THE BEST WHEELS FOR ROAD BIKES WITH DISC BRAKES
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For many cycling enthusiasts, wheels are the window to their soul. With so many variables to choose from – rim depth and profile, spoke count and shape, hub color and sound, rim finish, material, tire choice, wheel brand, and on the road performance reputation – the wheels you choose can say a lot about you when you pull up for a group ride even before you utter a word.
Stealth, deep carbon? Rocket Man!
Shallow, stock alloys? Rookie.
Brand name, mid-depth all-arounds? Triple threat… or poseur.
With the road bike world moving to bikes with disc brakes, much of what we know and how we think about road cycling will change. And with that, we’ll need to look into our souls afresh to see what kind of wheelsets we want to ride in this new world.
Until the last year or so, bikes and wheels set up for use with disc brakes were the province of mountain bikers and their young cyclocross cousins. Many serious roadies, the enthusiasts who put thousands of miles or kilometers a year riding most days on good roads and nice bikes couldn’t relate to the disc brake world. MTB and CX wheels came in different rim sizes than the ones on road bikes, with knobby wide tires on wheels that jump stumps or plow through mud and sand, and were always dirty. Different world.
But now, we roadies are moving to bikes with disc brakes. In a post about why and when to buy a road bike with disc brakes, I detailed the compelling braking, speed and versatility benefits that convinced me to recommend you make one of these your next road bike. I also wrote a piece reviewing some of the best road disc bikes to consider and another that evaluated the design, products and performance of the disc brake components themselves.
In this review, I look into the emerging world of road wheels used with disc brakes or ‘road disc wheelsets.’ I’ll give you my take on where we are now, what matters, which road disc wheelsets rate well, and what characteristics define them. While I can’t get into your soul, I’ll try to tell you what makes this new family of wheels roll and hopefully help you better express yourself as a disc brake roadie.
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There’s a lot of to share with you about road disc wheels including the list of topics below. You can read through the entire review or click below on the section you are most interested in reading first then click the back button on your browser return to this navigation aid.
I’ve updated and extended this review with a post entitled:
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ROAD DISC WHEELSET DEVELOPMENTS
In my introductory post on why and when you should get a road disc bike, I wrote:
I expect road disc wheels will change and improve a good amount each year over the next few years with more aerodynamic and lighter wheels, having been freed of the constraints of designing around a brake track and with more purpose-built road disc hubs. We’re really at the earliest stages of development for road disc wheels and while cyclocross disc versions of popular road rim wheels have been around for a while, that product segment has been too small to put dedicated design resources against.
The speed at which new rim and wheel designs can be created, tested and brought to market, and the number of companies in the wheelset market able and willing to invest in the much larger road wheel market to get a leg up are both great. Wider, more aerodynamic and lighter rims will make for quicker accelerating, faster overall, and better handling disc wheels.
Today’s disc brake wheels used on CX (cyclocross) bikes are a combination of road bike rims designed for rim brakes and hubs originally designed for mountain bike wheels. They have more spokes in the front wheel than a conventional rim brake road wheel to handle the additional forces created by braking at rotor attached to the hub versus the rim and are laid out typically in a 2-cross versus the radial spoke pattern you see in most front rim brake road wheel. And because the hubs on CX disc brake wheels are beefier and the rear ones are also wider than those on road bike hubs, you have bigger spoke angles and wider rear fork spacing.
The extra front spokes, wider rear hubs, and bigger rear spoke angles along with the wider rims most CX wheels are built on creates a laterally stiffer wheelset. At the same time, you can make the wheels vertically more compliant or ‘comfortable’ by using the extra air volume of the wider rims to run the tires at lower pressures and by running many of them tubeless.
While these disc brake wheels work very well for CX bikes and for disc brake equipped road bikes, they are not designed from the ground up for either. With the size of the road bike market, I expect we’ll see that happen.
Specifically, with purpose-designed and built road disc wheelsets, I expect to see the following developments:
- Reduced rim weight. Without the need for the rims to support braking loads, the outer section of the rim wall previously designed to handle the braking forces and perhaps other parts of the rim won’t need to be as thick, shaving some weight. The ENVE SES 3.4 and DT Swiss RC 28 and 38 Spline C models are the only road disc wheelsets that are actually lighter than their rim brake siblings at this point, albeit 20 to 60 grams lighter. But, consider that mid-depth disc brake wheels from Zipp, Reynolds, Vision and others are 160-180 grams heavier than their rim brake clincher models and we are talking about a 200 gram swing between disc brake wheel weights of competitive brands.
I don’t know how much of this difference is due to the rim thickness but I would expect the larger volume wheel makers will be working hard to shed weight from their road disc wheelsets before their next model year introductions. Smaller volume wheel makers may see little value in doing more than remove the rim brake treatment for their road disc models (I’ve heard this from a few), unable or unwilling to take on the added engineering design and production expense of separate road disc rims until they are forced to by their competitive disadvantage.
- Reduced hub weight. Most current CX disc brake wheel hubs are designed for the forces that off-road riding puts on a set of wheels, higher than those they would experience riding on paved roads. Many of these hubs also have built-in some amount of convertibility to use larger diameter through axles (see this VeloNews article) should your bike require them or if that standard takes over from quick release. Combining these, it’s clear that durability and future-proofing has been taking priority over weight reduction for the CX hubs that are now being used on most wheels that one could use on a road bike with disc brakes.
