THE BEST CARBON ROAD BIKE WHEELS
If you are looking to get a new set of carbon road bike wheels for your rim brake bike, you are going to want them to perform well on every measure. For what they will cost you, they better deliver a big improvement in performance over the carbon hoops you have now or transform your cycling experience if you’ve been riding stock or upgrade alloy wheels.
The best all-around carbon wheels are made with 40 to 50 mm deep carbon fiber rims and should give you sustained aerodynamic benefits when you ride fast and make your climbing easier when you go up long, steep ascents. You’ll expect sure handling and easy rolling on everything from smooth pavement in calm weather to rough road surfaces or strong crosswinds.
They should be stiff, accelerate well, and be responsive enough to keep you competitive in group rides or road races, comfortable enough to ride on for hours and hours in an endurance event, and stop quickly and predictably on both dry and wet roads.
That’s a long list of requirements for a high-performance rim brake carbon clincher wheelset. To help you make an informed and confident decision about which wheels and stores will deliver for you, dig into my reviews below that tell you how the latest group of carbon bike wheels perform, what they cost, and how they compare.
Related: Looking for carbon wheels for your road disc bike? Click Best Carbon Disc Wheelset
Related: Not sure what kind of wheels to get? Click Road Bike Wheels – How To Choose The Best For You
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CARBON ROAD BIKE WHEELS
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PERFORMANCE IMPROVEMENTS FOR CARBON BIKE WHEELS
With each new generation of carbon bike wheels, there continue to be notable performance improvements. That’s especially the case for the all-around, rim brake, carbon clincher wheelset category that this review focuses on.
Five years ago, cyclists could make compelling arguments for and against the best carbon and best alloy wheels for all around riding. With the developments since then, however, it’s now pretty hard to put up a credible argument in favor of alloy wheels on anything other than price.
The best carbon road bike wheels are clearly superior against all the key performance criteria.
[Note that I keep referring to the “best” carbon bike wheels. Those are the ones evaluated for this review and perhaps a few others that we didn’t have the opportunity to test. Because of the sizeable price gap between the best carbon and best alloy wheels, a group of lower priced or “value” carbon wheels has come to market priced between the two categories.
I’m continuing to sort through these value carbon road bike wheels in search of ones that offer the combination of performance, quality, and multi-region dealer or service network to see if I can put some in the “best” category to compare with those reviewed here. I am working on a separate post that describes those that don’t fit and why.]
Which performance characteristics separate out the best carbon road bike wheels from the rest? What developments have there been in recent years that have created this superior performance?
Here’s my short list of the most important ones.
1. Aero performance – Trend spotters go around saying things like “beige is the new black” or “comedy is the new rock’n’roll” or, the one I especially hate, “50 is the new 30”.
That last one, which I think means we’re all going to be working a lot longer, isn’t far numerically at least from what’s been going on with all-around carbon road bike wheels. Whereas the depth of wheels in this category used to be 35-45mm, the best ones are now 40 or even 45 to 50mm deep. Deeper wheels are faster than shallower ones when you are riding at aero speeds. (This study is only the latest to reach this conclusion.)
And before you jump to the conclusion that deeper wheels are heavier, and therefore won’t climb as well, I will tell you that the best all-around carbon wheels aren’t any heavier than the 1500 gram +/-50 gram range they’ve been each of the four years I’ve been tracking and updating this category review and all the while getting deeper.
Actually, these wheels are staying in this weight range while getting both deeper and wider. 19C and even 21C wheels are the new 17C, the “C” referring to the internal width in millimeters between the bead hooks of the rims of these wheels. The external widths have also increased to as much as 27mm and even 28mm across the brake tracks though many 17C wheels are still in the 24-25mm external width range.
Along with these deeper and wider rims, or perhaps because of the added latitude it gives wheel designers to change the shape of rims made of carbon fiber, the crosswind performance has also improved. While you used to have to worry about getting pushed off your line (or even blown off the road) on the best of the old 35-45mm deep carbon wheels, you don’t anymore. The best ones now almost thumb their blunt noses at crosswinds while you continue merrily along at speeds you used to only be able to maintain with time-trial depth wheels.
2. Comfort – The best carbon road bike wheels are now more comfortable than ever. Because the rims have greater internal widths, you can put wider tires on them. And because you can put wider tires on them, you can reduce the pressure you set your tires at and get a more comfortable ride while still providing the same amount of overall volume in the tires to oppose your same weight.
Further, because the outside rims of your wheels are wider, wider tires don’t hurt your aero performance as you go to those 25C tires everyone wants to ride these days for better comfort. That, of course, is as long as the mounted, inflated width of the 25C tire you want to ride is narrower than the external rim width. (More on this in the Topic of the Week section of this edition of Know’s Notes.)
Finally, because your tires are wider on the wider rims, you get better handling with more of the width (rather than length) of your tire in contact with the road.
There may be a practical limit to how much wider wheels go and contribute to your comfort. The front forks and rear stays of many 3 to 5-year-old rim brake bikes won’t fit 28C tires. Older bikes often won’t even fit many 25C tires.
Even where they can fit, 28C tires will wreck the aerodynamics of the wheels that are even 27mm or 28mm wide. Many 28C tires, once installed and inflated, measure a millimeter or two wider than the 28mm width suggested by the 28C tire designation.
