BEST ROAD BIKE WHEEL UPGRADES
Like many cyclists who are looking for a more comfortable ride, you may have recently put wider tires on the wheels that originally came with your bike or on ones you bought a few years ago. You may not realize that by doing so you probably made your bike slower and your handling worse. If you want the performance as well as the comfort most road cycling enthusiasts are looking for today, you’ll likely need a better and probably wider set of wheels.
In this post I review the best road bike wheel upgrades available today that have wide rims, most that can be had for USD$1000, £700, €900, AUD$1200 or less, including some for nearly half that amount. Together with the right size tires, the best of these alloy wheels for rim brake bikes can give you far more comfort, versatility, speed, stiffness, acceleration, handling, rolling and braking performance than what you may be riding on now at a great value compared to upgrading to carbon rim road bike wheels.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
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WHEELS ARE THE FIRST THING YOU’LL WANT TO UPGRADE
While it may initially seem crazy, many cyclists upgrade their wheels soon after buying a new bike, which of course already comes with a new set of wheels. Some cyclists actually shop for new wheels at the same time they buy their bike and get a new set almost immediately. Most make the decision to upgrade within a few seasons.
It’s become a truism that wheels are the first and best upgrade you can make to improve your cycling experience and performance. Why? The unfortunate reality is that most $2500 to $5000 modern composite bikes that road cycling enthusiasts ride these days come with inexpensive wheels that aren’t at the same performance level as the frames that sit on them or the drivetrain components that transfer your power to them.
Stiff bikes made to be ridden and raced aggressively in this price range often come with wheels that aren’t laterally stiff enough to take advantage of the frame’s stiffness and actually dampen the responsiveness the bike is capable of when you want to accelerate, go aggressively into a turn, climb out of the saddle or sprint for the line. And endurance or sportive bikes in this price range suited for long, comfortable rides are usually fitted out with wheels that aren’t as forgiving or compliant as the frame which makes your many hours riding over varying road surfaces less of a pleasure than it should be.
The wheels that come with your bike, commonly known as “stock wheels”, also tend to be heavy by modern day standards which slows your acceleration from stops or when you want to increase your speed during a ride. Stock wheels also typically have hubs that are durable but don’t roll as smoothly as those that help you maintain your speed with less effort, use shallow and boxy rims that provide no aerodynamic benefit that ones with rounder noses and sides do, and have a pretty basic look to them.
The bike-stock wheel relationship is similar to you buying an engagement ring with an expensive diamond mounted on a cheap band or a home with an undersized circuit breaker panel. You focus on the quality of the diamond or the size and location of the home and go forward with the purchase knowing (or learning later) that you’ll soon have to upgrade the band or panel.
There are probably a half-dozen reasons that might explain why bike companies fit out underperforming wheels on quality bikes. Some are rider focused. For example, there are a lot of wheelset choices and some bike makers believe they should put on a basic wheelset and let the rider decide later once they know what better performing wheels they want. Others reasons are more retailer focused. Putting on better wheels on a new bike would drive up prices and depress sales without improving profit for the retailers or most bike companies as they don’t make their own wheels in the first place and just have to pass through the costs of the more expensive wheels.
This is an interesting topic to explore but not one that will help you decide what upgrade wheels to get so I won’t discuss it here further. But, given that these lesser quality stock wheels are what you get with your new bike, it’s not surprising that most road cycling enthusiasts upgrade them so soon.
While I’ll focus my evaluation of the different wheelset upgrades on the performance factors I’ve mentioned above, I consider about 20 criteria – either performance, design, quality or cost related – when making my recommendations. You can read about these selection criteria in more depth here.
Note that I do put an emphasis on performance and cost related criteria. Quality is a go-no go consideration. I won’t write a review on anything that is poor quality and I’ll note those products that have exceptional quality or longer than normal warranties.
Wheel makers have for years marketed higher quality wheels around some of the design factors – wheel weight, rim width and profile, hub materials, spoke shape and butting, etc. – because those are easier to quantify and promote. These often take up the first half (or more) of many reviews. The more important and harder to describe and quantify performance factors including stiffness, comfort, handling, acceleration, braking, aerodynamics and rolling smoothness are what truly separates one wheelset from another and is where I like to focus my attention.
