THE BEST ALL-AROUND ROAD BIKE WHEELS – 2016
“Let’s take this right hand turn,” I thought to myself. Signal. Turn. “Back wheel is sliding out. Bring her back in. Agghhhh, I’m going to lose it. *!@#.”
It happened that fast. I was coming down a road I’d ridden a hundred times before. It was a moderate downhill, about a 5% grade. Except this time, I made a quick decision to take a right I had only taken before in my car.
I came into the turn too fast and with a bad line. Overcooked it. Back wheel went out. Moved the bars to compensate and then flipped over on my other side. I landed on a grassy median. Stood up. A little wobbly, but only a few scrapes. Nothing serious.
And then I looked at my bike. My rear wheel was twisted like a pretzel. My first thought: that’s going to cost a few bucks. My second: now there’s the excuse I’ve been looking for to finally upgrade my wheels!
I had been thinking about getting some new wheels for a while. I hadn’t really done much more than read up a little, look around at my bike shop and ask a couple of my riding buddies about their wheels. Now that I needed new wheels, or at least a new rear wheel, I began what became the odyssey that led me to start this blog.
Contents – The Best All-Around Road Bike Wheels
Keep reading or click on any of these links to go directly to another section of this review.
My trusted bike shop had a good selection but didn’t carry some of the major brands I was interested in. My go-to guys there – the one who runs the shop and the one who runs the service operation – were both wearing the same wheel manufacturer’s T-shirt the day I went in to talk wheels with them. Guess which kind of wheels I walked out with to try? Never rode them a mile.
I started doing some serious research and went through a lot of product reviews in magazines and websites that mostly highlighted what the writer liked about the wheels he was reviewing. He normally didn’t compare or rate the wheels he was reviewing against any others. A couple of high-end bike stores blogged reviews about the wheels they sold and surprise, they rated them highly. Some online stores cut and pasted the wheels’ product descriptions and marketing points into their listing as “reviews.”
I did come across some good, mostly independent reviewers and a few comments from experienced riders on online forums. It took a lot of time to find these proverbial needles in the haystack. Unfortunately, most of these reviewers and commentators had different views on what the most important criteria were in choosing between wheelsets and even what type of riding the same wheels would be best for.
Bottom line – I couldn’t find any shop, magazine, reviewer, site or online forum that comprehensively outlined the criteria for choosing a wheelset, reviewed and compared the best wheels generally available out in the market, told me what kind of riding they’d be best for, and provided a price comparison from retailers I could trust.
Oh, if I’d not made that quick decision to turn right. Now, it felt like I could make a really bad and expensive decision if I didn’t do something about the problems I’d come across in my search to find my next set of wheels. So I set out to come up with the right set of wheels, priced right and from the right place. In the process, I started a more simplified version of this blogsite to give my friends the benefit of what I had done to get myself in the know, so to speak.
And that’s what In The Know Cycling has become, only a good deal broader. It’s a site 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 from great stores. I do hours of my own testing and analysis on an entire category of cycling gear for each review and incorporate insights from other independent reviewers and riders I respect.
To eliminate potential bias, I don’t accept ads, go on company-paid product introduction trips or post press releases or “first look” reviews after a few hours using a product. I do what you would do when you are out looking for something new if you had more time and money – I demo or buy the gear I’m interested in, test ride it for at least several hundred miles and often much longer, write up comparative reviews of the gear I’ve tested across a category of cycling products and then return the demos and sell the gear I’ve bought that I don’t want to keep.
To support all of this I provide you regularly updated links to the lowest priced product listings for the gear I’ve reviewed at online stores that have the highest customer satisfaction ratings among the 100 or so I track. When you click on and buy something through those links, some of the stores (though not all) will pay the site a small commission that helps cover the costs of doing all of this. It doesn’t cost you a thing. In fact, since I find you the best deals from the best stores, you save time and money while supporting the creation of independent reviews and get your questions answered in the comments section by me and others. If you prefer to buy your gear at a local bike shop, you can support the site with a contribution here or buy anything through these links to Amazon or eBay.
For this review, I evaluated all-around wheelsets against a comprehensive set of performance, design, quality, and cost criteria. First, let me tell you which ones I recommend, why and where you can get them at the best current prices from online stores with high customer service and satisfaction ratings. After this, I’ll provide you much more detail about what went into this review and provide you summary evaluations of the other wheels considered and tell where you can get them at the best prices as well.
WHAT I RECOMMEND
For In The Know Cycling reviews, I evaluate product-specific criteria in four groups – performance, design, quality and cost. The criteria that matter most in those categories for all-around wheelsets are:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, handling and braking.
Design: Wheel weight and material, rim depth, rim inner and outer widths, rim profile, hub and spoke selection, and wheel finish.
Quality: Durability, warranties and service/support.
Cost: Purchase price, cost of ownership and replacement cost.
I detail what I mean by these criteria later in this review (here).
Considering the range of options the road cycling enthusiast has in choosing an all-around wheelset, I’m recommending products in three categories: the Best Performer, Best Value and Best Alternative.
The Best Performer is selected independent of cost and based on the performance group criteria mentioned above. The Best Value considers both performance and cost criteria. Two products with very similar designs may perform similarly or differently so the design is a means to an end but not an end to be evaluated in and of itself. And quality is either a go or no go in my recommendations. I won’t recommend anything that doesn’t have an acceptable level of quality according to my criteria but I’m not going to recommend something that has superior quality but under-performs or has higher costs. When two wheelsets perform more or less the same, I do consider quality and cost criteria in recommending one as a Best Performer.
Finally, I’m also recommending a top performing, well priced hybrid carbon-alloy wheelset as a Best Alternative for riders who prefer to use their rim brakes on wheels with alloy brake tracks but still want some of the benefits that carbon rims bring.
With that overly long introduction, here are my recommendations:
The Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher is the Best Performer for the road cycling enthusiast who wants an all-around wheelset. It has become the standard by which all other all-around wheels are measured. Most everyone you talk to and every reviewer you read loves them. I do as well. There is real passion for these wheels. Their speed, stiffness, responsiveness, comfort, aerodynamics and handling are all top of the charts. Starting with the 2016 model, their price has come down considerably from the chart topping levels of their prior years. There are other all-around carbon wheelsets that don’t perform nearly as well that cost more. (I’m currently evaluating the new top of the line Zipp 303 NSW and will add that to this post when the evaluation is completed.)
The 303 Firecrests are among the technology leaders in design with wider wheels that improve speed, comfort and handling, and a rounded rim profile that easily deflects crosswinds for all but the lightest riders. Their warranty and service responsiveness is middle of the pack, but these wheels are as well-built and durable as most modern carbon wheels are today. It’s hard to objectively say they are better than all the others, but it’s also hard to deny that nearly everyone raves about their performance in a way they don’t do for any other wheelset in this category.
After doing the research for this review, it’s become clear to me that design specs like weight, rim depth, number of spokes and the like are all trumped by wheel performance. Wheelsets with virtually identical specs in this category can and do perform very differently. And while some people put a high premium in making their choice on how the wheels look when they are standing still, it’s how they perform when they are moving at speed (and look like a blur) that really matters.
I don’t recommend letting specs or looks sway your opinion. For the record however, the rims on the 303s measure 45mm deep and 26.4mm wide at the brake track and 17mm wide between the bead hooks. Like most good all-around carbon wheels, they weigh in the 1500-1600 gram range. And they say Zipp on them, which to a lot of people looks real good because they speak to a high performance and innovative engineering heritage well-earned by the company.
The review from Feed the Habit’s Jason Miller is typical of the high regard this wheelset is held in:
“While I may feel outgunned talking up the technical details of the 303′s, there’s no getting around just how amazing these wheels are. Every millimeter of these beauties is optimized for speed and performance and it shows. I’ve never felt so fast and won’t again until I have a set of my own.”
Bike Radar summarized their five-star review as follows:
“Light, robust and stable in the wind, the 303 Firecrest is the best all-round road wheelset we’ve tested.”
Red Kite Prayer’s Padraig, after a rather technical review, ended by providing a metaphor befitting the love many have for this wheelset:
“When last I dated I ran across any number of women who described themselves as ‘the whole package.’ They were bright. Well-adjusted. Educated (graduate degree). Professional. In child-bearing years and willing. Not just healthy, but hot. They knew what they were and they weren’t going to date some guy writing a screenplay at Starbucks while on unemployment. These Zipps are kinda like that.”
By all accounts, this is an outstanding wheelset and the clear winner as our Best Performer.
Zipp most recently updated the hubs on the Firecrest to the model 77-front/177-rear. Zipp seems to do this across the Firecrest line every couple of years while leaving the rims and spokes unchanged. The hubs for the model year 2016 are intended to make the wheels a bit stiffer – especially important for 85kg/200lb plus riders – by tweaking the hub flange geometry and increasing the axle diameter. You also don’t need to worry about the adjusting the pre-load bearing tension (some apparently did) on these new hubs.
The biggest change for the 2016 model however is a 25% lower price to $2100/€2,200 MSRP/RRP. They sell online for even less to residents of the UK and Europe. Here are the page links for this wheelset to stores I’ve found have them at the best prices, have them in stock and have top shelf customer satisfaction records as of February 23, 2017: Competitive Cyclist, ebay, UK/EU ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Westbrook Cycles.
Note that starting with 11-speed groupsets, any 11-speed wheel with a Shimano/SRAM free-hub and cassette can be used without modification with any 11-speed Campagnolo “drivetrain” – your chain, shifters and derailleurs. The reverse is also true. VeloNews’ respected tech writer Lennard Zinn did compatibility testing to reach this conclusion. You can read his column on this here. The manufacturers still make the distinction between 11-speed Shimano/SRAM and Campagnolo wheelset standards but Zinn’s testing shows that it is not functionally relevant.
Also, even though the wheelset measures 26.4mm wide at the brake track and wider still further up the rim, in most cases you should use a 23C tire to maximize aero performance than a 25C one for comfort. Why? For one, the Zipp 303 and many of the other wheels of this width were designed to optimize their aerodynamic performance using 23C tires. Second, most tires that carry the 23C designation, once mounted and inflated, actually run wider than the 23mm the 23C designation suggests, usually by a millimeter and some up to nearly twice that. Same holds for the 25C ones. But, some tires will run narrower, which can be maddening.
For example, the tire I recommend for this and most all-around wheelsets because of its low rolling resistance, the 23C Continental Grand Prix 4000 S II tires (at Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Amazon, eBay Cycling, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction) actually measures around 24.5mm wide once mounted and inflated on a 17C rim (internal width of 17mm) like that of the 303. The 25C measures about 26.4mm mounted and inflated which is right on to the brake track width of the Zipp. But the 303 brake track is angled to maintain the rim’s overall rounded or toroid shape and the 26.4mm is measured half way up the brake track. This width at the edge where the tire meets the wheel and the air comes off the tire to re-attach to the rim (ideally with limited turbulence) is narrower than the 26.4mm measurement and the 23C mounted and inflated tire is narrower still. So in a sense, the air would flow from the narrower tire (24.5mm) to the slightly wider rim edge (about 25.5mm) to the still wider center of the brake track (26.4mm) to the max rim width (28.5mm) at the peak of the toroid further up the rim. Starting with a 25C tire that measures the same width as the center of the brake track could create more turbulence than you want in the transition between the tire and the rim.
