BEST AERO BIKE WHEELS
If you are a serious regular cyclist, you need to focus on aerodynamics and aero bike wheels, two things that are critical to cycling fast on the flat earth we ride.
It’s been thousands of years since our ancient civilizations and cultures believed the Earth was flat. The influential Greek philosophers Pythagoras, Parmenides and later Aristotle were among the first to proclaim that it wasn’t. Explorers, cartographers, theologians, writers and many, many others bought into this notion in the years since and changed the way we think about our planet.
Clearly, none of these guys were cyclists. And if they were, they wouldn’t have had access to today’s best aero bike wheels to spread their message.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
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WHY YOU SHOULD CONSIDER AERO BIKE WHEELS FOR ALL-AROUND RIDING
The world that most cyclists know is flat. Pancake flat for the most part and even flatter than an IHOP pancake in the case of a half-dozen US states according to researchers. Unless you live in or near the foothills of the Rockies, Sierra Nevada or the Appalachian Mountains, you are going to see a lot of flat road riding throughout the United States with no more than the occasional and short 5%+ grade hills for most of your rides.
And despite the wonders of the Alps and other mountain ranges featured in the summer pro stage races, Europe is mostly flat too. The European Plain, which runs from the Pyrenees along the Spanish and French border all the way to the Ural Mountains in Russia “gives Europe the lowest average elevation of any continent” according to no less an authority than the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Australia and the South Pacific? Flat. Flat. Flat. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “after more than four years” work, the final topographic maps, covering Australia, New Zealand and more than 1000 Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Ocean islands” developed from radar data taken by the space shuttle showed that “Australia was the flattest continent in the world.”
As for the mountains, I’m told by some well-placed elves that only 12% of the world’s population actually live there.
So why do so many of us look to buy (and read my post recommending) climbing wheels? Perhaps it’s because many of the most famous cyclists going back to icons Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi to the modern-day heroes like Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome conquered the cycling world climbing mountains.
And why do we focus so much on wheelset weight when choosing between one or another? Perhaps because weight is one of the most quantifiable differences between wheels, even though for most riders, reducing our own body weight by 2.5kg or 5lbs would save us 5x the amount of time we would save by cutting 300 grams off the typical stock wheels that come with our bikes by moving to a pure climbing wheelset.
If you are a serious regular cyclist, what I call a road cycling enthusiast (see here for definition), you need to focus on aerodynamics and aero bike wheels, two things that are critical to cycling fast on the flat earth we ride.
Weight only matters when you are accelerating and when you are going up relatively steep hills and climbs. But, as explained above, the weight that matters most is your body weight and how much power you can crank out relative to your weight. Your bike and wheelset weight have little relative effect when accelerating and climbing.
Unlike weight, aerodynamics almost always matters (it doesn’t when you are slowly going up steep grades). It matters, even more, the faster you go and the more time you spend riding without anyone in front you to draft off of. Aerodynamics actually matters more than weight when you are acceleration though the difference between the effect of the two is marginal.
If you regularly average 30kph or 18mph and faster on your rides, aerodynamics matters a lot and can save you minutes based on how you position yourself on your bike and what gear (wheels, frame, tires) and kit (helmet, jersey, etc.) you use. The chart below summarizes this; the posts on gear and kit (here) and training and technique (here) go into more detail on how to go faster including the role of aerodynamics.
So if you want to go faster, aero bike wheels are part of what will make it happen.
But aren’t aero wheels for time trialists and triathletes, those poor fools that bend over with their hands out in aero bars for miles at a time, not having to worry about making any sharp turns, with no other riders near them to maneuver around, and going so ridiculously fast that those freakishly deep rims they ride on really make a difference?
Yes, aero wheels are certainly for those riders and they will be on very deep rims, often more than 60mm deep and as much as 90mm deep or complete discs in the back wheel. But aero bike wheels, though not ones that deep, are for roadies too.
In 2010 Zipp introduced the 404 Firecrest carbon clincher, a product that changed the direction of high-performance wheelsets. The Firecrest had a rounded nose or spoke-bed and a toroid-shaped rim rather than the pointy nose, V-shaped profile deeper rims had at that time. The Firecrest was also several millimeters wider than most other wheels and was 58mm deep. It was faster than wheels much deeper but wasn’t buffeted by side winds the way even shallower wheels were and you could actually slow them down using your brakes. It set a new standard for rim design.
Most of the leading wheelset companies followed with carbon clincher wheels that emulated the Firecrest shape, width, and speed. Many introduced wheels in the 70mm+ range to compete with the Zipp 808 Firecrest for the speed-demon, TT and tri riders
Another group of similarly shaped, wide carbon clinchers soon came to market in the 30-45mm depth range for more versatile riding options. The all-around carbon clincher category was born. These wheels struggled with braking that was suspect and construction that wasn’t always on par with what you could get from alloy all-arounds which were 10 to 20mm shallower. Since then, wheel makers have improved their fabrication processes and introduced new resins, brake track finishes and brake pads to make for better braking and more durable rims.
These all-around carbon clinchers were fast but not nearly as fast as the 70mm+ clinchers and tubulars that Zipp and others introduced for the fast-growing triathlon market. These deepest of wheels were (and still are) the fastest wheels around and were combined with aero bars, aero frame, riders who wore aero helmets, etc.
In the last couple of years, more and more carbon-clincher wheelsets in the 50-60mm deep, round or ‘blunt-nose’, toroid-shaped, wide-rim design have been introduced. These are nearly as fast as the very deep aero bike wheels and nearly as versatile as the all-around ones. I call this emerging category of wheelsets aero all-around wheels.
