BEST LIGHTWEIGHT WHEELS FOR CLIMBING

If you regularly ride steep, long climbs, you should consider getting the best lightweight wheels or climbing wheels you can find.

The best lightweight 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.

In this post, I’ll share with you the kind of riding I believe best suits climbing wheels vs. all-arounders, what matters most when choosing lightweight wheels, and our reviews of those we’ve tested from some of the leading wheelmakers.

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BEST PERFORMER – ZIPP 353 NSW

Zipp 353 NSW

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.

You can read my full review here.

 

BEST PERFORMANCE-PRICE COMBINATION – ZIPP 303 FIRECREST DISC

ZIPP 303 FIRECREST DISC

Nearly equal to the performance of the climbing wheels from ENVE and Bontrager in this review, the Zipp 303 Firecrest at US$2025/£1600/€1930 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.

You can read my full review here.

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE LIGHTWEIGHT WHEELS

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

Who climbing wheels are best for

What matters most in deciding between lightweight wheels

Reviews of lightweight wheels best-suited for climbing

 


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WHO CLIMBING WHEELS ARE BEST FOR

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.

I don’t mean those of us who regularly ride “rollers”, those 4-5%, quarter mile or km hills that might total 5 km or miles during the course of a 40 to 75 km or mile ride that might also include a half km or even a half-mile climb that averages 7% during your ride.

Yes, you could certainly ride lightweight wheels on those kinds of rides to give you some advantage going up steeper sections. But you have to ask yourself whether what you gain on the hills with climbing wheels is worth what you lose on the flatter sections and downhills not riding more aero, all-around ones.

My experience?  I really miss the deeper wheelset on the flats and going down the rollers when I’m riding climbing wheels or any lower profile wheelset on all but the steepest climbs and long rides.

For example, I did a 125 mile/200 km long ride with 8500 feet/2600 meters of climbing on a set of 25mm deep, 1350 gram climbing wheels that included two steep, long, tough alpine climbs that exceeded 12% on average. The wheels were great on those climbs, the best I had ridden from that model year, but I think I worked just as hard if not harder trying to keep up with the group on the far more frequent flat and rolling sections because I didn’t have deeper wheels.

Several months later, I did a steeper, shorter route, a 100 mile/160 km ride with about 11,000 feet/3350 meters of climbing on a set of 1425 gram, 33mm deep set of wheels. It seemed that I was always climbing or going downhill on that ride and I’m glad I was riding those wheels.

As all-around disc brake wheels have entered their 4th generation, they are getting both lighter and deeper. Several that are now 45-50mm deep weigh between 1400 and 1500 grams. With a deeper carbon rim, they tend to be stiffer and transfer your power better than shallower, lighter ones do.

The best climbing wheels have themselves become deeper, now close to 40mm whereas several years ago most were in the low 30mm range.

To set themselves apart, or at least to notice a performance difference compared to the latest all-around wheels, today’s climbing wheels need to be 100 to 150 grams lighter than those all-arounders while being deep enough to feel essentially as stiff.

Where I ride and even when I do all but the steepest routes with 1,000 feet or more of climbing for every 10 miles of riding (300 meters per 15 kilometers), all-around road disc wheels are the way to go. I’ve reviewed the best of those wheels here.

Climbing wheels

If you do a lot of riding in the mountains, yeah, you’ll want wheels designed for climbing

If on the other hand, I lived at the foot of or regularly visited the Rockies, Sierras, Pyrenees, Alps, etc., I’d definitely want to be able to put a set of lightweight climbing wheels on my bike for those days when I’m doing those steep, long alpine climbs and descents.

Descending is not often considered when choosing climbing wheels. But, to do it fast and safely, aero and crosswind performance, stiffness and handling are key to enjoying the ride downhill that you earned working so hard going uphill

Of course, you could always have a support vehicle follow you and do a quick change to your climbing wheels when you hit the big mountains and switch back when you get off them.

What? Your friends or partner not into that? Mine either.

Regardless, climbing wheels are also for those of you with deep pockets. Lightweight wheels for climbing may be the third or fourth wheelset in your quiver. You may still have your stock wheels that came with your bike or another alloy set you use for all-weather training. You may also have all-around or aero wheels (or both) for most of your training, group riding, road racing, or TT riding. Maybe a gravel wheelset or some MTB wheels for off-road adventures.

As most of the best climbing wheels cost at least $2000/£1500/€2000 and many run half again more, it’s not a purchase for those trying to stick to a cycling budget. Lucky you!

 

LIGHTWEIGHT WHEELS SELECTION CRITERIA

If you believe weight is the primary benefit of riding a dedicated climbing wheelset, is that the primary criterion to choose between them?  Far from it.

When I evaluate wheels, I look at four groups of selection criteria and about 20 specific ones within those groups.

Immediately below, I’ve highlighted the relative importance of those criteria for wheels you’ll want on long, steep climbs and descents vs those for all-around and deeper aero wheels.

As you can see from the criteria I’ve emphasized for picking wheels for the mountains, half of them – aerodynamics, compliance, braking, and rim profile – are not criteria you would consider in choosing what has been traditionally thought of as a ‘climbing wheel’.  These are important characteristics to ride fast and confidently on the high-speed, steep descents you’ll experience going down a long mountain pass.

In these situations, you’ll want aerodynamic wheels for max speed with rim profiles that keep the bike stable in crosswinds. While most dedicated lightweight wheels for climbing are lower profile than all-arounds, you can still shape the rims to reduce drag and cheat the crosswinds.

You’ll also want wheels that are compliant going down often rough alpine roads and handle well as you are whipping through the switchbacks. If you are riding rim brake wheels, you’ll want to be able to brake reliably at high downhill speeds and in all weather conditions and you don’t want any fading or degradation in braking on long descents. While this was more important for alloy and carbon rim brake wheels, disc brake rotors on road disc wheels must be aligned well with disc brake calipers and supported by good hydraulic brake systems to make it all work.

For climbing, you might as well take advantage of lightweight wheels but you also want ones that transfer your energy into power as effectively as possible. That’s why stiffness is emphasized. When you are cranking out 250-400 watts trying to keep upright going up pitches ranging from 7% to 15% for what seems like forever, you want stiff wheels and the right spoke count for your weight to convert your effort as efficiently as possible to the road.

As I hope you can see, you have different and equally important needs going up and going down a long, steep mountain and weight is only one of many considerations. That’s why I think climbing wheels is a misnomer and you should really think about these as both climbing and descending wheels or lightweight wheels that need to perform well going both directions.

Finding wheels that accomplish all of this requires some trade-offs. Very light wheels aren’t usually the stiffest, for example. And, aerodynamic wheels to some mean deep dish rims which aren’t usually the best at handling on windy mountain descents.

There are also some things that you really don’t want to compromise on. Older carbon clinchers have no place on long downhills where you need to do a lot of braking as they can overheat, warp, ruin the wheels and result in a blowout at speed. The wheels reviewed here represent the latest generation of carbon disc wheels from established wheel makers that don’t have these issues if you don’t drag your brakes and overheat or warp your rotors.

