THE BEST GRAVEL WHEELS I’VE TESTED
Summary: After riding and comparing gravel wheels at three price levels, I selected the ENVE SES 3.4 AR Disc (available here and here from stores I recommend) as the Best Performer and the Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Tubeless Disc Brake (here, here, here) the Best Value.
Bontrager’s Aeolus Pro 3V TLR Disc gravel wheelset (here, here) and HED’s Emporia GA Performance gravel bike wheels (here) give less aggressive dirt and gravel road riders the best lower-priced options.
Gravel wheels are a relatively new breed of wheelsets for riding dirt and gravel roads and trails. Even with the same gravel tires, a good set of gravel bike wheels will give you better speed, control, handling, confidence, comfort, and enjoyment than road bike wheels on all of those unpaved surfaces we now call “gravel”.
Of course, all gravel wheelsets are not created equally. The best ones have wide, carbon rims, are light and engage quickly, and cost a lot but can double as climbing or all-around wheels on our road bikes. By contrast, those that come with new gravel bikes are usually heavy, aren’t very responsive, climb poorly, and will generally hold us back from getting all the performance and pleasure we want when we ride gravel.
And then there are many gravel bike wheelset choices in between that may fit how we ride dirt and gravel roads or cost closer to what we want to spend.
For this review, I tested gravel wheels at three different performance and price levels to come up with recommendations that serve different rider profiles and budgets.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT GRAVEL WHEELS
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THE EMERGENCE OF GRAVEL BIKE WHEELS
Over the last few years, we’ve taken to calling unpaved roads and many trails “gravel”, started using various types of “gravel tires” for different classes of “gravel surfaces”, and been putting them on a range of what we now call “gravel wheels”.
To ride those same gravel surfaces, road cyclists used to mount cyclocross clincher tires on a durable set of alloy road wheels. Not ideal but that, or a mountain bike, were their only options.
Today, the best 700c alloy and carbon gravel bike wheels have 23 to 25mm wide internal rim widths. The best 650b gravel wheels measure 26-28mm wide internally.
For me, these widths are what defines “gravel wheels” and meaningfully separates the performance you get from them with what you’ll experience on road bike wheels that are 17 to 21mm wide on the inside, even when both use gravel tires.
With a gravel wheelset mounted with 35-45mm wide gravel tires, you can lower your tire pressure more than you would with road wheels that have narrower internal widths.
Lower pressures will give you better control of your bike because your tires stay in contact with the surface more. You’ll enjoy better comfort as your tires and wheels soak up more of the energy from the uneven dirt and gravel roads you are riding and as your body absorbs less of it.
Wider internal and external rim widths, typically 30-32mm wide, on a gravel bike wheelset will also support the tire sidewalls better than on narrower, rim brake wheels. This will make the tire profiles more vertical and less rounded like a lightbulb. Better support will give you superior handling when you make a turn on loose or packed surfaces and also when you move back and forth across a gravel road for a better line.
Superior handling will also improve your confidence on those consistently changing surfaces that are part of the challenge and fun of riding gravel. Improved confidence will also naturally lead to you riding faster or at least enjoying yourself more at lower speeds.
Adding it all up, using gravel wheels on gravel surfaces will give you better control, comfort, handling, confidence, speed, and enjoyment than road wheels with the same gravel tires.
That’s real performance improvement in a lot of areas.
Gravel bike wheels today are also tubeless, disc brake, and use 12x100mm front and 12×142 thru-axles similar to modern road disc wheels. This combination gives you fewer flats, better braking, and more stability than clincher, rim brake wheels with quick releases.
While most new road bikes are sold with disc brakes and tubeless-ready wheelsets, roadies still prefer clincher tires. And quick-release axles and rim brake wheels are still the predominant road bike format in use. Even the most modern disc brake wheels dedicated to paved road use today have an internal width no more than 21mm.
So, true gravel wheels are quite a different animal than what roadies ride on paved surfaces.
Gravel wheelset use will expand beyond gravel bikes
While you can still ride your road or cross bike and road wheels with 28mm tires on the hard-packed dirt roads that I and others call Class 1 gravel, there are a couple of developments among road bikes that will make it possible for you to use some gravel bike wheelsets on your road bike as well as your gravel one.
First, many of the latest enthusiast-level road disc bikes are being made with enough clearance between the front forks and rear stays for tires that measure 32mm wide or wider once installed. Some will fit tires up to 38mm wide.
Mounting a labeled 28mm to 32mm road tire on your 700c gravel wheelset with 23 to 25mm internal and 30mm to 32mm external rim widths can give you a sweet – i.e., comfortable, great handling, and even aerodynamic – road ride.
ENVE’s SES 4.5 AR, and later their 3.4 AR disc wheels, both with a 25mm internal width, was the first wheelset far wider than most modern road wheelsets that could double as both a road and gravel wheelset. Zipp’s new 303 S and 303 Firecrest were two of the latest to join this party along with at least eight wheelsets from other brands.
I’ve tested all of the carbon gravel bike wheels in this review both on gravel with gravel tires and paved roads with 28mm road tires. Let’s just say few are ready to give you that sweet ride on both unpaved and paved roads. More below.
