BEST ROAD WHEEL UPGRADES UNDER $1000, £700, €900
FOR AN UPDATED REVIEW OF THE BEST UPGRADE WHEELS INLCUING MANY NOT EVALUATED IN THIS POST, CLICK HERE
For this review of the best road wheel upgrades under $1000, £700, €900, A$1100, I compared alloy wheelsets from 12 companies to come up with recommendations for cyclists fitting 3 common rider profiles.
If you’ve heard someone you trust tell you “the first upgrade you should make to your bike is to get some better wheels”, there’s a good reason for it. Most companies sell new bikes with inexpensive wheelsets whose stiffness, comfort, acceleration, speed or suitability soon or from the start hold you back from what you want to get out of your cycling.
I experienced this when I bought my first good bike many years ago but it took me a few years to figure out that my wheels were limiting me. So ever since I started writing reviews, I’ve wanted to do one that puts you in the know about why you should upgrade your wheels, what’s out there that will make a real difference (and not break the bank), and recommend ones best suited to the kind of rider you are.
Recognizing that some of you ride more for the competitive challenge and want a new wheelset to improve your performance while others cycle more for the health benefits and pleasure it brings you and want wheels that will improve your experience, and still others are somewhere in between, I’m making recommendations that best fit different rider profiles. These recommendations come from evaluating wheelsets from 12 companies that make wheels selling at market prices under (and in many cases, well under) under $1000, £700, €900, AU$1100.
For the more competitive cyclist weighing under 185lbs/85kg, I recommend the Shimano Dura-Ace C24-CL. The best prices I’ve found for these wheels from stores that have them in inventory and provide good customer service are shown and updated every few days here and in the website sidebar.
You can read my evaluation of this wheelset here.
For the more competitive cyclist weighing over 185lbs/85kg, I recommend the Campagnolo Zonda or Fulcrum Racing 3, which are essentially the same wheels made by the same company under different brand names and sporting different graphics.
You can read my evaluation of both these wheelsets here.
Prices and stores for the wheelsets above were last updated on October 11, 2016.
All of the wheels I’ve evaluated for this review are solid performers and likely better than the ones that came on your bike. While none of them have the ‘latest technology’ usually found first on higher priced wheels, many come with improvements passed down from top end wheels in the last several years that provide for a better ride and would not have found their way to the wheels on new bikes you could have bought this year. And while only a few of these wheels were first introduced or had updates that truly affected their performance in the last couple of years, I see little coming that will change the performance or cost of aluminum alloy wheels you can upgrade to for several more years.
ITS NOW BEEN SEVERAL YEARS SINCE I WROTE THIS POST. FOR AN UPDATED REVIEW OF THE BEST UPGRADE WHEELS INLCUING MANY NOT EVALUATED BELOW, CLICK HERE
WHY TRUST THIS SITE AND MY RECOMMENDATIONS
In The Know Cycling is for road cycling enthusiasts like you and me who want to know what gear we should get next and where we can get it at the best prices. I do hours of research, testing and analysis for each review because I want to make an informed decision before I buy something myself. I share what I learn with you in the same collaborative spirit we enthusiasts share when we’re out on the road. To remove any potential conflicts of interests in my reviews, I buy or demo and return all the gear I test and I don’t run ads or go on company-paid product review trips. I’m probably a lot like you, perhaps only more able to find the time to consider what’s out there and more comprehensive and analytical in coming up with answers about what to get and where to get it.
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There’s a lot of to share with you about upgrading your wheels, more about the recommendations I’ve just made and evaluations of all the wheels I considered. You can read through the entire review or click below on the section you are most interested in reading first.
CONGRATULATIONS, YOU’VE BOUGHT WHEELS YOU WANT TO REPLACE
While it may seem foolish, many cyclists upgrade their wheels soon after buying a new bike, which of course already comes with a new set of wheels. It’s become a truism that wheels are the first and best upgrade you can make to improve your cycling experience and performance. Some cyclists actually shop for new wheels at the same time they buy their bike. Most make the decision to upgrade within a few seasons.
Why? The unfortunate reality is that most $2500 to $5000 modern composite bikes that road cycling enthusiasts ride these days come with inexpensive wheels that aren’t at the same performance level of the frames that sit on them or the drivetrain components that transfer your power to them. Stiff bikes made to be ridden and raced aggressively in this price range often come with wheels that dampen the responsiveness of the bike. And endurance or sportive bikes in this price range suited for long rides are usually fitted out with wheels many won’t find very comfortable over the long distances the bikes were designed for.
It’s almost as if you were to buy an engagement ring with an expensive diamond mounted on a cheap band or purchase a new home with an undersized circuit breaker panel. You focus on the quality of the diamond or the location of the home and go forward with the purchase knowing (or learning later) that you’ll soon have to upgrade the band or panel.
To try to quantify this, I analyzed the prices of wheelsets – often referred to as ‘stock wheels’ or ‘OEM wheels’ – equipped on 36 different new 2014 model year bikes. The bikes sold for between $2500 and $5000 and came from a dozen different companies included competition and endurance models from the big volume brands like Giant, Trek and Specialized and smaller, more boutique brands like Bianchi, Cervello and Felt.
As you can see in the chart above, you’d pay an average of about $355 (ranging from $130 to $700) in the aftermarket for the wheelsets equipped on these bikes. This amount represents just under 10% of the bike’s market price. Compare that to the aftermarket price of the groupsets on these same bikes – about $850 on average or nearly 23% of the bike’s price, most of the time a Shimano Ultegra mechanical set – and you can see the lower priority placed on wheelsets in marketing bikes.
It’s not that groupsets cost more than wheels. Ultegra level groupsets represent the second tier of mechanical groupsets and work as well or better in the view of many as top-tier groupsets of just 3-4 years ago. Some do upgrade their groupsets above this level but there is really little need to for performance reasons. There are two or three tiers of road bike groupsets made below the Ultegra or tier 2 level.
There is perhaps one tier of road wheels made below those you’ll find on most new bikes in $2500 and up price range and several tiers of alloy and carbon wheels above them.
On the representative sample of bikes I analyze you’ll find Fulcrum 4 through 7 series wheelsets (with varying OEM model names) that would sell for approximately $250 in the aftermarket, Mavic Aksium, Cosmic and Ksyrium Elite models ranging from $250 to $500, and various lower priced Shimano entries that go for $175 to $275 when sold separately. Giant equips its bikes with their own brand of wheels, which they replace for $250 to $600 but produce mostly for their original equipment bikes and would likely compete for half those amounts if they were sold in the aftermarket. On their Madone and Domane bikes, Trek uses decent $500 to $700 company owned brand Bontrager wheels which they are increasingly promoting to the aftermarket.
There are probably a half-dozen reasons that might explain why bike companies fit out underperforming wheels on quality bikes that are both rider focused (too many choices; let rider decide later once they know) and bike maker focused (putting on better wheels would drive up prices and depress sales without improving profit for most bike companies and shops). That’s an interesting topic to explore but not one that will help you decide what upgrade wheels to get so I won’t discuss it here further. But, given that these are the kind wheels that you get with your new bike, it’s not surprising that most road cycling enthusiasts upgrade them so soon.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH STOCK WHEELS?
Generally, there are a handful of things you may not like or grow dissatisfied with about the stock wheels that come on your bike. Some of these you might notice immediately while others you may focus in on after spending a lot of miles on your wheels or as your fitness and skills improve or as your cycling interests expand or deepen. Here are the most common limitations.
Stiffness – If you are a heavier or stronger rider cranking it out on a set of stock wheels, you may notice the rear wheel rubbing against your brake pads when you stand up to pedal or when you pedal all out in a sprint. This is likely due to a wheel that lacks sufficient lateral stiffness; it is flexing too much from the side forces you apply to it as you swing the bike left and right underneath you. You are effectively wasting some of the energy you are putting into you pedals from a wheel that doesn’t transfer it to the road as fully as a stiffer wheel would.
