THE BEST CARBON CLINCHER CLIMBING BIKE WHEELS

I review carbon clincher climbing bike wheels, explain why they are the right choice for certain riders, and tell you which I like (and don’t) and why.

I must admit, before I began the research for this review I didn’t get why someone who wanted dedicated climbing bike wheels would buy carbon clinchers.

If you do uphill road races with names like Deadman’s Ascent and Climb to the Heavens or regularly ride in a range like the Sierras or Pyrenees, I’d think you’d want the absolute lightest of everything, including your wheels.  That would mean going with tubulars not clinchers.

Likewise, if you aren’t the kind of rider that likes to brake late going into downhill switchbacks and accelerate hard coming out of them, aren’t that excited about reaching 80 km/hr (50mph) down mile long 8 to 12% grades, or are planning your first week-long cycling vacation in the Dolomites or Rockies, then wheels with alloy brake tracks rather than carbon ones are probably right for you.

Yet leading wheel makers from A to Zipp including Bontrager, Campagnolo, DT Swiss, ENVE, Fulcrum, Mavic and Reynolds make carbon clincher climbing bike wheels and most have introduced their first or updated models only in the last year or two.

What’s going on?

In this review I look at the new group of carbon clincher climbing bike wheels (or CCCs), explain why they are the right choice for certain types of riders, tell you which I like and don’t and why, and link you to where you can find them in stock, at the best prices and from online stores with high customer satisfaction ratings.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Click on any red statement below to go directly to that part of the post

What carbon clinchers are today

Who carbon clincher climbing wheels are for

What matters most in deciding between climbing wheels

How the wheels rate

WHY TRUST THIS SITE AND MY RECOMMENDATIONS

In The Know Cycling is for road cycling enthusiasts like you and me who want to know what gear we should get next and where we can get it at the best prices from great stores.  I do hours of my own testing and analysis on an entire category of cycling gear for each review and incorporate insights from other independent reviewers and riders I respect.  I respond to most any question you have in the comment section of each post, usually within a few hours if I’m not on a long ride or sleeping (Eastern US time).

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WHAT CARBON CLINCHERS ARE TODAY

The first generation of carbon clincher wheelsets rightly earned a horrible reputation.  They were fragile and subject to cracking or worse for no apparent reason.  They squealed when you put on the brakes.  They slowed, but never really stopped your bike in the rain.  And the heat generated from excessive braking going downhill could cause blown tubes and warped rims.

If you’ve been riding for any length of time, you’ve probably heard stories from fellow riders who’ve had some of these experiences or had them yourself.  It’s hard to erase those from your memory.

What’s changed?

We’re probably somewhere around the third or fourth generation of carbon clincher wheels now and, while it’s hard not to forget what those first generation wheels were like, the current generation are very different.

I’ll spare you the tech talk and marketing mumbo jumbo about what’s changed and how much better today’s carbon clinchers are.  In simple terms, the latest generations of carbon rims from the best wheel makers use resins and manufacturing processes that make carbon clinchers more durable than alloy ones and their rims resistant to overheating.  Better brake pads have greatly reduced and in most cases eliminated braking noise and are also part of dissipating the heat created at the rims.  And the latest generation of brake pads and brake track finishes have brought the dry weather braking performance of carbon clinchers on par with alloy wheels and wet weather braking within range.

As riders, we have also adopted braking techniques that serve us well when riding carbon clinchers the same way any group of riders adopts to new products that can improve our performance.  For example,  TT riders have changed their body position using aero bars and power meters have shown enthusiasts the benefits of training differently.

Specifically, I and others who have learned how to get the best out of carbon clinchers don’t drag the brakes when riding downhill as many do with alloy wheels.  We also alternate braking the front and back wheels.  Doing this should allow you to give each wheel 2-4x the amount of time cooling as braking.

We give each other some space on the descents and engage the brakes firmly and get off them quickly rather than ease into it and hold them a bit longer as with alloys.  In the rain, we know to give ourselves a little more time and to brake a little harder when we first get on them, to essentially squeegee the water off the brake tracks for a few rotations.

Do you need to do this?  Not totally.  I’ve tested current generation carbon clinchers on 8%, 1 mile downhill stretches dragging the brakes the whole way and they aren’t even warm to the touch at the bottom.  I’ve also used carbon clinchers with textured brake tracks in the rain and can’t tell a whole lot of difference compared to braking on alloy wheels.

Should you adopt these techniques?  Absolutely.  It just so happens that they maximize both your performance and the longevity of your equipment.  You don’t go out and buy a carbon wheelset that enables you to go faster just so you can hold onto brakes going downhill or burn through your brake pads and wear your rims faster than you need to.  You also don’t buy one with textured brake tracks or the best suited brake pads to not get the best out of them by braking like you are on alloy wheels.

Has your view changed?

When I wrote my first post on climbing wheels (here), it was a couple calendar and model years ago.  While some of the carbon clinchers were much improved then, not all wheel makers had adopted some of the the improved resins, manufacturing techniques, brake track treatments and pads I wrote about above.  And, most of the CCCs (carbon clincher climbing wheels) available now had not yet been introduced.