The idea of a tire “quiver” where you pull out the right gravel or road tires to mount on one wheelset is certainly a lot more economical than having a wheelset quiver where you pick between different wheels. While it is more work switching between tubeless tires than between wheels, I think many of us would be down with improving our tubeless tire installation skills if we could save some serious money buying just one set of wheels.
However, as long as roadies continue riding rim brake bikes with clincher tires and continue to resist tubeless tires, and I think this will be happening for a while, the growth of the one wheelset solution will likely be slow.
The other development, although it is more limited so far and perhaps more of an exception than a trend, is the introduction of bikes that claim to be fully capable on both the road and gravel. I’ve seen this from Allied Cycle Works which claims their Allroad is “fast enough for criteriums yet fully dialed for gravel”. The Parlee Chebacco, “One bike. Endless Possibilities”, was originally introduced for cyclocross and rough paved road riding and now includes dirt and gravel roads in the bike’s claimed adventure riding profile. And those road bikes that have room for 38mm tires could make a claim for gravel riding even though their geometry might not be as well suited for gravel riding as their tire clearance.
Currently, the big brands seem more focused on combining the attributes of light, aero, racing, and endurance road bikes into one while introducing a separate line of gravel bikes. Even more of their attention, and likely their development dollars, are being spent on e-bikes in every category – road, mountain, commuter, recreational, etc.
Meanwhile, if you’ve got a gravel, cross, or road bike, whichever way you want to define them, using a gravel wheelset as I’ve described it will make a big difference in your ride performance and enjoyment over your standard road bike wheels. And if you’ve also got a road disc bike with enough clearance, the right gravel wheelset could double as both your first gravel wheelset upgrade and your next road bike wheels.
Stock wheels exist in the gravel bike world too
As with most road bikes, gravel bikes also come with what’s called “stock wheels”. It’s a rather derogatory term which, for all but the most expensive gravel bikes means a low-cost, minimally performing wheelset that bike brands usually spec to keep the sticker price down and their profit up.
Most stock wheels on gravel bikes are typically heavier and have poorer performing hubs compared to aftermarket wheelsets that are sold on their own. You notice the difference immediately between a stock and aftermarket wheelset’s acceleration, responsiveness, and climbing and you probably wouldn’t want to push stock wheels too hard in corners or going through technical sections. Their performance is such that they usually will hold back the potential ride quality and enjoyment a bike’s frame and components are otherwise capable of giving you.
Stock wheels are the “weakest link”. Replacing them on a gravel bike is the second upgrade you should make, tires almost always being the first.
Gravel bike wheelsets group into familiar categories
Bikes, wheels, components, and kit developed specifically for gravel riding are relatively new compared to road or mountain biking products. As most of us are coming to gravel from one of those other, more well-established cycling passions, I’m sure we realize that we are committing to a range of n+1 decisions when we start buying into gravel gear.
Perhaps, for this reason, brands seem to be serving up fewer gravel bikes and wheelsets than road ones priced in the stratosphere and more options at lower price points.
Indeed, as I surveyed and selected widely available gravel wheels for this review, I saw a fair number of them priced and speced in a way that aligns with the upgrade, value-carbon, and performance-carbon wheelset categories I use to evaluate road bike wheels. So I’ve adopted these same categories to compare gravel bike wheels.
And just like with road wheelsets, there’s quite a bit of difference in the performance delivered by a gravel bike wheelset from one category to the next. I’ll suggest which category or wheelsets are best suited to different riders at the beginning of each group of gravel wheelset reviews below.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
As with all of my reviews, I evaluate criteria in four categories – performance, price, quality, and design – and rate gear and kit roughly in that order of importance.
When it comes to road wheelsets, the performance criteria I try to get a handle on are speed/aerodynamics, stiffness, handling, acceleration/responsiveness, comfort, crosswind management, climbing, and versatility. The relative performance of each of these depends on whether I’m considering all-arounders, aero, climbing, or upgrade wheels.
You really can’t evaluate gravel wheels without first acknowledging and then accounting for the role of gravel tires. Tires are a far bigger factor in the performance of your gravel ride than they are your road ride. Your gravel tire choice can totally obscure or greatly enhance the performance of a gravel bike wheelset in a way that doesn’t happen with road tires on your road wheels.
Likewise, the terrain, surface, and speed you ride gravel also have a greater influence on many of these performance criteria than they would on the road. Rolling down a hard-pack, relatively flat dirt road at 20 mph is a totally different “gravel” experience, almost a different sport than riding challenging, narrow paths with lots of gravel, 10% climbs and fast descents, or hairy loose corners at 10-15 mph.
I’m not diminishing the role that different tires and terrain play when riding your road bike on paved roads. It’s just that you can really f* it up with the wrong gravel tires or create a sweet ride with the right ones in a way that’s hard to do with most road tires these days.
To account for the variability that tires and terrain can bring when evaluating gravel wheel performance, I attempted to neutralize their effect as best as possible.
First, after testing and rating gravel tires, I picked a model that was the best performer across the widest range of surfaces to be my control tire to use for all gravel wheel testing.
