THE BEST CARBON DISC WHEELSET
If you own a road disc bike, you may be looking for that one all-around, carbon disc wheelset that performs well across a wide range of terrain. It’s a fair bit of work to sort through all the ones out there now because, along with the rapid growth of road disc bikes, there’s been a quick evolution of carbon wheels for these bikes that do it all and do it all really well.
The latest carbon disc wheelset generation is really the first group developed uniquely for road disc bikes and independent of design or manufacturing considerations that go into their often similarly named rim brake siblings. They are faster, more comfortable and more versatile on a wider range of terrain than either the rim or disc brake wheels that came before them, many of the latter which are still being sold.
In this post updated with models introduced during 2018, I’ll take you through the rapid evolution of the road disc wheelset, tell you how I rate each of the latest generation of all-around carbon ones against the criteria that really matter, and recommend the Best Performer wheelset.
Related: Looking for an alloy road disc wheelset? Click The Best Road Disc Wheelset Upgrades
Related: Not sure what kind of wheels to get? Click Road Bike Wheels – How To Choose The Best For You
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CARBON DISC WHEELSETS
Click on any red statement below to go directly to that part of the post
CARBON DISC WHEELSET DEVELOPMENTS
I wrote about the developments across all road disc wheelset categories (upgrade, carbon all-around, aero, and climbing) in a review of the best upgrade wheels for road disc bikes. Those developments include:
- the pace of sales of road disc bikes
- the underperformance of the “stock wheels” that come with those bikes,
- the compatibility if not standards for disc brake wheelset hubs, axles, and hub-rotor interfaces
- the near ubiquity of tubeless ready or tubeless optimized road disc wheelsets
You can read more about those developments here.
In addition to those, there are a number of developments specific to the all-around, carbon bike wheels for road disc bikes that I’ve summarized in this table below and discussed below it.
Carbon Disc Wheelset Evolution 2014-2018
The most notable takeaway for me after assembling this chart is how quickly things have changed and how much the latest generation of all-around wheels for road disc bikes are different than those for rim brake bikes.
These changes have made the all-around, carbon disc wheelset faster, more comfortable, more durable, and more versatile than all-around, rim brake wheels without any effect on stiffness, acceleration or handling.
Remember when better braking was all that most people fixed on when talking about the benefits of going to road disc bikes? Well, the ability to get all the benefits I just summarized is a whole lot more than better braking, which was enough of a reason for many people to go with a road disc bike in the first place.
Let me go through some of these benefits a bit more.
Faster – Wider rims mean you can run 25C tires to gain more comfort without incurring additional drag. Most of the Gen 3 road disc rims were designed using 25C tires and produce vertical tire sidewalls that are narrower than the external rim width.
Putting 25C tires on many Gen 2 wheels will increase drag as the tire sidewalls will be more rounded and measure wider than the rim where the two meet. This creates a turbulent airflow from tire to rim and rim to tire. When the flow is less interrupted or laminar, it moves from one surface to the other more smoothly and creates less drag and more “lift” when you are riding at or above speeds of 18-20mph or 29-32kph.
Wider tires also will give you marginally lower rolling resistance when inflated to the same pressure as a narrower tire. Without the need for the rim to include a brake track, road disc rim profiles are also being designed with less limitation and more attention to crosswind management and reducing losses at the tire-rim intersection, both of which improve aero performance.
More Comfortable – Tubeless allows you to run your wider tires at lower pressures without pinch flat concerns. Lower pressures make for a more comfortable ride. You certainly can run wider tubeless tires on all-around rim brake wheels but many of those wheels are still 17mm wide internally and several aren’t tubeless ready.
More Durable – The best carbon rim brake wheels are using resins with high melting points to make it much harder for riders to warp them when they drag the brakes. The trade-off is that these resins can make the wheels a bit brittle. While I can’t quantify the difference, dedicated disc brake wheels use lower melting temperature resins that are less brittle.
More Versatile – Because these all-around, carbon disc wheels are wide, tubeless friendly, and more durable, you can comfortably ride them at lower pressure to enjoy dirt, fire roads and the like or use them for cyclocross. Doing so can save you having to buy another set of wheels for those kinds of surfaces.
A few words about tubeless tires. You’ll notice that tubeless tires are mentioned quite often in my description of developments and the benefits they bring.
Those of you who have read my posts carefully over the years (thanks Mom!), may know that I haven’t recommended road cycling enthusiasts use tubeless tires in the past. They have historically been a hassle to mount and can leave you with a difficult and messy repair job if your puncture is so nasty that the sealant doesn’t close it and you need to install a tube during a ride. Further, tubeless tire rolling resistance and prices have also historically been higher than going with a traditional tube and tire clincher on your wheels.
Well, tubeless tires and tubeless rims have come a long way and I’ve changed my views about them. Yeah, this is next-gen Steve reporting to my fellow roadies now.
Removable valve cores, easier to mount rims, and a whole lot more experience with tubeless tires while testing all these road disc wheelsets has made installing them easier and cleaner, and mellowed me somewhat to the minimally more added work they bring over standard clincher tires.
Lower prices, lower rolling resistance (equivalent or better than the to the best tubed tires), the ability to run lower pressures, more comfort, and having every puncture seal so far has made me look past many of my previous objections.
