THE BEST CARBON ROAD BIKE WHEELS
Every one of us wants to ride the best carbon road bike wheels we can. Yet we have different cycling goals, profiles, and budgets. So the best wheels for me might not be the best for you.
That’s why so many of us dig deep to understand the performance and product details of carbon wheels at different prices.
I’ve found the carbon road bike wheels we’ve tested generally fit into one of three price tiers. Each tier has wheels with performance, product, and budget characteristics that suit certain types of cyclists.
Those price tiers are:
* Value – US$900/£750/€900 to $1500/£1300/€1500. For recreational riders and cycling enthusiasts who want carbon wheels and prioritize price over everything else.
* Performance – US$2000/£1600/€2000 to $3000/£2300/€3000. For cycling enthusiasts and racers who want road bike wheelset performance that helps achieve their cycling goals.
* Premium – US$3000/£2300/€3000 and up. For cycling enthusiasts and racers who value distinctive product and brand attributes in addition to performance.
Of course, wheels selling within a price tier don’t all perform the same or are made from similar product materials, components, designs, and manufacturing processes.
And despite what some suppliers claim, I and my fellow In The Know Cycling testers haven’t yet found carbon wheels in the Value tier that perform on par with the better Performance tier ones. (We’ll keep looking.)
But, there are Premium tier wheels that perform no better than Performance ones and some Performance tier wheels that aren’t much better than Value wheels.
Those eagle-eyed among you may wonder, “what about wheels priced between the Value and Performance tiers?” While there are exceptions, most of those we’ve tested are either overpriced Value carbon wheels or outdated Performance tier road bike wheels.
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Performance, not specs determine how wheels ride on the road. From our testing, these are the performance characteristics we’ve found matter most to the riding experience.
* Versatility and Specificity – How well your wheels are suited for a variety of riding situations or dedicated to specific ones from flat to climbing terrain, smooth to rough surfaces, endurance rides to race disciplines.
* Aero Drag and Sidewind Stability – How efficiently they maintain your momentum going down the road with little to no wind and with steady or gusty winds coming from a few degrees off-center to from all sides.
* Lateral Stiffness and Vertical Compliance – How stout and precise they remain as you do a hard acceleration, go up a steep pitch, or lean into a corner while also being comfortable with the right set of tires and inflation pressure.
* Responsiveness and Durability – How lively and light they feel as you accelerate and handle your bike at different speeds, across varying terrain, and through a range of cornering situations while remaining intact after hard impacts and over their lifetime.
I list these in pairs because making wheels to optimize the performance of one criterion in the pair can compromise the performance level of the other.
- Versatile road bike wheels that perform well across many riding situations usually aren’t the best performers in specific cycling disciplines like climbing, time trials, or criteriums.
- Carbon wheel rim shapes optimized to reduce aero drag usually aren’t among the most stable in strong side winds and vice versa.
- Some laterally stiff wheels can be quite harsh even with wide tires and at low inflation pressures.
- Making carbon wheels exceptionally light can also make them prone to cracking while building them to endure hard impacts can make them heavier.
With Value carbon road bike wheels, you live with most of these trade-offs. Additionally, the performance level of Value wheels on any of these criteria is typically not as high as those of Performance or Premium wheels.
But, you buy Value bike wheels because you care principally about price, not performance. And, if you are more of a recreational rider, you may not notice the performance differences the way those who ride more often and harder will.
Performance tier wheelsets reduce these trade-offs, provide more balance between them, and deliver performance levels as good as it gets on most criteria. You’ll ride faster for the same amount of effort or as fast with less effort than on a similar depth Value wheelset.
Premium tier road bike wheels can be marginally better for race-specific events like alpine climbs or time trials. This adds to the brand and price cache or the unique rim, hub, or spoke characteristics that attract many to wheels in this price tier.
Premium wheels may also include technologies that aren’t found in less expensive wheels. Some of these technologies deliver superior performance across one or more criteria. Others capture attention but deliver no better performance.
PRODUCTS AND COMPONENTS
The bottom line right off the top:
- Rim profile is the most important part of what a wheelset contributes to your speed and efficiency. Its shape, depth, and width determine its aerodynamic drag and sidewind stability.
With each new generation of wheels, incremental drag reduction and stability improvements are made.
Those advances show up first in Premium and Performance tier carbon wheels.
- Some companies that make these upper price tier wheels use the same rim profile with different materials or components in their Value wheels.
- Others use different profiles in their Value wheels than in their Premium and Performance wheels.
But, rim profiles are easily copied and quickly imitated in Value wheels – often within a couple of years – by companies that don’t compete in the higher-priced tiers and don’t do much or any R&D.
