THE BEST CARBON DISC WHEELSET
If you own a road disc bike, you may be looking for that one all-around, carbon disc wheelset that performs well across a wide range of terrain. It’s a fair bit of work to sort through all of those out there now because, along with the rapid growth of road disc bikes, there’s been a quick evolution of carbon wheels for those bikes.
The latest generation of all-around carbon road disc wheels are faster, more comfortable, and do more things well on a wider range of terrain than the best rim brake wheels and many of the earlier disc brake ones ever did.
In this post, I’ll take you through the rapid evolution of road disc wheelsets, give you my ratings and reviews of models from leading wheelset makers against the criteria that matter most when choosing one, and recommend the Best Performer wheelsets.
Related: The Best Aero Bike Wheels
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BEST PERFORMER – ZIPP 454 NSW
If you don’t want to pick between wheels that would be fast on flats vs. on rolling hills vs. on climbs or in a training ride, group ride, road race, or crit, I recommend the latest Zipp 454 NSW Tubeless Disc-brake wheelset. It will be fast in all those situations and the fastest around in many of them.
At US$4000/£3200/€3800, it better be. But if top performance in a single wheelset in nearly every situation and against nearly every criterion is important to you, it just may be worth it.
It’s a stiff, deep (54.5 to 58.5mm), and light (1378 grams) wheelset. Those three attributes along with the 454 NSW’s quick engaging rear hub make it so responsive that it redefines the term “snappy” and make it an ideal breakaway partner from flats to all but the steepest of slopes.
Combine all of that with a very smooth rolling hubset, an almost silent and fast engaging freehub, and its varying depth rims, and you’ve got a unique riding and looking set of wheels.
Read my full review here.
BEST PERFORMER – ENVE SES 4.5
The ENVE SES excels on nearly as many performance criteria as the Zipp 454 NSW but at US$2850/£3100 costs a good amount less, especially if you are paying in US Dollars.
It’s also a better bet if you also want one wheelset for both paved roads and those long flat and rolling dirt or gravel ones. It feels as fast or faster on flat, rolling, and descending terrain, as comfortable on the good roads, and more comfortable on rough roads and unpaved paths than any other carbon bike wheels I’ve evaluated.
Read my full review here.
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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CARBON DISC WHEELSETS
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CARBON DISC WHEELSET DEVELOPMENTS
We’re now seeing a 4th generation of the evolution of carbon disc wheelsets. What started as modifications of rim brake wheels is becoming the only new carbon wheelset choice you have.
While it’s still early in this latest generation and most carbon disc wheelsets available to us enthusiasts are 3rd generation ones, the 4th generation of wider, lighter, tubeless-only, and hookless rims are upon us.
Many of the latest generation wheelsets will also be less expensive than those from the prior generation and thanks to new standards, will be easier to install tires on though will still not be as easy as clinchers.
Carbon Disc Wheelset Evolution 2014-2022
The most notable takeaway for me after assembling this chart is how quickly things have changed and how much the latest generation of all-around wheels for road disc bikes are different than those we rode just a few years ago on our rim brake bikes.
In fact, many of the leading wheelset companies have stopped selling carbon rim brake wheels and all development time and money is spent on disc brake wheels. That’s why I’ve called the 4th generation “All In On Disc Brake Wheels.”
These changes have made the all-around, carbon disc wheelset faster, more comfortable, more durable, and more versatile than all-around, rim brake wheels ever were without any effect on stiffness, acceleration or handling.
Remember when better braking was all that most people fixed on when talking about the benefits of going to road disc bikes? Well, the ability to get all the benefits I just summarized is a whole lot more than better braking, which was enough of a reason for many people to go with a road disc bike in the first place.
Let me go through some of these benefits a bit more.
Faster – Wider rims mean you can run some 28C tires to gain more comfort without incurring additional drag. Wider tires also reduce losses or energy that saps your body from the road vibrations that come with a narrower tire that you need to run at a higher inflation pressure to maintain the same opposing force as a wider one. (See my post on how wide wheels and wide tires can make you faster for more on this.)
Most of the Gen 3 road disc rims were designed using 25C tires and produce vertical tire sidewalls that are narrower than the external rim width. Using 28mm tires on these wheels will reduce the aero gains you pay for when buying mid-depth, all-around carbon disc wheels.
More Comfortable – Going tubeless allows you to run your wider tires at lower pressures without pinch flat concerns. Lower pressures make for a more comfortable ride and fewer impedance losses.
More Durable – The best carbon rim brake wheels use resins with high melting points to make it much harder for riders to warp them when they apply or drag the brakes. The trade-off is that these resins can make the wheels a bit brittle. While I can’t quantify the difference, dedicated disc brake wheels use lower melting temperature resins that are less brittle.
More Versatile – Because the latest generations of all-around, carbon disc wheels have gotten wider, more tubeless friendly, and more durable, you can comfortably ride them on gravel and cyclocross tracks with the appropriate tires. Those with 23mm or 25mm inside rim widths are as wide as dedicated gravel wheels. Doing this can save you having to buy another set of wheels to excel on dirt, grass, and gravel roads and trails.
A few words about tubeless tires. You’ll notice that tubeless tires are mentioned quite often in my description of developments and the benefits they bring.
Removable valve cores, easier to mount rims, and a whole lot more experience with tubeless tires while testing all these road disc wheelsets have made installing them easier and cleaner, and mellowed me somewhat to the minimally more added work they bring over standard clincher tires.
Lower prices, lower rolling resistance (lower than tubular or clincher tires), the ability to run lower pressures, more comfort, and having nearly every puncture seal so far have made me look past many of my previous objections to tubeless.