At least that’s the theory, or perhaps that’s my theory based on what I’ve seen over the years. In reality, most non-racing roadies aren’t going to know the difference and if you want more comfort, go with the 25C aero optimization be damned. On these wheels, you’ll still go faaaaaaaaaaaast!.
If both performance and cost are a consideration, then I recommend the Reynolds Assault SLG as the Best Value all-around wheelset. Reynolds is one of just a few companies that offers a “mid-priced” all-carbon, all-around wheelset. While they list for far more, you can often find them around or even below US$1250, £1050, €1275 CA$1700, AU$1950.
Reynolds completely redesigned the Assault rims, hubs and brake pads in 2014 and they have outlived the company’s top-of-the-line and $1000 more expensive 46 Aero rim brake wheels, also newly designed in 2014 that competed with the top end Zipp, ENVE, Bontrager, Campagnolo and Easton wheelsets.
For 2015, Reynolds made the Assault tubeless ready, meaning that it can accept a clincher or tubeless tire equally well. It has also made the wheels’ look more distinctive, eschewing the now common white lettering on black rims for black lettering outlined in white on a stunning gun-metal grey color rim. They are called Assault, after all.
But this doesn’t change the wheel’s performance unless you put on tubeless tires, which I don’t recommend for most people – higher rolling resistance save for a few models (like the Schwalbe Pro One) and more hassle to install and repair on the road.
The Assault’s measured weight, rim depth and width are all within an inconsequential hair of the higher priced 46 Aero. Both have wheelsets specs common to today’s high performing all-around carbon clincher – 1500+ grams, low to mid 40mm range deep and 25mm+ wide rims.
Interestingly, the rim profiles of the two Reynolds models are different. The Assault is more rounded, similar in profile to the latest generation of wheels like the Zipp and ENVE while the Aero has the more traditional V profile. Reynolds has given its reasons for this, but it’s a lot of geek-speak to me. I’m more concerned with how they perform than their measurements and design rationales.
And the Assault SLG do perform well. Comfort (known as ‘vertical compliance’), handling and acceleration are all on par with all but the best performing wheelsets in this category. They are stiff but not so much so that you’ll feel all the bumps especially if you lower the tire pressure 5 to 10 psi, as is perfectly appropriate for a wheelset of this width. Reynolds has a reputation for quality built products and for good carbon track braking. After riding a pair for over a year now, I have seen nothing myself, from long-term reviewers or in user forums them to the contrary.
Do they perform with the best? No. Will you notice a big performance improvement coming off a pair of stock wheels on a $2500 to $5000 bike? Definitely. If you aren’t willing to pay $500 more (depending on available deals) for the Best Performer Zipp 303s, this is the best value – the best performer in this price range.
So how do they get this kind of performance at 2/3rds the price of the top priced carbon clinchers? Reynolds is a large shop that makes rims for others as well as themselves so they have a significant volume advantage. Along with this, they also appear to follow a multi-tier product line strategy rather than a top of the line, low volume, high margin one like those selling at the highest prices. The carbon clincher market is a growing segment and Reynolds appears to be going after it at many levels (high-end, mid-priced, outsourced rims, etc.), perhaps each with their own margin targets. The result is a Best Value all-around wheel in the Assault SLG.
With this combination of performance and value, the wheelset is hard to keep in stock. Nonetheless, here are the page links for this wheelset at the stores I’ve found have them at the best prices, have them in stock and have top shelf customer satisfaction records as of February 23, 2017: ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, ebay, Westbrook Cycles.
Note: Some stores call this wheelset the Assault rather than the Assault SLG, which is what Reynolds calls it. It may indeed be the Assault SLG but I encourage you to double-check that it is before buying it. Prior to the redesign in 2014, Reynolds called the predecessor the Assault (no SLG) and the wheelset sported black lettering on a white background. There are still some of these last generation Assaults around for sale in stores but they are not the wheels I’m recommending. Performance Bike also private labels the older Assault. The last generation Assaults are V-profile, deeper rimmed (46mm), narrower width, different resin brake track wheels very different from these.
Other stores call the 2015 wheelset the Assault Tubeless. There aren’t separate tubeless and tube & tire versions of this wheelset. It is the Assault SLG which starting with the 2015 model became tubeless ready. The 2014 Assault SLGs were not tubeless ready and had a black rim. I recommended the 2014 version as well and still do if you don’t want a tubeless wheelset, but they are difficult to find new at this point.
Finally, Reynolds also makes what they call the Assault SLG Disc Brake. This wheelset is for bikes with frames and brakes set up for disc brakes. They have wider hubs and different spoke configurations. They won’t work on a road bike that isn’t set up to run disc brake wheels. If you are interested in those, go to my review of that wheelset by clicking on this link.
Not sure you’re ready to spend in the neighborhood of $2000 for a top performing all-carbon clincher like the Zipp 303? Not crazy about less than confident braking and potential warping of some carbon clinchers that you’ve heard about from older generation all-carbon wheelsets? Ready to move up from your stock wheels but don’t think your riding skills and speed need or will get you all of the benefits offered by the top performing or mid-priced all-carbon wheels?
I hear these kinds of considerations and have had some myself. Fortunately, a hybrid carbon-alloy wheelset is a real alternative that assuages these concerns. Hybrids offer the confident braking you are used to in an aluminum alloy wheel, the rim depth from a carbon overlay to get some aero benefits, and hubs and acceleration as good as many on much higher priced wheels. Most run closer to the value-priced carbon all-arounds so can safely improve your performance without zapping your budget.
The ‘penalties’? Most (but not all) carbon-alloy all-around wheels weigh more than the all-carbon all-around clinchers to the point where it is noticeable. Few of them come with a rim width or profile designed to provide the improved aero or handling performance of most modern all-carbon wheels. And, for some people, anything that isn’t ‘all carbon’ isn’t ‘way cool.’
From a performance and budget standpoint, I find the carbon-alloy Shimano Dura-Ace WH-9000-C35-CL wheelset the Best Alternative to the all-carbon clincher. Available starting the 2013 cycling season, it brakes superbly, better than any of the best all-carbon wheels. At a 35mm rim depth, it’s not as aero as the all-carbon all-arounds but a clear step up from the stock wheels and lower profile alloy wheels. Also, there is no weight penalty compared to the all-carbon all-arounds. It’s also the best carbon-alloy all-around available against the criteria I’ve used to evaluate this category of wheels.
It climbs and descends well, cruises and holds its speed on the flats, and spins up quickly on its first class Dura-Ace hubs. While plenty stiff and responsive, perhaps one of its best features is its comfort, on par with wider rimmed wheels. You don’t (and shouldn’t) need to go with the current, over-hyped trend to 25C and wider tires to get a comfortable ride out of these wheels (If you do, handling will suffer). They are also built well and durable, typical of a Shimano product.
Wade Wallace summed up his feelings about this wheelset in his Cycling Tips review:
“Unexpectedly one of my favorite carbon clinchers wheelsets in its class that I’ve ridden, hands down. Comfort and performance all in one, without compromising anything. If you’re light, you’ll benefit from the stability of these 35mm rims in the crosswinds. No matter who you are, you’ll enjoy their comfort. If you’re looking at a wheel for road racing and training without the hassle and expense of owning two sets of wheels, I’d strongly consider the C35s.”
You can usually find them at least 20-25% off their MSRP or RRP from good online retailers, as you can see through the links below:
Here are the page links for this wheelset at the stores I’ve found have them at the best prices, have them in stock and have top shelf customer satisfaction records as of February 23, 2017: Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle front, Evans Cycles rear.
Shimano introduced a new Dura-Ace line of groupsets and wheelsets at the end of June 2016. While there was little said about the wheelsets, we do know that the C35 will be replaced by the C40. Like the C35 it will be a carbon-alloy wheelset.
Shimano also announced the C40 will be much wider (28mm external rim width vs. 21mm for the C35), more rounded and about 150 grams heavier wheelset than the C35. Nestor, one of your fellow readers, uncovered the Shimano line-up specs for the new wheelsets which told a different and more Shimano-like story.
The specs state that the new C40s will actually be a 17C wheelset (17mm internal, 24mm external), 37mm deep with a claimed weight of 1485 grams excluding rim tape. (The 1488 gram claimed weight of the C35 also excluded tape). It also looks like they will be selling these wheels in separate clincher, tubeless and tubular versions as they are doing now. So only an incremental change for the better in the rims.
The bigger change according to techs I’ve talked to who have seen them is that Shimano has designed their new Dura Ace wheels to be stiffer and free-wheel with less friction or mechanical resistance through the introduction of new hubs. The wheels won’t likely be available until 2017 and no price info is yet available. I’ll review the new C40 when it comes out and say more then.
In the sections that follow, I profile the road cycling enthusiast that this review is geared for, outline the categories of wheelsets you can buy, describe the criteria that matter most in choosing between different all-around wheelsets, tell you about developments in this wheelset category and then provide summary evaluations of the wheels considered but not recommended.
Keep reading or click on any of these links to go directly to another section of this review.
THE ROAD CYCLING ENTHUSIAST
Road cycling enthusiasts are serious, committed and regular riders who rack up between 2,000 to 5,000 miles (3,000-7,000 kilometers) a year. We ride on flat, rolling and mountainous terrain and do interval, strength and endurance training. We will generally be on our bikes 4-6 days a week outdoors in decent weather. In lousy weather, about half of us will ride on a trainer. Some will still ride outside and the rest will sleep in. We ride on our own, with regular partners, and in group rides.
During the year, we’ll normally ride for the pure love of it and for the way it energizes us (and reduces stress). Some of us will also add in a few races, club rides, centuries, gran fondos, sportives or charity events to motivate our riding and measure ourselves. As a road cycling enthusiast, we average speeds in the high teens to low twenties (mph) or 28 to 35kph over the course of a typical 35 to 50 mile or 50 to 80km ride, depending on terrain, conditions, fitness and training objectives.
About a third of us have been hit by a car and one in eight have broken a collarbone riding. (Yes and yes). And, of course, we enjoy a beer or two every now and then.
Most cycling enthusiasts will have modern composite bikes or high-end alloy or titanium ones that cost us typically between $2500/£2000/€2500 and $5000/£4000/€5000 to buy or build. Some of us spend more, some much, much more. We use electronics and apps that allow us to track, analyze and compare distance, speed, cadence, heart rate, and for many, power.
Most of us are men though a growing number are women. We weigh between 125 and 200lbs (57 to 90kgs), are pretty fit and use cycling to help stay or get there. Yes, we’re probably a little vain and selfish with the clothing we wear and the time (and money) we spend on cycling.