A material advantage: Higher strength-to-weight carbon materials cut into more functionally-specific pieces (or “plies”) and more purposefully located make the rims of Premium and Performance tier wheels lighter, more responsive, and more durable.
- It’s an advantage that separates them from Value carbon wheels with similar rim profiles.
Some Premium tier wheels take the materials technology and rim manufacturing a step beyond Performance priced ones to create even lighter and uniquely profiled rims.
Hubs are often the center of product attention:
- Each increase in price tier typically gets some combination of a lighter hubset, more durable bearings (carbide to stainless to ceramic), better seals, and more points of engagement.
But, when it comes to improved rolling efficiency (the number of watts needed for the same speed):
- Rim weight matters more than hub weight.
- Bearing grade matters more than bearing material.
- More points of engagement matter little in road cycling.
Spoke material (steel, aluminum, composite), shape (round or bladed), thickness, butting (two or more distinct diameters/thicknesses), and lacing (how spokes are crossed) can get more refined with each jump in carbon wheelset price tier. Aero drag, stiffness, compliance, responsiveness, and durability can all be affected.
But, the performance benefits of spokes more advanced than those used in Value priced carbon wheels are relatively small to insignificant.
- Spoke differences may provide more marketing benefits than performance gains.
Finishes and graphics do vary between wheels but it’s hard to see a direct correlation to price tier. However, riders motivated by the look of their wheels may achieve higher performance levels than those who aren’t. 🙂
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PRICES AND COSTS
My interviews with companies making wheels at each of the price levels for this post affirmed some common truths about prices and revealed some realities about costs.
The big picture: As with most products in the cycling industry and commercial markets in general, carbon road bike wheel prices are set by what customers are willing to pay and not by the cost of the products themselves.
Wheel suppliers start with a price target and work backward through their cost structure to engineer, source, make, sell, and service the product to give them the returns they and their partners need to make.
It’s not what you may have thought: In carbon wheels, rim materials are the biggest cost component. Labor is the next largest cost. This relationship holds true regardless of price tier or where the wheels are made.
- Premium and Performance tier wheels require considerably more labor to layup their rims that use far more carbon plies and require more manufacturing precision than those of Value carbon wheels.
- Yet, the carbon material costs that go into those higher-priced wheels are still higher than the added labor cost to make them.
Hubs, spokes, finishes, labels, warranty, tool amortization, and other direct costs are far less than rim materials and labor. The gap between the rim and other component costs is even more with higher price tier wheels.
At the companies I spoke with, engineering and other indirect costs are not assigned to individual product lines even though the bulk of R&D goes into Premium and Performance tier wheels but may be used in Value tier products in the future by the same company.
Companies that make OE (original equipment) wheels for new bikes benefit from the added volume to reduce the costs of their after-market wheels.
The origin story and new reality: The direct-to-consumer sales model that bypasses distributors and retailers and their mark-ups allowed new brands and overseas manufacturers to create a market for Value priced carbon road bike wheels to serve the previously unmet need of a segment of cyclists.
- But, the added requirements of warehousing, marketing, sales, and service to grow these new brands to compete with established ones at higher volume levels and the added tariffs and shipping fees on manufacturers selling from overseas factories have greatly increased their costs.
- At the same time, larger established brands are now competing in the Value price tier and leveraging high-volume materials and manufacturing techniques along with established rim designs to greatly reduce their costs. Their distributors and retailers take on the inventory, sales, and service costs that direct-to-consumer brands also incur.
- Today, competition between direct-to-consumer brands and established ones using a distribution model happens mostly in the Value segment at prices that are usually US$300/£150/€300 or less apart for similarly speced carbon wheelsets. It’s not an insignificant amount for the Value tier customer but far less than the price difference cyclists faced between established and newer brands in the past.
- Multichannel distribution – selling both direct and through retailers – is increasingly being used by the larger, established wheelset brands to serve customers where they want to be met while attempting to support their retail channel.
I didn’t forget: Regional brands or those that design, make, and sell their wheels principally within either the US, UK, Europe, or Australia compete with road bike wheels mostly at Performance and Premium price tier levels.
Their higher costs from lower production volumes either with a direct-to-consumer or distribution model often push their prices into those tiers rather than the competitive or superior performance or product designs of their wheelsets.
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Below are summaries of our reviews of the best all-around, aero, and climbing carbon road disc wheels at different price levels along with links to detailed reviews of those wheelsets and others we’ve rated them against.
