BEST CARBON ALL-AROUND WHEELS FOR RIM BRAKE ROAD BIKES – 2017
If you are a regular, serious cyclist and are willing to spend good money on one set of wheels for your road bike, you want them to do most everything well. For what they will cost you, they better deliver a substantial performance improvement from 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 ‘”all-around’ or “all-round” wheels for road bikes with rim brakes are nearly all made with carbon fiber rims now 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. They are stiff and responsive enough to race on, comfortable enough to ride for hours and will stop you confidently and predictably.
For model year 2017, several new wheelsets have been introduced that raise the performance bar and improve the experience you can enjoy riding all-around wheels. As a fellow enthusiast looking to gain many of the same benefits you may from an all-around 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.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
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For this review, I evaluated the top widely available and dealer supported all-around wheelsets against a comprehensive set of performance, design, quality, and cost criteria. First, let me tell you which ones I recommend, why and where you can get them at the best 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
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WHAT I RECOMMEND
For In The Know Cycling reviews, I evaluate product-specific criteria in four groups – performance, design, quality and cost. The criteria that matter most in those categories for all-around rim brake road wheelsets are:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, handling and braking.
Design: Wheel weight and material, rim depth, rim inner and outer widths, rim profile, hub and spoke 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 an all-around 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.
With that introduction, here are my recommendations:
With the Zipp 303 NSW, Zipp has outdone itself. In this case, “itself” is Zipp’s 303 Firecrest which has been the all-around standard that carbon mid-depth wheelsets have been measured against and was the one I’d previously picked as the Best Performer among all-arounds.
Well, there is a new Best Performer and the 303 NSW is it.
The 303 NSW handles better, rolls better, climbs better, brakes better and deals with crosswinds better than the 303 Firecrest and every other all-around wheelset I and my fellow tester Nate have ridden. It sustains your momentum like a much deeper wheelset, accelerates like a much lighter one and is stiffer and more responsive than its predecessor.
(Author drops the mike….)
Umm… (author clears throat; picks up the mike)… It costs more too. Zipp reduced the Firecrest MSRP/RRP about 25% when the NSWs were introduced and the NSWs are priced about 10% more than the Firecrests were. If I’ve done my math right, that puts the Firecrest now at about 2/3rd the full price of the NSW or the NSW about half again more the price of the Firecrest.
That said, the NSW (USD$3100, £2,370, €2,800) is in the same price range as the new ENVE SES 3.4, its perennial performance competitor. It is more expensive than the other all-around wheels in this review but it also performs better. (I’ve not reviewed the new ENVE yet).
These wheels handle remarkably well, providing you precise cornering at all speeds and a “glued to the ground” feel of total confidence.
Nate described being figuratively blown away by how well the 303 NSW’s crosswind performance prevented him from being literally being blown away. These 46mm deep rims seem to have the cross-section of 25mm alloys, when you can feel the wind pushing your body sideways, but feel nothing torquing your handlebars. You get the sensation that your wheels are actually compensating for the wind and keeping your line straight.
The NSW line brings dry braking on par with alloy wheels and wet braking close to it. While the Firecrest braking is very good indeed, these are clearly a step forward and give you no shelter under the “alloy braking is better” excuse some use to pass on carbon wheels.
What I probably liked most among all the things I liked about these wheels is the way they roll, respond and climb. Riding a lot of different wheelsets and a lot of distance over varying terrain during the year, I’ve gotten quite attuned to these three, often related factors.
These 303 NSWs roll very smoothly and give you the sensation that they aren’t holding you back when you freewheel. Likewise, they feel like they maintain their speed when you ease off the cranks better than other mid-depth wheels. As I often find myself working to hold on to the group I’m riding with, this saves me a bit of energy I can use when the group starts to turn the screws or when the road turns uphill.
That’s where the responsiveness of these wheels makes me smile. They go when I want or need to stay with a move. They are stiff, there is no lag when I spin up my cadence and they transmit energy from my legs to the road in an uncannily quick and efficient way. I feel the same efficiency when the road pitches up and I need to get up out of the saddle or increase my power output while seated.
As the old saying goes: Oh what a feeling!
For those of you focused on specs, I measured the set I rode at 45.8 mm deep, 27.5mm wide about halfway up the brake track, and 28.5mm max width, each an average of measurements at a half dozen points on each wheel. The front wheel’s inside width averaged 17.5mm and the rear 17.2mm.
The wheelset weighs 1479g with rim tape on my scale and the skewers add another 70g. This is exactly 100 grams less than what the 303 Firecrest weighs though, from what I’ve read, most of the weight difference comes in the hubs. Less weight in the hubs doesn’t contribute much to the improved climbing performance and overall responsiveness as much as the improved performance of the hubs them themselves. And most won’t feel a 100g difference from wheelset to wheelset.
I could go on about the NSW’s new hub design and rim shape, revised dimple surface, upgraded brake track with their unique names and the other cool new design aspects of these wheels, all of which likely contribute to the performance I’ve described above. I believe that how the wheels perform is far more important in choosing between them than their design features and prefer to spend most of my time (and yours) in reviews focused on the former than the later.
They aren’t tubeless ready, which I don’t think most people looking to ride a high-performance wheelset like this one will care about. (The new ENVE 3.4 are.) The do look pretty sweet to my eyes, which I think most people riding any wheelset do care about even though it doesn’t make them any faster, unless you ride harder because you feel good about what you are riding.