We’re also dedicated to our cycling to the point where most of our family and friends know that riding is something we do and for some, do a lot of. When it comes to cycling and buying bike gear, many of us do a lot of research and are analytical, often overly so and that’s part of the fun of it.
Does that about describe you? If so, good. This review and others on the site are for you. If not, tell me more about your profile in the comments section at the end of this post so I can help you figure out what gear would be best for you.
Wheels that come on almost all new bikes that sell for up to $5000 are what are called stock wheels. Suffice it to say that you are paying for the frame and groupset (shifters, derailleurs, cranks, brakes, etc.) on a new bike and not for the wheels. The wheels on any $2500-$5000 bike are typically made of an aluminum alloy, and are shallow section rims with durable yet basic hubs and spokes. They are usually well-built but not typically ones you are going to be happy with as you get more experience with them or more serious about riding because you’ll find they aren’t as stiff, comfortable, responsive, light, fast or appealing as you’ll want your wheels to be.
For anyone, they can work well as a winter, early or late season training wheel when the road surface may be rough, sandy or wet and when you are just ramping up or ramping down training and want to save a few miles on your better, more expensive set of wheels. I still use a set of stock wheels this way. Most wheels coming on bikes in this price range should last 7,500 to 10,000 miles (12,000 to 15,000 kilometers) or a lot of seasons if you were to ride them as off-season wheels. Stock wheels typically would sell for $200 to $500 if you were to buy them without the bike, though most stock wheels are made to be sold on new bikes and aren’t always available in the aftermarket.
All-around or all-round wheels are intended, as the names suggests, to work well for the broad range of regular training and events that most road cycling enthusiasts will do. The best performing, most versatile and reliable ones have carbon rims that measure 35mm up to around 45mm in-depth (considered ‘mid-depth’) and are moderately aero wheels. They are designed to perform well on the flats, rolling hills, short and paved mountain roads and to handle well in and out of curves, bringing you added speed, handling and comfort. They will definitely make you faster and feel (and look) like you’ve stepped it up a level or two over your stock wheels.
Event wheels, on the other hand, are designed to optimize performance for a specific type of riding or racing. These can vary from a very mountainous events where you want wheels that are both light and stiff, with great handling and braking to a flat course events like triathlons or time trials where deep aero wheels are most important and weight, braking and handling are less critical.
A criterium, club race or multi-day stage event usually demands the versatility of a high performing all-around wheelset, which some people choose to save for those races and not train on. While the practice is less common these days, many people still put event wheels on their bikes the day of the race or for the few days a year they want to train in conditions that simulate the race.
Most event wheels are less versatile than all-around wheels and are therefore not designed to do well in situations other than the events they are designed for. For example, a flat course or time trialing wheel will be heavier than you’d like on a hilly circuit and not handle well when you are riding a criterium with lots of acceleration and turns. A climbing wheel will not be as fast as deeper section wheels in time trials. And, some people will put high-end hubs or thinner tubes and narrower racing tires on mid-depth wheels saved for criterium or club races, wheels that otherwise would be perfectly good for all-around use.
Carbon rim wheels have evolved quickly. Because of the high level of expertise needed to make them, carbon wheels used to be designed only for use with tubular tires, a relatively easier manufacturing process than for clinchers. Tubular tires come with the tube sewn into the tire and then the tire is glued by the cyclist or his shop mechanic to the rim. Tubular wheelsets are typically a couple hundred grams lighter than clincher ones and perform at the highest levels but they require more maintenance than clincher rims and tires. They can take days of gluing and curing time to initially install the tire to the rim. And, fixing a puncture with a tubular tire out on the road is a lot of work unless you are quite experienced with taping solutions. Most enthusiasts don’t use tubular wheels because the work involved outweighs the benefits they bring.
With clinchers, the most widely used wheel type on road bikes, the tube is placed separately inside the tire. When the tube is inflated, it expands inside and with the tire while the tire’s outside bead grabs a fabricated hook that runs inside the length of the wheel rim. While I never find it the highlight of my day, most anyone can put a new tube inside a tire on a clincher wheel and inflate it whether at home or on the side of the road after a flat. There is also a broader range and more competitive market for clincher tires than for tubular ones. Because carbon clincher wheels must fabricate the side wall sections and hooks to hold the tube and tire, they are more difficult to manufacture.
Tubeless tires, a third type, attach to clincher style rims but use special tires and hooks to keep the tire sealed to the rim. You see tubeless tires quite frequently on mountain and cyclocross bikes where riders lower the pressure to better absorb bumps, pot holes, gravel, ruts and any other types of unevenness on the trail. With clincher tires in these situations, you are more prone to a pinch flat – caused by the friction between tube and tire – at low inflation pressures. A tubeless ready rim which can accept clincher or tubeless and is, in theory, a way to ride on-road and off-road with one set of wheels.
In practice, tubeless tires are still used by a minority of roadies and are not used at all by road racers. For enthusiasts, they can take a bit of work to get to seal to the rims and you need to inject a sealant into the tire, often a messy process. Most tubeless tires have higher rolling resistance ratings than clincher tires and you need to carry and install a tube anyway if your tubeless tires flat when you are out on the road.
I just don’t see the point of tubeless tires if I’m riding on the road 99% of the time and avoiding pot-holes and other debris in my way. I might flat 2 times a year – once every 2 or 3K miles and it’s a 10 minute repair. If I were commuting, riding on cracked and pot-holed roads, or riding off-road a lot, perhaps. You’ll see tubeless ready rims more often on alloy wheels than on carbon ones likely with this type of rider in mind. More and more of the carbon clincher wheels are tubeless ready (or TLR) every year to give you the option.
The technology for making carbon clinchers has advanced considerably in recent years and many all-around carbon rims are now made in both tubular and clincher models. Tubulars aren’t going away, especially amongst the more racing oriented end of the cycling enthusiast crowd but clinchers are the dominant wheelset and even pro racers will use them from time to time in training and even occasionally in a race.
Serious racers (and traditionalists) will deal with the extra hassle of tubulars to get the weight saving. Those road enthusiasts and recreational riders that go tubeless will do so because of what I believe is an unwarranted and overly hyped fear of pinch flats. I don’t see either tubulars or tubeless growing beyond niche status for road cycling enthusiasts, but someone else probably said a similar thing when clinchers first began competing with tubulars not too long ago. So I may be all wet. We’ll see.
For most road cyclists today however, the added convenience of the much improved and easier to maintain all-around carbon clincher makes them the way to go for all-around use. This is the way I suggest you go. And for this review, I’ve only evaluated clincher rim wheelsets (both clincher only and tubeless ready ones) to come up with the all-around wheels I suggest for you.
As for buying carbon wheels, you may be thinking: Do I really need a set of carbon all-around wheels or am I about to blow a lot of money on hype to get only a small gain in my performance? A lot of people ask this question when they see the price of these wheels. The then lead technical writer at VeloNews posted his view that carbon clinchers (vs. alloy wheels) are heavier and far more expensive, are prone to blow-outs and are really all about playing to the vanity of cycling enthusiasts (that’d be you and me the dude is talking about).
Since his piece ran, it’s been several years and a couple generations of new carbon clincher technology has come to market. Today’s all-around clincher wheelsets are much faster, handle more confidently, and brake better than prior generations. Aluminum alloy wheels can’t be made to match the 35mm to 45mm wheel depths or more aero rim shaps of all-around carbon clinchers and the deepest alloy wheels that can be made weigh as much or more than carbon clinchers 20mm to 25mm deeper. Alloy wheelsets also under-perform modern carbon wheels in all areas but braking.
The price and vanity of carbon clinchers hasn’t changed but the improved performance is such that they justify their value far more now. Even today’s high quality 25mm depth alloy clinchers that used to be considered the standard ‘all-around’ wheelsets don’t come anywhere near the performance of today’s latest generation of carbon all-arounds.
If you want to go faster, and you regularly get into the 20mph or (about 32kph) and up range on your bike during flat portions of your rides, a set of mid-depth all-around wheels will help you go significantly faster for the same amount of effort you would put out on a traditional shallow depth aluminum wheelset.
Alternatively, you could improve your speed and performance by spending your money on coaching, a better frame or perhaps a new set of components. You could certainly go faster and do so more efficiently by being more dedicated to your training, doing more intervals and hill repeats, improving your pace line technique, riding 6 inches closer to the guy in front of you, spending more time with your arms and torso bent, or losing 5 to 10 lbs (or kilos).
I wrote about 10 better ways to ride faster on your bike that covered both training & technique and gear & kit. But going faster doing any of these and putting on a new set of high performing, all-around wheels are not mutually exclusive. Improving your training or losing some weight isn’t going to deny the fact that you’ll go faster with a set of mid-depth all-around wheels. It’s there for the taking.
What matters most in choosing between all-around wheelsets? In some ways, this is much like choosing a car. Depending on who you talk to, there are a lot of different factors to consider. Depending on who you are, some of these factors are more important than others.
Let me try to simplify and organize the many selection criteria into four groups: performance, design, quality and cost. In the all-around category, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice on any one of the first three of these. For example, you can find high performing all-arounds that are also made well, go fast on flats, and that also climb very well.
Cost, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to be directly related to performance or quality for all-around wheels. As with many other cycling (and non-cycling) products, higher priced wheels often get you distinctively designed, appearing and branded wheels that might or might not perform or hold up a whole lot better than lower priced ones. Let’s just say that mark-ups are crazy in the cycling business and marketing strategies at specific brands tend to drive prices as much or more than performance in some cases.
Here are the selection criteria that make up each of the groups mentioned above:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, handling and braking are the key measures I’ve used to assess all-around wheelset performance.
The most desirable all-around wheels will provide the versatility to ride all the different types of terrain (hills, flats, false flats, straights, corners, sprints, mountains, fast downhills, windy roads) that you’ll experience and a range of training and many events (club races, centuries, club, charity, group rides) you’ll do, without compromise.
All-around wheels will be aerodynamic enough for you to notice a difference in speed and your ability to hold that speed with much less work when you are well underway on flats and downhills. Many promoting mid-depth and deep section ‘aero’ wheels will correctly tell you that 70-85% of your energy goes into overcoming wind resistance but won’t tell you that aero wheels won’t make you any faster until you get going at speeds of 20mph (or 32kph). If you average 18mph (29kph)+ you probably will be riding at 20mph+ at least 1/3rd of the time (on flats, downhills and perhaps at the front of a pace line) and will benefit from the improved aerodynamics from all-arounders like those I’ve recommended in this review. If you aren’t going that fast, you really won’t benefit from buying wheels deeper than 25-30mm. For the purpose of this review, I’ll assume most of you will be going fast enough to get aero benefits.