While tubeless still requires a learning curve, I can now say the benefits they bring with the right rims can outweigh the diminishing disadvantages and make it well worth getting up that curve if you want those benefits. My review of tubeless tires lays all of this out in more detail and gives you my recommendations of the best ones.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
For each In The Know Cycling review, I evaluate category-specific criteria in four groups – performance, design, quality, and cost. The criteria that matter most in those groups for the best all-around wheels for road disc bikes are as follows:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, crosswind management, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, and handling.
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 for rim brake all-arounds here.
Most of those are common with the ones I used for carbon disc brake all-arounds with a few exceptions and changes in emphasis that I’ll point out below.
While all these criteria are important, some are more or less important depending on what kind of riding you do and what kind of bike you have.
Since the latest all-around carbon disc wheelsets are deeper than earlier ones (some closer to 50mm versus most Gen 2 being 35-40mm), I’ve added crosswind performance as a criterion for this review.
And since these wheels are ideal for both a wide range of paved road terrain and for mixed or unpaved surfaces and for cyclocross racing, versatility is even more important when evaluating all-around carbon disc wheelsets than all-around rim brake ones.
Other criteria, like stiffness, are equally important whether you are talking rim or disc brake wheels or all-around, climbing or aero wheels regardless of your braking method.
Braking performance isn’t part of the disc brake wheelset evaluation since most hub and spoke systems on disc brake wheels effectively transfer the braking responsibility to the rotors and calipers.
Design specs like weight and rim width are worth noting but may or may not deliver the intended performance those specs are often associated with. A wheelset’s actual acceleration, stiffness, and comfort on the road, for example, are far more important than the design specifications that we often get so hung up (and sold) on and that we too easily equate to those performance attributes.
Considering the range of options the road cycling enthusiast has to choose from in all-around wheels for road disc bikes, I’m recommending a Best Performer but not a Best Value wheelset at this time.
I pick the Best Performer using the performance criteria mentioned above independent of cost. My Best Value wheelset pick considers both performance and cost criteria. There are several, relatively or brand new third-generation wheelsets I am currently evaluating, one of which may be a better Best Value choice than the second generation wheelsets now available at low prices.
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. I’m also 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 all of that noted, here are my evaluations of the best all-around carbon disc wheelsets for road cycling enthusiasts.
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REVIEWS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
ENVE SES 4.5 AR DISC – PERFORMANCE AND VERSATILITY THAT’S HARD TO BEAT
If versatility is one of the key measures of an all-around wheelset, ENVE’s SES 4.5 AR Disc is the most versatile of any road disc or rim brake wheelset.
It does more things better than any of the other wheels I’ve reviewed. At a market price starting at US$2900, £3100, €3500, it also costs more than others.
That’s for each of us to decide individually. If you are a full-on road cycling enthusiast who likes to come out and play aggressively and comfortably on rough roads or in the dirt, sand or grass of cyclocross races and go really fast and smoothly on good roads in individual and group rides or races, the ENVE 4.5 AR is the place where your money will have the biggest payoff.
You probably already know that at 25.0mm measured, the 4.5AR carbon disc wheelset has a far greater internal width (by 4-6mm) than the 19C (19mm) and 21C (21mm) of others in this category and at 50.2mm front, 55.2mm rear per my measurements, are as deep or deeper.
It can run most 28C tires save for the Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless and Continental Grand Prix 4000S II which run wide without negatively affecting the aero performance.
The 4.5AR’s performance does bear witness to those design factoids. It feels as fast or faster on flat, rolling and descending terrain, as comfortable on the good roads, more comfortable on rough roads and unpaved paths, and handles better than any other carbon bike wheels, disc or rim, I’ve ever evaluated.
I’ll just let that last statement sit there and breathe for a minute.
It accelerates, climbs, and deflects crosswinds on par with all but the best wheels in those categories that I’ve reviewed here. With the more than capable DT240 hubs, the 4.5 AR weighs remarkably little (1518 grams measured) given its size, no more than all but a couple other wheels in this review of largely Gen 3 all-around wheels. You can also get it the with Industry Nine Torch or Chris King R45 hubs if you prefer the freewheel sound of either of those.
Yeah, their width makes them stand out against other bikes when you are riding in a bunch or stopping for a break. And you only should plan to ride them tubeless, which takes a bit more effort to initially set up, if you want to get all the benefits of these wheels. You’ll also want to check the clearance on your frame if you’ve got an older road disc bike.
But, if you want great performance from one wheelset that you otherwise might need to have two different ones for the range of riding do, the 4.5 AR stands alone and probably is a more price competitive option vs. the cost of buying two wheelsets.
You can find it at the best prices from stores with top customer satisfaction ratings and help support this site at the same time by clicking on and buying through these links to Competitive Cyclist, JensonUSA, Merlin.
BONTRAGER AEOLUS XXX 4 TLR DISC – CORVETTE MEMORIES
Bontrager uses the same rim, hub internals, and spokes on its Aeolus XXX 4 disc and rim brake bikes. I would expect their road performance to be very similar. This is my review of their rim brake model.
There’s something about my long-ago memories of driving a Chevrolet Corvette and my recent experience riding the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 wheels that connects.