Design serves performance objectives and shouldn’t be discussed in isolation. Sometimes a wheelset’s design delivers on the performance objectives and sometimes it doesn’t. If, for example, you end up on a light, wide, blingy wheelset with double butted bladed spokes and carbon hub shells that are as as stiff as a noodle and as comfortable as riding a jackhammer with spokes that break and hubs that don’t freewheel for more than a few seconds, you won’t be very happy. So please don’t buy an upgrade wheelset based on a few of the eye-popping specs without knowing how they perform.
There is also usually a relationship between price and performance. Stock wheels typically cost USD$150-$300/GBP£100-£200/€130-€260 and you are going to have to spend more to get something that performs noticeably better. I find it’s best to know what you are willing or able to spend and then seek the level of best level performance you can get within that budget. The wheelsets in this review run from USD$500/£350/€450 to a little over a $1000/£700/€900 from reputable online stores. Even within that range, the level and nature of their performance with vary, often but not always, aligned with their prices.
DEVELOPMENTS – WIDE AND WIDER
Over the last few years there has been a move to wider tires and more recently to wider wheels in road cycling. While riders used to be overly focused on wheelset weight, we now seemed to have become overly focused on width and mostly on tire width.
As I reported in a post dedicated to the topic of the relationship between wheel and tire widths (here), 3 out of the 4 rim brake bikes that were picked as the best in their price ranges for Bike Radar’s 2016 Bike of the Year awards are sold with traditional 15C (or 15mm inside width) stock wheels versus wider 17C (17mm) ones while 2 put 23C (23mm) tires on those wheels and the other 2 use 25C (25mm) rubber. Of the 11 rim brake bikes that made up their £2,000 to £2,750 or US$2800 to $3800 price range category where many road cycling enthusiasts shop, 8 of those 11 bikes are equipped with 15C wheels but 8 also had 25C tires.
Unfortunately, you can’t really upgrade your stock wheels merely by putting wider 25mm wide tires on them. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. Doing this will make your ride on these typically less forgiving wheels more comfortable and that is one of the reasons why many new bikes come this way. Another big (bigger?) reason is that it’s the trend now to have wider tires and without them bike makers appear to be behind the competition. Many enthusiasts are also putting wider tires on their stock or upgrade wheelsets with the same objective.
With wider tires (or wider wheels) you can run them at a lower air pressure because you’ve put the same or slightly more air needed to hold your bike and body weight in what is now the larger volume of space between your tires and wheels. Lower pressure tires are more comfortable because they absorb more of the road’s imperfections.
But, putting 25C tires on 15C wheelsets can also make your bike slower and your handling worse. Wider tires without wider wheels certainly won’t make your bike any more responsive, accelerate any faster, get you in and out of turns more confidently or roll noticeably better or faster, all of which should happen, along with improved comfort, from a wheelset upgrade.
Why? A tire that is wider than the outside width of the rim at the brake track will create a wheel that has more drag than one whose tire is less than or about equal to the outside rim width. Most 15C wheels have an outside width that is 20-21mm wide measured across the brake track. Most 17C wheels are 22-23mm wide at the same location. And most 25C tires when mounted and inflated on 15C or 17C rims will expand by a mm or so creating a 26mm wide or wider tire mounted on a rim that is somewhere between 20mm and 23mm wide on the outside. That extra 1.5mm to 3mm of rubber on either side of the rim will cause air hitting the tire to get turbulent or stall as it passes across the tire to the rim. With a tire that is narrower than the rim, more of the air will re-attach to a rim after it passes by the tire and continue with a more laminar flow reducing drag.
A traditional 23C tire will still be wider, once mounted and inflated, than a 23mm wide rim but only by about 0.5mm on either side at most. Racers or those looking for the most speed will put even narrower tires on their wheels.
Over-wide tires that add drag and reduce speed is less of an issue for shallow alloy upgrade wheels that aren’t really intended to give you more speed from better aero performance in the first place the way deeper, rounded profile carbon wheels do. But more drag leading to slower speeds on a shallow wheelset certainly doesn’t help.