Related: Best Rim Brake Wheels
Related: Best Gravel Wheels
Best All-Around Road Bike Wheels
The latest generation of all-around carbon road disc wheels are faster, more comfortable, and do more things well on a wider range of terrain than the best rim brake wheels and many of the earlier disc brake ones ever did.
ZIPP 454 NSW – BEST ALL-AROUND PREMIUM WHEELSET
If you don’t want to pick between wheels that would be fast on flats vs. on rolling hills vs. on climbs or in a training ride, group ride, road race, or crit, I recommend the latest Zipp 454 NSW Tubeless Disc-brake wheelset. It will be fast in all those situations and the fastest around in many of them.
At US$4000/£3200/€3800, it better be. But if top performance in a single wheelset in nearly every situation and against nearly every criterion is important to you, it just may be worth it.
It’s a stiff, deep (54.5 to 58.5mm), and light (1378 grams) wheelset. Those three attributes along with the 454 NSW’s quick engaging rear hub make it so responsive that it redefines the term “snappy” and make it an ideal breakaway partner from flats to all but the steepest of slopes.
Combine all of that with a very smooth rolling hubset, an almost silent and fast engaging freehub, and its varying depth rims, and you’ve got a unique riding and looking set of wheels.
See my full review and ratings of the Zipp 454 NSW.
ENVE 4.5 – BEST ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE WHEELSET
The ENVE SES excels on nearly as many performance criteria as the Zipp 454 NSW but at US$2850/£3100 costs a good amount less, especially if you are paying in US Dollars.
It’s also a better bet if you also want one wheelset for both paved roads and those long flat and rolling dirt or gravel ones. It feels as fast or faster on flat, rolling, and descending terrain, as comfortable on the good roads, and more comfortable on rough roads and unpaved paths than any other carbon bike wheels I’ve evaluated.
See my full review and ratings of the ENVE SES 4.5.
BONTRAGER PRO 37 TLR – BEST ALL-AROUND VALUE WHEELSET
The Bontrager Aeolus Pro 37 is a wheelset that seems designed for the value-carbon road disc rider from the get-go. It is a capable performer in all the key areas I look for in an all-around road disc wheelset.
“Capable performer” may read like a backhanded compliment. I don’t intend it to be. It’s just that nearly all the wheelsets in the value-carbon category have one or more major performance weaknesses that limit what you can do with them and this Bontrager doesn’t.
It also has hooked rims that allow you to use conventional clincher tires with tubes or tubeless ones, whichever you prefer. If you prefer to go tubeless, tape the rims rather than using the plastic rim strips that come with the wheels as it will save you 120 grams.
While the Aeolus Pro 37 doesn’t perform at the level of US$,£,€2000 and up carbon road disc wheelsets, its ride gave me equal or better performance across my evaluation criteria compared to other wheelsets I’ve tested within hailing distance of the Aeolus Pro 37’s US$1300/£1200/€1200 price.
See my full review of the Pro 37 TLR and other value carbon wheels.
ZIPP 303 S – BEST ALL-AROUND VALUE WHEELSET
If the Zipp 303 S Tubeless Disc-Brake wheelset didn’t have the Zipp logo on the side of its rims, I wouldn’t have guessed it was from Zipp. Its US$1300/£985/€1110 price is very un-Zipp-like. Its combination of better-than-average lateral stiffness and average vertical compliance (aka comfort) is the opposite of almost every set of Zipp wheels I’ve ever ridden that tend to be super comfortable but not as stiff as the rest.
The high lateral stiffness is certainly welcome and translates to good handling in these wheels and effective climbing for a wheelset of its weight.
Less than Zipp-like comfort in the 303 S isn’t a knock per se and it’s certainly not an issue. These are more like the comfort of the average mid-depth carbon wheelset. I did many 50-mile rides on them without any compliance-induced fatigue. It’s just that I had just gotten used to Zipp wheels being supremely comfortable.
These wheels have hookless rims that require you use tubeless tires. Most of the better tubeless tires are hookless compatible and even 200lb/90kg riders needn’t inflate 28mm tires above the recommended 72.5 psi/5 bar maximum inflation pressure.
The 303 S wheelset lists for US$1400, £1090, €1320, a very un-Zipp-like price. It often sells for less if you live outside North America. You can order it using these links to Competitive Cyclist, Planet Cyclery for North American residents, and Sigma Sports, Tredz (10% off for In The Know Cycling readers with code ITKTDZ10), Bike-Components for those in Europe.
See my full review of the Zipp 303S and other value carbon wheels.
Best Aero Road Bike Wheels
Aero bike wheels look fast, ride fast, and race fast. At 55mm to 65mm deep, they are the wheels of choice for most flat and rolling terrain for those who ride at average speeds well above 20mph/32kph. They are well suited for road races and crits, and can also work as time trial and triathlon wheels.