The heavier you are, the more these criteria matter because you’ll be putting more energy into the bike going up and will travel at higher speeds and create more braking energy going down. A rider weighing 190lbs or 200lbs or more will want a stiffer wheelset than a 150lb rider with the same watts per kilogram. They will also need more room to brake.

On the other hand, the lighter rider will be more prone to getting pushed around on a windy descent if the wheel’s profile doesn’t handle crosswinds well and will benefit more from an aerodynamic profile that cuts through both crosswinds and the apparent wind created going down a mountain. None of the wheels in this review here are so deep or have rim profiles that cause a big problem but some are shaped better than others so as to have no problem except in the strongest winds.

Looking to the pro racing circuit for guidance on climbing and descending wheels is a mistake. The best climbers typically weigh 135 to 145 lbs, have 6% or less body fat, are often riding super-light, super-stiff bikes, and are putting out more than 5 watts/kilo going uphill during a race. They also have support vehicles to give them different wheels during the race depending on the terrain.

I’d guess most road cycling enthusiasts have 15-20% body fat (the amount for a “fit body type”), are doing 3 to 4 watts/kilo, and more often are riding comfortable endurance bikes than super stiff or super light race bikes. Sorry to say, the pros and we amateurs live in two different worlds.

Even those of you lighter men and women with natural climber body types, <10% body fat, 4+ w/kg ratios, and on very stiff racing bikes will still finish 10-20% (3-6 minutes on an hour ride) behind pro-level racers on the most challenging climbs. You can draw on lessons from the pros but buying the same wheels they ride hoping to get a far better result is not likely. If we could buy their genetics, we’d have a better shot.

So with all that as background, let me share with you my evaluation of the best lightweight road disc climbing wheels I’ve tested. If you’re looking for rim brake wheels, I’ve recommended the best for climbing and other categories in this review.

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REVIEWS OF LIGHTWEIGHT DISC BRAKE WHEELS FOR CLIMBING

Best Performer

ZIPP 353 NSW – VERSATILITY TO A FAULT

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 grams with an XDR freehub (20 grams more with an HG aka 11-speed Shimano/SRM freehub), the 353 NSW is almost freakishly light for a non-tubular wheelset. It’s 100 grams lighter than any tubeless disc carbon climbing wheelset I’ve reviewed.

Zipp 353 NSW

And boy, does it climb! I almost had to check that I hadn’t left my water bottle or saddle bag at home when I hit the hill a quarter-mile mile from my house the first time out.

Miles blew away the competition when he rode the 353 NSW in the Crank the Kanc race that has a 5 mile, 7% uphill finish. Since the race starts with a 10-mile 1-2% grade, he put these Zipps on his Giant Propel aero bike. It turned that bike into a legitimate climber. That’s versatility for you.

We didn’t experience any effects of crosswinds riding the Zipp 353 NSW both on flat and downhill terrain. While its rims have the sawtooth pattern that is designed to neutralize them on their deeper 454 NSW, crosswinds haven’t been an issue with the last couple of generations of Zipp mid-depth wheelsets we’ve tested. Even Zipp told me they used the sawtooth design on the 353 NSW principally to reduce weight.

Tracking in turns, making quick direction changes, and doing other handling maneuvers on both good and rough roads with these Zipps produces a confident thrill unmatched by most wheelsets.

And comfortable? You bet. Nate described them as “plush over bumps at high speeds.” Miles called them “fantastic, so comfortable cruising over imperfections.” I concur.

With its inside hookless rim width I measured at 25.5mm, we rode the 353 NSW with 28c Schwalbe Pro One TLE during our test rides between 55 and 60 psi. I measured these tires as well as the 28c Specialized S-Works Turbo and Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite all narrower than the rim. That will give you reduced aero drag at high speeds.

Zipp 353 NSW

Yet, these Zipp 353 NSWs aren’t aero stars. All of us noted that you’ve got to keep the pressure on the pedals to keep your speeds up.

I rode the 353 NSW back to back on the same day and same route against the Zipp 303 NSW that it replaced. The 303 NSW was clearly superior in my ability to hold speed or momentum. I’m not sure why – likely because the 303 NSW is a 250-gram heavier wheelset while only a touch deeper than the undulating 42-46 mm deep 353 NSW and with an earlier generation of the smooth flowing Cognition hub – but I sure noticed a big difference.

We had split opinions on the stiffness of the 353 NSW. Nate, one of the strongest age-group climbers in the region was “underwhelmed by their stiffness”. He found them sluggish on short, punchy climbs. On the other hand, he thought the rear hub engaged more rapidly than the many other wheelsets he’s tested.

Miles, no slouch when it comes to climbing and only a few kgs lighter than Nate thought these Zipps were “incredibly stiff” but engagement felt average especially when he accelerated on the steepest gradients during his hill training. Once engaged, however, he loved the way they accelerated.

To-mA-to, To-mAH-to? Hard to know.

I didn’t dare ride these expensive beauties on dirt and gravel. But, I’ve every indication that the comfort, handling, and climbing ability we enjoyed on the road would translate well off of it.

While the Zipp 353 NSW is clearly a standout climber and would likely perform with the best of them on gravel, it’s not as fast against other all-arounders. It’s almost as if its versatility is working against it, especially when trying to justify the US$4000/£3200/3600 price tag.

But if what it does well is the combination of things you are looking for, you can pick it up at Competitive Cyclist, Performance Bike, Sigma Sports and Bike-Components.

 

Best Value

ZIPP 303 FIRECREST DISC – VERSATILE VALUE FOR GRAVEL AND ROAD CLIMBING 

ZIPP 303 FIRECREST DISC

I’ll admit to being a bit skeptical of the new Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Tubeless Disc Brake wheelset before I rode it.

I’d learned to love the unique combination of comfort and speed of the 303 NSW disc road wheels that Zipp sadly dropped from their line-up after introducing this new Firecrest. And the also new, low-priced 303 S (reviewed here) I tested before the Firecrest didn’t ride like any Zipp wheelset I’ve ever known.

So while I wasn’t sure what to expect, I feared that Zipp and their new more jagged-looking logo might still be finding their way with this successor to the Firecrest franchise.

After riding this 303 Firecrest disc wheelset on enough paved flats, rollers, alpine climbs, and a full range of gravel surfaces to get a bead on its character, I can tell you it is blazing a new Firecrest path.

And, for what it costs and what it does, I like that path.

At US$2025/£1600/€1930 for a Firecrest, that path starts at a low price. With the $3200 Zipp 303 NSW disc that replaced the earlier $3200 303 Firecrest both now out of production (the $4000 Zipp 353 NSW and 454 NSW replacing them), that is the lowest it’s been for a Firecrest in, I think, ever.

Add to that, the 303 Firecrest disc is far wider (24.9mm inside, 30.0mm outside per my measurements), far lighter (1383 grams including pre-taped rims), and somewhat shallower (40.4mm) than previous Firecrests. Oh, and it only takes tubeless tires and has hookless rims.

So all that’s part of the new path, one that Zipp claims “is designed for the real world… a world of imperfect conditions, road surfaces, and elements”. In simpler words, it’s intended to be ridden on both paved and gravel roads.

