THE BEST ROAD BIKE WHEEL UPGRADE OPTIONS

I review the best road bike wheel upgrade options for bikes with rim brakes, most of which can be had for under $/£/€1000.

It’s a truism that wheels are the first and one of the best road bike upgrades you can make to improve your cycling experience and performance.

The unfortunate reality is that most $2500 to $5000 modern composite bikes we road cycling enthusiasts ride come with inexpensive wheels that aren’t at the same level of performance as the frames that sit on them or the drivetrain components that transfer your power to them.

While it may seem crazy, many cyclists do a road bike wheel upgrade within a couple years after buying a new bike, which of course comes with a brand new set of wheels. If you bought a good rim brake bike in the last five years, there’s a good chance you’ve upgraded your wheels or have been thinking about it.

With all the attention wider tires have received over the last few seasons, you may have already put a pair on either the wheels that originally came with your bike or on ones you bought since then to make your ride more comfortable.

However, if you want a broader range of improvements in your performance and riding experience, the best of these upgrade wheels together with the right tires can give you far better comfort, speed, acceleration, climbing, handling, braking, and versatility than your current wheels and tires at a great value compared to upgrading to a carbon clincher wheelset.

For this 2018 update, I’ve added a couple of new wheels, updated my reviews of a couple others, deleted one, and made a new recommendation for the Best Performer in this category.

Related: Not sure what kind of wheels to get? Click Road Bike Wheels – How To Choose The Best For You

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

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

Yes it’s true – Wheels should be your first upgrade

Major developments include wider wheels, improved hubs and tubeless rims

Evaluation of 10 wheelsets against performance and cost criteria show which ones standout 

Wide (17-18mm inside width) upgrades offer excellent value 

Wider (19-21mm inside width) upgrades offer better performance 

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WHEELS ARE THE FIRST THING YOU’LL WANT TO UPGRADE

Why do cycling enthusiasts make a road bike wheel upgrade one of their first purchases after buying a new bike? Is there a real benefit in your riding performance and enjoyment or is it just one of those bike industry marketing mantras to get you to buy more of what they’re selling?

Endurance or sportive bikes that enthusiasts prefer for long, comfortable rides usually come equipped with wheels that aren’t as forgiving or compliant as the frame. Wider tubed or tubeless tires inflated to lower pressures than you’d normally use with narrower tires can dampen the road imperfections but won’t make the wheels themselves any more forgiving. Wider tires on stock or traditional width wheels can also reduce the wheelset’s responsiveness and won’t do anything to improve the precision of your handling.

It’s kind of like putting lipstick on a pig. Prettier, but still a pig.

Composite bikes made to be ridden and raced aggressively in the enthusiast price range often come with wheels that also aren’t laterally stiff enough to take advantage of the frame’s stiffness and actually dampen the responsiveness the bike is capable of when you want to accelerate, go aggressively into a turn, climb out of the saddle or sprint for the line.

The wheels that come with your bike, commonly known as “stock wheels”, also tend to be heavy by modern day standards. They usually weigh 200-300 grams more than a good road bike wheel upgrade, an amount most enthusiasts will notice when you want to accelerate from a stop or increase your speed during a ride or if you do any long, steep climbing in the mountains.

Stock wheels also typically have hubs that are durable but don’t roll as smoothly as those that help you maintain your speed with less effort. The rims are shallow and boxy and provide no aerodynamic benefit that deeper ones with rounder noses and sides do, and have a pretty basic look to them.

There are probably a half-dozen reasons that might explain why bike companies put these underperforming stock wheels on otherwise high-performing bikes.

The most compelling reason comes down to price and profit. Putting better wheels on a new bikes drives up their prices and depresses sales. And since most bike companies don’t make their own wheels in the first place, there’s very little profit gained by selling a bike with better and higher priced wheels.

It’s better for them to sell a less expensive bike where they make essentially the same amount of profit per bike as a higher priced one but sell more of them to earn a greater total profit on a higher volume of bike sales.

The bike-stock wheel relationship is similar to you buying an engagement ring with an expensive diamond mounted on a cheap band or a house with an undersized circuit breaker panel.  You focus on the quality of the diamond or the size and location of the house and go forward with the purchase knowing (or learning later) that you’ll soon have to upgrade the band or panel.

DEVELOPMENTS – WIDE AND WIDER, HUB FLANGES, TUBELESS

Over the last few years, there has been a move to wider tires and more recently to wider wheels in road cycling.  While riders used to be overly focused on weight, we now seemed to have become overly focused on width and mostly on tire width.

As I reported in a post dedicated to the topic of the relationship between wheel and tire widths (here), 3 out of the 4 rim brake bikes that were picked as the best in their price ranges for Bike Radar’s 2016 Bike of the Year awards were sold with traditional 15C (or 15mm inside width) stock wheels versus wider 17C (17mm) ones while 2 put 23C (23mm) tires on those wheels and the other 2 use 25C (25mm) rubber.  Of the 11 rim brake bikes that made up their £2,000 to £2,750 or USD$2800 to $3800 price range category where many road cycling enthusiasts shop, 8 of those 11 bikes were equipped with 15C wheels but 8 also had 25C tires.

[2016 was the last year where rim brake bikes outsold and outranked disc brake bikes in the above categories. If you are looking to upgrade your rim brake bike stock wheels or a set you previously bought for your bike, it’s likely that they are 15C wide wheels.]

Unfortunately, you can’t really upgrade your stock wheels merely by putting wider 25mm wide tires on them.  Doing this will make your ride on these typically less forgiving wheels more comfortable and that is one of the reasons why many new bikes come this way.  Another big (bigger?) reason is that it’s the trend now to have wider tires and without them bike makers appear to be behind the competition.

With wider tires (or wider wheels) you can run them at a lower air pressure while still the same amount of air needed to hold your bike and body weight in what is now the larger volume of space between your tires and wheels.  Lower pressure tires are more comfortable because they absorb more of the road’s imperfections.

But, putting 25C tires on 15C wheelsets can also make your bike slower and your handling worse.  Wider tires without wider wheels certainly won’t make your bike any more responsive, accelerate any faster, get you in and out of turns more precisely or roll noticeably better or faster, all of which should happen, along with improved comfort, from upgrade wheels.