As the aero all-around name suggests, these wheels are nearly as fast as the deepest aero wheels the TT and tri riders use and nearly as versatile as the shallower all-around ones. The speed differences vs the deepest aero bike wheels and versatility vs all-arounders are at the margins. I don’t think most enthusiasts are going to be compromising anything using the right aero all-around wheelset in a triathlon or taking them on all but the most demanding climbs.
The best carbon aero all-arounders don’t get pushed around by crosswinds, are stiff and comfortable, handle well, and are faster yet as indistinguishably light as the best carbon all-arounds that are 10mm to 20mm shallower. They tick all the same performance criteria boxes (see here) as well or better than the shallower all-arounds. They cost about the same as their shallower siblings from the same brand, which is not cheap for any of them. But, for the serious road cycling enthusiasts who wants the most speed without losing versatility, this category is the new wheelset sweet spot that we should be riding.
In this review, I share with you my evaluation of 8 of the leading carbon aero all-around wheels and briefly compare 5 less versatile carbon-alloy wheels in this same depth range. I recommend a best performer regardless of price and a best value where you get good performance at a good price relative to the others in this category. For simplicity and to avoid confusion with all around wheels, I’ll simply call these “aero” wheels going forward (though don’t confuse them with the very deep 70mm aero wheels).
So let’s get on with the reviews of these wheelsets.
Best Performer – ENVE SES 4.5
When I first started looking at wheelsets in the 50-60mm depth, I’ll have to admit that I really wasn’t sure they were for me. As a lighter rider (68kg/150lbs), I was concerned any stiff breeze would blow me off the road and that extra wheel weight would take away my “advantage” going up the hills that are central to most of my rides. I worried that the deeper carbon would make the wheels too stiff to be comfortable on long rides. And I really couldn’t imagine that a deep front wheel would handle nearly as well as my stock/training Ksyriums or any of the 35-45mm all-arounds I’ve been riding for other reviews.
On the other hand, I also knew that bigger guys put out more absolute power in their legs than I could and that I struggled to keep up with them on the flats. I figured there would be some trade-off between going faster and losing some of the handling, comfort and climbing benefits I’d enjoyed from shallower all-arounds.
Really, I didn’t know how much I would gain and lose in all these trade-offs. So I went in search of wheels that would go faster for whatever power I could muster, not be bothered by crosswinds for even light riders and wouldn’t weigh a noticeable amount more than the best regular all-arounds.
Was it possible?
With the ENVE SES 4.5, beyond what I could have ever imagined.
It seemed like these were designed to minimize the trade-offs I feared I would have to make. Indeed, I’d say that instead of trading off anything, I’m really pushing into new territory in nearly everything.
First, my worries were unfounded.
Crosswinds? Not noticeable despite riding in some pretty heavy ones. No steering, leaning, compensation required. I felt the wind on my body but not in my wheels. I kept waiting for some pulsing or pushing sensation in the front wheel but never felt it. I guess I have to look for stronger winds.
Too stiff? While I’ve been on stiffer wheels, I couldn’t get these to budge laterally between some narrow gap brake pads either going up 10% + grades or sprinting full on. Maybe a heavier or stronger rider can but I couldn’t.
Comfortable? Once figuring out what tires and pressures suited the wheels’ aerodynamics and my weight best (25C front at 85 psi and 23C rear at 95 psi) they were as comfortable as anything I had ever been on.
Handling? I navigated these big boys in and out of corners and pacelines with all the control and responsiveness I could ask for.
Weight? These 48mm deep front, 56mm deep rear ENVE wheels climbed as well as any 40mm-45mm all-around I’d been on before. Not surprising as they weigh in at 1575 grams on my scale, essentially the same as the shallower best performer 45mm deep Zipp 303 Firecrest (1570g), best value 41mm deep Reynolds Assault SLG (1552g), and most of the other carbon and carbon-alloy all-around wheels in the same depth range I’d previously evaluated (see here for that review). These are weight differences that most enthusiasts can’t discern out on the road.
It turns out I had been riding these wheels on and off for about three weeks when I was scheduled to do the B2VT, an early season 217 kilometer/135 mile, 2500 meter/8200 foot vertical ride from outside of Boston to one of the ski areas in Vermont. This is the longest ride with the most climbing I had scheduled all year. I’d been having fun on the ENVE SES 4.5s so decided, what the hey, let’s see how they do on a ride like this. (Note: Thinking about how wheels and other gear will do on this or that ride allows me to avoid thinking about how I’m going to do.)
The distance, despite a steady headwind and some nasty crosswinds for what seemed like the whole day, was not a problem. These wheels were well planted on the road and plenty comfortable riding on my Roubaix.
While they didn’t climb like the 150g lighter, shallower (21mm front and 23mm rear depth) Shimano Dura-Ace C24 CL wheels I used going up three mountain gap roads on the Mount Washington Century the previous year, they settled right in to the cadence I wanted to tap out on the climbs and responded well to the changes in grade. We did some long steep ones with 7-8% pitches that went on for 10K/6 miles (CAT 3) and they felt very sprightly going up and very confident going down, topping 70kph/45mph at my fastest. Fortunately, these were long straight runs with few cars (this is Vermont) so I didn’t have to worry about a lot of braking.
OK. I was convinced that I wasn’t trading off much if anything to get the benefits of these deeper wheels.
The benefits? Speed. Faster than 35-45mm deep carbon, toroid shaped, wide rimmed all-around wheels. No doubt. These and most of the other modern carbon aero bike wheels go faster than shallower all-around wheels.