More troublesome is the effect wider tires mounted on too narrow rims have on handling. A 25C tire on a 15C wheel can feel squishy, even more so if you’ve reduced the air pressure to get more comfort. This squishy feel is a symptom of the wider tire becoming more rounded as it sits in the same width wheel and an increased tendency to fold back on itself without the support of wider rims. This is the opposite of the improved handling that is also promoted by going to a wider tire.
A tire that’s too wide for its rim is more likely to experience a pinch flat when you are leaning into a turn or turning at a good speed. The tire bead can also pull away from the rim hook in the turn, also resulting in a flat. Not good, to say the least.
A wider tire and a wider rim together provide better handling. The wider rim sets the foundation for the wider tire to better keep its shape as you can see in the drawing on the left above.
The square shape of a wider rim supporting and wider tire provides a wider “contact patch” than on a narrower tire. While the total area of the tire patch for both tires is the same as long as your weight and the tire pressure are the same, that area spreads further across the width and less along the length of a wider tire.
So how wide should you go with your wheels and tires and what combinations are best? It depends on whether you prioritize comfort or speed and handling or whether you want the best of both and, as always, what your budget is.
Here’s my take on what mix of comfort, speed and handling you can expect with different tire-rim combinations.
A 23C tire on a 15C wheel – this is the likely stock or alloy upgrade wheel and tire combination you have as a baseline on bikes made before 2016. You know how this rides. This is still a perfectly good width combination in my view. What follows are your options.
A 25C tire on a 15C wheel – somewhat improved comfort over a 23C tire but worsened speed and handling for reasons described above. Better to reduce pressure 5psi or so on 23C tire for better comfort without losing handling performance. Neither combination is going to be an aero star.
A 25C tire on a 17C wheel – better comfort but no better speed or handling than a 23C tire on a 15C wheel. 23C tire on 17C wheel at right pressure will get you somewhat improved comfort with improved aero if the rim has at least a rounded nose rather than box or V profile.
A 25C tire on 19C or wider wheel – best comfort, improved speed and handling over options above. A nice set-up for long endurance rides at a good average speed (18mph/29kph or higher) especially on deeper (>30mm) and preferably rounded profile wheels. But, most alloy wheels aren’t going to be that deep or have a rounded rim profile beyond area where the spokes join the rim.
A 23C tire on a 19C or narrower wheel – best speed. If you’ve chosen this set-up, crits, road races or TTs and triathlons are probably your passion, deeper aero wheels are probably your preferred hoops and and comfort is further down your list of what matters though there are plenty of wheelsets in this width that will be plenty comfortable to start without the need of a wider tire.
In general, the wider the wheelset, the bigger the budget you’ll need. The best 15C alloy upgrade wheels (see here) will run about USD$400 to $800. 17C alloy upgrades will run in the $500 to $1000 range and 19C to 21Cs will cost your $700 to $1200.
If you’ve got 15C wheels now, you are better off going to 19C or wider rims if you want the best combination of comfort, speed and handling. If you just want more comfort or insist on riding a 25C tire, you don’t need to go any further than a 17C wheelset.
Wheels with all-carbon rims start at around $1300 and most of the better ones are $1800 and up (see here and here). With carbon wheels you can usually get a faster, better accelerating and stiffer ride that also handles as well and is just as comfortable as on an alloy one. This is because carbon rims can be made deeper and with more shape than alloy and because their strength to weight ratio is greater, allowing for no weight penalty for that added depth.
I’ve written mostly about rim and tire width developments in this section. As of this writing, there has been little new in the other parts that make up a wheel – the hubs and spokes – that have caught my attention. There are things going on, like wider spacing between the hub flanges where spokes are attached, but I just haven’t seen much data to determine how much of a difference they make in the performance of the wheelsets.
Of course, tires, rims, hubs and spokes aren’t developed in isolation. Among the newer, wider wheels I’ve reviewed you’ll see more rounded rim shapes to improve aero performance, more straight pull spokes that connect the hubs and rims for higher reliability and easier replacement when necessary, and more tubeless ready wheelsets than ones that are strictly set up only for tubes and tires to reduce pinch flats at lower pressures.
Wider rims with the same width hubs does make for a bigger angle for the spokes running between them. This theoretically creates a more laterally stiff wheel in most cases, something that should be welcome for heavier and stronger riders.