Why?  A tire that is wider than the outside width of the rim at the brake track will create a wheel that has more drag than one whose tire is less than or about equal to the outside rim width.  Most 15C wheels have an outside width that is 20-21mm wide measured across the brake track.  Most 17C wheels are 22-23mm wide at the same location.

Once mounted and inflated on 15C or 17C rims, most 25C tires will expand by a mm or so creating a 26mm wide or wider tire mounted on a rim that is somewhere between 20mm and 23mm wide on the outside. That extra 1.5mm to 3mm of rubber on either side of the rim will cause air hitting the tire to get turbulent or stall as it passes across the tire to the rim.  With a tire that is narrower than the rim, more of the air will re-attach to a rim after it passes by the tire and continues with a more laminar flow reducing drag.

A traditional 23C tire will still be wider, once mounted and inflated, than a 23mm wide rim but only by about 0.5mm on either side at most.  Racers or those looking for the most speed will put even narrower tires on their wheels.

Over-wide tires that add drag and reduce speed is less of an issue for shallow alloy upgrade wheels that aren’t really intended to give you more speed through better aero performance in the first place the way deeper, rounded profile carbon wheels do.  But more drag leading to slower speeds on a shallow wheelset certainly doesn’t help.

More troublesome is the effect wider tires mounted on too narrow rims have on handling.  A 25C tire on a 15C wheel can feel squishy, even more so if you’ve reduced the air pressure to get more comfort.  This squishy feel is a symptom of the wider tire becoming more rounded as it sits in the same width wheel and an increased tendency to fold back on itself without the support of wider rims.

This is the opposite of the improved handling that is also promoted by going to a wider tire.

A tire that’s too wide for its rim is more likely to experience a pinch flat when you are leaning into a turn or turning at a good speed.  The tire bead can also pull away from the rim hook in the turn, also resulting in a flat.  Not good, to say the least.

road bike wheel upgrade

A wider tire and a wider rim together provide better handling.  The wider rim sets the foundation for the wider tire to better keep its shape as you can see in the drawing on the left above.

The square shape of a wider rim supporting and wider tire provides a wider “contact patch” than on a narrower tire.  While the total area of the tire patch for both tires is the same as long as your weight and the tire pressure are the same, that area spreads further across the width and less along the length of a wider tire.

So how wide should you go with your wheels and tires and what combinations are best?  It depends on whether you prioritize comfort or speed and handling or whether you want the best of both and, as always, what your budget is.

Here’s my take on what mix of comfort, speed and handling you can expect with different tire-rim combinations.

A 23C tire on a 15C wheel – this is the likely stock or alloy upgrade wheel and tire combination you have as a baseline on bikes made before 2016.  You know how this rides.  This is still a perfectly good width combination in my view.  What follows are your options.

A 25C tire on a 15C wheel – somewhat improved comfort over a 23C tire but worsened speed and handling for reasons described above.  Better to reduce pressure 5psi or so on 23C tire for better comfort without losing handling performance.  Neither combination is going to be an aero star.

A 25C tire on a 17C wheel – better comfort but no better speed or handling than a 23C tire on a 15C wheel.  23C tire on 17C wheel at right pressure will get you somewhat improved comfort with improved aero if the rim has at least a rounded nose rather than box or V profile, is >35-40mm, and you are riding at 18mph/29kph or faster.

A 25C tire on 19C or wider wheel – best comfort, improved speed and handling over options above. A nice set-up for long endurance rides at a good average speed (18mph/29kph or higher) especially on deeper (>35-40mm) and preferably rounded profile wheels.  But, most alloy wheels aren’t going to be that deep or have a rounded rim profiles where the spokes join the rim.

A 23C tire on a 19C or narrower wheel – best speed. If you’ve chosen this set-up, crits, road races or TTs and triathlons are probably your passion, deeper aero wheels are probably your preferred hoops and comfort is further down your list of what matters though there are plenty of wheelsets in this width that will be plenty comfortable to start without the need for a wider tire.

I’ve written mostly about rim and tire width developments in this section.  As of this writing, there has been little new in the other parts that make up a wheel – the hubs and spokes – that have caught my attention.  There are things going on, like wider spacing between the hub flanges where spokes are attached, but I just haven’t seen much data to determine how much of a difference they make in the performance of the wheelsets.

Of course, tires, rims, hubs, and spokes aren’t developed in isolation.  Among the newer, wider wheels I’ve reviewed you’ll see more rounded rim shapes, more straight pull spokes that connect the hubs and rims for higher reliability and easier replacement when necessary, and more tubeless ready wheelsets than ones that are strictly set up only for tubes and tires to reduce pinch flats at lower pressures.

You’ll also find wider rims with the same width between hub flanges to make for a bigger angle for the spokes running between them. You’ll also see wheels with great distance between the hub flanges or larger diameter flanges that also make for bigger angles. All of this theoretically creates more laterally stiff wheels, something that should be welcome for heavier and stronger riders.

Using tubeless tires instead of the traditional tube and tire combination can provide you still more comfort on top of wider wheels and tires. While there is nothing inherently more comfortable about a tubeless tire, you can run them at 10 psi or so lower pressure than you would a tubed tire to make the riding experience more comfortable without noticeably affecting other performance characteristics.

At lower pressures, inner tubes and tires will move more independently when you hit a bump or some road debris and you are more likely to get a pinch flat when the tube rubs against the tire. With a tubeless tire, you don’t have this concern.

Not all of the wheels I’ve evaluated are “tubeless ready” and you shouldn’t try to use tubeless tires on ones that aren’t. I’ve noted which are tubeless ready or “TLR” in the chart detailing the wheels below.

EVALUATION CRITERIA

While I’ll focus my evaluation of the different road bike wheel upgrade options on the performance factors I mentioned in the opening, I consider about 20 criteria – either performance, design, quality or cost related – when making my recommendations.  You can read about these selection criteria in more depth here.

Note that I do put an emphasis on performance and cost-related criteria.  Quality is a go-no go consideration.  I won’t write a review on anything that is poor quality and I’ll note those products that have exceptional quality or longer than normal warranties.