While tubeless still requires a learning curve, I can now say the benefits they add to the right rims can outweigh the diminishing disadvantages and make it well worth getting up that curve if you want those benefits. My review of tubeless tires lays all of this out in more detail and gives you my recommendations of the best ones.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
For each In The Know Cycling review, I evaluate category-specific criteria in four groups – performance, design, quality, and cost. The criteria that matter most in those groups for the best all-around wheels for road disc bikes are as follows:
Performance: Versatility, specificity, aero drag (momentum), sidewind stability, lateral stiffness, vertical compliance aka “comfort,” responsiveness, and durability.
Design: Wheel weight and material, rim depth, rim inner and outer widths, rim profile, hub and spoke design, and wheel finish.
Quality: Warranties, crash support, and service/support.
Cost: Purchase price, cost of ownership, and replacement cost.
I use most of those criteria for carbon disc brake all-arounds with a few exceptions and changes in emphasis that I’ll point out below.
You can’t measure a wheelset’s aero drag on the road so, as a surrogate, we evaluate and compare how well different wheelsets maintain their momentum at different speeds.
Since the latest all-around carbon disc wheelsets are deeper than earlier ones, sidewind stability has become increasingly important.
And since all-around wheels are intended for a wide range of paved road terrain – flats, rollers, climbs, descents – and for mixed or unpaved surfaces and for cyclocross racing, and even gravel, versatility is key. Specificity, or how well a wheelset performs in a specific situation, is a criterion best used for dedicated aero, climbing, or gravel wheels.
Stiffness and compliance are important for all wheels.
Responsiveness or how lively and light your wheels feel as you accelerate and handle your bike at different speeds, across varying terrain, and through a range of cornering situations is a key measure of all-around wheels but less in others.
Durability is obviously important for any wheelset. However, we’re only able to measure it on an exception basis since testing one set of wheels is not representative of the performance of the many wheels a company makes of a specific model. We also don’t test it long enough to induce failure. If it fails or has issues early in our testing or we hear or read about shops and users reporting chronic problems, we’ll certainly report that.
Design specs like weight and rim width are worth noting but may or may not deliver the intended performance those specs are often associated with. A wheelset’s actual responsiveness, stiffness, and comfort on the road, for example, are far more important than the design specifications and new technology that we often get so hung up (and sold) on and that we too easily equate to those performance attributes.
Considering the range of options the road cycling enthusiast has to choose from in all-around wheels for road disc bikes, I recommend a Best Performer (independent of price) but not a Best Value wheelset (considering performance and price) in this review. For less expensive all-around carbon wheels which unfortunately do not perform as well, check out my review of value-carbon wheelsets here.
Quality is either a go or no go in my recommendations. I won’t recommend anything that doesn’t have an acceptable level of quality according to my criteria. I’m also not going to recommend something that has superior quality but under-performs or has higher costs. When two wheelsets perform more or less the same, I do consider quality and cost criteria in recommending one as a Best Performer.
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ALL-AROUND CARBON DISC WHEELSET COMPARATIVE RATINGS
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REVIEWS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
ZIPP 454 NSW – FAST WHEELS ANYWHERE YOU RIDE
If you don’t want to pick between wheels that would be fast on flats vs. on rolling hills vs. on climbs or in a training ride, group ride, road race, or crit, I recommend the latest Zipp 454 NSW Tubeless Disc-brake wheelset. It will be fast in all those situations and the fastest around in many of them.
At US$4000/£3200/€3800, it better be. But if top performance in a single wheelset in nearly every situation and against nearly every criterion is important to you, it just may be worth it.
That’s the conclusion that fellow testers Nate, Miles, and I reached after riding the Zipp 454 NSW.
At its core, it’s a stiff, deep (54.5 to 58.5mm), and light (1378 grams) wheelset. Those three attributes along with the 454 NSW’s quick engaging rear hub make it so responsive that it redefines the term “snappy.”
Practically, the 454 NSW’s superior ability to accelerate made it an ideal partner for 20-30 second break-away efforts and sprint finishes. Except for on the steepest of slopes, Miles said this wheelset “made me faster on nearly any effort I tried”.
And Miles is already a fast dude, regularly winning P/1/2 masters crits, road, and stage races in the Northeast and finishing top 10 at US Nationals.
Even for me, a more average B group level roadie, the sensation of riding this highly responsive 454 NSW wheelset was energizing almost from the first pedal stroke. Once into my rides, I felt like I was having great legs every day I rode them.
Nate, our A group Bullet Train ride leader who rode the 454 NSW on a couple of those early morning hammerfests and out front of 100 and 140 mile one day rides with 8,000 to 10,000 feet of climbing initially resisted giving them up for others to test. Despite being a peace-loving guy, he paraphrased Charleton Heston’s line about prying them out of his “cold dead hands”.
Nate has been testing all sorts of wheels along with me for at least the last 5 years including the prior generation 454 NSW rim brake wheels. His feedback started with a most definitive statement.
These are the first wheels where I haven’t felt like I was making a tradeoff between aero and climbing performance.
I don’t know what they cost (I’ve trained him not to look at price or specs and just judge performance). I’m sure it will be high. But, I would put them in the category where it just MIGHT be worth paying $1,000 more for these than others which are ALMOST as good but not on all characteristics. (Nate’s capitalization.)
Unlike Nate’s experience with the earlier 454 NSW where that wheelset wobbled in crosswinds to the point where he slowed on each fast downhill section of a looping road race, he felt confident on similarly fast, windy descents riding this new 454 NSW.
Miles felt far less comfortable in some windy situations. When the breezes picked up to about 20 mph and came directly from the side, it felt like he was getting a slight body check and was pushed around far more than with any wheelset he’s ever ridden.
