their great handling, comfortable ride, and tubeless tire design that are easier than others to install. Easily the lowest profile of all the wheels in this comparative review, they don’t provide any aero benefit but are one of the least expensive options.  Like Mavic, Bontrager is promoting a wheel, tire and sealant combination in an attempt to accelerate the adoption of road tubeless wheels.  In addition to eliminating the weight of each tube, tubeless tires don’t experience occasional pinch-flats caused by the pressure between the traditional tube and tire and use the injected sealant to instantly close cuts that would flat a tube.  This is especially useful when running over the kind of rough pavement often found on mountain roads.  Many users reported tire blistering issues with the Bontrager tires used in this system and reverted back to their own tube and tire combination after repeated problems.  Bontrager told me they had issues with some R2 and R3 TLR tires in 2003 due to a manufacturing process which they have now corrected and they have replaced affected tires.  Best prices and inventory with good service from the Trek store, Bike24.

Easton EA90 SLX

A strong, durable wheel well suited to riders in the 180 to 200lb range.  Nice and stiff when climbing and cornering and very responsive when you first spin them up.  As this rim is designed for dedicated tubeless use there are no strips to add and the tires install relatively easily and seal well.  You also save a net of about 50g per set by using lighter tubeless tires, sealant and rim strips versus the tubes you’d add to a traditional tube & tire combination.  This makes this already light wheel lighter than their peers with separate tubes, though perhaps just noticeably so.  Braking is average, acceptable but not up to the level of Shimano and the Campy/Fulcrum twins.  The Easton bike business, never known for great service, took on new owners (and sold off their other non cycling businesses) recently and has yet to establish its own service reputation.  It has introduced a number of new and updated road, cyclocross and gravel wheels in the last couple years suggesting they are still investing in future growth of the company. This is an older model, however and will likely be updated as Easton continues to improve its wheelsets. Best prices and inventory with good service from Chain Reaction Cycles, TweeksWheelies.

HED Ardennes Plus SL

The Ardennes is clearly one of the most comfortable wheels in the group. The handling in and out of corners is superb.  Both of these can be attributed to the wide rim width, a characteristic that HED pioneered and which exceeds that of the other wheelsets evaluated in this review.  Comfort can be further improved while reducing weight by setting up this wheel for tubeless tires.  That said, this wheelset is stiff but not exceptionally so, which makes it less efficient transferring energy transfer going uphill than some of the other, stiffer wheels in this group.  Aerodynamically, its wider rims and tire contact patch overcome the low, V-shaped profile found on these rims.  This wheelset would certainly make for a good mountain wheel and especially a faster, more comfortable and confident ride down a coarse mountain pass. Best prices and inventory with good service from Competitive CyclistHED Store.

CARBON-ALLOY WHEELS

3T Accelero 40 Team

A stiff set of wheels with lots of spokes.  Best for heavy riders.  Somewhat more aero than the lower profile wheels in this review but more challenging in crosswinds for lighter riders.  Handling tough in corners for light riders but more stable for heavier ones.  Rim holes in the carbon fairing create a whistling or rumbling noise while underway and take on water that doesn’t quickly drain.  Slow to get underway and accelerate en route.  Keep their speed well on relatively flat roads and ride comfortably.  Best prices and inventory with good service from Chain Reaction Cycles.

Mavic Cosmic Carbone 40C WTS

Mavic designed these carbon alloy wheels to compete against all-carbon clinchers but, considering their weight is not much more and their rim depth far more than the modern alloy rims, I wanted to compare them against the alloy rims in the mountains.  These wheels are stiff, they respond and handle well and brake nearly on par with alloy rims.  Crosswinds are not a problem for even light riders.  Despite their depth, however, they don’t feel particularly fast.  It seems that this wheel is a compromise.  They brake better than the all-carbon clinchers they were designed to compete with but their performance is not on par with the other all-around criteria that riders value.  They have most of the plus characteristics you’d look for in a wheel to use in the mountains but they don’t feel any faster going down or more comfortable than the pure alloy wheels while costing nearly 3x the price. Best prices and inventory with good service from Competitive Cyclist.