Wheel makers have for years marketed wheels around some of the design factors – wheel weight, rim width and profile, hub materials, spoke shape and butting, etc. – because they are easier to quantify and promote.  Specs and design factors often take up the first half (or more) of many reviews.

The more important and harder to describe and quantify performance factors including stiffness, comfort, handling, acceleration, braking, aerodynamics and rolling smoothness are what truly separates one wheelset from another and is where I like to focus my attention.

Design serves performance objectives and shouldn’t be discussed in isolation.  Sometimes a wheelset’s design delivers on the performance objectives and sometimes it doesn’t.

If, for example, you end up on a light, wide, blingy wheelset with double butted bladed spokes and carbon hub shells that are as stiff as a noodle and as comfortable as riding a jackhammer with spokes that easily break and hubs that freewheel about as quietly as a pair of maracas, you probably won’t be very happy.  So please don’t buy wheels based on a few of the eye-popping specs and cool sounding tech features that are thrown around without knowing how they perform.

There is usually a relationship between price and performance. Stock wheels typically cost USD$150-$300/GBP£100-£200/€125-€250 and you are usually going to have to spend more to get something that performs noticeably better.  I find it’s best to know what you are willing or able to spend and then seek the best performance you can get within that budget.

The wheelsets in this review run from as little as USD$450/£320/€390 to a little over a $1000/£650/€775 from reputable online stores.  Even within that range, the level and nature of their performance will differ from one wheelset to another, often but not always, aligned with their prices.

ROAD BIKE WHEEL UPGRADE EVALUATIONS

I’ve classified the wheels below into a wide group that has an inside width of 17mm to 18mm between the hooks that grab the tire beads and a wider group that run between 19mm and 21mm inside width.  Most of the leading wheelset companies have introduced wider alloy wheels over the last couple of years. With the emphasis on disc brake wheelset development, I don’t expect to see much if anything new from them in this category of wheels until model year 2019. I’ve been surprised before and if something new comes out, I’ll update the post

In general, the wider the wheelset, the bigger the budget you’ll need.  The best 17C alloy upgrades will run in the $500 to $1000 range and 19C to 21Cs will cost your $700 to $1200.

If you’ve got 15C wheels now, you are better off going to 19C or wider rims if you want the best combination of comfort, speed and handling.  If you just want more comfort or insist on riding a 25C tire, you don’t need to go any further than a 17C wheelset.

Wheels with all-carbon rims start at around $1300 and most of the better ones are $1800 and up (see here and here). With carbon wheels, you can usually get a faster, better accelerating and stiffer ride that also handles as well and is just as comfortable as on an alloy one.  This is because carbon rims can be made deeper and with more shape than alloy and because their strength to weight ratio is greater, allowing for no weight penalty for that added depth.

If you are ready to upgrade now, I’ve hopefully made it clear in these evaluations below which wheelsets I like and provided you enough (or perhaps too much) info and comparative analysis to choose which one or ones would be good for you. Without further preamble then, here’s my review on 10 of the best wide and wider alloy wheelsets out there now.

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Best Road Bike Wheel Upgrade Options Comparison Chart

WIDE WHEELSETS

BEST VALUE

Campagnolo Zonda C17 – A stiff wheelset comfortable enough for both Moose and Squirrel

The newest model Zonda C17 introduced in 2017 increases a couple of millimeters to 17mm wide inside (measured between the bead hooks) and about 22.5mm outside (across the brake tracks).  Little else about the wheelset has changed.  The Zonda still has a box rim profile, steel bearings and aluminum body hubs, signature 3-spoke groupings around the rear wheel, low profile alloy rims (measured 24.4mm front, 27.2mm rear), middle of the pack weight (measured 1537 grams) and not tubeless.  It also still remains a bargain as of May 25, 2018 at a market price of about USD$450/£320/€390/AUD$495 from Chain ReactionWiggleEvansTredz 10% off w/code ITK10.

Zonda - road bike wheel upgradeThe good news for stout riders is that the new, wider Zonda remains a very stiff alloy wheel.  My 200lb/90kg (or so) friend and fellow tester Moose reported that it has the best out-of-the-saddle stiffness while climbing of any alloy wheelset he’s ridden.  And I call him Moose for both his strength and weight so that’s saying something.

For a squirrel like me at 150lbs/68kg who finds many wheels plenty stiff for what I do to them, the Zonda is noticeably stiffer and seems to transfer every last watt I can put out with utmost efficiency.

The big question before riding these new Zondas was, would the extra width make them less harsh than the 2016 and earlier models, ones that only a heavier ride could love and for their stiffness rather than their compliance.

I mounted them up with 25C Michelin Power Competition tires and at 85 psi front and 90 psi back and found them middle-of-the-pack comfortable.  Neither harsh or plush.  Moose, who rode them closer to 100psi, felt they rode pretty smoothly on the typical unevenly paved and occasional bumpy roads he normally rides.

While they might handle better with 23C tires at 5-10psi higher pressure or be more comfortable on 25C tires with 5-10psi lower pressure, the size and pressures that Moose and I ran them provided for a great combination of handling and comfort.  I also recognize that with all the hype around wider tires, few are going to buy these wider Zondas and put 23C tires on them.  That’s ok because they are too shallow to get any real aero benefit out of them, even if the inflated tire width were narrower than the rim width to improve airflow.

The hubs are also middle-of-the-pack performers.  They certainly aren’t the fastest to accelerate but aren’t slow.  They aren’t super quiet but also don’t put out the clickety-clack of louder hubs that some riders love.  Overall, reasonably good accelerating, rolling and sounding hubs that aren’t going to set themselves apart from the others for these qualities.

In summary, the Zonda C17 addresses one of the biggest issues with stock wheels – lack of stiffness – with a solution that works for riders large and small, the latter thanks to the little bit of added width.

Perhaps the best news for Campy and Fulcrum fans (I’m a fan of good wheels, not of brands) is that almost all of the variants of the Campy Shamal and Fulcrum Racing lines have moved to 17C widths over the last couple of model years and I expect the rest likely will.