So yes, my views have changed about using carbon clinchers in the mountains along with the improved and recently introduced wheelsets.  If you’re interested, I wrote a post titled 5 Beliefs About Choosing Cycling Gear I’ve Dropped which describes other beliefs I’ve changed on gear weight, crosswinds, power meters and hand-built wheels along with those on carbon clinchers.

Are tubulars still better than carbon clinchers for climbing?

Tubulars are definitely lighter than clinchers, typically by a 150-200 grams, an amount I think is noticeable.  So if you are racing, this can gain you a second or two a mile going up long, steep climbs.  (See my analysis here of weight and time savings when climbing).

On the other hand, if you don’t feel that amount of time savings is worth the extra work of gluing on tubeless tires and the added time you might need to spend dealing with them if you have a flat on the road, then clinchers are the way you want to go.

As I discussed above, current generation carbon clinchers no longer have the overheating issues that used to put them at a disadvantage to tubulars.  In fact, you could argue that a bad (or even a good) tubular glue job on a particularly hot day in the mountains might result in the tubulars coming off their rims, as has been known to happen.  I really don’t want to go there for the purposes of this post other than to say that it’s probably as real a possibility as someone cooking a current generation set of carbon clinchers after dragging their brakes for miles down an alpine descent.

Actually, I’d probably go tubeless with my CCCs rather than tubular or tube & tire.  If you’ve done any serious climbing, it’s just a reality that many mountain roads aren’t in great shape.  They don’t hold up well with the winter weather most see and aren’t maintained as well as more heavily traveled main roads or tourist mountain routes (and who wants to ride those!).  Fortunately, most of the CCCs I’ve reviewed are tubeless ready.

Are alloy wheels still safer than carbon clinchers for descending?

If you are unsure or have doubts about carbon clincher brake tracks or your ability to ride downhill safely due to descending speeds, road traffic, switchbacks or riding technique, go with alloy climbing wheels. You can read my reviews of those here.  Your level of confidence is probably the most important factor in riding safely.

solo shutterstock

Unsure if CCCs are for you? Go with alloy wheels for climbing instead.

That said, by modifying your braking technique in the ways I’ve described above and a little experience, I think CCCs are equally safe and offer you potentially greater benefits going downhill and uphill.

Carbon is stiffer and more responsive than alloy.  This will help your handling going downhill and translating your power more efficiently going uphill.

Carbon wheels also tend to be lighter, probably about 100-150 grams than alloy wheels of the same depth.  Not a significant difference in your performance as I described above but it’s there if you want it.

Finally, the better CCCs are wider than your average alloy wheelset.  This will allow you to ride a 25C tire downhill with better comfort and stability and handle better and with more confidence going in and out of corners.

Alloy wheels will run you about half the price as CCCs.  Tubulars will cost nearly as much.  So there’s that to consider as well.

WHO CARBON CLINCHER CLIMBING WHEELS ARE FOR

To state the obvious, CCCs are for climbers.  And by climbers, I mean those spending hours going up and down 7%, 8% and even steeper pitches that go on for kms or miles at a time.

I don’t mean those of us who regularly ride “rollers” or 4-5% hills or sections that total 5 or 10 kms or miles during the course of a 40 to 75 km or mile ride or who hit that 7% or even 10% pitch for a half km or even a half mile during your ride.

Yes, you could certainly ride CCCs on your rides to give you some advantage going up and down those hills.  But you have to ask yourself whether what you gain on the hills with a CCC is worth the what you lose on the flatter sections not riding a 40-45mm all-around or 50mm+ deep aero wheel.

My personal experience?  I really miss the deeper wheelset on the flats and going down the rollers when I’m riding a CCC or any lower profile wheelset.  I did a 100+ mile long ride last year on a CCC that had two steep, long, tough alpine climbs.  The CCCs were great on those climbs but I think I worked just as hard trying to keep up with the group on the rest of the flat and rolling route because I didn’t have deeper wheels.

What about riding mid or aero depth carbon clinchers in the mountains?  Is it worth getting CCCs at all?  I did another 100+ mile ride last year with aero depth wheels (ENVE SES 4.5) which also had a couple of steep, long, tough climbs.  The deeper wheels were in the the mid 1500 gram range, about 150-200g heavier than the average CCC.  They climbed fine, though certainly not as easily as the CCCs would have.  On the rest of the route though, the deeper wheels were aces and I felt I really flew for the effort I put out.

Where I ride and even when I do the kind of 100+ mile long events like those I’ve just described, mid or aero depth carbon clinchers are the way to go.  More about those wheels here and here.  If I lived at the foot of or visited the Rockies, Sierras, Pyrenees, Alps, etc. and regularly rode up and down them however, I’d definitely go with the CCCs.

Of course, you could always have a support vehicle follow you and do a quick wheel change to your CCCs when you hit the big mountains and switch back when you get off them.  What?  Your spouse not into that?  Mine either.