Once the demand for road disc bikes takes over rim ones, and hopefully sooner, I believe the leading hub makers will design and build hubs for these bikes that are lighter than currently available. You only need look at what companies like Campy and Mavic already do to reduce the weight of their low profile alloy wheels by as little as 50 grams by switching out hub shells made of steel for aluminum or carbon (while jacking up the price) to see what’s possible when the demand is there. Being at the center of the wheel rather than at the rotating outside, these hub weight reductions have more of a marketing benefit than any real performance benefit. That said, they are a point of differentiation for companies and I’d expect we’ll see lighter weight hubs on new wheelsets around model year 2017.
- More aerodynamic rim profiles. When Zipp commercialized the innovative rounded or toroid shaped rim profile, it greatly improved wheel aerodynamics, a key to both speed and acceleration. Not only were the inside edge, where the spokes meet the rim, rounded as opposed to the box-section or V-shaped designs of others, their maximum width exceeded the width of the rim at the brake track. Zipp and many of other wheel designers who use the same approach including Bontrager, ENVE, HED, and Vision continue the toroid shape, tapering the width all the way to the trailing edge of the rim to maximize the aero benefit. To accomplish this, they use angled rather than parallel brake tracks.
Most of the largest wheel makers including Shimano, Campy/Fulcrum, DT Swiss, Mavic and Reynolds have stayed with box-section or at best U-shaped wheels with parallel rim profiles and brake tracks for both their deep and mid-depth carbon wheels (clinchers and tubular) as well as their shallower carbon-alloy or alloy wheelsets.
Again, elimination of brake track engineering considerations – be they angled or parallel – should encourage more companies to develop more aerodynamic profiles across more of their disc brake wheelset designs. I expect the higher end carbon wheelset designers and builders mentioned above to take the lead here for the next couple years with the larger independent and OEM brands following once sales of new, enthusiast-level road disc brake bikes outpace rim brake ones 2 or 3 years from now. Hopefully lower profile, more reasonably priced road disc alloy wheelsets will also follow, adopting more rounded rim shapes.
- Phasing out of carbon-alloy wheelsets. Quite simply, with road disc brakes making wheel brake tracks obsolete, there is no need for a carbon wheel with an alloy brake track. This hybrid material wheel has served us well in the rim brake era for those wanting the light weight of carbon and the braking confidence of aluminum. That era will soon pass and these wheels along with it.
- Dominant, yet still competing and likely convertible standards. I wrote a fair amount about different hub axle standards (quick release vs. through-axle), rotor sizes (140mm vs. 160mm) and rotor attachment standards (CenterLock vs. 6 bolt) in the design sections of my earlier posts on road disc brakes and bikes referenced at the beginning of this one. Suffice it to say that Shimano favors the first of each of these options and they are already in a leading position with most of the road disc bike makers. So while I expect these standards will co-exist and many wheels will continue to build in the convertibility we see now between these standards, I expect the Shimano preferred approach will dominate over time and wheelsets will increasingly provide a standard-dedicated solution, optimized for the dominant standard.
With all of these developments underway, should you wait to buy a road disc bike or wait to upgrade the stock wheelset that came on the road disc bike you bought? It really depends how important aerodynamics or weight is to the kind or riding you do and whether you are willing to pay extra for these benefits.
As I described in my post on why and when to by a road disc bike, enthusiasts that race probably want to hold off a couple of years until the bike and component manufacturers react to equipment decisions made by the racing governing body. Endurance and endurance event riders who have decided to buy a road disc bike should be in the market now and looking closely at the options this year and next. Road disc bike gear including frames, shifters and brakes are already far along and some of the wheelsets I’ll recommend later have indeed already advanced along the development path I’ve just described.
And if you are an enthusiast focused on building and maintaining fitness and you don’t race or do other quasi-competitive events, the next couple years of gear developments won’t provide much benefit in your riding and isn’t worth holding off for if you are ready to buy your next road bike now.
When evaluating wheelsets, I consider 20 specific criteria that fall into one of four categories – performance, design, quality and cost. You can read the descriptions of those criteria here.
While all of these criteria are important, some are more important depending on what you are intending to use the wheelset for. Braking performance, for example, is more important on rim brake wheelsets used by riders doing climbing and descending than by time trialists or triathletes who don’t brake much and for whom aerodynamic performance is one of the most important wheelset criteria. And while design criteria like weight and rim depth are worth noting and may (or may not) deliver the intended performance, a wheelset’s actual acceleration, stiffness and comfort, for example, is far more important than its many of its design specifications.
When it comes to a road disc brake bike, most cycling enthusiasts buying one will likely be doing so for its superior braking performance, its ability to be ridden more aggressively and faster down hills and into and out of corners, and for the versatility to ride it in most any weather or road terrain on one good set of wheels.
For these reasons, a good road disc brake wheelset should be a versatile, top performing all-rounder. Good on flats and rollers, in the mountains, on long rides, when going fast, in the endurance or club race competition, and for any day of the week, any weather, and any on-the-road purpose. Not a dedicated or optimized climbing or aero or club racing or commuter or cruising wheelset but a wheelset that does all those things well. That’s a tall order, especially at a good price, but it’s a good goal for wheelset designers and builders to shoot for, and for we enthusiasts to want from our disc brake wheels and for our cycling dollars.