For the most part, the Zipp 303 Firecrest disc pulls it off.

As a gravel bike wheelset, the 303 Firecrest is the full package. It’s comfortable and confident, or at least makes me feel that way on any class of surface. Negotiating around rocks, ruts, branches, in and out of lines, this wheelset is nimble and responsive.

Zipp 303 Firecrest

Stiffness is a plus on these 303 Firecrests. Notably, stiffness wasn’t always a characteristic strength on previous Firecrests and isn’t on other Zipp wheels if you are a heavy rider or putting a lot of watts into them. This greater stiffness also shows up on gravel climbs, where the new 303 Firecrest disc excels.

The hubs also perform well on unpaved roads. They engage relatively quickly and provide the acceleration you frequently depend on riding gravel roads with their regularly changing pitches and surfaces.

Zipp uses their own ZR1 hubset on this Firecrest, a 6-pawl, 6 degrees of engagement affair. This is also a new model for them, something they seem to regularly do with hubs every few years. Because of that, it’s frustratingly hard to know how they’ll hold up over time.

On paved alpine climbs, I found the 303 Firecrest Zipp to be nearly the equal of the best lightweight disc wheels like the ENVE SES 3.4 and Bontrager Aeolus 37 RSL (reviewed below). It wasn’t as snappy as the ENVEs or as quick as the Bontrager, but it was steady, strong, and felt like nearly every watt of power I put into the wheels went right to the road.

At a measured 1383 grams with the Shimano/SRAM 10/11-speed compatible freehub on the wheelset I tested, its light weight (about 30 grams heavier than the Bontrager and 40-50 grams lighter than the ENVEs) clearly makes it one you’d want to join you going up long, steep climbs.

On flatter paved roads and rollers, some of the differences between the Zipp 303 Firecrest disc and more expensive ENVEs and Bontragers and more expensive Zipp 353 NSW came out. The ENVE, Bontrager, and NSW are more comfortable and roll smoother on paved roads.

On paved roads, I used Zipp’s Tangente Speed Road Tubeless tires, ones I’ve found to be among the best tubeless tires, to do A-B and A-B-C comparative testing of the ENVE SES 3.4, Zipp 303 NSW and new Zipp 303 Firecrest. The Firecrest and ENVE 3.4 with their 25mm internal width rims got 28mm Tangentes inflated to the same pressure while the 21mm internal rim width 303 NSW was shod with 25mm Tangentes inflated to the appropriate pressure for their widths and my weight.

Each of these wheelsets uses different hubs and layups. That might explain the comfort differences.

While I don’t expect top-end aero performance from a 40mm deep wheelset, the 30mm outside width of the Firecrest vs. the 32mm measurement of the ENVE 3.4 front wheel might explain the speed difference I felt in its ability to hold speed.

But at its price and used primarily for gravel and alpine climbing, the Zipp Firecrest 303 disc wheelset is a great option for those riding purposes and a good value. And, for what that’s worth, I’m kind of partial to the new logo too.

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.

 

ENVE SES 3.4 DISC – PERFORMANCE IN THE FRAME OF THE RIDER

After an initial scan of fellow tester Nate’s and my evaluation notes for the ENVE SES 3.4 wheelset, previously known as the SES 3.4 AR Disc but otherwise essentially unchanged, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to the saying about how beauty is subjective, being in the eye of the beholder and all that.

Even though we’re both “road cycling enthusiasts”, he and I are very different riders. He’s one of the fastest non-pro roadies, best climbers, most practical gearheads, and highly analytical people I know.

Me? Not so much. Average speed (18-20mph) and climbing ability. Home wrenching skills, etc., Very enthusiastic though!

It’s actually kind of surprising when our evaluations reach similar conclusions about the performance characteristics of the gear we independently test. I always welcome his take and those of my other fellow testers Miles, Dave, and Moose because they add breadth and depth to my own. Together, I hope we cover the range of vantage points and rider profiles of those of you who read our reviews. (And yes, I’m also looking to add women to the test team.)

When it came to the ENVE 3.4 wheelset, Nate didn’t care much for it. I liked most of what it had to offer.

Looking closer at our evaluations of this ENVE wheelset, it became clear to me that what set us apart was probably more about our different bike frames and riding profiles than our mental frames or subjective views of what makes for wheelset performance “beauty”.

I point this out rather than try to write some compromise of a review as these distinctions may also apply to what you would experience riding this wheelset.

The 3.4 doesn’t fit neatly into a single wheelset category. At about 40mm (39.5mm front, 43.5mm rear with my calipers), it’s close but not as deep as most all-around road disc wheels that go 45-50mm both front and back these days.

While it’s light (1432 grams with ENVE alloy hubs on my scale), the 3.4 is also not a dedicated climbing wheelset. ENVE has introduced the SES 2.3 for racers doing road races in the mountains that’s a far narrower and shallower wheelset they claim weighs 200g less. I plan to review that wheelset.

ENVE SES 3.4What separates the SES 3.4 is its 25mm internal (25.0 measured) and 32mm external rim widths (actually 32.1 front and 32.5 rear). That, along with the similarly wide, deeper ENVE SES 4.5 (review here) makes it far wider than most road wheelsets being made these days that measure 19-21mm internal and 27-29mm external.

It is also as wide and often wider than most modern “gravel” wheels that range from 21mm to 25mm internal width.

So is it an all-around, climbing, and gravel wheelset triple-threat that’s great on all roads as suggested by its original AR name? Or, is it the wheelset equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife, one that gets high marks for its versatility but doesn’t perform as well as those dedicated to either the all-around, climbing or gravel mission?

Whether on paved or gravel roads, both Nate and I agreed the 3.4 is a laterally stiff wheelset. Yet in Nate’s already very stiff Specialized Venge aero frame, this strength didn’t add any benefit. In my Parlee Altum, as quick and light as a road racing frame with the comfort of an endurance one, I enjoyed how the added stiffness of these wheels helped me accelerate uphill and start above-threshold intervals (or sprints for all you racers).

Mounted on my Giant Revolt Advanced carbon gravel frame, the SES 3.4’s stiffness was further apparent in the bike’s improved responsiveness compared to how it feels with most of the gravel alloy and carbon wheelsets I’ve been testing lately.

Vertical or radial stiffness, better known as compliance or comfort was a joy for me and a disappointment for Nate. With the latest model Schwalbe Pro One TLE 28C tires on the 3.4’s 25C wide rims, you’d think they’d soak up every imperfection on our New England paved roads.

Tire pressure is key to optimizing wheelset comfort on any set of rims. It’s hard for some to wrap their heads (and pumps) around how low you should inflate a wheelset as wide as the 3.4. I pumped it to the 48psi ENVE’s tire chart recommends for my combination of body weight (145lbs/66kg), the Schwalbe’s inflated tire width (29.0mm @60psi), and the 3.4’s 25mm internal width.

Yes, 48 psi. That’s not a misprint.

Nate, with his racer’s mindset, went about 8psi higher than his recommended level. (Details withheld to maintain the friendship.)

