THE BEST CARBON ROAD BIKE WHEELS
Cycling enthusiasts want to ride the best carbon road bike wheels. I’ll tell you which are the best we’ve tested at three price tiers for different types of riding and what performance characteristics matter most when choosing between them.
TL;DR (click for more)
- Today’s carbon road bike wheels fall into three price tiers – Value: US$900/£750/€900 to $1500/£1300/€1500, Performance: US$2000/£1600/€2000 to $3000/£2300/€3000, and Premium: US$3000/£2300/€3000 and up. Noticeable performance and distinctive attributes increase from one tier to the next.
- Actual road performance, not product specs, is the primary consideration when choosing wheels within each price tier. A wheelset’s versatility, specificity, aero drag, sidewind stability, lateral stiffness, vertical compliance, responsiveness, and durability matter most in judging its performance.
- Despite how many wheelsets are marketed, the design, materials, and manufacturing of rims determine performance more than differences among hubs and spokes, which are often more responsible for how the wheelset is priced.
- As with most consumer products, road bike wheel prices are based on what cycling consumers are willing to pay rather than actual costs. Rim materials and labor are the largest overall cost components. Distribution cost differences between smaller, direct-to-consumer wheelset suppliers and larger, multichannel ones are less significant.
- The best-performing all-around road bike wheels we’ve tested are the Bontrager Pro 37 TLR (Value tier), Zipp 303 S (Value tier), Elitewheels Drive 50D (Value tier), ENVE SES 4.5 (Performance tier), and Zipp 454 NSW (Premium tier).
- The best-performing aero wheels we’ve tested are the Zipp 404 Firecrest (Performance tier value), Bontrager Aeolus RSL 62 (Performance tier), and ENVE SES 6.7 (Performance tier)
- The best-performing climbing wheels we’ve tested are the Elitewheels Drive 50D (Value tier) and Roval Terra CLX II (Performance tier).
- The best-performing all-road wheels we’ve tested for riding on either road or gravel are the ENVE SES 4.5 (Performance tier) and Roval Terra CLX II (Performance tier).
The price of most carbon road bike wheels fall into one of three tiers:
* 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, my fellow In The Know Cycling testers and I haven’t yet found carbon wheels in the Value tier that perform on par with the better Performance tier ones. (We keep testing new ones in hopes we’ll find one.)
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.
Why In The Know Cycling exists: My fellow testers and I, with careers outside the cycling world, do comprehensive, comparative, and independent analyses and gear performance reviews to determine what gear is best for us and you on an ad-free, subscription-free, reader-supported platform.
Performance, not specs determines 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 various riding situations or dedicated to specific ones, from flat to climbing terrain, smooth to rough surfaces, and endurance rides to racing.
* 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 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 various 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 harsh, even with wide tires 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 carbon 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 about price more than performance. And, if you are more of a recreational rider, you may not notice the performance differences in the way those who ride more often and harder will.
Performance tier wheelsets reduce these trade-offs, provide more balance, and deliver performance levels as good as they get on most criteria. You’ll ride faster with 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 not 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.
The bottom line right off the top:
- Rim profile is the most important part of a wheelset’s contribution 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 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. Some, like higher-priced carbon spokes, may improve stiffness but reduce comfort.
Finishes and graphics vary between wheels, but it’s hard to see a direct correlation to price tier. However, riders motivated to ride faster 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 for this post with companies making wheels at each price level affirmed some common truths about prices and revealed realities about costs.
The big picture: As with most products in the cycling industry and commercial markets, carbon road bike wheel prices are set by what customers are willing to pay, not by a product’s cost.
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 regardless of price tier or where the wheels are made.
- Premium and Performance tier wheels require considerably more labor to lay up their rims and use far more carbon plies that 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 greater 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.
- However, the added requirements of warehousing, marketing, sales, and service these new brands require to compete with established ones who make wheels at higher volume levels, and the added tariffs and shipping fees on manufacturers selling from overseas factories have significantly 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 reduce their costs greatly. 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 mainly in the Value segment at prices 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 distributors and 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 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 their wheelsets’ competitive or superior performance or product designs.
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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.
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 broader 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 in many of them.