With that as our goal, here’s my evaluation of the wheels that come with the 2015 model year road disc brake bikes, the handful of low profile alloy upgrade wheelsets that come in disc brake models, and the all-carbon all-around disc brake wheelsets available.
As you can see from the following two charts, there is a pretty broad range of wheels that come with the new road disc bikes. Many of these are inexpensive, entry-level, alloy wheels traditionally know as ‘stock wheels’.
Several of the wheelsets that come on this year’s new road disc bikes however are expensive all-carbon wheels – the BMC RWD01 (made by DT Swiss), Cannondale Czero Carbon (made by FSA), Roval Rapide CLX 40, Vision Metron 40 and Zipp 202. These are far superior to basic stock wheels. Whether you would choose to put those wheels on your bike in the first place is debatable. I evaluate some of these wheels below to help you make that decision.
A few of the wheelsets on these charts are alloy ‘upgrade’ wheelsets, better than most stock wheels. These include the Mavic Ksyrium Pro, Vision Team 30 and Shimano RX830. As with the carbon ones mentioned above, I evaluate these wheels below.
There are also a good number of additional all-carbon and a few alloy disc brake wheelsets to consider that don’t come equipped on any of these bikes. These are reviewed below as well.
The true stock wheels – the ones that come with the new bikes but aren’t all-carbon or alloy upgrades – are made mostly by DT Swiss (under their own brand and for Specialized under the Axis brand), Mavic and Shimano. Giant sells disc brake versions of its own stock alloy wheels for its bikes, Trek owned Bontrager likewise makes stock disc brake wheelsets mostly for Trek Bikes, and Cannondale is using basic wheels made by Fulcrum and Maddux for a its Synapse Carbon endurance and CAAD10 racing bikes.
This group of stock wheels, like most entry-level wheelsets, are heavy (most >1750g) and low profile (most 23mm) wheels with rims made of aluminum alloys. The steel hubs are durable and most are easy to service but not particularly smooth or quick. They are likely to be comfortable and suitable for 25mm width tires as their rims measure at 17-18mm where the tire meets the rim bead (or ‘inner width’) and 22-23mm at the outer edge where the conventional rim brake tracks (or ‘outside width’) are found.
With the miles you put on your bike as a road cycling enthusiast, these wheelsets will likely be sufficiently stiff, ride comfortably and last for a long time. They will not, however go as fast, be as responsive or accelerate, handle or climb as well as the bike’s frame would allow you, given a better set of wheels.
The hubs on better wheels are likely to be smoother and lighter than on the stock ones and some components like spokes will be more easily replaced than some of the proprietary ones Shimano or Mavic uses. Upgraded wheels, most being lighter and many more aero, will provide the versatility to do climbing, long flats on endurance rides and club racing equally well. Among the many choices of upgrade wheelsets, you may also find one you prefer the look of more than the stock one, which is an important selection criterion for some.
If you prefer different wheels than the alloy or carbon wheels that come with these new road disc bikes, look seriously at buying the frame, components and wheels you prefer separately and assemble them yourself or have the bike ‘built-up’ for you. Not only will you get exactly what you want, you won’t spend money on wheels that come with your bike that you don’t want. You also won’t absorb the full amount of the component mark-ups that many local bike stores add in as part of the price of the bike versus the price you’d pay for them online.
If you don’t assemble it yourself, expect to pay $250 (£150) or so to have someone do it for you. That’s a small cost compared to what you’ll save by specifying and buying the components separately.
You can see in the chart above which bikes are sold as a frameset. The links to good stores that have them in stock at the best prices can be found in my post on road disc bikes (here). You can also see links to the best prices on Shimano and SRAM disc brakesets in my review of those (here). And I provide you best prices on individual disc brake wheelsets below.
ALLOY UPGRADE WHEELSETS
Of course, getting a better performing set of wheels comes at a cost. Whereas stock wheels would typically cost $400 (£275, €350) or less to replace at competitive market rates, an alloy upgrade rim brake wheelset will run from $400 (£275, €450) to as much as $1500 (£1100, €1400). Good all-carbon upgrade rim brake wheelsets will typically run from around $1500 (£1100, €1400) to as much as $3000 (£2250, €2800).
[By the way, if the numbers above suggest I’ve got my exchange rates wrong, please appreciate that market demand, pricing strategies and tax policies in different countries combine to create lower total realized consumer payments for wheelsets being delivered to those living in the US ($) versus those in the UK (£) , EU (€), AU, NZ, JP or most anywhere else in the world.]
Unfortunately, the alloy upgrade road disc wheelset options are limited at the present time. While Shimano, Mavic, Campagnolo and Fulcrum offer a wide range of the alloy upgrade rim brake wheelsets and probably own the lion’s share of this segment of the market, Shimano and Mavic make only one upgrade disc brake wheelset and Campy and Fulcrum don’t make any. DT Swiss make stock road disc wheelsets but also make only one alloy upgrade. Bontragers make a good stock wheel that could double as an average upgrade. Easton, Citec and Ritchey make neither stock or alloy upgrade road disc wheelsets.
