THE BEST CARBON CLINCHER WHEELS
After reviewing a range of all-around, carbon bike wheels for rim brake bikes, I’ll tell you which are the top performers and best value for cyclists looking for one do-everything wheelset.
If you are a regular, serious cyclist and are willing to spend good money on one carbon clincher wheelset for your rim brake road bike, you want them to do most everything well. For what they will cost you, they better deliver a substantial performance improvement over the “stock” wheels that came with your bike or the low profile, alloy wheels you might have paid several hundred for as your first upgrade. The best carbon bike wheels will most definitely deliver on that.
A carbon clincher wheelset is made with carbon fiber rims and will give you aero benefits when you ride fast, climb well when you go up steep hills, and handle with confidence in all conditions on both group and solo rides. It is stiff and responsive enough to race on, comfortable enough to ride for hours and will stop you confidently and predictably.
Several new carbon road bike wheelset have been introduced over the last few years that raise the performance bar and improve your experience. As a fellow enthusiast looking to gain many of the same benefits you may from an all-around, carbon clinch wheelset, I’ll share my evaluations of these wheels with you and compare them so you can make a better-informed choice if you plan to buy one this year.
Related: Looking for carbon wheels for your road disc bike? Click Best Carbon Disc Wheelset
Related: Not sure what kind of wheels to get? Click Road Bike Wheels – How To Choose The Best For You
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CARBON BIKE WHEELS
Click on any red statement below to go directly to that part of the post. Click the back arrow to return to this list.
For this review, I evaluated the top widely available and dealer supported carbon clincher wheels against a comprehensive set of performance, design, quality, and cost criteria.
First, let me tell you which ones I recommend, why and where you can get them at the best prices from online stores with high customer satisfaction ratings. I’ll then provide more detail behind the selection criteria, share my perspective on the product and technology developments in this category of wheels, give you performance, price and spec comparisons of all the wheels in this post and provide you my reviews of the other wheels I considered but didn’t recommend.
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 and my fellow In The Know Cycling testers do hours of analysis on an entire category of cycling gear and incorporate insights from other independent reviewers and riders I trust for each review.
To eliminate potential conflicts or perceived bias, I buy or demo and return all the gear we test and don’t run any ads on the site. I also don’t go on company-paid product introduction trips, rewrite and post announcements of new gear as “first looks”, accept articles paid for or submitted by companies, stores, PR firms or guest authors, or charge for any content on the site.
My only influence is what I think would be best for you, my fellow roadie. This is my passion, not a business.
You and I together make this site possible using a simple and transparent model. I find and provide you regularly updated links to each piece of gear or kit I’ve reviewed. Those links take you directly to the lowest priced product listings at online stores that have the highest customer satisfaction ratings amongst the 100 or so stores I track. When you click on and buy something at the stores through the red links, they pay the site a small commission that covers the gear, review, and site costs.
If you get value from this site and want me to keep cranking out reviews, click on the links and buy at the stores they take you to. You will save money and time while supporting the creation of independent and in-depth gear reviews at the same time. If you prefer to buy at other stores, you can still support the site and new posts by taking a pull here. Thank you.
WHAT I RECOMMEND
For In The Know Cycling reviews, I evaluate product-specific criteria in four groups – performance, design, quality and cost. The criteria that matter most in those categories for the best all-around, carbon clincher wheelset for rim brake bikes are:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, handling and braking.
Design: Wheel weight and material, rim depth, rim inner and outer widths, rim profile, hub and spoke design or selection, and wheel finish.
Quality: Durability, warranties and service/support.
Cost: Purchase price, cost of ownership and replacement cost.
I detail what I mean by these criteria later in this review (here).
Considering the range of options the road cycling enthusiast has to choose from in a carbon clincher wheelset, I’m recommending a Best Performer and Best Value.
The Best Performer wheelset is selected independent of cost and chosen using the performance criteria just mentioned above and detailed below. The Best Value wheelset considers both performance and cost criteria. Design shows up (or not) in performance so I don’t judge it alone. Two products with very similar designs (e.g. U-shaped rim profiles or light weight) may perform similarly or differently. Design is a means to an end but not an end to be evaluated in and of itself. And quality is either a go or no go in my recommendations. I won’t recommend anything that doesn’t have an acceptable level of quality according to my criteria but I’m not going to recommend something that has superior quality but under-performs or has higher costs. When two wheelsets perform more or less the same, I do consider quality and cost criteria in recommending one as a Best Performer.
In The Know Cycling supports you and your fellow enthusiasts by doing hours of independent and comparative analysis to find the best road cycling gear and kit to improve your riding experience.
You support us and save yourself money and time by buying anything at all through the links to stores we’ve picked for their low prices and high customer satisfaction. These stores pay us a small commission when you buy there after clicking on these links. Thank you.
With that introduction, here are my recommendations:
Best Performer – Zipp 303 NSW
A new, wider (19C), lighter (1500g), tubeless model with an updated rim shape and the same hub and spokes as the last model was introduced June 1 and is just now becoming available. We began reviewing it in August. Availability is limited but you can get it as of September 22, 2018 in the US/CA by clicking this link to Competitive Cyclist, Amazon and in UK/EU at Tredz, Tweeks.
I recommended the prior model as the Best Performer.
Best Value – Reynolds Assault
The current Assault model is out of stock at most online stores I follow and has been for nearly a month now. You can click through here to Competitive Cyclist which has them at $1050. They are either having a production delay or there is a new model coming. Given the time of year and how long the rim profile of the current model has been made, during which time other wheelmakers have updated rims and wheelsets, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ll see a new Assault model soon.
I still recommended the current model as the Best Value against others in this category.
If both performance and cost are a consideration, then I recommend the Reynolds Assault as the Best Value all-around, carbon clincher wheelset. Reynolds is one of just a few companies that offers a “mid-priced” carbon, carbon wheelset.
Reynolds completely redesigned the Assault rims, hubs and brake pads in 2014 and they have outlived the company’s top-of-the-line and $1000 more expensive 46 Aero rim brake wheels, also newly designed in 2014 that competed with the top end Zipp, ENVE, Bontrager, Campagnolo and Easton wheelsets.
In 2015, Reynolds made the Assault tubeless ready, meaning that it can accept clincher or tubeless tires equally well. But this doesn’t change the wheel’s performance unless you put on tubeless tires, which I don’t recommend for most people who don’t do basic service on their own bike as they can be more hassle to install and repair than many first-time carbon wheelset buyers are looking to take on. If you are handy and enjoy doing some of your own basic bike servicing, however, you can learn how to work with tubeless tires and they do provide some comfort benefits if you run them at lower pressures than you would normally run your tubed clinchers.
In 2017, Reynolds changed up the graphics to a more stealthy look. Perhaps you could call it a “hidden Assault”. They are also using a higher glass transition temperature resin which, while it won’t improve brake modulation, distance or wet weather performance, should keep you from cooking your wheels a bit longer if you mistakenly drag them rather than alternate front and rear braking and let off on the brakes altogether when not needed, as you should when braking any carbon rim wheelset.
Reynolds has also gone from radial to 2x lacing for the rear, non-drive side spokes. For heavier/stronger riders, this may improve what is already a plenty stiff rear wheel for most of the rest of us.
Rim dimensions, hub and spoke choice, claimed weight and price are all unchanged.
The new Assault’s measured weight (1552g) is only 75g more than the Zipp 303 NSW. Somehow, Reynolds also shaved about 50g off the claimed weight from the last generation to this one, not that most cyclists would notice that amount on the road.
At 41mm, these wheels are 5mm shallower than the Zipp. They share the same roughly 17.25 to 17.5mm measured inside width but the Zipp 303 NSW is nearly 3mm wider at the brake track than the Assault’s 24.8mm width.
This outside width difference doesn’t preclude you from running 25mm tires on either wheelset, but to maximize aero performance I recommend you run a 23mm tire on the Assault (and a 25mm on the NSW). The Assaults with a 23mm tire will still provide you a very comfortable ride at the right inflation pressure for your weight (not the 110-120psi level riders used to run, independent of their weight).
The Assault has a rounded inside rim edge and a U-shaped overall profile, similar to many modern carbon all-around wheels but not as aero or crosswind deflecting as the toroid shape of most Zipp and ENVE wheels. They don’t have a textured brake track that the latest rim brake models from those two brands do but braking is good, predictable and quiet as long as you use the pads that Reynolds provides with the wheels (and again, don’t hold on to or “drag” the brakes for extended periods of time with this or any carbon wheelset or you are looking for trouble).
Their hubs, while rolling very smoothly and engaging quickly, don’t perform to the highest levels that the best ones do. Installing and removing good tubeless tires on these wheels don’t take any extra physical strength to put on or take off the rim than your standard clincher.
So those are the price and design differences between the Best Value and Best Performer in this category. What about the performance differences?