While the wheels soaked up large bumps and small potholes better than most, for me they were also notably more comfortable on paved roads than narrower wheels also run tubeless. For Nate, they were less comfortable than 19C and 21C carbon road disc wheelsets even though the 3.4s were inflated at least 10psi less than the level he pumps those to, also with tubeless tires.

Dirt and gravel road comfort is principally due to tire and inflation choices. So while I found them very comfortable at 30 psi on the trail, I can’t attribute it directly to the wheels.

The 3.4’s relative width and ability to absorb the bumps certainly created greater handling confidence that felt warranted cornering at speed on unevenly paved roads and when changing lines, with the right tires mounted, on gravel ones.

While even 21C road disc wheels are at their aerodynamic best on 25C tires, the ENVE SES 3.4 and 4.5 wheelsets are one of few truly designed (rather than marketed) for 28C tires. With the Schwalbe Pro One TLE pair inflated at 60psi (my measurement benchmark for 25C road wheelsets), the tires measured 29.0mm wide, making the rim width far wider than the actual tire width to minimize aero drag.

Note that the new Schwalbe Pro One TLE measures a size down from the prior generation (i.e., current generation 28Cs measure what last generation 25Cs did) and are as much as 1.0 to 1.5mm narrower than many older model 28C tires I’ve measured from other brands. So depending on the tires you use, you may find them measuring very near the width of the rim though not likely beyond the 3.4’s 32mm external rim width.

Either way, make sure you have about 38-40mm of room between your fork and chainstays for the 32mm wide rims and a 3-4mm buffer either side of them for lateral deflection when cornering.

Also, be sure to use tires that are compatible with the hookless rim design that these wheels use (see list here). More tires are compatible now than when the also hookless, original 4.5 AR was introduced and I believe most will before long as more road disc wheels go the hookless route.

All of that said, the 3.4 didn’t maintain momentum or otherwise feel particularly “aero” compared to better 50mm deep all-arounds and certainly not on par with still deeper aero wheelsets. On the plus side, it did feel a bit more sustained going forward than other wheelsets in the 35-40mm range. Also, the weeks of 10-20mph crosswinds we experienced during our spring testing rides didn’t affect this wheelset one bit.

The hubs ran smoothly with an average freewheeling sound from the ENVE alloy hubs that use Mavic Instant Drive 360 ratchet internals.

Aerodynamics also plays a role in climbing, once thought to be only a battle of grams. For Nate, a very accomplished climber using a very aero frame, he felt no difference on steep, 2-4 minute climbs between the light ENVE disc wheelset and his roughly 25mm deeper, 200g heavier Roval CLX 64 aero wheels. On punchy climbs less than 30 seconds, the aero wheels seemed quicker for him, perhaps due to the aero benefit he carried into those climbs.

For me, an average climber who goes uphill far slower than Nate, I had the sensation of ascending freely on the 3.4 wheels, limited only by my strength and fitness. From experience, I know that most 1600+ gram aero wheels hold me back, their weight perhaps overwhelming any potential aero benefit.

Going downhill, the width of the SES 3.4 rim and tire combination made for a worry-free, joy ride, the kind you feel on a rollercoaster knowing (or at least believing) the cart you are in is securely riding on rails.

Climbing dirt and gravel where speeds are far less than on paved roads, the 3.4 wheelset’s combination of light weight and stiffness provided the feeling of turbo-boost responsiveness.

ENVE SES 3.4 AR Disc

Clearly, the ENVE 3.4 disc is a very versatile wheelset. If you ride both paved and gravel surfaces and do a lot of climbing, this one wheelset which lists for $2850//£3100 can serve you well and save you from buying one for paved and another for dirt and gravel roads.

But, if you spend most of your time riding on paved roads and at aero speeds and your mental and perhaps, physical frames are more biased to aero performance than climbing, the SES 4.5 would be a better choice.

You can get the 3.4 at the best prices from stores I recommend for their low price and high customer satisfaction ratings by clicking these links directly to this wheelset’s page at Competitive Cyclist and directly from ENVE.

 

BONTRAGER AEOLUS RSL 37 V – BONTRAGER’S ANSWER TO THE ENVE SES 3.4

While not the first, the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37V is one of the best wheelsets you can ride for both paved and unpaved or “all-road” cycling.

With the breakout growth of gravel cycling and the renewed interest in cyclocross riding brought on by some of road racing’s top names, having a top-performing wheelset that excels in both those disciplines and also serves as a paved road climbing wheelset is an attractive do-it-all option.

It’s also far less expensive to have one top-performing carbon wheelset with a quiver of 28mm, 33mm, and 40mm or wider tires than a quiver of wheelsets as well as tires for that range of riding.

While ENVE may have set the standard in the all-road wheelset category, many of the leading wheelset brands are now trying to raise it with their own 23-25mm internal width, 30-40mm deep, 1400 or so gram wheelsets.

What sets the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37V wheelset apart from the rest in this field that we’ve tested? My fellow-tester Miles and I rode these wheels over three seasons (road, gravel, and cyclocross) and compared them to the ENVE 3.4 and more value-priced wheels to figure it out.

Zipp 353 NSW

The differences are subtle but important, especially if you prefer the performance characteristics that the Aeolus RSL 37V successfully delivers.

As laterally stiff as any of the all-road or gravel wheelsets we’ve tested, the Aeolus RSL 37V’s stiffness feels more balanced than most. While it lacks the initial snap you get from the lay-up or bracing angles or whatever secret sauce is used in a wheelset like the ENVE 3.4, these Bontragers provide the consistent strength we could always count no matter the surface.

The Aeolus RSL 37V’s stiffness gave us precise handling and go-for-it confidence riding switchbacks down an alpine road, railing a turn on gravel, or accelerating out of corners to overtake a fellow cross rider.

Even when Miles rode them in cyclocross races with 33mm tires inflated to 18 psi front and 20 psi rear, he was quick to point out the wheels never felt squirrely underfoot, always tracked extremely well, and yielded no give during crucial sprints.

The Aeolus RSL 37V’s robust lateral stiffness is joined by better vertical compliance than most, a combination you don’t often find in a wheelset. Over the course of a 75-mile gravel ride or a day of climbing 10,000 feet in the mountains, both of which I did on these wheels, I was thanking them for helping to reduce the pain of those efforts.

The DT Swiss 240 EXP hubs used on these and other Bontrager, Roval, FFWD, and DT Swiss wheelsets have come in for criticism due to the noisier freewheeling than the previous model and cases of premature wear of the ratchet drive rings in the first runs of product that led to some hubs not engaging.

While DT appears to have rectified the wear and engagement problem – we didn’t experience it on this or any wheelset using the EXP hubs we’ve tested – the DT 240 EXP hubs are clearly louder than their whisper-quiet predecessors.

However, I don’t find them overly loud or annoying on the road in the way some freehubs on value-carbon wheelsets (including Bontrager’s own Pro 3V) can be or even as loud as those from the likes of Chris King or Industry Nine that riders prefer for their rich acoustics and pretty colors. To my ears, the low-frequency DT 240 EXP freehub noise gets washed out by the sound of small knob tires on dirt and gravel and doesn’t stand out against traffic noise on the road.