The new, wider Campagnolo Shamal Ultra C17 (available at AmazonWiggle, Chain Reaction, Evans) and twin Fulcrum Racing Zero C17 aka LG or 2017 (available at Wiggle, TweeksEvans) are the flagship alloy models from Campy, essentially the same wheels and from the same company under different brand names.

They are part of lines that include the Campagnolo Zonda C17 /Fulcrum Racing 3 (the latter now also made in the 17C width; see below), which run at half the market price of the Shamal Ultra/Racing Zero, to the Campagnolo Shamal Mille C17 (AmazonWiggle, Chain Reaction, Merlin)/Fulcrum Racing Zero Nite C17 (TweeksWiggle, Evans, Tredz 10% off w/code ITK10), the models with blacked out brake tracks that sell for even more.

These wheelsets all share the same rims and spoke patterns with differences in rim etching, brake treatments, spoke materials, hub shell materials and bearings, freewheel and flange materials.  Whether you would notice any performance differences between these wheels or could justify the price differences is for each of you to decide.  I, for one, can’t and am just happy to have a decent upgrade option at a great price.

I recommended the last, narrower model Zonda as the best alloy upgrade for 175lb/80kg and heavier riders.  If you need or want a stiff wheel and budget is your first consideration, the new Zonda C17 should be your first stop for riders of all sizes and my recommendation as the Best Value among your road bike wheel upgrade choices.

Fulcrum Racing 3 – A Zonda twin at a higher price

Separated at birth, the new 2018 model of the Fulcrum Racing 3 is built and performs very similarly to its twin sibling Campagnolo Zonda reviewed above. It is a bit more expensive and heavier and its looks don’t stand out as much but it seems to get along with more bike owners thanks to the way its parents have presented it.

What am I talking about?

Quite simply, the Racing 3 and Zonda are the same wheels made by the same company (Fulcrum is a brand that Campagnolo established about 15 years ago) with only a few cosmetic differences that allow the brands to market them distinctly and to different audiences.

Fulcrum Racing 3 road bike wheel upgradeThey use the same rims, hub components, and number and type of spokes.

The Zonda rims are milled between spoke holes a bit more than the Fulcrum leading to minimal depth (1mm or so less for the Zonda, depending on where you measure it) and weight differences (a claimed weight 20 grams lighter for the Zonda though I measured it to be about 50 grams lighter).

The inside and outside widths of both the Zonda and Fulcrum Racing 3 rims are now the same. The new Racing 3 got its 17C rims as part of the 2018 model year introduction. Campagnolo gave the Zonda C17 a couple year’s head start going from 15C to 17C. Neither is tubeless ready per recommendation of Campy and Fulcrum though both have a rim bed without spoke holes (the spokes screw in from the top of the rims) and some enthusiasts have posted forum reports describing having successfully set them up tubeless.

The Zonda places its trademark G3 rear spokes in groups of 3 whereas the Fulcrum spreads them out in a more typical pattern along the rim. Both, however, use a 2:1 ratio of drive side to non-drive side spoke arrangement, a key contributor in getting the desired stiffness in a bike wheel.

Zonda is pure Campagnolo, identifies as Italian and is marketed to Campy groupset owners. While wheelset makers of all stripes continue to offer separate Shimano/SRAM and Campagnolo rear hubs, wheels made with either hub fitted with a cassette from the same brand will work equally well with a groupset made by Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo.

That became the case only with the advent of 11-speed groupsets. Fulcrum was launched as a brand over 15 years ago to appeal to Shimano groupset owners (SRAM wasn’t in the road groupset business then) and for cyclists whose aesthetic didn’t allow for putting Campy wheels on a Shimano equipped bike.

For their neutral, open-to-all branding and their distribution strategy, Fulcrum might as well be Swiss. Like DT Swiss’ wheelset business, Fulcrum got a lot of early traction by making stock wheels sold either under their own brand name or under brands chosen by the bike companies the wheels were made for.

Over the years, Fulcrum has developed a wide portfolio of wheels and undoubtedly many of those are of their own design. The Fulcrum Racing 3 – Campagnolo Zonda and Fulcrum Racing Zero – Campagnolo Shamal wheels, however, are part of a close-knit family with little to separate them.

The Racing 3s performance is indistinguishable from the Zonda and, if you prefer the Fulcrum brand name or Racing 3 look, you’ll find them at WiggleMerlin at a USD$40/£50/€90/AUD$150 market price premium to the Zonda, but still below that of most of the other wheelsets in this category review.

Note that the 2017 model 15C Fulcrum Racing 3 is still being sold at some stores. Fulcrum doesn’t, but some stores call the new 2018 model the Fulcrum Racing 3 C17 and some just call it the Fulcrum Racing 3. So if you see the Racing 3 at a lower price than at the best stores with the best prices I’ve linked you to above, make sure its the 17C version and comes from a store that I’ve recommended as customers have rated those stores highly according to the independent researchers I follow. You can see the list of those stores here.

The Fulcrum Racing 3 is certainly not a bad option if you are looking for a good stiff wheelset, don’t care for tubeless and don’t put comfort above all else, or are on a budget that requires making trade-offs.

DT Swiss PR 1400 Dicut 21 – A good but expensive mountain goat that will only graze on the flats

This renamed but all but cosmetically unchanged DT Swiss RR 21 Dicut is built around the company’s 240 hub internals used on many carbon wheelsets from high-end wheel makers like Reynolds, Bontrager, and ENVE that sell for 2-3 times this alloy one.

This is a hub I really like – it rolls well, engages quickly and is quiet when freewheeling. Combining that hub with a relatively stiff rim into a 1450 gram wheelset makes for a good climber that also accelerates fast.

Unfortunately, the PR 1400 Dicut 21’s rims are about as deep (21mm) as they are wide (18mm inside, 21.5mm outside) which shows up in the need to really work them on the flats to just to keep up riders on deeper (and wider rims).

For best handling, you’ll still want 23C tires even though many buying new wheels these days want the added comfort a less inflated 25C tire will allow. Either way, their handling is below par when compared to the others in this category.

While a good tubeless ready training wheel that rolls and brakes well, I don’t think you’ll find these wheels will be ones you’ll be very satisfied with if you want to ride competitively, keep up on fast group rides or if you want to do more than just cruise.