ALLOY UPGRADE EVALUATIONS
I’ve classified the wheels below into a wide group that have an inside width of 17mm to 18mm between the hooks that grab the tire beads and a wider group that run between 19mm and 21mm inside width. While I have picked a wheelset among those evaluated below as a Best Value, I haven’t chosen a Best Performer yet. Most of these wheelsets first became available late in the 2015 season or early in 2016 and I expect a few more companies (like Shimano, Campy and Fulcrum) to introduce new wide alloy upgrade wheels later in 2016 and early 2017. I’ll update this review and pick a Best Performer when the full field is assembled and rolling a bit longer.
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If you are ready to upgrade now, I’ve hopefully make it clear in these evaluations below which wheelsets I like and provided you enough (or perhaps too much) info and comparative analysis to choose which one or ones would be good for you. Without further preamble then, here’s my review on 10 of the best wide and wider alloy wheelsets out there now.
Campagnolo Shamal Ultra C17 – Looks like more of the same, only wider and still overpriced
The newest model Shamal Ultra C17 for 2017 widens from a 15mm to a 17mm inside width (Wiggle, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles) Note: Some 15mm wide Shamal Ultras are still being actively sold and some are billed as Shamal Ultra 2016. These are different, newer, wider 2017 models.
Other than the inside and outside width increases, little else has changed including the box rim profile, ceramic bearing hubs, signature 3 spoke grouping of the rear wheel, the blah blah blah, and high MSRP/RRP (about $1350/€1,210) and market price (about $1,000/€1,000).
“First Look” reviews at company sponsored introduction events are always tough to get much from as they only allow reviewers to ride for a couple hours on defined courses and are surrounded by marketing hype. I don’t do those events and normally only read the reports from them to build my list of what to evaluate rather than for the riders’ first impressions.
The vastly different takes however, from two reviewers from major publications who rode them during the the Campy intro event and wrote up first look reviews was, if nothing else, instructive on how much more extended testing will reveal.
One who wrote that he had ridden the 15C version extensively and immediately prior to the event said he couldn’t discern a noticeable difference between that one and the 17C model.
Another wrote he thought the new model felt wider than it actually is, competitive with the best carbon race wheels available, and priced well. You couldn’t get two more different “First Looks.”
I’ll update this review after I’m able to get an evaluation done and hopefully a better consensus emerges among others I trust.
Perhaps the best news for Campy and Fulcrum fans (I’m a fan of good wheels, not of brands) is that all the variants of the Campy Shamal and Fulcrum Racing lines are moving to 17C widths. The new, wider Campagnolo Shamal Ultra C17 (available at Wiggle, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles) and twin Fulcrum Racing Zero C17 aka LG or 2017 (available at Wiggle, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Merlin, Chain Reaction Cycles) are essentially the same wheels from the same company under different brand names.
They are part of lines that include the Campagnolo Zonda C17 (Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles)/Fulcrum Racing 3 (still made only in the narrower, 15C width), which run at least half the market price of the Shamal Ultra/Racing Zero, to the Campagnolo Shamal Mille C17 (Wiggle, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Ribble, Merlin) /Fulcrum Racing Zero Nite C17 (Wiggle, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Tweeks), the models with blacked out brake tracks that sell for more.
These wheelsets share the same rims and spoke patterns with differences in rim etching, brake treatments, spoke materials, hub shell materials and bearings, free wheel and flange materials. Whether the wheels’ performance differences justifies the wide price differences is debatable if even noticeable by most enthusiasts looking for an alloy upgrade that doesn’t break the bank.
I recommended the last model Zonda and Racing 3 as best alloy upgrades for 175lb/80kg and heavier riders. I’m currently riding a set of Zonda C17s and will update this review when I get enough miles on them to reach some conclusions about their performance.
DT Swiss RR 21 Dicut – A good but expensive mountain goat that will only graze on the flats
The DT Swiss RR 21 Dicut (available from Tweeks Cycles, Wheelies) is built around the company’s 240S hub internals used on many carbon wheelsets from high-end wheel makers like Reynolds, Bontrager and ENVE that sell for 2-3 times this alloy one. This is a hub I really like – it rolls well, engages quickly and is quiet when freewheeling. Combining that hub with a relatively stiff rim into a sub-1450 gram wheelset makes for a good climber that also accelerates fast.