I’m quite confident in saying that the Reynolds Assault performs quite well. Comfort (known as vertical compliance or just ‘compliance’), handling and acceleration are all on par with all but the best performing wheelsets in this category. They are stiff but not so much so that you’ll feel all the bumps especially if you lower the tire pressure 5 to 10 psi from where the charts traditionally suggest you ride for your weight, as is perfectly appropriate for a wheelset of this width.
After riding a pair for over a year, I have seen nothing myself, from long-term reviewers or in user forums that suggest any performance deficiencies.
Do they perform with the best? No. Will you notice a big performance improvement coming off a pair of stock wheels on a $2500 to $5000 bike? Definitely. Are they better than alloy wheels that cost around the same amount? I do believe so with the exception of superior alloy braking. Will you notice a performance difference between these and the Best Performer Zipp 303 NSW? An enthusiast with some carbon wheel experience surely would. But, if you aren’t willing (or can’t afford) to pay roughly twice the price for the Best Performer Zipp 303s, this is the best value – the best performer in the value price range.
So how do they get this kind of performance at 1/2 or more of the market price of the top priced carbon clinchers? I can only note that Reynolds is a large company that historically makes rims for others as well as themselves so they may have a significant volume advantage. They also appear to follow a multi-tier product line strategy rather than a top-of-the-line, low volume, high margin one like those selling at the highest prices. The carbon clincher market is a growing segment and Reynolds appears to go after it at many levels (high-end, mid-priced, outsourced rims, etc.), perhaps each with their own margin targets. Regardless of the reasons, however, the Assault is the Best Value all-around carbon clincher rim brake wheelset.
Note: Reynolds have made several generations of Assaults and you may still see some of the prior generation ones for sale in some online stores and local bike shops. The name has varied somewhat (Assault, Assault SLG, Assault Tubeless) and there is also a disc brake version of the same wheelset (called the Assault Disc Brake).
Performance Bike has also sold older generation Assaults for many years under a slightly different name. These are different wheels from the current generation ones and I don’t recommend you buy them if you want the Assault’s latest performance improvements.
Before you buy an Assault, I encourage you to double-check that it indeed is the current generation (as shown in the photo above). If you aren’t sure, feel free to send me a link to the one you are considering (email@example.com) and I will check it for you.
What matters most in choosing between all-around carbon clinchers? In some ways, this is much like choosing a car. Depending on who you talk to, there are a lot of different factors to consider. Depending on who you are and what kind of riding you do, some of these factors are more important than others.
Let me try to simplify and organize the many selection criteria into four groups: performance, design, quality, and cost. In the all-around category, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice on any one of the first three of these. For example, you can find high performing all-arounds that are also made well, go fast on flats, and that also climb very well.
Cost, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to be directly related to performance or quality for all-around carbon clincher wheels. While some of the best performing wheels cost the most, others that don’t perform exceptionally well cost the same as those that do and some that perform very well cost much less than the best performers.
As with many other cycling (and non-cycling) products, higher priced wheels often get you distinctively branded, designed and appearing wheels that might or might not perform or hold up a whole lot better than lower priced ones. Let’s just say that markups are crazy in the cycling business and marketing strategies at specific brands tend to drive prices as much or more than performance in some cases.
Here are the selection criteria that make up each of the groups mentioned above:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, handling and braking are the key measures I’ve used to assess all-around carbon clincher wheelset performance.
The most desirable all-around wheels will provide the versatility to ride all the different types of terrain (hills, flats, false flats, straights, corners, sprints, mountains, fast downhills, windy roads) that you’ll experience and a range of training and many events (club races, centuries, club, charity, group rides) you’ll do, without compromise.
All-around carbon clincher wheels will be aerodynamic enough for you to notice a difference in speed and your ability to hold that speed with much less work when you are well underway on flats and downhills. Many promoting mid-depth and deeper section ‘aero’ wheels will correctly tell you that 70-85% of your energy goes into overcoming wind resistance but won’t tell you that aero wheels won’t make you any faster until you get going at speeds of 20mph (or 32kph). If you average 18mph (29kph) or more you probably will be riding at 20mph+ at least 1/3rd of the time (on flats, downhills and perhaps at the front of a paceline) and will benefit from the improved aerodynamics from carbon clinchers like those I’ve recommended in this review. If you aren’t going that fast, you really won’t benefit from buying wheels deeper than 25-30mm. For the purpose of this review, I’ll assume most of you will be going fast enough to get aero benefits.
For those of us measuring our power output, recognize that independent tests (here is one of the groundbreaking ones) show you will reduce your drag (and improve your aerodynamics) somewhere between 15-20 watts going from shallow depth aluminum wheels to mid-depth carbon ones. Very roughly and unscientifically speaking, that could yield a 5% to 7.5% time improvement (faster for the same watt output) or energy saving (less work expended to get the same amount of power) for the cycling enthusiast putting out an average of 200 watts during his or her ride. Sounds like the bump you’d get riding every day with ‘good legs’ or ‘good sensations’, non?
Note also that your choice of inner tubes and tires and setting your inflation pressure right can reduce your rolling resistance to create an additional 5-10 watts of benefit. You also need to pick a tire width that, once mounted and inflated doesn’t exceed the width of the rim at the wheel’s brake track (shoot for tire width no more than 90% of brake track width) else you reduce the aero benefits. More on that here.
There are also lots of ways to improve your aero performance and speed beyond what more aero wheels can bring you. See here for how to position yourself to reduce your aero profile and here for other gear that will make you more aerodynamic.
The potential downside of going faster with a deeper, more aerodynamic wheelset is that taller rims catch more of the crosswinds out on the road and can affect your ability to control your bike. A great deal of the development in recent years has focused on creating rim profiles that deflect crosswinds to maintain your ability to steer the bike when winds come at you from different angles. So handling in crosswinds, in addition to minimizing the drag from the apparent wind you create and the real wind coming at you from closer angles, is an important part of the aerodynamic performance consideration.
Stiffness determines your ability to transfer your power to your wheels with minimal lateral or side to side deflection and little-wasted energy under the load applied by your pedaling. A stiff wheel will do a great job of transferring your energy and power when you really step on it to sprint, throw in a dig, close a gap or when you get out of the saddle to charge up a hill.
How responsive your wheels are when you engage or ‘spin up’ the pedals to go harder or faster demonstrates their acceleration, determined somewhat by the total weight of the wheels but also by how much the rims weigh and how fast the rear hub engages.
Stiffer wheels also tend to handle better and more precisely in the turns, going where you want them to go. A wheel that is less stiff will be less able to follow the line you want to take. A wheel’s aerodynamic design, or how the air passes along your wheels at different angles to the wind including in crosswinds, and how the rim, hub, and spokes interact while cornering also helps characterize the handling performance of your wheels.
Of course, your choice of tire model, size and inflation level and your handling technique also have major effects on how well you wheels will perform in a turn or navigate in a group of riders.
You will want enough compliance or vertical deflection in your wheels so they are comfortable on long rides and over uneven road surfaces. Some people believe that stronger, heavier riders need a stiffer, less compliant wheel to support them, and lighter riders need the opposite to accommodate them.
That’s probably true at the extremes (greater than 220 lbs or less than 110) but most riders weigh well between those extremes. If you are in that weight range (and fortunately I am), I’ve learned you can have both a stiff and compliant wheelset that gives you great power transfer and a comfortable, well handling ride at the same time.
How hard you are on your pedals can discount the stiffness, and how high you run your tire pressure can negate the compliance designed into even in the best wheels. So don’t mash you pedaling during shifting or over-inflate your tires if you want to get the most out of your wheels.
Braking is a critical performance criterion. When first introduced, wheels with carbon brake tracks were clearly inferior to aluminum ones, some said say dangerously so. The joke went that brakes would only slow but never stop a carbon wheel, that is until the heat generated from braking either blew out the tube or warped the rim.
Here again, technology and design have advanced considerably, improving carbon wheel braking performance through the use of new resins, weaves, brake track finishes and brake pad compounds. While many still believe that braking on a bike with an all carbon wheelset is still inferior to doing so an aluminum one, the gap has in fact nearly closed with the current generation of carbon wheels.
Riders on carbon wheels have also learned they need to use the pads designed and sold for their specific model of carbon wheels, allow more distance to brake when the roads are damp, and not hold on or “drag” the brakes for long periods of time on downhills (instead alternate braking between front and back wheels). If you want all of the benefits that carbon clinchers bring you over alloy ones, adopting these braking techniques along with using the latest generation wheelsets and the pads that are designed to be used with them will make braking performance differences between carbon and alloy track wheels hard to discern.
Design: Design defines how manufacturers want their wheelsets to perform. Sometimes they perform as designed, sometimes not. The key design criteria are wheel weight and material, rim depth, width and profile, hub and spoke selection, and brake track and wheel finish.