Compared to the benefits of other alloy wheels in the wide and wider groups that run 5mm to almost 10mm deeper and 3mm to 4mm wider inside and out, weigh less than 100 grams more, cost about the same, and just feel faster and more planted when cornering, it’s hard for me to get excited about this DT Swiss wheelset unless you are looking for a dedicated climbing wheel with alloy brake tracks.

If that’s what you are looking for, you can find them for the best prices at the best stores by clicking to Bike24, but they aren’t cheap compared to the other road bike wheel upgrade options I’ve reviewed here.

DT Swiss also offers an option to get these wheels with a black ceramic coating for the alloy brake tracks they call Oxic (available through these links at Tweeks CyclesBike24).  This is similar to the Exalith coating Mavic, Campy and Fulcrum use on some of their wheels to give it more of a carbon wheelset look and adds a mere 25 grams to the overall wheel weight. Over time, most of these coatings wear off to a less appealing dull finish but they are are only about 30 to 50 dollars, pounds or euros more so it’s not a whole lot more for however long it lasts.

Mavic Ksyrium Elite UST – Still stiff but no more compliant with tubeless ready rims

Mavic has updated its Ksyrium Elite model for the second time in the last three years. Just a few years ago it went from a 15C wide wheelset to a wider one with a 17C rim. And now it has gone to a tubeless ready 17C wheelset using its new UST or Universal Standard Tubeless technology. (Mavic has also added a 19C UST disc brake wheelset but this rim brake one is 17C)

I’ve been testing the Ksyrium Elite and Mavic’s deep, carbon-rimmed, disc brake Comete UST wheelset and been very impressed with how consistently small the width tolerances are in these new wheels. Even the most expensive wheels made by other brands typically vary in width by 0.2 to 0.4mm when I measure them at a half dozen places along the rim. By contrast, these Mavic wheels vary by less than 0.05mm and that may be due more to the limitation in my measuring technique than the variability in the wheels’ actual widths.

Having measured these Ksyrium Elite UST rim brake wheels, however, it’s clear they aren’t 17C (or 17mm wide) wheels. The front wheel measures 16.75mm wide inside (between the bead hooks) and 20.5mm wide outside (across the brake tracks). The roughly 3mm deeper rear wheel measures a slightly narrower 16.35 inside and the same 20.5mm outside.

When Mavic introduced the UST wheels, they also promoted the relative ease of installing the Yksion UST tires that were made for and come with each wheelset compared to mounting other tires on wheels made by other companies.

I’ve been installing a whole bunch of different tubeless tires on a whole bunch of different tubeless rims for a few years now and watching a lot of YouTube videos to make sure I’ve got all the tricks down. And with Mavic UST, I found the Yksion Pro UST Tubeless tires that Mavic sells with these wheels no easier to put on, inflate, seal or remove than most other road tubeless tire and rim combinations.

These are neither pros or cons – I rate wheels on performance rather than design or specs – it’s just me injecting a bit of reality into the marketing hype that’s been going around.

There are three factors, all plusses, that I believe are more important than the two points above for those of you who want all the benefits of tubeless but uncomfortable about having to install tubeless tires.

  • Mavic’s UST wheels are sold with 25C Yksion Pro UST Tubeless tires already installed on the rim. All you have to do is unscrew the valve core, pour 30ml of the sealant that Mavic provides with the wheels into the open valve, screw the core back in, and pump up the tire with a regular track pump. Done.
  • The price of the wheelset includes the tires. That’s a good thing, and about $100, £80, €100 you don’t have to spend for another set of tires if the Yksion Pro UST Tubeless tires are any good.
  • My experience riding these tires on a few different wheelsets leaves me feeling pretty good about them. And, a review published by independent tester Jarno Bierman at Bicycle Rolling Resistance shows that the tire’s rolling resistance and tread puncture resistance are within you-won’t-be-able-to-tell-the-difference range of the Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless and Continental Grand Prix 4000S II tubed clincher tires that are the current gold rubber standards for road tires these days.

How about the wheels’ performance?

Prior Ksyrium Elites have earned the reputation of being stiff. Elites and Campy Zondas have always been the wheels you recommended to your heavier friends because they were unbending no matter how much weight or power someone could put into them. My fellow tester Moose, self-appointed president of the FFCC (Fat F***ers Cycling Club) tells me these current Elites uphold their reputation for stiffness and are nearly as stiff as the Zondas.

The rear hub engages quickly, rolls smoothly, and freewheels quietly, all characteristics I liked about these Ksyrium Elites. But they accelerated like a heavier wheelset and didn’t seem as responsive to changes in speed or direction as I would have liked. It wasn’t bad, similar to many of the other wheels I’ve evaluated in this category, just not what I expected from the wheels based on how the hub performed.

I was disappointed with the Ksyrium Elite’s comfort level. I tried the 25C Yksion Pro UST Tubeless tires inflated to both 80psi and 70psi (10psi and 20psi, respectively below where I normally ride a 17C tubed wheelset) but really couldn’t get to a good level of compliance between these tires, wheels, and my Specialized Roubaix rim brake endurance testing bike.

Going tubeless and lowering the pressure seemed to deaden the rough sections and cracks in the road but the muted vibrations still came up through these wheels.

Moose, who at 200lbs (or so he says) is about 50lbs heavier than me, found them comfortable at 90psi, also about 10psi below where he rides tubed tires. Compared to the Zonda, he found the Ksyrium Elite more comfortable.

Despite going tubeless, my conclusion about this new Ksyrium Elite UST is not a whole lot different than the tubed version it replaces. Stiffness continues to be the characteristic strength of the Elites. Mavic’s alloy wheels also have a history of being very durable and reliable. Their performance in other areas is on par with the other wheels I’ve evaluated.