28C tires will be the new 25C for the already wider and growing carbon disc wheelset category. And, with many more new enthusiast-level road disc bikes being sold now than rim brake ones, and as that gap continues to grow, I don’t expect rim brake bike makers will invest in designing and trying to sell new rim brake bikes with wider forks and rear stays to accommodate wider wheels and tires.
In addition to wider tires, tubeless ones further add to comfort on the latest generation of carbon bike wheels. You can lower the pressure on tubeless tires another 5-10 psi below your tubed tire inflation levels with little concern for pinch flats.
Tubeless-ready wheels are now nearly ubiquitous among the best carbon wheels. Tubeless-optimized wheels, ones that have rim beds with center channels, side gutters, and bead hooks designed for the width, bead designs and low pressures of tubeless tires are becoming more commonplace.
If you want to read more on all of this, here’s my post on the best tubeless tires.
You can’t put lipstick on a pig to disguise its true nature. By that, I mean that a wheel has to have the vertical compliance built into it in the first place through a combination of its rim, spokes, spoke angles, and hub flanges for it to have a chance of being comfortable.
Most of the best carbon wheel makers have figured out how to make compliant wheels. Your choice of tire width, pressure, and tubeless vs. tubed tires can enhance the compliance they start with but only take you so far.
3. Puncture resistance and resilience – The tubeless tires you can run on today’s best carbon bike wheels are more resistant to pinch flats than tubed tires as they don’t have the tube rubbing against the tire that causes the tube to pinch and flat in the first place. Pinch flats are a bigger risk as you run lower pressures with wider tubed tires.
Tubeless tires are also more resilient, meaning they recover more quickly when you puncture. Most punctures happen at the bottom of tires that are in contact with the pavement. The sealant in your tires will fill holes the size of most punctures while you roll along without you even getting off the bike.
Of course, larger bottom punctures or those in the side will require you to put in a new tube with either tubeless or tubed tire.
4. Braking – Big gains have been made in the dry and wet braking performance of the best carbon clincher wheelsets for rim brake bikes. At the same time, big differences remain between wheels within the best category and between the best and many lower priced value carbon wheels.
Wheels with the best braking performance have brake track surfaces that are textured, etched, patterned or treated in some way to create an uneven surface. This surface creates more friction when the brake pad comes up against it and helps slow you down.
While carbon bike wheels that have one of these brake track treatments perform better than those that don’t, there are differences in modulation, pad wear, noise and wet road performance between those that do. I note that in the reviews below.
The use of resins that have a higher temperature melting point also separates the best carbon clincher wheelsets from the rest. The use of these resins greatly limits the risk of carbon delamination you can get after braking wheels with lower temperature resins or with made inferior carbon wheel manufacturing techniques.
As riders, we have also adopted braking techniques that serve us well when riding carbon clincher wheelsets on rim brake bikes the same way any group of riders adapts to new products that can improve our performance. For example, time trial riders change their body position to use aero bars and enthusiasts train differently and better by using power meters rather than relying primarily on heart rate monitoring.
Specifically, I and others who have learned how to get the best out of carbon clinchers don’t drag the brakes when riding downhill as many riders will when braking on alloy wheels. We also alternate braking the front and back wheels. Doing this should allow you to give each wheel 2-4x the amount of time cooling as braking.
We engage the brakes firmly and get off them quickly rather than ease into it and hold them a bit longer as with alloys. In the rain, we know to give ourselves a little more time and we squeeze the brake levers a little harder when we first brake to clear the water from the brake tracks.
Do you need to use these braking techniques? Not totally. I’ve tested the best current generation carbon bike wheels of various depths on an 8%, 1 mile downhill stretch while dragging the brakes the whole way and many aren’t even warm to the touch at the bottom.
Should you adopt these techniques? Absolutely. It just so happens that they maximize both your performance and the longevity of your wheels. You don’t go out and buy carbon bike wheels that enable you to go faster just so you can drag your brakes going downhill. That would be like going out and buying an aero bike and seldom getting in the drops or buying a power meter and not having a training program.
On the other hand, if you agree with my fellow tester Moose who says that brakes are highly overrated and seldom uses them, none of this matters much at all.
WHAT I RECOMMEND
For In The Know Cycling reviews, I evaluate product-specific criteria in four groups – performance, design, quality, and cost. The criteria that matter most in those categories for the best all-around, carbon wheels for rim brake bikes are:
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, handling and braking. You can read detailed descriptions of each of these here.
Design: Wheel weight and material, rim depth, rim internal and external widths, rim profile, hub and spoke design or selection, and wheel finish.
Quality: Durability, warranty, and service/support.
Cost: Market price.
The Best Performer wheelset is selected independent of cost and chosen using the performance criteria mentioned above. The Best Value wheelset is on par with the average performance of those in this category but sells for far less.
Design shows up (or not) in performance so I don’t judge it alone. Two products with very similar designs, for example having U-shaped rim profiles and the same weight, may perform similarly or differently. Design is an intended means to an end but not itself the basis for an evaluation or product choice.
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 but I’m not going to recommend something just because it has superior quality if it under-performs or has higher costs.