Sonic preferences aside, I find this hubset used in the Aeolus RSL 37V wheels to be a relative strength. They ride very smoothly and engage easily without the clunk I get when re-engaging some like the ID360 mechanism used in the ENVE 3.4 alloy hub. True, the points of engagement are similar and, at 10 degrees, more than I’d like to see on dedicated gravel or cyclocross wheelsets and more typical of a road wheelset. But I experienced an enhanced ride feel with the DT 240 EXP hubs on these wheels in comparison to those used on others in this category.

Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37V wheelset

All of this makes the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37V a rather refined wheelset that is strong, precise, comfortable, and smooth-rolling paved and unpaved roads.

On a paved road, I’d recommend no narrower than a 28mm tire a width. At my weight of roughly 150 lbs/68kg, I rode 28mm tubeless tires between 50 and 55psi and 38-40mm wide tubeless gravel tires at around 30psi. Unlike the ENVE and Zipp wheels, these Bontrager wheels are hooked so you can ride them with tubed clincher tires if you prefer.

The Aeolus RSL 37V wheels themselves weighed in at 1421 grams with rim tape and tubeless valves. The rims measured 25.2 mm inside width, 31.5mm outside width, and 37.1mm deep. In addition to the DT 240 EXP hubs, each wheel uses 24 DT Aerolite spokes bladed, straight-pull spokes.

You can order them online for US$2700, £2100, €2500 from Bontrager or Sigma Sports.

BONTRAGER AEOLUS RSL 37 DISC – LIGHT AND NIMBLE CLIMBER

The Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37 disc wheelset is a lot of fun to ride. Scooting around with it on my bike brings me back to how I remember riding as a kid. You go left, right, up, down, and straight ahead without giving it much thought. You just go where you want without holding back.

These wheels are very light and yet stiff enough without being overly so. That’s probably the combination that made me feel so agile and free while riding the RSL 37 in almost every situation. I climbed my most challenging steep, long “hill repeats” with comparative ease and did a few 50-mile, rolling rides on days after my hardest interval training of the week and felt totally relaxed and unfatigued during and at the end of those rides.

I’ll admit, I felt as though something was out of whack when I rode the RSL the first time. It was early spring with a lot of crosswinds and I was coming off too many stay-at-home-mandated Zwift rides. Early season legs, wind in my face or from the side, and bib tights can make me feel a bit slow.

With the Bontrager RSL 37 disc, I cut through all of that. I immediately felt light, almost too light and I worried I’d get pushed around in the winds. Didn’t happen. The freehub engaged on command and the wheels accelerated as quickly as I wanted and far faster than expected to the point where I had to shift down the cassette sooner than I normally do to keep up my speed.

At 37mm, the RSL rims are deeper than climbing wheels have traditionally been but about the same as the benchmark for that category set by the ENVE SES 3.4 (38mm front, 42mm rear) a few years ago. They’re nearly as deep as where carbon all-arounders have historically started (40mm) but no longer where they currently range (45-50mm).

For me, the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37 disc is a climbing wheel. It climbs as well as any I’ve reviewed from any brand except for nearly 2x the price Zipp 353 NSW. Bontrager must think so too are they retired the 28mm deep Aeolus XXX 2 disc wheelset in its lineup for the RSL 37.

Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37 disc

At the same time, Bontrager has replaced 47mm deep all-around Aeolus XXX 4 with a slightly deeper (and wider and lighter) RSL 51. Makes sense as I found the RSL 37 doesn’t sustain your momentum the way I’ve experienced with a deeper and slightly wider 45mm-50mm all-around wheelset.

The tires I rode these wheels with – 25C Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite and Continental Grand Prix 5000 tube-type tires and the tubeless Continental Grand Prix 5000 TL – measured within a half mm of the RSL’s 27.5mm outside width.

As far as wheelset weight goes, I normally don’t make much mention of it because most of us can’t tell the difference between wheels weighing within 100-150 grams of each other that are typical of what you find from wheels in the same category. But since I’m reviewing a climbing wheelset and there may be a few of you weight weenies reading along, and principally because Bontrager gives you a few options that do make a difference, I’ll go through it here.

If you want to use tube-type tires on these hooked rims, Bontrager provides you a cloth-like rim strap along with the wheels that you can easily install by stretching it over the rim wall and snapping into the rim bed. Per my scale, these weigh 22 grams per wheel.

If you prefer tubeless tires, the cloth strips won’t hold the air or sealant. Instead, Bontrager also ships you plastic rim strips inserts to go into the rim bed. Those need a bit of experience to install without cracking or breaking or getting them just enough off-center to mess up the bead lock alignment. They also add 62 grams to each rim, an unwarranted penalty if you care about climbing wheel weight.

The best solution is good old rim tape. One wrap or two. I tried both and each sealed up successfully. The tape weighs 5-10 grams per wheel depending on the kind you use and the number of wraps.

Bontrager has recently introduced some branded rim tape and I prefer it to ENVE and Stan’s tape that I have historically used. You can order it here. Get the tape that measures the same as the internal width of the rims. In this case, that’s 21mm. I’m not sure if they will include the tape in the box with the wheelsets in the future.

No matter how you set it up, this wheelset still going to be light. I set them up initially for tubed-tire riding with the cloth-like rim straps (1376g) and later pulled them out and taped the rims (1352g not including the valves) and mounted tubeless tires. With the 62g per wheel tubeless inserts, they’d weigh in around 1450 grams.

At 1352g for tubed or tubeless tires, it’s an easy choice.

Enough about climbing weight already! Going downhill and cornering at speed on the RSL 37 is a confident blast. And you don’t have to worry about crosswinds riding exposed roads. Simple. Fun and done.

As to comfort, these Bontragers aren’t any more or less so than most set up with tubes and the added pressure they require even with the RSL’s 21mm inside width. As with any other wheelset this wide, you could safely lower your 25C tire pressure 5psi below the suggested level, use tubeless tires and drop it 10psi or mount up 28C tires. Wider tires would add a good deal more weight and further diminish your aero performance when riding above 18-20mph/29-32kph.

DT Swiss 240 EXP hubs on the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37These wheels get an attractive glossy finish with black stealth logos. Also contributing to a skinny look and the low weight are the new DT Swiss 240 EXP hubs used on this wheelset. They roll a bit smoother than the last generation DT 240s but their freehubs are a bit louder even after I regreased them. They’re not nearly as loud as Chris King, Industry Nine, or other hubs seeking attention and DT Swiss hubs with a very similar design to the EXP have historically required next to no maintenance.

All in, the Bontrager RSL 37 does a joyful job of its main purpose in life – climbing – and is a wheelset you can feel quite spry riding any day on rolling routes. Priced at $2700, you can order them direct from Bontrager using this link to the Aeolus RSL 37 disc wheelset page on their parent Trek’s website.

 

BUT WHAT ABOUT…

Reviews of just wheels from Zipp, ENVE, and Bontrager. I can imagine what you’re thinking.

Please don’t. I too would love to have shared reviews with you of the Roval Alpinist and DT Swiss PRC 1100 Dicut Mon Chasseral and perhaps the newest climbing wheels from Mavic, Shimano, and a couple of others.