Let me try to answer (or dodge) a couple questions I’d expect I’ll get if I don’t. Yes, as I think I’ve explained, they are noticeably better than the Firecrests in most of the key performance areas. No, I can’t tell you whether they are worth paying extra for than the Firecrest or the wheelset I picked as the Best Value. (That was the dodge.) It’s up to each us to decide how much you are willing to pay for added performance.
Also, know that somewhere around early 2016, SRAM, Zipp’s parent, instituted tighter pricing controls on their dealers where they can. Specifically, they require their dealers to sell in countries and regions near their stores. For example, US and Canadian dealers can ship to customers at US and Canadian addresses and UK and EU stores can ship to customers at UK and EU addresses but UK and EU stores can’t ship to US, Canadian, Australian, Japanese and other customers who live outside of the UK and EU.
Further, MAP or minimum advertised pricing laws in the US and other countries (but not UK and EU ones) allow Zipp to set an advertised price floor for these wheels in those countries where the law applies. If an authorized dealer gets caught advertising below the MAP, Zipp can pull their distribution agreement. So much for free market competition.
With that in mind, here are links to stores that I recommend based on their high customer satisfaction ratings and that have the 303 NSWs in stock at the best prices in several regions as of June 21, 2017 US/CA Competitive Cyclist, eBay, UK/EU Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, Tredz, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10
If both performance and cost are a consideration, then I recommend the Reynolds Assault as the Best Value all-around wheelset. Reynolds is one of just a few companies that offers a “mid-priced” carbon, all-around wheelset. While they list for far more, you can find them for around US$1135, £1125, €1250, AU$1700 with the links I’ve provided below.
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 – higher rolling resistance save for a few models (like the Schwalbe Pro One) and more hassle to install and repair on the road.
In 2017, they 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 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. This may improve what is already a plenty stiff rear wheel.
Rim dimensions, hub and spoke choice, claimed weight and price are all unchanged
The Assault’s measured weight (1552g) is only 75g more than the Zipp 303 NSW and it’s depth (41mm) is 5mm less than the Zipp. These are amounts most enthusiasts won’t notice on the road. They share the same roughly 17.25 to 17.5mm measured inside width though 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.
Their hubs, while rolling very smoothly and engaging quickly, don’t perform to the highest levels that the best ones do. Installing, inflating, sealing 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 and seal with a basic track pump.
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’), 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 shop 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 rim brake wheelset.
Here are the page links for this wheelset at the stores I’ve found have them at the best prices, have them in stock and have top shelf customer satisfaction records as of June 21, 2017 at Tredz, ProBikeKit code ITKRW or ITK10.
Note: Reynolds have made several generations of Assaults and you may see some of the prior generation ones for sale in some online stores and local bike sops. Performance Bike also private labels the last generation Assault as a current Assault model. The last generation Assault has a V-shaped rim profile, a deeper rim (46mm) with a narrower width, and uses a different resin in their brake track and probably a different hub. It has a distinctly different graphic, a big white sticker field with black lettering on it.
Those are very different wheels from the current generation ones and I don’t recommend you buy them at any price (braking, crosswind handling, comfort are all unacceptable).
With the newest generation Assault, 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, reviewed here). Before you buy the current generation Assault, I encourage you to double-check that it indeed is the current generation (2015 or later). If you aren’t sure, feel free to send me a link to the one you are considering in the comment section and I will check it for you.
What matters most in choosing between all-around wheelsets? In some ways, this is much like choosing a car. Depending on who you talk to, there are a lot of different factors to consider. Depending on who you are 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 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 mark-ups are crazy in the cycling business and marketing strategies at specific brands tend to drive prices as much or more than performance in some cases.
Here are the selection criteria that make up each of the groups mentioned above:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, handling and braking are the key measures I’ve used to assess all-around wheelset performance.
The most desirable all-around wheels will provide the versatility to ride all the different types of terrain (hills, flats, false flats, straights, corners, sprints, mountains, fast downhills, windy roads) that you’ll experience and a range of training and many events (club races, centuries, club, charity, group rides) you’ll do, without compromise.
All-around wheels will be aerodynamic enough for you to notice a difference in speed and your ability to hold that speed with much less work when you are well underway on flats and downhills. Many promoting mid-depth and 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 pace line) and will benefit from the improved aerodynamics from all-arounders like those I’ve recommended in this review. If you aren’t going that fast, you really won’t benefit from buying wheels deeper than 25-30mm. For the purpose of this review, I’ll assume most of you will be going fast enough to get aero benefits.
For those of us measuring our power output, recognize that independent tests (here is one 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 help 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 all-around wheels will be among the lightest, principally to enable quick acceleration each time you shift gears on the flats, increase your cadence or head up a climb. Weight is determined primarily by choosing between carbon or alloy rim material, the hub and number of spokes on each wheel, a tubular or clincher rim design, the lay-up and resin choices, and the rim depth, width and profile (which in turn determine the amount of material used in the wheel).
At the end of the day, rim depth will determine weight differences more than the other factors since most high performing all-around clincher wheels are now carbon, come in the same spoke range (16-20 front and 20-28 rear), and we’re focused on clinchers (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 to number to pin down. Why? There’s no standard for what should be weighed and companies measure and market it differently. Some publish the rim weight alone 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 manufactures 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 all-around wheelsets in this review and and weighed many of them myself. The bottom line is that most of the carbon all-around wheelsets I’ve evaluated, whether on the basis of claimed or actual weight, are within 100-150g of each other, a difference I think you could certainly brag about but most of us aren’t going to be able to notice on the road.