The best will be among the lightest, principally to enable quick acceleration each time you shift gears on the flats, increase your cadence or head up a climb. Weight is determined primarily by choosing between carbon or alloy rim material, the hub and number of spokes on each wheel, a tubular or clincher rim design, the lay-up and resin choices, and the rim depth, width, and profile (which in turn determine the amount of material used in the wheel).
At the end of the day, rim depth will determine weight differences more than the other factors since most high performing all-around wheels are now carbon clinchers, come in the same spoke range (16-20 front and 20-28 rear), and we’re focused on clinchers (or tubeless ready ones) rather than the admittedly lighter tubular wheelsets. So a wheel with a 35mm rim depth will weigh less than a 45mm wheel, all else being equal, which of course they aren’t from model to model. Some of the deeper wheels in the all-around category weigh as little or less than some of the shallower ones so it’s not a direct relationship between depth and weight.
While I’ve been told that a 100 gram (or 3.5 ounce) weight difference in a wheelset is noticeable, for me and I’ll guess for most road cycling enthusiasts, it’s hard to feel that weight difference between different wheelsets on a bike. I think it’s more likely that you can really feel something at around 150 to 200 grams of difference, typically the weight premium you pay for the convenience of having a clincher vs. a tubular wheelset of the same model. That said, lighter is always better but below about 150 to 200 grams, the difference provides more of a marketing advantage than a real performance one.
Wheelset weight is a surprisingly hard number to pin down. Why? There’s no standard for what should be weighed and companies measure and market it differently. Some publish the rim weight alone noting that the difference between the rims is the weight that matters most as it is the rotating weight that is most outbound from the center point of rotation. Many publish the weight with everything except for the quick releases (QRs) or except the QRs and rim tape. Some publish the weight with both the QRs and tape. I measure the actual weight of the wheels with rim tape and measure the QRs separately.
And then the wheels can be built up with different hubs and spokes. Some make essentially the same wheel in tubular, clincher and disc brake options but they will only publish the tubular (or lightest) model weight.
Further, the weight published by the wheel manufacturers is almost never the same as the actual wheelset weight. Of those reviewers who measure wheelset weight (rather than just report what the wheel manufacturers have published), the actual weight of the wheelset and rim tape is usually 50 to 100g grams heavier than the “claimed weight,” a term used by many reviewers and retailers to apparently absolve them of responsibility for actually measuring and reporting a weight different from what has been marketed. In a few cases, the claimed weight is actually more than the actual weight, likely because the former includes the weight of the QRs which can add another 60 to 140 grams of weight to the wheelset.
I’ve studied the claimed weight and actual weight measured of the carbon clincher wheelsets in this review and and weighed many of them myself. The bottom line is that most of the wheelsets I’ve evaluated, whether on the basis of claimed or actual weight, are within 100-150g of each other, a difference I think you could certainly brag about but most of us aren’t going to be able to notice on the road.
The rim’s outside width, the average width of the rim across the brake track, has increased significantly in the last two generations of carbon wheel design. Tests have shown that a wider tire enabled by a wider rim reduces a tire’s rolling resistance and improves the traction and stability important to handling performance. One generation ago, most carbon wheel outside rim widths measured across the brake track increased from 19-20mm to 22-23mm. The most advanced current generation of carbon wheels have outside widths of 24-27mm. Max outside widths on toroid shaped rims can be even more.
Rim inside widths, or the width across the bead hooks that grab the tire inside the rim, have increased from 15mm to 17.5mm to 19 or 20mm over the last three generations. The wheelsets in this review run this full gamut, but most measure 17-17.5mm inside width.
On rims that are wider on the inside and outside and using 25mm tires, you can put a greater volume of air into the tires, yet still have them support your weight at a lower tire pressure. This softens the ride, making it both more comfortable and better handling. Running a lower pressure also puts less stress on the wheel structure and extends its life. Running it at the same pressure lowers your rolling resistance by creating a smaller “contact patch,” essentially putting less of the tire’s length (and more of its width) in contact with the road.
As mentioned earlier, crosswinds can affect your ability to steer a bike with a set of 35mm and deeper rimmed wheels. Using carbon allows wheel designers to shape the profile of rims to offset this effect in a way you can’t do with alloy rim material. Traditionally rims had a ‘V’ profile, with the rim linearly increasing in width out from the narrower inside edge, where the rim meet the spokes, to the outer one, where it meets the tire.
To deflect crosswinds, the newer design wheels have focused on making the inside edge wider and more rounded (somewhat like a ‘U’) and in some cases by also curving the rim wall from inner to outer edge like an oval or what designers call a toroid, instead of it running without any width variation. Some have made other adjustments along the inner edge in an attempt to deflect crosswinds like Reynolds swirl lip generator (SLG) design or Zipp’s sawtooth design that mimics a whale’s pectoral fin.
The toroid design, where the widest part of the rim is roughly halfway up the height of the rim, also improves the aero performance of the wheelset over U or V-shaped rims by extending the time that the air traveling across the rim stays “attached” to the rim or flows along it undisturbed.
Finally, spoke and hub choice and rim finish are clear design choices, though I think they drive perceived performance more than actual performance in many cases. Most quality carbon clincher wheels including many of the ones I’ve covered in this review, come with spokes and hubs made from one of two or three major manufacturers. The larger, integrated cycling product companies typically make or design and have hubs to put on their wheels. Still others use the same, top-end DT Swiss 240 hub either branded as such or with the wheel maker’s brand on the hub shells and the 240’s mechanical component ‘internals’ underneath the shells.
There is much made of hubs with ceramic bearings by some wheel manufacturers. This has led some riders to believe they are lighter, faster and more durable. Only the latter is actually true and only in cases where they are made to higher tolerance levels. Campagnolo sells the same wheels with two different ceramic bearing models at widely different prices, essentially saying that all ceramic hubs are not created equal. Other manufacturers like Zipp sell the same wheels with three different hub options (DT Swiss 240 and Chris King, both with stainless steel bearings, and a third with their own branded ceramic hubs) all of which are excellent.
Hubs can also have steel, aluminum and carbon shell and steel and aluminum freehubs that trade-off weight, durability, and cost. The reduced weight of carbon shells is minimal, the improved durability of steel freehubs can be beneficial and the cost swings of hubs made with these different combinations can be quite large. All of this is good to know but not something that I would make an all-around wheelset choice based on.
Hubs use different mechanisms and number of ‘pawls’ to engage the rear wheel when you begin pedaling. This affects how quickly the wheel engages though most differences are minor and matter little to all but the most competitive enthusiast level cyclists. Some hubs, often those with ceramic bearings or with unique freehub engaging mechanisms, may seem to roll smoother when you are going down the road or free-wheel louder than others when you are coasting.
These are often subjective differences and only affect performance if the rolling isn’t smooth at all or the noise of the freehub annoys you so much that it affects the enjoyment of your ride. There’s actually one manufacturer that makes truly excellent hubs but has distinguished itself by creating a characteristic sound unique to its hubs and by offering them in a wide range of colors.
Spoke number, alignment, and shape (round, elliptical or flat) do vary considerably from wheel to wheel. The number of spokes used and how they are aligned or ‘laced’ is part of the overall design used to create a wheel’s “stiffness” (lateral stiffness) and “compliance” (vertical stiffness). Spokes have a minor effect on weight (we’re talking a few grams here and there) and their shape has minimal influence on aerodynamics though some wheel makers market the heck out of their bladed spokes.
So while having fewer spokes, having them laced in a unique pattern or having flat ones may set the look of certain wheels apart for the rest of the crowd, focusing on spokes in isolation really doesn’t get you any closer to choosing between one wheelset or another. If you true your own wheels, it may be more important to you whether the spoke nipples are accessed outside or inside the rim, but that may be something to know rather than use to make a choice. Based on long-term testing I’ve done and seen reports on, most good carbon wheels like those in this review don’t come out of true very often.
With the strength of mid-depth carbon rims, fewer spokes are needed than with lower profile alloy wheels to carry the rider weight. Some manufacturers will spec higher spoke count wheel options for heavier riders above 90-100kg (200-220lbs) though many of the wheels in this review don’t and will remain stiff under those of you cycling at this weight. If your weight is in this range, check to see what options you have or if there is a recommended weight limit is for the wheelset you are interested in.
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 brake tracks more resistant to overheating.
Better brake track finishes and brake pads have greatly reduced and in most cases eliminated braking noise and are also part of dissipating the heat created at the rims. They have also brought the dry weather braking performance of carbon clinchers on par with alloy wheels and wet weather braking within range. These finishes vary in detail but are typically etched or “textured” surfaces which add materials on top of the smooth resin making up the rest of the rim, both creating more friction and wicking more water during dry and wet braking. Other companies still have braking surfaces that are essentially unchanged from the rest of the rim but brake better than prior generation wheels thanks to resin and pad choice.