The Covid 19 pandemic has made supply quite difficult and I’ve not been able to get some while others aren’t distributed in the US where I test. I’ll hopefully be able to test a few of these in the coming year when they are more available (and reader support allows me to budget for them!).

* * * * *

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

If you’ve benefited from reading this review and want to keep new ones coming, buy your gear and kit after clicking the store links in this review and others across the site. When you do, we may earn an affiliate commission that will help me cover the expenses to create and publish more ad-free, subscription-free, and reader-supported reviews that are independent, comprehensive, and comparative.

If you prefer to buy at other stores, you can still support the site by contributing here or by buying anything through these links to eBay and Amazon.

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Thanks and enjoy your rides safely! Cheers, Steve

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First published on August 30, 2017. Date of the most recent major update shown at the top of the post.

139 comments

  • I saw a Youtube video where the new Zipp Firecrest wheels have inherited the same braking surface as the NSW, can you confirm? Would that make the Zipp FC a pretty good value compared to the more expensive Enve and Zipp NSW?

    • Max, Yes, the new 303 FC has the old 303 NSW rim including the brake track. It retains the 77/177 hubs and spokes from the last model 303 FC. Value is in the eye of the beholder (or perhaps the hand of the wallet holder) but I personally think that it’s a heck of a wheelset against its peers in its price range. My top rated US store Competitive Cyclist says they should have them in stock in a couple weeks. Steve

      • oops, replied to the wrong comment… for continuity stake, making a copy of it here:

        Steve, thank you for the prompt reply. I just put a call to Zipp/SRAM and was told the 202 FC did NOT inherit the NSW rims, only the 303/404 (maybe the other large profiles, didn’t ask). What a bummer… from reading your VERY informative site… I felt like the ENVE 3.4 and the Zipp 202 NSW suit my needs, but they’re way more than I can afford. If the 202 FC had the NSW rims, it would have been perfect. ?

        • doesn’t mean it won’t happen… just that it didn’t happen now. the 202 is generally the last in the line to get updated.

  • Hi Steve. Thanks for the fantastic site- its my go to for all significant cycling gear purchases.
    I have a very specific question-this August (2018) Im doing the haute route double (pyrenees/Alps). Im fairly light at 62kg and currently at 4w/kg. I have the current Enve 3.4 as tested here.
    Would you use these for this event ?
    Dave

    • David, thanks for you feedback and support. Unless you want to go with tubbies for even less weight, those are the wheels I’d recommend. Steve

      • Hi again Steve
        Just to follow up I completed the Haute route double on the 3.4’s and they were fantastic. Very comfortable, great at high speed on the descents and excellent braking. I’ll use them again this year. The Enve pads held up very well. Ironically all the brake related dramas our team mechanic had to deal with were on disc brake bikes!

        • David, Great to hear. Thanks for your report. Steve

          • Hi again Steve.
            After a year in the enve 3.4s I’m still really liking them but have found that in fact they are not very stiff and many others report the same. At only 61 kg I have to fully open the brakes to avoid rub on hard efforts. This is contrary to your own findings.

          • David, What brake calipers are you running? It may be that the calipers and wheels are not compatible. Wide wheels may not work well with certain vintage/model calipers. Are you getting rubbing in the front and/or back? It may also be that your rear needs to be trued up. Comparatively speaking, they are among the stiffest wheels. My 4.5 w/kg, 68 kg hill-climbing tester (Nate) and I (3.0 w/kg, 65 kg B-group rider/hill climbing sufferer) tested the wheels you see in this review and those with + stiffness ratings, including the ENVE 3.4s, were clearly in the stiffest group. Steve

          • I’m on an emonda slr with shimamo dura ace 9100 direct mount brakes. Only the rear rubs. At full open there’s several mm of clearance each side. Once it gets down to about 3 mm clearance they rub with every substantial effort when standing

          • David, So brakes/calipers shouldn’t be an issue. Check that the rear wheel is true, spoke tension is right, and that the QR is tight. Assuming you’re good there, there could be some flex contribution from the rear triangle. Emonda is a good frame but not as stiff as say a Tarmac (which Nate uses) or other race bikes. Here’s a good read on the topic https://www.bikeradar.com/features/lab-test-what-causes-brake-rub-the-wheels-or-the-frame/.

            Might be worth looking back at your past experience here – always an issue with the 3.4 or more recent? what wheelset did you had before (stock ones with the bike) and what you noticed about those wheels? any brake or pad maintenance? I’d give ENVE a call too; they might have some better ideas and also have a great warranty if there is an identifiable issue. Steve

          • Thanks Steve all good points. I’ll check it all out. It’d be good to solve this as it’s a common issue amongst 3.4 owners. Three of us together going up a climb all had the wheels chirping away!

          • Another followup re the stiffness/ spoke discussion
            I took the 3.4’s to a local wheelbuilder for a look. He tested the spoke tension and it was way down on recommended max tensions- about 80 (vs 120) drive side and 20-30 (vs 60 or so) non-drive side. This may well be the issue for everybody-especially those who buy outside the US ie with probably many months between manufacture and delivery during which time there is a settling process resulting in loss of tension.
            There was about a 5 point difference (reduction) when the tyres were fitted and inflated to 70 psi which he has now corrected for and the tensions are at the recommended levels and the rubbing is gone. Mine came with Sapim CX spokes.
            Dave

        • Nathalie Laurendeau

          Hi David
          I’m doing HR Alpes this coming August and just starting to wonder what sort of wheels I should use … I’m 56 kg and I’m worrying about carbon wheels that can delaminate ? I was thinking I should use alloy wheels for that reason but after reading STEVE s article maybe his recommendation of a CCC wheel might be ok ? Im a good climber but living in Perth Western Australia we don t have mountains and most of the gran condo that I’ve done in the past puts me in the not good descending category which will have me brake the whole descent which increase the chance of over heathing the rim ?
          I would love to hear your thoughts !
          And are you doing HR again this year ?
          Thanks again
          Nathalie

          • Hi Nathalie. Sorry I just saw your post. I’m also from Perth I’m in the Pyrenees right now on the Haute Route and will be going to be in the Alps also. Yes I would use the enves – I’ve brought them along again. They are very reliable and fast and the braking is very good. They barely heat up at all with proper braking technique. I think delamination is extremely unlikely. I did ask tge guys at enve who said they’ve never had a set of gen 2 3.4’s delaminate. Come and say hi in Megeve. I’m with the two wheel tours group

  • Hi Steve,

    Thank you for all the work you do to keep riders well informed.

    I live at the base of the Alps in Switzerland, climb regularly and, over the year, average about 500m climbing per hour and 25kph about 3.2kw/kg. I currently use Dura Ace C35 CC’s and am considering going with the “new” C40’s (actually the same) or switching over to Zip 303 NSW CC’s in order to get some more speed on the flats and avoid the tendency of the C35’s to grab at the alloy weld on braking – it shudders somewhat – I really don’t like that.

    Considering this kind of riding, which of these two wheels would you recommend? Are there others that might be better for week long Alpine tours, hard climbs, long descents, occasional gravel roads and the potential for long flats in between – or is the C40 still the way to go?