In this situation and especially if you are more than 185lb/85kg, you’ll likely want stiffer wheels or wheels with more spokes than come with the standard model. To be clear, many stock wheels are laterally stiff enough, especially if you weigh less than this amount, and won’t rub against your brakes no matter your strength or weight. But regardless of your weight and especially if you are a competitive rider, you may prefer a stiffer wheelset if your stock wheels aren’t as responsive or snappy as you’d like. It’s hard to measure stiffness or responsiveness (though the German magazine TOUR INT does measures lateral stiffness quantitatively using instruments); it’s more of a feeling and that’s where the value of comparative evaluation comes in.
There are many ways wheel designers can create a laterally stiffer wheel. Design choices made about the rim (material, thickness, width, depth), hub (flange height, distance between flanges) and spokes (number, thickness, material, lacing) and how those three work together create the stiffness level and character for a given model.
Most upgrade wheels are designed and rated to support riders up to 200 to 220lbs (90 to 100kg). In addition to the rim and hub choices, most upgrade wheels will have 16 to 20 spokes in the front and 20 to 24 in the rear. Some wheelsets, especially from the medium and smaller producers, can be ordered in a ‘Stallion’ or ‘Clydesdale’ build with 20 front and 28 rear spokes. In addition to adding stiffness, wheels with more spokes will also last longer for heavier riders.
Torsional stiffness is a measure of how much twist a wheel undergoes from the torque applied by your pedaling. Most all wheels are torsionally stiff enough to not deflect perceptibly or even measurable to have any effect on riding. So torsional stiffness is not a consideration when choosing between wheels.
Compliance – While your wheels may be sufficiently stiff and responsive when accelerating, sprinting or climbing, you may find that they aren’t as comfortable as you’d like or even harsh while pedaling normally on flats and hills. This will often be especially evident when going over bumps, road cracks or any unevenness in the road surface or while on longer rides.
How stiff or comfortable your wheels feel in these situations is a measure of its radial stiffness or deflection in the up and down direction. While this is a form of stiffness, it is often called ‘compliance’ to separate it from the lateral stiffness described above. A more compliant wheel will provide a more comfortable ride, especially on uneven surfaces over long distances. (You can read more about all types of stiffness in this excellent post at Slowtwitch.)
Of course, you first want to make sure you have your tire pressure set right for your weight and tire size. Many riders I know overinflate their tires based on thinking that goes back many years and making for a much rougher ride with no benefit. Others don’t really know what level to inflate them to so just set it a little lower than the max pressure shown on the side wall. Here’s a chart from the friendly Michelin Man that should help.
If you find your wheels still aren’t very comfortable after setting the pressure right, it’s probably because of your stock wheels. Historically, lateral and radial stiffness went hand in hand. This is still the case for most stock wheels. You often get either a stiff wheel that’s not very compliant or a flexy one that is more comfortable. Competitive riders that excel with a stiff wheel have seemed to accept that a hard ride comes with the territory and those that prefer a more comfortable ride often believe that they don’t need the wheel responsiveness a ‘racer’ does.
In the last several years however, wheels and tires have advanced to the point where you can ride more comfortably on any road surface, more confidently through turns and faster overall than before on wheels that are laterally very stiff and snappy. Modern alloy wheels usually have a taller or ‘deeper’ rim profile, which makes them stiffer. They are also wider where the rim hook latches the tire bead which enables you to use wider tires. With wider rims and tires you can put more air volume into them yet run them at lower, more comfortable pressures. At lower pressures, the tire spreads out a bit, increasing the width and decreasing the length of the tire’s ‘contact patch’, the part that comes in contact with the road. This gives you a more comfortable, better handling ride without sacrificing the wheel’s lateral stiffness.
Alloy wheels today use rims in three different width ranges, as shown in the drawings below.
Most stock wheels and many of the largest brand name upgrade wheels still are built on ‘traditional’ 15mm inside width rims that have been used for years. More modern wheelsets use ‘wide’ 17-18mm inside width rims that started appearing on alloy road wheels going 3-4 years ago and ‘wider’ rims with 19-20mm inside widths that started showing up in the last couple of years. If road tire widths continue to follow mountain bike and cyclocross trends, we’re likely to see ‘wider still’ and ‘way-out wide’ before we’re done.
The inside width measurement is the most important dimension in tire width selection and wheel compliance. You don’t want to put anything wider than a 23mm width tire on a traditional wheel. You normally would put a 23mm width tire on wide wheels to get compliance benefits though people more focused on comfort will use a 25mm width tire. You want to run a 25mm tire on the wider wheels though 23mm also will work. These are guidelines based on my experience. Wheel makers have recommendations but I’d urge you to experiment and see what you like best. Remember, the pressure you run your tires varies based on both your weight and tire width so make sure to adjust the pressure to recognize both.
Outside width and rim profile have a bigger effect on aerodynamics (less overall surface contact and better airflow) which I write about a few sections later.
Tubeless wheels, wheels run with tires but without an inner tube, are another way to provide a more comfortable ride. They also eliminate flat tires coming from the ‘pinch flats’ you experience from underinflated tires pinching and popping the inner tube and can reduce puncture flats by filling your tires with a sealant at the time you mount them to your rims.
More and more upgrade wheelsets have the wide dimensions and come ‘tubeless ready’ or ‘2 way’ meaning you can use the same wheelset with either a conventional tire and inner tube set up or with a tubeless tires alone. Some wheelsets are offered only in a clincher (tire and tube) version or have a separate tubeless model you can buy. Unfortunately, most stock wheels can’t be set up for tubeless.
Bottom line, if you want a more comfortable ride and the other benefits that wide, wider or tubeless wheels offer, you have to upgrade your road wheels.
For me, the experience moving back and forth from traditional to wide and wider wheels challenges my sense of sportsmanship. The comfort and handling of the wider wheels and the sense that I’m moving so much faster (whether I am or not) while still riding a stiff, snappy wheel makes me wonder if it’s really fair to be out on the same roads with wider wheels riding alongside those still on traditional ones. If the wider upgrade wheels weren’t available to everyone, I’d feel wrong about riding them myself. Since they are available, I just feel badly for those who haven’t bought a set for themselves yet.
Good stiffness and compliance can be designed into the same wheel. It’s not an either or. Ideally you are looking for a stiff, responsive, comfortable and great handling wheel. They are out there, but not in the typical $350 stock wheels you’ll get on most new bikes.
Acceleration – At 1750 grams and often more, most stock wheels are considered ‘heavy’ by modern-day wheel standards. Upgrade wheelsets made from a similar alloy material and that run wide or wider and as deep or deeper can be had in the 1500-1600 gram range. Still deeper and wider all-around carbon clincher wheels also hover in the 1400-1500 gram mark, the weight at which you begin to see diminishing returns (and increasing prices) to further reduce wheel weight.
While there are many myths about the effect of lighter wheels on your overall speed, having less mass in your wheel, especially out at the rim, will generally enable you to ‘spin up’ your wheel or accelerate faster than a heavier one. Wheel stiffness, an aero rim profile and quick engaging hubs all come into to play in determining how well your wheel accelerates. Good acceleration gives you the feel of a quicker and more responsive wheel.
Practically, a better accelerating wheel will enable you to follow the ‘moves’ or changes in pace in your group ride. Likewise, it will allow you to accelerate more effectively out of a group or at the foot of a steeper grade.
I find riders will not notice wheel weight differences until they begins exceed 150 to 200g. Once you’ve ridden lighter wheels, heavier ones just feel sluggish. Transitions in pace on the flat or turning it up for a hillier section just come easier on lighter wheels. There’s a lot more involved of course (for example gearing, fitness and attentiveness), but lighter, stiffer, more aero wheels with good hubs certainly help you get going when the situation calls for it.