It may be that the 454 NSW’s sawtooth rim profile is best at reducing crosswinds at lesser yaw angles than what Miles experienced and perhaps more similar to those Nate did. For me, I always seem to be riding into headwinds no matter what course I’m on and it was no different riding the 454 NSW.
The only other slight knock we had on this wheelset was its ability to hold its momentum on the flats at speeds north of 25mph. While the 454 NSW rolled just fine at that speed, it felt like we needed a bit more effort to keep pace with the average aero wheelset that is often 5-10mm deeper and 200-300 grams heavier. It’s simply a matter of physics and a tradeoff the speediest of enthusiasts might want to keep in mind.
When you aren’t on a breakaway, going over rolling terrain, heading up climbs, or sprinting for the line, you are likely doing a lot of handling. And the good news is that this is another area where the 454 NSW outperforms most wheelsets.
We experienced precise, confident, high-speed cornering. These wheels do exactly what you want them to do in big arc turns, 50+mph downhills, slower switchbacks, and even quick, last-second movements.
With the right tires and at the right pressures, the ride is also very comfortable no matter how good the pavement is. While many wheels are similarly compliant nowadays, some deeper wheels tend to give up comfort by using a narrower rim to keep weight down. You make no such trade-off with this wheelset.
Add to all of this a very smooth rolling hubset and almost silent, fast engaging freehub. That makes it even more tempting to start a breakaway and easier crank up a sprint.
The 454 NSW defies categorization. It’s the wheelset equivalent of a hors categorie climb, one that is beyond categorization.
Based on its 55 to 59 mm deep rims, you might think the Zipp 454 NSW is an aero wheelset. You wouldn’t be wrong. Judging from its 1388 gram weight, you might guess it climbs well. Indeed it does. Hookless, 23mm inside rim width will make for a very comfortable ride, right? Yes and perhaps worthy of riding gravel, though we didn’t test it off-road.
So is it an all-around wheelset? Yes, that may be the most encompassing definition though it is faster and better than any all-arounder we’ve tested on terrain that never exceeds 5-6% up or down and faster than many aero wheels on the flats and climbing wheels on steeper pitches.
Perhaps it’s best to call it an all-everything wheelset. Or just fast anywhere you want to ride.
You can buy the Zipp 454 NSW Tubeless Disc-brake wheelset at stores I recommend using these links to Competitive Cyclist and Merlin, stores I recommend because they have the best prices, customer satisfaction records, and selection on enthusiast-level cycling gear.
ENVE SES 4.5 – STILL STANDS ABOVE
The second-generation ENVE SES 4.5, born the SES 4.5 AR, continues to stand above all other all-around wheelsets in the performance carbon wheelset price category (US$2000/£1600/€2000 to $3000/£2300/€3000).
In my on-the-road testing, I’ve found the SES 4.5 performs as good or better on the combination of factors I think matter most to your speed and enjoyment of road cycling wheels. It’s fast, stable, stiff, comfortable, responsive, and versatile. It’s got it all.
And, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to ride. The ENVE SES 4.5 seems to glide along the road with no drama as you accelerate from a start, transition from flats to hills, and take corners at high speed. It’s unbothered by crosswinds and coasts with nary a sound from the freehub.
To be clear, the ENVE 4.5 is no recreational stroller. Rather, it’s seriously fast, deceptively so with its relatively modest looks and quiet demeanor.
I rode the new 4.5 for the first time on a recovery ride day at the end of a week of training full of hard anaerobic and VO2 max intervals. “Let’s just ease into it” I told myself, never wanting to judge a wheelset I’m testing for the first time on a hard day in the saddle.
Despite being physically and mentally tired, riding the ENVE SES 4.5 re-energized me. It responded quickly and easily to my efforts, flowed through corners, and smoothed hills and rough roads.
As I put it through harder efforts in the days that followed – VO2 intervals, 7% climbs, and on-my-limit group rides – the 4.5’s performance helped me be at my best, or at least better than on other days with other wheels rolling beneath me.
Regardless of the specs, which I’ll get to in a minute, the ENVE SES 4.5 feels light and lively and maintains my momentum in the 20mph/32mph to 25mph/40mph speed range incredibly well.
Stiff, efficient, comfortable, quiet, fast. Total confidence and total pleasure regardless of terrain, surface, effort, or speed.
It’s somewhat surprising that a second-generation wheelset, little changed from one introduced 6 years before could still be the Best Performer among its peers. While others have certainly improved on individual performance criteria I use in evaluating wheels, none have reached the same level as the ENVE 4.5 across all of them.
If performance balance is a measure of an all-around wheelset, and great performance across all criteria is the mark of the best, the ENVE 4.5 still stands atop the rest.
My spec-obsessed evil twin always wants to get in the way of my performance-focused good twin and influence you, my fellow cycling enthusiasts. Well, I’ll give him some space to speak up here.
For years one of the key differences between the original 4.5 AR and most other road wheelsets was its 25mm inside width. That continues with the new 4.5 (25.3mm per my measurement) and is why I can run my tire pressure low to get the comfort I enjoy even on rough paved and dirt road surfaces. Other wheelmakers, notably Zipp and Bontrager now make rims with 23mm inside widths for wheels of similar depth while most still make road disc rims with a 21mm inside width.
On the outside, the 4.5 rim has widened a couple of millimeters per my measurements from the 4.5 AR to 32.8mm for the front wheel and 32.4mm for the rear. The rim has also gotten about 1.5 mm deeper, now 51.8mm front and 56.5mm rear.
The wider, deeper rims, says ENVE, come from adding their anti pinch-flat design to the 4.5, something the SES 3.4 AR (now the SES 3.4) has had since it was introduced. Whatever, I’ll take the added width and height if it improves the performance.
It seems so. With the slightly wider rims, more models of 28mm labeled tires can be used on the 4.5 at lower pressures to give you optimal aero drag and rolling resistance performance along with better comfort across rough roads. I get into all the details of that in my tubeless tire review.