Regardless, CCCs are also for those of you with deep pockets (and good spousal relations… or spouse free riders).  A CCC may often be a third or fourth wheelset in your quiver.  You may still have your stock wheels that came with your bike or another alloy set you use for all-weather training.  You may also have a mid or aero depth carbon clincher (or both) for most of your training, group riding, road racing or TT riding.  As most of these CCCs cost at least $2000/£1500/€2000 and many run half again more, it’s not a purchase for those trying to stick to a cycling budget.  Lucky you!

SELECTION CRITERIA

So if weight is the primary benefit of riding a dedicated climbing wheelset, is that the primary criteria to choose between them?  Far from it.

When I evaluate wheels, I look at four groups of selection criteria and about 20 specific ones within those groups.  You can read all about those here.

Immediately below, I’ve highlighted which of those criteria are relatively more important for wheels you’ll want on long, steep climbs and descents.

What matters - Selection Criteria

As you can see from the criteria I’ve emphasized for picking wheels for the mountains, half of them – aerodynamics, compliance, braking, and rim profile – are not criteria you would consider in choosing what has been traditionally thought of as a ‘climbing wheel’.  These are important characteristics to ride fast and confidently on the high speed, steep descents you’ll experience going down a long mountain pass rather than going up.

In these situations, you’ll want aerodynamic wheels for max speed with rim profiles that keep the bike stable in crosswinds.  While most dedicated climbing wheels are lower profile, you can still shape the rims to reduce drag and cheat the crosswinds with some designs better than others.

You’ll also want wheels that are compliant going down often rough alpine roads and handle well as you are whipping through the switchbacks.  You’ll want to be able to brake reliably at high downhill speeds and in all weather conditions and you don’t want any fading or degradation in braking on long descents.

For climbing you might as well take advantage of light weight wheels but you also want ones that transfer your energy into power as effectively as possible.  That’s why stiffness is emphasized.  When you are cranking out 250-400 watts trying to keep upright going up grades ranging from 7% to 15% for what seems like forever, you want stiff wheels and the right spoke count for your weight to convert as much of your effort as possible to the road.

As I hope you can see, you have different and equally important needs going up and going down a long, steep mountain and weight is only one of many considerations.  That’s why I think climbing wheels is a misnomer and you should really think about these as both climbing and descending wheels.

Handling in corners - Trek

Selection criteria that help you perform going downhill are just as important as those that help you going up.

Finding wheels that accomplish all of this requires some trade-offs.  Very light wheels aren’t usually the stiffest, for example.  And, aerodynamic wheels usually mean deep dish rims which aren’t usually the best at handling.

There are also some things that you really don’t want to compromise on.  Older carbon clinchers have no place on long descents where you need to do a lot of braking as they can overheat, warp, ruin the wheels and result in a blowout at speed.  Those CCCs reviewed here represent the latest generation of carbon wheels that have overcome these problems.

As I believe 90% or more of road cycling enthusiasts aren’t going to mess with tubular tires, you only want to be riding clinchers with either alloy brake tracks or the latest generation of carbon ones with high temperature resins, textured or etched brake track treatments and brake pads designed and chosen to work with the rims your are on for best heat and water dissipation performance.  This is where the material choice criterion comes into play.

The heavier you are, the more these criteria matter because you’ll be putting more energy into the bike going up and will be able to travel at higher speeds and create more braking energy going down.  A rider weighing 190lbs or 200lbs or more will want a stiffer wheel than a 150lb rider (or the same wheel with more spokes to further stiffen it) and will need more room to brake.

On the other hand, the lighter rider will be more prone to get pushed around on a windy descent if the wheel’s profile doesn’t handle crosswinds well and will benefit more from an aerodynamic profile that cuts through both crosswinds and the apparent wind created going down a mountain.  None of these CCCs are so deep as to really have a big problem but some are shaped better than others so as to have no problem.

Looking to the pro racing circuit for guidance on climbing and descending wheels is a mistake.  The best climbers typically weigh 135 to 145 lbs, have 6% or less body fat, and are riding tubular rims on super-light, super-stiff bikes.  And, the better riders often have support vehicles to give them different wheels during the race depending on the terrain.

I’d guess many road cycling enthusiasts are 160lbs to 190lbs, have 15-20% body fat (the amount for a “fit body type”), are on clinchers, and more often are riding comfortable endurance bikes than stiffer race bikes.  Sorry to say, the pros and we amateurs live in two different worlds.  

So with all that as background, let me share with you my evaluation of the best carbon climbing clinchers currently available.

HOW THE WHEELS RATE

ENVE SES 2.2 – THE PICK OF THE LITTER FOR CLIMBERS

The first time I rode this wheelset, I quickly reached a humbling conclusion.  “I am not worthy” I thought to myself.  I just couldn’t keep up with them, couldn’t push them, couldn’t challenge them.

The sensation of riding the ENVE SES 2.2 was similar to taking a new puppy out for a walk.  The puppy/wheels are raring to go, they tug at your leash/crankset to let them go free or at least for you to run/ride as fast as they can.  Full of energy, spirit, spunk.  More than anything, they are ready to play and want someone to play with to make it all the more fun.