No, it isn’t the phallic imagery of a Corvette and the XXX label of the latest Aeolus, though perhaps you could make that connection. (Sorry that I just did.)
Rather, it’s the rush of rolling at speed they both provide. While a lot of cars and wheels roll fast, it’s what happens in the moment of speed that makes life behind the wheel and in the saddle exciting.
Hitting a turn at speed carries more unknows than rolling straight. The Corvette’s wide wheelbase, wide tires, and low chassis provided me the handling performance to confidently hit every turn faster than I’d ever done before.
Similarly, the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 mounted with 25C tubeless tires stick it in the corners. Fellow tester Nate enthused they always seemed so much more planted and stable than any other carbon clincher wheelset he’d experienced, especially in turns with bumpy pavement.
I measured the internal rim width between the bead hooks at 21.1 mm on these and other Bontrager Aeolus XXX series wheels. That makes them the widest rim brake carbon bike wheels we’ve tested, notably wider than most which run 19 mm or 17 mm these days.
Their 27.5 mm external rim width across the brake tracks is as wide as others like the Enve, Zipp, and Easton in this category but this, along with the mounted and inflated tire width contributes more to aerodynamic performance. Internal width has a greater influence on the superior handling and ample comfort of these wheels.
Many road disc wheelsets have been at 21 mm internal for a couple years now and I can confirm riding them is a similar speed-liberating handling experience. The better support a wider rim provides to the sidewalls of the same 25C tire makes a real difference. It’s nice to see Bontrager bringing this to the rim brake world.
Moose took these wheels for a ride down the 8-mile, 8% average grade asphalt road at Whiteface Mountain, home of the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Hitting speeds of 50 mph, he reported that the crosswinds made the riding the XXX 4s “a little sketchy” but not enough to back off his exhilarating speed.
I don’t know if that’s Moose’s daredevil approach to going downhill on bikes (and skis) that he prefers but I do know he arrived safely at the bottom and was so excited after the ride he sent me a half dozen texts about his descent (and climb).
While neither of us could find strong crosswinds, Nate and my experience in moderate ones on these wheels were fine. They did acknowledge the breeze but it didn’t affect our steering or cause us to do anything unnatural.
Unfortunately, you sometimes need to slow down. Fortunately, all three of us were impressed with the braking power and modulation of these wheels on dry roads; they are among the best here.
On wet roads, however, they are no better than earlier generation carbon clincher rim brakes. Like the Vette, leave these Bontragers in the garage when it’s wet outside.
The XXX 4s are “stiff enough” to climb and sprint but they are more in the middle of this all-around carbon clincher pack compared to others on this criterion. They are considerably heavier than the 1400 grams claimed on the Bontrager XXX 4 Aeolus TLR Clincher web page – 1556 grams on my scale. I include the pre-installed rim strips. Bontrager doesn’t. Measured the same way, these XXX 4s are 50-100 grams heavier than most in this rim brake carbon road bike wheels category.
All of this adds up to average, more dampened acceleration than a lively, springier reaction when you want to accelerate. Their DT Swiss star ratchet hub internals provides quick engagement (and quiet freewheeling) but doesn’t improve the acceleration enough to make a difference.
If you’ve got the watts in your legs, you can probably get these wheels up to speed much in the way a Corvette corals hundreds of horses under its hood to get you from 0 to 60 mph faster than most.
It’s what the Corvette and Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 do at speed, more than how fast they get you there, that separates them from the competition.
You can order these wheels by clicking through on this link to Trekbikes.com.
DT SWISS ERC 1100 DICUT 47 – PREDICTABLY GOOD PERFORMANCE
Even though they sell a ton of wheelsets under their own brand name and as stock wheels for leading bike makers including Giant and Specialized, DT Swiss has never been known for the performance of their more expensive wheelsets. Hubs and spokes? Yes. But, high-end wheels? No.
DT Swiss seem to have always been behind the curve with rim shapes, widths, carbon and whatever else goes into making rims that combine with their ubiquitous hubs and spokes to make top performing wheelsets. They seemed to lack a design point-of-view about how to make great rims that, right or wrong, is clear and consistent at companies making high-performance wheels.
Perhaps realizing this deficiency, DT Swiss has gotten aero design and testing help for the ERC 1100 DICUT 47 and other new DT Swiss products from the wheelset design company SwissSide. The latter is a relatively new company led by race car designers that sell mid-depth and full-depth aero wheels targeted to triathletes and time trialists. As for DT Swiss, their new line of endurance wheels are only made for road disc bikes. Very Gen 3!
Has this collaboration brought the ERC 1100 to the performance level of the best all-around wheelsets? Not in my evaluation, but they seem to be getting closer.
Overall, I’d say the ERC 1100 is predictable. That word can have both positive and negative connotations of course, but it best sums up for me what I find in this wheelset.
It is certainly fast and stiff, as you would expect from a wheelset this depth. Anecdotally, and I say that since construction on the In The Know Cycling wind tunnel is not scheduled to start until 2038, I’d put the ERC 1100s in the range of the faster wheels of this group on the flats and hills. Tour magazine put their aero performance only behind the ENVE SES 4.5 AR amongst the wheelsets we both evaluated.