Some wheels achieve less weight by using lighter materials like carbon or titanium in the hub or carbon or aluminum spokes or using few spokes altogether. This has less benefit in improving your acceleration than reducing the weight in the rim itself either through the design of the rim or the use of lighter rim materials like carbon. While many road cycling enthusiasts will upgrade and use the same clincher type tire and tube wheel system as on their stock wheels, other wheel/tire systems like tubeless, tubular, or even road disc brake wheels can reduce or increase the weight of your wheels further, though each have other considerations which I think make their relative weight difference less important to your choice.
Speed – Almost everyone wants to go faster. (Thank you Captain Obvious!) While your training, fitness, technique, posture and other factors will likely have a bigger impact on your speed, some wheels will help you go faster by being more aerodynamic. An aerodynamic benefit can be had once you start riding in the 18-20 mph range and will increase logarithmically with speed. A deeper, wider and rounder profile rim, and to a lesser degree the geometry of a wheel’s spokes will all contribute to improved aerodynamics. Quite simply, the faster you ride, the faster an upgrade wheelset will enable you to ride.
Most stock wheels have a shallow 22 to 25mm deep rim with a traditional 15mm inside and
Again, it’s important to underline that a wheel upgrade has a far smaller contribution to your ability to go faster than an upgrade in your fitness and technique and then only after you are going fast to begin with. So while wheel companies may market the sex appeal of speed and your local bike shop salesman (or friends) may get you dreaming you’ll pick up a mph or kph or two with a new wheel, speed improvements will be less significant than stiffness, responsiveness, comfort, handling and acceleration factors I’ve mentioned above. You really have to be consistently riding faster than 20mph/30kph and on a deeper, wider, more aero wheelset before you’ll be going measurably and significantly faster because of our wheels.
Where I notice my speed change the most on a wider wheel is going down hills when my fitness and technique matters less than in most other situations. I’m light (150lbs/68kgs) and while that helps me lead my heavier riding buddies up a hill (when I’m in shape), their extra mass helps them ride away from me going down. A deeper, wider, rounder rim (and a lot of pedaling with my body in an aero position) helps me keep them in sight on the descents.
Suitability – The wheels that come stock on your bike could be classified as basic all-around wheels. If you want a set of wheels to get you going with regular cycling, help you ramp up your basic fitness level or you just want an extra set of wheels to ride in lousy weather or train on when you aren’t using your best wheels, a set of stock wheels will work fine for you. If, on the other hand, you want to do serious riding 4-6 days a week, group rides, club races, centuries, mountain climbs, time trials, triathlons or take your level of fitness and performance to new levels on your bike, it’s a pretty safe bet that a stock wheelset will do a poor to average job and hold you back from performing to the level you are capable of in those kinds of endeavors. If you are just getting into or back into cycling, stock wheels are the right place to start. Once you have a better idea of what kind of cycling you want to do and you make the commitment to doing it regularly, you can upgrade to a better all-around wheel that will better suit the types of riding I mentioned above or buy wheels specifically designed to enhance the kind of event riding you want to do.
Cosmetics – I know you don’t but more riders than you might think decide to buy a bike, component, wheelset or other piece of cycling kit based on how it looks to them and others. (You don’t, do you? That’s ok.) Wheelset cosmetics and brand status is way down on the list of what’s important to me but it’s near the top for some and the bike industry (and companies in most other consumer products industries for that matter) know this and how play to this.
Simply said, stock wheels don’t have much bling or street cred. On the whole, stock wheels are and look pretty basic and no one is going to be impressed by the model or brand of wheels you are riding. To be honest, many of the alloy upgrade wheels aren’t top of the charts either as simple graphics and black seemed to have pushed out colorful rims for most wheels these days. However, upgraded wheels do have more going on than the basic stock wheels and many get quite excited about how they look in comparison. So for those who want to be riding a bike that looks more to your liking, a wheelset made from carbon or with colorful spokes or wearing brand name stickers or coming in stealth black (though that trend is on its way out according to my sources) or whatever looks good to you can be enough to promote many a new wheelset sale.
I won’t try to judge a wheelset based on how it looks in this review. Everyone has different fashion sense, and all I know is that I have next to none. But I won’t begrudge anyone the desire to use cosmetics as a criterion in whether or not to upgrade and help you decide on the margins which wheelset to upgrade to. If it helps you feel good about what you are riding and keeps you going out for more, that’s a good reason to buy something new in and of itself.
While I’ll focus my evaluation comments about different wheelset upgrades on the factors above plus price, I consider about 20 criteria – either performance, design, quality or cost related – when making my recommendations. You can read about these in more depth here.
Among those dozen or so criteria that I did not mention above, stock wheels will be fine and rank close to or basically the same as upgrade alloy wheels. For example, most stock wheels will brake just as well as upgraded alloy wheels and typically better than all-carbon wheels. Stock rims, spokes and hubs are sufficiently durable (i.e., you don’t need ceramic bearings) and will typically last you 10,000 miles/15,000 kilometers. It’s some combination of the half-dozen criteria that I’ve called out that I described above that can make a difference and enough of a difference that it’s worth upgrading.
WHAT KIND OF UPGRADE ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
There are several types of wheelsets you can upgrade to.
Low profile, all-around alloy wheels – These run up to 30mm in depth, their rims are made of aluminum alloy materials, spokes and hubs made from various combinations of materials including aluminum and carbon composite. Very good ones can typically be found for under $1000, £700, €900, AU$1100 and I don’t think you should spend more in this category. As suggested by the term ‘all-around’, they are versatile and suitable to most any type of riding.
Mid profile, all-carbon all-around wheels – The rims on these wheels are made of carbon materials ranging in depth typically from 35mm up to nearly 50mm and run from approximately $1500 to $3000 per wheelset. They can provide higher performance and more design choices if you feel you want it and are willing to pay for it.
Mid profile, carbon-alloy all-around wheels – Similar in depth and price to the all-carbon all-arounds, these combine an alloy inner rim either wrapped with carbon fiber or elongated with a carbon fairing to provide greater depth. These wheels offer the superior braking performance of an alloy wheel with many of the other characteristics of all-carbon wheels but most are heavier than alloy or all-carbon wheels and don’t accelerate as well as either. Most of these wheelsets can be purchase for between $1300 and $2000. Some people make all-carbon or carbon-alloy wheels their first upgrade. I reviewed and recommended wheels in these categories here.
Event specific wheels – These wheelsets are designed to maximize performance for a specific cycling discipline. For example, riders who do triathlons or want a set of wheels for time trials will often get 50mm and deeper wheels that are optimized for aerodynamics, those who do long rides up and down mountain passes will look for wheels that are light, stiff, aero and brake well (see review here), and cyclocross or gravel riders will typically look for wheels designed that are very compliant, durable and use disc brakes.
While clincher wheelsets (with an inner tube and tire) are the most commonly used road cycling wheels and the ones I recommend most people upgrade to from their initial stock wheels, there are three other types of wheel-tire-brake systems to consider. The first two are shown in the graphic and described below.
Tubular wheels use tires with the tube pre-sewn into the tire. These tires are glued to the rim rather than using a hook in the rim opening to connect with a tire bead. Tubulars are typically used by racers and very competitive riders who are willing to develop the skill and invest the time it takes to glue-up these tires for the benefits – mostly lighter weight and better all-carbon braking – these wheelsets provide.
Tubeless wheels are clincher-type wheels that don’t use an inner tube. These wheels are designed to allow you to tape over the spoke holes inside the wheel (or come with the holes already sealed or without holes drilled all the way through the rim) and use a firmer tire with a slightly modified rim bead on the tire and hook on rim to enable an air tight seal under inflation pressure with the rim. This avoids the need to use an inner tube, eliminates the chance of pinch flats that an underinflated tire and inner tube combination can create, and can automatically seal any punctures with the use of a pre-injected latex sealant between the tire and rim. Using tubeless tires can marginally increase or decrease the overall weight of the wheel versus a clincher tire depending on the wheelset, tire and sealant choice but shouldn’t be selected based on weight considerations in my view.
Check out this video from GCN comparing clincher and tubeless wheelsets.