I have a two-mile nearly flat section of road where I do my flat road interval training. It’s totally unscientific but running the deeper 50-60mm all-arounds versus the shallower 35-45mm ones there showed I could ride consistently faster at the same power output, with same tires, in a similar body position, etc. And I feel like I’m going faster too. Oh, what a feeling.
Nearly all the carbon aero wheels I’ve evaluated for this review will give you more speed. It’s impossible to know whether the ENVE SES 4.5 is faster, the same or slower than any of the others in this deeper all-around category. From looking at the few publicly available wind tunnel tests, the amount of difference between many of them is so small that you, my dear road cycling enthusiast, wouldn’t be able to isolate it out on the road.
The latest version of these and all the ENVE SES wheels have a new textured braking surface. I rode the 4.5 with the first generation surface and thought they were great – quiet, comfortable and consistent from the first day I rode them. Knowing they are carbon rims, I didn’t ‘drag’ or hold on to the brakes for long periods going downhill and since I can choose when I ride, I didn’t spend a lot of time on them in the rain. But I found they braked perfectly fine and gave me plenty confidence.
Yes, I did ride them knowing not to drag the brakes, alternating braking front and back on long descents, and giving myself plenty of time to slow in wet conditions. If you try to ride any carbon wheelset like you ride one with an alloy brake track, you are looking for trouble.
And they were totally cool (pun intended) braking on downhills. I checked the rims at the bottom of each of 5 times down my 1+ mile, 8% hill repeat training course one day in the summer and they weren’t even warm.
I rode the new textured brake track on the ENVE SES 2.2 for a review on carbon clincher climbing wheels (see here). These textured track ENVEs brake even better. I’m not going to try to get quantitative on you and say they are x% better or keep the rim temp y degrees cooler, I’m just going to qualitatively say they give you even more confidence. What worked well before works even better now.
Do they brake as well as disc brake wheelsets or rim brake wheels with alloy tracks? No, though it seems the gap is considerably narrower versus alloy wheels. Are they one of the best carbon braking tracks I’ve been on? Yup.
Another difference I’ve noticed between the first and current or second generation ENVE brake tracks is the sound they make when you apply the brakes. The last gen put out a barely audible “shhhh” sound, the kind you make when you are trying to quiet a baby. The new generation tracks sound to me like a dentist’s drill while you are under anesthesia. Zing, zing, but not so much as to scare you. While I much prefer the shhhh sound, the drill sound of the new generation isn’t troublesome and nothing like the shriek you hear on some carbon rim brakes. On one group ride I took, one of the guys I was riding with and didn’t know before the ride made a point to tell me he thought the sound of my brakes was “really cool.” So, there you go. I’m sure I would have heard from others if they thought it was “really annoying.” I’ll take cool any day.
Personally, I like the look of the wheels. The quality also is first-rate. The first gen brake tracks I rode on the SES 4.5 showed minimal signs of wear after four months. They remained true despite my hitting a major pothole, double flatting and cutting through both tires on one of the first group rides I did with them. Yeah, following some rookie’s wheel. Stupid me.
If there were any faults I could find with the ENVE, I’d probably pick on two things. They didn’t accelerate any better than the others and they may not be as stiff as some of the others. The acceleration is probably determined by the weight of these wheels along with their aero shape. They weren’t worse, they just weren’t any better. They use the very competent and quiet DT Swiss 240 hubs that wheels from Bontrager, Reynolds, Roval and many others do. (You can also get them with Chris King or ENVE hubs but it will cost you more.) The actual weights of those three wheelsets are within 25g of the ENVEs and all but the Reynolds have a similar rounded nose so maybe I shouldn’t expect any different acceleration. Again, good but not any better than the others.
As I mentioned before, I found these both vertically stiff and laterally compliant. At my weight, most wheels feel very stiff; these felt a touch less so. It may be that they will also be plenty stiff for heavier riders too. Rather than drilling the spoke holes into the rim, they mold them which theoretically makes the whole rim stiffer. They don’t have a weight limit on these wheels or make a Clydesdale version for heavier rides. Seems that they’ve designed them to be stiff and comfortable for heavy riders too. A couple of 200lb/90kg big boys comment in my all-around wheelset review that they have found the shallower ENVE SES 3.4 wheelsets to be plenty stiff for them and they had broken spokes on other carbon wheelsets before moving over the ENVEs.
So what makes the SES 4.5 my choice for Best Performer? All of the carbon aero bike wheels I’ve reviewed below are good and many are great. Most have some drawbacks. It’s the combination of all the good things that the ENVE SES 4.5 wheels do with none of the drawbacks the others have that separate them from the rest.
Combining two different rim designs into one integrated wheelset may be part of what makes the SES 4.5 perform so consistently well across all criteria. Perhaps you would be better off with the same front and back wheels if your weight was distributed evenly on your bike, or the aerodynamics were the same coming at your front and back wheels, or you turned the back wheel the same way you did the front or any number of other things that make the life of a front and back wheel so different.
Modern wheels have different front and back wheel hubs, spoke counts, spoke configurations and often spokes to deal with the different forces these wheels? If this is the case, then why should the rims be the same on the front and rear wheels if the aerodynamics are different at different places on the bike, especially for a set of “aero” wheels whose purpose is to be more aerodynamic? Duhhhhh!?!?! …. as my daughter says to me when discussing other topics she figured out light years before I did.
I’d guess it’s an extra challenge and expense to design two different rims that together serve an integrated purpose into one wheelset, but it makes sense even to a practically minded road cycling enthusiast like me. And rather than just putting a shallower wheel on the front than on the back as you can do with many of wheels from other brands I’ve reviewed below, it seems that there is so much more going on. The front and back wheels not only have different depths (claimed 48mm/56mm but I measured them closer to 49mm/57.5mm), they also have different widths, different rim profiles and probably a lot of other differences built into them that I don’t understand.