For those of us measuring our power output, recognize that independent tests (here is one) show you will reduce your drag (and improve your aerodynamics) somewhere between 10-15 watts going from shallow depth aluminum wheels to mid-depth carbon ones. Very roughly and unscientifically speaking, that could yield a 5% to 7.5% wattage improvement for the cycling enthusiast putting out an average of 200 watts during his or her ride. Sounds like the bump you’d get riding every day with ‘good legs’ or ‘good sensations’, non? Note also that your choice of inner tubes and tires, and setting your inflation pressure right can reduce your rolling resistance to create an additional 5-10 watts of benefit. So, there’s lots of ways to improve your aero performance (see here for how to position yourself right and here for other gear that will make you more aerodynamic).
The flip side of going faster with a deeper, more aerodynamic wheel is that taller rims catch more of the crosswinds out on the road and can affect your ability to control your bike. A great deal of the development in recent years has focused on creating rim profiles that deflect crosswinds to maintain your ability to steer the bike when winds come at you from different angles. So handling in crosswinds, in addition to minimizing the drag from the apparent wind you create and the real wind coming at you from closer angles, is an important part of the aerodynamic performance consideration.
Stiffness determines your ability to transfer your power to your wheels without them deflecting laterally or side to side (and therefore wasting energy) under the load applied by your pedaling. A stiff wheel will do a great job of transferring your energy and power when you really step on it to sprint, throw in a dig, close a gap or when you get out of the saddle to charge up a hill. How responsive your wheels are when you engage or ‘spin up’ the pedals to go harder or faster demonstrates their acceleration, determined not so much by the total weight of the wheels, but more so by how much the rims weigh and how fast the rear hub engages.
Stiffer wheels also tend to handle better in the turns, going where you want them to go. A wheel that is less stiff will be less able to follow the line you want to take. Of course, your technique has a major effect on how well you handle a turn or in and out of a group of riders.
You will also want enough compliance or vertical deflection in your wheels so they are comfortable on long rides and over uneven road surfaces. Some people believe that stronger, heavier riders need a stiffer, less compliant wheel to support them, and lighter riders need the opposite to accommodate them. That’s probably true at the extremes (greater than 220 lbs or less than 110) but most riders weigh well between those extremes. If you are in that weight range (and fortunately I am), I’ve learned you can have a sufficiently stiff and compliant wheelset that gives you great power transfer and a comfortable, well handling ride at the same time.
How hard you are on your pedals can discount the stiffness, and how high you run your tire pressure can negate the compliance designed into even in the best wheels. So don’t mash you pedaling during shifting or over-inflate your tires if you want to get the most out of your wheels.
Braking is a critical performance criterion. When first introduced, wheels with carbon brake tracks were clearly inferior to aluminum ones, some said say dangerously so. The joke went that brakes would only slow but never stop a carbon wheel, that is until the heat generated from braking either blew out the tube or warped the rim.
Here again, technology and design have advanced considerably, improving carbon wheel braking performance through the use of new resins, weaves, brake track finishes and brake pad compounds. While most believe that braking on a bike with an all carbon wheelset is still inferior to doing so an aluminum one, the gap has narrowed significantly and the risk of explosive blow-outs has been reduced on current generation wheels to those who use alloy wheel braking techniques. Riders using carbon wheels have learned they need to use the pads designed and sold for their specific model of carbon wheels, allow more distance to brake when the roads are damp, and not hold on or “drag” the brakes for long periods of time on downhills (instead alternate between front and back wheel brakes). If you want all of the benefits that carbon clinchers bring you over alloy ones, adopting these braking techniques along with using the latest generation wheelsets has made braking performance differences between carbon and alloy track wheels quite small.
Some riders have concluded that for the kind of riding they do, the best solution is a carbon wheel with an aluminum alloy brake track that, next to disc brakes, is the most effective braking solution. If this is the view you hold, I recommend the Shimano Dura Ace 9000 C35 wheelset (reviewed earlier in this post) as the best choice among carbon-alloy wheels.
Sorry to interrupt you in the middle of a riveting explanation of wheelset selection criteria :), but to come up with reviews that better fit what and where you will be buying gear, would you be good enough to answer the question below?
Design: Design defines how manufacturers want their wheelsets to perform. Sometimes they perform as designed, sometimes not. The key design criteria are wheel weight and material, rim depth, width and profile, hub and spoke selection, and brake track and wheel finish.
The best all-around wheels will be among the lightest, principally to enable quick acceleration each time you shift gears on the flats, increase your cadence or head up a climb. Weight is determined primarily by choosing between carbon or alloy rim material, the hub and number of spokes on each wheel, a tubular or clincher rim design, the lay-up and resin choices, and the rim depth, width and profile (which in turn determine the amount of material used in the wheel).
At the end of the day, rim depth will determine weight differences more than the other factors since most high performing all-around clincher wheels are now carbon, come in the same spoke range (16-20 front and 20-28 rear), and we’re focused on clinchers rather than the admittedly lighter tubular wheelsets. So a wheel with a 35mm rim depth will weigh less than a 45mm wheel, all else being equal, which of course they aren’t from model to model. Some of the deeper wheels in the all-around category weigh as little or less than some of the shallower ones so it’s not a direct relationship between depth and weight.
While I’ve been told that a 100 gram (or 3.5 ounce) weight difference in a wheelset is noticeable, for me and I’ll guess for most of you, it’s hard to feel that weight difference between different wheelsets on a bike. I think it’s more likely that you can really feel something at around 150 to 200 grams of difference, typically the weight premium you pay for the convenience of having a clincher vs. a tubular wheelset of the same model. That said, lighter is always better but below about 150 to 200 grams, the difference provides more of a marketing advantage than a real performance one.
Wheelset weight is a surprisingly hard to number to pin down. Why? There’s no standard for what should be weighed and companies measure and market it differently. Some publish the rim weight alone believing that the difference between the rims is the weight that matters most. Many publish the weight with everything except for the quick releases (QRs) or except the QRs and rim tape. And then the wheels can be built up with different hubs and spokes. Some make essentially the same wheel in tubular, clincher and disc brake options but they will only publish the tubular (or lightest) model weight.
Further, the weight published by the wheel manufacturers is almost never the same as the actual wheelset weight. Of those reviewers who measure wheelset weight (rather than just report what the wheel manufactures have published), the weight differences are usually at least 50 grams and are regularly up to 100 grams more than the “claimed weight,” a term used by many reviewers and retailers to apparently absolve them of responsibility for actually measuring and reporting a weight different from what has been marketed.
I’ve studied the claimed weight and actual weight measured by reviewers for many of these wheelsets and weighed them myself. The bottom line is that most of the carbon all-around wheelsets I’ve evaluated, whether on the basis of claimed or actual weight, are within 100-150g of each other, a difference I think you could certainly brag about but most of us aren’t going to be able to notice on the road.
The rim’s outside width, the width of the rim across the brake track, has increased significantly in the last two generations of carbon wheel design. Tests have shown that a wider tire enabled by a wider rim reduces a tire’s rolling resistance and improves the traction and stability important to handling performance. One generation ago, most carbon wheel outside rim widths measured across the brake track increased from 19-20mm to 22-23mm. The most advanced current generation of carbon wheels have outside widths of 25-27mm.
Rim inside widths, or the width across the bead hooks that grab the tire inside the rim, have increased from 15mm to 17.5mm to 19 or 20mm over the last three generations. With rims that are wider on the inside and outside and with wider tires, you can put a greater volume of air into the tires, yet still have them support your weight at a lower tire pressure. This softens the ride, making it both more comfortable and better handling. Running a lower pressure also puts less stress on the wheel structure and extends its life. Running it at the same pressure lowers your rolling resistance by creating a smaller “contact patch,” essentially putting less of the tire’s length (and more of its width) in contact with the road.
As mentioned earlier, crosswinds can affect your ability to steer a bike with a set of 35mm and deeper rimmed wheels. Using carbon allows wheel designers to shape the profile of rims to offset this effect. Traditionally rims had a ‘V’ profile, with the rim linearly increasing in width out from the narrower inner or leading edge, where the rim meets the wind and spokes, to the outer one, where it meets the tire and the wind exits. To deflect crosswinds, the newer design wheels have focused on making the leading edge wider and more rounded (somewhat like a ‘U’) and in some cases by also curving the rim wall from inner to outer edge like an oval or what designers call a toroid, instead of it running without any width variation. Some have made other adjustments along the inner edge in an attempt to deflect crosswinds like Reynolds swirl lip generator (SLG) design.
Finally, spoke and hub choice and rim finish are clear design choices, though I think they drive perceived performance more than actual performance. Most quality all-around wheels including many of the ones I’ve covered in this review, come with spokes and hubs made from one of the two or three major spoke manufacturers. The larger, integrated cycling product companies typically make or design and have hubs to put on their wheels. Still others use the same, top-end DT Swiss 240 hub either branded as such or with the wheel maker’s brand on the hub shells and the 240’s mechanical component ‘innards’ underneath the shells.
Spoke number, alignment, and shape (round, elliptical or flat) do vary considerably from wheel to wheel. The number of spokes used and how they are aligned or ‘laced’ is part of the overall design used to create a wheel’s strength and stiffness. They have a minor effect on weight (were talking a few grams here and there) and their shape has minimal influence on aerodynamics though some wheel makers market the heck out of their bladed spokes. So while having fewer spokes, having them laced in a unique pattern or having flat ones may set the look of certain wheels apart for the rest of the crowd, focusing on spokes in isolation really doesn’t get you any closer to choosing between one wheelset or another. If you true your own wheels, it may be more important to you whether the spoke nipples are accessed outside or inside the rim, but that may be something to know rather than use to make a choice.
Hubs used on these bikes are generally very good and, as mentioned above, many come from the leading manufacturer DT Swiss. Most come with their bearings in a circular cartridge, while some offer a hub with ceramic bearings as an option versus the steel standard. These choices largely affect durability and maintenance, which shouldn’t be issues if you own these wheels. At the extremes, hub choice can affect weight and acceleration but in a minimal and hardly discernible way.
Hubs use different mechanisms and number of ‘pawls’ to engage the rear wheel when you begin pedaling. This affects how quickly the wheel engages though we are talking about differences that matter little to enthusiast level cyclists. Some hubs may roll smoother when you are going down the road or free wheel louder than others when you are coasting, though these are often subjective differences and only affect performance if the rolling isn’t smooth at all or the noise of the free hub annoys you so much that it affect the enjoyment of your ride. There’s actually one manufacturer that makes truly excellent hubs but has distinguished itself by creating an identifiably unique sound coming from it’s hubs and by offering them in a wide range of colors.
In simple terms, the latest generations of carbon rims from the best wheel makers use resins and manufacturing processes that make carbon clinchers more durable than alloy ones and their rims resistant to overheating. Better brake track finishes and brake pads have greatly reduced and in most cases eliminated braking noise and are also part of dissipating the heat created at the rims. They have also brought the dry weather braking performance of carbon clinchers on par with alloy wheels and wet weather braking within range. These finishes vary in detail but are typically etched surfaces or have added materials on top of the smooth resin making up the rest of the rim, both creating more friction and wicking more water during dry and wet braking. Other companies still have braking surfaces that are essentially unchanged from the rest of the rim.