The rim’s outside width, the 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 wheel set 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 all-around 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 later 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 combination 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 free hub annoys you so much that it affect the enjoyment of your ride. There’s actually one manufacturer that makes truly excellent hubs but has distinguished itself by creating 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 (were talking a few grams here and there) and their shape has minimal influence on aerodynamics though some wheel makers market the heck out of their bladed spokes.
So while having fewer spokes, having them laced in a unique pattern or having flat ones may set the look of certain wheels apart for the rest of the crowd, focusing on spokes in isolation really doesn’t get you any closer to choosing between one wheelset or another. If you true your own wheels, it may be more important to you whether the spoke nipples are accessed outside or inside the rim, but that may be something to know rather than use to make a choice. 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 mat and glossy rims with bold white or ‘blacked out’ lettering – is a personal choice. While it has no effect on performance, I understand that looks and brand will matter to some road cycling enthusiasts, especially if it makes you think you are going faster or are more excited about riding your wheels and bike with some of these distinctive design touches.
At the end of the day, evaluating and comparing wheelset performance is very subjective. Wheelset aerodynamic performance, for example, is probably one of the most marketed characteristics and provides an example of why you need to be careful buying into the hype. While aerodynamics is one of the most important and distinguishing criteria in a wheelset’s overall performance, it is also one of the hardest characteristics for the cycling enthusiast to objectively assess and compare.
Here’s why. Most companies have done extensive 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 air flow over your rear wheel is disturbed by the ‘wake’ created from the front wheel and the down and seat tubes in front of the rear wheel. You are also creating a good deal of turbulence at the intersection of the rim and spokes as your legs pedal like egg beaters. Go ahead and try to model the aerodynamics of that situation!
With wind tunnel testing in hand, wheel manufacturers market the most flattering parts of this incomplete, non-comparable wind tunnel aero information and often market the qualifications of the engineer who led the aero design and supervised the wind tunnel analysis along with a combination of “unique” technological breakthroughs available only in their wheels.
I understand that companies must have some tools around which to design and that wind tunnels provide necessary baseline measures, (and that all of this makes for good marketing), but how well these tests relate to the real world of on-the-road cycling with varying road, wind, bike and rider conditions seems very hard to correlate.
While most people will say aerodynamics and weight are two of the most important measures of a wheel’s performance, as you can see, neither of them are conclusive based on numbers alone. You really have to take what the wheel manufacturers and their retailers tell you about these performance and design features with a great deal of skepticism. In place of their claims, which the buyer guides and some bike shop salesmen repeat back with great enthusiasm, I’ve drawn from the experience of independent reviewers and enthusiasts who have ridden many different wheels in different conditions on the road over many miles and that of my own 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 all-around wheels sold in the performance all-around category are very durable and easily serviced as part of an annual bike check-up or if there is a problem. Modern day spokes are strong and relatively easy and inexpensive to replace, something you rarely need to do as a result of normal riding.
Carbon rims are far more durable than they used to be and most are stronger than alloy rims. While I’m not aware of any tests that compare alloy and carbon wheel life times, anecdotally most service shops will tell you that carbon wheels 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 all-around category and offer competitive 2 year warranties. Some companies are just more responsive than others to issues that require direct service or support. Online forums are filled with stories about company service, both good and bad, and most companies have established their reputation. Fortunately most are good.
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 all-around wheels cost a lot more than others with little relationship between cost and performance, design or quality. All-around, non-custom wheelsets north of $2000 appear to be priced based on their brand name, product and market strategy and product volume more than any other factors. Some companies spend a lot to advertise and sponsor professional cycling teams to create a distinctive, wheel-focused brand appeal and purposely sell low volumes. Others look to be ubiquitous with a broad range of cycling products including wheels and use their large distribution networks to achieve more profit through higher volume sales on lower priced wheels. For us, cycling is a sport, a past time, a passion. For them, it’s a business.
Some manufacturers also dictate 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, all-around wheels at 20% off the manufacturer’s recommended price and occasionally discount these up to twice that amount.
You will seldom see this on a current model year wheelset sold in a US local bike shop or US-based online retailer because of what’s know 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 ALL-AROUND RIM BRAKE WHEELSET DEVELOPMENTS
The carbon clincher all-around 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 all-around 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 all-around wheels 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 all-around wheel 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 brakes slightly better but has disadvantages compared to carbon clinchers.
With the handling and crosswind performance improvements seen in carbon all-around rim brake wheels 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 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 wheels 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 variously 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 carbon wheels 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 is more typical of deeper aero wheels and 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 rim brake wheelsets are available in disc brake versions. New wheelsets are being make 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 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 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 serviced as those of the best.
ALL-AROUND WHEELSET REVIEWS
I’ve been reviewing this category of wheels since I started this blogsite. Indeed, I wrote my first review about all-around wheels by sorting through 36 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 all-around rim brake wheels, you can read reviews of deeper aero rim brake road wheels (here), shallower carbon climbing clincher rim brake wheels (here) and lower cost, low profile alloy upgrade rim brake wheels (here). I’ve also reviewed a wide range of disc brake wheels (here).
If you don’t see the wheelset you are interested in reviewed in this post, you might want to enter the wheelset name in the search box at the top of this page or look at the list of reviews near the top of the side bar as they might be reviewed in another post.