I will really miss these wheels but I don’t get all weepy when I think about them. I buy or return every set of wheels that I evaluate; these were only a test pair. I can’t (or at least try not) to get emotionally attached to any of them. And most of the other wheels in this review are pretty great wheels if you want a very fast and versatile set of wheels that might have a few deficiencies you can overlook if you like their price point or cosmetics better than the ENVEs. It just feels to me like ENVE has nailed it better than anyone else in this carbon aero wheelset category. Perhaps they are ahead by being the last ones into the 50-60mm pool or that their experience with the shallower SES 3.4 and deeper SES 6.7 (now discontinued) taught them a lot of lessons that they incorporated into this wheelset.
As with all the ENVE wheels, they aren’t cheap and you don’t find them discounted often but I certainly think they are worth what you pay for and recommend them enthusiastically. The construction of these wheels is first-rate and ENVE stands behind them with a 5-year warranty, unmatched by other major brands.
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 March 19, 2018: All of these are carrying the 2nd generation wheelset with the textured brake track: Competitive Cyclist, Westbrook, Merlin, Evans.
Best Value – Zipp 404 Firecrest
This wheelset’s round nose, full toroid rim shape, crosswind deflection and carbon clincher design at a 58mm depth made it one of the pioneers of this category of aero bike wheels for the road enthusiast. You rode fast and looked fast. It changed the game so much that it became the new benchmark for wheels from established companies and likely motivated several entrepreneurs to jump into the wheel business. Zipp followed this wheelset with similarly profiled, deeper 808 and shallower 303 and 202 Firecrests to make it a complete line.
For some riders, these wheels became the product we saved for, splurged on and bragged about. Others just dreamt about them and bought something far less expensive because they couldn’t justify spending more on their wheels than they had on their bike.
The Zipp 404 Firecrest started this revolution in aero wheels in 2010. The wheelset’s rim dimensions are unchanged since then but it has incorporated better brake track resins, finishes and pads to improve dry, wet and downhill performance. It remains one of the best braking wheelsets amongst today’s carbon clinchers with smooth brake tracks. The hubs were upgraded for the 2014 model (88 front and 188 back, which were subsequently recalled) and spokes were added (2 in the front, 4 in the back) in 2015 to improve the 404’s stiffness and durability. A new hub (so-called V3 or 77 front, 177 back) with a modified flange geometry and increased axle diameter was introduced on the 2016 model to provide additional lateral stiffness.
Even with these updates, the 404 Firecrest is now more a benchmark, a symbol of the kind of wheelset we aspire to ride but no long the wheelset we must ride. It’s not as comfortable or wide or light as others in the group of wheels that have followed it. It’s probably just as aero as it ever was, which is to say among the best both in reducing drag and handling the crosswinds but others wheelsets feel just as fast now and ahead of the 404 Firecrest in the areas I’ve listed above. The MSRP/RRP of the 2016 model was reduced by 20% to $2100/€2,200. Their performance and price make them the best value wheelset in this category. I almost can’t believe I just recommended a Zipp product for its value more than its performance but in the case of the 404 Firecrest, it brings a lot of both.
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 March 19, 2018: Competitive Cyclist, UK/EU Westbrook, Chain Reaction, Wiggle.
OTHER WHEELSET EVALUATION SUMMARIES
Zipp 404 NSW – A top pick for flat road races, crits, TTs or solo breakaways
Despite the similarities in name, the Zipp 404 NSW and classic Zipp 404 Firecrest are quite different wheelsets. Yes, they did add a textured brake track and are using a new hub on the NSW but they’ve also changed some of the rim’s key dimensions, something they’ve never done to the 404 Firecrest as they’ve updated it over the years (see review above).
The 404 NSW wheels are a good deal wider (about 1mm at the bead hook and 2.5mm at the brake track per my measurements) and lighter (about 150g) than the 404 Firecrest. They are still dimpled, not tubeless and should be run with a 23C tire to minimize the aerodynamic drag.
These remain very fast wheels and good in crosswinds. Zipp makes quantitative claims about the % improvement that I can’t verify. But, on the road, I can tell you they are fast, maintain your speed very well and are minimally affected and quite easily managed in heavy crosswinds. They were one of the fastest wheels I’ve ridden in my highly unscientific 2-mile interval training repeats and just barely noticed the wind (or view) coming off the ocean in my high wind crosswind runs.
My A level, 20mph+, damn-he’s-fast bike club friend Nate summed up their sweet spot well after riding these 404 NSWs when he said: “These would be my pick in a flat road race, crit, TT or solo breakaway but I would opt for the ENVE SES 4.5 in a hillier race.”
The hubs are quiet and silky smooth both pedaling and freewheeling with a Dura Ace cassette but annoyingly loud with the SRAM one they came with. Likewise, the wheels ran smoothly with 23C Conti 4KSII rubber but I found them downright buzzy with Zipp’s own 23C Tangente Course tires.
The brake track width measured wider than these 23C tires, comfortably in the 105-110% range, best for minimizing drag/maximizing aero performance, i.e. speed. While I’d put a premium on aero with these depth wheels, and aero drag reduction with 23C tires will generally outweigh rolling resistance reduction with 25Cs at the kind of speeds you’d likely ride these wheels, you could run 25C tires at lower pressure to make the ride more comfortable, something where the 404 NSW don’t excel.