Second, I bought another set of those same tires so that I could do A-B comparative testing of different wheelsets back to back within a given day on the same route.
Next, over several months, I rode all the wheels at least a dozen times in different combinations of A-B tests on the same route, one that offered a range of terrain and classes of surfaces from paved to cracked paved to hard pack dirt to spread and dense gravel, to sand and ruts and technical sections with plenty of flats and climbs, etc.
You can see the route and protocol I followed same as in my gravel tire review here.
Finally, I rode the gravel wheels at the suggested tire inflation for the combination of tire and rim width and my rider weight. For this, I used ENVE’s tubeless tire pressure recommendation chart.
While I could have altered the pressure for a given wheelset to get more comfort or improved handling, adhering to a set of guidelines allowed me to better compare wheelset performance under the same conditions.
Yes, I did ride most of these wheels, also in A-B testing mode or on their own on other routes for variety, and to get away from feeling like a cycling lab rat. Hey, I’m in this for fun too! While enjoyable in their own right, none of these rides were as varied as my test route and I didn’t learn much new about the wheels doing this. Beyond the pure pleasure of the rides, they often confirmed what I had concluded in the ride testing.
What matters most differs between road and gravel wheels
While the same criteria I listed above matter when trying to distinguish the performance of gravel wheels and road wheels, their relative importance is different. Several things cause this.
For one, you don’t go as fast on unpaved dirt and gravel roads as you do on gravel, perhaps with the exception of when you are on Class 1 hard-packed dirt and, of course, on the paved roads between gravel sections of multi-surface rides. The average gravel ride speeds for a course with varied terrain and surfaces for most enthusiasts will range from 12 to 18 mph (19 to 29 kph). I don’t know about you but I’m wrecked after I ride in the middle of that range on a challenging gravel course for 50 miles.
For this reason, aero is (next to) nothing when it comes to gravel and your tire’s rolling resistance will affect your speed far more on dirt and gravel than paved roads.
While some of you may do most of your gravel riding on relatively flat and consistent surfaces, there can be a lot more variation both on unpaved road and trail surfaces and pitch than you’ll ever see on paved roads. (Your tax dollars at work.) Riding on dirt and gravel, you’ll frequently need to change your line for a better path and you’ll likely go uphill and downhill, dropping and increasing your cadence as you go across variable surfaces and grades a whole lot more than you would on asphalt.
As such, you accelerate more on gravel and therefore, responsiveness is more important in rating gravel bike wheels than road ones. Hub engagement and rim weight play more of a role on these off-road surfaces in addition to the responsiveness of the rims, hubs, and spokes working together.
We also ride gravel wheels harder and through more abusive environments than road wheels. They’ll naturally go through dirt, mud, and water that can get into the hubs in a way we’d seriously try to avoid when riding our road bikes. We’ll bounce our gravel tires and rims through potholes, and over and against rocks and stones on a good day and perhaps fall over several times or crash occasionally on a bad one. Who knows what kind of vegetation living or dead from bushes to dead branches will rub against or get into our spokes when we’re riding double or single track sections.
All of this adds up to putting a higher premium on durability and quality when it comes to evaluating gravel wheels compared to road ones.
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UPGRADE GRAVEL BIKE WHEELS
The first step up toward a better ride on a new bike is to replace your stock wheels, those that came with your bike, with an upgrade gravel wheelset. Unless you bought a gravel bike that came with carbon wheels, an upgrade set is the most economical way to get a better ride after first getting a better set of tires.
Why? A good set of upgrade gravel wheels will have a wider internal rim width, likely somewhere between 2 to 6mm wider than the wheels that came with your bike, some of which aren’t wide enough to meet my definition of a gravel bike wheelset. These upgrade gravel wheels will give you a more comfortable ride as you’ll be able to lower the tire pressure with wider rims. They will also better support your tires, providing you improved handling.
Many upgrade gravel bike wheels also have better hubs and lighter rims than you’ll find on your stock wheels. This will improve your acceleration and make climbing a bit easier.
All of these types of improvements are true and even more for the value-carbon and performance-carbon category gravel bike wheelsets reviewed in the sections below. However, that could cost you 2x to 3x the $700-$1200 you’ll pay for upgrade wheels from established brands.
From my experience with wheels in all three categories, I’ve found that upgrade wheels are best for relaxed rides at relatively low average ride speeds (10-13mph), on flatter terrain, and over more consistent Class 1 (hard-packed dirt) and Class 2 (spread gravel) surfaces.
If that description fits you and the way you ride, you don’t need better performance than what these wheels give you.
Of the upgrade gravel wheels I tested, I noted differences in their response to my accelerations, their ability to climb, the comfort they provided, how smoothly they rolled, and how their freehub sounded while coasting. They all felt sufficiently stiff when I drove them hard going uphill and handled similarly on downhills and flat terrain. All held up well over the months I rode them.
Here are my individual reviews that get into their differences.
BONTRAGER PARADIGM ELITE 25 TLR DISC – SUPERIOR ACCELERATION
Market price $900, €900. Available from Bontrager
There were times I really appreciated the difference between the Bontrager Paradigm Elite 25’s performance compared to other upgrade gravel wheels and times I really didn’t. And, in a bit of Jekyll and Hyde, the rear hub was always the source of my changing perspective.