Just below, there’s a chart showing my comparison of the wheels included in this review. Below that chart, I’ve provided you reviews, in alphabetical order, of the wheelsets I did not recommend but that may have performance, design or cost attributes that you prefer to those I did. Most of these have a lot to offer otherwise I wouldn’t have included them in this post.
Along with the review, I’ve provided you links to stores that carry each wheelset, have them not only at the best prices but also have excellent customer satisfaction ratings.
BONTRAGER AEOLUS 3 D3 – A GENERATION BEHIND IN BRAKING PERFORMANCE
Bontrager updated the Aeolus 3 D3 most recently for the 2015 model year by making it wider (19.5mm inside, 27.0 outside), lighter (about 100g less to 1399 grams with rim strips), and tubeless ready or “TLR.”
The wheelset retained its U profile, DT Swiss 240 hubs and Aerolite straight pull spokes. The rim resins, brake tracks and cork pads were also carried over from the prior model. Quality and durability remain good. This is a well built wheelset that rolls beautifully on 25C tubeless or clincher 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 tubeless tires off, something of a nuisance.
Stiffness is good, if not exceptional and while this 35mm deep wheel’s actual weight is 50 to 150 grams lighter than the 40-45mm deep other all-arounds in this review, it’s acceleration feels about the same as most when you are out on a ride. This is not a surprise as this Bontrager wheelset uses the popular DT Swiss 240 hubs, same as those you’ll find on many other high end carbon wheelsets.
In this latest model however, Bontrager didn’t make any changes to improve the wheels’ braking and the difference is a very important one against the others I’m comparing these to. The last model of this wheelset was equal to some of the other last generation carbon clinchers on dry roads but really was inadequate on wet ones with the cork pads that Bontrager includes with these wheels. A couple other reviewers had good luck using SwissStop Black Prince pads in wet weather but they were a bit noisier in all conditions and I don’t know that they’d improve braking performance in dry weather on their own going downhill.
Making no changes to resin, tracks or supplied pads puts the current Aeolus a generation behind those that have upgraded their braking performance in their new or updated models or that were already ahead of them with models that have been out for a few years. These wheels are fine for rollers and all around riding, but not for the steeps.
At it top shelf price (USD$2400 online from Trek Bicycle Superstore), the Aeolus 3 D3 really isn’t up to par in performance for what you pay for in price.
CAMPAGNOLO BORA ULTRA 35 – A MISSED OPPORTUNITY TO 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 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 light weight, Campagnolo’s unwillingness to update their rim profile, or perhaps their lack of rim design expertise to do so, is disappointing.
The Bora Ultra 35 profile is what I would call a “box V”. Like the Shamal and Bora Ultra tubulars that this wheelset is a descendant of, the rim on the Bora Ultra 35 clincher has a flat spoke-side nose which then squarely turns up and linearly widens along the rim side walls until it stops for the parallel brake track. No wide and blunt nose, rounded edges, curved sides, angled or tapered brake tracks you find on modern day carbon wheelsets that have figured out how to use these characteristics to cheat the wind by reducing drag and crosswind effects.
Like some of the other wheelmakers, Campagnolo has treated the braking surface of the Bora Ultra 35’s carbon rims differently than the rest of the rim to improve their stopping power in both dry and wet conditions. In Campagnolo’s case, they remove some of the resin on the brake track surface to expose the pads more directly to the carbon fibers for better bite and wet weather performance. The improved braking performance is welcome in their ability to stop (duh!) but also to allow you to be more aggressive in and out of the turns, braking a little later than wheels that need more time to slow you as you approach the turns.
These wheels, like several in this review, are priced by the manufacturer at the top end (USD$3200). Unlike some of the others however, very good discounts can be found (Wiggle, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles) bringing them closer to USD$2100, £1900, €2200, AUD$2700 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, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Ribble) 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 real excited about slowing down. Yes, they will slow and stop you, but not without a lot of whining going down steeper grades in dry conditions and taking their time on every terrain in wet weather. On a flat or moderately hilly route in dry weather, they were no problem, but also nothing special, after a couple hundred miles of breaking in.
The Swiss Stop Yellow brake pads may be part of the problem, though the brake tracks on these Easton rims don’t have the textured or etched finish you see on the new generation of wheels from more expensive 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 tool box and the pulsing went away. When I put on a set of black ENVE pads, they stopped whining and the modulation was better but the stopping distance didn’t improve.
In reality, this kind of braking is about what you should expect from many wheelsets out of the generation of carbon clinchers we’ve been living with until recently. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled already by the latest ENVE, 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 at the best prices from Tredz, ModernBike.
ENVE SES 3.4 – SOUNDS AND LOOKS ATTRACTIVE BUT HAVEN’T EVALUATED THEM YET
ENVE introduced a new version of its SES 3.4 model in early 2017 that I haven’t had an opportunity to ride nor know any trusted sources that have.
While its design looks very attractive and my experience with the SES 4.5 and 2.2 certainly makes me want to fully evaluate and share a review with you of these new wheels, I can only tell you what the marketing and design suggests to me at this point.
Of course, as I often write, you should make your decision based on performance rather than marketing and design, the design being a means to try to achieve specific performance objectives but that doesn’t always getting the intended results.
With that warning, here’s what I see hear and see.
First, ENVE is positioning the new 3.4 as “a climbing wheel with an aero advantage” whereas the original 3.4 was promoted as an all-around wheel that was just as fast but handled better in crosswinds than most aero wheels 10 to 20mm deeper. This repositioning as a climbing wheel was initially somewhat surprising given that ENVE introduced the SES 2.2 as a carbon clincher for climbing about 18 months before the new 3.4 came to market.