Rim finish – everything from matt and glossy rims with bold white or ‘blacked out’ lettering – is a personal choice. While it has no effect on performance, I understand that looks and brand will matter to some road cycling enthusiasts, especially if it makes you think you are going faster or are more excited about riding your wheels and bike with some of these distinctive design touches.
At the end of the day, evaluating and comparing wheelset performance is very subjective. Wheelset aerodynamic performance, for example, is probably one of the most marketed characteristics and provides an example of why you need to be careful buying into the hype. While aerodynamics is one of the most important and distinguishing criteria in a wheelset’s overall performance, it is also one of the hardest characteristics for the cycling enthusiast to objectively assess and compare.
Here’s why. Most companies have done extensive CFD (computational fluid dynamics) analysis in combination with wind tunnel testing in a controlled environment to come up with their own wheel designs and compare them against competitor wheels. Very few publish the results of these comparative tests and when they do they are often selectively presented and provide little detail about their testing protocol. While most tests look to see how much drag the wheels produce at different angles to the wind (‘yaw’), there is no common approach to testing wheels, for example, either on or off a bike or on specific brands and types of bikes or tires or at different wind angles.
Further complicating what you can draw from the results, some bikes and tires (including those you may be using) are themselves more or less aerodynamic especially in combination with different wheels you might be considering.
You are also only really getting a true measure of the front wheel’s aerodynamic effect. On the road, the airflow over your rear wheel is disturbed by the ‘wake’ created from the front wheel and the down and seat tubes in front of the rear wheel. You are also creating a good deal of turbulence at the intersection of the rim and spokes as your legs pedal like egg beaters. Go ahead and try to model the aerodynamics of that situation!
With wind tunnel testing in hand, wheel manufacturers market the most flattering parts of this incomplete, non-comparable wind tunnel aero information and often market the qualifications of the engineer who led the aero design and supervised the wind tunnel analysis along with a combination of “unique” technological breakthroughs available only in their wheels.
I understand that companies must have some tools around which to design and that wind tunnels provide necessary baseline measures, (and that all of this makes for good marketing), but how well these tests relate to the real world of on-the-road cycling with varying road, wind, bike and rider conditions seems very hard to correlate.
While most people will say aerodynamics and weight are two of the most important measures of a wheel’s performance, as you can see, neither of them are conclusive based on numbers alone. You really have to take what the wheel manufacturers and their retailers tell you about these performance and design features with a great deal of skepticism. In place of their claims, which the buyer guides and some bike shop salesmen repeat back with great enthusiasm, I’ve drawn from the experience of independent reviewers and enthusiasts who have ridden many different wheels in different conditions on the road over many miles and that of my own and fellow tester experience with specific wheelsets for the comparative evaluations you see in this post.
Quality: Durability, warranties and service/support are the selection criteria that define wheelset quality.
Rim, spoke and hub durability all matter though rims and especially carbon rims are usually the weakest link and most expensive to deal with. Most hubs put on carbon clincher wheels sold in the performance all-around category are very durable and easily serviced as part of an annual bike check-up or if there is a problem. Modern-day spokes are strong and relatively easy and inexpensive to replace, something you rarely need to do as a result of normal riding.
Carbon rims are far more durable than they used to be and most are stronger than alloy rims. While I’m not aware of any tests that compare alloy and carbon wheel lifetimes, anecdotally most service shops will tell you that carbon wheels and carbon brake tracks will last longer than alloy wheels and brake tracks under normal conditions. Wheels with fewer spokes will reduce the weight some but increase the stress on a wheel.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to the rim manufacturing quality and how well the company stands behind their product if something goes wrong. Most major manufacturers make very durable wheelsets in this category and offer competitive 2-year warranties. Some companies are just more responsive than others to issues that require direct service or support. Online forums are filled with stories about company service, both good and bad, and most companies have established their reputation. Fortunately, most are good.
Bike stores and online retailers that are authorized representatives of a wheel brand stand behind the products they sell. It’s pretty easy for them to do so; they send the wheelset back to the manufacturer in most cases. Ultimately, the manufacturer determines the service response to a damaged wheel – repair time, replacement, cost if any, etc. I’ve tried to sort through both the durability ratings and warranties offered by manufacturers but also listened closely to what shops and other enthusiasts say about the durability and service/support response to different wheelsets.
Current generation carbon wheels don’t have issues on typical flat and hilly terrain. The biggest issue continues to be overheating and deforming carbon wheels during extended braking, for example coming down a long mountain pass. Manufacturers do not warrantee damaged carbon wheels caused by overheating, but as mentioned above, the latest generation carbon wheelsets will not get damaged in this way unless you drag the brakes for long periods of time. Don’t be that guy.
I’ve written more about the quality of carbon wheels today and the best technique for braking a carbon rim brake wheel on mountain descents in a post reviewing carbon clinchers designed for mountain climbing and descending here. If you only feel comfortable being able to use the constant braking or dragging technique and want the best braking surface short of going to disc brakes, I recommend you choose a carbon-alloy or pure alloy wheelset.
Cost: Simply put, some carbon clincher wheelsets cost a lot more than others with little relationship between cost and performance, design or quality. All-around, carbon clincher, non-custom wheelsets north of $2000 appear to be priced based on their brand name, product and market strategy and product volume more than any other factors. Some companies spend a lot to advertise and sponsor professional cycling teams to create a distinctive, wheel-focused brand appeal and purposely sell low volumes. Others look to be ubiquitous with a broad range of cycling products including wheels and use their large distribution networks to achieve more profit through higher volume sales on lower priced wheels. For us, cycling is a sport, a past time, a passion. For them, it’s a business.
Some manufacturers also dictate advertising prices to retailers and threaten their distribution agreements if they stray from those prices. In some countries like the US and Canada it’s legal, in others like the UK and countries in the EU it isn’t and the market pricing reflects this. For example, many online retailers based in the UK often sell high performance, wheels at 20% off the manufacturer’s recommended price and occasionally discount these up to twice that amount.
You will seldom see this on a current model year wheelset sold in a US local bike shop or US-based online retailer because of what’s known as Minimum Advertised Pricing (or MAP) agreements the retailer has to agree to if they want to sell the company’s product. And, it’s legal. To further complicate things, some companies allow UK and EU online retailers to sell the discounted wheels into the US and Canada while others require they sell only within their region.
CARBON CLINCHER WHEELSET DEVELOPMENTS
The all-around carbon clincher wheelset category continues to grow in range and volume. While there will likely always be a market for alloy wheels, carbon material offers wheel designers greater options to create superior performing models that are limiting or eclipsing alloy wheels in many segments including all-arounds. Combined with this material advantage, there are many engineers that have joined wheel makers in recent years with advanced carbon materials and design experience from the aero and auto industries that have long used this material to improve performance.
While alloy wheels are generally less expensive than carbon wheels, we are already seeing some carbon clincher wheels priced at the same levels and outperforming alloy upgrade or racing wheels.
In the past couple generations of all-around wheels as well as in other categories, the biggest trend has been to wider and more rounded rims. Most of the better carbon clinchers are made this way now and few of the long-established wheel makers continue to use a box or V-shaped profile and a narrow inside rim width typical of older designs.
While many reviewers and riders hold the belief that carbon braking still falls short of the standard set by clinchers with alloy brake tracks, we’ve seen a marked improvement in the braking performance of carbon clincher wheels with the most recent model introductions by many of the carbon clincher wheelset makers.
It’s hard to know whether most carbon clinchers will ever provide the same braking performance level as alloy clinchers or whether those that come close, as some wheels now do, can overcome years of built-in concerns.
Carbon rim brake wheels with textured or etched brake tracks introduced in the last couple of years by a few brands (ENVE, Zipp and Mavic) provide braking performance on dry roads every bit as good as those of alloy wheels.
Some carbon wheel leaders (like ENVE and Reynolds) only sell and actively promote the braking performance of carbon wheels. Others (like Zipp, Bontrager, and Campy) sell both carbon and alloy rim brake clinchers in their line to cycling enthusiasts but no carbon-alloy ones.
Neither Shimano, one of the largest wheelset manufacturers or HED, an industry pioneer sell carbon clincher rim brake wheels. Instead, they offer carbon-alloy hybrid clinchers wheels that use aluminum brake tracks with non-structural carbon fairings that extend from alloy rims or carbon that wraps around those rims.
Shimano, however, left their new model Dura Ace carbon-alloy rim brake clinchers unchanged from their previous generation other than changing the label graphics and model name (C35 became C40). This keeps the now relatively narrow 15mm inside width rim of the last generation of their two shallowest carbon alloy wheels (the C24 and C35) when most current generation carbon and alloy wheelsets are now 17mm or 19mm wide on the inside. They did invest in going to wider and deeper all carbon disc-brake versions of their Dura-Ace wheel lines including the C40, leaving me to conclude that they don’t see a future worth investing in for carbon-alloy wheels.