I don’t know whether I trained them (not!) or upped my game a bit (wishful thinking) but over time, we became a good team (the wheels and me that is, not a puppy and me as my daughter will readily tell you).  Riding a smaller sprocket allowed me to keep up a bit better with these wheels and yet get more power without what seemed like more effort.

Was it just the difference in weight between these and the wheels I normally ride?  Undoubtedly that was part of it.  With a measured weight of 1359 grams including rim strips (1309g claimed, 1330 measured w/o strips) and titaniium skewers that were only 59 grams (almost half the weight of the others), these were one of the two lightest in this review and one of the lightest I’d ever been on.

But these were also stiff wheels as I learned going up some 10%+ average sections when they responded very attentively to every move I made (just like that puppy).  They rolled incredibly smoothly on their ENVE ceramic hubs, the most expensive and lightest hub option you can order for these wheels.  You can also get them in still great, less expensive but slightly heavier DT Swiss 240 or 180 and Chris King R45 or R45C hubs.

These wheels were very comfortable or compliant as well.  On rims I measured 19.0 mm wide between the beads and 27.1 mm at the parallel brake track (ENVE specs them at 18.5 and 27mm), I could easily run a 25C Conti GP4K clincher tire that stretched to 27.7mm once mounted and inflated to 80psi front and 85psi back without much aero penalty.  I rode them with tube and tire but they can also run tubeless, something I’d recommend if you are going to take these or any CCC wheelset into the often cracked, heaved and potholed netherworld of alpine cycling road surfaces.

The 2.2s gave me supreme confidence going downhill while ripping in and out of turns.  Their width, matched only by the Bontrager Aeolus 3 D3, is the widest by at least a couple of millimeters inside and out than the other wheels in this review and that provided great stability.

These were also the first ENVE wheels to feature the textured brake track the company is putting on all their wheels now to improve braking, especially when the roads are wet.  These do brake with better modulation (feel) than the ENVE brake tracks and pads I’d ridden before, which I thought were already pretty darn good.  I’m not going to try to get all 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 brake tracks going downhill?  No, though it seems the gap is considerably narrower when compared to alloy wheels to the point that I almost can’t tell.  Are they one of the best carbon braking tracks I’ve been on?  Yup.

Another difference I’ve noticed between the last and current generation brakes and tracks is the sound they make when you apply the brakes.  The last gen ones on the ENVE SES 4.5 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, rather to let you know they are working.

While I much prefer the shhhh, the faint drill sound of the new generation isn’t troublesome and nothing like the shriek you hear on some older 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 though it was “really annoying.”

ENVE 2.2 photo

Stealthy

At 25mm depth, these aren’t aero wheels, far from it and far from what ENVE is typically known for.  They also have U shaped rims rather than normal ENVE toroids but were unaffected in my experience with cross winds.  They are the same height and width front and back, another difference from the SES wheels which pair different dimension rims in a set (3.4, 4.5, 5.6 etc.) to achieve various goals.

No matter, these are thoroughly ENVE, the build quality and attention to detail consistent with the high standards of their other wheels.

Their price is thoroughly ENVE too.  The set I rode with ENVE branded ceramic hubs were a chart-topping $3500 for the pair.  With DT240 hubs, a great hub that is used on many other high end carbon clinchers, they will run you $2900.  This is the lowest priced option for the 2.2s.  And they almost never sell at a discount.  Ugh!

Ah, the pure bred pick of this CCC puppy litter but also the ideal playmate if you want a pal to bound with you up and down alpine roads and you have the scratch to afford it.

As of August 23, 2017, you can find them in stock online at Competitive Cyclist ITK10, Tweeks CyclesMerlin.

DT SWISS RC 28 SPLINE C MON CHASSERAL – CARBON LIGHT AND STIFF WITH THE ROAD FEEL OF AN ALLOY 

As the rather grisly yet immediately understandable saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  In the case of carbon climbing wheels, DT Swiss joins old and new wheel designs to create a lightweight and sure braking wheelset for getting up and down a mountain.

The Mon Chasseral, named after a Swiss mountain, combines the narrowest (15mm inside, 21mm outside), typical-of-climbing-wheels shallow (28mm) rim along with a high zoot ceramic bearing, carbon shell version of DT’s 180 hub to create the lightest (1250g claimed) wheelset of any in this comparative review.

DT Swiss also use a new-for-them high-temperature resin with the well regarded Swiss Stop Black Prince brake pads to provide the stopping power for the Mon Chasseral.

The result is a very good choice for those who want the benefits of carbon clinchers and like the road feel of a traditional alloy wheelset.  They spin smoothly and are there to help you climb as aggressively as you want to with their combination of low weight and the excellent power transfer that comes from their unflinching stiffness.  That stiffness also helps you go where you want heading downhill, handling the ins and outs of turns with precision.

Compliance isn’t their strong suit however, certainly not the way the wider (2-4mm inside and 4-6mm outside) rims of the other wheels in this group of CCCs that also come tubeless like this one.  You’ll certainly feel the road, imperfections and all, going downhill on the Mon Chasserals.  If you are ok with that, cool.  If you’ve become accustomed to the comfort of wider wheels and tires and don’t want to go back, this will stop you from enjoying the Mon Chasseral.