Though their weight measures middle of the pack and they certainly can climb, they wouldn’t be my first choice for a long ride with a lot of hills and steeper climbs. They just don’t go uphill as well as other all-around wheels I’ve reviewed in this post.
The ERC 1100’s ride is firm, even at the 70 psi pressures that I ride tubeless wheels. Firm is not harsh and it’s not cushy. You’ll get the kind of response from the road you would expect based on what you see in front of you. You won’t get jarred nor will you float above it.
If you want to go off-road and not get tired out riding on dirt or mixed surfaces, I’d suggest dropping the pressure on these wheels another 10 or 20psi from the level you normally ride.
Wind conditions are manageable with the ERC 1100. When the winds come, you can comfortably steer through them. You certainly won’t get blown over nor can you plan on the wheels totally taking care of the crosswinds for you.
Finally, handling is confident, precise and … predictable. So are the hubs, which use the very solid DT240 internals I’ve come to know and very much enjoy. They are used on many top performing wheelsets.
Predictable for me means you are going to get what you expect and not be let down. Applied to the ERC 1100, it means you aren’t going to get any special thrill or surprise, good or bad, from these wheelsets. They are solid performers that do what you expect. Very Swiss.
Perhaps it is surprisingly good to get a predictably good top end wheelset from a company that has, for me, turned out only average wheelsets in the past. I’ll take it.
Despite an MSRP/RRP that is as high-end as the carbon disc wheelset they aspire to be, you can find the ERC 1100 DICUT 47 at a far more competitive market price closer to USD$1850, £1650, €1900 at by clicking through to recommended stores eBay, Bike24, Starbike.
ENVE SES 3.4 DISC – AN ALL-AROUND CARBON DISC WHEELSET THAT DOUBLES AS A CLIMBER
If you want a top performing Gen 3 all-around carbon disc wheelset that climbs extremely well, the ENVE 3.4 Disc is the one you want.
ENVE claims the 38mm deep front rim weighs 390 grams and the 42mm rear one just 10 grams heavier. I measured the complete wheelset with DT240 hubs at 1410 grams with tape. These kinds of weights for carbon rims and road disc wheelsets scream climber. Yet, their rim widths (measured approximately 21mm wide internally and 28mm wide externally, a little more for the U-shaped front and less for the V-shaped rear) and depth (38mm front, 42mm rear) put them just over the line as all-around wheels.
Specialized’s Roval wheelset division makes the CLX 32 Disc which runs 6-10mm shallower than this ENVE 3.4 and claims to be about 60 grams lighter with the same rim widths and tubeless ready platform. The Roval CLX 50 Disc (also reviewed later in this post) is 8-12mm deeper than the ENVE 3.4 and measures 1450 grams, roughly halfway between the weight of the ENVE 3.4 and 4.5 AR Disc wheelsets.
Bontrager’s Aeolus XXX 2 is 28mm deep and claims to weight 1380 grams. To make it tubeless, you need to add their rim strips which weigh about 65 grams a piece.
The German wheelmaker Tune sells the 41mm deep Airways Disc wheelset that is slightly narrower (19mm x 26mm) and lighter still (1342g measured). While tubeless, Tour Magazine gave it one of its worst impact resistance ratings. The wheelset currently comes only a with a hub that connects to 6-bolt rotors and uses quick releases.
There are only two other road disc wheels in this 1400g weight range that could pass as both all-arounds and climbers. Both the AX Lightness Ultra Disc 45C (1404g measured) and Knight 35 Clincher Disc (1460g measured and 445g claimed rim weight) seem to be of an earlier vintage – 16.5 and 17mm wide internally respectively and neither is tubeless ready.
All this talk of specs is probably a bit unnerving for all but us tech nerds and doesn’t determine performance or my recommendations. It is just one of my considerations in choosing which wheelsets to buy or demo, evaluate and write up, etc. But as you can hopefully see, they each seem to be lacking in one or more dimensions when compared to the ENVE SES 3.4 baseline. I chose not to review any of these other wheels except the Roval CLX 50 Disc.
I plan to do a dedicated climbing road disc wheelset review when there are more of models from other companies. For the time being, the ENVE 3.4 Disc and Roval CLX50 currently look to have the combination of light weight, stiffness, aero performance, handling, and comfort with wide, tubeless optimized rims that best suit the kind of all-around, varying road quality surface you are likely to encounter as a versatile, road disc bike cycling enthusiast that goes climbing. (Phew, that was a long sentence!)
As all-around/climbers go, I found the ENVE 3.4 Disc wheels to be excellent performers. While only 100 grams lighter than the ENVE 4.5 AR Disc, all of it is in the rims and made climbing notably easier when I rode them back to back.
The 3.4s seemed almost immune to crosswinds and they accelerated with the best of the other wheels I’ve reviewed here. They handled confidently making high speed turns. This combined with their no-worries attitude around crosswinds made me very calm going fast downhill.
They are also stiff and comfortable, though on par with most of the other wheels in this review for those criteria. If I was doing a lot of dirt and gravel riding, I would probably go with the ENVE SES 4.5 AR Disc for the similar volume of air at a lower tire pressure the 4.5’s wider rims allow.
Using the same hubs and trying to keep in the same riding position, I don’t find the 3.4 hold their speed as well as the similarly profiled 4.5 AR rims. That’s to be expected due to the depth difference and isn’t an issue in group riding. If you are racing or doing long pulls, you might want to go deeper so you don’t need to work as hard.