With the improvements made in carbon wheel braking, carbon-alloy wheels no longer have a significant braking advantage and most have disadvantages such as weight, aero performance, and durability that make them less attractive.
Mavic, the largest volume bike wheel maker and one of the most conservative when it comes to safety, recently introduced their first carbon clincher rim brake wheelsets. DT Swiss and 3T no longer sell branded carbon-alloy wheelsets. I believe these are further indicators that we are at a so-called ‘tipping point’ in the acceptance of carbon wheels.
Carbon wheel manufacturers will rebut the perception of inferior performing braking and some of the wheels reviewed brake extremely well in all conditions. You need to ask yourself whether you are ok with the braking performance of the carbon wheelset you are interested in or whether you should go ahead with one of the remaining carbon-alloy ones (or a lower profile alloy wheelset) instead that brake slightly better but has disadvantages compared to carbon clinchers.
With the handling and crosswind performance improvements seen in carbon clinchers and their improved strength-to-weight ratios, all-arounds may become deeper. Said differently, you may be able to ride and get the benefits in some deeper carbon clincher wheels that provide the same versatility that today’s all-arounds do.
With some perspective, it’s fair to say this may just be the continuation of a trend that’s been around for a while. The better 30mm and shallower alloy wheels used to make-up the all-around category until deeper carbon wheels that were just as light as the alloys and managed the crosswinds well were considered a faster choice for all-around riding. Zipp’s 303 Firecrest set the bar with their 45mm deep carbon clincher wheelset for the all-around category and other carbon and carbon alloy wheels measuring 35mm or so represented the shallowest end of the category while still providing superior performance and weight to the shallower all alloy wheels.
I could make an argument that the ENVE SES 4.5, Bontrager 5 D3 and Roval CLX50 should be considered all-around wheels based on their weight, crosswind handling performance, and other factors. All three companies sell shallower wheels that they market as good for climbing and they have aero wheels that are far deeper than the three models listed above. Few of the leading brands have introduced 35-40mm deep all-around carbon clincher wheelsets of late.
I would argue (and have here) that the ENVE could be considered an all-around, but the Bontrager’s crosswind performance and weight are more typical of deeper aero wheels. I’ve not had a chance to evaluate the new Roval wheelset. So I’ll watch this development and potentially include deeper wheels in the all-around category in the future.
A major development to keep a close eye on is the transition to disc brakes on road bikes. Disc brakes offer superior braking to rim braking systems even on wheels with aluminum brake tracks. This is certainly a welcome solution for riders concerned about carbon clincher braking performance but still looking to get most of the performance of deeper carbon wheels that alloy wheels can’t provide.
If you ride your road bike outdoors year round including in a fair amount of rain and the occasional snow or mud and you like to do the occasional cyclocross course, ride on dirt or gravel paths from time to time, or you do a fair amount of long descending on steep mountain roads, a disc brake bike and wheelset would be something to strongly consider.
Discs are well accepted on mountain and cyclocross bikes and increasingly becoming part of the landscape for road bikes. I’ve written about why in detail here. In short, you get better braking, faster riding and more versatility with a road disc brake bike.
We enthusiasts are way ahead of the pros in using disc brake road bikes and wheels. Many of the leading, latest generation all-around, carbon clincher rim brake wheelsets are available in disc brake versions. New wheelsets are being made for disc brake bikes from designs that are tailored to the characteristics of those bikes independent of what best suits rim brake bikes and wheels. Disc brake equipped carbon wheelsets currently on the market add little (up to 150g including rotors) to no weight penalty over the rim brake versions depending on the model.
I had an exchange with a customer service representative at one of the leading wheel companies when the first road disc brake bikes were coming out which shed some interesting light on the carbon braking performance and disc-brake wheel developments I’ve just described. When I asked the rep how she saw things developing over the next few years, she wrote:
Couple of things to consider: Race support for disc brakes is tricky right now (rotor sizes, pads…). Disc specific road frames are clearly the future. No carbon braking surface wear, longer rim life, no fade with time, no grabbiness, able to brake later with way more predictability. With the perfect rim brake set-up in dry conditions the stopping power between disc and rim brakes is equal. As soon as you get any wear, any moisture, any residue or grime the disc option is more reliable and repeatable. On a personal note – road riders that have made the leap to disc brakes are not going back to rim brakes.
High-performance road frames, wheels, and components that work with disc brakes are widely available from most established bike manufacturers now. Some major brands (e.g. Specialized, Giant) now make all their enthusiast level carbon bikes only in disc brake versions while most others make an equivalent number of enthusiast and some racing models in both disc and rim brake versions.
If you think this might be the way to go, I’ve reviewed and recommended currently available road disc brake wheelsets and components in separate posts and recommended some of the best road disc bikes.
Finally, we are seeing many carbon all-around and deeper wheels being sold by lesser known brands well below the prices from the well-known companies. While there are a few notable exceptions, most of these wheels are sold by marketers of “open mold” wheels. These are designed by people associated with the open mold wheel manufacturer rather than the marketer. They are usually derivative or copies of the most popular or technically advanced models but often lagging by a generation in some or many aspects of their design, made and assembled by factories in mainland China, and ‘open’ to anyone who wants to source them, put their own labels on them and sell them independently of the wheel maker or assembler.
It’s hard to characterize these as a group but generally speaking, these aren’t current generation wheels and don’t have a dealer network to support you if you need assistance. I have evaluated a couple wheels branded and backed by one of the world’s largest retailers and which had the most modern set of design attributes (width, depth, shape, brake track resins, etc.) I could find. I’m aware that other marketers are selling wheels from the same factory and likely some of the same models.
If these are some of the best representatives of this developing sub-category of all-around carbon clincher wheels, I can confidently say that they don’t perform anywhere near those of the Best Performer in this category and also lack the performance of the best Best Value wheels that aren’t much more expensive than the open mold ones. Without the research, design, and testing that the larger companies can invest to advance the performance of their wheels, I’m skeptical the open mold marketers can compete but my mind and wallet remain open to being wrong.
Some of the sales models of these open mold marketers don’t work for me either. Their wheels are often in short supply requiring you to pre-order with a deposit or just plain wait several weeks or months to get your opportunity to buy them. This is likely due to being at the mercy of the production schedule of the open mold wheel producer and assembler and/or the undercapitalized position of the marketer that requires them to pay for the wheels before receiving shipment.
I’ll continue to monitor this development. Price competition is good and I welcome it. Performance competition is also good and I eagerly await wheels sold and supported by anyone that can also compete along the performance criterion I’ve used to evaluate wheelsets and that are as easy to buy and get service as those of the best.
OTHER CARBON CLINCHER WHEELSET REVIEWS
I’ve been reviewing this category of wheels since I started this blog site. Indeed, I wrote my first review about all-around wheels by sorting through 36 carbon carbon-alloy clincher wheelset models from 23 different companies that fell into the ‘all-around’ category largely defined by their 35mm to 45mm rim depth and their other design and performance attributes.
Of those, I closely evaluated and reviewed 17 models from 15 companies. I eliminated the other models for several reasons. Some were not widely distributed or there wasn’t much independent commentary about them. If they aren’t widely distributed, relatively few people are riding them or will be able to even if I reviewed them. If I can’t get hold of a set to ride and other reviewers and riders aren’t talking about them, I don’t want you to make a decision based on the marketing story. I know this puts the small wheel maker at a disadvantage but I don’t care about wheel makers, I care about my fellow enthusiasts being able to buy, ride and get service for proven wheelsets at good prices.
In my 2015 and 2016 updates, I reduced the field further. Some models weren’t competitive in the first place and others weren’t updated and lost ground to those that were. I don’t want to spend your time reading (and mine writing) about a wheelset that doesn’t have enough going for it that is worth your consideration.
I am also no longer recommending a “best alternative” carbon-alloy all-around wheelset. While I do suggest a carbon-alloy wheelset for you to consider at the end of this review, I don’t think carbon-alloy wheels are a great alternative anymore considering the distance they’ve put between them and carbon-alloy ones that I described in the section above.
While this review is focused on carbon clincher all-around rim brake wheels, you can read reviews of deeper aero rim brake road wheels (here), shallower carbon clincher climbing rim brake wheels (here) and lower cost, low profile alloy upgrade rim brake wheels (here).
If you don’t see the wheelset you are interested reviewed in this post, you might want to enter the wheelset name in the search box at the top of this page or look at the list of reviews near the top of the sidebar as they might be reviewed in another post.
Along with the review, I’ve provided you links to stores that carry each wheelset, have them not only at the best prices but also have excellent customer satisfaction ratings.