ENVE SES 5.6 – BEST AERO PERFORMANCE WHEELSET
Unique in our experience testing aero wheels, the ENVE 5.6 disc wheels ride almost like a blend of the best performance characteristics of wheelsets in both the all-around and aero categories.
They’re stiff, responsive, fast accelerating, confident handling, superior in crosswinds, and climb well. While they don’t maintain your speed quite as easily as deeper aero wheels, we’d pick them first for crits and lumpy time trials and most any road race or fast group ride.
You can order them for US$2550/£2800/€3300 from stores I rate highly for US/CA readers using these links to Competitive Cyclist, Performance Bike, and for readers in the UK, EU, and other countries from Merlin, Sigma Sports.
See my full review and ratings of the ENVE SES 5.6 and other aero wheels.
ZIPP 404 FIRECREST – PODIUM LEVEL AERO PERFORMANCE WHEELSET
Nearly as versatile though not with the snap or breadth of performance strengths you’ll get from the ENVE SES 5.6 on the flats, rollers, and climbs, the Zipp 404 Firecrest is a podium-level finisher among the aero bike wheels we tested.
But if you want an aero wheelset that performs as well or better than most on a wide range of road terrain at a price less than many that excel over a narrower range, the Zipp 404 Firecrest is there for you.
See my full review and ratings of the Zipp 404 Firecrest and other aero wheels.
ENVE 65 – BEST VALUE AERO PERFORMANCE WHEELSET
If you’re not all-in on aero but want some aero benefits, the ENVE 65 wheelset provides a solid foundation for aero riding without making a maximal investment. And the ENVE 65 is more focused on flat terrain speed, similar to most aero wheelsets, than speed across a range of terrain like the ENVE SES 5.6
The ENVE is also as stiff and compliant as the best we’ve reviewed in this aero category. Its performance on the remaining criteria are on par with the average wheelset in this group, neither better nor worse.
Its US$1750/£1850/€2200 price sets it apart, hundreds less than the others and makes it a clear choice for Best Value in the aero wheelset category.
See my full review and ratings of the ENVE 65 and other aero wheels.
Best Climbing Road Bike Wheels
Climbing wheels are for riders who do long rides that are centered on climbing up and going down average gradients of 7% and steeper pitches that go on for kilometers or miles at a time.
The best climbing wheels for climbing are stiff, aerodynamic, comfortable, and light. Those characteristics will help you convert your power and hard work as efficiently as possible going up while confidently handling the high speeds and frequent cornering coming down.
ZIPP 353 NSW – BEST CLIMBING PREMIUM WHEELSET
Despite a depth that suggests it is an all-around wheelset, the Zipp 353 NSW wheelset doesn’t carry the momentum that all-around wheels do and climbs better than the best climbing wheels. It also performs well on everything from smooth paved roads to rough gravel ones.
Indeed, versatility is one of its greatest strengths.
At 1248 to 1268 grams depending on the hubset you specify, the 353 NSW is almost freakishly light for a non-tubular wheelset. It’s 150 to 200 grams lighter than most of the current generation of tubeless disc carbon wheelsets and even 100 grams lighter than climbing ones.
It’s stiff, handles extremely well, and is supremely comfortable.
The Zipp 353 NSW is also one of the most expensive wheelsets you can buy at US$4000/£3200/€3600. If you’re so inclined, you can order it at recommended stores Competitive Cyclist, Performance Bike, Sigma Sports and Bike-Components.
See my full review and ratings of the Zipp 353 NSW and other climbing wheels.
ZIPP 303 FIRECREST – PODIUM LEVEL CLIMBING PERFORMANCE WHEELSET
Nearly equal to the performance of the climbing wheels from ENVE and Bontrager, the Zipp 303 Firecrest at US$2025/£1350/€1730 is a relative value for paved road climbing and gravel road riding.
Shallower (40mm), wider (25mm internal, 30mm external) and lighter (1383 grams) than the prior 303 Firecrest Disc model, it is more climbing oriented than any of the long line of all-around rim or disc brake Firecrests that Zipp built its brand around.
While also stiffer than earlier Firecrests, it’s not quite as responsive, comfortable, or fast as the ENVE or Bontrager alternatives, either on climbs, paved flats, or gravel. But, this Zipp offers a price the others don’t come close to for the level of performance you get.
You can order it through these links to recommended stores Competitive Cyclist and Planet Cyclery in North America and at Sigma Sports, Bike-Components, and Tredz 10% off with code ITKTDZ10 in the UK and Europe.