Unfortunately, the RR21’s rims are about as deep (21mm) as they are wide (18mm inside, 21.5mm outside) which shows up in the need to really work them on the flats to keep up with a wider-than-the-rim 23C tire. While a good training wheel that rolls and brakes well, it’s not going to be one you’ll be very satisfied with if you want to ride competitively, keep up on fast group rides or if you want to do more than cruise.
Compared to the benefits of other alloy wheels in the wide and wider groups that run 5mm to almost 10mm deeper and 3mm to 4mm wider inside and out, weigh less than 100 grams more and cost about the same… and just feel faster and more planted when cornering, it’s hard for me to get excited about this DT Swiss wheelset.
Mavic Ksyrium Elite – Still stiff but now more compliant at a budget price
Mavic has gone wide with new Ksyriium Elite and Ksyrium Pro but in true Mavic fashion it’s a conservative move. These new Ksyrium rim brake clincher wheelsets are 17mm inside but only about 21.5mm outside and 25mm deep. As with other Mavic wheels, these come with Mavic’s Yksion brand tires in a 25C size.
Why 25mm tires on wheels whose rims are less than 22mm wide at their brake tracks, where the air flowing off the tires transitions to hopefully reattach with the rims to minimize turbulence and stall and therefore aerodynamic drag? Mavic is wed to what I believe are outdated ETRTO standards that recommend nothing less than a 25C tire on a 17C wheel, aerodynamic penalties be damned.
And don’t confuse Ksyrium Elite or Pro, both 17C wheelsets with the Ksyrium Pro SL (15C) or the Ksyrium Pro Disc (15C) or Ksyrium Pro Disc Allroad (19C).
OK, now that we’ve cleared that up, how do they perform? I’ve focused here on the Ksyrium Elite which at $800/£500/€650 MSRP/RRP but more like $600/£450/€575 market price (US/CA Competitive Cyclist, UK/EU ProBikeKit UK code ITK10) is one of the two least expensive 17C models in this review. The Pro will cost you about $300 more to save you less than 100g of weight.
If you have ridden earlier model Ksyrium and especially Ksyrium Elites, you’ll recall they are pretty stiff but not very compliant or comfortable wheels. They prior model Elites were always good for heavier riders, over say 185lbs/85kg but downright harsh and to be avoided for lighter riders.
These new Elites with the wider rims and tires make them more comfortable for sure. The tires are only average performers however and the wheels are not tubeless ready as far as the ever-conservative Mavic is concerned.
If you want to add improved handling and lowered rolling resistance to the added comfort you get from wider tires, you’ll want to replace the Yksion tires that come standard on these wheels with better performers. On the other hand, if you care more about speed than comfort, you’ll want to go with 23C tires and get any added comfort from the extra air volume you put in the wider rims and by easing off the air pressure a 5psi or so.
Don’t set your aero expectations high for these wheels even with 23C rubber; despite having rounded off some of the square edges on the prior version’s box rim profile and while they still roll well, they don’t feel any faster than past Ksyrium which have never been wheels you turn to for speed. At a measured weight of about 1600 grams they will also be one of the heavier wheelsets in this review, though the 50-100 gram difference between these and others is not something you’ll readily notice.
Stiffness continues to be the characteristic strength in the Elites. The Ksyrium line also has a history of being very durable and reliable, staying true, braking well and rolling well if not spectacularly. Bottom line, they are a decent first upgrade at a good price especially for heavier riders over the stock wheels (often Mavic Aksium) that come with many new bikes.
Pro-Lite Bortola A21W – Good all-around performer, if not the fastest, at a great price
After reading comments from a couple of readers who’d asked me about this wheelset that I’d never heard of, I looked up the Pro-Lite Bortola A21W and am glad I did. Turns out the Pro-Lite company has been in business for about 30 years, building a pretty good range of alloy and carbon wheels, mostly for the road but also for track, cross and mountain bikes. The company is based in Taiwan, where most of today’s road wheels are made usually on contract to companies whose names you likely know and who focus on some combination of designing, sourcing, assembling, distributing and marketing but not manufacturing. The fact that I didn’t know about them was due to my own ignorance, something your humble road cycling enthusiast reviewer isn’t in short supply of.