With the wide or wider wheelsets now available, I see little benefit in going tubeless. I get all the comfort I could imagine on and 25mm clincher wheel tire, inflate my tires properly and haven’t had a pinch flat in years. (Probably just jinxed myself and will have one next week!) I’m also confident that if I were to ever get a puncture out on the road, I could pull out a spare tube from my saddle bag, replace the flatted one in a few minutes and be on my way. This would save me the initial tire stretching, soap lubrication, sealant injecting and tire inflation/sealing set up-time, hassle and mess of a tubeless tire. I’d still need to carry an extra tube and insert that under the tubeless tire if I get a serious puncture on the road.
Disc-brake wheelsets brake at the discs pre-installed closer to the hubs on the wheels as shown in the photo below. Clincher, tubular and tubeless wheelsets use caliper brakes that clamp the rim near where it joins the tire. Disc wheels predominate in the off-road cycling worlds of mountain bike and cyclocross but are being adopted by amateur road cyclists due to their superior braking over rim brake wheels, be they clincher, tubeless or tubular ones. While disc-brake versions of popular clincher wheelsets have been available and used on cyclocross bikes for several years, road bikes set up with disc brakes and built with the right clearances for slightly wider disc wheelset drop specs are just beginning to come the market for the 2015 season. I’ll be updating the status of the road disc bikes, brakes and wheels in an upcoming post.
Unless you are dedicating yourself to a specific event, an all-around wheelset is the best and most versatile upgrade solution. And, since tubular wheelsets are primarily used by racers and road disc-brakes bikes are just becoming a reality, either a conventional clincher, tubeless or tubeless ready all-around clincher wheelset is the best solution for most road cycling enthusiasts at this point.
Whether you go with an alloy, all-carbon or carbon-alloy clincher all-around upgrade is a question largely of what performance improvement you want and what you are willing to budget for it. Below, I’ve charted the relative improvement you can get with different upgrade options against the limitations in stock wheels I described earlier.
WHAT ARE YOUR OBJECTIVES?
At this point, you may be asking:
Q. Will I notice enough of a difference to make it worthwhile buying an alloy all-around upgrade wheel under $1000, £700, €900, AU$1100 or should I upgrade to the all-carbon or carbon-alloy wheelset?
A. Yes you will but you may want to upgrade to carbon.
Q. Can I can select a wheelset that will provide me the full range of stiffness, comfort, acceleration, speed, suitability and cosmetic benefits I’m looking for or do I have to trade-off some for the other?
A. Most likely though some may be a higher priority than others.
Q. Are you ever going to get to your reviews and recommendations of specific wheelsets or is this going to go on forever?
A. Yes I promise my reviews and recommendations will come very soon though they may go on a bit.
To answer the first two questions more fully and before I can make recommendations that will hopefully be right for you, I’d like you to look into your cycling soul and come up with honest answers to three of my questions.
What kind of riding am I into? Am I principally into riding for
a. The physical and mental health benefits it brings me, the opportunity to make or get together with good friends in a recreational, outdoor environment and through all types of on-road situations – flats, climbs, in decent weather and on mostly good roads, or
b. The competitive benefits it brings me, by training hard to achieve my own riding performance goals and through spirited riding with friends or in organized competitive situations against others that include a range of road riding situations.
What do I want from a wheelset upgrade? Am I upgrading primarily because
a. I want or need or have earned something new and it will keep me going forward and make my experience more enjoyable, or
b. I want something better and believe I am limited by what I have now in getting what I want out of my riding.
How do I look at the budget for my new wheelset? Is my budget
a. Fixed and not to exceed the roughly $1000, £700, €900, AU$1100 level and hopefully less, or
b. A guideline that I’m willing to move beyond if I see a good reason to.
These questions get to your riding style, upgrade motivation and budget priority and can point you to the best wheel upgrade across all the models that are available. While there are a dozen or more other questions you may hear from people or stores that represent a limited range of wheel models (e.g., what stock wheels do you ride now, what don’t you like about them, are you more into aero or light, how much do you want to spend, how much do you weigh, 10 or 11 speed etc.), I think these questions are secondary to the questions above or can be addressed later to refine your choice.
There are three rider profiles that come out of the combination of answers you gave to the above questions. For each of these profiles, I’ve made wheelset recommendations
The Stud or Go Girl! – If you are a competitor (1b) and want a wheelset upgrade to improve your performance (2b), you’ve really got to decide how much better acceleration, speed, and suitability to your competitive disciplines you are willing to pay for. If your budget is only a guideline (3b), secondary to your competitive riding style and your motivation to get an upgrade is to improve your performance without limitation, you should look seriously at the all-carbon or carbon-alloy clinchers I previously recommended here.
If you have a fixed budget (3a), you will do very well thank you with one of three choices. If you weigh under 185lbs/85kg, I recommend the Shimano Dura-Ace WH-9000-C24-CL (best prices, in stock and great customer satisfaction ratings from Competitive Cyclist, Chain Reaction Cycles,Merlin Cycles). You can read my evaluation of this wheel here. If you weigh more than 185lbs/85kg, I recommend the Campagnolo Zonda (Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles, Evans Cycles, Mantel UK ) or Fulcrum Racing 3 (Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles, Evans Cycles). These two are essentially the same wheel made under two different brand names with cosmetic differences. My evaluation of these wheels is here.
I don’t recommend the Dura-Ace C24 for heavier riders; they aren’t stiff enough. And I don’t recommend the Zonda or Racing 3 for lighter riders; they are noticeably heavier, don’t accelerate as well and the ride will feel harsh for riders under 155lbs/70kg and not terribly comfortable for heavier ones either.
A Bud or Gal Pal – If you are riding for the health and social benefits (1a) and want or feel you’ve earned something new (2a) to keep you going, you will likely enjoy a wheelset that puts a premium on comfort and confident handling, that looks good, that suits your weight and the range of riding you do. You don’t want to give up anything in terms of stiffness, acceleration or speed and you would like to meet or beat your budget target (3a). You want something that is a step up from your stock wheel or one you may have already upgraded to but is now three or more year old or that you may have bought more recently but really don’t care for anymore.
You can get all of that with an alloy wheelset just under $1000, £700, €900, AU$1100 budget for your upgrade (3a).
The Yeah! – If you are serious about getting the health and social benefits from riding (1a) that a Bud or Gal Pal is looking for but want a new wheelset to make you better (2b) and not just because its new, you can do that and do it well on a firm budget (3a). If you are coming off a traditional width, stock wheelset, weigh 165 lbs/75kg or less and won’t be riding much faster than 17-18 mph/28kph or so on average, go with the Dura-Ace C24. You will immediately notice its superior acceleration and it will ride very comfortably for you despite its traditional width.
If you’ve experienced and enjoyed the comfort of a wider wheel, are a little heavier or plan to build up to 18mph/29kph average speeds, go with the Easton EA90. It is comfortable yet still stiff when you accelerate or climb, and at your size, strength and speed you’ll be able to get great benefit out of it.
If you are willing to spend more (3b) to get the acceleration and aero benefits of these two wheels and the other further performance benefits of an all-carbon or carbon-alloy wheelset and want to get a little more pizzazz from your new wheels at the same time, you wouldn’t be the first rider to do so. In this case, also check out the all-carbon or carbon-alloy clinchers recommendations here I suggested earlier. Who knows, maybe you’re riding style will evolve into a more competitive one (1b) and you’ll already have the tool to do that rolling underneath you.
Huh? – A competitor (1b) that just wants something new (2a) to keep you going? If that’s you, you are the kind of customer the local bike store salesman will love. He’ll find something for you, probably very expensive but not necessarily right. You’ve got to help him (or me) more to point you in the right direction. Keep riding on your current wheels and figure out what is missing from your wheelset’s performance or what you want to do better before plunking down some money for any kind of wheels.