The one disappointment with these wheels was strictly cosmetic. I noted some white markings along the spoke edge of both rims that seemed to get worse over time. The carbon in the rim’s side walls and spoke beds appeared well laminated and structurally sound.
As these were wheels I bought rather than demoed, I tried to look at this with a “glass half-full” attitude.
How? I used this situation to see how ENVE’s customer service would deal with my inquiry as just another paying road cycling enthusiast rather than trying to impress the marketing or PR folks with my reviewer status for some kind of special treatment.
An ENVE “consumer experience” agent got back to me the morning after I submitted my comments along with a couple of photos I attached on their web product support form. He explained that what I was seeing was powdered curing agent that normally dissolves into the resin but had pooled up in the molding process on my rims. The agent said this happens to various degrees in all their wheels as they don’t use paint, filler or cosmetic weave layers but their tests showed no affects on performance. I can’t confirm that independently but I didn’t notice any performance changes as the markings grew more evident.
After responding that I didn’t much care for the look of these markings and would like another set, the agent pulled my product registration information and sent me a shipping label. While he said the markings on my wheels were particularly obvious and expected the replacement set wouldn’t exhibit them, he couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t but would again replace them if the situation re-occurred.
I was fully satisfied with the service response. While I would have preferred there were no markings in the first place or that they replace them overnight, I think this was about as good as it gets if you ever have a problem.
If you see the value in this combination of all-around and climbing performance together with good customer service and are willing to pay the added price, you can pick up these wheels at these recommended stores.
REYNOLDS AERO 46 DB – FAST, STIFF WHEELS BEST FOR ROAD RACERS WHO WANT TO BE HEARD
If you are afraid of heights, people tell you “don’t look down”.
If being on trend is important to you, I’ll give you the same advice when it comes to the Reynolds Aero 46 DB carbon disc wheelset.
However, if road speed unperturbed by crosswinds is more important, just look forward, pedal and smile.
Reynolds has stuck with a classic, V-nose design for the spoke edge of these wheels and added a somewhat toroid shaped rim profile heading to the other edge where the rim meets the tire for the 46, 65 and 80mm deep disc and rim brake wheels in its Aero line. This, when it seems like the world of carbon bike wheels have gone to blunt nose, U-shaped rim profiles.
For me, Reynolds’ design definitely works to produce and maintain my speed. While I did find myself looking down riding these wheels, it was to see my speed and power output rather than the rim profile. With the Aero 46 DB it felt like I was riding faster than normal in the same power ranges I normally ride.
My experience is, of course, anecdotal rather than scientific. Interestingly, I came across the wind tunnel chart below of tests done by DT Swiss. It compares the aero drag of their ERC 1100 Dicut DB wheels, designed by the Formula One aero engineers of SwissSide they regularly tout, against Reynolds Aero 46 (blue line) and Zipp 303 Firecrest (grey line) wheelsets.
About 80% of our road riding is done when the wind is coming from a 0 to 10-degree angle (or “yaw”) and 50% is done between 0 and 5 degrees based on field testing done by Flo Cycling.
Unfortunately, DT Swiss didn’t specify whether the Reynolds or Zipp wheels are rim or disc brake or current or older models. It is kind of important as Reynolds only makes the Aero 46 in a disc brake version now and the current Aero 46 DB (introduced in 2017, the same year as the ERC 1100 Dicut DB wheels) are wider and likely more aero than the 2016 Aero 46 DB and rim brake versions.
Same goes for the Zipp 303 Firecrest whose DB and rim brake wheel profiles are quite different and have each gone through serious redesigns in the last couple of years.
Based on when the DT Swiss wheels were being designed and wind tunnel tested, my guess is that they are benchmarking the ERC 1100 against older models of the Reynolds and Firecrest rim brake wheels.
Regardless, it’s interesting to see the Reynolds Aero 46 held up as a benchmark in the same way the Firecrest has for years (but no longer should be as the NSW has surpassed it).
The second aero consideration is how well a deeper wheel does in managing side or crosswinds. Much of the reason for the move to the blunt nose design was to… uh… blunt those crosswinds and keep riders from having to steer against the wind and constantly modify their line or get blown off the road.
Well, that design clearly works. Wheels like the blunt nose Zipp NSWs in road disc and rim brake versions at various depths are better than the old Firecrest used to be. (The new Firecrest rim brake wheels have first gen NSW rims which are excellent in crosswinds; the Firecrest disc brake wheels have more traditional Firecrest rim shape which is not great in crosswinds.)
But, my experience with the Aero 46 DB found them as good in crosswinds as the NSW despite a very different design. I rode 100 miles and 10,000 feet on the Reynolds wheelset in the Vermont mountains on a horrible rainy day with swirling winds coming at me from seemingly every direction and often when I was crawling up steep passes or “gaps” as they call them up there. Weighing a mere 150lbs/68kg, I notice crosswinds as much as anyone.
My mind and body were truly miserable in the rain and wind of this ride but the Aero 46 DB wheels were totally unphased by either.
That reminded me of what I often remind you: focus on performance rather than the specs or design hype (though Reynolds does hype their rim profile as crosswind beaters).