Note also that the front and rear wheels have different dimensions and also different shapes. The front wheel has a U-shaped profile designed to improve its stability in crosswinds while the rear is deeper and has a V-shaped one to improve its aero performance.
In the last couple of years, Roval, Hunt, and Parcours have introduced wheelsets with different front and rear dimensions, and some, profiles, though none are as wide internally as the 4.5.
ENVE’s measurements show the average 4.5 weighs about 100 grams less overall than the 4.5 AR did and, more importantly, their deeper, wider rims weigh about 110 grams less than the first generation ones.
My demo ENVE 4.5 wheelset came in at 1518 grams with the Shimano/SRAM 11-speed HG freehub (a SRAM XDR 12-speed one weighs about 20 less) and with the wheels taped but with no valve stems in place. That still puts it about 50 grams heavier than the actual weights of the narrower and shallower Bontrager RSL 51 and Campagnolo Bora Ultra 45 wheelsets and 140 grams more than the $4000 Zipp 454 NSW. The difference accelerating from a dead stop is minimally better with the Bontrager and Campy, and more noticeably so with the Zipp.
While more and more rims come through pre-taped with valve stems in place these days, ENVE continues to send you tape and stems to install yourself. This video demonstrates how to install ENVE tape; ignore the part at the beginning about using clincher tires – it doesn’t apply to the current line of SES wheels.
ENVE justifies this DIY approach by wanting to give you or your retailer the option to adjust the internal nipples for spoke tension and wheel true before applying the tape that covers access to the nipples. Internal nipples reduce the drag of external ones by 0.75 watts per wheel in ENVE’s wind tunnel tests. Nothing to sneeze at for those who believe in marginal gains.
I don’t know about you, but even with all the wheels I test, I’ve never found the need to have a tension meter or trueing stand on my workbench. Hand and eye inspection can detect true outliers and even with them, I’m not wrench enough to start messing with my spoke nipples.
I expect that ENVE ships very few wheels that are out of tolerance. Heck, they were one of the first to offer 5-year parts and labor warranties on their wheels. So, they likely have a pretty good fix on the quality of their wheels, all of which are made in their Utah factory. I would think most of us and our store mechanics would prefer ENVE tape their rims before shipping them to our doorsteps even though some of us have become pretty good at taping them ourselves over the years.
If a wheel were to come in with spoke tension or true that’s not up to spec, their warranty should pay a trained mechanic to adjust the nipples and retape the rim.
Note also that the ENVE SES 4.5 (and all current ENVE SES and Foundation wheels) use hookless rims and require tubeless tires whether you use sealant or tubes inside. Fortunately, the list of compatible tires for that combination is growing longer and longer and includes the top-performing tires from most brands. You can see the list of compatible and incompatible tires per ENVE testing.
For those of you still resistant to hookless rims because you want to be able to inflate your tires as high as you like without the worry of them blowing off, please understand a few things about the SES 4.5 wheels.
First, with the 4.5’s 25mm inside width, you won’t want to inflate your tires past the maximum recommended pressure of 80psi even if you weigh the maximum recommended rider weight of 250lbs/113kg. They’ll be increasingly uncomfortable and slower above the recommended pressures shown in ENVE’s chart. As you can see there, it shows only 67 psi as the starting tire pressure recommended for the heaviest riders.
Second, ENVE has been making hookless rims and testing them with tubeless tires for years. For their 25mm inside width rims, they have established 80psi as the maximum recommended tire pressure and 90psi for their 21mm inside width hookless rims. Both of these pressure levels are higher than the ETRTO and ISO 5 bar, 72.5 psi standard for hookless rims of any width.
And, ENVE only lists tires as compatible if they stay on their rims in their tests through 150% of the maximum recommended pressure. So I think there’s plenty of performance and comfort motivation to keep your tires well below the max pressure and a pretty good safety zone if you revert to your 20-year younger self in the presence of a tire pump on an off day.
Unlike earlier incarnations of SES wheels where you could order Chris King, Industry Nine, DT Swiss, or ENVE’s own branded hub with carbon shells, there will only be one hubset available on the 4.5.
Fortunately, it’s the ENVE hub with alloy hub shells, a direct drive model they’ve been putting on most of their wheels for the last handful of years. These are the same ones I’ve used with no issues (and performed no maintenance on) with the ENVE SES 5.6 and 3.4 AR wheelsets I bought to benchmark other brands of wheels with performance goals similar to those.
You can order the 4.5 with either an HG, XDR, or N3W freehub body compatible with your Shimano, SRAM, or Campagnolo groupset.
Finally, some ENVE wheelsets I’ve tested in the past have come through with hair-thin, 2-3mm long white lines in the carbon accumulated at random places along the rim’s spoke edge. While hardly visible unless you go around looking for such things (I do), I and some readers found this rather annoying and even worrisome.
The issue turned out to be only a cosmetic one apparently caused by an oxidation side effect of the hardening agent used in the resin. While a sample size of one, the new SES 4.5 I tested had almost none of these white lines. ENVE is using a new resin in their new line of SES wheels that, in part, has enabled them to reduce the rim weight but also is supposed to address the oxidation issue that caused the white lines in the earlier resin.
We’ll keep an eye on this. Literally.
The ENVE SES 4.5 price has gone up US$300 and £300 to $2850/£3100 and is available using these links to recommended store Competitive Cyclist and directly from ENVE. It’s hard to justify – you’ll need to make peace with your own budget watchdogs – but it’s also hard to say no to a wheelset that still stands above its competition.