My cost evaluation is based on the wheelset’s best available price from looking at what it sells for across all the online stores that have it in stock and that meet my customer satisfaction rating requirements. This is the market price, typically much less than the full retail price, the manufacturer’s recommended price, or what it sells for at your local bike shop.
I’ve been reviewing the all-around carbon clincher category of wheels since I started this site. I wrote my first review about these wheels in 2014 by sorting through 36 models from 23 different companies that largely based on their 35mm to 45mm rim depth.
This included carbon and carbon alloy wheels from well known and lesser established brands, wheels that varied in performance from truly outstanding to barely acceptable, and wheels that varied in price from a little more than $1,000 to as much as $3,000.
Each year I review this category I seem to narrow the field. I have eliminated some models because it has been 2 to 3 years since they were introduced or updated and their performance is no longer competitive.
Technology and performance has changed very rapidly in this category. Anything more than a couple years old will likely have braking, comfort, handling or other performance below that of the best of the current generation models.
I’ve not considered some carbon road bike wheels in this review because they are distributed and supported only through dealers in one country or region or only sold online and sometimes come from halfway across the globe directly to you. While that in and of itself doesn’t make the wheels perform any less well, if a wheel brand doesn’t have a dealer network or at least a service center in the country or region where you ride or another way to quickly and cost-effectively get your wheels serviced should you have a problem or warranty issue, that’s not a wheelset I want to own or suggest you even consider.
I know this puts the smaller, less well financed, and regional wheel makers or brands at a disadvantage. Frankly, I don’t care about the disadvantages or advantages of wheel makers and brands. I care about my fellow enthusiasts being able to buy, ride and get service for the best performing and best value wheelsets.
This review considers the best performing all-around carbon bike wheels against the performance criteria I laid out earlier. Beyond the Best Value wheelset I’ve chosen that performs well, but not as well as the Best Performer, at a lower price point, I am preparing another post covering a wide range of value-priced, all-around carbon wheels that perform below those in this review across multiple criteria.
I am also no longer reviewing or recommending carbon-alloy rim brake wheels. I haven’t seen any new or improved carbon-alloy wheels come out in the last few years. Companies appear to be investing in improving their carbon clincher braking performance as I described above and developing carbon road disc wheels.
If you don’t see the wheelset you are interested in this post, you might want to enter the wheelset name in the search box at the top of this page or look at the list of reviews near the top of the sidebar as they might be reviewed in another category.
Along with each review, I’ve provided you links to stores that carry each wheelset, have them in stock at the best prices and have excellent customer satisfaction ratings. Using those links saves you time and money and also supports our ability to bring you more reviews.
With that hopefully informative but regrettably long introduction, let’s get onto my recommendations.
For the first time, I’m recommending two wheelsets as Best Performers. After the reviews of each of these, I’ve provided some direct comparisons.
ZIPP 303 NSW – SAME NAME, NEW ATTRIBUTES, STILL TOP PERFORMANCE
Little more than a year after Zipp introduced its first line of NSW wheels, it came out with an updated line in 2018. The latest 303 NSW is wider (19C), lighter (1510g), and has an updated rim profile. Along with its NSW siblings, the new 303 is the first line of Zipp rim brake wheelsets that are tubeless.
The hubs and brake tracks that were new with the earlier NSW carry over as does its premium price.
I and my fellow testers rated these the Best Performer the last time we reviewed wheels in this category. I wondered if the changes made them any better.
In a word, yes. They are more comfortable on long rides and mixed terrain than before. They accelerate and climb a tad better. They still have an uncanny way of seemingly ignoring the crosswinds. If you run them at lower pressure with tubeless tires, they seem to be even more surefooted than before. If you run them at higher pressures, they feel as responsive as a whip.
My fellow tester Nate, the all-business, often stoic Bullet Train and A group ride leader at my local bike club who also led his race team to another TTT victory and won his age group up the New England equivalent of the Mt. Ventoux climb this year called the 303 NSW “absolutely dreamy.”
Seems the ability to run this 303 NSW carbon clincher wheelset tubeless at <80 psi for Nate, who is all of about 155 lbs/70kg, created what he described as a super smooth ride with great stability and control, soaking up bumps and harsh road conditions.
I seldom hear Nate or the few other super talented and competitive riders I’ve met talk about comfort and stability. This wheelset brought our that reaction.
At the other end of the spectrum, I was surprised to hear my fellow tester Moose, who weighs about 200lbs/90kg (and thus the reason for his nickname), speak positively about the 303 NSW’s stiffness and responsiveness. Zipps characteristically aren’t as stiff as other wheelsets and under Moose’s frame, I thought they might be a tad soft.
Nope. He found them sturdy enough and really liked their responsiveness. Despite the range of alloy and carbon wheels that were shallower and deeper and the same depth as these we rode this summer, he kept coming back to the 303 NSW as the one he wanted to ride for this event or that long weekend away.
When I ride these wheels, I feel like the Wayne and Garth characters from the old Wayne’s World skits who repeated “We’re not worthy” when someone famous invited them to stick around.