The stiffness and climbing were also disappointing to both Nate and me. Neither of us are heavy guys but we both noticed that the 404 NSW weren’t terribly stiff and you could get the rear wheel to rub the brake pads if you were rocking side to side when climbing or sprinting. They didn’t climb very well on anything more than a roller. A bit surprised here as the 404 NSW at 1562 grams aren’t light but are as light as any of the other aero wheels in this review.
Perhaps the stiffness and climbing weaknesses come back to the hubs. Zipp seems to change hubs nearly as often as I change cassettes and the Cognition hubs used on all their NSW wheelsets is yet another new hub for Zipp. They don’t engage particularly fast, certainly not as fast as the ENVE or DT Swiss 240 hubs and that affects your ability to keep up with changes in speed or moves in the group and changes in pitch going up a hill. A wider hub flange can also make the wheels stiffer, something you see with good effect on Easton’s latest Echo hub and other new hubs coming out. The rim walls also seemed a bit thinner and easier to depress than the others, perhaps contributing both to less weight and lateral stiffness.
While a wheelset this fast is not one you should buy for its braking ability, the 404 NSW certainly do brake extremely well on dry pavement and stay very cool going down steep, long hills. On wet roads, the braking goes from average carbon to as good if not better than any alloy after a couple seconds (I counted on multiple passes), likely after squeezing the water out of their tracks.
The 404 NSW are available for US/CA residents at Competitive Cyclist and at Tredz 10% discount with code ITK10, Tweeks, Westbrook for those in the UK/EU and other countries.
Zipp 454 NSW Wheelset Review – A whale of a tale
The storylines in reviews of Zipp’s 454 NSW wheelset have been hard to ignore. Whale fins, biomimicry, sawtooth, vortex, the shape of things to come. All these analogies, descriptions and hyperbole to describe how the wheels are supposed to uniquely defeat crosswinds with their rim depths that vary between 55 to 59mm.
I like a good story as much as the next cyclist but I really wanted to know how they perform before suggesting anyone buy them.
The Zipp 454 NSW perform like the Zipp 404 NSW I reviewed above. As you can see, I headlined my 404 NSW review “A top pick for flat road races, crits, TTs or solo breakaways”. I’d say all that is true for the 454.
Except, the front wheel of the 454 wobbles in the wind. By design. Of course, Zipp doesn’t call it wobbling. (See stories on whale fins, biomimicry, etc.). The wobble helps keep your bike on your line without you having to steer it there yourself.
If you ride or race a lot in windy conditions, I imagine you could get used to it and even use it to your advantage as Zipp intends. I couldn’t. Nate had no problems on the flats but freaked going downhill. Moose was fine with it.
Different riders? Yes. Different situations? Somewhat. Worth an explanation? That’s what In The Know Cycling is here for.
I’m a light (150lb/68kg), B-group rider. 18-20mph/29-32kph ride average. 25mph/40kph while busting it on the flats. Fast enough to enjoy the benefits of a deeper aero wheelset but not so fast to be able to do anything about it (i.e. race).
I thought the 404 NSW was pretty good in the crosswinds. Yes, it was affected by them but I found the effect manageable compared to other deep aero wheels I’d ridden, even with my slim arms and meh strength. I had to steer the front wheel back in but I didn’t get blown off my line.
Admittedly, it’s not a fine line – a foot or so either way. But, it’s a line I could keep riding the 404 NSW on even in 15-20mph crosswinds.
Normally, if it’s that windy, I’m not going out. If it gets that windy once I’m out, I’m easing up a bit. More because of the way my light body gets blown around than the way the wheels or the bike is.
Riding the Zipp 454 NSW in 15-20mph steady crosswinds, the wheel came back into line on its own. Then it went out the other way. Then came back. Then went out. Then came back. Until the wind eased or I rode into a sheltered area.
To complicate matters, when the wind blew the wheel out, I initially tried to bring it back in, same as I would any wheelset. That was a natural reaction. That was also exactly the wrong reaction for this wheelset, as I was adding to the correcting the wheel was doing itself, only making things worse. So I backed off and let the 454 do its thing.
It felt like a speed wobble. A controlled, intentional, small speed wobble mind you but a wobble nonetheless. I could see where a more disciplined rider or racer could get used to riding the 454 NSW if he/she frequently rode in windy conditions. I couldn’t. I’m not comfortable riding wobbling wheels, intentional or not.
I preferred the manual steer of the 404 NSW in the crosswinds to the self-correcting 454 NSW.
Nate, my very experienced cycling friend, A-group leader, and CAT 3 racer rode the Zipp 454 NSW a couple times before racing them. Riding 25-30mph (40-48kph) on the flats in a steady side wind, he noted a “subtle micro-wobble” back toward the wind. The 454 NSW offered a different way to deal with crosswinds than other modern wheels he’d tested for our comparative aero wheel review.
Was the wobble a concern? Not for Nate in those conditions. Did it live up to the hype of being a radically different way to handle crosswinds? Not really. The Zipp 454 NSW and 404 NSW handled the crosswinds differently, but both were fine.
When Nate raced the 454s down a 45mph+ (75kph) descent, however, the wobble became unstable. The winds were moderate and swirling that day. He held back the second and third time on the same long downhill leg of the three lap Bear Mountain Spring Classic course. Others racing different 60mm or so deep rims didn’t seem to have any problems bombing downhill in the wind.
He fell back and lost several seconds from the lead group each time down the descent. He chased back past the bottom turn after the first and second descents. The final time down, the group was gone before he could.
Moose, my 200lb friend and president of his own mythical FFBC (Fat F*ckers Bicycle Club) felt the wobble like Nate and I did on the flats. He was totally unconcerned by it, locking in instead on the pleasure of speeding along the flats and rollers on the Zipp 454 NSW wheelset over long rides.