BONTRAGER AEOLUS XXX 4 – RECALLING MEMORIES OF DRIVING A CORVETTE
There’s something about my long-ago memories of driving a Chevrolet Corvette and my recent experience riding the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 wheels that connects.
No, it isn’t the phallic imagery of a Corvette and the XXX label of the latest Aeolus, though perhaps you could make that connection. (Sorry that I just did.)
Rather, it’s the rush of rolling at speed they both provide. While a lot of cars and wheels roll fast, it’s what happens in the moment of speed that makes life behind the wheel and in the saddle exciting.
Hitting a turn at speed carries more unknows than rolling straight. The Corvette’s wide wheelbase, wide tires, and low chassis provided me the handling performance to confidently hit every turn faster than I’d ever done before.
Similarly, the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 mounted with 25C tubeless tires stick it in the corners. Fellow tester Nate enthused they always seemed so much more planted and stable than any other carbon clincher wheelset he’d experienced, especially in turns with bumpy pavement.
I measured the internal rim width between the bead hooks at 21.1 mm on these and other Bontrager Aeolus XXX series wheels. That makes them the widest rim brake carbon bike wheels we’ve tested, notably wider than most which run 19 mm or 17 mm these days.
Their 27.5 mm external rim width across the brake tracks is as wide as others like the Enve, Zipp, and Easton in this category but this, along with the mounted and inflated tire width contributes more to aerodynamic performance. Internal width has a greater influence on the superior handling and ample comfort of these wheels.
Many road disc wheelsets have been at 21 mm internal for a couple years now and I can confirm riding them is a similar speed-liberating handling experience. The better support a wider rim provides to the sidewalls of the same 25C tire makes a real difference. It’s nice to see Bontrager bringing this to the rim brake world.
Moose took these wheels for a ride down the 8-mile, 8% average grade asphalt road at Whiteface Mountain, home of the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Hitting speeds of 50 mph, he reported that the crosswinds made the riding the XXX 4s “a little sketchy” but not enough to back off his exhilarating speed.
I don’t know if that’s Moose’s daredevil approach to going downhill on bikes (and skis) that he prefers but I do know he arrived safely at the bottom and was so excited after the ride he sent me a half dozen texts about his descent (and climb).
While neither of us could find strong crosswinds, Nate and my experience in moderate ones on these wheels were fine. They did acknowledge the breeze but it didn’t affect our steering or cause us to do anything unnatural.
Unfortunately, you sometimes need to slow down. Fortunately, all three of us were impressed with the braking power and modulation of these wheels on dry roads; they are among the best here.
On wet roads, however, they are no better than earlier generation carbon clincher rim brakes. Like the Vette, leave these Bontragers in the garage when it’s wet outside.
The XXX 4s are “stiff enough” to climb and sprint but they are more in the middle of this all-around carbon clincher pack compared to others on this criterion. They are considerably heavier than the 1400 grams claimed on the Bontrager XXX 4 Aeolus TLR Clincher web page – 1556 grams on my scale. I include the pre-installed rim strips. Bontrager doesn’t. Measured the same way, these XXX 4s are 50-100 grams heavier than most in this rim brake carbon road bike wheels category.
All of this adds up to average, more dampened acceleration than a lively, springier reaction when you want to accelerate. Their DT Swiss star ratchet hub internals provides quick engagement (and quiet freewheeling) but doesn’t improve the acceleration enough to make a difference.
If you’ve got the watts in your legs, you can probably get these wheels up to speed much in the way a Corvette corals hundreds of horses under its hood to get you from 0 to 60 mph faster than most.
It’s what the Corvette and Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 do at speed, more than how fast they get you there, that separates them from the competition.
You can order these wheels by clicking through on this link to Trekbikes.com.
CAMPAGNOLO BORA ULTRA 35 – A MISSED OPPORTUNITY TO STAND OUT
For the 2016 model year Campagnolo introduced their 35mm deep, well established Bora Ultra 35 wheelset, previously available only as a tubular, in a carbon clincher model. They also increased the Bora 35 to a more modern 17mm inside, 24mm outside width, though not as wide as many of some of the other current carbon clincher all-arounds. Campy also makes the lower priced Bora One 35, different from the Ultra 35 only in the kind of ceramic bearing used in the hub.
The wheels are plenty stiff and responsive both in and out of the saddle, though not out of the ordinary. They do feel a bit less compliant than others, consistent with the feel of most Campy wheels. Putting 25C tires on these 17C rims, something I wouldn’t normally recommend, adds comfort probably without a big hit to the aero performance that is already limited by Campy’s old school rim profile.
Given this combination of depth and lightweight, 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 sidewalls until it stops for the parallel brake track. No wide and blunt nose, rounded edges, curved sides, angled or tapered brake tracks you find on modern day carbon wheelsets that have figured out how to use these characteristics to cheat the wind by reducing drag and crosswind effects.
Like some of the other wheel makers, Campagnolo has treated the braking surface of the Bora Ultra 35’s carbon rims differently than the rest of the rim to improve their stopping power in both dry and wet conditions. In Campagnolo’s case, they remove some of the resin on the brake track surface to expose the pads more directly to the carbon fibers for better bite and wet weather performance. The improved braking performance is welcome in their ability to stop (duh!) but also to allow you to be more aggressive in and out of the turns, braking a little later than wheels that need more time to slow you as you approach the turns.
These wheels, like several in this review, are priced by the manufacturer at the top end (USD$3200). Unlike some of the others, however, very good discounts can be found at Wiggle, Chain Reaction 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 (Wiggle, Competitive Cyclist, eBay) with it’s less expensive hubs but otherwise similar wheelset would be a better deal if you are committed to getting a Campy wheelset though I don’t believe they provide the performance of the still less expensive Reynolds Assault.
EASTON EC90 SL – A FAST, STIFF WHEELSET THAT DOESN’T LIKE TO SLOW DOWN
The latest incarnation of the Easton EC90 SL wheelset really likes to go. I know that’s not a technical term but that was my initial impression after riding them the first few times and every time after that. They are fast, faster than a 38mm deep carbon wheelset should be or at least as fast than any wheel I’ve ever ridden that was shallower than 45mm. They roll very smoothly – light, quiet, and kept me going without having to put out a whole lot of effort once I got them up to speed.
These are also stiff wheels. They are right there with me without hesitation when I accelerate and don’t flex when you get out of the saddle to climb. Consistent with this level of stiffness, they handle precisely and confidently in corners. Not sure if it’s the rims or the new hubs they’ve put on these wheels that have wider spacing between the flanges, but together (with the spokes of course) these are plenty stiff, responsive and confident wheels.
So like I said, these EC90 SLs really like to go.
Unfortunately, they aren’t really excited about slowing down. Yes, they will slow and stop you, but not without a lot of whining going down steeper grades in dry conditions and taking their time on every terrain in wet weather. On a flat or moderately hilly route in dry weather, they were no problem, but also nothing special, after a couple hundred miles of breaking in.
The Swiss Stop Yellow brake pads may be part of the problem, though the brake tracks on these Easton rims don’t have the textured or etched finish you see on the new generation of wheels from more expensive ENVE SES, Zipp NSW and Mavic Pro Carbon wheel lines. In addition to leaving a pollen colored ring on the otherwise very attractively finished and labeled rims, the front EC90 SL pulsed the first few times I rode it. I changed the pads out for a set of broken in Yellows I had in my toolbox and the pulsing went away. When I put on a set of black ENVE pads, they stopped whining and the modulation was better but the stopping distance didn’t improve.
In reality, this kind of braking is about what you should expect from many wheelsets out of the generation of carbon clinchers we’ve been living with until recently. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled already by the latest ENVE, Zipp and others wheelsets with the newer brake track treatments but if you ride lots of alpine descents or are uncomfortable riding in the rain you may want to keep these in the garage or pay up for the newest brake track technology.
The EC90 SL ride most comfortably with tubeless tires. Even with 25C Conti GP4Ks at 85psi on the EC90 SL’s rims which measured 19.3mm inside across the bead hook and 27.4mm outside across the brake track, they didn’t provide a terribly compliant ride. Just goes to show you that wide tires and rims can only provide so much comfort if compliance isn’t built into the wheels in the first place. With 23C Schwalbe Pro One tubeless at 75psi, they were plenty comfortable and would probably be more so with a 25C tubeless (had I had one to try).
The EC90 SLs are available below $1500/£1200/€1400 by clicking through these links to Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle.
ENVE SES 3.4 and SES 4.5 – TWO GREAT WHEELSETS THAT BRACKET THE ALL-AROUND CARBON CLINCHER CATEGORY
When ENVE introduced the second generation SES 3.4 wheelset as “climbing wheels with an aero advantage”, it seemed like we were being fed a new product with an identity crisis. The first generation SES 3.4 were all-around wheels. And, ENVE also has the SES 2.2 climbing wheels in their lineup, ones I’ve previously evaluated and rated the Best Performer in my first review of carbon clinchers for climbing.