On to other performance considerations…
The stiffness and rolling smoothness of this wheelset are good though not without a few characteristics I don’t care for.
Both in and out of the saddle I find these Reynolds wheels plenty stiff. After many rides, the wheels remain true and I’ve found the spokes are all still tensioned. But when I crank out big watts (for me) going up steep hills, I occasionally hear the spokes ping.
I’ve flexed the spokes by hand and heard the pings but can’t tell whether they are coming from the ends of these straight-pull spokes in the flanges or rims, from rubbing against each other in the cross pattern, or from rubbing against the inside edge of the rim where the spoke passes through to reach the internal nipples. My guess is that it is the latter.
Whatever it is, it is a little disconcerting to hear these pings when you are cranking it out going uphill even though, as mentioned, the wheels ride stiff and have remained true.
They also ride very smoothly on the Torch hub internals supplied by Industry Nine. That said, much like the Chris King hubs, the i9s make a distinctive, loud freehub noise. Zing zing zing zing.
While I know it is popular with some, I personally don’t care for freehub zinging. You attract attention coasting down a road and you can annoy or even anger someone pulling their legs off in front of you to hear you freewheeling behind them. Sometimes it’s an invitation to pull enough to drop you and your coasting, wheel-sucking noise.
While my personal bias against occasional spoke and freehub noise doesn’t affect these otherwise stiff and smooth rolling wheels, I found the compliance or comfort of the 46 Aero DB to be their weak link.
I ran this road disc wheelset tubeless with both 25C and 28C Zipp Tangente Speed RT and Schwalbe Pro One tires on it to try to find the best combination of comfort, speed, and handling. No matter, I couldn’t get beyond average compliance with any of these.
As the chart above and others like it show, wider tires increase aero drag. On the flip side, wider tires reduce rolling resistance, can improve handling, and allow you to ride at lower pressures to improve comfort.
So there are tradeoffs and you have to consider and tire choice decisions based on what you prioritize among those trade-offs.
For example, when you start riding at aero speeds (18-20 mph/29-32kph and up), the reduction in aero drag of a narrower tire far outweighs the increase in rolling resistance. Don’t ride that fast and care about comfort more than anything? Put on wider tires because your rolling resistance will be lower, comfort will be greater and you won’t be going fast enough to affect your aero performance.
Assuming, though, that you are looking to ride at aero speeds on these aptly named Reynolds Aero 46 DB wheelset (and the other wheelsets in this carbon disc wheelset category), know that only 25C tubeless tires measure narrower than the 28.2mm wide rims at the “brake track” and have a 28.6mm max width. The Zipp Tangente Speed tires measure 25.8 mm wide and Schwalbe Pro One measures 27.5 mm, both at 80 psi, the max pressure you’d want to run tubeless tires on 19C rims even if you weigh 200lbs/80kg. 28C tires measure wider than the outside width of the rims.
I didn’t measure them with tubed clincher tires. From my experience with other 19C rims, the benchmark 25C Continental Grand Prix 4000S II at 100psi measures very similarly to the Schwalbe Pro One at 80psi. Both measure wider than other popular tubeless and tubed clinchers.
With the 25C Zipp Tangente Speed road tubeless inflated to 65 psi where I run my tubeless tires, the Aero 46 DB weren’t comfortable. Tolerable, yes. Comfortable no. If I were racing, I’d go with these tires both for their width on these wheels but also because they handle beautifully and have other performance attributes that caused me to pick them as the best in my review of tubeless tires.
If I weren’t racing but looking to do fast group rides and get better comfort along with speed, I’d go with the 25C Schwalbe Pro One. The compliance is OK with those tires, on par with many, and the handling no worse. I wouldn’t, however, recommend you do “gravel” or dirt road riding with these wheels unless you went to a 28C tire.
ROVAL CLX 50 – ANOTHER GOOD CARBON DISC WHEELSET OPTION THOUGH AT A HIGHER PRICE THAN MOST
Roval uses the same rim, hub internals, and spokes on its CLX 50 disc and rim brake bikes. This is my review of their disc brake model.
The Roval CLX 50 is one of those all-around road disc wheels that makes me smile. Not because it does anything notably better than other carbon disc wheelsets I’ve reviewed in this post, except perhaps accelerate, but because it does so many things well just like other wheelsets in this post.
I couldn’t have written that paragraph above a year ago. Not just about Roval but about a good sized, competitive collection of carbon all-around road disc brake wheelsets we enthusiasts now have to choose from. Like the Roval CLX 50 Disc, there just weren’t that many all-around wheelsets that really did road disc bikes justice a short while ago.
Now there are. And that makes me smile.
Interestingly, the Roval CLX 50 rim and disc brake wheels share the same profile – width, depth, shape, tubeless ready, rim bed, etc. Sure, the two wheels have different spoke counts and hubs but even the hubs have the same DT Swiss 240 internals.
While many of the first two generations of road disc wheels were optimized for rim brakes and tweaked for discs, this one appears to suit both formats well, if not necessarily optimized for either. It may straddle the Gen 2/3 characteristics I laid out earlier, but these compete on performance (and specs) with the latest Gen 3 all-around wheels.