All of this is further confirmation that the road disc market is young. Discussions I’ve had with customer service reps who’ve answered the phone at some of the wheelset companies that are either making or not yet making alloy upgrade road disc wheelsets suggest they are waiting for the road disc bike market to prove itself before moving more aggressively to promote alloy upgrade wheels. (Note: To avoid the company ‘spin’, I usually don’t talk to product or marketing managers.) The upgrade segment is the middle ground between high volume stock wheels and high margin all-carbon wheels, both of which are currently moving faster for disc wheelsets.
There are seven alloy upgrade road disc wheelsets available from larger, long-established, well-distributed and supported brands – one each from Shimano, Mavic, Reynolds and HED and two from American Classic.
Unfortunately, I don’t think any of them meet the goal of a versatile, top performing all-rounder I established earlier in this post. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high. Even though at $1000 (£700, €900) plus or minus a few hundred, these are priced at roughly half that of the all-carbon road disc wheelsets, it seems too much to pay considering their current limitations.
I’ll try to be more specific in my summary evaluations of each.
If I couldn’t afford an all-carbon road disc wheelset, didn’t want to ride a road disc bike with a stock alloy wheel and had to pick one of these alloy upgrade wheels, I’d go with the HED Ardennes Plus SL Disc (available at Planet X, Western Bike Works). It’s only about 80 grams heavier than it’s rim brake sibling, rides as comfortably as its rim width would suggest (20.6mm inner, 25mm outer) and handles extremely well.
The disc brake version of this wheel is stiffer than its rim brake sibling, which was a concern I expressed about the latter in my rim brake upgrade wheelset review. While it’s not going to be an aero star, its rim width gives it a rolling resistance boost with the right tires inflated to the right pressure.
Like most in this category, it’s tubeless ready. But unlike most, its hubs are convertible between quick release and through axle and CenterLock and 6 bolt. This gives you lots of options to use this set on different bikes over time.
Taken all together, this wheelset will be a better climber, handler, more comfortable and convertible with about the same (uninspiring) aero performance as the other alloy upgrades road disc wheels. It’s one of the more expensive of the bunch, but you get more from it than the others in this category.
Unlike the others evaluated in this group, the Shimano WH-RX830 (ProBikeKit, Chain Reaction, Merlin, Bike24) was designed from scratch to be a road disc wheelset and to be an upgrade over the entry-level RX31 stock set. Its alloy rims are carbon wrapped, similar to the Shimano C24 and C35 rim brake wheelsets, but the carbon on these extends all the way to the trailing edge since there is no need to expose an alloy brake track.
At a measured 32.5mm deep, it has the deepest profile of any of the alloy upgrades and its 17.9mm inner and 23mm outer width brings Shimano alloy wheels into the modern wide wheelset age, enabling you to comfortably use 25mm wide rubber on one of their road clinchers for the first time (though 23mm tires will be more aero). It’s also tubeless compatible whereas the rim brake C24 and C35 wheelsets come in separate clincher (CL) and tubeless (TL) versions, the later being more expensive. It is encouraging to see Shimano follow its road disc brakeset leadership with some advances in its road disc wheelset line.
Unfortunately, the RX830 is a heavy wheelset (1860g measured weight excluding quick releases and tubeless valves) with a boxy rim profile, uses an Ultegra level hub, and carries a $1000 market price. I haven’t ridden them yet and haven’t seen a write-up or talked to anyone who has experienced them so I should probably hold off on judging them. But with their specifications, I don’t expect these wheels would climb well, be very aero, or roll any better than other alloy upgrades. Perhaps knowing and loving the Shimano Dura Ace C24 and C35 rim brake wheelsets as much as I do, I’d have a hard time paying more for the RX830s with the unfavorable expectations I now have of what I’d get from them.
Unlike Shimano’s development of unique stock and alloy upgrade wheels for road disc bikes, the Mavic Ksyrium Pro Disc (Competitive Cyclist, ProBikeKit, Chain Reaction) is essentially a road disc version of its Ksyrium SLS alloy upgrade rim brake wheelset. It’s light (1535g) for a road disc wheelset but that is in part due to its narrow rim (measured 14.4mm inner, 19.4 outer widths), shallow depth (26mm) and mix of carbon (front) and alloy (rear) hub shells. Ksyrium’s are typically stiff and responsive but not very comfortable. Even though these wheels come with a 25mm wide version of the Yksion tires Mavic pairs with all of its wheels, it’s hard to imagine these narrow rims will be any more comfortable on a larger tire than the SLS (with similar width dimensions) is on its 23mm. Like all the other Ksyriums, it has a box section rim profile, one shown to be amongst the least aerodynamic shapes. There’s little to get excited about these wheels and the price (tires included) makes it even less attractive.
Like the Mavic, the Reynolds Stratus Pro Disc Brake (Competitive Cyclist, JensonUSA) is a road disc version of its alloy upgrade rim brake wheelset of the same name. It’s nearly 200g heavier and uses the same rim (17mm inner, 21 mm outer width, tubeless ready) of its rim brake sibling, the only two alloy wheels in the Reynolds line. While I’m a fan of Reynolds Performance line of carbon wheels (Attack, Assault SLG and Strike SLG), there’s nothing about this wheel that stands out. Even Reynolds rates this wheel best suited for cyclocross and gravel riding and less so for rolling (3 out of 5), flats or climbing (2 out of 5) on the road.