They are a decent first upgrade at a good price USD$700/£470/€540/AUD$720 market price, especially for heavier riders, when you consider that you are getting a good set of tubeless tires already mounted along with the wheels.  You can find them at the best prices from stores rated highly by fellow cyclists at Competitive Cyclist, UK/EU Tweeks, Merlin

Pro-Lite Bortola A21W – Good all-around performer, if not the fastest, at a great price

After reading comments from a couple of readers who’d asked me about this wheelset that I’d never heard of, I looked up the Pro-Lite Bortola A21W and am glad I did.  Turns out the Pro-Lite company has been in business for about 30 years, building a pretty good range of alloy and carbon wheels, mostly for the road but also for track, cross and mountain bikes.  The company is based in Taiwan, where most of today’s road wheels are made usually on contract to companies whose names you likely know and who focus on some combination of designing, sourcing, assembling, distributing and marketing but not manufacturing.  The fact that I didn’t know about Pro-Lite was due to my own ignorance, something your humble road cycling enthusiast reviewer isn’t in short supply of.

road bike wheel upgrade - Pro Lite Bortola A21 Alloy ClincherTurns out the Bortola has a lot going for it.  The wheels accelerate well with hubs with EZO stainless steel bearings and moving a wheelset that measures about 1520 grams, on par with most others in this review.  The hubs roll well down the road and are quiet when you are coasting, something I prefer to the clicking of some others

The wheels feel quite stiff on climbs and riding out of the saddle. Handling is also good, confidently connected when leaning into corners at speed and when going downhill.  Braking is even, predictable and relatively quiet.  And mounting tubeless tires is somewhere in the middle of the pack, not easy but not as hard as some.  They come set up with a pretty tight rim strip already installed.

You’ll also find these wheels to be comfortably compliant.  The boxy rims are as wide inside (17.5mm) and out (23.2mm) as any of the others in the wide group but also as shallow (21mm).  As a go anywhere wheelset, they’re a welcome confidence building and comfortable companion, just don’t expect to get there faster than the others in this category.

In addition to their range of good performance characteristics is a truly great price, typically about USD$440/£390/€460/AUD$560 online, lower than most.  Perhaps it’s because they are selling primarily online (at Wiggle and they go in and out of stock) instead of the multilevel distribution and marketing that goes with selling through local bike shops.  While the wheels are quite well made, they carry a two-year warranty and have an online store where you can order replacement bearing kits, spokes, and other items for regular or episodic maintenance.

The Bortola’s comfort and solid level of performance along with its great price makes it a good value option for those of you enthusiasts looking to upgrade to a wheelset wider and better performing than what likely came stock on your bike.

WIDER WHEELSETS

BEST PERFORMER

Easton EA90 SL – Stiff and responsive but could be built a bit better for the price

Easton has been updating its wheelset models over the last couple of years including considerably widening all of its carbon rims and several of its alloy ones.  At 19.5mm (19.6mm measured), the EA90 SL has the widest inside dimension of its alloy rim brake offerings, 2mm wider than the EA90 SLX and less expensive EA70 SL model, and actually 0.5mm wider than any of its carbon ones.  At 24.5mm (24.7mm measured) wide across the brake tracks, it’s essentially as wide on the outside as all the others in this wider alloy wheelset category.

Easton EA90 SL road bike wheel upgradeThe EA90 SL is very stiff and responsive on the road.  I found it unflinchingly supportive when I put the power down going uphill and very willing to go with me when I accelerate to close gaps on the flats (something I find myself having to do all too often).  It was also very comfortable with my used (i.e., slightly stretched out) 25C Conti GP4K rubber (widening to 27.3mm mounted and inflated) and with a used 23C size of the same model tire (26.02mm mounted and inflated).

Mounting and inflating a 23C size of a used Michelin Pro4 Service Course gave me a tire width of 25.02mm and a 23C size of an unused Zipp Tangente Course gave me a tire width of 24.72, both quite close to the 24.7 outside width I measured for these Easton wheels.

The handling is confident and the braking on these wheels is very solid.  Excellent performance and what you’d expect from a modern, wider alloy upgrade wheel that you can find for about $800 at a local bike shop.  [Note, there still stores still selling their inventory of the previous EA90 SL models, either 15C and 17C ones.  Not the same wheels!]

The rims have a very attractive matte black finish with the modern looking Easton logo.  The rim welds are unnoticeable, or at least I couldn’t find them when I went looking for them.  The wheels arrived true with fairly normal tensions.

I was not impressed with the Echo hubs when I rode them on this wheelset. The rear hub was particularly noisy and didn’t seem to roll as freely in the stand as those on some of the other wheels with DT Swiss 240 internals that you can get at this price point.  The front hub also sounded like it was dragging when I put some extra weight on the handlebars.

Easton told me the freehub was probably a little dry and the seal may have been pinched.  Taking off the freehub and seal, lubing the pawls with heavy oil, and reinstalling to make sure nothing was pinched was the recommended solution. Not something your average enthusiast should expect to do with a new wheelset and surprising since this was a new hub design for Easton which probably contributes to the excellent stiffness I felt.

I’ve since put many miles on the same Echo hub model that is also used on their carbon EC90 SL and EC90 Aero 55 wheelsets. Both rolled very smoothly and quietly and had the same responsiveness I really like with these EA90 SL wheels. I’m confident the issue I experienced was isolated to the test wheels.

The brake tracks were nothing to write home about.  They were a little more raised from the rims than on most other alloy wheels, enough where you could feel the sharp edge on the hub side of the track.  The track isn’t machined and the spokes are rather basic Sapims going into aluminum nipples.

While none of the wheelsets in this review are perfect, these Easton EA90SL were the strongest I evaluated and earn my Best Performer recommendation. At about $725, it also doesn’t hurt that they are a good deal less expensive than the other wider wheels in this review.

As of May 25, 2018, these wheels are available online at the best price at ModernBIKE, a store I recommend based on their 97% positive customer satisfaction ratings collected by Google.

Bontrager Paradigm Elite – Great handling and braking for the cruising enthusiast

Bontrager’s alloy Race and Race Lite road wheels have been found as the stock wheelset on bikes from parent company Trek for years.  From my evaluation, the performance of the Race Lite is better than most other stock wheels, including those from Mavic and Fulcrum, but not as good as most upgrade wheels.

road bike wheel upgradeWhen Bontrager Paradigm Elite wheels started showing up on the highest priced builds of Trek’s Madone and Domane bikes in 2016, I was curious.  When the long-time manager and bike fitter at my LBS said he put a set on his wife’s bike, I asked for some to test.  And when I noticed an enthusiast riding alongside me on a group ride was using Paradigm Elites that came off the bike from a friend who “upgraded” to a wheelset he said didn’t seem to be much of an upgrade, I was intrigued.