Measuring actual weights of the wheels including rim strips and skewers, the Mon Chasseral come in about 30 grams less than those of the ENVE SES 2.2.  The two wheelsets perform similarly along the important performance characteristics save for their comfort.  There, the Mon Chasserals trail the group while ENVE leads it.

The market price of these DT Swiss wheels at Tredz ITK10 puts them at about 2/3rds the price of the ENVE however. So, there are some major trade-offs to consider that might just frustrate you enough to want to strangle that cat (sorry Kitty).

CAMPAGNOLO BORA ULTRA 35 – A MISSED OPPORTUNITY TO STANDOUT

Campagnolo introduced their well establshed Bora Ultra 35 wheelset in a carbon clincher model for the first time in 2015 along with making the entire Bora line wider (17mm inside, 24mm outside).  For these wheels, they also remove some of the resin on the brake track surface to expose the pads more directly to the carbon fibers for better bite and wet weather performance.  The improved braking performance is welcome in the mountains both in their ability to stop (duh!) but also to allow you to be more aggressive in and out of the turns, braking a little later than wheels that need more time to slow you as you approach the switchbacks.

The wheels are plenty stiff and responsive both in and out of the saddle, though not out of the ordinary.  They do feel a bit less compliant than others, consistent with the feel of most Campy wheels.  Putting 25C tires on these 17C rims, something I wouldn’t normally recommend, added comfort and probably without a big hit to the aero performance that is already limited by Campy’s old school rim profile.

I included this wheelset in this comparative evaluation because it’s the shallowest carbon clincher that Campagnolo makes.  At 35mm, it along with the Aeolus 3 D3 have the deepest rims among those reviewed.  Unlike the Aeolus however, the Bora’s rim don’t require tape (saving 50 or so grams) because the spokes don’t attach on the inside of the rims. (Note that Campy doesn’t recommend or support you running these tubeless though tires seal up rather easily to them).

Bright

Given this combination of depth and light weight, Campagnolo’s unwillingness to update their rim profile, or perhaps their lack of rim design expertise to do so, is disappointing.

The Bora Ultra 35 profile is what I would call a “box V”.  Like the Shamal and Bora Ultra tubulars that this wheelset is a descendant of, the rim on the Bora Ultra 35 clincher has a flat spoke-side nose which then squarely turns up and linearly widens along the rim side walls until it stops for the parallel brake track.  No blunt nose, rounded edges, curved sides, angled or tapered brake tracks you find on modern day carbon wheelsets that have figured out how to cheat the wind to reduce drag and crosswind effects.

While most of the wheels in this review aren’t very aero in the first place simply due to their low profiles, this is just a missed opportunity to add downhill speed given Bora Ultra’s rim depth.  If they shaped these rims better to make them more aero, you could use this carbon clincher for both climbing and as a all-around.

These wheels, like several in this review, are priced by the manufacturer at the top end (USD$3200).  Unlike some of the others however, very good discounts can be found (WiggleProBikeKit UK ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles) bringing them closer to USD$2100, £1900, €2200, AUD$2700 depending on the color and hub option you choose.  While the innovations and performance justify these prices in other wheelsets, save for the braking there’s nothing that really stands out in the performance of these that would suggest to me they are worth their price.  The Bora One 35 (Competitive Cyclist ITK10, WiggleProBikeKit UK ITK10) ) with its less expensive hubs but otherwise similar wheelset would be a better deal if you are committed to getting a Campy wheelset.

BONTRAGER AEOLUS 3 D3 – A GENERATION BEHIND IN BRAKING PERFORMANCE

Bontrager updated the Aeolus 3 D3 most recently for the 2015 model year by making it wider (19.5mm inside, 27.0 outside), lighter (about 100g less to 1399 grams with rim strips), and tubeless ready or “TLR.”

Bontrager Aeolus 3 TLR D3 Clincher Road Wheel

The wheelset retained its U profile, DT Swiss 240 hubs and Aerolite straight pull spokes.  The rim resins, brake tracks and cork pads were also carried over from the prior model.  Quality and durability remain good.  This is a well built wheelset that rolls beautifully on tubeless or 25C tires and with its smooth hubs.  Reports from the field however do say you need to replace the rim strips each time you take the tires off, something of a nuisance.

It’s as wide and deep (35mm) and comfortable as any of the other wheels out there and probably more aero judging from its depth and shape, though I haven’t seen any data.

Stiffness is good, if not exceptional and its extra 40-100 grams of weight compared to the ENVE and DT Swiss CCCs is a minimal and indistinguishable difference when you are out on a ride.

In this latest model however, Bontrager didn’t make any changes to improve the wheels’ braking and the difference is a very important one against the others I’m comparing these to.  The last model of this wheelset was equal to many of the other last generation carbon clinchers on dry roads but really was inadequate on wet ones with the cork pads that come with these wheels.  A couple other reviewers had good luck using SwissStop Black Prince pads in wet weather but they were a bit noisier and I don’t know that they’d improve braking performance in dry weather on their own going down alpine descents and through switchbacks.