  • Hi Steve,

    Further to what I just wrote, I have an Emonda SLR8 with DA components, FTP around 260 and am 70kg. Price is not the consideration – equipment reliability and safety is.

    Brian

  • Hi Steve,

    Any opinion on the Reynolds Attack? Have you ever tried them?

    Thanks

  • Hi Steve,
    Any advice on the DT Swiss Arc 1400 Dicut for climbing?
    Thank you,
    Juan

    • Juan, they make that wheelset in three depths but I wouldn’t consider even the shallowest of the three to be a climbing wheelset. It’s close to 1600 grams whereas most dedicated climbers will be 150 grams or more less. Steve

  • Thank you very much!
    Juan

  • Hans Werner Sollinger

    I recently stopped at a popular bike shop in Tenerife-those owners warned me to brake carefully as they had the last week five carbon rims which melted.Two of them were ENVE’s -these guys were not selling me anything-I was just there to have my bike tune up -but I personally had two ENVE’s delaminate about 10 years ago when the came out.They were extremely good in replacing the rims and I have not negative feelings towards the company but I wonder with this recent information is there something about ENVE which is not as mature as for instance Zipp or Shimano-I am a scientist and I am aware that my observations could absolutely have no statistical relevances but the Tenerife experience really scared me and I personally would not use an ENVE for long downhills

    • Hans, Every carbon rim will delaminate at some point if you brake them long enough with enough force. That’s just physics. The Tenerife bike shop owners and their experience with different wheelsets confirm this. If ENVE or some other name brand was delaminating more often than others, that would become widely known starting with forum buzz and likely including recalls. I am confident from the experience I’ve had with and the research I’ve done on the wheels in this review that they won’t delaminate if you don’t brake for excessive periods of time.

      Earlier in this post in the section called What Carbon Clinchers are Today I outline what has changed in recent generations, how to brake carbon wheels, and suggest that if you are uncomfortable braking carbon wheels, you should go with alloy ones. Steve

    • Geoff Harrison

      I used ENVE 3.4s on a recent trip to Tenerife involving 400km riding, 13000m ascent in a week with no issues whatsoever.

      I used the same 3.4s the month previously in Gran Canaria for a week with 300km riding, 10000m ascent on some rough roads & once again, no issues with braking performance.

      I used some Roval CLX 32s on a recent 200km gravel ride & one of the rims cracked, thankfully crossing the finishing line!

      Important to provide some important real life feedback & balance.

  • Great work on the article . Comprehensively answered my concern question in 72 seconds flat. Going to take my 50’s this year to France / Europe . way to old to worry about assent times. Cheers

  • Geoff Harrison

    An important note I wanted to add to the excellent information found here. I have a bespoke build pair of ENVE 3.4s with Sapim CX-Ray spokes & Tune hubs which came in at a staggering 1138gs. I also have a pair of the new 5.6s with CK hubs & think Tune hubs are lighter, superior roll & as yet, no maintenance requirements after a year’s hard riding. I like the set-up so much I have a pair of 4.5s being built with the same set up as the 3.4s & I am hopeful these will come in under 1200gs. By going bespoke you can go lighter, lighter still, achieve better performance & significant aero benefits.

    • Hi Geoff
      Where did most of the weight saving come from – the spokes?
      How are they in terms of stiffness? My stock gen 2 3.4’s are disappointing in that regard

      • Not sure David. Committed the sin of not weighing individual components but the Tune hubs look much more sleek than Chris Kings & would guess this would account for a chunk of the weight savings. It could be in my head but I believe the Tune hubs roll better too.

        In terms of stiffness, superb. I use them on both an Emonda SLR & Colnago C64 & they compliment both bikes wonderfully. As noted in original comment, I also own a pair of 5.6s & the 3.4s lose very little in terms of stiffness. I also have a pair of 4.5s but have yet to ride these as my Girlfriend seems to have taken ownership of these!

        • Thanks Geoff.
          I think I’ll re-spoke mine when I get home.
          Yesterday the wheels got their ultimate workout with two long descents in the Pyrenees in freezing rain and sleet and the braking was just fine.

  • Hi Steve, great article. I am curious why the Enve 2.2 fell off as top climber performer?

    • Demetre, Quite simply, the 3.4 are better climbing wheels when compared to the 2.2 against my performance evaluation criteria. Stiffer, more aero, more responsive. The 2.2 are great wheels but I think ENVE learned from them to make the 3.4 better. Steve

  • Hi Steve

    I’ve recently got a Cannondale Super Six Dura Ace that came with Cannondale Hollowtech Carbon clinchers. Just wondering if you had any views on these as I have an existing set of Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon clinchers 40mm which I could swap them for. I have a trip to the Pyrenees coming up and the Hollowtechs seem quite light and look nice on the bike, but I feel that the Mavic’s seemed more responsive on my old Cervelo.

    Thanks

  • Too bad that the best performer wheel (Enve 3.4 AR) can not be matched with the best performer tubeless tire (GP5000). Any idea why Enve does not allow this combo? For me this is a showstopper.

    • Renzo, Note that I am recommending the ENVE 3.4 Disc best performer not the 3.4 AR Disc. The best performer GP 5000 TL (not the GP 5000 without the TL) works perfectly fine with the ENVE 3.4 Disc.

      The 3.4 Disc is a climbing/all-around wheelset for paved road use and is most aero with 25C tires. 3.4 AR Disc is intended for mixed road and off-road surfaces. It’s has a wider, hookless rim and takes 28C and wider tires that should be run at lower pressures. ENVEs tests have shown that a few tires don’t stay on these rims at lower pressures without the hooks to hold them in place. You can see the current list of those they’ve approved and those that are not by clicking the Tire Compatibility section on the ENVe 3.4 AR page here. Steve

  • Hi Steve,
    Thanks for the incisive article on climbing carbon wheels.
    I ride hills (glacial morraine) all the time here in northern MI , and go to real mountains once a year for a bike vacation.
    I have the Zipp 303 NSW wheels and they are some of the fastest wheels I have ridden, but they howl when braking hard . For example a stop sign at the bottom of a steep descent, which we have a lot of. When this happens the modulation also seems to get a grabby feeling.
    Do the Enve rims do the same thing ?
    I’m not ready to go to disc brakes yet and I have thought about going back to alloy or ceramic coated alloy rims because of this. I won’t give up my tubeless capability though.
    Thanks for your articles, and I do support some of the on-line shops you mention.
    Dave

    • Dave, thanks for your comment and for supporting the site. Really appreciate both. Rim brake wheels with textured brake tracks including the Zipp and ENVE will emit a sound when you brake them though I don’t think of either as anywhere near a howl. Perhaps check the set-up, make sure the brakes are toe-ed in. They should feel grabbier than smooth tracks because, well, they are slowing you more rapidly. I don’t mind either the sound or modulation, find the ENVE’s quieter than the Zipp, and have actually had people tell me they think the ENVEs sound “cool”. I wouldn’t go that far but everyone has their preferences. For example, some like the sound of King or i9 freewheeling hubs. Others, like me, prefer the peace of silent Zipp ones.