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When to buy wheels for climbing and descending

Which weight savings matter most for climbing

The evaluation criteria

Recommendations

Wheelset evaluation summaries

What are the key developments

Where to save money on wheels and other cycling gear

Comments

WHAT ARE THE KEY DEVELOPMENTS

A couple of seasons from now I’m confident the picture will look quite different if we were to look for wheels to take up and down mountain roads. The main reason will be the greater adoption of disc brake equipped road bikes.

Putting discs on all-carbon wheels will combine the best braking design with the stiffest, most aero and lightest wheel solution.  While disc brake equipped wheels are used throughout the cyclocross world now, disc brakes on road bikes have just become available in the last two seasons.  And road bike frames designed for disc brakes and wheels are further behind.

A wider range of disc brake road frame from more manufacturers have been announced this summer and fall for the upcoming season.  I’d also expect the leading bike and wheel manufacturers will have also figured out how to make the disc wheels and components lighter and the bikes aerodynamic after another round or two of product developments.

I’ve written a post about when and why to buy a road disc bike, reviewed and recommended currently available road disc brake wheelsets and components in separate posts, and suggested six road disc bikes to consider in another if you are considering going that way. 

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379 comments

  • Hi Steve, I am currently riding a set of Bontrager RXL w/25c tires and while I’m not on the heavy side (~160 lbs.), I do notice brake rub during out of the saddle efforts on the steep hills I ride (>15%) and some loss of pedalling efficiency during my hardest sprints versus Kysrium Elites on the same bike. My riding is 2/3 flats and 1/3 climbing and descending steep grades, both rarely in rain. Since I was looking for a stiffer and more aero set that can cope with fast descents and off chance of rain, your (well-done) review prompted me to give the new DA C40 clinchers a shot – I made a deposit last fall. Much to my disappointment, I understand that Shimano has now pulled a switcheroo on everyone by revising the spec on the C40 clincher – rim width is actually 15mm internal and 20.8 on the brake track, rim depth is… 35mm! Dimensions unchanged from the old school narrow C35s yet they’re still calling the new ones C40. The disk and tubular rim versions however are deeper (37mm) and wider internally (17mm) than the 9000 series as initially stated. What do you think about sticking with the narrow C40 clinchers vs the other options out there, like saving up a little more for a wider, more aero all carbon set and learning to deal with the braking? I feel like Shimano gave up on their rim brake clinchers to focus on disc brake road wheels.

    • Kyle, I learned about the revised C40 clincher specs over the weekend too and this is disappointing to say the least. On the other hand, with carbon rim brake tracks improving so much and the rapid emergence of disc brake bikes and superior braking available with that technology, I’m not terribly surprised. I predicted that these two movements would spell the downfall of carbon-alloy clincher wheelsets and Shimano seems to confirm their limited interest in advancing this product line by essentially leaving the rim dimensions of the 9100 DA C24, C40, C60 all unchanged from the 9000 DA C24, C35 and C50. Steve

      • Thank you for the quick reply. With that said, would you recommend what is essentially the C35 or a set of Zipp 202 firecrests that I can get for similar price on sale, in terms of aero and stiffness for my riding (as an upgrade over the RXLs)? I’d be using 23c tires. Thanks again.

  • I live in the SF Bay Area and most of the riding around here is quite hilly with total average elevation gain of 100ft/mile on any given ride being typical. So I sometimes am tempted to look at replacements for the humble 1735g Aksium Elites that came spec’d with my bike and have so far been bombproof. Then I read analysis like you present here and realize that, for $1000, I would get only a handful of seconds faster on a long tough climb. That’s always enough for me to find another use for that money. Thanks for keeping me sane!

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