Rim finish – everything from mat and glossy rims with bold white or ‘blacked out’ lettering – is a personal choice. While it has no effect on performance, I understand that looks and brand will matter to some road cycling enthusiasts, especially if it makes you think you are going faster or are more excited about riding your wheels and bike with some of these distinctive design touches.
At the end of the day, evaluating and comparing wheelset performance is very subjective. Wheelset aerodynamic performance, for example, is probably one of the most marketed characteristics and provides an example of why you need to be careful buying into the hype. While aerodynamics is one of the most important and distinguishing criteria in a wheelset’s overall performance, it is also one of the hardest characteristics for the cycling enthusiast to objectively assess and compare.
Here’s why. Most companies have done extensive wind tunnel testing in a controlled environment on their own wheel designs and against competitors’ wheels to help develop the current generation of carbon wheels. Very few publish the results and when they do they are often selective, on incompletely labeled charts and with little detail about their testing protocol. While most tests look to see how much drag the wheels produce at different angles to the wind (‘yaw’), there is no common approach to testing the wheels, for example either on and off a bike or on specific brands and types of bikes and tires. Of course, some bikes and tires are themselves more or less aerodynamic.
You are really only getting a true measure of the front wheel’s aerodynamic effect. On the road, the air flow over your rear wheel is disturbed by the ‘wake’ created from the front wheel and the down and seat tubes in front of the rear wheel. You are also creating a good deal of turbulence at the intersection of the rim and spokes as your legs pedal like egg beaters. Go ahead and try to model the aerodynamics of that situation!
With wind tunnel testing in hand, wheel manufacturers market the most flattering parts of this incomplete, non-comparable wind tunnel aero information and often market the qualifications of the engineer who led the aero design and supervised the wind tunnel analysis along with a combination of “unique” technological breakthroughs available only in their wheels. I understand that companies must have some tools around which to design and that wind tunnels provide necessary baseline measures, (and that all of this makes for good marketing), but how well these tests relate to the real world of on-the-road cycling with varying road, wind, bike and rider conditions seems very hard to correlate.
While most people will say aerodynamics and weight are two of the most important measures of a wheel’s performance, as you can see, neither of them are conclusive based on numbers alone. You really have to take what the wheel manufacturers and their retailers tell you about these performance and design features with a great deal of skepticism. In place of their claims, which the buyer guides and some bike shop salesmen repeat back with great enthusiasm, I’ve drawn from the experience of independent reviewers and enthusiasts who have ridden many different wheels in different conditions on the road over many miles and that of my own experience with specific wheelsets.
Quality: Durability, warranties and service/support are the selection criteria that define wheelset quality.
Rim, spoke and hub durability all matter though rims and especially carbon rims are usually the weakest link and most expensive to deal with. Most hubs put on all-around wheels sold in the performance all-around category are very durable and easily serviced as part of an annual bike check-up or if there is a problem. Modern day spokes are strong and relatively easy and inexpensive to replace, something you rarely need to do as a result of normal riding.
Carbon rims are far more durable than they used to be and most are stronger than alloy rims. While I’m not aware of any tests that compare alloy and carbon wheel life times, anecdotally most service shops will tell you that carbon wheels will last longer than alloy wheels under normal conditions. Wheels with fewer spokes will reduce the weight some but increase the stress on a wheel.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to the rim manufacturing quality and how well the company stands behind their product if something goes wrong. Most major manufacturers make very durable wheelsets in this all-around category and offer competitive 2 year warranties. Some companies are just more responsive than others to issues that require direct service or support. Online forums are filled with stories about company service, both good and bad, and most companies have established their reputation. Fortunately most are good.
Most local bike stores and online retailers that are certified representatives of a wheel brand stand behind the products they sell. It’s pretty easy for them to do so; they send the wheelset back to the manufacturer in most cases. Ultimately, the manufacturer determines the service response to a damaged wheel – repair time, replacement, cost if any, etc. I’ve tried to sort through both the durability ratings and warranties offered by manufacturers but also listened closely to what shops and other enthusiasts say about the durability and service/support response to different wheelsets.
The biggest issue continues to be overheating and deforming all-carbon wheels during extended braking, for example coming down a long mountain pass. Manufacturers do not warrantee damaged carbon wheels caused by overheating, but as mentioned above, the latest generation carbon wheelsets will not get damaged in this way unless you drag the brakes for long periods of time. If you only feel comfortable being able to use the constant braking or dragging technique and want the best braking surface short of going to disc brakes, I recommend you choose a carbon-alloy or pure alloy wheelset.
Cost: Simply put, some all-around wheels cost a lot more than others with little relationship between cost and performance, design or quality. All-around, non-custom wheelsets north of $2000 appear to be priced based on their brand name, product and market strategy and product volume more than any other factors. Some companies spend a lot to advertise and sponsor professional cycling teams to create a distinctive wheel-focused brand appeal and purposely sell low volumes. Others look to be ubiquitous with a broad range of cycling products including wheels and use their large distribution networks to achieve more profit through higher volume sales on lower priced wheels. For us, cycling is a sport, a past time, a passion. For them, it’s a business.
Some manufacturers also dictate selling prices to retailers and threaten their distribution agreements if they stray from those prices. In some countries it’s legal, in others it isn’t and the market pricing reflects this. For example many online retailers based in the UK often sell high performance, all-around wheels at 20% off the manufacturer’s recommended price and occasionally discount these up to twice that amount. You will seldom see this on a current model year wheelset sold in an US local bike shop or US-based online retailer because of what’s know as Minimum Advertised Price agreement the retailer has to agree to if they want to sell the company’s product. And, it’s legal.
WHEELSET MARKET AND TRENDS
There are a lot of wheels on the market to consider. Generally speaking, wheels are made by large companies who also make or distribute a wide range other cycling products (like Shimano and Campagnolo) and midsized companies who focus mostly on making wheels (including Mavic and Reynolds). There are also some multi-product companies that have acquired wheel manufacturers over the years yet maintained the wheel company’s brand and distribute the wheels through their broader network (for example, SRAM owns Zipp and Trek owns Bontrager). A fourth group are small companies that design their own rims, usually have them made by others to their specifications and assemble the rims with others’ spokes and hubs or occasionally with hubs they design and have made on contract.
A last group of wheelmakers are essentially marketers of “open mold” wheels, those that are typical designed by others, derivative or copies of existing models, made and assembled by factories in Asia, and ‘open’ to anyone who wants to source them and put their own labels on them.
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 specifications. I call these custom-built wheels rather than hand-built wheels as many high-value wheelsets including most in this review 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.
Except for the open-mold wheels, standard-built wheelsets are almost always designed by the company whose name appear on them. The rims of higher end carbon wheels are often also made by the standard-built wheel companies themselves though some of the lower volume, standard-built wheel makers have their carbon rims produced to their specification by factories in Asia. Except for the largest standard-built wheel makers who make their own hubs and spokes, these components are usually sourced from one of the two or three major producers.
Most of the standard-built wheel makers, except for the open mold ones, 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 rim-hub-spoke combinations and the different skills of the individuals that assemble them, 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.
The carbon clincher all-around wheelset category has been growing in popularity with many companies adding new or updated wheels or adding clincher versions where they only had tubular ones before. Most companies have applied their carbon technology experience from first making tubular racing wheels and have combined that know-how with design improvements to make clincher versions. Use of higher performance resins, adding engineers with expertise from the aerospace and automotive industries, new brake track designs and finishes, and the learning from a couple of generations or more of new product design and customer feedback have all contributed to improved products.
In the past couple years, the biggest trend has been to wider and more rounded rims as mentioned earlier. Most of the better carbon all-around wheels are made this way now, but some of the long established carbon wheel makers and most of the carbon-alloy all-arounds have a box or V-shaped profile and a narrower inside rim width more typical of a last generation design.
Two other developments bear close consideration. First, despite marked improvement in the braking technology for all-carbon clincher wheels, most reviewers and riders feel braking performance still falls short of the standard set by alloy or carbon-alloy or alloy clinchers. It’s hard to know whether all-carbon clinchers will ever provide the same braking performance level and when they come close, as some wheels now do, whether they can overcome years of built-in concerns.
Excerpts from reviews over the last several years on a range of all-carbon clinchers from selected independent reviewers give you a feel for experiences with carbon wheelset braking and perspectives that still hold true.
First, from a review by Greg Kopecky formerly a writer for Slowtwitch.com:
With carbon braking surfaces, that’s the rub (ha!). The braking can be very good, but I find that the performance can really change based on the rim, pad, caliper, and lever that you use. Oh yeah – weather conditions, too. We all read about the potential dangers of using a carbon clincher with the wrong pad, so most wheel manufacturers mandate that you use only their pad. The devil’s advocate in me asks: What if that pad doesn’t work well for my bike’s proprietary brake caliper, or the lever that fits my hand perfectly? What if that pad works well in warm weather, but poorly in cold weather? I’m not singling out Specialized in any way – it is a real consideration for the entire industry.
Next from a review in road.cc by David Arthur:
Braking performance is always a compromise with carbon wheels, but the Reynolds Cyro Blue brake blocks provide consistent and reliable braking with no squeal or fuss. The performance was impressive right from the first time I touched the brake levers. There’s a decent amount of power with a good level of feel and they’re nicely progressive, with no snatching.
However, I did manage to highlight some pulsing feedback through the brake levers when dragging the brake on a very steep descent. This was due to the narrowness of the road and being stuck behind several vehicles, with no overtaking opportunity. Forced to feather the brakes, and alternating between front and rear brakes to reduce the temperature build up, the wheels began pulsing towards the bottom of the descent. I’m a light rider too, about 67kg, so if you’re substantially heavier and make a habit of heading down very steep descents regularly, this could be a concern.
Finally, this one from the independent thinking and ever opinionated Caley Fritz at Velo News:
The rundown is simple: carbon does not move heat well, resulting in overheating, nor does it brake well, resulting in excessive and unwanted forward motion, particularly in wet conditions. In addition to these safety concerns, carbon clinchers, due to various design constraints, are always significantly heavier than their tubular counterparts, and are often heavier than all-aluminum wheels, yet cost two to three times more. The consumer value is often just not there.
These reviews are a bit dated now but the views are still held by many and the latest generations of carbon wheelsets have yet to overturn them.
Some of the largest wheelset manufacturers (like Shimano) and wheelset pioneers (most notably HED) don’t sell all-carbon, all-around clinchers, offering carbon-alloy hybrid wheels that use aluminum brake tracks. Some carbon wheel leaders (like ENVE and Reynolds) only sell, and actively promote the braking performance of, all-carbon wheels. Others (like Zipp, Bontrager and Campy) sell both all-carbon and carbon-alloy clinchers in their line to cycling enthusiasts. So, you can see there is no product agreement on this issue.
Mavic, the largest volume bike wheel maker and one of the most conservative when it comes to safety, recently introduced their first all-carbon wheelsets. I believe this is the so-called ‘tipping point’ in the acceptance of all-carbon wheels and the beginning of the end of carbon-alloy ones.