Event – If you want to continue using your current wheels for all-around riding but get the bug to focus on a particular type of riding in addition, here are some suggestions. If you want to do a lot of amateur road racing, I’ve recommended some good choices in the link under the Stud profile above and in my review of all-carbon wheelsets here. Want to do a lot of climbing and descending? Check out my recommendations for those types of wheels here. Triathlon or time trialing? My review of aero wheels is here. Cyclocross? Sorry, I don’t know that discipline well; you’re probably well ahead of me there.
The big bike component companies that make all-around alloy upgrade wheels in this price range are Mavic, Shimano, and Campagnolo. Campagnolo or ‘Campy’ sell wheelsets under both their brand name and the Fulcrum brand. As mentioned earlier, these three are amongst the largest providers of stock wheels. They also make higher priced carbon-alloy and all-carbon aftermarket wheelsets used for a range of disciplines and markets all they up through the pro-racing circuit.
Three other groups of brands compete in the sub $1000 upgrade category. One group is made up of wheel makers who focus mostly on the higher priced, highest performing all-around and event specific wheel categories. This group includes makers Reynolds, Zipp, HED and Easton.
Another group includes mostly large companies primarily focused on making bikes or other bike components but that also make wheels to either expand their line or improve their profits. Giant, Specialized (Roval) and Trek (Bontrager) are the bike companies that fall into this category. Only Trek appears to be aggressively courting aftermarket wheelset business, mostly higher end carbon wheels, and have a sub $1000 alloy wheelset line. Vision, a handlebar and stem components maker, and DT Swiss, one of the leading wheel hub and spoke manufacturers, have been pushing into the wheel market to various degrees in recent years. 3T, another bar and stem competitor also makes wheels, but mostly mid-depth carbon-alloy wheels that don’t compete well against the lower profile alloy wheels reviewed here.
There are other companies that sell alloy wheels with less market visibility and distribution that are driven by their founders including US makers American Classic, Ritchey, Boyd, Williams and FLO. The European companies Spada, Citec and Veulta also make alloy wheels in the price range covered by this review. Of these companies, I have only been able to evaluate wheels made by American Classic, Ritchey and FLO but would hope to consider others in the future.
There are also many, many custom wheel builders, either small companies, shops or individuals who assemble wheelsets from rims, hubs and spokes designed and made by others to a specific cyclist’s order. I call these custom-built wheels rather than hand-built wheels as many higher value wheelsets are also built by hand.
Hand-built vs. factory-built is a false dichotomy used by custom wheel builders for marketing purposes. Custom-built vs. standard-built is a more accurate description of what is going on. Standard-built wheels are made in production volumes without a cyclist’s order to a standard rim-hub-spoke configuration. You buy a custom-built wheelset when you want a unique combination of rims, spokes and hubs for a specific reason and that aren’t available in a standard-built version.
Standard-built wheels are almost always designed by the company whose names appear on the wheels. The alloy rims are often also made by the standard-built wheel companies themselves though some of the lower volume standard-built wheel makers or those whose strengths are in making hubs and spokes have their rims made to their specification by other manufacturers. Except for the largest standard-built wheel makers who make their own hubs and spokes, these two sets of components are usually sourced from one of the two or three major producers.
The standard-built wheel makers assemble all of their designed and made or sourced components. Custom-built wheel makers assemble rims, hubs and spokes designed and made by others.
Because of the sheer number of custom-built wheelset providers, their low volumes and limited distribution, and the custom nature of their product, I can’t fairly evaluate these wheels against the above criteria or expect that you would have the same experience as I would if I did attempt to rate them. I’m not saying anything for or against these custom wheel makers as a group. I just have no way to fairly compare their individual wheel builds.
So with all that now said, here are my evaluations of the wheels in this category along with links to good stores where you can get these products in inventory at the best prices. There’s a summary chart immediately below and then you can read through them one by one or click to go straight to the ones you want to read first.
Ritchey WCS Zeta II
Campagnolo and Fulcrum brand wheelsets are both made by Campagnolo, cosmetically distinct but functionally the same for a given pair of models except for the rear wheel free-hubs. Fulcrum was originally established for bike makers and consumers who didn’t want to mix Campy wheels with Shimano components. Today, both Campy and Fulcrum wheels can be ordered for use with Shimano and SRAM or Campy drive trains.
The aluminum alloy wheel line includes the top-of-the-line Campagnolo Shamal Mille (available at Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10) and its twin brother, the Fulcrum Racing Zero Nite (Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles, Tweeks, Slane). Those wheelsets add a durable, all black, oxidized plasma coating (the same as the Exalith coating on Mavic wheels) to the brake track of the next-in-line Campy Shamal Ultra C17 (ProBikeKit code ITK10, Merlin) and narrower Fulcrum Racing Zero (Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction, Tweeks).
Campy/Fulcrum alloy wheels all brake very well independent of their price and coating, as do most all alloy wheels, so this coating is really a cosmetic touch. Where most alloy wheels have an aluminum colored braking track, the plasma coating gives the Campy/Fulcrum wheels a fully blacked out rim look that some riders are willing to pay extra for. You need to use the special brake pad provided by the company else the coating may wear prematurely.
Two other wheelset twins fill out the Campy/Fulcrum alloy upgrade line: the Campy Eurus (Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles, Evans Cycles, Tweeks) and Fulcrum Racing 1 (discontinued for 2015) and Campy Zonda (Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles, Evans Cycles, Mantel UK ) and Fulcrum Racing 3 (Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles, Evans Cycles). Campy also make stock wheel quality Scirocco/Quattro, Vento/Racing 5 and Khamsin/Racing 7 wheels, the latter two Fulcrum models showing up as original equipment on bikes made by Bianchi, Focus, Pinarello and Specialized.
The Campagnolo Shamal, Eurus and Zonda and Fulcrum Racing Zero and Racing 3 were last updated in 2013 and have 24mm or 26 mm front wheel and 30mm rear wheel depths, box section profiles, 16 front and 21 rear spoke counts and measured weights for the clincher versions which range from 1450 to 1580 grams. The weight difference is indistinguishable to most riders and is created primarily by using lighter materials in the hubs and spokes for the top end wheels, which doesn’t improve acceleration the way a lighter rim would. Some of these models also come in separate tubular and/or tubeless ready (or 2-Way Fit versions, the later which allows you to run a clincher or tubeless tire.
The Eurus/Racing 1 difference vs. the Shamal/Racing Zero is so insignificant that Fulcrum, according to a Fulcrum representative I spoke with, decided to drop the Racing 1 because it really couldn’t show any value in the $100 difference between the two.
From a performance standpoint, even Campagnolo and Fulcrum don’t claim any difference between each set of twins and almost none between the three (now 2½) sets of siblings. On a 10 point scale, their catalogues show 0 difference in handling and aerodynamics, 5% more comfort for the Zonda/Racing 3 models versus those more than 2x their price, 5% to 10% better reactivity (or stiffness) as you move up the line, and 10% better smoothness for those wheels that had either the ceramic bearings or used the tubeless setup.
I take you through all of this to underline why I see nothing that would justify getting a Campy or Fulcrum alloy wheel more expensive than the Zonda or Racing 3. These are all notably stiff and responsive wheels with good braking and decent hubs. Aerodynamics and handling are average, comfort for sturdy riders is below average when compared to modern wheels with wide or wider rims as I defined them earlier in this review.
Competitive riders that are heavier and stronger will appreciate the Zonda/Racing 3 lateral stiffness and won’t focus on or be bothered by their lower compliance levels. They aren’t out for a cruise and their extra weight and strength will put more radial flex into the wheels. Lighter cyclists will likely find the ride a bit too harsh however and it will likely distract from the competition at hand. You can drop the air pressure down or buy the tubeless version if you want this wheel to be more comfortable but it will cost you a bit more and seems contrary to why you would buy this tire in the first place – to ride it aggressively on a stiff bike. This is a wheel that heavier (>185lb/85kg) Studs should love but not ones that lighter Studs/Go Gals or riders in the other profiles will enjoy as much as other wheels in this review, even at Zonda/Racing 3’s attractive market prices.