Yes, these road disc wheels are heavier than their rim brake brothers, but the CLX 50 disc brake wheelset, at a measured weight of 1457 grams, is one of four wheelsets in this review coming in at under 1500 grams. So, it’s not sacrificing anything by being a rim twin with its rim brake brother.
[By the way, the 1415 gram claimed weight is probably without rim tape. I and several others that have reviewed this wheelset and actually weighed it all come in somewhere between 1440 and 1460 grams, likely due to whether we ran the tape around once or twice.]
The Roval CLX 50 is and maintain your momentum well. It’s what you should expect from 50mm deep wheels that will set you back US$2400, £1870, €2200 as these will. Not all wheels deliver speed even at that price that but these clearly do.
They remain stable and easily handle in the crosswinds. These will tell you they are feeling the wind but they won’t jerk around on you. A light steady touch on the tiller will keep them on course.
They also accelerate and climb better than most. While the weight difference between the CLX 50 and ENVE 3.4 is a minimal 50 or so grams, I felt a little more comfortable on the ENVEs on a blustery day of climbing and descending. But, the Roval isn’t far behind.
Perhaps it’s because the ENVEs are 10mm shallower that they handle the crosswinds so amazingly well. On the flip side, the Rovals are faster on the flats if you are riding at speeds where aero really matters – >20mph or 32kph.
The CLX 50 is stiff but not overly so. Likewise, they are compliant and handle well, on par with many of the wheelsets in this review.
Run them tubeless and lower your pressure if you want maximum comfort. Toss the plastic spoke hole plugs they come with and run rim tape if you want minimum hassle installing tubeless tires. The tires can get hung up on the plugs and make installing and removing them a whole lot more work than anyone should have to do to enjoy cycling.
ZIPP 303 FIRECREST CARBON CLINCHER TUBELESS DISC-BRAKE – ZIPP GETS ROAD DISC WHEELS RIGHT
Every Zipp Firecrest wheelset comes with an image built up over a decade. I associate the words innovative, fast, expensive, and status with the Zipp brand. And I’ve always thought of Firecrest as the aero standard that is also comfortable and brakes well but is flexier and heavier than other all-around wheels. One other connection I make – Zipp always seems to be updating the hubs they put on Firecrest wheels, perhaps to try to rid themselves of whatever quality demons possessed earlier models.
Road disc, wide and tubeless, however, were never words I’ve associated with Zipp and Firecrest.
Yes, Zipp has made disc brake Firecrests for years but earlier models were essentially the same as rim brake Firecrests just with a few more spokes and a way to bolt on the rotors. Their rims were wide externally but never wide enough internally to go with a 25C tire if you still wanted their best aero performance. And tubeless? Nah.
So, when Zipp introduced the 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher Tubeless Disc-brake wheelset (yes, that’s its full name) that also had a 21mm internal width, I was curious to see if this was still a Firecrest or it was just using the name.
This tubeless disc brake Firecrest is still fast and comfortable, among the best in both categories from my anecdotal experience and as measured on machines by the independent Tour magazine. Only the ENVE 4.5 AR performed better along these two dimensions amongst the road disc wheels they tested.
I rode the 303 Firecrest with 25C Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tires at 70psi which measures a few tenths narrower than the outside rim width where the air will come off one to meet the other.
Zipp has also introduced tubeless tires which, while I hadn’t caught up with a pair when I reviewed these wheels, I have since and they are a far better fit than the Schwalbe. (You can see my tubeless tire review here.)
True to my Zipp 303 Firecrest and 303 NSW rim brake wheelset experiences, the 303 Firecrest disc brake wheels aren’t the stiffest or flexiest in this category. As a light rider, this isn’t a huge issue for me. If you are a heavy rider you might want a stiffer wheelset.
Despite the average stiffness and being one of the heavier wheelsets (1632g measured) among those reviewed here, I found they accelerate well. Perhaps it’s the hubs which I found to roll comfortably and easily with only a little ratcheting sound coming from the rear.
Note that the hubs only come with 6-Bolt fittings for your rotors. I have 140mm rotors in both 6-Bolt and CenterLock that work fine with my Shimano disc calipers, though I prefer the later and most new carbon disc wheelsets are coming with CenterLock as the default and, in most cases, the only option.
While not as versatile as the ENVE 4.5 AR for off-road riding or as suitable for climbing as the ENVE 3.4, this tubeless disc brake Zipp 303 Fieldcrest is still one of the better all-arounders and costs about 20% less than those two.
So yes, it’s a Firecrest. You can find them in stock at the best prices from stores I recommend based on their customer satisfaction ranking by clicking these links to Competitive Cyclist, Amazon, Wiggle.
ZIPP 303 NSW CARBON DISC WHEELSET – A COMFORTABLE, CONFIDENT THRILL RIDE
While you can’t ascribe human emotions to inanimate objects like bike wheels, I can tell you how I feel riding them. When it comes to riding the Zipp 303 NSW carbon disc wheelset, I get a comfortable, confident thrill I don’t often experience from the performance of other wheels.
You wouldn’t think feelings like comfort and thrilling happen at the same time or that you can be confident in pushing yourself to the limits where thrills are usually found. Yet for me, someone admittedly filled with my own contradictions, I experience comfort, confidence, and thrills at the same time from the performance of this versatile carbon disc wheelset from Zipp.