One of the first things my fellow tester Moose (90kg/200lb) and I (68kg/150lbs) both noticed after riding the Paradigm Elites was their handling performance.  They tracked very well in and out of corners on the flats and on downhills, giving you plenty of confidence.  We ran them with Bontrager 26C tubeless tires and at about 10 psi lower than regular clincher pressure.  This, in combination with the wheelset’s 19.5mm internal width likely helped produce the solid handling platform.

I also loved the braking feel – confident, smooth, no fade.  Most alloy wheels brake when and where you want them but the feel or “modulation” of these stood out for me and made them “Elite” compared to others I’ve ridden.

What makes many alloy wheels an upgrade over the stock set is the way they roll – usually smoother and quieter.  The Paradigm Elite uses DT Swiss 240 hubs that are often speced on carbon wheels which cost several times the price of these.  That said, there are a lot of great hubs in this review and the hub is only part of what leads to the great rolling. Moose, for example, preferred the rolling performance of the Campagnolo Zonda, a much lower priced wheelset.  I found the Zipp 30 Course, a more expensive wheelset with hubs used by Zipp even more expensive Firecrest carbon wheels, rolls just as well as the Paradigm Elite.

These wheels, while stiff enough for most riders, aren’t as stiff as the Campy Zonda, Mavic Ksyrium Elite UST, Zipp 30 Course or Easton EA90 SL.  They also don’t accelerate as well as the Campy or Easton, wheels that measure only about 25-65 grams less (respectively) than the 1564 grams I measured for these Bontragers.

Comfort?  With tubeless tires and inflated to a lower pressure than a tubed clincher, the Paradigm Elite absorbs the bumps better than most.  But, I felt bumps, surface cracks and rougher roads being dampened by the tires rather than by the wheels themselves before they ever got to the tires.

Speaking of the tires, the Bontrager 26C R2 TLR on these wheels measured 26.7mm wide once installed (piece of cake) and inflated (one with a hand pump, the other took a compressor).

Overall, the Paradigm Elite wheelset gives you an enjoyable upgrade over the average stock set – confident handling, refined braking, smooth rolling, and dampened road surfaces.  At $900 (from Trek online at Trek dealers), a marginally lower price than most of the other wider upgrade wheels, they give the cruising enthusiast a good option for a better ride.

Boyd Altamont Lite – A very capable if not dazzling wider alloy wheelset at a great price

Boyd Cycling is a US-based wheel maker that sells alloy and carbon clinchers and carbon tubulars in shallow and mid-range depths for both the rim and disc brake sets.  They sell direct and through dealers in the United States and Canada.

The Altamont alloy wheels come in two versions.  The Lite reviewed here is the 25mm deep model and claims to be about 100 grams lighter than the straight Altamont at 30mm deep.  Boyd offers each in three-spoke counts to best suit your weight or desired stiffness, three hub options for either Shimano/SRAM or Campagnolo gruppos, and with a standard tube or optional tubeless rim tape.

Boyd Altamont Lite road bike wheel upgrade The Lite with 20 spokes in the front and 24 in the back, standard hub and regular rim tape weighed in at just under 1500 grams (1496g) on my scale.  This $750 model’s rim measured 19.8mm wide inside and 24.5mm wide outside.  So while this Altamont is as light and wide and nearly as deep as the others in this wider group, it’s about $150 to $400 less expensive.

They have U shaped rims, bladed spokes, brass nipples and a machined (grooved) brake track, a unique combination of features for the wheels reviewed in this post and all features that should add a little something to the performance and value of this wheelset.  It looks to be well made all around.

On the road, the Altamont Lite is a very capable, if not dazzling wheelset.  While it only took me a couple hundred miles to develop an opinion about these wheels, there is a lot I like about their performance but nothing that really separates them from the others.  They roll comfortably, smoothly and quietly on both 25C and 23C tires.  They handle and brake confidently.  Climbing is good, what you would expect from a wheelset at about this weight.

Maybe I’m getting greedy, and I’m certainly not complaining, but I would like the Altamont Lites to be a bit stiffer and more responsive when I put the hammer down.  They don’t flex or hesitate but they also don’t spring into action like the Easton EA90 SL wheelset does or like any number of carbon wheelsets do.  Of course, they are a lot less expensive than those wheels.

You can add 4 more spokes front and back (adding 50g that you’ll not really notice) and should if you want them stiffer at my weight (150-155lbs/68-70kg) and, as Boyd recommends, when you get up around 175lbs/80kg. You might also be tempted to specify them with White Industries hubs but that will take you to $1100 for the set and this moves the Altamont Lites into the same price range as the more expensive wider wheels.

If comfort and good performance at a great price in a wider wheelset is most important to you, the Altamont Lite is a wheelset worth considering.

HED Ardennes Plus SL – An innovator that combines performance and prestige at a high price

HED has been one of the leaders in the wide rim movement with the Ardennes.  First introduced with wide rim dimensions and a 24.5mm deep V-profile, HED went wider with the Ardennes Plus model in the 2014 season.  It now measures at 20.6mm inner and 25mm outer width, making it one of the two widest of those evaluated for this review. Only the Zipp 30 Course is wider on the inside at a full 21mm but has the same outside width and the other wider alloy wheels in this category.

This added width enables the same tire to square up that much more and contributing to better aerodynamics and handling. While I can’t speak to the relative aero performance of these wheels versus the other in this review, they do feel fast and I can certainly feel the effect of the wider rims and tires in their excellent handling.

Of course, whether my “feel” is real or just imagined is debatable; it’s definitely subjective and something you might not feel or care about if comfort is your priority.

The Ardennes Plus is available in a number of wheelset models all using the same rim with different combinations of front and rear hubs, spokes, and brake track treatments to suit what you want, think you need or are willing to pay.  All this choice seems to me to make picking the right wheel more difficult but other companies including Mavic, Shimano, Campagnolo, and Fulcrum do much the same with their wheel lines.