Why? When I get the 303 NSWs up to speed, which doesn’t take long, they seem to hold my momentum without me having to work really hard to keep them there. When I go out on a windy day, my 150lb/68kg body can get pushed around but the NSWs seem to anchor me to my line. The wheels are snappy on legs that haven’t had much snap in them for more than a few years now. They also climb easily for me.
The braking on these wheels is probably their most debated characteristic. The performance isn’t debatable – they are as capable on dry roads as alloy wheels and nearly so on wet ones.
Instead, the noise that comes from these brakes creates the greatest divide in the evaluations I and my fellow testers have had and that some of you have shared in your comments in past reviews about other Zipp wheels that use the same brake track design.
While it’s not annoying like the shrieks you have likely heard from older carbon brake tracks and pads, some don’t like any noise while others think the Zipp brake sound is cool. Perhaps the best analog is the reaction people have to noise coming off of freehubs. Some like it while others want it quiet. Ironically, the hubs on the 303 NSWs freewheel without a whisper.
All in, the new 303 NSW is probably the most versatile and complete all-around set of carbon bike wheels a road cycling enthusiast will ever need. A racer might want more of this and not care about that from their wheels but for those of us who enjoy a wide range of riding from individual training to aggressive A and B group rides to long endurance rides to serious climbing to riding at high speeds and want one wheelset to help them deliver great performance and riding experiences from one wheelset, the Zipp 303 is hard to beat.
Am I worthy of this level of performance from a wheelset? Probably not but I’ll gladly take it. And, if I’m going to pay the market price of about $3200/£2600/€3000 from this one, I’ve earned that level of performance or at least bought it. If you want it for yourself, you can find it online at Competitive Cyclist, Amazon and in UK/EU at Tredz.
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BONTRAGER AEOLUS XXX 4 – RECALLING MEMORIES OF DRIVING A CORVETTE
There’s something about my long-ago memories of driving a Chevrolet Corvette and my recent experience riding the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 wheels that connects.
No, it isn’t the phallic imagery of a Corvette and the XXX label of the latest Aeolus, though perhaps you could make that connection. (Sorry that I just did.)
Rather, it’s the rush of rolling at speed they both provide. While a lot of cars and wheels roll fast, it’s what happens in the moment of speed that makes life behind the wheel and in the saddle exciting.
Hitting a turn at speed carries more unknows than rolling straight. The Corvette’s wide wheelbase, wide tires, and low chassis provided me the handling performance to confidently hit every turn faster than I’d ever done before.
Similarly, the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 mounted with 25C tubeless tires stick it in the corners. Fellow tester Nate enthused they always seemed so much more planted and stable than any other carbon clincher wheelset he’d experienced, especially in turns with bumpy pavement.
I measured the internal rim width between the bead hooks at 21.1 mm on these and other Bontrager Aeolus XXX series wheels. That makes them the widest rim brake carbon bike wheels we’ve tested, notably wider than most which run 19 mm or 17 mm these days.
Their 27.5 mm external rim width across the brake tracks is nearly as wide as others like the Enve, Zipp, and Easton in this category. The external rim width along with the mounted and inflated 25C tire width helps contribute the XXX 4’s aerodynamic performance while its wide internal rim dimension and the wheels’ stiffness contributes to its great handling and comfort.
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.
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 above average in this all-around carbon clincher pack than clearly superior compared to others on this criterion. They are considerably heavier than the 1400 grams claimed by Bontrager – 1556 grams on my scale. This puts these XXX 4s are 50-100 grams heavier than most in this rim brake carbon road bike wheels category.
Why is there such a big weight difference? I measured them with the rim strips you need to ride them tubeless. Bontrager doesn’t include the strips in their claimed weight. It’s unusual to have rim strips weigh so much. Most rim tape adds 5-10 grams per wheel. These rim strips weigh about 65 grams per wheel.
I asked the Bontrager support line and a dealer whether I could run them with tape rather than the strips. Neither recommended it. The strips add the height and rim bed gutters you need to get your tubeless tires locked in.
If you want to ride them with a tube and clincher, they will be far lighter. But, to gain the versatility, comfort, and handling that we experienced, run them tubeless even though they will be slightly heavier.
The added weight makes for an 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 the 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 online for $2400 by clicking through on this link to Trekbikes.com.
So what separates the two Best Performers? The Bontrager XXX4 is the stiffer of the two. That stiffness shows up in more precise cornering and the feeling of more direct power transfer when climbing. The Zipp 303 NSW is a more responsive, more lively ride and feels like it is less work going uphill.
They are both comfortable but the Zipp holds the edge here and it shows up on long rides. Choosing to ride them tubeless, which makes both more comfortable, and where you set the inflation pressure will likely have as much or more effect on your comfort than choosing between the wheels.
The XXX 4 and 303 NSW brake extremely well on dry pavement though the XXX 4 does it quietly. Because the XXX 4 is stiffer, you can set up your brake pads closer to the rims and get better modulation in your braking. If you find yourself riding on wet roads often, the 303 NSW will give you notably better braking.
As a light B group rider, I loved both but preferred the livelier Zipp wheelset and it being totally unfazed by crosswinds. While I prefer a quiet freehub, I wasn’t bothered by the brake noise.