American Classic has two alloy upgrade wheel models, each coming in a rim brake and disc brake format. Both the Argent Road Tubeless Disc (Amazon) and Hurricane Tubeless Disc (Amazon, American Classic) and their rim brake siblings have bead hooks designed to run tubeless tires first and foremost. While traditional tube and tire clinchers work, you aren’t getting what these wheelsets were designed for and do best unless you run tubeless.
Certain tubeless tires however, like the hot Schwalbe One work are recommended for these rims while those with carbon beads, like the popular Hutchinson Fusion don’t fit easily or well and the company recommends against using them. Both American Classic wheelset models keep their weight down by using rims on both their rim and disc brake wheels that are thinner than most wheelsets from other companies. They are moderately wide, similar to the Shimano RX830 but not as wide as the HED Ardennes Plus. Coming standard with thru-axle hubs and 6 bolt brake rotor interfaces, they need to (and can) be retrofitted to work with most road disc bikes today that are set up for quick release and CenterLock interfaces.
The Argent wheels are amongst the most expensive alloy upgrade road disc wheels available but are also on the deeper (30mm) and lighter (1531 grams claimed) end of the field. They have a nicely rounded leading edge but don’t feel any more aero or quick than shallower or less rounded rims. Perhaps there’s only so much you can do to make 30mm of depth more aero. Because this disc brake wheelset shares the same rim with the rim brake model, the rounded rim profile changes to a flat one for the parallel brake track used on the rim brake wheels. The Argents handle well and ride comfortably but at this price and with their unique combination of tire and hub set-ups, they really serve a distinct (read: narrow) customer taste.
The Hurricane is designed for heavy, rough riders on any type of road surface. With 32 spokes front and back, they are very stiff and will take whatever you are willing to dish out. Going for about half the price of the Argent, they are ideal for someone who wants to ride off-road probably as much as they do on it. So if you have a cyclocross bike and want to do some gravel riding on your road bike, these wheels would work in both set-ups.
Fortunately, for those who want that versatile, do everything well, road disc all-around wheelset, there are several good choices amongst the all-carbon road disc wheels.
Unfortunately, it’s going to cost you. So, depending on what you are willing (or able) to pay, I’ll offer you recommendations for a best performer (price be damned) and a best value (that still performs well). I’ll also give you my evaluations of the others, some of which are quite good alternatives and some that aren’t there yet.
The ENVE SES 3.4 Disc Clincher gets my nod for best performing road disc wheelset. While ENVE’s rim brake wheels are on most people’s short list of carbon wheelsets alongside those from Zipp, Reynolds, HED and Bontrager, their road disc set stands alone atop this new category.
They are the first of this top-tier of carbon wheel makers to eliminate material no longer needed in the rim’s brake track, reducing rim weight by about 100 grams. And, despite adding beefier versions of DT 240 hubs front and back and extra spokes to the front wheels to handle the braking forces on the centers of the wheels, this road disc brake wheelsets’ claimed weight is actually about 20 grams less than its rim brake brother.
When you compare that to similar depth wheels like Reynolds 46 Aero Disc and Zipp’s 303 Firecrest which add 160 and 180 grams as disc brake wheels you can see why ENVE SES 3.4 Disc wheelset at 1460 grams is over 200 grams lighter than the Zipp, Reynolds, Vision and Corima clinchers of similar depth. Roval, Zipp and DT Swiss have lower profile or narrower wheels of similar weight. More on each of these later.
Of course claimed weights are almost always a myth, notoriously below actual measured weights. I have found this to be true regardless of wheel maker. For both the ENVE SES 3.4 rim and disc brake wheels the measured weights are indeed more than the claimed weights but the difference favors the disc brake set even more over the rim brake ones. I don’t suggest you get hung up on this as wheels weights come out of production within a range and measured weights vary too depending on who is measuring them. It’s clear though that ENVE has pulled off a lighter disc brake wheelset than its rim brake one and done it at the rim where it matters most.
Another caution is that wheel weight is just one of many criteria in selecting a wheelset (see mine here), but unfortunately the one that many of us put way too much emphasis on. (I know, I’m doing it now in the process of trying to get you to not do it.) Rim weight is more important, since rotating mass matters more than static mass, but that measurement is often hard to find unless the rims are sold separately. Some companies offer a line of wheels with the same rims using different hub bodies, flanges and spokes of increasingly lighter material (going from steel to aluminum to carbon) to justify price increases with each 30 to 50 grams of less weight. (See Campagnolo and Mavic alloy wheels, for examples.)
Also recognize that most cycling enthusiasts can’t tell wheel weight differences less than 150 to 200 grams. You can’t. Not even going up a hill. Not even you weight weenies. So note the weight, yes, but don’t obsess over it. Performance matters more than weight.
In terms of performance, these wheels are fast on the straights, climb with ease and handle extremely well in and out of corners. They are stiff and responsive yet comfortable. The DT 240 hubs spin well, a known and easy hub to service that is used on many top-shelf wheels. There’s the option to get a Chris King R45 hub if you want a more distinctive and colorful look and sound. (They will add about 50 grams and a couple hundred dollars.)