BONTRAGER AEOLUS RSL 51 TLR – THE DEFINITION OF AN ALL-AROUND ROAD DISC WHEELSET
It’s easy to judge any wheelset by looking at what it does well, what it doesn’t, what it costs, and what it looks like. And, if you’re into design and engineering, add specs and tech into your evaluation.
I’ll get to much of that. But when it comes to the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 51 TLR, let me start with the bottom line.
The RSL 51 is the definition of a modern all-around road disc wheelset.
This mid-depth Bontrager does most of the things road cycling enthusiasts like you and me should look for if we can only buy one wheelset. You can train with it at speed on a variety of terrain, enjoy friendly competition against your buds riding hard on group rides, and do long-distance events in comfort. It doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses.
Its glossy finish and branding look good without being loud, it has a strong warranty and dealer network, and it’s priced in the same ballpark as other, less well-rounded alternatives.
The RSL 51’s specs are all modern without offending anyone. It uses the updated model of the well-established DT Swiss 240 hubs (Ratchet EXP) and has rims that are wider than most all-arounds (23.2mm internal, 30.7mm external), as deep as most all-arounds go these days (51.1mm), and are hooked for riding with tubeless or clincher tires.
And at 1441 grams on my scale with taped rims rather than the weighty plastic rim strips installed, they are marginally lighter (about 20 to 120 grams) than most in this category.
No, the RSL 51 is not going to outperform a climbing wheelset going up alpine roads or aero wheels in crit race or the best gravel wheels riding off-road. For that, you’ll need all-around wheels with those strengths but other weaknesses or wheels designed uniquely for those types of events or terrain.
But, for an all-around wheelset, my fellow testers Nate, Miles, and I found the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 51 TLR do climb quite well. Descending at high speeds is also a confident experience thanks to their excellent handling and unfazed reaction to side winds.
That good handling extends to flat roads where the RSL 51 tracked well through corners paired up with the 28c Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite and 25c Michelin Power Road tubeless tires we mounted on them.
Acceleration is another one of RSL 51’s strengths. Combined with their handling skills, this makes for a very responsive wheelset, important when keeping up with moves on a group ride and staying out of trouble in a paceline.
Despite their few mm of added depth, we didn’t find they were any faster or held their speed any better than other all-around wheels we’ve tested. And while they accelerate well and are stiff enough for mere enthusiast mortals like me, they aren’t the kind of max stiffness wheels you want for the kind of >1000 watt sprints you might do in a crit. Bontrager does make wheels for that but these aren’t them.
On long rides, the RSL 51 is quite comfortable and better than most in this category. The new DT240 Ratchet EXP hub is louder than its predecessor when freewheeling but not overly so and it’s a relatively low-frequency sound that I don’t find annoying.
At US$2700/£2100/€2500 the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 51 certainly isn’t cheap but is one of the better all-around wheelsets we’ve ridden. Using these links, you can order them direct from Bontrager or at Sigma Sports.
CAMPAGNOLO BORA ULTRA WTO 45 – MORE THAN SKIN DEEP
Like most Campagnolo kit, it’s hard not to be taken by the stunning beauty and engineering precision of the Bora Ultra WTO 45 wheelset. The rich black rim finish, hourglass hub shell, recessed spoke nipples, and modest yet proud graphics draw you in.
As with anything as alluring as this wheelset, I was hopeful that its performance was just as beautiful and precise.
In some ways, it is.
Judging from how little effort is needed to get it up to speed, the Bora Ultra WTO 45 feels like a fast wheelset. It doesn’t hold that speed as easily as an aero wheelset or the fastest all-arounds do on a flat or rolling course. But, the lively and responsive feel of this Campy makes it feel quite fast when you accelerate from a stop or out of a corner.
The Campagnolo hubs roll incredibly smoothly and the freehub is absolutely silent. I felt alone with my thoughts doing a soul ride or set of hard interval workouts on the Bora Ultra WTO 45. For me, that’s generally a good thing. However, if you prefer being accompanied by the sounds coming out of your freehub or drivetrain, you’ll not get that kind of collaboration from this wheelset.
Equally distinctive, and perhaps more importantly, climbing well is a true partnership with these Campags. They go up ramps and steeper pitches with relative ease.
At 1445 grams on my scale with valve stems in place, the Ultra version of the Bora WTO 45 actually weighs about 70 grams less than the non-Ultra model of the Bora WTO 33 we’ve reviewed. While it doesn’t weigh as little as a pure climbing wheelset, the Ultra 45’s feel as energetic going uphill as one that is.
In addition to its climbing ability, the Bora Ultra WTO 45 wheelset is quite responsive and tracks with great precision through corners. It’s a laterally stiff setup that accelerates well when called upon. My fellow tester and competitive racer Miles found them extremely stiff compared with the other wheels he’s ridden with “zero flex” sprinting on the flats or up a steep climb.
Our test period included several days when the wind was blowing 15mph/25kph. In those conditions, you have to work with even the most stable all-around wheels to keep things upright. Coming from the side at those wind speeds, the Bora Ultra WTO 45 gets pushed as well. The front wheel leans steadily away from the wind rather than with an erratic reaction. Counter steering in the direction of the wind got me through it.
But on milder days when the wind isn’t blowing that strong or steady, it slices through the winds and gusts quite well with no steering or stabilizing adjustment required.
While sufficiently comfortable for a race-oriented wheelset, especially with the 25mm Veloflex Corsa TLR tubeless cotton (puncture belt equipped) tires we used for this test, you can’t easily optimize them for both speed and comfort on all paved surfaces given their 19.0 mm inside, 26.3 mm outside rim dimensions.
The 25mm Veloflex and Continental Grand Prix 5000 S TR I mounted to these wheels both measure sufficiently narrower than the rim width even at 80psi. That will give you ideal aero performance over the lifetime of the tires. The other 25mm tubeless tires and all the 28mm ones we installed on this wheelset are or will become wider than the rims and add aero drag (see measurements here).