      Textured brake tracks brake notably better than smooth ones in nearly every case where we’ve tried them. The only exception I’ll note is the Bontrager Aeolus XXX wheelsets which brake nearly as good. Personally, riding downhill or even on flat roads and especially on damp ones, I care a lot more about braking performance than brake track noise. Textured tracks is about the best way to improve carbon rim brakes. Disc brakes are the next step up. I also love the added speed of a mid-depth wheelset over a low-profile one and the strength-to-weight of carbon over alloy.

      If you can’t take the brake noise of the Zipp NSW despite its other benefits, I’d look at the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 or 2 as options that give you many of the same performance benefits, brake almost as well and but are quieter. There’s a review of the 2 in this post and the 4 in my all-around post, both with links to the Bontrager store that provides us a small commission that helps you support ITKC. Cheers, Steve

  • Steve, wondering if you have heard or know anything about Next Cycling Wheels. the carbon rims are made in China but the wheels are hand built in the USA. The Quick Disk is 19.5 mm internal width, 25mm external, comes with DT Swiss 240 hubs.

    The specs compare favorably to the wheels you have reviewed here and price is competitive as they only sell direct. Any thoughts will be greatly appreciated as I am seriously considering .

    • Kenneth, I’ve not heard of them. There are many, many businesses selling wheels that follow the same model as the one you’ve found. I wrote this post describing what these branders and other types of businesses selling lower-priced carbon wheels are all about. It’s one of the most-read posts on the site. I encourage you to read it before buying anything. Steve

  • Steve,

    Trying to decide on the zipp 303nsw v the 202nsw. You rated the 303 as best in another article but the Enve’s better than the zipps above. I do a lot of climbing but want to have some aerodynamic assistance on the flat.

    Thanks. Chris.

    • Chris, 303nsw over 202nsw. Unless you are doing the kind of long, steep climbing described in this post that is best on climbing dedicated wheels, you don’t want to sacrifice aero performance of deeper wheels. Steve

  • Steve, appreciated and that makes sense. If I could ask one more question in this regard. Your comparison noted that the braking on the 303 firecrest was neutral v’s good for 303 NSW’s. Was this just as it was before the Showstopper braking system had been flowed across to the Firecrests? Just checking as I am trying to justify the price difference between the Firecrests and the NSW’s as it is significant. Thanks again.Chris.

    • Hi Chris, Both have the Showstopper and I rate the braking of both +. This table and the reviews that accompany them can give you more comparisons and help you decide between them. https://intheknowcycling.com/carbon-road-bike-wheels/#Reviews. Also look at my FB or Twitter post from last Wednesday about particularly good sales going now on Zipp wheels. The links in the post I just referenced should also take you there. Cheers, Steve

  • Would you buy the Fulcrum Racing Zero Carbon (with AC3 brake track) over the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 2?

    • Nick, they each have the performance pros and cons as you can see in the chart. It depends on what’s more important to you and whether you’d be willing to pay more for one if it’s more expensive and has more of what you want. Personally, the Fulcrum’s rim width and inability to run them tubeless is a turnoff especially if you’ll be riding on rougher roads. On the other hand, it is competitively priced and pretty stiff which would be important if you are a bigger or stronger rider. Steve

  • Hi Steve, thanks for the in-depth reviews. I’m more of ‘Moose’ type (187cm and 85kgs) and am looking for some stiffer, lower profile wheels for poor roads, hills and wind. Just wondering if you could channel your inner Moose and give your thoughts on the 3.4 AR disc vs 303 disc for bigger guys. Thanks

    • Chris, Both of those would be stiff enough for a heavier rider and wouldn’t be the reason to choose between them. Steve

  • Hi Steve,
    Have you get a chance to review the new Roval Alpinist? Curious how it’s compared with Enve 3.4 Disc

  • Kerim Schellingen

    If you had to choose between the Zipp 303 firecrest or the campy bora WTO 33, which would you pick (light rider who likes to climb in the Ardennes and Alps)?

      • Kerim Schellingen

        Thanks! Should I be afraid of crosswinds (small 60kg rider)?
        At the moment I own the DT Swiss ERC 1100, but I find them a bit too high for windy days, espacially in the mountains on long descents.
        Do you think the Firecrests will be more stable or do you have other recommandations in this case?
        Thanks.

        • Kerim, No, at 40mm deep and with their rim profile, crosswinds will not be an issue with the Firecrest. None of the wheelsets in this review have difficulty in crosswinds. Steve

  • Quick question about the Bontrager: You said “As with any other wheelset this wide, you could… mount up 28C tires. Wider tires would add a good deal more weight and further diminish your aero performance…” Does “wider tires” here include 28C, or do you mean wider than 28? Just wondering about their performance at that width vs 25. Thanks!

  • Steve, I have 2 bikes, older SL4 Tarmac running on Fulcrum Racing Zero Competitione (alloy) with Cult bearings and a recent Specialissima on new WTO 45 with USB bearing. I am considering of letting the SL4 go and get another bike – perhaps more aero, for a longer flatter rides., while keeping the Specialissima more for hilly rides. We don’t have too many high altitude routes, average are about 500-700m within 50 to 70km loop. Flatter routes would be less than 150m elevation within 150km loop.

    I wonder if Enve 3.4 would benefit me to go with my Specialissima and keep the WTO 45 for the incoming bike or would you have other suggestion. Appreciate to hear your opinion.

    • Azwan, I’d suggest you consider something deeper and more aero for your flatter routes. I’ve reviewed and recommended the ENVE 5.6 in this review. Your hilly routes don’t sound like they’re steep or long enough to really benefit from a lightweight wheelset like the ENVE 3.4. Steve

  • Your articles are greatly appreciated. I’ve been in the market for a carbon tubeless wheelset for a Checkpoint and narrowed it down to the 303 Firecrest or the SES 3.4 AR. Finally ordered the SES. I was sold on the Zipp Tangent based on your article and previous experience with Hutchison tires. Since Zipp discontinued these tires I can’t find any. The only Hutchison listed in the Enve compatibility list doesn’t get good reviews especially on wet surfaces leaves me in a void for the definitive tire. In addition to your list of most important tire qualities I think puncture resistance and longevity is also important which the Zipp tires were also good for. What would be the next best choice. Wheels should be here in less than a week. Thanks!, Craig

    • Craig, Don’t have a quick answer for you beyond what I’ve written in my current tubeless tire review. We’re in the process of testing out some additional ones now. Hope to have a further update in May. Steve

  • Have a set of Bontrager RSL 37 on a 2020 Trek Domane SLR 7 running Bontrager R3 tubed 28mm tyres @ 80 psi. The RSL 37 replaced the Aeolus Pro 3V wheelset which comes as standard on the Domane.
    The difference is amazing. The Domane comes alive, far more responsive, road feel is MUCH better, 10% faster on the flat, my climbing has improved in as much as more confidence and the lighter wheelset.
    I can attest to your observations in your review, there wheels are just brilliant!
    If you hadnt already worked it out, I love these wheels.
    They dont seem to get much love except from Trek riders, but they do deserve strong consideration. For me in Oz the Enve SES 3.4 were 20% more expensive (are they a 20% better wheel??)

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