Well, I don’t know what will become of the SES 2.2 but the second generation SES 3.4 are better climbing wheels. In my latest review of carbon clincher climbing wheels, I rated them the Best Performer.
You can read that review of the SES 3.4 here.
Riding them back to back with the Zipp 303 NSW, Nate and I found the SES 3.4 stiffer but didn’t get up to or hold their speed as well as the 303 NSW. You need to put more work into riding the SES 3.4 at speed. But, they are as fast or faster than many other wheelsets in this category.
Moose, our 200lb/90kg tester, also preferred the 303 NSW. He found their handling more precise and confident than the SES 3.4.
ENVE has also had good reviewer and customer feedback on its SES 4.5 rim brake wheelset that was introduced a couple years after the original SES 3.4 first came to market. In my review of the SES 4.5 (here) it was my Best Performer among 50-60mm deep aero wheels and one that rode with nearly as much versatility but more speed than other all-arounds. This is something I can’t say about the Zipp 404 Firecrest or 404 NSW or the other wheels in that category.
I did that evaluation of the SES 4.5 before riding the more recently introduced 303 NSW. Choosing between them is truly a “first-world” problem.
Overall, I’d say the 303 NSW are better climbers while the SES 4.5 are a touch better at holding speed. If your “all-around” riding includes a fair bit of climbing, I’d go with the 303 NSW. If your all-around profile is filled mostly with flats and rollers with only the occasional climb, I’d choose the SES 4.5.
ENVE rim brake wheels all use the same textured brake tracks. In my experience, they are top of the charts both in wet and dry conditions. The hub options sold with these new wheels – DT Swiss 240, Chris King R45, and ENVE ceramic – are all first-rate performers, rolling smoothly, engaging quickly and accelerating with the best of them.
Weight, free-wheel sound, rolling smoothness, long-term durability, and price are the things that separate these hubs, but you can’t go wrong with any of them. Wheelset quality and warranty (5 years) are also exceptional as is their price, the latter being exceptionally high but both below and above the Best Performer Zipp 303 NSW all-arounds depending on which ENVE hub option you choose.
You can find the best prices from the best stores for the ENVE SES 3.4 by clicking these links to Competitive Cyclist, Tweeks, Merlin and for the SES 4.5 by clicking these links to Competitive Cyclist, JensonUSA, Tweeks, Merlin.
FULCRUM RACING QUATTRO CARBON AND SPEED 40C – LOW PRICE BUT NOT BEST VALUE
Let’s be clear from the start. Available for about USD$1,000/£850/€1125/AUD$1500 (Wiggle, Slane), the Fulcrum Racing Quattro Carbon is probably the lowest priced carbon, all-around depth (40mm) wheelset you can find from a major brand. With this in mind, it shouldn’t be expected to perform or compared with those selling for 2x or 3x that are also evaluated in this post.
Instead, the essential question is: How does it perform against other lower priced carbon all-arounds like the Best Value Reynolds Assault SLG (about USD$1250/£1100/€1350/AUD$1950 market price).
Having read the many comments of my fellow budget-stressed cycling enthusiasts over the last couple years, I know this is essentially the question you’ll want to be answered about this wheelset.
With the price advantage over the others, it’s hard to say no to the Fulcrum. It’s a comfortable ride and you can, and probably should run a 25mm wide tire on these 17mm inside, 24.5mm outside width rims. Note that some 25C tires like the Continental Grand Prix 4000 that I favor will run closer to 26.5mm once installed and inflated on this and most other 17mm or 17C rims but that’s not a deal killer in the case of this wheel.
Why? The overhang is not going to be a big issue on this wheelset since, unfortunately, its rim profile is not very aerodynamic and wouldn’t benefit much (at all?) from a 23C Conti GP4K that will measure very close to the outside width of the rim once mounted and inflated. The extra width of a 25C tire will accentuate the comfort of the Racing Quattro Carbon which, along with its handling, is its real strengths but are only on par, rather than better than others reviewed in this category. It also brakes well and is plenty stiff, but again, in the middle of the pack.
The Racing Quattro Carbon’s weaknesses are its aerodynamic performance and hub, sometimes in combination. You don’t get any “free-speed” when rolling along as you do from most good carbon wheels of this depth. Whether that’s due to the rather conservative rim profile (a narrow, slightly rounded inside edge expanding linearly in a V toward the brake track) or homegrown hub that otherwise feels smooth is hard to know. You do need to work harder to keep these wheels rolling at speed than any others of this depth I’ve rolled on.
More troubling is the crosswind effects which are quite pronounced with these Fulcrums. No, you won’t get blown off the road but you will need to keep a steady hand on the tiller (uh… handlebars) to keep close to your line. Finally, while they accelerate fine on the flats, they do hesitate a bit going uphill as they are met with more gravitational resistance. Ah, but don’t we all.
Since the price advantage over the Assault is small and the rim and hub differences lead to noticeable free speed, crosswind and acceleration disadvantages for the Fulcrum, I have to favor the Assault as the Best Value in this case.
That’s just my decision-making process. If you aren’t going fast enough to get any aero benefit or don’t ride hills or live in windy climates where any of this makes a difference, go with the Fulcrum and save yourself some money, by all means.
Relative to the Campagnolo Bora One 35 which essential shares the same rim shape (though claims to be 5mm shallower) and probably the hub as that is used on the Fulcrum (which is a division of Campagnolo), it’s probably a toss-up from a performance standpoint though the Fulcrum is far more comfortable to ride.
The newer Fulcrum Speed 40C shares the same rim design as the Racing Quattro Carbon but comes with a stiffer carbon layup and a better rolling hub. It’s about $500 more in the marketplace (Merlin), is a bit stiffer laterally yet less comfortable and unfortunately shares the same disadvantaged rim profile as the Quattro Carbon and Bora.
MAVIC COSMIC PRO CARBON SL UST – SOLID BUT UNEXCITING
The Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST is an update of the Cosmic Pro Carbon SL C, Mavic’s first medium depth rim brake wheelset using only carbon fiber and resins in its brake track.
In going from “SL C” to “SL UST”, Mavic widened the rims, put on new hubs, and built it to their new UST tubeless standard.
The result? The new Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST is a more comfortable, quieter, and more tubeless ready wheelset. It’s clearly an improvement over the SL C it replaces and that I reviewed with the headline – A strong, noisy performer at a good price.
The SL UST is 2mm wider than the SL C, now 19mm across the inside of the rim (measured between the bead hooks). I could feel the added comfort in the ride. This is especially so with the Mavic Yksion Pro UST 25C tubeless tires that are included in the price of the wheels and come pre-installed. These are also better tires than Mavic supplied with the wheels before.
Compared to the much heralded Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tires, the new Yksion rates equivalent in rolling and puncture resistance (see tubeless tire ratings here). In my experience, these tires also have a better road feel and their aerodynamics are better for this wheelset (and many others). The mounted and inflated width for the 25C tire is a mm narrower than the Schwalbe and closer to the wheels’ 25.5mm external or brake track width.
The Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST hubset is also new but, according to the word out among shop mechanics, is a knock-off of DT Swiss 240 hubs used on many other carbon road bike wheels. Whatever the hub’s heritage, the new Mavic hub is smoother and quieter than the noise created by the SL C hubs while retaining the distinctive Mavic freewheeling sound.
This is real progress if you care about freehub buzz. We’re talking about going from it’s really annoying; don’t buy it to something like it’s acceptable if you like to hear your freewheel spin.
Mavic continues with the same version of their textured brake track on this Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST wheelset that was used on the SL C. At the speeds I ride (18-20mph on an average training or group ride), I found it gives you good braking on dry pavement but is not very good on wet roads.
My fellow tester Nate rides considerably faster (23-26mph) and challenges wheelsets a good deal more. He was unimpressed with the braking power and heat dissipation of these wheelsets down long, steep alpine descents. We both noticed they squeal after warming up.
While these new Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon wheels climb well enough, this kind of braking seriously dulls the reward you’ve earned climbing when you are looking to cash in doing a long downhill. They do handle well in the crosswinds you often find in high mountain passes or those coming across open spaces.
While they are clearly stiff when you want to turn up the speed or head up a ramp, they aren’t lively. There’s no snap and little giddy-up when you want to accelerate or get out of the saddle.
They do hold their speed well once you get moving but nothing out of the ordinary. The same can be said for their handling – solid but not inspiring aggressive riding in the corners.
Over the year or so that Mavic improved these wheels, other well-established wheel makers like Zipp, Bontrager, Roval and DT Swiss were also improving the design and performance of their hoops with new or updated wheels in this carbon clincher wheelset category popular with serious roadies. Lesser known brands and those sourcing and selling carbon bike wheels designed and made by others have also pushed further into this category at the same time.