I thought that the 2.2 was head and shoulders the Best Performer over others in an admittedly small field of such carbon clincher climbing wheels (my review here). User feedback to ENVE was less favorable however, with many reporting a flexy 2.2 rear wheel. So perhaps the plan is for ENVE to move on from the 2.2 once the new 3.4 gets established as the company’s go-to climbing wheelset.
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 4.5 (here) it was my Best Performer amongst 50-60mm deep aero wheels and one that rode with 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.
If ENVE concluded the same, perhaps they feel their SES 4.5 is a better competitor to the new Zipp 303 NSW and other all-around wheels, further enabling the shift in positioning of the new 3.4 to replace the 2.2 as the company’s flagship climbing clincher.
From a design standpoint, I see some changes they’ve made that are consistent with ENVE’s broader wheelset direction and some that seem at odds with it.
Compare the differences in the new and original rim design. (Hub options and spokes are unchanged.)
The new SES 3.4 is clearly wider both across the inside and outside dimensions, suited ideally to 25C tires, and consistent with the widest-in-the-neighborhood direction ENVE went with the 4.5 AR disc brake clincher introduced about 6 months before the new 3.4. Also, the new 3.4 rim bed also is not just “tubeless ready” but what I would call “tubeless optimized” with its deep center channel and nearly hookless beads. You can still run a clincher tire and tube but it looks to be designed for, rather than merely ready for, tubeless tires.
Unlike Zipp, whose top end Firecrest and NSW rim brake clinchers aren’t even tubeless ready, ENVE has stated its belief that tubeless is here to stay and is producing all of its new wheels optimized in the same way for tubeless tires.
On the other hand, the depth and width of the new 3.4’s front and back wheels are now more similar to each other than was the earlier 3.4. The inside and outside widths are now virtually the same and the depth difference is only 4mm where it was previously 10mm. Further, the rim profiles are more U shaped than toroid shaped.
These last noted design changes – similar widths and depths, U shape – seem to go against ENVE’s SES orthodoxy where front and back wheels have different dimensions to serve different purposes and have profiles optimized for maximum aero performance. The only other SES wheelset to stand outside ENVE’s SES conventions is the … SES 2.2 carbon climbing clincher… whose front and rear rims are identical in width and depth and also have a U shape.
So maybe the design does line up with the marketing and my conjectured repositioning for the SES 4.5, 3.4 and 2.2 wheelsets. Or maybe, I’m seeing what I want to see in this Rorschach test of marketing and design.
Anyway, this is mere dithering on my part until I have the opportunity to actually evaluate the performance of the new SES 3.4.
You just can’t determine performance measures like stiffness, acceleration, handling, comfort and crosswind management by listening to marketing and looking at designs and specs.
As far as the performance I can determine, I have ridden ENVE wheels with the same textured brake tracks and pads as fitted out on the 3.4 and can say 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 in my experience, 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 later being exceptionally high and bracketing the Best Performer Zipp 303 NSW all-arounds with ENVE’s hub options.
I look forward to updating this review after further evaluating these wheels. In the meantime, if you want to check out the options or even order the new SES 3.4 before my full review, you can find them at stores that have high customer satisfaction ratings and the best prices on these wheels in stock at these links to Competitive Cyclist, Tweeks Cycles.
If you really wanted to buy the original SES 3.4 but didn’t get to it or were held back by its price, or you prefer it to what you see in the description of the new model, you can get it at a heavily discounted price at Competitive Cyclist, Westbrook Cycles while they last.
FULCRUM RACING QUATTRO CARBON AND SPEED 40C – LOW PRICE BUT NOT BEST VALUE
Let’s be clear from the start. Available at great online stores for about USD$1,000/£850/€1125/AUD$1500 (Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles), 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 answered about this wheelset.
With the price advantage over the others, it’s hard to say no to the Fulcrum. It’s a comfortable ride and you can, and probably should run a 25mm wide tire on these 17mm inside, 24.5mm outside width rims. Note that some 25C tires like the Continental Grand Prix 4000 that I favor will run closer to 26.5mm once installed and inflated on this and most other 17mm or 17C rims but that’s not a deal killer in the case of this wheel.
Why? The overhang is not going to be a big issue on this wheelset since, unfortunately, its rim profile is not very aerodynamic and wouldn’t benefit much (at all?) from a 23C Conti GP4K that will measure very close to the outside width of the rim once mounted and inflated. The extra width of a 25C tire will accentuate the comfort of the Racing Quattro Carbon which, along with its handling, are its real strengths 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 home grown hub that otherwise feels smooth is hard to know. You do need to work harder to keep these wheels rolling at speed than any others of this depth I’ve rolled on.
More troubling is the crosswind effects which are quite pronounced with these Fulcrums. No, you won’t get blown off the road but you will need to keep a steady hand on the tiller (uh… handlebars) to keep from going off course. Finally, while they accelerate fine on the flats, they do hesitate a bit going uphill as they are met with more gravitational resistance. Ah, but don’t we all.
I did rate the disc brake version of the Racing Quattro Carbon as the Best Value against the Assault and others in my disc brake wheelset post. While the disc and rim brake Assault clearly perform better than the Fulcrum, I hadn’t really noticed the crosswind effects as much on the Fulcrum during my disc brake evaluation as I did on the rim brake one. That and the reality that the disc brake Assault are very difficult to come by, and when they are there is a far greater price spread between the disc brake wheelsets than the rim brake ones, I leaned toward the disc brake Racing Quattro Carbon as the Best Value among disc brake wheels.