With 25mm tires installed and at the pressure required for that width tire and your weight, Miles and I didn’t find these Campys to ride either plush or harsh. They were comfortable enough even on the 80-mile ride Miles took them on and not a noticeable benefit or drawback on the many 2-hour rides we each did.
If comfort is more important than speed or the road surface you ride is better with a wider tire inflated at lower pressure, you can certainly use 28mm tires on these wheels and perhaps make up for the added aero drag with reduced vibration loss rolling resistance depending on your speed and riding surface. But, be careful not to drop the pressure too low to avoid pinch flatting or rolling the tire in a hard cornering maneuver on these narrower wheels.
I’ll admit to becoming somewhat spoiled riding tubeless, road disc wheels with 23mm to 25mm inside rim widths and/or outside 30mm+ ones that are well suited for 28mm wide tires. While there’s a good deal of science behind how wide wheels and wide tires can make you faster, I like to think of it as having my reduced aero drag and rolling resistance layer cake and comfort icing too.
US brands ENVE, Bontrager, and Zipp have been among the larger wheelmakers in this wider rim movement. The major EU brands Campagnolo and DT Swiss have stayed with narrower rims across their best-performing, mid-depth, and aero wheelsets. Likely tracking the introduction and acceptance of disc brake bikes in these regions, Campag and DT also continue to make most of their top wheelsets in both disc and rim brake models.
I’m old enough to remember that narrower wheels can go fast too. Riding the Bora Ultra WTO 45 indeed reminds me of that when it comes time to accelerate or head uphill. At US$3000/£2600/€3000 at Chain Reaction Cycles and Tredz (10% off w/code ITKTDZ10) or more depending on the freehub you use, I’m also reminded that it’s a beautiful, iconic Campagnolo brand wheelset that you’re paying for.
Without going deep into all the tech and spec details (performance is our jam at In The Know Cycling), know that you can get the non-Ultra version, aka the Bora WTO 45 for a good amount less. While it has essentially the same rim profile, it’s made with a different mix of carbon and resin, uses a different molding process that requires some post-molding filling and finishing, and uses alloy hub shells. It weighs about 100 grams more, most of that in the rims.
And if you’re as loyal to your rim brake bike as many are to all things Campagnolo, the Bora WTO 45 rim brake model shares many of the same attributes (rim profile, hubset, finish) as the disc brake version and Campagnolo rim brake wheels have long been known for the excellent brake track performance. It’s available for about US$2100/£1675/€2030 at these links to Competitive Cyclist, Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle, and Tredz (10% off w/code ITKTDZ10).
EASTON EC90 SL DISC – SOLID AT A GOOD PRICE
Easton’s EC90 SL wheelsets have been through several iterations over the years. The rims have gotten wider, the hubs have improved, and tubeless and disc brake models have been added to the clincher and rim brake ones.
I’ve ridden several of these models and, as with the current EC90 SL disc wheelset that is the subject of this review, usually come away with the same conclusion – this is a solid wheelset and better than the last version.
“Solid” modifies several of the performance characteristics of the EC90SL disc wheelset. Overall, I always felt solidly planted riding these wheels. No surprises or conditions I need to worry about or make up for.
The latest Easton, centerlock Vault hubs roll smoothly and coast with a rich (versus tiny or variable) freehub sound. The rear is a solid-looking thing with a hub shell shaped like the bottom 2/3rds of a nose cone as it increases in diameter toward the far larger drive-side flange.
There are a lot of specs – weight, pawls, teeth, engagement angel, etc. – that go with the hub description but what matters most is the noticeably quick acceleration it all produces.
I mention the hubs early in this review as I found they are what gives the EC90 SL disc its personality and allows the rest of the wheelset performance to be… solid, if not particularly distinctive.
It’s not an overly stiff or plush wheelset yet neither is it noodly or harsh. Crosswinds and wind gusts don’t affect your ride or line a bit, better than most in the all-around category.
I rode the EC90 SLs with 25mm Zipp Tangente road tubeless tires that together handled well through all the cornering and maneuvering I threw at it. Continental Grand Prix 5000 TL tires wouldn’t fit on these rims, a problem I’ve had putting those tires on other wheelsets as well.
While there are a lot of enthusiasts using 28mm tires on road wheels these days to get better comfort and handling, I’d recommend against that with these wheels if speed is a priority for you. Even the narrowest 28mm tires I tested measured only slightly narrower than the 28mm EC90 SL rims when mounted and most are wider.
This will put a big dent into the wheelset’s aero performance that is at best on par with the average hoops in this review of mid-depth wheels. And as mentioned earlier, the handling with 25C tires inflated properly is very good.
At a market price of $2000 in the US from Planet Cyclery, the EC90 SL disc is one of the less expensive wheelsets in the all-around road disc category. Outside North America, it’s harder to find and more expensive than most.
While it clearly performs a step above wheels in the increasingly popular $1000-$1500 value carbon category, it might be time for some further updates to move it from solid to standout.
HED VANQUISH RC4 PRO – STIFF, VERSATILE YET NEEDING A BIT MORE CARE
It would be an understatement to say HED Cycling took a while to offer an all-carbon clincher wheelset. One of the first to sell wheels using toroid-shaped, deep-section rims to gain an aero advantage over 10 years ago, the company had only used their patented design for tubular or carbon-alloy wheelsets.
That has now changed with the introduction of the disc-brake-only HED Vanquish carbon clincher wheelsets. By not making these in a rim brake version, HED effectively avoided the engineering challenges other carbon wheelset makers went through to prevent overheating, delamination, or blowouts from the heat created by rim braking.