At US$4220/£3376/€3798, it better be. But if top performance in a single wheelset in nearly every situation and against nearly every criterion is essential 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 and the 454 NSW’s quick engaging rear hub make it so responsive that it redefines the term “snappy” and is 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.
You can buy the Zipp 454 NSW using these links to Competitive Cyclist, BTD (BikeTiresDirect), and Tweeks Cycles, stores I recommended and rate highly for their prices, customer satisfaction, and support. You can also find it and compare prices using this link to Know’s Shop, which shows all the stores I recommend that carry this product.
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$2850/£2850 costs a good amount less, especially if you are paying in US Dollars.
It’s also a better bet if you want one wheelset for paved roads and those long flat, and rolling dirt or gravel ones. It feels as fast or faster on flat, rolling, and descending terrain, as comfortable on good roads, and more comfortable on rough roads and unpaved paths than any other carbon disc wheelset I’ve evaluated.
See my full review and ratings of the ENVE SES 4.5.
BONTRAGER PRO 37 TLR – BEST ALL-AROUND VALUE WHEELSET
The Bontrager Aeolus Pro 37 is a wheelset that seems as if it was designed for the value-carbon road disc rider from the get-go. It is a capable performer in all the key areas I look for in an all-around road disc wheelset.
“Capable performer” may read like a backhanded compliment. I don’t intend it to be. It’s just that nearly all the wheelsets in the value-carbon category have one or more major performance weaknesses that limit what you can do with them, and this Bontrager doesn’t.
It also has hooked rims that allow you to use conventional clincher tires with tubes or tubeless ones, whichever you prefer. If you prefer to go tubeless, tape the rims rather than using the plastic rim strips that come with the wheels, as it will save you 120 grams.
While the Aeolus Pro 37 doesn’t perform at the level of US$,£,€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$1500/£1250/€1800 price.
It’s available directly from Bontrager.
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 price is very un-Zipp-like, and the 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, 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 to 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.
See my full review of the Zipp 303S and other value carbon wheels.
ELITEWHEELS DRIVE 50D – BEST ALL-AROUND VALUE WHEELSET
While all wheelsets perform differently, the Elitewheels Drive 50D wheelset stands out as the only serious climber among the all-around value carbon wheels we’ve tested.
Its combination of stiffness and low weight really comes through riding up steep pitches and across rolling terrain.
While it’s not on par with lighter, more expensive, dedicated climbing wheels, these Elitewheels are notably better on this kind of variable-grade terrain than anything else we’ve tested in the value carbon wheelset price range.
As an all-arounder, and compared to other value carbon wheels, it performs on par with most in this price range and among the best in some ways.
The Drive 50D is one of the most responsive value carbon wheelsets we’ve tested. It accelerates almost as if reading your mind; there’s no hesitation once you put your foot down. In a large group ride, when the pace can vary continuously, this performance characteristic can reduce the spikey power surges and cadence drags that might otherwise create more fatigue than you bargained for.
The wheelset is competitively priced at US$1189, £1015, €1170 and available using this link to Elitewheels. Using the code ITKCycling will give you a 15% discount, effectively reducing the price to US$1011, £863, €995.
See my full review of the Elitewheels Drive 50D 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.
BONTRAGER AEOLUS RSL 62 – BEST AERO PERFORMANCE WHEELSET
The Bontrager Aeolus RSL 62 operates best in the aero lane and does it with stability in side winds and comfort across all paved surfaces better than most we’ve reviewed in this category.
Their stiffness, responsiveness, and ability to maintain momentum are on par with other aero wheelsets, while their wider rims handle a 28mm tire without compromising aero performance.
Selling for US$2700/£2100/€2500, you can order the RSL 62 directly from the Bontrager.
Read my full review of the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 62 and comparisons to other aero wheels.
ENVE SES 6.7 – BEST AERO PERFORMANCE WHEELSET
If TTs and triathlons are your jam or you just like to ride fast where it’s mostly flat, somewhat windy, and on less-than-perfect roads, the SES 6.7 is going to be one of the faster aero and lower rolling resistance wheelset choices and one of two overall best performers in the aero wheelset category available to you.