I’m not a rocket scientist, but several comparative wind tunnel tests show these rims to be as aerodynamic as any of their competition. Once you get them up to speed they just keep on going, a truly wonderful feeling. Their performance in crosswinds is also well-behaved. You’ll feel the wind, but with the ENVEs it seems less forceful and the wheelset’s reaction is more predictable than with most others this deep.
Unique amongst carbon wheelsets, ENVE pairs a 35mm deep, 26mm wide (outside width) front rim for handling with a 45mm deep, 24 mm wide rear one for aerodynamics. This answers a question I get a lot – should I get the Zipp 202 for the mountains and the 303s for the rollers, flats, club races and everything else? The answer is … get the ENVE 3.4 as they will do both well. The hubs are also convertible from the Shimano brake system-compatible and currently dominant CenterLock and quick release standard to the less common but Trek preferred thru-axle hubs and 6 bolt rotor systems.
So this is the versatile, do everything well, road disc all-around wheelset that I set as a target. There is so much to like. They appear to be a year or two in front of the others in road disc wheelsets yet thoroughly tested and proven in the rim world and future-proofed with their hub compatibility.
Ah, but the price. It’s steep and not discounted. Is it too much? Well that’s for each of us to decide. But, I don’t think it’s too far out of proportion for the 30-40% of a bike’s total cost that I set aside for wheels and what you see some of the new top-of-the-line road disc bikes going for. Remember, when you go road disc, you won’t need to buy 3 sets of wheels like you do with a rim brake bike – 1) an all-carbon mid-depth wheelset for dry, all-round group or event type riding, 2) a lower profile set with alloy brake tracks for the mountains and wet weather and 3) that n+1 set for whatever reason you thought you had to have it.
ENVE wheels also have a 5-year warranty and lifetime crash replacement – unheard of in the carbon wheel game and probably worth a tidy sum not having to shell out for another wheelset that craps out in year three of its life.
Here’s where I recommend you get them for the best combination of low price, currently in inventory and good customer service.
If you can’t quite swallow the cost of the ENVEs or run the risk of getting strung up by your spouse if you try, the Reynolds Assault SLG Disc Brake is a very good performer and a great value at about $1200 less than the ENVEs in the market. They are my recommendation for best value all-carbon road disc wheelset.
Reynolds has created a very nice line of value-priced all-carbon wheelsets – the Attack (29mm deep), Assault SLG (41mm) and Strike SLG (62mm) – to sit below with its top priced line of 46mm and deeper, higher priced Aero and RZR wheels. The Attack and Assault SLGs now come in a disc brake versions and it’s the latter that I’m recommending here.
Why? On-the-road comfort, handling and acceleration are all very good. They are stiff and responsive. They handle cross-winds without a problem. They climb well, coming in at a weight (claimed 1565g, sets measured at 1550g and 1597g) that is less than 100 grams more for the disc brake version over the rim brake one.
They are wide (17mm inner, 24 mm out), mid depth (41mm), and have a toroid shaped rim profile for great aerodynamics. They are also tubeless ready, use DT Swiss spokes that you can find most places, and have external nipples if you need to true them. CenterLock and QR for compatibility with most road disc bikes.
If all of this sounds modern and up-to-date, well it’s probably because the rims were introduced last season and the disc brake model for this season. They’ve incorporated the latest designs and made some reasonable bets on dominant standards. I think the design choices will stand up well for several years. I know these wheels will provide great, versatile, all-round performance on the road without you having to pay top of the market prices.
Here’s where I suggest you get them for the combination of price, inventory and service
As of As of February 20, 2016
ProBikeKit $1368, £972, €1312, AU$2148 code Wheels20
Other Carbon Disc Brake Wheelsets
Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher Disc-brake (Competitive Cyclist, eBay Cycling, Amazon, ProBikeKit, Tweeks, Merlin) – I’m a huge fan of the rim brake version of the Zipp 303 Firecrest, recommending it as the best performer in my review of all-around rim brake road wheels. It has been the leader and standard setter in speed/aerodynamics, stiffness, responsiveness, comfort, braking, and crosswind management. The Firecrest rim brake wheelsets have also been a price leader but, if you are patient and follow my store recommendations, it’s possible to pick them up at 20-30% below the manufacturer’s price (MSRP or RRP).
The disc brake version of this wheelset causes me to pause however, in part because of what the recommended ENVE wheelset has done to jump out front in the road disc category and in part for what Zipp hasn’t done to keep up. Zipp didn’t change anything about the rims used on the disc wheels other than to stop sanding the brake track. The result is the 303s weigh about 200 grams more than the ENVE 3.4, an amount at which the road cycling enthusiast will feel a difference.
Yes, Zipp did introduce new hubs for these wheelsets (and the 202 Firecrest reviewed below). They got rid of the pre-load adjustment ability and went back to cartridge bearings to reduce the exposure to and effects of moisture. The hubs also are convertible between quick release and thru-axle standards. Much of this change was targeted to the off-road rider whose environment and frame options will benefit most from these changes.