Since the rim brake price difference is much closer and the rim and hub differences lead to noticeable free speed, crosswind and acceleration disadvantages for the Fulcrum, I have to favor the Assault as the Best Value in this case. The Assault are also more widely available in rim brake versus disc brake versions. Click here to go back to the full rim brake Assault review.
That’s just my decision making process. If you aren’t going fast enough to get any aero benefit or don’t ride hills or live in windy climates where any of this makes a difference, go with the Fulcrum and save yourself some money, by all means.
Relative to the Campagnolo Bora One 35 which essential shares the same rim shape (though 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 (Wiggle, Slane Cycles, Starbike), 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-C – A STRONG PERFORMER AT A GOOD PRICE IF YOU CAN PUT UP WITH THE NOISE
Despite the growth of a new, high-end wheelset market with the breakaway success of carbon clinchers since the early part of this decade, Mavic went out the back of the pack with its seeming unwillingness to offer a model to compete. The closest they came were wheels with an aluminum insert underneath the otherwise carbon rim in an attempt to absorb heat energy coming from braking. Mavic’s view was that an all carbon wheelset wasn’t totally safe, something that most riders of first generation carbon brake tracks would agree with.
It appears that hiring some new engineering talent a couple years ago has given them an opportunity to come up with some new designs to get back in the bunch with the introduction of their first carbon wheelsets, the 40mm deep Cosmic Pro Carbon SL-C for all-around riding and a 25mm Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL-C for climbing.
I had the opportunity to ride the Cosmic Pro Carbon SL clincher for a couple of days. While I normally like to ride a wheelset 500-1000 miles before reviewing them, I got a good start on figuring out the character of this wheelset with the time I had and the range of conditions under which I was able to ride it .
The first ride was on a beautiful fall day covering 122 miles (196km) and 8802 feet (2682 meters) of elevation on a range of road surfaces from new, smooth pavement to packed dirt and gravel with the typical range of good to cracked but all paved road surfaces most of the ride. The climbing included a good amount of hills (<5%), moderate climbs (5-7%) and a couple 2 mile long roads to peaks, the first which averaged 12%, the second 8% and both with a few of 15-20% segments. Of course with the distance we rode, much of the riding I did was part of a paceline on flat roads and with plenty of time solo as the group broke up and I found my nose in the wind. The second day, as luck would have it (at least for testing purposes), I did a short recovery ride in the rain.
Based on this riding experience, I find the Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL to be a strong all-around performer. Its versatility is clear as it handled the range of conditions I described above equally well. The Cosmic’s dry braking is clearly its strongest feature, the performance being almost on par with the ENVE and Zipp NSW textured brake tracks on dry roads and when descending mountain pitches. (On wet roads, it was notably inferior to both and more on par with the better non-textured carbon brake tracks like the Zipp Firecrest line.)
The $2200/£1450/€1990 suggested retail pricing makes it attractive especially when you consider that other carbon wheelsets with similar braking performance will cost you about 1000 US dollars, Euros or Pounds more.
On the flip side, I find the noisy free-hub to be a real distraction akin to the Chris King hub volume at a slightly lower frequency. My personal preference is for a much quieter free-hub like what you get with the DT Swiss 240 but if you don’t mind or even prefer the “here I am world” sound of a free hub, this might be the wheelset for you.
Overall, the Cosmic Pro Carbon SL clincher has a very solid feel. It is stiff when powering forward or uphill and and handles and grips well on the 25C Yksion Pro tires that are sold with the wheels.
I normally test all wheels on known, low rolling resistance Continental Grand Prix 4000S II but since Mavic claims the wheels and tires are a “system” and you have to buy the tires along with the wheels, I rode them this with the tires provided. They ride comfortably on all surfaces. The tires measure 25.5mm inflated at the 85psi pressure I rode them at and about 26.0mm at my benchmark 100psi. This is nearly the same width as the 25.6mm external rim width I measured halfway up the brake track and 25.8mm at the widest point, slightly diminishing their aero performance. Ideally you want the rim width to be about 1mm wider or more than the mounted, inflated tire width so that the wind coming off the tires will re-attach to the rims with the least amount of turbulence.
Of course, I can’t test the aero performance in a wind tunnel but on the road they feel fast but not as fast as the Zipp 303 Firecrest or Easton EC 90 SL also reviewed in this post. I don’t know how much of their relative speed is due to this rim/tire width difference, the rim’s U-shaped aero design (usually a plus), the rolling resistance of the Yksion tires (not slick), the friction in the hub or something else.
They roll smoothly and maintain forward momentum well once getting up to aero speeds of over 18-20mph (29-32kph). They also accelerate well but nothing out of the ordinary. As mentioned above, they felt solid climbing, if not any lighter than other all-around wheelsets. Their measured weight of 1574 grams (well over the claimed 1450g weight) puts them at the high end of the range of wheelsets in this all-around category.
A few additional comments on braking. While I put more value on the going fast performance characteristics of wheels than the slowing down ones, several carbon wheels in this review either don’t do well slowing or shriek so much when they do or both. Those are deal breakers for me. Others do just fine slowing and do so quietly but don’t slow you as quickly as alloy wheels on dry roads, less quickly still on wet, and you’ve got to adopt alternate front/back braking techniques going downhill so you don’t warp them.