While he’s heavier, what separates Moose from lightweights like Nate and me and other 200lb riders I know is his barrel-shaped torso. “Strong” doesn’t do him justice. I can only imagine that 20mph crosswinds to him are like a gentle breeze to me.
So, there you have it. Different reactions in different situations from different types of cycling enthusiasts to the intended wobble of the Zipp 454 NSW. If your reaction to what I’ve reported motivates you to buy a set, you can do so at the best prices from stores with the best customer satisfaction records by clicking through to Competitive Cyclist for US/CA residents and at Tredz 10% off with code ITK10, Tweeks for those in the UK/EU and other countries.
Bontrager Aeolus 5 D3 – Added bead width and tubeless ready option extend wheelset’s versatility at nearly comparable performance levels
Bontrager recently updated the Aeolus line, introduced in 2012 in an attempt to match the Zipp 404 Firecrest profiles. The major changes in the 2015 update of the Aeolus 5 D3 is the further broadening of the bead width (to 19.5mm) and redesign of the bead to run with tubeless tires. Bontrager appears to be targeting the cycling enthusiast who wants a comfortable ride for on- and occasional off-road riding and who puts that characteristic above speed, stiffness, and other performance criteria.
The recent changes add to the versatility these wheelsets can already claim compared to others in this category. Their own tests show drag performance within range of the benchmark Firecrest 404s, although details of the test protocols have not been provided – one can only guess this is the best case example. Tests run by VeloNews on the last model of the Aeolus 5 showed that they consistently lagged the aero performance of 60mm deep wheels from HED, ENVE and Rolf Prima. This is not unexpected as the Aeolus wheels are 8-10mm shallower than the others.
At their 50mm depth, you trade-off some aero performance for better handling. Actual weights of these Bontragers are essentially in the high 1500g range of most of the wheelsets in this review so ignore any claimed weight differences; they have no effect on anything other than your perceptions.
The Aeolus 5 is comfortably compliant on the road, brake similarly well to most other carbon clinchers introduced in the last couple of years, are competent but not the best in the crosswinds, and are not as stiff when climbing as many of the others in this category. They ride on DT 240 hubs and spokes, known solid performers.
These wheels are available directly from Trek or from a Trek dealer.
Easton EC90 Aero 55 – Stiff and fast but crosswind and braking performance is lacking
Easton comes out of the chute claiming the EC90 Aero 55 is “the most aerodynamic road wheelset on the market today” and “fastest in all conditions.” It’s quite bold and who knows if it’s true, but at least they have the balls to publish the results of wind tunnel tests comparing their Aero 55 tubular and clincher wheels against Zipp 404 Firecrest, HED Stinger 5 and ENVE 6.7 tubular models. Zipp has since introduced their NSW series and ENVE has replaced the 6.7 models with the 7.8 but I wish more companies would publish their own results like Easton did. Perhaps some brave soul (or a very rich one) will run independent wind tunnel tests to document just how different today’s wheels and bikes are. The good old Roues Artisanales comparative tests published ten years ago now feel ancient.
Easton also shares the results of their tests using different model and size tires on these wheels. Both the wheel and tire test results are published on page 3 of their white paper here. The tire test results are below.
What I find most interesting in their data is not necessarily who has the fastest wheels. Rather, the Easton tests show that the time differences between the wheels are about the same as the time differences you get by changing tires. This shows that you can mess up the speed you are trying to gain spending $2000+ on a set of wheels by picking the wrong $100 set of tires, usually by going too wide.
Note that of the ones they test, the 21C, 22C and 23C tires are the fastest, in that order and they don’t test 25C clincher tires nor do I assume they recommend one if going fast is a priority. Get your comfort from the extra volume in the rims, not the tires, unless speed is less important than comfort, in which case you probably are looking in the wrong aisle for you next wheelset. (I’m talking to you Mr. “I must put a 25C tire on whatever wheel I ride because that’s what everyone else says I should be doing”.)
I bought a pair of Zipp Tangente 23C clincher tires to run on these wheels. According to the chart, the 21C size of the same model would be a lot fast but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever use a 21C again after evaluating these wheels so budget considerations got the better of me this time. (See, I do it too!) Once mounted and inflated, the 23Cs measured 24.7mm wide on these 19C rims. That’s still over 3mm narrower than the 28.1mm rim width I measured at the brake track. So I was doing my small part to improve the aero performance.
With the EC90 Aero 55, Easton also made a serious effort to integrate some of the latest advances into an aero wheelset. Introduced for the 2014 season, I believe this was the first carbon tubeless clincher available in a 50mm+ aero road wheelset (the Reynolds Strike followed in 2015) and the first to go ultra-wide with 19mm bead and 28mm brake track widths (HED’s carbon-alloy Jet 6 Plus also went this wide in 2014, Bontrager’s New Aeolus 5 D3 followed in 2015).
So does the Aero 55 hold up against the competition a couple years removed from its introduction? I rode these wheels for a few hundred miles and then asked Nate, one of the fastest roadies in my cycling club who also does crits and TTs (without aero bars) to give them a go solo, in group rides and in a weekly TT run near him.
We both found them very stiff and responsive to changes in speed while underway. That stiffness also helped Nate, who weighs about 153lbs/70kgs and is far younger, stronger and faster than me to get good acceleration from a rolling stop. I had more difficulty getting them up and going than I did, for example, with the ENVE SES 4.5 that weigh essentially the same as the Aero 55.