My fellow tester Miles, a successful P/1/2 racer who wins a lot, and I, a B-group rider who watches a lot of races on TV, evaluated the HED Vanquish 4, the 40mm deep all-around and shallowest of the new line which also includes 60 and 80mm deep models
There’s a lot to like about the Vanquish 4. This is a highly competitive road disc wheelset for the company’s first all-carbon clincher offering.
At the same time, there are a few things still lacking and that might not appeal to the less competitive, less handy rider that makes me think HED would have benefitted from getting carbon clincher experience a bit sooner.
Above all, the Vanquish 4 is a supremely stiff wheelset. This provides a big advantage when initiating or responding to acceleration on the flats, charging uphill, and sprinting out of corners.
Miles felt a ton of confidence going hard into corners and the post-corner sprint stiffness was inspiring. In a full-out straightaway sprint, he found nothing lost in his forward progress toward the line.
The Vanquish 4 are relatively light wheels too. The pair we tested weighed 1466 grams without tape or valve stems, about 50 grams less than what HED claims. That made them one of the lightest and another one of the stiffest wheelsets in this category.
While you probably want rims deeper than these 40.3mm ones for maximum aero performance or a flat criterium, a race whose last kilometer has a 3-6% kicker into the finish would be ideal for these HEDs.
If like me, you aren’t a racer, all that good stiffness and handling and climbing are still the things you want and that I enjoyed in this wheelset. And if you branch out to do some mixed surface, gravel or cyclocross riding, the Vanquish 4 offers a lot of versatility as you can run 25C, 28C or wider tires with good sidewall support on these rims which measure 21.3mm internal width.
For best aero performance, you’ll want to run 25C tires. HED’s aero tests with the benchmark Conti GP4K SII show the 25C performs better than the 28C version of the same model tire. My measurements show the Conti GP5K TL measures 27.0mm at 80psi or a millimeter narrower than the actual 28.0mm external rim width at the tire/rim intersection and 29.0mm max. My benchmark 25C Zipp Tangente Speed Road Tubeless (RT25) comes in at 26.0mm at 80psi and the 28C at 29.0mm at 70psi.
Crosswinds within reason didn’t bother these HEDs even though they have more of a V-shaped spoke-edge rim profile than most of the U-shaped ones of current carbon hoops.
Miles and I had a slightly different impression of the Vanquish 4’s comfort. At 60-65psi with 25C tires, I found them to be in the middle of the range of the all-around carbon road disc wheels I’ve tested for this review. They didn’t seem a whole lot more comfortable at 50psi using 28C tires either. I found others including the ENVE 4.5 AR more comfortable.
Ever the hardman, Miles found them very comfortable at 70-75psi over rougher roads even though we weigh pretty much the same.
We did agree that the hubs rolled smoothly and the freehub audibly lets you know when it is coasting. It’s not anywhere near as loud as a Chris King, i9, or even Mavic hubs. While I prefer a quieter DT240 or silent Zipp Cognition hub, I didn’t mind the HED freewheel Sonic signature, a slightly higher pitched, higher quality sound.
Miles dug it.
Perhaps we’ve become spoiled with so many hubs not giving you pre-load adjustment options like these HED hubs do. The rear axle loosened and tripped up Miles when he swapped cassettes requiring readjustment to get it back into his frame. I had a similar issue with somehow changing the front preload and needing to readjust to get the rotor and caliper realigned. We’re both amateur wrenches and can deal with these things. I think this would frustrate most enthusiasts who may be a little less experienced.
We also agreed that the wheels’ tubeless setup wasn’t great. While both of us have a lot of experience with tubeless tires and rims, our experience with the Vanquish 4 suggests HED is behind the tubeless wheelset leaders.
First, HED doesn’t provide tubeless valves with these wheels. While that’s not unheard of, it is unusual these days and seems like a mistake considering you want to make things easy for your customers, especially considering all the variables in setting up tubeless wheels.
Second, for the wheels we tested, HED sent a rubberized sleeve or grommet that you put the valve into and then need to put in the rim’s valve hole. There’s very little tolerance for getting that sleeve in if you don’t cut out all the tape surrounding the valve hole.
If you wrap your rims twice with tape as I did with these wheels, there’s no chance of getting the grommet in unless you have a very sharp, small knife and remove all the tape covering the hole after the first pass and then again after the second. Using a valve I had in my workshop that already had a wide rubber bottom, I didn’t see the value of the grommet, couldn’t get it in deep enough for the tire bead to easily clear, and put them aside.
Why the need for the grommet? Well as Miles and I learned, without it, the valve will come through the rim bed if, or in our cases when, the tire pressure exceeds about 80psi for any length of time. It happened to Miles when he had his bike on the top of the car in the sunlight. My bike was inside the car on a hot day when the valve came through.
I went back, retaped with more attention to clearing the hole and getting the grommet in place. With that done, no problemo. Further, HED says they’ve changed the layup so that the grommet is not needed and no longer shipped with new Vanquish wheels.
The tubeless tires we used required a compressor for the tire beads to lockout in the bead channels. We also needed to put sealant in the tires for them to hold air for any length of time. For 28C tires, the one-shot canister Joe Blow type pump didn’t offer sustained enough pressure to lock out the beads.
Noting that Miles and I each had difficulty (and made a bit of a mess) trying 3 different tires, I’m led to believe that an easier mating bead hook would improve the tubeless setup experience. Or, you could turn this over to your local wrench to take care of it.
With the tubeless setup out of the way, the Vanquish 4’s performance will hopefully put it out of your mind. It’s available at HED dealers and online using this link to Competitive Cyclist, one of my top-ranked stores.
HED has recently renamed the wheelset the Vanquish RC4 to reinforce that it is a Road Carbon wheelset. They are also selling the one reviewed above as the Vanquish RC4 Pro and a model with a lower spec hubset called the Vanquish RC4 Performance that sells for $1,000 less. It’s also available at the store link just above.