I’d have thought the slightly stiffer XXX 4 would win Moose over but he liked the responsiveness of the 303 NSW and the range of things it did so well.
Despite loving the comfort of the Zipp, Nate gave the nod to the XXX 4 for its better handling and brake modulation. He also felt the way it handled varying terrain would make it a great wheelset to use during cyclocross season.
Performance comparisons and preferences aside, the price of these two wheelsets differs by quite a bit. While neither of these wheelsets is a bargain, the Bontragers are about $800 less expensive. That’s an important consideration if you weigh the price of performance in your decision.
EASTON EC90 SL – A FAST, STIFF WHEELSET CURRENTLY AT A GREAT PRICE
The latest, 2017 incarnation of the Easton EC90 SL carbon road bike wheels really like to go. I know that’s not a technical term but that was my initial impression after riding them the first few times and every time after that. They are fast, faster than a 38mm deep carbon wheelset should be or at least as fast as any wheel I’ve ever ridden in the 40 mm depth range. They roll very smoothly – light, quiet though not silent freehubs, and kept me going without having to put out a whole lot of extra effort once I got them up to speed.
These are also very stiff wheels. They are right there with me without hesitation when I accelerate and don’t flex when I get out of the saddle to climb. Consistent with this level of stiffness, they handle precisely and confidently in corners.
Not sure if it’s the rims or the hubs they’ve put on these wheels that have wider spacing between the flanges than in prior models, but together (with the spokes of course) these are plenty stiff, responsive and confident wheels.
While they are stiff laterally or side to side, and that’s a good thing, they are also stiff vertically or up and down, and that’s not such a good thing. Vertical stiffness is another way to say compliance which is another way to talk about comfort. These aren’t as compliant or comfortable as the other wheels in this category.
If you are a competitive rider that likes to inflate your tires 90 or 100 psi and do 40 and 50 mile long rides, their comfort won’t be much of a consideration. You like a firm ride, it’s a relatively short distance, and you probably put comfort way down on your list of priorities.
On the other hand, if you do long endurance rides and lower your tire pressure as far as you can go because you want comfort, these wheels aren’t going to be plush no matter how wide your tires or low your pressure. They just aren’t built that way.
If you fall somewhere in between, the comfort isn’t bad. It’s certainly not going to ruin your ride, it’s just not going to be the highlight of your experience. They do ride more comfortably with tubeless than tubed tires so set them up that way if that’s important to you.
The latest version of the EC90 SL has somewhat improved braking but they have neither a textured brake track or use a high-temperature resin as the best braking wheels do. The brakes perform at last generation levels so give yourself some extra time to stop, especially on wet roads, over what you are used to if you are coming from alloy wheels.
I also recommend you use something other than the Swissstop Yellow brake pads Easton ships with these carbon wheels. The Yellows leave a pollen colored ring on the otherwise very attractively finished and labeled rims and the modulation is somewhat soft. I’ve used ENVE, Zipp and Swissstop Black Prince carbon pads with these wheels. All provide better modulation and no ring around the track.
And there’s the stunningly low price of these wheels.
The EC90 SL sells for $1155/£960/€1160 through this link to Chain Reaction Cycles and slightly more through this one at Wiggle. I’m no math whiz but that’s about half the price of most of the other wheels in this category. I’ve confirmed with Easton that the EC90 SLs at these stores are indeed the current model and know they have quite a bit of inventory.
Further, Easton’s customer service line also told me they are not introducing a new EC90 SL rim brake model in 2019 so it sounds like a simple case of supply and demand.
All of this adds up to making these wheels my new Best Value pick.
ALL-AROUND CARBON CLINCHER WHEELSET REVIEWS
Campagnolo is a proud company and a much-admired brand. Most Campy fans I’ve come across are extremely loyal in the same way sports fans are to the teams they’ve been rooted for since childhood.
A friend I’ve ridden with for years only rides Campy wheels and groupsets and isn’t the least bit interested in trying gear from other companies. He owns a half dozen classic bikes, his dad runs a Ferrari dealer, and he’s of Irish heritage.
That last part doesn’t line up but I totally get and see how the rest of it fits together. And he rides away from me whenever he wants to which tells me his loyalty and talent are well suited too.
Bora is one of the most iconic wheel models in the Campy stable. Always at the top of the Campy line and with great performance to back it up, it was proudly a tubular only wheelset for 20 years. In 2015, the first Bora clinchers were introduced. In 2018, Campy introduced the first disc brake Bora models.
For a company with a great heritage, undying customer loyalty, and iconic models like the Bora, making change is like walking a tightrope between retaining what made you successful in the past and keeping you successful into the future.
The Bora 50 Ultra is teetering on that tightrope. It is changing but the change is slow. Its performance is running behind other wheelsets in this category of all-around carbon bike wheels that have changed much quicker.
The Bora is a reasonably comfortable wheelset with 25C tubed tires on it but no more comfortable than average. It isn’t tubeless ready. They haven’t widened the rim’s 17mm internal, 24mm external dimensions since they introduced it as a clincher in 2016. So don’t plan on taking it out for a dirt ride or run it in a cross race.