Zipp introduced their disc brake 303 clincher in July 2013 for the 2014 model year. While that’s not too long ago, it was a period when road disc was still dawning and cyclocross was the on the rise, especially with the success of Zipp and parent SRAM sponsored athletes on the cyclocross race circuit. When the 303 disc brake model was introduced, Zipp’s representative told Cyclocross Magazine that rather than thinning it, they “kept the rim the same… because the same amount of material was needed to retain the rim’s aerodynamics and stiffness.” OK…
Judging from what Zipp has done to rim design over the years, I have no doubt that they’ll be able to figure out how to reduce the amount of material, improve the aerodynamics and maintain the stiffness in a future version of this wheelset, once the market establishes the demand is there. With SRAM investing so heavily in hydraulic disc brake components for CX and road bikes, I think it will only be a matter of time before their SRAM-owned brand Zipp follows with a similar investment in their road disc wheels.
Zipp 202 Firecrest Carbon Clincher Disc-brake (Competitive Cyclist, ProBikeKit, Tweeks, Merlin) – While I think it’s a splendid wheel, I’ve never really understood why one would buy the 202 Firecrest clincher rim brake wheelset with the 303 in the same product line. Why go for an all-carbon, all-round clincher wheel that is only 32mm deep (the 202) when you can have one that is 45m deep, wider and faster/more aero for the same price (the 303)?
True, the 202 is lighter, but not by enough to make a difference in the mountains for all but serious racers and they would go with the still lighter and better/safer braking 202 tubular anyway. And at this depth, you can find much lighter carbon clincher wheels for climbing and much cheaper (and lighter) alloy wheels that are shallower but probably not much different aerodynamically.
Does it handle better than the 303? Is it more responsive? Better in cross-winds? Better in crits or club races? I don’t think the road cycling enthusiast would notice any difference. Perhaps Zipp just feels it’s important to have something in that depth to fill out its product line. Adding it last to the Firecrest line as they did suggests to me that this may have been one of their motivations.
So what does the road disc brake version add to the mix? Well like the 303, putting on beefier hubs and additional spokes without changing the rims adds another 175 grams to its weight. It now weighs more than the deeper rim ENVE 3.4. While Zipp’s hubs may be a bit smoother and quicker to engage than the DT Swiss 240s used on the ENVE road disc wheels, they only mount up 6 bolt rotors which work with SRAM’s disc brake calipers. Yes, SRAM makes a fine disc brakeset (see my review here) but Shimano’s disc brakes are currently more widely used (and roughly half the price) and it’s smart now to get road disc wheels that give you the option to easily use either brakeset.
DT Swiss RC 38 Spline C DB (Amazon, Chain Reaction) and DT Swiss RC 28 Spline C DB (Chain Reaction) – DT Swiss is a major spoke, hub and wheelset maker. Their spokes and hubs are pretty well-known and show up on mid to higher priced wheelsets assembled by others. DT’s complete wheelsets are made for and branded by others at the stock wheel level (e.g. Axis for Specialized) and under their own brand name for road and mountain bikes from shallow alloy up to deep profile carbon.
These RC (which stands for road carbon) 38 and 28 (mm depth) Spline (hub model) C (clincher) DB (disc brake) wheels are new for this season and represent the top of DT’s road disc line. At claimed weights of 1455g and 1325g they are among the lightest of the all-carbon road disc wheels out there. But, at 15mm internal and 21mm external width, they are also the narrowest, a width that most major wheel manufacturers have moved past both for new low profile alloy and deeper carbon rims.
The results on the road are consistent with what you might expect from this design. They accelerate well and roll smoothly. They handle well though get pushed around by crosswinds more than most and don’t feel as fast as wider, deeper wheels with more rounded leading edges. Running them tubeless would make them roll a bit more comfortably.
While the hubs connect to either Shimano’s CenterLock (standard) or SRAM preferred 6 bolt (option) rotors, they connect only to thru-axle forks.
At their market price, these could be considered a relative ‘value’ compared to other carbon wheelsets however their rim widths, aero performance and thru-axle limitations make them less desirable.
Roval Rapide CLX 40 Disc SCS (Evans) – This wheelset is the epitome of a house brand. As of now, Specialized Tarmac Disc bikes can only effectively use the Roval Rapide CLX 40 Disc wheels and you can’t simply switch this wheelset on and off other road disc bikes. As my mom would say in disbelief – whaaaaaat?
It seems that Specialized was firm on not lengthening the chain stays and thereby messing with the rear triangle and frame design on their Tarmacs to accommodate where the cassette sits on the 5mm wider, disc brake hub. So they had Roval design a rear hub for this wheelset that would seat the cassette further in, at the same location as on a standard 130mm rear hub. If you put another disc wheel on the bike with a standard disc brake 135mm hub and cassette placement, the chain line will foul when you cross chain (small-small or large-large ring-cog gearing) rendering those shift positions useless.
What limits the CLX 40 Disc wheelset to the Tarmac and S-Works Roubaix, which it also comes on? Along with the special hub on these wheels, Specialized uses a unique rear derailleur hanger to move the chain up and down the uniquely positioned cassette. Sure, if you wanted to use these wheels on another road disc bike you could order one of these unique derailleur hangers, uninstall your standard derailleur hanger, replace it with this one, and adjust the rear caliper. But that’s an hour job or a trip to the shop each time you want to switch out wheels.
Now if you plan on doing all that only once, and I’m definitely in the camp of buying one set of do-it-all wheels for road disc bikes, this wheelset may be worth a closer look. They are as light as the ENVE 3.4, nearly as wide, and are a good deal less expensive. They come with the QR and CenterLock standard most in use and have well-regarded DT 240 rear disc hub internals like the ENVEs.