The Aero 55 hold their speed well, are comfortably compliant and handle confidently for an aero wheel with the 23C tires I mentioned above. They also ride quietly, with only a little of that slicing or swooshing through the wind sound that you can get on some deeper carbon wheels when you ride them really hard. Nothing that seemed to affect or take away from the riding experience. The hubs were also quiet while freewheeling, a characteristic I prefer vs the click-click-click you hear from other hub models.
Nate was impressed with the braking force whether the rims were seeing their first braking action in a while or after repeated braking in a relatively short period of time. Braking under damp conditions required more distance but nothing out of the ordinary for carbon rims with untreated brake tracks. Neither of us rode these in the rain but on the 38mm deep Easton EC90 SL model with the same rim finish and lack of brake treatment, I found the stopping distance really lacking. So I don’t recommend you take these out in the rain.
In dry conditions, the brakes start squealing when you brake them hard, long or repeatedly. (Get your mind out of the gutter!) The SwissStop Yellow brake pads that come with these wheels also leave a pollen colored ring on the rim. Yes, it comes off if you wash your bike regularly but it’s really bugly (look it up) while you are riding. I’d think Easton could quiet the rims and avoid the coloring with a better choice of pads.
Both Nate and I agreed that these wheels didn’t handle the crosswinds very well. We’re lightweights and got pushed around a good deal, far more than I’d experienced with other modern carbon wheels this deep. On a day with a fair amount of crosswinds, Nate didn’t feel stable on the Aero 55 in his normal aero position during a TT and bailed for a more open one.
The carbon clincher game is played quickly and with new players like Mavic and Shimano joining in the all-carbon aero division and stalwarts like Zipp and ENVE hardly standing still, it may be time for Easton to throw down a new aero rim profile and brake track treatment along with their current hub to keep in contact with the leaders. If the braking noise and crosswind performance are not issues for you, the Aero 55 wheelset is available at Wiggle, ModernBIKE.
Vision Metron 55 – A good bargain for riding mostly flat terrain
The Vision Metron 55 might be better off changing its name to keep its 55m rim dimension a bit of a mystery. That’s because it rides differently than the stereotype its depth would suggest. It is a very stiff wheelset and holds its speed like a deeper one would. At the same time, it handles, manages the crosswinds predictably and accelerates like a shallower set of wheels. Braking is on par with the majority of carbon wheelsets regardless of their depth – fine when the sun shines, a bad bet when its wet.
Another irony is the Metron 55’s acceleration – good – vs. its weight – not so good. Acceleration can overcome weight with a stiff and responsive wheelset, which this one is. And while I’ve cautioned you, dear reader, not to put much stock in a few grams difference here or there between wheelsets, the Metron 55 actual measured weight from three sources I trust comes in at an average of 1705 grams (+/- 20 grams), consistent with my own experience with Metron wheels measuring about 100 grams more than their claimed weight.
While many wheel makers seem to have scales that somehow calibrate 50 to 100g less than those of riders and reviewers, getting above 1700 grams puts you up in the same class – on a weight standard – with carbon-alloy aero wheels and starts taking you out of the range of what I consider 50-60mm deep aero wheels. While aero wheels are not those you want to climb tall mountains with, you’ll notice 150 grams of difference between wheelsets powering up short, 5% rollers that any all-around should cruise up without wondering what they are dragging.
The only other comment I’ll add is that three other reviews I’ve read on this same hand-built wheelset wrote that their Metrons came in out of true. While I’ve not experienced this issue with the Metrons I’ve tested, and it’s certainly one that can be easily fixed, it suggests the need to be vigilant when inspecting these and any new wheelset.
Vision wheels are frequently discounted, these are at ModernBIKE, Amazon, and this often makes them a great bargain. If you ride more flat than rollers and want an all carbon aero wheelset that’s plenty stiff and you can manage trueing them up or have someone who can, the Metron 55 at the right price is worth considering.
The late Steve Hed and his HED Cycling company were one of the innovators along with Zipp in aero wheel design, demonstrating that a round-nose, toroid shaped, wide rim offered a faster and better handling solution that managed the crosswinds better than traditional narrow, flat-sided, V-shaped rims. While he applied these innovations to deep carbon tubular wheels but firmly believed that carbon clinchers didn’t brake well enough to associate his company’s name with so his company has never made them.
Instead, HED’s deeper clinchers all have carbon wings or “fairings” bonded to a stock aluminum rim. You get the aero benefit of the rim shape with the superior braking of an alloy wheel. This also results in a lower cost and generally lower priced wheelset than the carbon ones reviewed above but it is generally heavier and doesn’t accelerate as well as all carbon of the same depth wheels do.
Other companies – most notably Shimano, Mavic and Campagnolo – who are more conservative in their product design have generally followed the same braking philosophy as HED and also make carbon-alloy clincher aero wheels instead of all carbon ones. But none of the carbon-alloy wheels from the major brands reviewed here except HED have as wide or rounded a rim and therefore the aerodynamic performance the HED wheels do.
The trade-offs between the better aerodynamics and noticeably lighter weight you get with carbon aero wheels and better braking and (mostly) better prices that come with carbon-alloy ones are clear. Make your decision with your eyes open.
Because of their relative heft, I hesitate to put carbon-alloy wheelsets into the aero all-around category. They are certainly more aero than low profile stock or upgrade wheels but not as aero as the what you get from the rim shapes of the rounded, toroid carbon rims. I also don’t think they are well suited to the variety of terrain and uses, including short climbs, hill riding or road racing that are part of the all-around wheels’ repertoire.