All-carbon wheel manufacturers will rebut the perception of inferior performing wheels and some of the wheels reviewed brake extremely well in all conditions. You need to ask yourself whether you are ok with the braking performance of the all-carbon clincher you are interested in or whether you should you go instead with a competitively performing carbon-alloy one. Much of it depends on what and how you ride and how important performance and cost are to you. As carbon wheels get better, not just in their braking, but also in the other performance and quality criterion, it’s become difficult for the carbon-alloy wheelset to really compete with them on the road. Carbon-alloy wheels still do win on cost and that’s part of the trade-off you have to consider
If you do a lot of riding in the mountains or ride in all-weather conditions and are afraid you have the technique or desire to ride the best performing wheels, you should strongly consider carbon-alloy wheels. I wrote about this extensively in a review on carbon clincher climbing (and descending) wheels (here). Alternatively, if you ride mostly flat and rolling roads or you are climbing on rather short routes and ride in good weather, then you’ll be fine with a good all-carbon clincher. It is a personal choice. The Best Alternative I’ve recommended gives you the best carbon-alloy option among those I considered.
The second development to keep a close eye on is the move to disc brakes on road bikes. Disc brakes offer superior braking to rim braking systems even on wheels with aluminum brake tracks. This would certainly be a welcome solution for riders concerned about all-carbon clincher braking performance but still looking to get most of the aerodynamic performance improvement of an all-carbon wheelset. If you ride your road bike outdoors year round including in a fair amount of rain and the occasional snow or mud, you like to do the occasional cyclocross course, or you do a fair amount of long descending in the mountains, a disc brake wheelset would be something to consider.
Discs are well accepted on mountain and cyclocross bikes and increasingly becoming part of the landscape for road bikes. I’ve written about why in detail here. In short, you get better braking, faster riding and more versatility with a road disc brake bike. We enthusiasts are way ahead of the pros in using disc brake road bikes and wheels. Many of the leading, latest generation all-around rim brake wheelsets are available in disc brake versions and new wheelsets are being make for rim brake bikes from designs that are tailored to the characteristics of disc brakes. Disc brake equipped all-carbon wheelsets currently on the market add little (up to 150g) to no weight penalty over the rim brake versions depending on the model. This is a penalty not unlike going from an all-carbon to carbon-alloy wheel but without sacrificing much in the way of aero benefits. According Zipp, the disc itself adds 2 to 3 watts of additional drag. There’s also a small ($50-100) additional cost for most disc versions.
I recently had an exchange with a representative at one of the leading wheel companies which shed some interesting light on the all-carbon braking performance and disc-brake wheel developments we’ve just discussed. When I asked her how she saw things developing over the next few years, she wrote:
Couple of things to consider: Race support for disc brakes is tricky right now (rotor sizes, pads…). Disc specific road frames are clearly the future. No carbon braking surface wear, longer rim life, no fade with time, no grabbiness, able to brake later with way more predictability. With the perfect rim brake set-up in dry conditions the stopping power between disc and rim brakes is equal. As soon as you get any wear, any moisture, any residue or grime the disc option is more reliable and repeatable. On a personal note – road riders that have made the leap to disc brakes are not going back to rim brakes.
that way.High performance road frames, wheels and components that work with disc brakes are available now with more coming into the market quickly. I’ve reviewed and recommended currently available road disc brake wheelsets and components in separate posts, and recommended some of the best road disc bikes in another if you are considering going.
ALL-AROUND WHEELSET REVIEW SUMMARIES
When I first reviewed this category of wheels in 2014, I started with 36 wheelset models from 23 different companies that fell into the ‘all-around’ category largely defined by their 35mm to 50mm rim depth and their other design and performance attributes. And, they were all clincher models for the reasons I mentioned earlier.
Of those, I closely evaluated and reviewed 17 models from 15 companies. I eliminated the other models for several reasons. Some were not widely distributed or there wasn’t much independent commentary about them. If they aren’t widely distributed, relatively few people are riding them or will be able to even if I reviewed them, I can’t get hold of a set to ride, other reviewers and riders aren’t talking about them, and I don’t want you to make a decision based on the marketing story. I know this puts the small wheel maker at a disadvantage but I don’t care about wheel makers, I care about my fellow enthusiasts being able to buy, ride and get service for proven wheelsets at good prices.
It’s arbitrary, but for this 2016 update and going forward I’m focused on wheels in the 35mm to 45mm or so depth range as the all-around category. Separately I prepared a review of deeper aero all-around road wheels (here) which run in the high 40mm to low 60mm range.
Other wheels have designs that may have been considered ‘all-around’ wheels in the past and still may be by some. These are all-carbon, carbon-alloy or alloy wheels that measure in high 20s to low 30mm depths. I don’t consider them all-arounds because I believe their relatively shallower rim depths generally limit their aerodynamic abilities and the speed potential for fast riding or competitive events. I reviewed many of these lower profile wheels in one of my climbing or upgrade wheelset reviews.
If you don’t see the wheelset you are interested in reviewed in this post, you might want to enter the wheelset name in the search box at the top of this page or look at the list of reviews near the top of the side bar.
Below, I’ve provided you summary evaluations in alphabetical order of the wheelsets I did not recommend but that may have performance, design or cost attributes that you prefer of those I did. Most of these have a lot to offer, otherwise, I wouldn’t have included them in this post. Along with the review, I’ve provided you links to stores that carry each wheelset, have them not only at the best prices but also provide great service and have excellent customer satisfaction ratings.
BONTRAGER AEOLUS 3 D3 – A GENERATION BEHIND IN BRAKING PERFORMANCE
Bontrager updated the Aeolus 3 D3 most recently for the 2015 model year by making it wider (19.5mm inside, 27.0 outside), lighter (about 100g less to 1399 grams with rim strips), and tubeless ready or “TLR.”
The wheelset retained its U profile, DT Swiss 240 hubs and Aerolite straight pull spokes. The rim resins, brake tracks and cork pads were also carried over from the prior model. Quality and durability remain good. This is a well built wheelset that rolls beautifully on tubeless or 25C tires and with its smooth hubs. Reports from the field however do say you need to replace the rim strips each time you take the tires off, something of a nuisance.
Stiffness is good, if not exceptional and while this 35mm deep wheel’s actual weight is 50 to 150 grams lighter than the 40-45mm deep other all-arounds in this review, it’s acceleration feels about the same as most when you are out on a ride. This is not a surprise as this Bontrager wheelset uses the popular DT Swiss 240 hubs, same as those you’ll find on many other high end carbon wheelsets.
In this latest model however, Bontrager didn’t make any changes to improve the wheels’ braking and the difference is a very important one against the others I’m comparing these to. The last model of this wheelset was equal to some of the other last generation carbon clinchers on dry roads but really was inadequate on wet ones with the cork pads that Bontrager includes with these wheels. A couple other reviewers had good luck using SwissStop Black Prince pads in wet weather but they were a bit noisier in all conditions and I don’t know that they’d improve braking performance in dry weather on their own going downhill.
Making no changes to resin, tracks or supplied pads puts the current Aeolus a generation behind those that have upgraded their braking performance in their new or updated models or that were already ahead of them with models that have been out for a few years. These wheels are fine for rollers and all around riding, but not for the steeps.
At it top shelf price (USD$2850 MSRP and USD$2400 online from Trek Bicycle Superstore), the Aeolus 3 D3 really isn’t up to par in performance for what you pay for in price.
CAMPAGNOLO BORA ULTRA 35 – A MISSED OPPORTUNITY TO STANDOUT
For the 2016 model year Campagnolo introduced their 35mm deep, well established Bora Ultra 35 wheelset, previously available only as a tubular, in a carbon clincher model. They also increased the Bora 35 to a more modern 17mm inside, 24mm outside width, though not as wide as many of some of the other current all-arounds. Campy also makes the lower priced Bora One 35, different fro the Ultra 35 only in the kind of ceramic bearing used in the hub.
The wheels are plenty stiff and responsive both in and out of the saddle, though not out of the ordinary. They do feel a bit less compliant than others, consistent with the feel of most Campy wheels. Putting 25C tires on these 17C rims, something I wouldn’t normally recommend, added comfort and probably without a big hit to the aero performance that is already limited by Campy’s old school rim profile.
Given this combination of depth and light weight, Campagnolo’s unwillingness to update their rim profile, or perhaps their lack of rim design expertise to do so, is disappointing.
The Bora Ultra 35 profile is what I would call a “box V”. Like the Shamal and Bora Ultra tubulars that this wheelset is a descendant of, the rim on the Bora Ultra 35 clincher has a flat spoke-side nose which then squarely turns up and linearly widens along the rim side walls until it stops for the parallel brake track. No wide and blunt nose, rounded edges, curved sides, angled or tapered brake tracks you find on modern day carbon wheelsets that have figured out how to use these characteristics to cheat the wind by reducing drag and crosswind effects.
Like some of the other wheelmakers, Campagnolo has treated the braking surface of the Bora Ultra 35’s carbon rims differently than the rest of the rim to improve their stopping power in both dry and wet conditions. In Campagnolo’s case, they remove some of the resin on the brake track surface to expose the pads more directly to the carbon fibers for better bite and wet weather performance. The improved braking performance is welcome in their ability to stop (duh!) but also to allow you to be more aggressive in and out of the turns, braking a little later than wheels that need more time to slow you as you approach the turns.
These wheels, like several in this review, are priced by the manufacturer at the top end (USD$3200). Unlike some of the others however, very good discounts can be found (Wiggle, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles) bringing them closer to USD$2100, £1900, €2200, AUD$2700. While the innovations and performance justify these prices in other wheelsets, save for the braking there’s nothing that really stands out in the performance of these that would suggest to me they are worth their price. The Bora One 35 (ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles) would be a better deal if you are committed to getting a Campy wheelset though I don’t believe they provide the performance of the still less expensive Reynolds Assault.
EASTON EC90 SL – A FAST, STIFF WHEELSET THAT DOESN’T LIKE TO SLOW DOWN
The latest incarnation of the Reynolds EC90 SL wheelset really likes to go. I know that’s not a technical term but that was my initial impression after riding them the first few times and every time after that. They are fast, faster than a 38mm deep carbon wheelset should be or at least faster than any wheel I’ve ever ridden that was shallower than 45mm. They roll very smoothly – light, quiet, and kept me going without having to put out a whole lot of effort once I got them up to speed.
These are also stiff wheels. They are right there with me without hesitation when I accelerate and don’t flex when you get out of the saddle to climb. Consistent with this level of stiffness, they handle precisely and confidently in corners. Not sure if it’s the rims or the new hubs they’ve put on these wheels that have wider spacing between the flanges, but together (with the spokes of course) these are plenty stiff, responsive and confident wheels.
So like I said, these EC90 SLs really like to go.