Their leading edges are a bit boxy however, neither rounded or V-shaped as more aerodynamic wheels usually are, and the wheels get pushed around in the cross winds more than most. But, if you are willing to work with this and deal with the unique rear hub and derailleur, the CXL 40 price makes them another good option to the ENVE 3.4 and Assault SLG road disc models.
Vision Metron 40 Clincher Disc (PlanetX) – Vision, which has focused for 20+ years on aerodynamic triathlon components, dove into the road cycling wheelset market a half-dozen years ago leveraging the late Steve Hed’s (HED Cycling) open patents for toroid profile wheel rims that were first licensed to and commercialized by Zipp.
Vision introduced 40mm (and 55mm) rim brake clincher and tubular wheelsets with the toroid shaped rim profile several years ago and more recently introduced a clincher disc version using the same rim. Like the Zipp 303 and 202 and Reynolds 46 wheelsets, their disc wheelset adds about 180 grams (claimed weight) but maintains its wide rim dimensions, 17mm inner and 25mm outer (at the former brake track).
While neither I nor any of my sources have had a chance to ride or report about their experience with the road disc model, I’ve ridden the rim brake Metron 40 and its a solid if uninspiring wheelset. In my earlier all-around wheelset comparative review, I wrote that the Metron 40 are stiff, fast, spin up well but aren’t the most comfortable wheels I’ve been on, even with a pair of 25mm tires mounted and inflated at 85-90psi. They were somewhat affected by cross winds requiring some counter steer, but nothing to worry about.
The Vision wheels are not distributed as broadly as some of the larger brands and their MSRP/RRP pricing is similar to the Zipps. They do offer quick release and thru-axle hub solutions but only 6 bolt rotor attachment as best I can tell.
Reynolds 46 Aero Disc Brake (Competitive Cyclist, ProBikeKit)– This is likely a good wheelset but compared to its 100 gram lighter and $1000 less expensive Assault SLG Disc Brake cousin and its 200 gram lighter and $200 more expensive ENVE 3.4 Disc Clincher competitor, it’s hard to get my head wrapped around the reasons why a road cycling enthusiast should go for these.
It really comes down to which aerodynamic theory or experience you buy into. The Reynolds 46 takes an updated old-school approach to getting aerodynamic lift from their rims while fighting off the crosswinds. Unlike the modern rounded leading edge and toroid profile of Zipp, Enve, HED and others (including Reynolds own Assault SLG wheelsets), the Reynolds Aero series use a traditional V-shaped leading edge and profile that flattens out to a parallel profile about half back to the trailing edge.
Greg Kopecky, the technical guru who writes for the triathlon site Slowtwitch, did a good piece here on Reynolds V-shaped approach and the rounded leading edge alternatives. Frankly, it’s too much for me (and perhaps some of you) to fully get through without a few reads but the link to it is there if you want to give it a go. I guess triathletes are just smarter than roadies, or at least this roadie. Suffice it to say, Reynolds design also works for reasons Greg has relayed.
Corima S 47mm Clincher Disc (Available only at local bike stores/independent bike dealers) – Like many of the other wheelsets mentioned above, Corima adds disc brake hubs and additional front spokes to its existing clincher rim to create its clincher disc wheels. Corima’s rim brake wheels have always used fewer spokes than most of its competition and adds just a couple to the front of the disc brake wheelset. Together, the additional spokes and disc brake hub add about 100 grams to the wheelset bringing it in at roughly the same weight as the Zipp 303, Metron 40, Reynolds 46 and Easton EC90 SL disc brake wheelsets. It is similarly shaped, a touch deeper than the Zipp and Reynolds, but not as wide (23mm outside width) as the others.
The names of the Corima wheels now reference the rim depth but this wheel uses the same rim as the Aero+ from before. As with some of the others, the disc brake version of this wheelset is new, it’s not widely available and neither I nor any of my sources have tested it.
Here’s what I wrote about the rim brake Aero+: “Stiff, comfortable ride with only minor correction needed in crosswinds. Accelerates and climbs well. Efficiency appears to trump speed – easier to turn the pedals than to go faster with this wheelset. Wheels notably quiet in nearly all road conditions and absorb poor road surfaces without interruption. A solid wheelset, but no one getting excited about its aero, speed or acceleration performance. Premium price for a wheelset whose ride doesn’t stand out and has a mid-width (less aero) opening and average weight.”
Since I wrote that, I could amend it with a name – Nibali – the winner of the 2014 Tour de France who rode Corima wheels. But, I could add Sagan to the Metron and other names to other wheels. Just playing with you. If you ride half as good as either of those guys, you’ll have someone sponsor you too.
Easton EC90 SL Disc Clincher (Amazon) – Similar story as many of the above. Rim brake wheel adopted for road disc, heavier (though only by 40 grams), high price, introduced for this model year, limited distribution, not tested, will update when I know more.
This wheel does have one design aspect that stands apart from all the rest – it is 28 (yes, twenty-eight) millimeters wide on the outside (and 19mm on the inside). And, since it is essentially a U-shaped profile, that 28mm is its width at the rim brake track, which is also its maximum with this rim profile. That is a whopping 2-3mm wider than anything else in the road disc category I’m aware of. Its hub can go with a QR or TA set-up but only connect to 6-bolt rotors.
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