If accelerating up short pitches or out of bad lines is important to you, as it should be and is for me, the Paradigm Elite 25’s hub clearly responded better than the rest of the wheels I’ve tested in the upgrade category. You want to take off and the Dr. Jekyll personality in the rear hub gets right at it in your first crank from 12 to 6 and continues accelerating as you continue pedaling.
Other wheelsets in this and the value-carbon category take a couple of rotations before they pick up on your intentions. In fact, Bontrager uses the same hubset which engages every 3.3 degrees on this wheelset and their value-carbon wheelset where it also bests the others there.
Mr. Hyde takes over when you are coasting down the hills or just easing off the gas for a break. The noise coming out of the hub is a multi-frequency cacophony of angry bees I find disturbs the serenity that leads me to ride off-road in the first place. And as the Jekyll and Hyde story goes, I let Mr. Hyde get the better of me as the noise the hub emits occupies a bigger space in my consciousness than it should.
I admit to being a bit too dramatic when it comes to hub noise (as if you hadn’t already picked that up). Perhaps you don’t mind or even enjoy the sound of a loud freehub. In reality, I’ll take better responsiveness over a quieter freehub 7 rides a week. It also might motivate me to pedal more and coast less, making me a faster cyclist in the end.
This Bontrager gravel wheelset is sufficiently stiff and handles on par with others in the upgrade category. It’s not the most comfortable or smoothest rolling one of the bunch but neither is it out of the ordinary.
At a measured 1654 grams without rim strips and another 120 grams more with the plastic inserts Bontrager provides to seal the rims for tubeless tires, the Paradigm Elite 25 is heavier than others I’ve tested. If you plan to change tires frequently for different surface conditions, the durable strips are welcome. If not, save yourself the extra weight by taping or having someone tape your rims.
Its internal width came in at 24.7mm and external at 30.5mm. Unlike others in this category that use less aero round spokes, Bontrager uses bladed spokes, though their value at the lower speeds we ride gravel roads won’t be noticed.
HED EMPORIA GA PERFORMANCE – COMFORT WITH A BALANCED CHARACTER
Market price $700. Available from Competitive Cyclist.
Born, tested, (and photographed) as the Eroica, HED changed the name of these wheels to Emporia GA Performance shortly before I wrote this review. No worries. Nothing about the product itself is different other than the name.
HED now uses the Emporia name for its line of gravel wheels. GA stands for gravel alloy vs. GC for gravel carbon. You can choose between HED’s Performance hubset, the one I rode for this review, or, for $200 more, the Sonic hub which goes on the Emporia GA Pro wheelset.
Of the upgrade gravel bike wheels I tested, these HEDs offered the best balance across my performance criteria. While superior to the other wheelsets on just one criterion, it was equal to or just a touch off the best on the others and not objectionable on any.
Overall, the Emporia GA Performance is a solid wheelset for those that should be attracted to upgrade gravel wheels – on a budget and riding at lower speeds, flatter terrain, and hard pack dirt or spread gravel surfaces rather than those enthusiasts doing faster, more varied gravel challenges.
Comfort is the Emporia’s strong suit compared to other upgrade wheels I’ve ridden. While you can always lower your tire pressure on any wheelset to get a more comfortable ride, you may give up some handling and responsiveness if you go too far. Riding the Emporia and other wheels in this review at the pressure suggested for the combination of their internal rim width, my control tire’s width, and my rider weight, this wheelset was notably more comfortable than other upgrade wheels.
When I accelerated on the Emporia or headed up a 5% or steeper climb, these HEDs performed nearly as well as the Bontrager Paradigm Elite 25. Perhaps it’d be equivalent or better with the Sonic hub that HED puts on the Pro model but I wasn’t disappointed with what the Performance gave me.
Likewise, the Emporia GA Performance wheels are plenty stiff enough and handle well for the kinds of efforts I was putting out on a wide range of terrain and gravel classes on my test track.
You can hear the Emporia’s freehub when coasting but it’s not particularly loud or high-pitched. While not the smoothest rolling of the upgrade wheels, the Performance’s hubs didn’t create a rougher ride than the surface beneath me delivered on its own.
A few dings aside, these wheels held up well over months of testing in dusty, sandy, muddy, and rocky conditions that go along with gravel riding. The wheels remained true, I didn’t notice any difference in how the hubs rolled and found no water got past the hub seals.
These wheels came in at 1648 grams without valves or tape. They measured 24.1mm deep, 24.9mm wide between their bead hooks across the inside of the rim, and 30.4mm wide outside.
EASTON EA90 AX – SOLID, SMOOTH ROLLING
Hub performance seems to drive the noticeable differences among the gravel wheelsets I’ve tested in the upgrade category, as many of the results of my evaluation of other criteria are quite similar.
Easton’s EA90 AX gravel bike wheelset is built around the company’s Vault hubset. They provide solid, smooth rolling and are relatively quiet to point of being almost unnoticeable coasting over loose dirt or gravel surfaces.