Would the Zonda/Racing 3 be an upgrade from the Campy/Fulcrum Vento/Racing 5 and Khamsin/Racing 7 alloy stock wheels? Yes, if you are a heavier, stronger, competitive rider. The Zonda/Racing 3 are a couple hundred grams lighter, more aerodynamic, have a better rear wheel stiffness to weight ratio and have better rolling hubs than their stock wheel siblings. The Zonda/Racing 3 are more similar to the Mavic Ksyrium Elite S which you will see stock on some better bikes.
Interestingly, starting this year the Racing 5 and 7 will be made on wide rims (17mm inside, 23mm outside width) whereas the remainder of the Campy/Fulcrum line stays at traditional widths. While I haven’t ridden them and couldn’t find anyone who has yet, I’d suspect the new Racing 5 and 7 stock wheels will provide a much more comfortable ride better attuned to the endurance bikes they are often put on and the cyclocross riders Fulcrum is also trying to attract. Of course, it leads me to wonder when the remainder of the Campagnolo and Fulcrum alloy wheel lines will adopt wide rims and catch up with the wheelset industry leaders or whether you should hold off a year or pass on buying the upgrade Campy/Fulcrum wheelsets until they do. It’s also possible that the performance characteristics of the higher end Campy/Fulcrum alloy wheels sold in the aftermarket are too well established and that the company will not mess with their success until sales start to lag.
Mavic makes a wide range of alloy wheels. Many lower priced road bikes are sold with Mavic’s Aksium or Aksium Elite stock wheels and some in lower end of the $2500-$5000 modern composite road bike category also are fitted out new with Mavic wheelsets including the Ksyrium and Ksyrium Elite. You may also find Mavic’s 30mm deep alloy Cosmic Elite wheelset stock on aero road bikes.
For 2016 Mavic introduced several new or updated carbon-alloy and alloy wheelsets into the Ksyrium line to compete against established road disc, carbon and generally wider wheel models offered by other companies. Of the various wheels introduced, only the new Ksyrium Elite (ProBikeKit code ITK10, Evans Cycles) is firmly within the price range of this review. It is modestly wider than the prior version (17mm internal width vs. the former 15mm, keeping it in the conservative middle amongst its competitors) and about the same weight and price as its predecessor. This will allow you to run a wider tire (though I still recommend a 23C) to improve the contribution to comfort provided by your wheels, a characteristic where the Elite has historically not performed well.
The Ksyrium Pro (Competitive Cyclist, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Evans Cycles) that runs just below or above the price threshold for this review. I’ve not had a chance to thoroughly research or test this one yet. When I do, I will update this section of the post
The current alloy Ksyrium wheelsets are placed in the “Endurance Road Wheel” category by Mavic and not their “Fast & Light Road Wheels”, telling because the Ksyrium wheels are known for being some of the least aerodynamic alloy wheels available. Comparative wind tunnel test results that included two Ksyrium models against ten other brand name models and four custom built wheels confirmed this reputation.
But as mentioned earlier, unless you are regularly going at least 18 to 20mph/30kph, a more aerodynamic wheel won’t help you go any faster. For that purpose, Mavic makes the Cosmic Elite S. As mentioned above, it’s a stock wheel with a v-shaped rim you’ll find on some new aero bikes. If your bike came with a Cosmic Elite and you want to upgrade with an aero wheel, you need to get into mid depth (45mm and up) carbon or carbon-alloy wheels. There are no aero wheel upgrades that I’m aware of that fit within the budget defined by the title of this review. Other than the stock Cosmic Elite, Mavic’s “Fast & Light Road Wheels” are all more expensive carbon or carbon-alloy wheelsets.
So what has historically distinguished the Ksyrium line? They have been amongst the stiffest and most responsive but also least aerodynamic and compliant alloy wheels available. The Ksyrium hubs don’t roll as well as those on many other wheels in this category.
The Pro and even more expensive Pro SL wheelset models are also offered with an optional plasma coating (Mavic calls it “Exalith”) that gives the brake track the same black color finish as the rest of the rim and helps make the entire wheel look, from a distance, like it’s carbon. It is supposed to improve the braking performance, especially in the wet, something that wheels with alloy brake tracks are already pretty good at. The prior models of Exalith wheels produced a howling noise from the brakes using Mavic provided and required pads during the initial wearing in period (up to a couple hundred miles). The whistling reported on by many continues after that and brings into question whether the cosmetic and braking benefits that come from the Exalith coated surface are worth the noise that comes with it. (Me thinks not!)
Historically, it hasn’t been worth it to upgrade to a Ksyrium Elite or earlier versions of what is now the Ksyrium Pro. You would get a slightly lighter wheel but most of the weight drop comes from switching from steel to aluminum spokes and putting some carbon in the hubs. Neither of these changes would reduce your rotational mass in the rim where it matters the most to improve acceleration.
The rest of the wheel design – rim depth, width, profile – is virtually the same and the lighter materials are no more durable than the ones in the Elite S. Indeed the Elite S is one of the stiffest wheelsets available and would be a good stock wheel for a heavier rider to use right from the start if you can arrange for your shop to put it on your new bike when you purchase it. If, for example, the bike normally comes equipped with Mavic Asksium wheels see if they will put on Elites because of your weight. With this exception, I wouldn’t upgrade to a Mavic Ksyrium model from your stock wheels. They just don’t provide enough improvement relative to what you can get from alloy upgrade wheels I’ve evaluated from other companies.
It’s also important to note that Mavic sells all its wheels wheels with Mavic owned Yksion brand tires specifically designed to work as a “wheel-tyre” system as the company calls it. The first generation of these tires was not so good as to justify being obligated to buy them with the wheels, which you are and which adds to the price of the wheels. Tests have shown that other tire models are superior. (See my Best Road Bike Tires post for more.)
Shimano makes three levels of alloy wheels – Ultegra at the entry level, Road Sport (or RS) in the middle and Dura-Ace at the top end. The Ultegra 6800 wheelset is stock quality weight and stiffness, low profile alloy, slow engaging steel hub, and tubeless ready. Not one you would want to upgrade to.
The RS81 C24 and Dura-Ace C24 are both 24mm deep wheels with traditional width alloy rims wrapped in carbon, a low weight way to improve stiffness. What separate the RS81 and Dura-Ace C24 wheels are their hubs and weight. The Dura-Ace’s rear hub engages lightening fast, rolls silky smooth and is very durable. Together with the rim, the Dura-Ace wheels weigh approximately 150g (measured) to 175g (claimed) than the RS81.
The combination of superior hub and low weight allow the Dura-Ace wheels to accelerate better than anything else in the aluminum alloy category. You feel the difference and it can give you the confidence to be a more aggressive rider, easily able to follow any move and surge to the front when it’s your time to pull. They are plenty stiff for riders up to around 185lbs/85kg yet remarkably compliant for a traditional width wheel.
Riding them on a mountain century last season, their ability to climb and brake well and accelerate with most any move going up and on the last 10 mile flat section made them a real asset. They aren’t any more aerodynamic than the other box-section low profile wheels in this category, but that’s the only knock I can put on what is otherwise a very strong and balanced set of attributes. Bottom line, the Dura-Ace C24 are the best wheels I’ve evaluated under $1000, £700, €900, A$1100 for the Stud/Go Gal riders weighing less than 185lbs/85kg.
Unfortunately, you pay for the pleasure of owning top of the line Dura-Ace wheels. The C24 (Competitive Cyclist, Chain Reaction Cycles,Merlin Cycles) runs about twice the price of the Campy Zonda that I recommend for heavier riders but it accelerates better and rides more comfortably. The Dura-Ace C24’s market price is roughly the same as Campy’s top of the line Shamal Ultra and three-quarters the price of Mavic’s top Ksyrium SLR but again, it’s acceleration and comfort are superior to those wheels. I don’t see the value of buying the top of the line Campy or Fulcrum or Mavic wheels over their models I’ve highlighted in this review; I do however see the value of buying the Dura-Ace C24 over the RS81 model and against the similarly priced Campy/Fulcrum and Mavic ones.