With 25C Continental Grand Prix 4000S II mounted on these Bora 50s, the tire measures 26.9mm wide. This creates a less than ideal aero combination when other all-around wheels are wide enough to exceed the tire’s width. If you are looking for speed, you’ll be better off with 23C tires mounted to these rims.
Its classic, V-shaped profile creates a classic crosswind handling issue on these 50mm deep rims during a time when other wheels have created profiles that have greatly reduced or nearly eliminated crosswind hassles.
If you are a Campy loyalist, I can imagine you are saying to yourself or perhaps yelling out loud at me things like “I don’t care about wide wheels, U shaped profiles, tubeless tires or doing any stinking dirt road riding. I want a stiff, classic Campy race wheelset and I know how to deal with the crosswinds just fine, thank you.”
If that’s your reaction, and you want a classic set of wheels, these may be for you.
The Bora Ultra 50 is indeed stiff, amongst the stiffest around. This is a Campy wheelset characteristic that has been central to the Bora and continues in this clincher model. That stiffness, along with their light weight, shows up when you accelerate and when you climb.
They handle very precisely, though not any better than a few other of the better handling wheels in this category.
A trademark of Campy wheels is their smooth rolling hubs. Very smooth rolling in the case of the Bora Ultra 50 which come with the companies top ceramic bearing fitted hubs.
Oh, and they look drop dead gorgeous. I don’t normally comment on the looks of gear because everyone has their own tastes. But, these Boras standout. No stealth looking black on black labels and matte black finish rims for these babies.
The carbon weave is beautiful. The large grey and white or red Campagnolo labels scream your brand preference. It’s hard for anyone to miss what you are wearing… uh, riding. Very Italian indeed.
Campagnolo did make some changes for the 2018 update of the Bora you’d normally associate with faster changing wheel brands. They went to a textured brake track and added in some higher temperature resin to improve performance and reduce the chance of overheating.
While the previous model had pretty good carbon rim braking, this is a touch better and puts them on par with the best dry braking carbon wheels. Like the others with textured tracks, they are a bit noisy but I’ll take that every day for the improved performance. The Bora’s stiffness allows you to set the pads closer to the rims and get better modulation than many other wheelsets.
Like most things Campy, they sell for a price premium to every other wheelset in this category. I guess if I threw a set of Lightweight Meilenstein into the mix the Bora Ultra 50 would look like a bargain. But at Campy’s suggested price of USD$3260, £2620, €2830, they look pricey.
Fortunately, you have a couple of options. Through these links to Chain Reaction Cycles and Wiggle, recommended stores with the best prices on the Bora Ultra 50, their market price starts closer to USD$2400, £1900, €2300 for models with Campy hubs, considerably higher for those with Shimano/SRAM ones, and higher still for the bright label versus the grey label ones.
The other option is to go with the Bora One 50, the same wheels but with Campy’s less expensive ceramic bearing, alloy shell USB hubs. They add back about 50 grams to the wheels but are still perfectly good, smooth riding hubs that will save you about USD$800, £500, €600 at the best market prices from Chain Reaction Cycles and Wiggle. Do the math. That’s a pretty good savings per added gram.
ENVE SES 3.4 –THE BEST CLIMBER THAT CAN ALSO SERVE AS AN ALL-AROUND
When ENVE introduced the second generation SES 3.4 wheelset as “climbing wheels with an aero advantage” it seemed like we were being fed a new product with an identity crisis. The first generation SES 3.4 were all-around wheels. And ENVE also had the SES 2.2 climbing wheels in their lineup, ones I’ve previously evaluated and rated the Best Performer in my first review of carbon clinchers for climbing.
Well, the SES 2.2 is still around but the second generation SES 3.4 is a better climbing wheel. In my latest review of the best climbing wheels, I rated them the Best Performer.
Riding them back to back with the Zipp 303 NSW, Nate and I found the SES 3.4 stiffer and a better climber than the NSW or anything else in this category.
They don’t get up to speed as fast as the 303 NSW and you need to put more work into them to maintain it once your there.
Makes sense; at rim depths of 38.5mm in the front and 42.5 in the rear, the SES 3.4 is shallower than the NSW and Bontrager XXX 4. But they feel as fast or faster than the other wheelsets in this category not named Zipp or Bontrager and they laugh in the face of crosswinds.
ENVE rim brake wheels all use the same textured brake tracks. In my experience, they are top of the charts both in dry and wet conditions. The hub options sold with these new wheels – DT Swiss 240, Chris King R45 and R45 ceramic – are all first-rate performers, rolling smoothly, engaging quickly and accelerating with the best of them.
Weight, free-wheel sound, rolling smoothness, long-term durability, and price are the things that separate these hubs but you can’t go wrong with any of them. I’m partial to the DT Swiss 240. They’re quieter, less expensive and need no maintenance. The ENVEs sold through European stores are all speced with Chris King models however and those are some of the smoothest rolling hubs you can find.
Wheelset quality, customer service, and warranty (5 years) are also exceptional.
The SES 3.4’s market price falls in between the 303 NSW and XXX 4 Best Performers. You can find the best prices from the best stores for the ENVE SES 3.4 by clicking these links to Competitive Cyclist, Tweeks, Merlin or directly from ENVE by clicking through this link to ENVE.com.