The latest ENVE and Zipp NSW carbon wheelsets are just as good as wheels with alloy brake tracks in the dry and wet (ENVE) and just a bit off the pace in wet (Zipp NSW) while being quiet throughout. You can almost drag them like you do alloy wheels though I wouldn’t “poke the bear” and tempt fate. I do it for the sake of you, my fellow road cycling enthusiast, and only after making sure my life insurance is paid up.
I’d put the Mavic in the mix with the ENVE and Zipp NSW in terms of dry braking performance. I alternated the front rear braking going down the steepest of hills (10-15%) and dragged them going down the slight less pitched ones (7.5-10%). No heat build up, great performance in both situations though some shrieking after a while when dragging.
In the wet conditions I found they were really no better than other non-textured tracks. They will slow and they will stop, but you might use up all your fingers on one hand counting the seconds before they do. I’ve read other reviewers say their experience was as good on wet roads as on dry ones. That was clearly not what I found.
The Mavic brake track is what I would call “roughened” rather than textured like the ENVE or scalloped like the NSW. Perhaps Mavic’s doesn’t provide any place for the water to escape. I’m also not wild about the Swiss Stop Yellow brake pads that come with these wheels and that you must use in order to prevent voiding the wheels’ warranty. Besides leaving a yellow film on the rims, I’ve found they are more likely to squeal than other pads I’ve used on multiple carbon rims.
It’s good to see Mavic is in the carbon wheelset game now and, depending on the characteristics you value most, offering a well priced option. The Mavic Cosmic Pro SL clincher aka SL-C is available in the US/CA at Competitive Cyclist and in the UK/EU at Tredz, Chain Reaction Cycles, stores with the best prices and high customer satisfaction ratings.
PRIME RP-38 – CAPABLE CARBON ALL-AROUNDERS FOR THE BUDGET MINDED
When the Prime line of carbon and alloy wheelsets for rim and disc brake bikes in shallow through aero depths were introduced in the summer of 2016, it got my attention. I don’t remember such a wide range of products becoming available from a new brand all at once before. The designs looked current, the prices were lower than the better known wheelsets with similar specs, and the line was created and offered by Chain Reaction Cycles, the large UK retailer with some of the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any online bike store. I ordered a set of the Prime RP-38 carbon rim brake wheels reviewed here and the RP-28 carbon disc brake wheels to evaluate for that post.
Overall, I found the RP-38 wheels to be a capable set of carbon wheels. They aren’t at the same overall performance level as the Best Value Reynolds Assault SLG that will cost you about 300 $, £, or € more. But, if you are on a tight budget and want a modern set of all carbon wheels and don’t care that they won’t be among the fastest in the bunch, these Primes provide you a good option.
They climb well, feeling both stiff and light and provide good feedback when going hard uphill or on the flats. Both Nate, my super-fast and aggressive, occasional crit-racing friend who also tested these wheels, and me, a more modest B class group rider, found their stiffness performance somewhat surprising given their price.
Going downhill and on the flats in both dry and wet conditions the RP-38 braking is on par with other carbon wheels like the first generation ENVE and current Zipp Firecrest which have smooth brake tracks like these do. They brake a bit quieter than others like the Assaults and clearly better than the more expensive Bontrager Aeolus 3 D3 or Easton EC90 SL. The modulation and overall braking power of the newest models of wheels with textured brake tracks from ENVE and Zipp are a level above, but you will certainly brake well on these.
The RP-38 also handle responsively – move when and where you want them to – but felt a little less glued to the pavement than most other all-rounders I’ve tested. I’m a light rider and they felt a little skittish to me when navigating through a group or handling on less than optimum road surfaces.
I tried two high performing tires on these wheels to try to find the right combination of speed (aerodynamics and rolling resistance), comfort and handling. I first ran the 23C Zipp Tangente Course and then after a few weeks switched to the 23C Continental Grand Prix 4000S II. Mounted and inflated, the Zipp tires measured approximately 23.5mm wide and the Conti’s just a touch wider than the 25mm width of the rims.
Neither set of tires on the RP-38 wheels felt very fast in getting up to or holding speed or very compliant, aka comfortable, when compared with the Assaults, C35s and other all-around wheels I’ve tested with the same 23C Contis. Nate, who doesn’t seem to care much about comfort judging from his his ride reports, summed up the speed experience charging across the flats or letting loose downhill on these wheels with the word “uninspiring”, disappointed that a 38mm deep wheelset performed more like 25mm alloys than 40mm carbon ones.
Prime recommends using 25C tires for all around riding on these wheels whose rims are made for them by Chinese producer Alex Rims. On the RP-28 carbon road disc clinchers which run essentially the same 16.75 front to 16.9 rear inside and 25.0 mm outside widths as the RP-38s, I mounted 25C Conti GP4KSII that measured 27.3mm wide and 25C Schwalbe Pro One tubeless that ran 26.7mm to see how different they might ride. Both 25C tires now exceeded the 25mm width of the rounded V-profile rims, defeating the potential aero benefit and didn’t seem to ride any faster, albeit on the shallower rims.
I also didn’t find the 25C Contis inflated at 80-85psi a whole lot more comfortable than the 23Cs at about 90psi. It wasn’t until I ran the Schwalbe tubeless at about 75-80psi that I enjoyed a comfortable ride similar to using 23C Conti clinchers on other all-arounds I’ve reviewed.
The Novatec hubs used on these RP-38 wheels aren’t as responsive or quiet as some of the better hubs but aren’t slow or loud either. Riding these wheels back to back on the same course on the same day as the Assaults, it was clear the hub used in the Assault made for better acceleration.