I only wish the Dura-Ace C24 rims were both wider and more rounded. These wheelsets were introduced in 2013, about the time that wider rims were just beginning to gain market traction beyond the higher priced all-carbon and smaller, innovative entrepreneurial wheel maker set. Shimano went with wide and more aerodynamic, V-shaped rims on their Dura-Ace C50 and C75 carbon-alloy wheels introduced at the same time so they certainly know how to design and make modern wheels. Whether they go wide or wider with the next model of Dura-Ace C24 wheels, likely to be introduced for the 2016 season, is anyone’s guess at this point.
And there’s nothing wrong with the RS81 C24 clinchers (ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles, Jenson, Merlin) or the RS81 C35 (Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Evans Cycles). The later is the under $1000 version of the Dura-Ace c35, my pick both for best climbing and descending wheelset (review here) and all-around alternative (here). They certainly are competitive on price with others in this review and accelerate fine on the Ultegra stock-level hubs. It’s just that once you’ve ridden on Dura-Ace, it’s hard not to want wheels with those silky smooth riding hubs over any others from Shimano or elsewhere.
While I normally try to screen out consideration of products in a company line unrelated to the ones I’m evaluating, it’s hard to do that in the case of Reynolds’ Stratus Pro wheelset. Reynolds makes all-carbon rims and wheels and that’s their primary focus. I’ve previously rated the Reynolds Assault SLG, an all-carbon 41mm deep clincher as the Best Value in the all-carbon all-around category (here) and the other carbon wheels in their mid-priced carbon and higher end aero lines have been well received. Reynolds also sources carbon rims for other large wheel makers (e.g. DT Swiss) and sell their rims to custom wheel builders.
The Stratus Pro, available in both a tubeless ready and disc brake version, is the only alloy wheel they make. Similar to the strategies of other large wheel makers, they had originally also made the Stratus Comp and Elite, two lower priced alloy models in the Stratus line and planned to sell them to bike makers as stock wheels when they first announced the Stratus line in 2013 as a replacement for their previous alloy clincher line of Solace, Solitude and Shadow.
Reynolds apparently hasn’t been successful with the Comp and Elite and is only selling the Stratus Pro in the 2015 line. While they market the wheel as a road racing design, they rate its performance on the flats and climbs at a 2 of 5 but a 5 of 5 for cyclocross and gravel riding. With its wide, 28mm deep, V-profile rim and 1445g weight, this would seem to be designed as a good all-around road wheel as wheel as an off-road winner. To further add to my confusion, its market price (Competitive Cyclist, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Westbrook Cycles) puts it up against some long-established road models.
On the road, the Stratus Pro performs unremarkably – braking is good but rear wheel stiffness and acceleration is average. There’s nothing about them that stand out from the crowd and at the price, it’s hard to see paying more for the Stratus Pro than for a wheel like the Campy Zonda/Fulcrum Racing 3 or nearly as much as the Shimano Dura-Ace C24, wheels with long successful reputations from companies who appear to have a bigger commitment to the alloy wheel field than Reynolds.
Zipp, best known for its top performing mid and deep profile all-carbon wheels, began playing in the shallow depth, alloy wheel segment in 2010 with the Zipp 101. The Zipp 30 became the company’s second shallow alloy wheelset when it was introduced in 2013 but was the only one left standing after Zipp dropped the 101 at the end of that year. (Zipp has subsequently introduced the 30 Course. See here for Zipp rim and here for Zipp disc brake reviews in other posts) The 30 brings Zipp’s name and prestige to what many who race on its carbon wheels look for in a less expensive ‘training wheel’.
Where the Zipp signature appears to show up is in the rounded rim profile of the 30, a shape that stands out amongst the box-section or V profiles that you see on most shallow alloy wheelsets. Perhaps because of its 30mm depth, traditional width and parallel brake tracks, the Zipp 30 is only able to pull off what it calls a hybrid toroidal rim profile that harkens back to pre-Firecrest designs. The full toroidal shape, something the earlier Zipp 101 alloy wheel did have, comes with brake tracks angled toward the rim opening that you see on Zipp’s current line of carbon wheels. The Zipp 30 accomplishes better aerodynamic performance over most alloy wheels in wind tunnel tests but testers who have gone looking haven’t felt any aero benefit once out on the road.
The rest of the experience from this wheelset is average. Its rear wheel is good and stiff but, as it is heavier than most in this comparative review, it takes a while to accelerate. The Zipp 30 braking is adequate but not a top performer and has a thinner brake track than most meaning it won’t last as long. And while you certainly feel the quality and comfortable ride of this wheelset, it is now one of the mid-priced products in this category (Competitive Cyclist, Chain Reaction).
No fault to Zipp; this is a training wheel intended for riders training at speeds fast enough to seek an aero difference and probably shouldn’t be compared to other upgrade alloy wheels intended for full-time, all-around use. Part of me thinks that if Zipp were not a part of SRAM, a larger company that sells a range of components at mid and high price points that feed a distribution network competing across road and mountain biking markets it might stay focused on carbon and not sell these wheels which look more like the old SRAM 30 rims with Zipp hubs than the popular, former Zipp 101.
HED has been one of the leaders in the wide rim movement with the Ardennes. First introduced with the ‘wide’ rim dimensions and a 24.5mm deep V-profile, HED added the Ardennes+ model in the 2014 season with ‘wider’ rim dimensions stretching to 20.6mm inner and 25mm outer width. This makes it the widest of those evaluated for this review.
The Ardennes+ rim is available in various models using different HED branded hubs made of carbon or aluminum and different spoke counts and designs to suit lighter or heavier riders. HED supplies this tubeless ready rim to custom wheel builders and makes it in enough variations itself to essentially provide a similar service. For the purposes of this review, I’ve evaluated the Ardennes+ LT wheelset with black HED Sonic hubs, using 18 front and 24 rear CX-Ray aluminum spokes that HED rates for riders up to 225lbs/100kg, and that weighs in the low 1500 gram range. Heavier riders can order it with 20 front and 28 rear spokes.
As I described earlier, a wider rim allows you to put on a wider tire – preferably a 25mm one – and add more air volume into it than you can add to a traditional rim/tire combination. This gives you a more comfortable, better handling and more aerodynamic ride. More comfortable because the additional air volume allows you to run your tires at a lower air pressure yet still support your weight. Better handling because with a lower inflation pressure, the tire flattens out a bit and makes a wider “contact patch” with the road which gives you better grip. More aerodynamic because a less inflated, wider tire squares up more along the sides where it meets the rim which together provide a smoother airflow without increasing rolling resistance.
How does it perform? There are trade-offs with most wheelsets and this one delivers big on a comfortable ride with confident handling. Those are its differentiating benefits. In the other areas, the Ardennes+ is average but not to the point of disqualifying it. It’s reasonably stiff, though not as stiff as the far less expensive and traditional width (i.e. narrow!) Zonda/Racing 3 twins. It provides average acceleration, which isn’t bad considering that its extra width makes it heavier. Despite it’s great width, having a V profile instead of a U or toroid shaped rim misses out on the opportunity to also be an aerodynamic leader. Compared to the other wider rimmed, more aero shaped wheelsets, the LT’s considerably higher price (Competitive Cyclist) make it a more expensive option. As of this update, its latest price exceeds the budget set out in the post title. You can go for the less expensive CL version, but you lose a bit more in on-the-road performance in favor of something that will work equally well off-road.
Ideally, this is a wheelset best suited for the lighter Bud rider profile who wants to enjoy a great ride and the HED cache. They also perform well for those riders who occasionally want to go off-road and check out the cyclocross and gravel paths.
A stiff wheel, Easton’s top alloy EA90 SLX is well suited to riders up to about 185lbs/85kg. They are nice and stiff when climbing or sprinting, corner well and are very responsive when you first spin them up. As the wide, 25mm deep, box section rim is designed for dedicated tubeless use, there are no strips to add and the tires install relatively easily and seal well. Their measured weight at 1440 grams is on par with the Shimano Dura-Ace C24 CL and Mavic Ksyrium SLS, the lightest alloy wheels under $1000, £700, €900, A$1100.