Turns out the Bortola has a lot going for it. The wheels accelerate well using hubs with EZO stainless steel bearings and moving a wheelset that measures about 1520 grams, on par with most others in this review. The hubs roll well down the road and are quiet when you are coasting, something I prefer to the clicking of some others
The wheels feel quite stiff on climbs and riding out of the saddle. Handling is also good, confidently connected when leaning into corners at speed and when going downhill. Braking is even, predictable and relatively quiet. And mounting tubeless tires is somewhere in the middle of the pack, not easy but not as hard as some. They come set-up with a pretty tight rim strip already installed.
You’ll also find these wheels to be comfortably compliant. The boxy rims are as wide inside (17.5mm) and out (23.2mm) as any of the others in the wide group but also as shallow (21mm). As a go anywhere wheelset, they’re a welcome confidence building and comfortable companion, just don’t expect to get there faster than the others in this category.
In addition to their range of good performance characteristics is a truly great price, typically about USD$500/£350/€475/AUD$625 online, lower than most. Perhaps it’s because they are selling primarily through online stores (Wiggle) instead of the multilevel distribution and marketing that goes with selling through local bike shops. While the wheels are quite well made, they carry a two year warranty and have an online store where you can order replacement bearing kits, spokes and other items for regular or episodic maintenance.
The Bortola’s comfort and solid level of performance along with its great price makes it a Best Value for those of you enthusiasts looking to upgrade to a wheelset wider and better performing than what likely came stock on your bike.
Boyd Altamont Lite – A very capable if not dazzling wider alloy wheelset at a great price
Boyd Cycling is a US-based wheelmaker that sells alloy and carbon clinchers and carbon tubulars in shallow and mid-range depths for both the rim and disc brake sets. They sell direct and through dealers in the United States and Canada.
The Altamont alloy wheels come in two versions. The Lite reviewed here is the 25mm deep model and claims to be about 100 grams lighter than the straight Altamont at 30mm deep. Boyd offers each in three spoke counts to best suit your weight or desired stiffness, three hub options for either Shimano/SRAM or Campagnolo gruppos, and with standard tube or or optional tubeless rim tape.
The Lite with 20 spokes in the front and 24 in the back, standard hub and regular rim tape weighed in at just under 1500 grams (1496g) on my scale. This $700 model’s rim measured 19.8mm wide inside and 24.5mm wide outside. So while this Altamont is as light and wide and nearly as deep as the others in this wider group, it’s about $150 to $400 less expensive. It also has a U shaped rim, bladed spokes, brass nipples and a machined (grooved) brake track, a unique combination of features of the wheels reviewed in this post and all features that should add a little something to the performance and value of this wheelset. It looks to be well made all around.
On the road, the Altamont Lite is a very capable, if not dazzling wheelset. While it only took me a couple hundred miles to develop an opinion about these wheels, there is a lot I like about their performance but nothing that really separates them from the others. They roll comfortably, smoothly and quietly on both 25C and 23C tires. They handle and brake confidently. Climbing is good, what you would expect from a wheelset at about this weight.
Maybe I’m getting greedy, and I’m certainly not complaining, but I would like the Altamont Lites to be a bit stiffer and more responsive when I put the hammer down. They don’t flex or hesitate but they also don’t spring into action like the Easton EA90 SL wheelset does or like any number of carbon wheelsets do. Of course, they are a lot less expensive than those wheels.
You can add 4 more spokes front and back (adding 50g that you’ll not really notice) and should if you want them stiffer at my weight (150-155lbs/68-70kg) and, as Boyd recommends, when you get up around 175lbs/80kg. You can also go with the Boyd designed Eternity hubs which have a wider-than-most distance between the hub flanges (80mm front, 105mm rear) and quicker-than-most engagement angle (5.6 degrees). This should certainly improve stiffness and enhance acceleration, though by how much I can’t say. It will, however, cost you $350 more to upgrade to these hubs and this moves the Altamont Lites into the same price range as the more expensive wider wheels.