Making no changes to resin, tracks or supplied pads puts the current Aeolus climber a generation behind those that have upgraded their braking performance in their new or updated models.  Fine for rollers and all around riding, but not for the steeps.

At it top shelf price ($2850 MSRP and $2700 online from Trek Bicycle Superstore), the Aeolus 3 D3 really isn’t up to par in performance for what you pay for in price.

Here are the prices, performance and design ratings and specs of these wheelsets:

First 4 CCC spec chart

OTHER CARBON CLINCHER CLIMBING WHEELS

Four other wheelsets naturally fall into this CCC category but I’m either unable or unwilling to give you complete reviews on them at this time.  I’ll tell you why, give you a brief description and their specs along with the promise to give you a full review when it’s more appropriate to do so.

Fulcrum Racing Zero CarbonThe Fulcrum Racing Zero Carbon is a lighter, wider, carbon version of the popular alloy model of the same name.  It has similar performance goals – very stiff, highly responsive, confident handling – that the alloy model built its reputation around.

As a 17C wide, deep wheelset with a box V rim profile (but not tubeless ready), it shares many of the traditional conservative design characteristics of the Bora Ultra 35 clincher made by the Campagnolo which developed and own the Fulcrum brand.  As such these Zeros are narrower, likely less aero yet marginally heavier than the Bontrager and ENVE wheels.  The Fulcrum Racing Zero Carbon is likely very well built and is definitely a good deal less expensive than all of those I’ve reviewed above (WiggleProBikeKit UK ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles).

I nor any of my sources has had a chance to ride these wheels for review so I don’t know whether they will be a good value relative to the other CCCs or just a premium priced carbon Fulcrum with only incremental performance improvement compared to its alloy namesake.  When I can determine which, I’ll update this post with a review.

Mavic introduced its first two all carbon clincher wheelsets just a month before I completed this review.  The Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL C (Competitive Cyclist ITK10, ProBikeKit UK ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles), Slane) is the climber of the two, the other being a 41mm deep all-around Cosmic Pro Carbon SL C.

I have had a chance to ride and review the Cosmic Pro Carbon (here) but have yet to do so with the Kysrium Pro Carbon.  The dry braking of the Cosmic Pro Carbon was on par with the new ENVE and Zipp NSW brake tracks but I was disappointed with the wet braking and the loud free-hub.  I also found the claimed weight of the Cosmic to be about 125g lighter than the actual weight I measured, a gap that would make a difference in choosing between climbing wheels.  The Cosmic (and Ksyrium) price is about 2/3rds that of the ENVE SES 2.2 so that’s working in its favor.

I’m a little more encouraged about the Ksyrium Pro Carbon wheelset than I am about the new Fulcrum as it looks like Mavic has really tried to extend itself with a curvier rim shape, some new high temp resins and a brake track treatment that should bring the big M into the modern age.

Yes, the Mavic Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL C rim is only 17C wide and 25mm deep while the claimed weight is nearly 1400 grams, but this is progress for Mavic compared to the carbon outside, alloy inside Cosmic Carbone line they’d been putting out there the past few years.

The “first-looks” that came from reviewers who rode them at the product introduction gatherings in Nice on the French Riviera were uniformly positive about the braking… and the magnificent views they were undoubtedly braking for.  As with the Fulcrums, I’ll add a review of the Ksyriums to this post when I have some significant riding experience to share with you about these new wheels.

Zipp 202The Zipp 202 Firecrest (US/CA Competitive Cyclist ITK10, UK/EU Tweeks Cycles, Tredz ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles) is essentially the grand dame of the CCC category.  I believe it was the first carbon clincher aimed for climbers and many probably thought Zipp completely crazy when the 202s first came out in 2013 to try to compete in a segment where tubulars were (and still are lighter) and better at managing the heat created from braking.

That seems like a long time ago in human, dog and especially Zipp years.  Looking at the wheels now, some of their specs – 1450 grams claimed weight, 16mm inside and 24.6mm outside width – are quite a bit behind the times even though the toroid profile and some of the performance aspects are still quite advanced.

Zipp has recently introduced a NSW line that have textured brake tracks, new hubs, are lighter weight and claim stiffer performance. The 404 NSW that I have reviewed here has a very good brake track.  The Zipp 202 NSW (US/CA Competitive Cyclist ITK10, UK/EU  Wiggle, Tredz ITK10, Westbrook Cycles) is a grand more expensive than what the Firecrest sells for now but I don’t believe the 202 Firecrest is competitive on a performance basis with some of the CCCs you can get now at close to the same price as this Zipp climber.  Nate and I are currently testing out the 202 NSW and will have a full review by the end of the summer 2017.

Second 4 CCC spec chart

Finally, there is the Reynolds Attack (Competitive Cyclist ITK10, ProBikeKit UK ITK10), most recently updated for the 2015 season.  Tour International, the well regarded and analytically rigorous cycling gear review magazine ran lab tests of carbon clinchers including the prior model Reynolds Attack and current Zipp Firecrest 202 (and others not reviewed in this post) to simulate the repeated braking you would do going down mountain grades of 10% and steeper (Issue 9/2014; available by subscription only).