Let me explain.
As to comfort, these 303 NSW carbon disc hoops combine smooth and quiet rolling with great compliance. The rear hub freewheels without even a whisper. The wheels absorb rough roads, cracks and even shallow holes with hardly a notice.
Part of that comfort probably comes from being optimized for tubeless tires. More than tubeless ready or having tubeless as part of a crazy long name – Zipp 303 NSW Carbon Clincher Tubeless Disc Brake – the rim bed has shallow, narrow channels near the outsides of the rim beds to better secure the tire beads under the rim hooks when running tubeless tires at lower pressures.
I set these wheels up with 25C tubed clincher tires and 25C and 28C tubeless from multiple brands. Tubed tires like the 25C Continental Grand Prix 4000S II were a bear to get off. I wouldn’t want to have a flat on the road with tubed tires on these rims unless I was riding with Scott, whose hands are the size of a bear’s.
The tubeless Schwalbe Pro One and Zipp Tangente Speed tires were easy to install and remove. If ever I needed to put a tube inside them due to a sidewall cut too big to close with sealant, it’d be an easy job.
Zipp claims these wheels test fastest in the wind tunnel with a 28mm tire. I found, however, that Zipp’s 28C Tangente Speed Road Tubeless tire, a model whose 28C and 25C sizes typically set up narrower than Schwalbe Pro One, Mavic Yksion Pro UST and other tubeless tires I recently reviewed, measured 1 mm wider than the roughly 29 mm wide rim.
Zipp’s rim shapes have obviously changed as they’ve moved to the newer and wider NSW wheels. Their tech support representatives tell me the 95% tire to rim with rule Zipp established a decade ago and other brands have followed no longer applies to the NSW rim shapes. They didn’t tell me what their new rule is though, perhaps wanting to keep that secret sauce secret. Most other leading aero wheel designers still go by the tire-narrower-than-rim-width principle and have publicly shared the aero data to confirm it.
While riding these wheels with 28C tubeless tires is supremely comfortable, I found the 25C Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tire that measures essentially the same width as the 303 NSW rim and the 25C Tangente Road Tubeless tire that measures about 2mm narrower both provide great comfort in combination with these compliant wheels.
While I spent most of my time on the roads, a couple of outings one of my fellow In The Know Cycling testers took with this 303 NSW road disc wheelset on combined paved and dirt roads showed their versatility to be better than most.
Wide rims and wide tires usually lead to good handling. The handling on these wheels was better than good. It took me to the extremes of confidence in cornering and made me darn near fearless. I never doubted them in tight turns and I pushed them as hard as I can. That was a thrill right there.
Responsive? Yes. Acceleration? Beam me up Scotty. Aero? Held my speed well. Crosswinds? Bring ’em on. Not a bother.
For me and my mere 150lb/68kg body weight, they were plenty stiff and climbed well. They also handle beautifully going fast downhill with never a worry about speed, cornering, wind or road surface.
I’m holding back final judgment on their stiffness until one of our new testers with legs twice the size of mine comes back with his report after flexing this wheelset to his max on climbs and in sprints. I’ll update this review when he does.
Beyond how this Zipp 303 NSW disc brake wheelset performed against all of these criteria, and they did as well or better than most other all-around carbon disc or rim brake wheels I’ve spent time with, I just found these a joy to ride and really looked forward to it. That was a thrill in itself.
Of course, being Zipps top-of-the-line carbon disc wheelset model, it’s not a cheap thrill. But if you are up for all that I experienced, you can get these wheels by clicking through to Competitive Cyclist for US/CA residents and Tredz for those living in the UK/EU.
WHY I MAY NOT HAVE INCLUDED WHEELSETS YOU’VE HEARD ABOUT
Carbon disc wheelsets are a relatively new, fast growing and fast-changing category of cycling gear. The generation chart displayed near the top of this review shows how much has changed in the last few years.
You’ve got eight of the latest, best, all-around depth, carbon disc wheelsets to consider in this 2018 category update. There are another eight Gen 3 wheelsets which I considered for this review, two or three of which I hope to add to the post as soon as I receive them and we can test them out. Several others are sold in low volumes or supported only within a limited geographic region or both.
Because In The Know Cycling is fortunate enough to have readers around the world (thank you!), I don’t typically review gear that isn’t sold and doesn’t have a robust service network in at least a couple of the major geographic regions. It just isn’t worth the time of the majority of readers looking to buy a wheelset to read about some that are sold in limited quantities with a distribution and service network that can’t support them where they live.
I looked at another two dozen or so all around depth, carbon disc wheelsets that I didn’t review for my first review of this category in the fall of 2017. Most of those were Gen 2 wheelsets and there were more advanced Gen 3 options then and certainly more out there today that I have now reviewed.
I wouldn’t recommend any of the Gen 2 wheelsets today if you are looking for the best performing wheelsets in this category. The Gen 3s are noticeably better and I think worth paying more for. I do expect to see some widely sold and supported value priced Gen 3 models coming out over the next year and I will review and add them to this post.
There are a growing number of deeper, mid-depth aero (60mm and up) carbon disc wheelsets and a smaller number of shallow, climbing carbon disc models that have come to the market in the last 18 months or so. I hope to review those categories of wheels in 2019.
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