If comfort and good performance at a great price in a wider wheelset is most important to you, the Altamont Lite is a wheelset worth considering.
Easton EA90 SL – Stiff and responsive but could be built a bit better for the price
Easton has been updating its wheelset models over the last couple of years including considerably widening all of its carbon rims and several of its of alloy ones. At 19.5mm (19.6mm measured), the EA90 SL has the widest inside dimension of its alloy rim brake offerings, 2mm wider than the EA90 SLX and less expensive EA70 SL and SLX models, and actually 0.5mm wider than any of it’s carbon ones. At 24.5mm (24.7mm measured) wide across the brake tracks, it’s essentially as wide on the outside as all the others in this wider alloy wheelset category.
The EA90 SL is very stiff and responsive on the road. I found it unflinchingly supportive when I put put the power down going uphill and very willing to go with me when I accelerate to close gaps on the flats (something I find myself having to do all too often). It was also very comfortable with my used (i.e., slightly stretched out) 25C Conti GP4K rubber (widening to 27.3mm mounted and inflated) and with a used 23C size of the same model tire (26.02mm mounted and inflated). Mounting and inflating a 23C size of a used Michelin Pro4 Service Course gave me a tire width of 25.02mm and a 23C size of an unused Zipp Tangente Course gave me a tire width of 24.72, both quite close to the 24.7 outside width I measured for these Easton wheels.
The handling is confident and the braking on these wheels is very solid. Excellent performance and what you’d expect from a modern, wider alloy upgrade wheel that you can find for about $800 at a local bike shop. [Note, there are many stores still selling their inventory of the previous EA90 SL models, either 15C and 17C ones. Not the same wheels!]
I was a little surprised by the build quality though. The rims have a very attractive matte black finish with the modern looking Easton logo. The rim welds are unnoticeable, or at least I couldn’t find them when I went looking for them. The wheels arrived true with fairly normal tensions.
I was not impressed with the hubs however. The rear hub was particularly noisy and didn’t seem to roll as freely in the stand as those on some of the other wheels with DT Swiss 240 internals that you can get at this price point. The front hub also sounded like it was dragging when I put some extra weight on the handlebars.
Easton told me the freehub was probably a little dry and the seal may have been pinched. Taking off the freehub and seal, lubing the pawls with heavy oil, and re-installing to make sure nothing was pinched was the recommended solution. Not something your average enthusiast should expect to do with a new wheelset and surprising since this is a new hub design for Easton which probably contributes to the excellent stiffness I felt.
I’ve since ridden the same hub model (Easton Echo) they put on this wheelset on their carbon EC90 SL and EC90 Aero 55 wheelsets. Both rolled very smoothly and quietly.
The brake tracks were also nothing to write home about. They were a little more raised from the rims than on most other alloy wheels, enough where you could feel the a sharp edge on the hub side of the track. The track isn’t machined and the spokes are rather basic Sapims going into aluminum nipples.
Little of this affects performance except of course for the hubs and that’s mostly the loss of some free speed when free-wheeling on the flats and down hills. As described above, there’s a fix for this if you happen to get a set with hubs similar to the ones I did. I would think, however, that Easton could build these a bit better for a wheel selling at this price and to go along with what is otherwise a well performing wheelset.
HED Ardennes Plus SL – An innovator that combines performance and prestige at a high price
HED has been one of the leaders in the wide rim movement with the Ardennes. First introduced with wide rim dimensions and a 24.5mm deep V-profile, HED went wider with the Ardennes Plus model in the 2014 season. It now measures at 20.6mm inner and 25mm outer width, making it one of the two widest of those evaluated for this review. Only the Zipp 30 Course is wider on the inside at a full 21mm but has the same outside width and the other wider alloy wheels in this category.
This added width enables the same tire to square up that much more and offer even better aerodynamics if you don’t have a tire size that puts it out past the outer rim width. While I haven’t seen any published data showing how much quantitative aero or speed difference the extra width of the 19.5 to 21mm wider wheels gain compared to the wide wheels that run 17-18mm inside, I can certainly feel the effect on the handling and do feel a speed difference between the wheels in the two groups when their rims have 23C tires mounted.
Of course, whether my “feel” is real or just imagined is debatable; it’s definitely subjective and something you might not feel or care about if comfort is your priority.