See my full review and ratings of the Zipp 303 Firecrest and other climbing wheels.
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ABOUT THE BEST LIST
Yes, only wheels from Zipp, ENVE, and Bontrager are on this “best” list. While we’ve tested wheels from over 20 other well-known and lesser-known brands, you may be wondering why those from just these three made the list.
Fair question. I’ll explain the process and why current models from other brands aren’t on the best list.
While wheelset evaluations are by their nature subjective, we use a process that makes each wheelset earn its position based on its merits.
- Several of us ride and rate every wheelset and write up private notes. I then compile the notes, reconcile the ratings, and write the reviews.
- We use the performance criteria I described earlier and compare wheels against each other rather than opine on them in isolation.
- Specs, looks, origin stories, and other things that wheelmakers use to market wheels and play prominently in others’ reviews don’t enter into our ratings.
We aren’t supported by the cycling industry. We don’t run advertisements, don’t publish content sponsored or written by or for bike companies, don’t go to cycling industry trade shows or on product introduction trips, don’t work in bike shops or in any cycling industry job, or ever have. We eliminate those things that could create a conflict of interest or make us feel an obligation to “do a solid” for a brand or people we know connected to one.
I buy or demo and return or donate the wheels and other gear we test. We’re fully reader-supported by the commissions that come when you click on and buy your gear using one of the links to stores you see on the site. If you don’t trust our reviews or the stores we’ve recommended for their prices, selection, and customer satisfaction, you won’t and shouldn’t support us.
To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite public radio stations: I don’t publish reviews as an excuse to make money from ads and paywalls; I raise money through store links and memberships so we can afford to buy, review and recommend gear for you.
So, how is it that wheels from so few companies make the best list?
Looking across wheels we’ve tested or considered testing in the past couple of years, here’s my take on brands whose wheels didn’t make the list:
Roval updated their current generation of top road wheels from clinchers to tubeless-ready a few months after we first published this article. Rolling resistance testing along with comfort and handling clearly favors tubeless tires. Some racers on the teams they sponsor have been riding tubeless versions in 2022 but they haven’t been available to us amateurs until very recently. We’ll be riding them during the summer of 2022 and, if warranted, will update this article.
Shimano introduced a new line of top-end carbon road bike wheels for the first time in a half dozen years. They are just becoming available in the summer of 2022 and, as with the Rovals, we’ll review and update once we do.
DT Swiss also introduced new lines of enthusiast-level carbon aero, all-around, and climbing road wheels during the height of the pandemic. While that was quite remarkable in and of itself, they’ve not been widely distributed outside Europe yet and I’ve not been able to determine when or if they plan to be.
It’s a somewhat similar story with Vision/FSA and Mavic; new wheels were announced during the pandemic years but the product isn’t widely available, certainly not in the US where I get wheels and I think elsewhere as well.
It’s frustrating to read a review for a product that’s out of stock for a few months. But I don’t want to spend the time testing and writing a review for a product that I know won’t be available to a majority of our readers due to a company’s manufacturing capacity or distribution strategy.
We are testing just our second Campagnolo wheelset now. The first one was good but not one of the best in its category.
We reviewed Reynolds Value and Performance price tier wheels in the all-around and aero categories that were introduced several years ago. They have strengths but don’t perform as well as the top-rated wheels.
Easton and HED haven’t introduced any new road wheels in several years. I’ve tested wheels from both in the past but they didn’t perform as well as the current generation of wheelsets we rate higher.
We’ve tested and reviewed Value tier carbon road bike wheels from Light Bicycle, Yoleo, Hunt, Scribe and several others. Our reviews of them explain how they compare and why they aren’t on the best list.
In addition to new carbon wheels we hope to see from Roval, Shimano, DT Swiss, and others mentioned above, we expect still other brands will introduce updated road bike wheels. We continue to test Value wheels in search of ones that perform at the next level and search out new brands in all categories and price levels that might outperform the best.
Developing, introducing, and supplying new carbon road wheels during the pandemic apparently was particularly difficult for many companies.
- It requires a lot of design, testing, and operational complexity within and between companies in different parts of the world and across supply chains that is hard to pull off even in the best of times.
Larger companies like Zipp and Bontrager brought new lines out with 4th generation carbon disc wheel designs that perform at a higher level than those that didn’t. ENVE had several products that were already advanced in many ways and were not toppled by those introduced more recently.
I hope to see and be able to test new and more competitive products from brands not on this best list through the 2022/23 season.
- This would raise the level of performance further and give us roadies more options in all of the price tiers and road categories.
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First published on April 27, 2022. The date of the most recent major update is shown at the top of the post.