If you are torn between buying a climbing and all-arounder, the SES 3.4 is the wheelset that doesn’t force you to choose.
MAVIC COSMIC PRO CARBON SL UST – SOLID BUT UNEXCITING
The Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST is an update of the Cosmic Pro Carbon SL C, Mavic’s first medium depth rim brake wheelset using only carbon fiber and resins in its brake track. Previously, Mavic had put aluminum sleeves inside their carbon rims to provide alloy brake tracks that dispersed the heat generated from braking.
In going from the “SL C” to “SL UST” model, Mavic also widened the rims, put on new hubs, and built it to their new UST tubeless standard.
The result? The new Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST is a more comfortable, quieter, and more tubeless ready wheelset. It’s clearly an improvement over the SL C it replaces that I reviewed previously with the headline – A strong, noisy performer at a good price.
The SL UST is 2mm wider than the SL C, and now 19mm across the inside of the rim (measured between the bead hooks). I could feel added comfort in the ride. This is especially so with the new Mavic Yksion Pro UST 25C tubeless tires that are made for Mavic by Hutchinson and that come pre-installed on the wheels and included in its price. Just add the sealant that also comes with the wheels and inflate.
Compared to the much heralded Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tires, tests of these new Yksion Pro show equivalent rolling and puncture resistance (see tubeless tire ratings here). In my experience, these tires also have a better road feel and their aerodynamics are better for this wheelset’s profile (and many others) than the Pro One. The mounted and inflated width for the 25C tire is a millimeter narrower than the Schwalbe and closer to the wheels’ 25.5mm external or brake track width.
The Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST hubset is also new but, according to the word out among shop mechanics, is a knock-off of DT Swiss 240 hubs used on many other carbon road bike wheels. Whatever its design influence, the new Mavic hub is smoother and quieter than the noise created by the SL C hubs while retaining the distinctive Mavic freewheeling sound.
This is real progress if you care about freehub buzz. We’re talking about going from it’s really annoying; don’t buy it to something like it’s fine if you like to hear your freewheel spin.
Mavic continues with the same version of their textured brake track on this Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST wheelset that was used on the SL C. At the speeds I ride (18-20mph on an average training or group ride), I found it gives you good braking on dry pavement but is not very good on wet roads.
My fellow tester Nate rides considerably faster (23-26mph) and challenges wheelsets a good deal more. He was unimpressed with the braking power and heat dissipation of these wheelsets down long, steep alpine descents. We both noticed they squeal after warming up.
While these Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST wheels climb well enough, this kind of braking seriously dulls the reward you’ve earned climbing when you are looking to cash in doing a long downhill. They do handle well in the crosswinds you often find in high mountain passes or those coming across open spaces.
While they are clearly stiff when you want to turn up the speed or head up a ramp, these wheels aren’t lively. There’s no snap and little giddy-up when you want to accelerate or get out of the saddle.
They do hold their speed well once you get moving but nothing out of the ordinary. The same can be said for their handling – solid but not inspiring of aggressive riding in the corners.
Over the year or so that Mavic improved these wheels, other well-established wheel makers like Zipp, Bontrager, Roval and DT Swiss were also improving the design and performance of their carbon road bike wheels and introduced new or updated wheels in this category. The Pro Carbon SL UST didn’t keep up or catch up with the improvements made by their competitors.
Mavic’s recommended price for this wheelset, which their retailers don’t stray far from, puts it in a tough spot. At a market price of around $2,100/£1,350/€ 1,550 at bike shops in the US where it’s not sold online by the stores I recommend and sold online at Slane for UK and EU residents, it doesn’t excel against others in a similar price range.
You don’t have to spend a whole lot more to get much better performance and you can spend a lot less and get performance as good in the Best Value Easton EC90SL. If you don’t have the budget for better-performing carbon road bike wheels or if you value Mavic’s extensive dealer network and aren’t going to ride them as hard as a Group A rider like Nate, then this solid if unexciting wheelset may work for you.
If you plan to buy these wheels, make sure you track down the Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST with all of those words and initials in the name in that order. Mavic’s model names are confusingly similar and it’s easy to find a very different wheelset with a very similar sounding name. For example, Mavic makes a Cosmic Pro Carbon UST, a Cosmic Pro Carbon, a Cosmic Pro Carbon Exalith, and a bunch of other Cosmic blah blah blah models that are different wheelsets than the one with I’ve reviewed here.
Now you know…
ROVAL CLX 50 – ANOTHER GOOD OPTION THOUGH AT A HIGHER PRICE
Roval uses the same rim, hub internals, and spokes on its CLX 50 disc and rim brake bikes. The review below is excerpted from my write up of their disc brake model.
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 with ceramic bearings.
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 road disc wheel 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 has a modern aerodynamic profile and maintains 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.
About the rim brake CLX 50 … Reports from other testers found the rim braking on these wheels adequate but not on par with those made with textured brake tracks. Actual weight measurements of these wheels run from 1408 to 1429 to 1438 grams vs. a claimed weight of 1375 grams.
ZIPP 303 FIRECREST – 303 NSW A YEAR LATER AND A GRAND LESS
If you bought one, it’s maddening that a set of top-rated, all-around, carbon bike wheels you spent $3100 on could drop in price nearly $1000 and be surpassed in performance by a successor model in as little as a year.