As I’ve found on Easton’s road bike wheels which use the same hubs, they provide a great ride off the road too. Rolling through the elements of dirt and gravel, they seem unperturbed and no worse for wear after a lot of hard riding.
The Easton Vault rear hub doesn’t engage or spin-up as quickly as the hubs used by Bontrager on their Paradigm Elite 25 and seem just a touch slower than what I experience on HED’s Emporia GA Performance wheelset. This makes the EA90 AX a bit less responsive to accelerations and, while about 80 grams slimmer than the lighter of those two, not as good on shorter, punchy climbs.
In addition to the smoother rolling, relatively quiet ride, they are also comfortable though nothing out of the ordinary in this category. The same goes for their good stiffness and handling.
The EA90 AX wheels come with durable, pre-installed strips that appear to be molded to the rims. With the multiple tire changes I made on these and other rims, the Eastons clearly held up the best and would make your life easier if you change out your tires frequently.
My scale had these wheels at 1579 grams including the aforementioned strips, below others and Easton’s own 1625g claimed weight. You don’t see that happen often. At 19.8mm deep and 28.2 mm outside width, they are both shallower (by about 3mm) and narrower (2mm) than the Bontrager and HED upgrade gravel wheels. Neither of those measurements matters in this Easton gravel bike wheelset’s performance as much as its inside width which, like the others in this review comes in right around 25mm, specifically 24.8mm with my calipers.
VALUE-CARBON GRAVEL BIKE WHEELSETS
The value-carbon road bike wheelset category makes good sense as a replacement for your stock wheels. Compared to alloy upgrade road wheels, you can get deeper, potentially more aero value-carbon ones for higher road speeds, somewhere in the US$1000 and $1500 price range or about US$500 more than you’d spend on the alloy upgrades.
While the weight of value-carbon and alloy upgrade road wheels are often about the same and they usually have similar quality hubs, some value-carbon road wheels are stiffer, handle better, or are more comfortable thanks to what carbon can give you vs. the limitations of alloy rims.
And, they are carbon! Who wants to ride alloy wheels anymore when you can ride carbon ones?
That’s where I should have started since it’s what motivates many people to look at value-carbon wheels in the first place. “I want carbon wheels and I want to pay as little as possible for them” is how it usually starts for many of us roadies.
So that’s the rationale behind value-carbon road bike wheelsets.
When it comes to gravel wheels, however, the value-carbon gravel bike wheelset category makes less sense to me. Carbon and low price is also likely the primary motivator for this category though it hasn’t been around long enough for me to get a bead on the views of my fellow groadies. (Bring it in the comments section below.)
As I wrote earlier, you’ll get little to no aero benefit from your wheels at the speeds we mere mortal enthusiasts ride dirt and gravel. So, even though you can get value-carbon gravel bike wheelsets that are 40 or 45mm deep, far more than the 20-25mm rim depth of upgrade ones, it wouldn’t help all but elite, professional riders. And as pros, they’re sponsored and likely riding performance-carbon gravel hoops.
When it comes to riding gravel wheels, you’re actually better off with a lighter set than a deeper one. The lightest value-carbon and upgrade gravel wheelsets both run in the 1450-1475 gram range, a difference you’ll notice between 1575-1675 gram range of most of the wheels in these two categories.
Unfortunately, the lighter wheels I tested and others I found have a narrower internal width (22.5-23.5mm) than the heavier, full 25mm ones. Rims with narrower internal widths typically equate to worse handling and comfort.
Ugh!!! There always seem to be trade-offs in cycling gear.
In fact, the only reasons I can see for spending the extra money on a value-carbon gravel wheelset are:
- Better performance on gravel than upgrades so that you can ride faster or more comfortably on more challenging or longer rides.
- Better performance from your gravel bike wheels on your road bike than your stock or upgrade road bike wheels so that you’ll use your gravel wheels on both your gravel and road bikes.
- “I want carbon gravel wheels and I want to pay as little as possible for them.”
As you’ll see in my reviews below, the value wheels I’ve tested to date are a bit of a mixed bag on the first two reasons above. But, they are all carbon!
One point to add about wheelset quality that favors value-carbon gravel bike wheels over upgrade ones. Some think carbon wheels are more prone to damage than alloys when your ride dirt and gravel surfaces. The opposite is actually true, assuming the carbon layups are well made and come from companies who design, test and either do or oversee their rim manufacturing and wheel assembly.
BONTRAGER AEOLUS PRO 3V TLR DISC – WELL SUITED FOR UNPAVED ROADS
Bontrager calls the Aeolus Pro 3V a road wheel for “road and gravel tires”. From my experience, this wheelset is well suited for dirt and gravel where, amongst those I’ve tested in this category, it performed the best.
On unpaved surfaces, its rapidly engaging hubset shines against others at this price point and delivers the kind of quick acceleration that is welcome and more often needed on dirt and gravel than on paved roads. It also climbs reasonably well even though it is 75 to 125 grams heavier than others in this category.
The Aeolus Pro 3V is also the most comfortable value-carbon wheelset I’ve ridden offroad. Further, I found the handling precise and confident going fast around corners on loose gravel or soft dirt surfaces. The combination of comfort and handling makes for an enjoyable, smooth ride.