HED Ardennes PLUS road bike wheel upgradeHED also helpfully makes versions for heavier riders with more spokes front and back for riders over 225lbs/100kg.

For this review, I chose to evaluate the Ardennes Plus SL, the one with the best-equipped hubs and spokes and the lightest of the Ardennes models, on par with the others in this review.  HED does sell a more expensive version of this wheelset that comes with a blacked out brake track.  While it does provide some amount of braking improvement in the rain similar to that claimed by other alloy wheel manufacturers that also put black ceramic coatings on their brake tracks, it’s hard to beat an uncoated alloy brake track without going to disc brakes.

I’ll bet if you had a discussion over a few beers with most of the wheelset designers, they’d probably tell you they coat the brake tracks of their alloy wheels mostly to make them look like more expensive all carbon clinchers.

So how does the Ardennes Plus SL perform? These deliver big on a comfortable ride with confident handling even with the 23C tires on them.  I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek since people have been led to believe that only wheels with 25C tires on them are comfortable these days.  So know that you can get the combination of superior comfort, speed and handling on these wheels with traditional width, 23C tires.

If you ride tubeless, you’ll find this one of the easier wheelsets to work with.  Tires install and remove relatively easily and inflate with a floor pump. These are also very well built and HED wheels have a reputation for being very durable over time.

While not flexy, these aren’t the stiffest wheels out there, so if you plan to race or ride them hard up hills, in and out of corners etc. and you weigh north of 185lbs/80kg you might consider going with the stiffer Clydesdale version with its added spokes.  For most enthusiasts, this won’t be an issue.

The Ardennes, as with most of the wheels in this review is shallow and also have a V profile.  So while it says HED on the rim and certainly rolls very well, don’t think you are getting an aero wheel just because of who makes it.

There’s really is a lot to like about this wheel and while just about every other wheelset in this comparison was introduced or updated a couple years since this one was (2014), it still has a lot going for it except for its price.  At $1200 and with few discounts to be found (Competitive Cyclist), you can consider it the luxury choice of wider alloy wheelsets. It performs well enough if not the best in this group but is one of the two most comfortable I’ve reviewed in this category.  It is worry-free and if you are willing to spend a little more for it, is one that will add a little cache to your steed.

Zipp 30 Course – Best for a combination of on and off-road riding 

The Zipp 30 Course is a wheelset you’ll want to check out if you ride off-road as much or more as you do on.  It’s as wide and tall as any of the wheels in the wider group but it’s heavier by about 100 to 150 grams, an amount that you’ll begin to notice on the road especially when compared to other wheels that have similar rounded shapes and well rolling hubs.

Off-road you can put on 25C or wider tires and lower the pressure to maximize comfort.  You can do the same with most all the wheels in this wider group but the 30 Course’s excellent stiffness comes in handy when grinding up rough mountain roads or navigating holes and obstacles along on a bumpy, turny trail.

Zipp 30 Course road bike wheel upgrade

The trade-off comes back on the road when higher speeds and smoother pavements are your natural environment.  Whereas the disc wheel version has a full toroid profile that runs to the edge of the rim that joins the tire, the hybrid toroid rim brake version ends its rounded profile early to make room for a parallel brake track.

So some aero benefit is lost and the added weight against the others in this review makes the Zipp a little slower to accelerate.  Whereas many alloy disc brake wheelsets these days are converted rim brake ones that bring some characteristics that make them less than the ideal on a disc brake bike (e.g., unneeded brake track thickness/weight), Zipp appears to have designed the 30 Course for disc brake bikes first and its conversion to rim brake use brings characteristics that make it less than ideal in that mode (e.g. rim profile).

However, if you are a serious roadie that wants to try out ‘gravel’ or cyclocross riding or you want to have a year-round training wheel so you can leave your carbon wheels inside during lousy weather, the Zipp 30 Course rim brake wheelset (AmazonModernBIKE front and rear, UK/EU Evans, Mantel UK) is a good option for you.

* * * * *

Thank you for reading.  Please let me know what you think of anything I’ve written or ask any questions you might have in the comment section below.

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5 comments

  • As an owner of the previous zonda model and with my 100kg I know they will handle great.

  • Do you know why Fulcram seem to have dropped tubeless (or 2 way fit) from all but one of their 2018 alloy rims?

    • Andy, Not sure exactly why. Fulcrum says there was very little demand. Tubeless has been a tough nut to crack for some companies in terms of design, quality, and getting tubeless to work well with all the other trade-offs that go into getting the desired wheel/rim design and performance right while still hitting the desired price point. Campy is also struggling financially and has been behind on road disc wheels and groupsets and tubeless is certainly a part of that movement. Zonda did their C17 redesign a couple years ago and Fulcrum uses the same rim. Both the Zonda and R3 have had good success with the price point and a more traditional rider not likely to be first in line for tubeless so why mess with success. Somewhere amongst all that speculation is probably what’s going on. Note that the other big volume wheel companies haven’t been ahead of the curve. Shimano has done nothing significant with tubeless and Mavic and DT Swiss just did their complete wheel line overhauls with new tubeless designs last year. Though smaller in volume but big in brand name, Zipp also has come to tubeless in the last year. Others are further ahead. Steve

  • First of all, great & detailed review.

    My question is; I am “moose” @ around 92 kg. If you had to choose, which one would you choose between Zonda and Ksyrium Elite? Also, do you know off, or have tested UNAAS wheels?

    • Samar, Both are good options. If you are a moose that prioritizes stiffness for climbs out of the saddle and sprints, go with the Zonda. If you prioritize comfort and want to run tires tubeless to help you get the best comfort by adjusting tire pressure, go with the Ksyrium.

      I didn’t know UNAAS but looked it up. Looks like a couple enterprising Norwegian brothers, one of whom spent time living in China promoting skiing and cycling and likely developed some relationships with contract manufacturers while there. I generally don’t recommend these “contracting and marketing” wheel companies as they have limited if any input into design, have no service network, and are at dependent on their contractors for research, design and testing of product. Steve

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