If you didn’t buy one, now may be the time to get the less expensive model that’s a lot like the one you could have spent a whole lot more for, especially if its strengths and budget suits you.
Such is the world of Zipp wheelsets and the innovation going on more broadly in the world of carbon bike wheels these days.
In 2017 Zipp started selling its line of NSW wheels with new rim shapes and hubs. The Zipp 303 NSW knocked the Zipp 303 Firecrest off the top of its performance and price perch and the 303 Firecrest price was reduced to $2200.
In 2018 Zipp did it again. A new NSW line of carbon road bike wheels was introduced including a new Zipp 303 NSW. With that, the original 2017 303 NSW rims have become the centerpiece of the new 2018 303 Firecrest, the one I’m reviewing here, together with Zipp’s 77/177 hubs first put on the 303 and other Firecrest wheelsets in 2016.
Are you following me?
Oh, and the 2018 Zipp 303 Firecrest sells for a market price of $2,200/£1,880/€2,200. It is available at the best prices through these links to recommended stores in the US/CA Competitive Cyclist and in UK/EU at Tredz.
These changes were triggered by Zipp’s efforts to improve the speed, crosswind management, braking, stiffness, comfort, and handling of its wheelsets. With innovation in the wheelset world focused on these areas over the last half dozen years, other wheelmakers had caught up to or surpassed the Firecrest wheels in several of these areas where its performance was tops.
Some of the improvements (speed, crosswind management, braking) showed up in the first-generation NSW rims that are now the core of the 303 Firecrest. Other improvements (comfort, handling) are seen in the latest NSW wheels that are wider and tubeless.
So, how does the latest Zipp 303 Firecrest perform?
This new 46mm deep, 1500 gram carbon clincher wheelset is very snappy when you want to accelerate. Once up to speed it maintains your momentum very well, riding like wheels 15mm deeper on the flats. It climbs like ones 10-20mm shallower uphill and practically laugh in the face of crosswinds, running as straight as a low-profile alloy wheelset in gusting or steady winds.
If you’ve never ridden carbon wheels, those brief comments about responsiveness, momentum, climbing, and crosswind behavior are the first things you look for in separating out carbon wheels. Most carbon wheels that sell for less than the 303 Firecrest can’t do most or any of the things. Some that sell for the same or more than the Firecrest can’t do all these things as well.
The textured brake tracks on the new 303 Firecrest (that came with the earlier NSW rims) are a clear step up from earlier non-textured models. They can give you the kind of confidence on dry roads you get from alloy brake tracks. On wet roads, they are better than carbon wheels without textured tracks but not as good as alloy ones.
Top of the line (and more expensive) ENVE and Bontrager Aeolus XXX series wheels provide better power, modulation, and wet braking than the 303 Firecrests. But these wheels brake better than others Nate, Moose and I have evaluated in the same and lower price ranges as the 303 Firecrest.
Earlier 303 Firecrests and NSWs always felt moderately stiff to me and perhaps not stiff enough for heavier or stronger riders. Amongst carbon bike wheels, ENVE, Bontrager, and Easton hoops are stiffer.
Zipp put redesigned 77/177 hubs on the 2016 303 Firecrests. That, perhaps along with other things they may have done with the rims made those stiffer wheels. Those hubs carry over to the new 303 Firecrest.
If you are light (68kg/150lbs) or not regularly cranking over 3.25 watts/kg, you’ll likely find the current 303 Firecrest plenty stiff and will enjoy the responsiveness I feel from these that you may not feel with a stiffer wheelset. If you are over (82kg/180lbs) or cranking it out at over 4 watts/kg, you might find yourself wanting a stiffer wheelset going uphill and in your more competitive rides.
I find this 303 Firecrest very comfortable on the road and handle with a kind of riding on rails confidence you want in every wheelset but find in few. With a set of 25C Zipp Tangente Course or 25C Continental Grand Prix 4000 II S tires, you’ll get a good aero fit where the mounted, inflated tire width is less than the 27.5 mm rim width at the brake track.
If you are purely a road cyclist committed to clincher and tube setups, the rest of this review won’t matter to you. If you do want wheels to ride for cyclocross or occasional dirt path riding, know that these 303 Firecrest don’t come tubeless. They also have relatively narrow inside widths (17.5mm front, 17.2 rear) than those best suited for off-road riding.
With other rim brake wheels being tubeless ready and inside widths at 19mm or even 21mm wide, there are better choices for you than the 303 Firecrest if you value greater stability and low tire pressure when riding off-road. Zipp went with a tubeless, 19mm rim on the latest 303 NSW to make them more competitive with what others had already done in this rim brake carbon clincher wheelset category.
There is one question that I’ve been wondering about. You may be too after reading this review. The question: Is it worth waiting another year to see whether Zipp will pass on more NSW technology to the 303 Firecrest and at the Firecrest’s lower price?
With Zipp’s recent track record, it’s entirely possible they will do so yet again before long. However, seeing the technology separation Zipp has kept between the NSW and Firecrest lines that help justify the price difference, I don’t see them being able to pass more technology down in the next year or two, for example, 19mm tubeless rims, without blurring those lines.
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