As I wrote about in my review of the Bontrager Paradigm Elite 25 alloy upgrade, the same freehub used in that wheelset and this one is louder than I prefer and a bit annoying at times. Yet the performance of the Aeolus Pro 3V is that much better than its upgrade sibling that I found myself focusing my attention on riding the course more aggressively and less on coasting and the accompanying freehub noise.
On paved roads and compared with 10 value-carbon road wheelsets I’ve reviewed, the Pro 3V was quite average and not one I’d recommend if you ride that surface for more than slower, commuting or recovery type rides. With 28mm tires on board, I did sweet spot intervals, an alpine climb, and a recovery ride or two in search of their strengths and weaknesses.
Despite trying tire pressures at, above, and below suggested levels, I couldn’t find a pressure where they felt both comfortable and gave me good handling. They weren’t uncomfortable and didn’t handle poorly but neither were they more than average on these performance characteristics.
They climbed adequately but again, nothing special and I didn’t really feel they maintained my speed well at aero speeds.
Would I recommend the Aeolus Pro 3V over the best alloy upgrade wheelset for gravel? Yes, in a heartbeat. They are clearly better and will change the quality and pleasure of your ride when you go offroad.
At the same time, if you are looking for one wheelset for unpaved and paved surfaces, you can do better.
For those of you interested in the Pro 3V’s design specs, per my measurements, it sports the widest internal (25.1mm) and external (32.3mm) rim widths of any of those measured or claimed in this category. My test model ran 35.0mm deep and 1682 grams with the tubeless rim strips inserted. As with all Bontrager tubeless-ready wheels, you can ditch the 60-gram strips and tape them for tubeless if you want to go lighter. Bontrager uses their Rapid Drive 108 hubs which has 3.3 degrees of engagement and 24 double-butted bladed spokes on both the front and back wheels.
ZIPP 303 S CARBON TUBELESS DISC-BRAKE – A GREAT VALUE FOR TUBELESS ROAD DISC RIDERS
While Zipp claims the 303 S offers the versatility to ride fast “no matter the road surface”, compared to other value-carbon road and gravel wheels I’ve ridden, it’s a far better choice for paved roads than unpaved ones.
While it says Zipp on the rims, it’s very un-Zipp-like in my experience.
First, it sells for US$1300, £985, €1110 or about the price of the front wheel alone on other Zipp wheelsets. And unlike any other Zipp wheelset before it, the 303 S is hookless and can only be ridden with tubeless tires. The Zipp 303 Firecrest, a performance-carbon wheelset reviewed below in the performance gravel bike wheelset category, is also hookless and sells for $600 more.
Second, the performance is the opposite of what I’ve experienced with other Zipp wheelsets. Specifically, it has better than average lateral stiffness and average vertical compliance (aka comfort). On paved roads, the added stiffness is welcome especially when climbing and for heavier riders. And, the average comfort isn’t a problem. It’s just not what I’ve come to enjoy about Zipp wheels.
I do recommend the 303 S as a Best Value for tubeless road disc riders. You can read my complete review of it for that surface here.
On dirt and gravel, the 303 S comfort is below par in comparison with other value-carbon wheels I’ve ridden. While Zipp rounds up the 22.5mm inside width I measured to claim 23mm, it rides more like a 21mm wheelset with the 35 to 40mm gravel bike tires I tested.
Narrower rims, despite wide gravel tires, usually provide both less comfort and worse handling performance on dirt and gravel than wider ones. Indeed, I found the Zipp 303 S lacked both in comparison to wheels with 25mm wide rim wheels.
And while their stiffness helped make them excellent road climbers, the Zipp model 3-pawl hub was relatively quiet when freewheeling but a bit slow engaging during acceleration and on short climbs.
The Zipp 303 S I tested weighed 1556 grams with its rims thankfully taped at the factory. It uses 24 bladed spokes front and back and Zipp’s third-tier 76/176 hubset. It runs 45.2mm deep, 22.5mm wide across the inside of the hookless rims, and 27.5mm wide outside.
REYNOLDS ATR X – A STEP UP IN COMFORT AND HANDLING FROM UPGRADE WHEELS
While the Reynolds ATR X performs better than alloy wheelsets on dirt and gravel roads, it doesn’t match the level of the best carbon value wheelset.
I immediately noticed the improved handling and a greater level of comfortable riding the ATR X compared to even wider alloy upgrade wheels. Perhaps it’s the properties of carbon or the way Reynolds lays it up, but it’s clearly a step up. You go where you want to with less effort both steering your bike and feeling the surface.
Together that creates a more enjoyable ride and, if you want, you can challenge yourself riding a bit harder and more aggressively.
Yet, this Reynolds wheelset wasn’t as comfortable on dirt and gravel as the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V even when I reduced the tire pressure on its 23mm internal width rims.
As a roadie riding gravel, you notice certain things when riding the changing surfaces and short, punchy pitches off-road that you don’t when riding pavement. Quickly accelerating and getting up short climbs without losing a whole lot of momentum is key.