Braking on this wheelset is average, acceptable but not up to the level of Shimano and the Campy/Fulcrum twins. Depending on the store, day and currency they move above and below the price threshold for this review. As of this update Wiggle, JensonUSA, Tweeks, Wheelies are highly rated stores that have the SLX at the best prices.
Easton makes the less expensive and more recently updated EA90 SL (Wiggle), which adds 4 spokes front and back (and 180 grams) for heavier riders and a more modern 19.5mm inner and 24.5mm outer width. This makes these wheels a more comfortable alternative to the Campy Zonda and Fulcrum Racing 3, but at a higher premium. Easton also makes the EA 70 SL, whose added weight puts it in the range of many stock wheels.
The Easton bike business, never known for great service, took on new owners (and sold off their other non cycling businesses) recently and is still working to establish an improved service reputation. It has introduced a number of new and updated road, cyclocross and gravel wheels since the business changed hands, suggesting the new owners are investing in future growth of the company.
Bontrager has a robust carbon wheel line and makes three alloy, tubeless ready wheelsets all built from a 21mm tall, wide, box-section profile rim. The Race X Lite TLR, Race Lite TLR and Race TLR all use 18f/24r spoke counts but the top of the line Race X Lite TLR gets slightly thinner, more flexible spokes than its siblings and a better hub built around the well regarded DT Swiss 240 internals.
Since Bontrager is owned by Trek, it’s not surprising to see the Race TLR wheels on the Madone and Domane bikes with Ultegra groupsets selling in the $3K to $4K range and Race Lite TLR on the same bikes with Tier 1 or electronic groupsets selling for a grand more.
So what separates the top of the line alloy wheelset beyond its spokes, hub, $500 price difference (and ‘X’ designation) and how does it compare to alloy wheels from others? Between the three Bontrager alloy wheels, the higher quality hub used on the Race X Lite TLR is the equivalent of those used on many carbon wheels and will be more durable and smoother riding than the standard hub used on the other models and most of the other wheelsets in this review with the exception of the Dura-Ace. The mid 1502g measured weight is 100 and 300 grams lighter than its line mates and perceptibly equivalent with most other low profile wheels in this review (i.e., you can’t tell the difference).
The best characteristics of the Race X Lite TLR wheels (Trek store, Mantel, Bike24) are their handling, comfortable ride, and tubeless tires that are easier than others to install. When they were first introduced for the 2013 season, this combination set these wheels apart from most other sub $1000 wheels. Now, they have plenty of company.
Despite ample spoke count, the rear wheel stiffness is well below most others in this group based on independent lab testing I’ve seen, making them less efficient in sprints and climbing. It’s best to roll these under a lighter rider. As one the lowest profile of all the wheels in this comparative review and with their box-section profile, they aren’t going to help you gain any aero advantage.
From a design and price standpoint, they probably compare most closely to the Dura-Ace C24 albeit on a wider rim. But in terms of performance, they aren’t as stiff, are almost 100g heavier, don’t accelerate as well and, as much as I like the DT 240 hub, it’s a notch below the Dura-Ace hub.
American Classic has a wide, eclectic wheelset product line which represents the personality of its founder, president, designer and very public face of the company Bill Shook. The alloy line includes four wheelsets, each on different sized rims that stretch from 24mm to 34mm tall, run on traditional, wide and wider rim widths, and take clincher only, tubeless ready and tubular set-ups. The wheel weights run from under 1400 to nearly 1600 grams, use spoke combinations from 18 front/24 rear to 32/32, have any number of different, proprietary hubs they are built around, and have loud graphics and wheel colors ranging from black to pink. And I’m just talking about their alloy road wheels! American Classic also makes carbon road wheels and carbon and alloy wheels for MTB, cross, Tri/TT, track and even hand cycles.
Of all their different alloy models, the Hurricane Tubeless is the American Classic wheelset most unlike anything else evaluated for this comparative review. As the name suggests, it is built to withstand heavy, rough riders on any type of road and in any weather conditions. With 32 spokes front and back and on wide, 24mm deep rims these wheels are a surprisingly light, 1580g measured weight.
Mount up a pair of tubeless tires and you can stomp and thrash these wheels on cracked, potholed, grass or dirt roads, through a rainy, raunchy winter season, and probably through the hurricane the wheel was named after (though I wouldn’t recommend it). They are unbendingly stiff and spin up acceptably well for wheels of this girth. The Hurricane Tubeless is for the heavy, aggressive, adventurous rider who would quickly trash most standard wheels and who wants something to take him well beyond the sunny, Sunday club ride. While not cheap (American Classic) they are uniquely suited for the rugby player on wheels.
The DT Swiss RR 21 Dicut is built around the company’s 240S hub internals used on many carbon wheels twice the price of this wheelset from high-end producers like Reynolds and Bontrager. Unfortunately, the RR21’s box-section rims are amongst the shallowest (21mm deep) and heaviest (1506g) of the traditional width wheelsets in this comparative review. Braking, stiffness and acceleration are good but its market price (Amazon) puts it at the high-end of similarly or better performing wheels. With lighter, wider, deeper, rounder, better accelerating and less expensive wheels to choose from, it’s hard to get excited about this wheelset based on its hub alone.
For road and cross Ritchey makes the WCS Zeta II, updated for the 2014 season to wide rim widths on a 24mm deep V-profile rim. The wheelsets’ lateral stiffness and acceleration are solid but not up to the top performers. Handling and braking are good, but they aren’t as comfortable to ride and their tubeless tires aren’t as easy to install as others. The high market price (Ritchey) doesn’t offer any further encouragement. It seems that Ritchey have caught up to the performance if not the comfort of others with these wheels but there’s little to separate them from the pack.
WHAT DEVELOPMENTS COULD AFFECT MY CHOICE?
Developments in the wheelset market have been on full display for the last several years. Technology is has brought us wider rims, tubeless tires, more aerodynamic rim profiles, better all-carbon wheels and road bikes with disc brakes and wheelsets. The effects of these developments on stock wheels and alloy upgrades will likely ‘trickle down’ what happens in the higher ends of the wheelset and broader bike market.
With Fulcrum introducing wide rims on their stock wheel level Racing 5 and 7 models, we’ve seen the first move by any of the high volume wheel makers (Mavic, Shimano, Giant, Campagnolo/Fulcrum) to move beyond traditional widths on their stock or sub $1000 alloy wheels. It will likely take another season before we see if any of the others do the same and a couple of seasons before wider stock and alloy upgrade wheels are seen in volume from the larger players. I’m somewhat doubtful we’ll see much change in wheel widths at the stock wheel level as most bike companies seem to want to put the most basic, lowest cost wheels on their bikes. The large wheel companies have moved first to make their stock wheels tubeless to improve ride comfort.
Meanwhile, there are many mid-sized, smaller and custom wheel makers offering wide and wider tubeless ready wheels with profiles somewhat or considerably more aerodynamic than stock wheels. This will continue to make upgrading to a sub $1000 alloy wheel a wise move for the next several years, especially for those who want a more comfortable, better handling set of wheels. For those more competitive riders (the Studs and Go Gals) who want and can afford the best performing wheels, there are some good alloy choices as I’ve recommended but carbon wheelsets will continue to be the Promised Land.
Perhaps the biggest change on the horizon in the move to road disc brake bikes that we will begin to see come next year. Without the need for a brake track on the rim, wheelset designers will have more options to shape the rim to improve aerodynamics and take weight out of them to improve acceleration. It will likely be 2-3 years before we begin to see new stock, alloy and all-carbon wheelsets take advantage of the rim design freedoms opened up by the move to road disc brakes and bikes, but I think this will be when the next set of performance breakthroughs show up for the sub $1000 alloy upgrade wheel buyer.
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