Yes, you will see the pros riding Shimano C50 and Campagnolo Bora 50 carbon-alloy wheels, but these are almost always the much lighter tubular versions that sponsors pay a lot of money for teams to use and get on camera while they are riding. And if you are riding behind others in the ‘peloton’ or group of riders that number 30 or more for hours on end, aero doesn’t matter a whole lot.
My bias is that these wheels are best for flat terrain riding (less than 3-4% grades), time trial and triathlon training and racing for riders with tight budgets. There is certainly a lot of flat terrain around. Indeed, most of us who ride in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South America and Asia ride overwhelmingly on flat roads. So there is definitely a big demand for lower-priced carbon-alloy aero wheels that are a little heavier and less versatile than their carbon brethren but a step up from low profile wheels that come with most bikes.
For all the reasons carbon-alloy wheels are popular and to get ahead of the questions I know would come if I didn’t include these not-quite aero all-around wheels in this review, I’ll give you short summaries of my take on the most popular of them.
The HED Jet 6 Plus (Competitive Cyclist, JensonUSA) is the latest product in the evolution of HED designs. It does most everything well and is probably one of the most compliant of the carbon-alloy aero wheelsets. With a whopping 20.7 inside diameter, it’s clearly the widest but also one of the heaviest at a measured weight of 1750 grams. For what you should really use this wheelset for (see above), weight is irrelevant and aero advanced toroid aero profile makes it, on paper, one of the fastest. At 60mm, the Jet 6 Plus is also 10mm deeper than the other popular carbon-alloy wheels. The fairing on these and the Bontrager wheels described below are non-structural and you can deflect them in with your finger. It doesn’t affect the performance; it just feels rather odd. This wheel is often used with the deeper HED Jet 9 Plus for a TT set.
Bontrager makes the 50mm deep carbon-alloy Aura 5 TLR (Trek) in addition to their carbon clincher Aeolus 5 reviewed earlier in this post. It rides stiff laterally yet is quite compliant (or comfortable) vertically. it gets pushed around by the crosswinds, not surprising considering it basically has a V-shaped rim profile. Handling is average but braking is good, the kind you’d expect from the alloy rims that this wheelset is made from.
Yes, it is tubeless ready but with a relatively middle of the pack rim width (17.5 at the bead, 22 at the brake track), I think it’s done more to keep it consistent with the differentiation Bontrager is trying to create with tubeless across its wheel lines than providing any great comfort or handling advantage. The tubeless tires are more difficult to mount on this model than most. Having internal spoke nipples means you (or your shop) will have to pull both the tire and rim strips off and put them on again while dealing with the mess of the sealant when you need to true the rims. You also will get water and road dirt getting inside the fairing around the slots for the spokes. Not for me!
You can install the regular tube type rim strips that also come with the wheel instead of the tubular ones and valve stems and save yourself the mounting hassle and about 40g of weight on an already heavy wheelset.
While some may be disappointed that Shimano didn’t actually deliver on its announcement that these would be deeper and wider (the disc brake and tubular versions are), others may be quite alright with the C60 as it is.
Why? The C50 was long a favorite of many riders in part for its performance and in part because of its discounted price, consistent high quality, wide availability and large service network.
These wheels feel quite robust, solid and sure-footed on the road. Unlike the HED Jet 6 wheels which use a non-structural carbon fairing, the C60’s carbon is structural, perhaps giving it that robust feel. The hubs are… well Dura-Ace, simply the smoothest rolling, fastest accelerating and simplest to maintain hubs available today.
Price, hub and quality are probably the most favorable things I can say about these wheels and that says a lot for many riders. The C60 clinchers, even as rebadged versions of the C50s originally introduced in 2013, are ahead or on par with carbon-alloy aero clincher offerings from their primary OEM (original equipment manufacturers) competitors Mavic, Campagnolo and Bontrager.
Much as some think the prestige of the Zipp, ENVE, HED designs are worth it, Shimano is in it for the profit that comes from volume and bleeding edge design doesn’t usually support the lower price points Shimano tries to hit to support that volume strategy. You can get them for about $1200, £1000, €1250 at Competitive Cyclist, Chain Reaction Cycles.
Campagnolo’s entry in the carbon-alloy aero field is the Bullet line of wheelsets. They make them in 80mm and 50mm depths and 3 different hub bearing options – steel, ultra smooth ceramic (USB) and ultimate level ceramic (CULT). (No, I didn’t make those names up.)
The wheels with the ceramic bearing options are called Ultra, for example, the Bullet Ultra 50, and those with standard steel bearings are the Bullet 50. The rims and spokes are the same. The graphics on the Ultra are a little louder. The Ultra with the CULT bearings claims to weigh about 135 grams less though it’s at the hub, which has less of an effect on the road than if it were at the rim. The Bullet 50 (Chain Reaction, Wiggle, Evans) is hundreds less than the Bullet Ultra 50 and one of the least expensive brand name deep wheels available.
Neither of these wheels is going to set the world on fire. They are sluggish, get pushed around by crosswinds, and are not very comfortable. Both hold their speed well on the flats when up to speed, brake well and are well-built. The Ultra rides smoothly and quietly but their graphics yell “look at me.” Upon closer inspection, the less experienced cyclist may say “wow” but the more informed enthusiast will see the boxy, narrow rims even with sunglasses on to shield the bright graphics and probably say “bow-wow”.
Note: Campy recently introduced a carbon clincher version of their previously tubular-only Bora Ultra and Bora 50. I haven’t been on them yet and don’t know anyone who has. There doesn’t appear to be anything particularly novel about what they’ve introduced and some of the design aspects in these wheels are a generation old. That, along with the price, doesn’t make me want to suggest you should wait for a review to help you make up your mind.
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