The Prime RP-38s are quite versatile wheels, the definition of an all-rounder. You can take them into mountains, ride them on flat and hilly roads, rain or shine, no worries about crosswinds and set them up tubeless to be comfortable if not particularly fast. While quite a few alloy wheels at the same price point or less can give you a similar and perhaps faster experience, if you want carbon wheels on a budget, these are worth a look. They’re available by clicking this link.
ZIPP 303 FIRECREST – A GREAT WHEELSET SURPASSED BY NEWER MODELS
Until several new all-around wheelsets were introduced for model year 2017, the Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher was the standard by which all other all-around wheels were measured. Most everyone you talk to and every reviewer you read loved them. I did and still do. They were my choice for Best Performer in this all-around category for several years and at their current price levels, they are a still a great performer at 2/3rds the price of the best ones.
There is real passion for these wheels. I rate their versatility, stiffness, comfort, and handling all very highly but no longer top of the charts. There are other all-around carbon wheelsets that don’t perform nearly as well that cost more or the same. (See the comparison chart for details). If you aren’t willing or can’t pay the premium for the better performers, this is the best performing wheelset in its price range. Whether it’s worth it to pay extra for the new Best Performer is something only you can decide (so please don’t ask me!).
The 303 Firecrests were the original technology leaders in design with wider wheels that improve speed, comfort and handling, and a rounded rim profile that easily deflects crosswinds for all but the lightest riders. The 303 NSW introduced for model year 2017 has surpassed the Firecrest.
After doing the research for this review, it’s become clear to me that design specs like weight, rim depth, number of spokes and the like are all trumped by wheel performance. Wheelsets with virtually identical specs in this category can and do perform very differently. And while some people put a high premium in making their choice on how the wheels look when they are standing still, it’s how they perform when they are moving at speed (and look like a blur) that really matters.
I don’t recommend letting specs or looks sway your opinion. For the record however, the rims on the 303 Firecrest measure 45mm deep, 26.4mm wide at the brake track and 17mm wide between the bead hooks. Like most good all-around carbon wheels, they weigh in the 1500-1600 gram range. And they say Zipp on them, which to a lot of people looks real good because they speak to a high performance and innovative engineering heritage well-earned by the company.
Over the years, Zipp hubs have come in for a lot of criticism around their durability. They recalled the 88 series front hubs for potential aluminum cracking and the quick releases used with the that were sold from 2010 through Jan 2015 (see here). Some riders were also reported cracking with the rear hubs from the same series. Zipp has re-designed the Firecrest hubs a couple times since then, most recently with the model 77-front/177-rear hubs for the 2016 wheels while leaving the rims and spokes unchanged.
They also eliminated the ability to adjust the pre-load bearing tension on the new hubs which was thought to contribute to past durability problems. Based on talking to shops and monitoring some of the forums, I believe the durability concerns are “off the back” or no longer an issue.
The new hubs for the model year 2016 were also intended to make the wheels a bit stiffer – especially important for 85kg/200lb plus riders – by tweaking the hub flange geometry and increasing the axle diameter. As a lighter rider (68kg, 150lbs), I found these wheels plenty stiff already with the last generation V3 hubs.
Once Zipp introduced the NSW line, they dropped the price on the 303 Fieldcrest 25% to $2100/€2,200 MSRP/RRP. They sell online for even less to residents of the UK and Europe. You can find them for the best prices from stores with top customer satisfaction levels at Competitive Cyclist and for UK/EU residents at Tweeks Cycles, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles.
Even though the wheelset measures 26.4mm wide at the brake track and wider still further up the rim, in most cases you should use a 23C tire to maximize aero performance than a 25C one for comfort. Why? For one, the Zipp 303 and many of the other wheels of this width were designed to optimize their aerodynamic performance using 23C tires. Second, most tires that carry the 23C designation, once mounted and inflated, actually run wider than the 23mm the 23C designation suggests, usually by a millimeter and some up to nearly twice that. Same holds for the 25C ones. But, some tires will run narrower, which can be maddening.
For example, one of the tires I recommend for this and most all-around wheelsets because of its low rolling resistance, the 23C Continental Grand Prix 4000 S II tires (at Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Amazon, eBay Cycling, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Chain Reaction) actually measures around 24.5mm wide once mounted and inflated on a 17C rim (internal width of 17mm) like that of the 303. The 25C measures about 26.4mm mounted and inflated which is right on to the brake track width of the Zipp.
But, the 303 brake track is angled to maintain the rim’s overall rounded or toroid shape and the 26.4mm is measured half way up the brake track. This width at the edge where the tire meets the wheel and the air comes off the tire to re-attach to the rim (ideally with limited turbulence) is narrower than the 26.4mm measurement and the 23C mounted and inflated tire is narrower still. So in a sense, the air would flow from the narrower tire (24.5mm) to the slightly wider rim edge (about 25.5mm) to the still wider center of the brake track (26.4mm) to the max rim width (28.5mm) at the peak of the toroid further up the rim. Starting with a 25C tire that measures the same width as the center of the brake track could create more turbulence than you want in the transition between the tire and the rim.
At least that’s the theory, or perhaps that’s my theory based on what I’ve seen over the years. In reality, most non-racing roadies aren’t going to know the difference and if you want more comfort, go with the 25C aero optimization be damned. On these wheels, you’ll still go faaaaaaaaaaaast!.
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 hight 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 are 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 direct US and 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.
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