Mavic’s recommended price for this wheelset, which their retailers don’t stray far from, puts it in a tough spot. At a market price of around $1,800/£1,350/€ 1,550 through these links to Competitive Cyclist for US and Canadian residents and to Cyclestore, Slane for those UK and EU, it’s not priced competitively with some of the better value wheelsets and doesn’t excel against others in a similar price range.
You don’t have to spend a whole lot more to get much better performance and you can spend a lot less and get performance nearly as good. If you don’t have the budget for better performing carbon road bike wheels or if you value Mavic’s extensive dealer network and aren’t going to ride them as hard as a Group A rider like Nate, this solid wheelset will work for you.
ZIPP 303 FIRECREST – 303 NSW A YEAR LATER AND A GRAND LESS
If you bought one, it’s maddening that a set of top-rated, all-around, carbon bike wheels you spent $3100 on could drop in price nearly $1000 and be surpassed in performance by a successor model in as little as a year.
If you didn’t buy one, now may be the time to get the less expensive model that’s a lot like the one you could have spent a whole lot more for, especially if its strengths and budget suits you.
Such is the world of Zipp wheelsets and the innovation going on more broadly in the carbon clincher wheelset world these days.
In 2017 Zipp started selling its line of NSW wheels with new rim shapes and hubs. The Zipp 303 NSW knocked the Zipp 303 Firecrest off the top of its performance and price perch and the 303 Firecrest price was reduced to $2200.
In 2018 Zipp did it again. A new NSW line of carbon road bike wheels was introduced including a new Zipp 303 NSW. This time, the original 2017 303 NSW rims have become the centerpiece of the new 2018 303 Firecrest, the one I’m reviewing here, together with Zipp’s 77/177 hubs first put on the 303 and other Firecrest wheelsets in 2016.
Are you following me?
These changes were triggered by Zipp’s efforts to improve the speed, crosswind management, braking, stiffness, comfort, and handling of its wheelsets. With innovation in the wheelset world focused on these areas over the last half dozen years, other wheelmakers had caught up to or surpassed the Firecrest wheels in several of these areas where its performance was tops.
Some of the improvements (speed, crosswind management, braking) showed up in the first-generation NSW rims that are now the core of the 303 Firecrest. Other improvements (comfort, handling) are seen in the latest NSW wheels that are wider and tubeless.
So, how does the latest Zipp 303 Firecrest perform?
This new 46mm deep, 1500 gram carbon clincher wheelset is very snappy when you want to accelerate. Once up to speed they maintain your momentum very well, riding like wheels 15mm deeper on the flats. They climb like ones 10-20mm shallower uphill and practically laugh in the face of crosswinds, running as straight as a low-profile alloy wheelset in gusting or steady winds.
If you’ve never ridden carbon wheels, those brief comments about responsiveness, momentum, climbing, and crosswind behavior are the first things you look for in separating out carbon wheels. Most carbon wheels that sell for less than the 303 Firecrest can’t do most or any of the things. Some that sell for the same or more than the Firecrest can’t do all these things as well.
The textured brake tracks on the new 303 Firecrest (that came with the earlier NSW rims) are a clear step up from earlier non-textured models. They can give you the kind of confidence on dry roads you get from alloy brake tracks. On wet roads, they are better than carbon wheels with non-textured tracks but not as good as alloy ones.
Top of the line (and more expensive) ENVE and Bontrager Aeolus XXX series wheels provide better power, modulation, and wet braking than the 303 Firecrests. But these brake better than other wheels Nate, Moose and I have evaluated in the same and lower price ranges as the 303 Firecrest.
Earlier 303 Firecrests and NSWs always felt moderately stiff to me and perhaps not stiff enough for heavier or stronger riders. Amongst carbon bike wheels, ENVE and Easton hoops have always felt stiffer.
Zipp put redesigned 77/177 hubs on the 2016 303 Firecrests. That, perhaps along with other things they may have done with the rims made those stiffer wheels. The hubs carry over to the new 303 Firecrest.
If you are light (68kg/150lbs) or not regularly cranking over 3.25 watts/kg, you’ll likely find the current 303 Firecrest plenty stiff and will enjoy the responsiveness I feel from these that may not feel with a stiffer wheelset. If you are over (82kg/180lbs) or cranking it out at over 4 watts/kg, you might find yourself wanting a stiffer wheelset going uphill and in your more competitive rides.
I find the 303 Firecrest very comfortable on the road and handle with a kind of riding on rails confidence you want in every wheelset but find in few. With a set of 25C Zipp Tangente Course or 25C Continental Grand Prix 4000 II S tires, you’ll get a good aero fit where the mounted, inflated tire width is less than the 27.5 rim width at the brake track.
If you are purely a road cyclist committed to clincher and tube setups, the rest of this review won’t matter to you. If you do want wheels to ride for cyclocross or occasional dirt path riding, know that these 303 Firecrest don’t come tubeless. They also have relatively narrow inside widths (17.5mm front, 17.2 rear) than those best suited for off-road riding.
With other rim brake wheels being tubeless ready and inside widths at 19mm or even 21mm wide, there are better choices for you than the 303 Firecrest if you value greater stability and low pressure riding off road. Zipp went with a tubeless, 19mm rim on the latest 303 NSW to make them more competitive with what others had already done in this rim brake carbon clincher wheelset category.
There is one question that I’ve been wondering about. You may be too after reading this review. The question: Is it worth waiting another year to see whether Zipp will pass on more NSW technology to the 303 Firecrest?
With Zipp’s recent track record, it’s entirely possible they will do so yet again before long. However, seeing the technology separation Zipp has kept between the NSW and Firecrest lines that help justify the price difference, I don’t see them being able to pass more technology down in the next year or two, for example, 19mm tubeless rims, without blurring those lines.
A Carbon-Alloy Option
Not confident braking and potential warping some carbon clinchers based on what you’ve heard about from friends? Ready to move up from your stock wheels but don’t think your riding skills or speed need or will get you all of the benefits offered by the top performing or mid-priced carbon wheels?
I’ve heard this in the past, and while I’ve written based on my experience that most of the current generation of carbon clinchers ease them, I respect those who still are leery of carbon clinchers. For you, a hybrid carbon-alloy clincher is an option that assuages these concerns.
Hybrids can offer the confident braking you are used to in an aluminum alloy wheel, the comfort you want from wider rims, all-around or greater depth from a carbon fairing added to the alloy rim that get you aero benefits, and hubs as good as many on high priced wheels.
The HED Jet 4 Plus represents the best of these carbon alloy options in an all-around wheelset. When it was introduced in 2014, it was an innovator in wheel width and its 20.6 mm internal and 25mm external widths are still modern by today’s standards. Its 46mm deep, toroid-shaped carbon fairing has been shown to make this wheelset comparably aero to those all carbon all-arounds I’ve reviewed in this post.
On the downside, it is one of the heavier wheels in this review, weighing in at about 1700 grams with rim tape and QRs (as HED conventionally reports its claimed weight) or about 1600 grams without the skewers as I’ve measured the others in this review. That’s outside the margins of the other wheels evaluated in this review and make them somewhat slower responding when you want to accelerate and more sluggish going uphill than the better all carbon all-arounds.
Its USD$2000 price for the model with the blackened brake track coating or $USD1000 price for the uncoated one that shows its alloy rim color is middle of the pack compared to others in this review. It’s available at best prices from stores with high customer satisfaction ratings at Competitive Cyclist and at HED’s UK/EU stores
The Jet 4 Plus braking performance is its strongest feature, matched only by the carbon all-arounds with textured brake tracks that cost much more and exceeded in the rain by none. It is tubeless compatible and compliant, handles well and is well built.
As the carbon fairings used on these wheels are glued on and hollow, you need to be quite careful with how you treat them as the fairings will easily flex and deform over time if you hang your bike by your wheels or lean them up against a surface that forces it out of its normal shape.
So there are pros and cons of the HED Jet 4 Plus compared to the carbon clincher all-arounds. But if you favor alloy braking, want some of the benefits of a wider and deeper all-around and are willing to accept some of the drawbacks of a carbon-alloy one, this is your best choice among the remaining available models.
* * * * *
Thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think of anything I’ve written or ask any questions you might have in the comment section below.
If you’ve gotten some value by reading this post or any of the reviews or comments on the site and want to keep new content like this coming, click on the links and buy at the stores they take you to. You will save money and time while supporting the creation of independent and in-depth gear reviews at the same time. If you prefer to buy at other stores, you can still support the site and new posts by taking a pull here. Thank you.
And please, let’s stay connected! Using the widgets in the right-hand column, you can sign up to get an email when new posts come out, follow on Twitter and Facebook, and get posts sent to your RSS reader.
Thanks and enjoy your riding safely!