Unfortunately, neither of these were strong points for the ATR X. It seemed to take me a couple of crank revolutions before my acceleration efforts kicked in and they didn’t get uphill nearly as well as the others in this category.
That climbing performance carried over when doing back to back comparisons on alpine asphalt road climbs. The steadier ramp you find on a paved road surface didn’t require many acceleration changes from the Reynolds wheelset but it still felt like more work compared to other value-carbon wheels going up long, 5-10% climbs.
On the road at aero speeds and with 28mm tires mounted up, the ATR X maintained my momentum reasonably well though not much better than others in this category and clearly below the level of performance-carbon wheels. Cruising around at slower speeds during recovery delivered average comfort.
It was hard to find an argument for the Reynolds ATR X wheelsets against others in the value-carbon category when riding dirt, gravel, or paved roads. They do provide a step up from gravel wheels in the upgrade category but there are better choices if your budget limits you to value-carbons.
The ATR X wheels I tested weighed 1606 grams including the pre-installed rim strips but not valves on my scale. The rims measure 40.1mm deep, 23.1mm wide on the inside, 30.9mm outside near the rim-tire interface, and are 32.1mm at the widest point of their toroidal profile. The rims exceed 105% of the tire width with 28mm road tires installed. The 4-pawl rear hub engages every 10 degrees. You’ll find 24 Sapim Race round spokes on both the front and rear wheels.
PERFORMANCE-CARBON GRAVEL WHEELS
For experienced, fast, and aggressive gravel riding enthusiasts and for those of us who aspire to fit that description (hello!!!), performance-carbon gravel wheels are the ones you want to be rolling on. Those that I’ve tested gave me the kind of performance that’s just not available from upgrade or value-carbon gravel bike wheels and a level of confidence to let loose on unpaved roads that freed my inner groadie.
Yeah, they’re expensive. Priced at $1900 to $2500, or 1.5x to 3x what you would spend on an upgrade or value-carbon gravel wheelset, you’ve got to have a deep bank account or a good justification for going the performance-carbon route.
Beyond the spirit-lifting performance you’ll experience, these wheels can double as bonafide road bike climbing wheelsets. Some can serve you as a decent all-arounder too. So you get a top gravel and road wheelset for the price of one.
Are you reading this, my dear?
Of course, this two-for-the-price-of-one justification holds only if you need or were planning to get a set of road climbing wheels or don’t already have a set of all-around carbon wheels. You’ll also need a road disc bike too, but perhaps that’s leading you down another budget rabbit hole.
Anyway, these wheels are stellar on gravel. They are notably more comfortable, better handling, and better climbing wheels than any I’ve tested in the other gravel bike wheelset categories. With these on my bike, I could ride faster, longer, and more confidently on more challenging terrain than I could or wanted to on upgrade or value-carbon wheels. And, the thrill level was turned up to 11.
If you can swing it, justify it, or BS your way to spending it, I think they are absolutely worth the extra money.
ZIPP 303 FIRECREST DISC – BEST VALUE FOR GRAVEL AND ROAD CLIMBING WHEELS
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, and 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 USD$1900 for a Firecrest, that path starts at a low price. With the $3200 Zipp 303 NSW disc now out of production (the other Zipp NSW rim and disc wheelsets remain), that price is not only the lowest it’s been for a Firecrest in, I think, ever, but it’s also now the price of their top-of-the-all-around-line disc wheelset.
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.
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 3.4 disc and 3.4 AR disc and the Bontrager 37 RSL (reviewed here). 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 ENVE 3.4 AR disc and far more expensive Zipp 303 NSW road disc wheelset came out. The ENVE and NSW are more comfortable and roll smoother on paved roads. And the NSW is clearly faster and holds its momentum far better than the Firecrest (and ENVE).
On paved roads, I used Zipp’s Tangente Speed Road Tubeless tires, ones I’ve found to be among the best tubeless tires, I did A-B and A-B-C comparative testing of these three wheelsets. The Firecrest and ENVE with their 25mm internal width rims got 28mm Tangentes inflated to the same pressure while the 21mm internal rim width 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.
The NSW and ENVE rim and Tangente Speed Tubeless combinations easily passed the 105% outside rim width to tire width ratio target for optimal aero performance while the narrower outside width of the Firecrest put it slightly under 100%.
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 AR front wheel might explain the speed difference I felt in its ability to hold speed. Unfortunately, none of the other 28mm tubeless tires suitable for hookless rims that I mounted and measured on the Firecrest – Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Light TLR, Schwalbe Pro One TL, Specialized S-Works Turbo RapidAir – got me past 102%.
But at $1900 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.
ENVE SES 3.4 AR DISC – BEST PERFORMER FOR GRAVEL AND ROAD WHEEL COMBINATION
The ENVE SES 3.4 AR Disc 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 these days.
While it’s light (1432 grams with ENVE alloy hubs on my scale), the 3.4 AR disc is also not a dedicated climbing road wheelset. ENVE sells the 3.4 disc (no AR) for that purpose.