Unfortunately, they aren’t real excited about slowing down. Yes, they will slow and stop you, but not without a lot of whining going down steeper grades in dry conditions and taking their time on every terrain in wet weather. On a flat or moderately hilly route in dry weather, they were no problem, but also nothing special, after a couple hundred miles of breaking in.
The Swiss Stop Yellow brake pads may be part of the problem, though the brake tracks on these Easton rims don’t have the textured or etched finish you see on the new generation of wheels from more expensive (market price) ENVE SES and Zipp NSW wheel lines. In addition to leaving a pollen colored ring on the otherwise very attractively finished and labeled rims, the front EC90 SL pulsed the first few times I rode it. I changed the pads out for a set of broken in Yellows I had in my tool box and the pulsing went away. When I put on a set of black ENVE pads, they stopped whining and the modulation was better but the stopping distance didn’t improve.
In reality, this kind of braking is about what you should expect from many wheelsets out of the generation of carbon clinchers we’ve been living with until recently. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled already by the latest ENVE, Zipps and others wheelsets with the newer brake track treatments, but if you ride lots of alpine descents or are uncomfortable riding in the rain, you may want to keep these in the garage or pay up for the newest brake track technology.
The EC90 SL ride most comfortably with tubeless tires. Even with 25C Conti GP4Ks at 85psi on the EC90 SL’s rims which measured 19.3mm inside across the bead hook and 27.4mm outside across the brake track , they didn’t provide a terribly compliant ride. Just goes to show you that wide tires and rims can only provide so much comfort if compliance isn’t built into the wheels in the first place. With 23C Schwalbe Pro One tubeless at 75psi, they were plenty comfortable and would probably be more so with a 25C tubeless (had I had one to try).
The EC90 SLs are not currently available from the online stores I track with high customer satisfaction records.
ENVE SES 3.4 – OUTSTANDING PERFORMER AT AN OVERWHELMING PRICE
This is a wheelset that does it all well. Really, really well actually. From a performance and quality standpoint, there really isn’t anything you can say negatively about these wheels and a lot that makes it a performance standard for others to try to meet or exceed.
The ENVE SES 3.4 performs best at serious speed – 25mph/40kph – yet they also get up to and hold enthusiast level speeds very well. They give you a stiff ride with agile, totally confident handling. They are light and responsive with excellent dry braking and greatly improved wet braking with their new textured brake track. They are unaffected by crosswinds for even a light rider like me at 150lbs/68kg.
They are very comfortable going down the road, very responsive to changes in pace and are constructed in a way that makes them stiff even for 100kg/220lb riders. I had my chubby buddy ride the SES 2.2 constructed in the same way (molded rather than drilled/reinforced spoke holes) and he experienced no flex or brake rub going up some long steep ascents and found them supremely comfortable and stable descending despite his considerable size and strength.
You get a range of hub options to choose from. The quiet, smooth rolling DT Swiss 240 hubs is all you really need to match the performance level of the SES 3.4 wheels but you can also get the ceramic model DT Swiss 180. If you like the distinct sound and color or the high performance King R45, that’s available to you has well with steel or ceramic bearings. ENVE also offers their own brand ceramic bearing hubs which is the smoothest rolling hub I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride.
Considering all they offer (oh, did I mention the 5 year warranty?), these are among the best performing, most versatile, and unfortunately, most expensive all-arounds you can buy. The best prices on these wheels currently in inventory are at Competitive Cyclist, Tweeks Cycles, Westbrook Cycles.
Is it the ‘best performer’ in the all-around category and, if so, why not designate it as such? It certainly is one of the best, perhaps matched only by the Zipp 303 NSW. Yet, I believe the SES 3.4 has braking performance most don’t need in an all-around wheelset and that you pay dearly for. Specifically, the textured brake track improves on already very good braking performance in the 1st generation SES 3.4.
Contrast this with Zipp, which added a similar feature (and a number of other improvements) with the 303 NSW but kept the 303 Firecrest in its product line. While the SES 3.4 and 303 NSW (US/CA Competitive Cyclist, UK/EU Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Westbrook Cycles) are priced in the same stratosphere, they are now about a grand more expensive (in USD, CAD, AUD, GBP, EUR) than the 303 Firecrest which was reduced in price when the 303 NSW was introduced at an even higher price than where the 303 Firecrest used to be. And I found the Firecrest braking to be very good (power, modulation, lack of noise) in dry and wet conditions and well ahead of others that don’t come with the new textured or etched track carbon wheels.
Unless you plan to spend a lot of time riding in the rain or going down long alpine descents, the brake tracks on the 303 Firecrest and original SES 3.4 were absolutely fine. Spending this extra grand, my dear fellow enthusiast, is unnecessary. If you do plan to ride in those conditions a lot, get yourself an alloy wheelset (reviews of them here) or a pure climbing wheel (alloy here, carbon clincher here, carbon tubular no mas).
I know this may seem like tortured logic, but I just can’t recommend performance features more most of my fellow enthusiasts that I don’t think you need but will have to pay a lot more for.
FULCRUM RACING QUATTRO CARBON – LOW PRICE BUT NOT BEST VALUE
Let’s be clear from the start. Available at great online stores for about USD$1,000/£840/€1125/AUD$1500 (Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, Chain Reaction Cycles, Westbrook), the Fulcrum Racing Quattro Carbon is probably the lowest priced all-carbon, all-around depth (40mm) wheelset you can find from a major brand. With this in mind, it shouldn’t be expected to perform or compared with those selling for 2x or 3x that are also evaluated in this post.
Instead, the essential question is: How does it perform against other lower priced all-carbon all-arounds like the Best Value Reynolds Assault SLG (about USD$1250/£1100/€1350/AUD$1950 market price) or the Best Alternative carbon-alloy Shimano Dura-Ace C35 CL (USD$1100/£1000/€1175/AUD$1450)?
Having read the many comments of my fellow budget-stressed cycling enthusiasts over the last couple years, I know this is essentially the question you’ll want answered about this wheelset.
With the price advantage over the others, it’s hard to say no to the Fulcrum. It’s a comfortable ride and you can, and probably should run a 25mm wide tire on these 17mm inside, 24.5mm outside width rims. Note that some 25C tires like the Continental Grand Prix 4000 that I favor will run closer to 26.5mm once installed and inflated on this and most other 17mm or 17C rims but that’s not a deal killer in the case of this wheel.
Why? The overhang is not going to be a big issue on this wheelset since, unfortunately, its rim profile is not very aerodynamic and wouldn’t benefit much (at all?) from a 23C Conti GP4K that will measure very close to the outside width of the rim once mounted and inflated. The extra width of a 25C tire will accentuate the comfort of the Racing Quattro Carbon which, along with its handling, are its real strengths. It also brakes well and is plenty stiff, but not any better than others in this category.
The Racing Quattro Carbon’s weaknesses are its aerodynamic performance and hub, sometimes in combination. You don’t get any “free-speed” when rolling along as you do from most good carbon wheels of this depth. Whether that’s due to the rather conservative rim profile (a narrow, slightly rounded inside edge expanding linearly in a V toward the brake track) or home grown hub that otherwise feels smooth is hard to know. You do need to work harder to keep these wheels rolling at speed than any others of this depth I’ve rolled on.
More troubling is the crosswind effects which are quite pronounced with these Fulcrums. No, you won’t get blown off the road but you will need to keep a steady hand on the tiller (uh… handlebars) to keep from going off course. Finally, while they accelerate fine on the flats, they do hesitate a bit going uphill as they are met with more gravitational resistance. Ah, but don’t we all.
I did rate the disc brake version of the Racing Quattro Carbon as the Best Value against the Assault and others in my disc brake wheelset post. While the disc and rim brake Assault clearly perform better than the Fulcrum, I hadn’t really noticed the crosswind effects as much on the Fulcrum during my disc brake evaluation as I did on the rim brake one. That and the reality that the disc brake Assault are very difficult to come by, and when they are there is a far greater price spread between the disc brake wheelsets than the rim brake ones, I leaned toward the disc brake Racing Quattro Carbon as the Best Value among disc brake wheels.
Since the rim brake price difference is much closer and the rim and hub differences lead to noticeable free speed, crosswind and acceleration disadvantages for the Fulcrum, I have to favor the Assault as the Best Value in this case. The Assault are also more widely available in rim brake versus disc brake versions. Click here to go back to the full rim brake Assault review.
That’s just my decision making process. If you aren’t going fast enough to get any aero benefit or don’t ride hills or live in windy climates where any of this makes a difference, go with the Fulcrum and save yourself some money, by all means.
Relative to the Campagnolo Bora One 35 which essential shares the same rim shape (though 5mm shallower) and probably the hub as that is used on the Fulcrum (which is a division of Campagnolo), it’s probably a toss-up from a performance standpoint though the Fulcrum is far more comfortable to ride. Against the Shimano Dura-Ace C35, if you like to climb a lot and live in a windy area, the Shimano will outperform the Fulcrum when going up and riding in a breeze and will be just as comfortable, handle as well, be as stiff, and accelerate better.
MAVIC COSMIC PRO CARBON SL-C – A STRONG PERFORMER AT A GOOD PRICE IF YOU CAN PUT UP WITH THE NOISE
Despite the growth of a new, high-end wheelset market with the breakaway success of carbon clinchers since the early part of this decade, Mavic went out the back of the pack with its seeming unwillingness to offer a model to compete. The closest they came were wheels with an aluminum insert underneath the otherwise carbon rim in an attempt to absorb heat energy coming from braking. Mavic’s view was that an all carbon wheelset wasn’t totally safe, something that most riders of first generation carbon brake tracks would agree with.
It appears that hiring some new engineering talent a couple years ago has given them an opportunity to come up with some new designs to get back in the bunch with the introduction of their first all-carbon wheelsets, the 40mm deep Cosmic Pro Carbon SL-C for all-around riding and a 25mm Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL-C for climbing.
I had the opportunity to ride the Cosmic Pro Carbon SL clincher for a couple of days. While I normally like to ride a wheelset 500-1000 miles before reviewing them, I got a good start on figuring out the character of this wheelset with the time I had and the range of conditions under which I was able to ride it .
The first ride was on a beautiful fall day covering 122 miles (196km) and 8802 feet (2682 meters) of elevation on a range of road surfaces from new, smooth pavement to packed dirt and gravel with the typical range of good to cracked but all paved road surfaces most of the ride. The climbing included a good amount of hills (<5%), moderate climbs (5-7%) and a couple 2 mile long roads to peaks, the first which averaged 12%, the second 8% and both with a few of 15-20% segments. Of course with the distance we rode, much of the riding I did was part of a paceline on flat roads and with plenty of time solo as the group broke up and I found my nose in the wind. The second day, as luck would have it (at least for testing purposes), I did a short recovery ride in the rain.
Based on this riding experience, I find the Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL to be a strong all-around performer. Its versatility is clear as it handled the range of conditions I described above equally well. The Cosmic’s dry braking is clearly its strongest feature, the performance being almost on par with the ENVE and Zipp NSW textured brake tracks on dry roads and when descending mountain pitches. (On wet roads, it was notably inferior to both and more on par with the better non-textured carbon brake tracks like the Zipp Firecrest line.)