Reynolds AttackThe Attack showed initial rim deterioration about 1/3 through the testing and completely failed about 2/3rds the way through Tour’s test.  (The Zipp passed.)  According to a tech rep I spoke with at Reynolds, the company did not change the resin, brake track or brake pads on the Attack from the one that failed the Tour test when Reynolds introduced the latest model in 2015.  I personally own a set of Reynolds Assault SLG that uses the same braking technology but I dare say I’ve never taken them down anything like the steeps that the Tour test simulated, and won’t be anytime soon.

This was a harsh test that Tour ran and I would expect that if you were headed down descents less steep than this and used the braking techniques I laid out above, you wouldn’t have any problem.  But I can’t be sure you will do either so I have got to recommend you pass on this wheelset for alpine climbing, using them instead for tamer hills.

Reynolds has introduced a new Assault model, the 41mm deep carbon clincher, for 2017 with a carbon resin that they claim has a higher glass transition temperature (the point at which the rim starts to melt).  No word yet if/when they will come out with a new Attack or how it will perform under high temps.  I’ll update you if/when there’s more to say.

Not being able or willing to review these four wheelsets underlines for me how important it is to get your choice right for the CCC partners you want to spend good money on to fire up and scream down serious mountain roads.  It also spotlights how much progress has and continues to be made in this category of wheelsets.

While I believe there are three good CCC options out there now – the ENVE 2.2, DT Swiss Mon Chasseral and Campagnolo Bora Ultra 35 – I’ll continue to update this post as I get enough on new CCCs to give you even more to choose from.

* * * * *

Thank you for reading.  Please let me know what you think or ask any questions you might have in the comment section below.

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151 comments

  • Your article is terrific. I am 70, never going to be fast (average 14 miles per hour). I ride to raise money for cancer research. This year Pelotonia will raise $25 million in Columbus OH in August. I will ride a century and train for it all summer. The last 35 miles are hilly. I like my bike, Giant Defy Advanced SL 0, but wanted to upgrade to make last 35 easier. Final decision was ENVE 3.4 (ENVE hub)with Grand Prix 4000 tires and tubes. Should I be second guessing myself? Do you ,like other tires or tubes better

    • Lee, can’t argue with your choices and you are the one that is terrific with your fundraising. ENVE has just come out with a new version of the 3.4 (which I’ll post about later this morning) and are hugely discounting the prior version at stores I recommend including Competitive Cyclist, at least while they last. Enjoy the ride safely. Steve

      • Steve, really interesting and useful blog. Based on your advice now, reassessing Continental tires and tubes and going with Schwalbe Pro One

  • Steve in a real dilemma whether to go for Campag Bora One 35 or the new Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL C to replace some Campag Shamal Ultras on my Campag equipped Cervelo. Doing the Raid Pyrenean in the summer, so keen to keep weight down but also want confidence in the braking. The Bora’s probably look nicer on the bike, but the Mavics maybe a better all round option? Your thoughts would be welcome.

  • Thanks Steve for your quick reply. Can I still use my favourite tyres (Conti Grand Prix 4000IIs 23mm) with the Mavics?

  • Steve, my only reservation about the Cosmics is the additional weight compared to the Boras or my existing Shamals when thinking about my 5 days in the Pyrenees in June. Should I be thinking about other options?

  • John, We’re talking about an indistinguishable weight difference between the Bora One and Cosmic Pro Carbon SL C and a very distinguishable difference in braking. The Shamals won’t have a distinguishable less aero benefit going downhill and on the flats. You could also consider the Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL C, which I haven’t been on yet but surmise it brakes similarly to the Cosmic but is 100g lighter (but not as deep). I’d say lose the weight somewhere else – what you carry on your bike or on your body. Steve

  • Steve do you ever consider a handbuilt option? eg Knight Composites 35mm rim on DT 240 hubs? John

    • John, Unfortunately, since custom-built wheels are made by so many different shops, to different standards, with different component combinations and in such low volumes, you can’t practically compare custom-built wheels to each other or to standard-built models. Or, at least, I don’t know how to do that and I don’t in my comparative wheelset reviews. Steve

      • One possible concern with the custom build is whether the warranty will remain intact vs buying the complete wheel set as spec’ed by the manufacturer.

  • Steve, this is a really great review! I have been riding HED Belgium C2 wheels with White Industries T11 hubs and CX-Ray spokes (24/28), and Vittoria Open Corsa CX (25mm) and latex tubes on my Giant TCR Advanced SL. The wheels were custom built 4 years ago and have been great (weighing in at ~1465 gms), but I find myself itching for some carbon hoops. I’m a 62 year old A-group rider, 150 lbs, so I’m generally at the front on longer, steeper climbs but have to work on the flats and rollers. I have been considering custom wheels with Nox Composites S36R rims (36mm deep, 28mm wide external, 20.5mm internal, 410gms); Boyd Cycling 28s (28mm deep, 25mm external, 18mm internal, 390 gms): and Reynolds Attack (29mm deep, 25mm external, 17mm internal, 380 gms). The majority of my riding is in the rolling North Carolina Piedmont, but I do several mountain rides each year with up to 10,000 feet of climbing. I’m leaning toward the wider, deeper (though heavier) Nox S36Rs reasoning that they should be a bit stiffer which make make up for the weight penalty, and the deeper section may roll a bit better on the flats. I expect you don’t have personal experience with the Nox or Boyd rims but thought I’d see if you have any insights/suggestions based on the rims specs and your research. Thanks!