The Ardennes Plus is available in a dizzying number of wheelset models all using the same rim with different combinations of front and rear hubs, spokes and brake track treatments to suit what you want, think you need or are willing to pay. All this choice seems to me to make picking the right wheel more difficult but other companies including Mavic, Shimano, Campagnolo and Fulcrum do much the same with their wheel lines.
HED also helpfully makes versions for heavier riders with more spokes front and back for riders over 225lbs/100kg.
For this review, I chose to evaluate the Ardennes Plus SL, the one with the best equipped hubs and spokes and the lightest of the Ardennes models, on par with the others in this review. HED does sell a more expensive version of this wheelset that comes with a blacked out brake track. While it does provide some amount of braking improvement in the rain similar to that claimed by other alloy wheel manufacturers that also put a black coating on the brake track, its hard to beat an uncoated alloy brake track without going to disc brakes. I’ll bet if you had a discussion over a few beers with most of the wheelset designers, they’d probably tell you they coat the brake tracks of their alloy wheels mostly to make them look like more expensive all carbon clinchers.
So how does the Ardennes Plus SL perform? These deliver big on a comfortable ride with confident handling even with the 23C tires on them. I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek since people have been led to believe that only wheels with 25C tires on them these days are comfortable. So know that you can get the combination of superior comfort, speed and handling on these wheels with traditional width, 23C tires.
If you ride tubeless, you’ll find these one of the easier wheels to work with. Tires install and remove relatively easily and inflate with a floor pump. These are also very well built and HED wheels have a reputation for being very durable over time.
While not flexy, these aren’t the stiffest wheels out there, so if you plan to race or ride them hard up hills, in and and out of corners etc. and you weigh north of 185lbs/80kg you might consider going with the stiffer Clydesdale version with its added spokes. For most enthusiasts this won’t be an issue.
The Ardennes, as with most of the wheels in this review are shallow and these also have a V profile. So while it says HED on the rim and certainly rolls very well, don’t think you are getting an aero wheel just because of who makes it.
There’s really is a lot to like about this wheel and while just about every other wheelset in this comparison was introduced or updated at couple years since this one was (2014), it still rates on par with the others in all areas except its price. At $1150 and with few discounts to be found (Competitive Cyclist, HED Store), you can consider it the luxury choice of wider alloy wheelsets. It performs well and is worry free, rides in style and comfort, and if you are willing to spend a little more for it, is one that will add a little cache to your steed.
Zipp 30 Course – Best for off-road riding but versatile enough to use on-road as well
The Zipp 30 Course is a wheelset you’ll want to check out if you ride off-road as much or more as you do on. It’s as wide and tall as any of the wheels in the wider group but it’s heavier by about 150 grams, an amount that begins to make a difference on the road especially when compared to other wheels that have similar rounded shapes and well rolling hubs.
Off-road you can put on 25C or wider tires and lower the pressure to maximize comfort. You can do the same with most all the wheels in this wider group but the 30 Course’s stiffness is a level above that of the others and comes in handy when grinding up rough mountain roads or navigating holes and obstacles along on a bumpy, turny trail.
The trade-off comes back on the road when higher speeds and smoother pavements are your natural environment. Whereas the disc wheel version has a full toroid profile that runs to the edge of the rim that joins the tire, the hybrid toroid rim brake version ends its rounded profile early to make room for a parallel brake track.
So some aero benefit is lost and the added weight against the others in this review makes the Zipp a little slower to accelerate. Whereas most disc brake wheelsets these days are converted rim brake ones that bring some characteristics that make them less than the ideal on a disc brake bike (e.g., unneeded brake track thickness/weight), Zipp appears to have designed the 30 Course for disc brake bikes first and its conversion to rim brake use brings characteristics that make it less than ideal in that mode (e.g. rim profile).
However, if you are a serious roadie that wants to try out the ‘gravel’ or cyclocross riding or you want to have a year round training wheel so you can leave your carbon wheels inside during lousy weather, the Zipp 30 Course rim brake wheelset (US/CA Amazon, UK/EU Tweeks Cycles, ProBikeKit UK front and rear code ITK10, AU/NZ Pushys) is a a good option for you.
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