The $2200/£1450/€1990 suggested retail pricing makes it attractive especially when you consider that other carbon wheelsets with similar braking performance will cost you about 1000 US dollars, Euros or Pounds more.
On the flip side, I find the noisy free-hub to be a real distraction akin to the Chris King hub volume at a slightly lower frequency. My personal preference is for a much quieter free-hub like what you get with the DT Swiss 240 but if you don’t mind or even prefer the “here I am world” sound of a free hub, this might be the wheelset for you.
Overall, the Cosmic Pro Carbon SL clincher has a very solid feel. It is stiff when powering forward or uphill and and handles and grips well on the 25C Yksion Pro tires that are sold with the wheels.
I normally test all wheels on known, low rolling resistance Continental Grand Prix 4000S II but since Mavic claims the wheels and tires are a “system” and you have to buy the tires along with the wheels, I rode them this with the tires provided. They ride comfortably on all surfaces. The tires measure 25.5mm inflated at the 85psi pressure I rode them at and about 26.0mm at my benchmark 100psi. This is nearly the same width as the 25.6mm external rim width I measured halfway up the brake track and 25.8mm at the widest point, slightly diminishing their aero performance. Ideally you want the rim width to be about 1mm wider or more than the mounted, inflated tire width so that the wind coming off the tires will re-attach to the rims with the least amount of turbulence.
Of course, I can’t test the aero performance in a wind tunnel but on the road they feel fast but not as fast as the Zipp 303 Firecrest or Easton EC 90 SL also reviewed in this post. I don’t know how much of their relative speed is due to this rim/tire width difference, the rim’s U-shaped aero design (usually a plus), the rolling resistance of the Yksion tires (not slick), the friction in the hub or something else.
They roll smoothly and maintain forward momentum well once getting up to aero speeds of over 18-20mph (29-32kph). They also accelerate well but nothing out of the ordinary. As mentioned above, they felt solid climbing, if not any lighter than other all-around wheelsets. Their measured weight of 1574 grams (well over the claimed 1450g weight) puts them at the high end of the range of wheelsets in this all-around category.
A few additional comments on braking. While I put more value on the going fast performance characteristics of wheels than the slowing down ones, several carbon wheels in this review either don’t do well slowing or shriek so much when they do or both. Those are deal breakers for me. Others do just fine slowing and do so quietly but don’t slow you as quickly as alloy wheels on dry roads, less quickly still on wet, and you’ve got to adopt alternate front/back braking techniques going downhill so you don’t warp them.
The latest ENVE and Zipp NSW carbon wheelsets are just as good as wheels with alloy brake tracks in the dry and wet (ENVE) and just a bit off the pace in wet (Zipp NSW) while being quiet throughout. You can almost drag them like you do alloy wheels though I wouldn’t “poke the bear” and tempt fate. I do it for the sake of you, my fellow road cycling enthusiast, and only after making sure my life insurance is paid up.
I’d put the Mavic in the mix with the ENVE and Zipp NSW in terms of dry braking performance. I alternated the front rear braking going down the steepest of hills (10-15%) and dragged them going down the slight less pitched ones (7.5-10%). No heat build up, great performance in both situations though some shrieking after a while when dragging.
In the wet conditions I found they were really no better than other non-textured tracks. They will slow and they will stop, but you might use up all your fingers on one hand counting the seconds before they do. I’ve read other reviewers say their experience was as good on wet roads as on dry ones. That was clearly not what I found.
The Mavic brake track is what I would call “roughened” rather than textured like the ENVE or scalloped like the NSW. Perhaps Mavic’s doesn’t provide any place for the water to escape. I’m also not wild about the Swiss Stop Yellow brake pads that come with these wheels and that you must use in order to prevent voiding the wheels’ warranty. Besides leaving a yellow film on the rims, I’ve found they are more likely to squeal than other pads I’ve used on multiple carbon rims.
It’s good to see Mavic is in the all-carbon wheelset game now and, depending on the characteristics you value most, offering a well priced option. The Mavic Cosmic Pro SL clincher aka SL-C is available at Competitive Cyclist, JensonUSA, Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles, Slane stores with the best prices and high customer satisfaction ratings.
PRIME RP-38 – CAPABLE CARBON ALL-AROUNDERS FOR THE BUDGET MINDED
When the Prime line of carbon and alloy wheelsets for rim and disc brake bikes in shallow through aero depths were introduced in the summer of 2016, it got my attention. I don’t remember such a wide range of products becoming available from a new brand all at once before. The designs looked current, the prices were lower than the better known wheelsets with similar specs, and the line was created and offered by Chain Reaction Cycles, the large UK retailer with some of the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any online bike store. I ordered a set of the Prime RP-38 carbon rim brake wheels reviewed here and the RP-28 carbon disc brake wheels to evaluate for that post.
Overall, I found the RP-38 wheels to be a capable set of carbon wheels. They aren’t at the same overall performance level as the Best Value Reynolds Assault SLG that will cost you about 300 $, £, or € more or the Best Alternative carbon-alloy Shimano Dura Ace C35 CL that will cost about 200 more than these RP-38s. But, if you are on a tight budget and want a modern set of all carbon wheels and don’t care that they won’t be among the fastest in the bunch, these Primes provide you a good option.
They climb well, feeling both stiff and light and provide good feedback when going hard uphill or on the flats. Both Nate, my super-fast and aggressive, occasional crit-racing friend who also tested these wheels, and me, a more modest B class group rider, found their stiffness performance somewhat surprising given their price.
Going downhill and on the flats in both dry and wet conditions the RP-38 braking is on par with other carbon wheels like the first generation ENVE and current Zipp Firecrest which have smooth brake tracks like these do. They brake a bit quieter than others like the Assaults and clearly better than the more expensive Bontrager Aeolus 3 D3 or Easton EC90 SL. The modulation and overall braking power of the newest models of wheels with textured brake tracks from ENVE and Zipp are a level above, but you will certainly brake well on these.
The RP-38 also handle responsively – move when and where you want them to – but felt a little less glued to the pavement than most other all-rounders I’ve tested. I’m a light rider and they felt a little skittish to me when navigating through a group or handling on less than optimum road surfaces.
I tried two high performing tires on these wheels to try to find the right combination of speed (aerodynamics and rolling resistance), comfort and handling. I first ran the 23C Zipp Tangente Course and then after a few weeks switched to the 23C Continental Grand Prix 4000S II. Mounted and inflated, the Zipp tires measured approximately 23.5mm wide and the Conti’s just a touch wider than the 25mm width of the rims.
Neither set of tires on the RP-38 wheels felt very fast in getting up to or holding speed or very compliant, aka comfortable, when compared with the Assaults, C35s and other all-around wheels I’ve tested with the same 23C Contis. Nate, who doesn’t seem to care much about comfort judging from his his ride reports, summed up the speed experience charging across the flats or letting loose downhill on these wheels with the word “uninspiring”, disappointed that a 38mm deep wheelset performed more like 25mm alloys than 40mm carbon ones.
Prime recommends using 25C tires for all around riding on these wheels whose rims are made for them by Chinese producer Alex Rims. On the RP-28 carbon road disc clinchers which run essentially the same 16.75 front to 16.9 rear inside and 25.0 mm outside widths as the RP-38s, I mounted 25C Conti GP4KSII that measured 27.3mm wide and 25C Schwalbe Pro One tubeless that ran 26.7mm to see how different they might ride. Both 25C tires now exceeded the 25mm width of the rounded V-profile rims, defeating the potential aero benefit and didn’t seem to ride any faster, albeit on the shallower rims.
I also didn’t find the 25C Contis inflated at 80-85psi a whole lot more comfortable than the 23Cs at about 90psi. It wasn’t until I ran the Schwalbe tubeless at about 75-80psi that I enjoyed a comfortable ride similar to using 23C Conti clinchers on other all-arounds I’ve reviewed.
The Novatec hubs used on these RP-38 wheels aren’t as responsive or quiet as some of the better hubs but aren’t slow or loud either. Riding these wheels back to back on the same course on the same day as the Assaults, it was clear the DT240 hub used in the Assault and a number of other higher priced carbon wheels, made for better acceleration.
The Prime RP-38s are quite versatile wheels, the definition of an all-rounder. You can take them into mountains, ride them on flat and hilly roads, rain or shine, no worries about cross winds and set them up tubeless to be comfortable if not particularly fast. While quite a few alloy wheels at the same price point or less can give you a similar and perhaps faster experience, if you want carbon wheels on a budget, these are worth a look. They’re available by clicking this link.
REYNOLDS 46 AERO – A STRONG PERFORMER AT A GOOD DISCOUNT BUT NOT FOR EVERYONE
Bucking many popular design trends when it was introduced (2014), the Reynolds 46 Aero demonstrated you can make a strong performer without the need to follow the leaders. In this case, the other wheelset leaders – HED, Zipp and ENVE; Reynolds has also been considered a leader – were making their rims ever wider and their rim profiles ever rounder both at the edge where the spokes attach and along the sides of the rim.
Reynolds went as wide as others outside (26mm) between the brake tracks but a click narrower (16mm) on the inside across the bead hooks. Unlike the others however, they stuck with a rim that has a pointed spoke edge that widens gradually in a V-shape to the rim’s maximum width about halfway along the rim walls. This straight line shape with an even sharper V end than anyone else had enjoyed technical acclaim and commercial success with Reynolds’ RZR line. The design objective was to gain better aero performance starting at lower speeds with the trade-off being giving up some handling predictability in crosswinds.
And that appears to be about how it turns out on the road. It’s a fast wheelset, no doubt, though it’s hard to know without seeing (or trusting) the aero data at what speeds the aero performance kicks in and whether it makes any added time over wheelsets with wide/round spoke edges and curvier/toroid shapes along the length of the rim walls. The 46 Aero does seem to shudder in the crosswinds whereas the rounder rims push you in a more gradual way.
In addition to being fast, the 46 Aero is definitely laterally stiff, and accelerates and climbs very well. This is all very welcome. It’s also vertically stiff however, meaning not terribly compliant or comfortable, especially for the lighter rider. It rolls very smoothly on what are essentially DT Swiss 240 hubs.
The 46 Aero’s brakes provide good power and feel (or “modulation”) on dry roads. They will squeal a bit going downhill though the braking does not suffer even if you ears might. On wet roads and like many all carbon wheels from the pre-textured or etched brake track latest generation, the braking power is reduced and the slowing is delayed.
If you are a heavy rider (>88kg/185lbs) who doesn’t ride in an area with a lot of crosswinds or frequent rain, these wheels are among the best performers and typically sell at a discount to the top wheelsets from the other leaders (available at Competitive Cyclist, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10). If you don’t fit that profile, you’ll likely find this wheelset’s performance is not a good fit for you.
Reynolds will only make this wheelset in a disc brake version starting model year 2017.
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