    • Hi Mark, I don’t try to evaluate custom-built wheels since, as they are custom, they are essentially all different. As you hopefully got from the post, descending on carbon wheels is one of the key things that separates these wheels and I’d add that into your considerations. If you are doing steep, long descents with the need to stop or slow along the way (switchbacks, traffic, etc.), I’d steer clear of any wheels that don’t have high temp carbon resins in their brake tracks, for example the Attacks. No idea what’s in the Nox. No experience with Boyd carbon though I did test their Altamont alloy climbing wheel in this review. Textured tracks are even better for steep or wet descents.

      There are some new wheels I plan to review in this category through the year including the Zipp 202 NSW, the new ENVE SES 3.4, the Roval CLX32 and Mavic Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL C. Those, including the ENVE 2.2 may be more than you want to spend based on some of the other wheels you are looking at though I posted a link in my Latest Deals to a great store that has it for $2200 now (281g rim weight). At 150lbs, stiffness isn’t typically an issue with most standard-built wheelsets, even climbing out of the saddle so I wouldn’t think you need to trade-off anything for that. Steve

  • I love your article i have a couple sets of clincher climbing wheel sets for my pinarello prince . I bought a set of enve 3.4 tubulars which are lighter and wider then most if not all clinchers . if its dry out i always end up on the 3.4s I just carry a pre glued tubby. They don’t flatten as much as I thought they would. I run scwalbe ultra ht.22mm up front and contental competition 25 in back . I think this is an unbeatable combination. Can you think of any thing more versital clincher or tubular. When its wet out I put on mavic rys. Clincher . they are very stiff and comfortable and stop fine. But not very aero.

  • Hi

    I live next to mountains in Spain. My racing bicycle is equipped with Mavic Cosmic Carbon. I am 240 lbs and very powerful (not fat).

    Yesterday I went for my first ride in the mountains. The wheels are heavy and flex a lot. I could not even use the lowest gear, because the gear arm touch against the spokes when the incline is more than about 10%, and I pedal max power.

    So now I am on the hunt for the best climbing wheels for me. I read your article. I am considering the Zipp 202. With my massive weight I guess the most important factor is not weight or aerodynamics of the wheels, but stiffness.

    Could you please give me a few recommendations for wheels?

    I think I will go for the tubular because there are good roads with few small stones. Few flat tyres in other words. Moreover, my girlfriend is nearby and can pick me up by car.
    I know that the mountainbikers here all drive tubeless and bring a spray with powder which they spray inside the tubular wheel in case of a flat tyre. Then the powder hardens and they pump air in. Can’t I just do the same with tubular racing wheels in case I have a flat tyre?

    I hope you can help me. Thanks in advance. Please answer directly to my email.

    Best regards,
    Morten

    • Morten,

      Stiffness and braking will be equally important for you. Stiffness for the reasons you mentioned but braking for stopping your weight going down the mountains without cooking your wheels. For this reason, I would steer clear of any of the clincher wheels I reviewed here except for the recommended ENVE SES 2.2. The Zipp 202 NSW has a similar textured brake track but I haven’t reviewed its performance.

      Considering your weight and power, you would probably be best going with a custom-built tubular. A custom-built would allow you to add more spokes than any of the standard-built ones have adding more stiffness. A tubular would reduce the potential for overheating on some wheels that might be worsened if someone at your weight were to drag the brakes. Note that the rims on a tubular don’t overheat but the tubular glue could which could cause the tire to come off. For this reason, I still discourage you from dragging the brakes. I don’t know who sells carbon tubular rims or how they compare on performance so can’t give you specific recommendations there.

      I’m not familiar with using tubeless spray powder. I’ve always used liquid sealant which immediately fills small punctures. Regardless, I don’t know how you would get a spray inside a glued up tire on your tubular rim.

      Steve

  • I just bought the fulcrum racing light.
    I found your analysis on carbon climbing wheels very useful.
    I ride a specialized tarmac pro with roval alluminum wheel. My next ride will be with the fulcrum i will keep you updated with the difference

  • Hello Fellow Enthusiasts,

    For those of you who may be wondering, the exclusive ITK10 discount code for In The Know Cycling readers at PBK UK is still very much alive. You simply need to go to PBK UK from any link on this site and it will work fine. You can find links to PBK UK in the right hand column of any page on this site.

    The code will no longer be accepted if you go to the PBK site directly or through a site other than this one. This avoids other sites from publishing the ITK10 code and PBK providing discounts that were intended exclusively for ITKC readers.

    Thanks,
    Steve

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