On more variable terrain, ones with short, punchy climbs, or in situations where quick accelerations are key to closing or opening gaps, the SES 6.7 would take much more work than riders around you on shallower, more responsive wheels.
Read my full review of the ENVE SES 6.7 wheelset.
ZIPP 404 FIRECREST – BEST VALUE AERO PERFORMANCE WHEELSET
While you can find better-performing aero wheels and lower-priced ones than the Zipp 404 Firecrest Tubeless Disc Brake, the performance-price combination makes this wheelset the best value in the aero Performance wheelset category.
It’s fast on the flats like its 404 predecessors, as you would expect any wheelset with its 58mm rim depth should be.
But, it also climbs and rides across rolling terrain better than most wheelsets 60-65mm deep and as good as some 10mm to 15mm shallower. Add to that its ability to hold its line well in crosswinds, a welcome performance characteristic whether going all out on an exposed flat road or a fast downhill after a good mountain climb.
See my full review of the Zipp 404 Firecrest.
Best Climbing Road Bike Wheels
Climbing wheels are for long rides centered on climbing up and down average gradients of 7% and steeper pitches that go on for kilometers or miles at a time.
The best climbing wheels 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.
ROVAL TERRA CLX II – BEST CLIMBING PERFORMANCE WHEELSET
While the Roval Terra CLX II is a versatile road and gravel wheelset, it’s the best road climbing wheelset we’ve tested and the least expensive in US dollars among the top performers in this category. Roval also makes the Alpinist, its designated climbing wheelset, but the Terra (1278g on my scale with an HG freehub) is just as light and has wider rims, allowing you to run wider tires for more comfort without any aero loss.
Yet, despite their weight and relatively low profile (33.0mm measured), they are also great all-around road and racing wheels. With 28mm Continental Grand Prix 5000 S TR tires inflated in the low 50psi range (25.3mm internal width, 68kg rider weight), you’ve got a race-ready setup.
Stiff, responsive, and compliant, they handle better than most riding switchbacks or just freewheeling downhill at high speed. The DT Swiss 180 EXP hub is also a smooth, quiet partner.
At US$2500, £2500, or €2850 retail price, while not cheap, you can order the Roval Terra CLX II through these links to Performance Bike, Tredz (10% off with code ITKTDZ10), and Cyclestore, each an online store I’ve vetted and recommend for their competitive prices, selection, customer satisfaction, and reader support.
See my full review and ratings of the Roval Terra CLX II and other climbing wheels.
ABOUT THE BEST LIST
Yes, many wheels from Zipp, ENVE, Roval, 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 these four and only one from a little-known manufacturer like Elitewheels 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.
The cycling industry doesn’t support us. 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 product introduction trips, don’t work in bike shops or any cycling industry job, or ever have. We eliminate those things that could create a conflict of interest or make us feel obligated to “do a solid” for a brand or people we know connected to one.
I buy and sell or demo and return 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 subscriptions; I raise money through store links and memberships so we can afford to buy, review and recommend the best 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. We are catching up with reviews of their new tubeless wheelsets and selected the Roval Terra CLX II as the best climbing wheelset (see above). We also reviewed the Roval Rapide CLX II in the fall of 2022, and while a good wheelset, it isn’t one of the best.
Shimano introduced a new line of top-end carbon road bike wheels for the first time in half a dozen years. They have been hard to find in the US, where we test wheels. When we get an opportunity to test them, we will update this review if they are among the best.
DT Swiss also introduced new lines of enthusiast-level carbon aero, endurance, 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. We’ve recently finished reviewing the ERC 1400 DICUT 45, their all-around depth endurance wheelset. We look forward to reviewing others.
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 been 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 most of our readers due to a company’s manufacturing capacity or distribution strategy.
We’ve tested two Bora WTO Campagnolo wheelsets now. They’re good but not one of the best in their categories.
We reviewed Reynolds Value and Performance price tier wheels in the all-around and aero categories that were introduced many 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, Shimano, ENVE, and others. Our reviews explain how they compare and why they aren’t on the best list. The Elitewheels Drive 50D did make the list because it’s one of the best.
We continue to test new 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.
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Thanks, and enjoy your rides safely! Cheers, Steve