Like other true gravel wheels, the 3.4 AR is wide – 25mm internal (25.0 measured) and 32mm external rim widths (actually 32.1mm front and 32.5mm rear). That, along with the similarly wide, deeper ENVE SES 4.5 AR (review here) makes it far wider than most road wheelsets made these days that measure 19-21mm internal and 27-29mm external.
So is it an all-around, climbing, and gravel wheelset triple-threat that’s great on all roads as suggested by its 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 my fellow tester Nate and I agreed the 3.4 AR is a laterally stiff wheelset. Yet in Nate’s already very stiff Specialized Venge aero road frame, this strength didn’t add any benefit.
In my Parlee Altum road bike, as quick and light as a road racing frame with the geometry and 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 bike, the SES 3.4 AR disc’s stiffness was apparent in the bike’s improved responsiveness compared to how it feels with most of the gravel alloy and value-carbon wheelsets I’ve tested.
Dirt and gravel road comfort is principally due to tire and inflation choices. So while I found these wheels very comfortable at 30 psi on the trail, I can’t attribute it principally to the ARs. But with the same gravel tires on rims with the same internal widths and at the same inflation pressure, I’ve not ridden a more comfortable wheelset. I also found them among the most comfortable wheels I’ve ridden with 28mm road tires on paved surfaces.
The 3.4 AR’s relative width and ability to absorb the bumps certainly created greater handling confidence that encouraged me to corner at speed on unevenly paved roads and when changing lines with the right gravel tires mounted.
While most 21C road disc wheels are at their aerodynamic best on 25C tires, the ENVE 3.4 AR and 4.5 AR wheelsets are one of few truly designed (rather than marketed) to be aero for 28C road tires. With the Schwalbe Pro One TLE pair inflated at 60psi (my measurement benchmark for 25C road wheelsets), the tires measured 29.0mm wide on the 3.4 AR rims, getting the combination well beyond the “rule of 105” rim-to-tire width ratio for optimum aero performance.
With the 28mm Zipp Tangente Speed Tubeless tires I use for A-B comparative road testing with other wheels in this performance-carbon gravel wheelset category, they fell just inside (and probably within the margin of error and wear) of that aero guideline.
All of that said, the 3.4 AR 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, they did hold a bit more of my momentum at aero speeds than others 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.
While gravel tires are compatible with the 3.4 AR’s hookless rims, be sure to use road tires that are as well (see list here). More are now than when the also hookless 4.5 AR was introduced and I believe most will be before long as more road disc wheels go the same route.
The 3.4 AR’s roll very smoothly with an average freewheeling sound from the ENVE alloy hubs that use Mavic Instant Drive 360 ratchet internals. You can also spend more to get these wheels with Chris King steel or ceramic bearing hubs with their signature sound and greater points of engagement that is nice but I think unnecessary even on gravel, compared to what the ENVE alloy hubs give you.
For me, an average climber, I had the sensation of ascending freely on the 3.4 AR 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 AR 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 AR wheelset’s combination of light-weight and stiffness provided the feeling of turbo-boost responsiveness.
They are nimble on shorter climbs and the flats when dodging holes and rocks or needing to change lines that are all part of the “fun” of gravel riding. They get me closer than any other wheels I’ve felt of wanting to go somewhere on the trail and actually being able to get there.
Clearly, the ENVE 3.4 AR disc is a very versatile wheelset. If you ride both paved and gravel surfaces and do a lot of climbing, this one wheelset 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 AR disc (review here) would be a better choice.
OTHER WHEELS ON MY TO-REVIEW LIST
While it feels like I’ve tested and compared a good number of gravel wheels with the reviews you see above, it always seems like there are more I’d like to ride if time and budget allowed.
Perhaps like you, I keep a wish list of wheels I’d like to check out. I plan to work through that list over the next period of time. I’ll likely focus more on the performance-carbon gravel wheelset category as I think there is better performance and more bang for your buck from the wheels in that category.
I’ve already tested and quite enjoyed Hed’s first performance-carbon gravel bike wheelset but didn’t write a review as they’ve replaced the model I tested with a newer one that I’ll soon be riding. There are other gravel wheels from Industry Nine and Roval that look interesting. As more roadies start riding gravel, there will undoubtedly be more gravel bike wheels introduced for the 2021 season to check out.
If there are wheelsets I’ve not reviewed or mentioned that you have your eyes on, let me know in the comments section and I’ll look them up. While I may change my setup in the future, I’m focused on 700c gravel wheels (rather than 650c) both because those appear to be the most common size and they are also best suited for use on road bikes as well as gravel ones.
Because they aren’t available to the geographically diverse group of enthusiasts that read the site, I tend not to test custom-built or regional brand wheels. And while I’ve reviewed road wheels made in factories that good branders or little known brands sell direct but don’t add much if any design or testing value to, I’ve learned enough from digging into that part of the cycling wheelset world (read here) to want to avoid spending your time or mine on gravel wheels from the same sources.
But hey, gravel is a new thing and I’m an old dog learning and yearning to learn new tricks. If you’ve thought it through and have a deep interest in a set of gravel wheels I’ve not tested, let me know which ones and why in the comment section below.
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First published on October 11, 2020. Date of the most recent major update shown at the top of the post.