REYNOLDS BLACKLABEL AERO 46 DB – FAST, STIFF WHEELS BEST FOR ROAD RACERS WHO WANT TO BE HEARD
If you are afraid of heights, people tell you “don’t look down”.
If being on trend is important to you, I’ll give you the same advice when it comes to the Reynolds Aero 46 DB carbon disc wheelset.
However, if road speed unperturbed by crosswinds is more important, just look forward, pedal and smile.
Reynolds has stuck with a classic, V-nose design for the spoke edge of these wheels and added a somewhat toroid-shaped rim profile heading to the other edge where the rim meets the tire for the 46, 65, and 80mm deep disc and rim brake wheels in its Aero line. This, when it seems like the world of carbon bike wheels have gone to blunt nose, U-shaped rim profiles.
For me, Reynolds’ design definitely works to produce and maintain my speed. While I did find myself looking down riding these wheels, it was to see my speed and power output rather than the rim profile. With the Aero 46 DB it felt like I was riding faster than normal in the same power ranges I normally ride.
My experience is, of course, anecdotal rather than scientific. Interestingly, I came across the wind tunnel chart below of tests done by DT Swiss. It compares the aero drag of their ERC 1100 Dicut DB wheels, designed by the Formula One aero engineers of SwissSide they regularly tout, against Reynolds Aero 46 (blue line) and Zipp 303 Firecrest (grey line) wheelsets.
About 80% of our road riding is done when the wind is coming from a 0 to 10-degree angle (or “yaw”) and 50% is done between 0 and 5 degrees based on field testing done by Flo Cycling.
Unfortunately, DT Swiss didn’t specify whether the Reynolds or Zipp wheels are rim or disc brake or current or older models. It is kind of important as Reynolds only makes the Aero 46 in a disc brake version now and the current Aero 46 DB (introduced in 2017, the same year as the ERC 1100 Dicut DB wheels) are wider and likely more aero than the 2016 Aero 46 DB and rim brake versions.
Based on when the DT Swiss wheels were being designed and wind tunnel tested, my guess is that they are benchmarking the ERC 1100 against older models of the Reynolds and Firecrest rim brake wheels.
Regardless, it’s interesting to see the Reynolds Aero 46 held up as a benchmark in the same way the Firecrest has for years (but no longer should be as the NSW has surpassed it).
The second aero consideration is how well a deeper wheel does in managing side or crosswinds. Much of the reason for the move to the blunt nose design was to… uh… blunt those crosswinds and keep riders from having to steer against the wind and constantly modify their line or get blown off the road.
Well, that design clearly works. Wheels like the blunt nose Zipp NSWs in road disc and rim brake versions at various depths are better than the old Firecrest used to be.
But, my experience with the Aero 46 DB found them as good in crosswinds as the NSW despite a very different design. I rode 100 miles and 10,000 feet on the Reynolds wheelset in the Vermont mountains on a horrible rainy day with swirling winds coming at me from seemingly every direction and often when I was crawling up steep passes or “gaps” as they call them up there. Weighing a mere 150lbs/68kg, I notice crosswinds as much as anyone.
My mind and body were truly miserable in the rain and wind of this ride but the Aero 46 DB wheels were totally unphased by either.
That reminded me of what I often remind you: focus on performance rather than the specs or design hype (though Reynolds does hype their rim profile as crosswind beaters).
On to other performance considerations…
The stiffness and rolling smoothness of this wheelset is good though not without a few characteristics I don’t care for.
Both in and out of the saddle I find these Reynolds wheels plenty stiff. After many rides, the wheels remain true and I’ve found the spokes are all still tensioned. But when I crank out big watts (for me) going up steep hills, I occasionally hear the spokes ping.
I’ve flexed the spokes by hand and heard the pings but can’t tell whether they are coming from the ends of these straight-pull spokes in the flanges or rims, from rubbing against each other in the cross pattern, or from rubbing against the inside edge of the rim where the spoke passes through to reach the internal nipples. My guess is that it is the latter.
Whatever it is, it is a little disconcerting to hear these pings when you are cranking it out going uphill even though, as mentioned, the wheels ride stiff and have remained true.
They also ride very smoothly on the Torch hub internals supplied by Industry Nine. That said, much like the Chris King hubs, the i9s make a distinctive, loud freehub noise. Zing zing zing zing.
While I know it is popular with some, I personally don’t care for freehub zinging. You attract attention coasting down a road and you can annoy or even anger someone pulling their legs off in front of you to hear you freewheeling behind them. Sometimes it’s an invitation to pull enough to drop you and your coasting, wheel-sucking noise.
While my personal bias against occasional spoke and freehub noise doesn’t affect these otherwise stiff and smooth-rolling wheels, I found the compliance or comfort of the 46 Aero DB to be their weak link.
I ran this road disc wheelset tubeless with both 25C and 28C Zipp Tangente Speed RT and Schwalbe Pro One tires trying to find the best combination of comfort, speed, and handling. No matter, I couldn’t get beyond average compliance with any of these.
As the chart above and others like it show, wider tires increase aero drag. On the flip side, wider tires reduce rolling resistance, can improve handling, and allow you to ride at lower pressures to improve comfort.
So there are tradeoffs and you have to consider and tire choice decisions based on what you prioritize among those trade-offs.
For example, when you start riding at aero speeds (18-20 mph/29-32kph and up), the reduction in aero drag of a narrower tire far outweighs the increase in rolling resistance. Don’t ride that fast and care about comfort more than anything? Put on wider tires because your rolling resistance will be lower, comfort will be greater and you won’t be going fast enough to affect your aero performance.
Assuming, though, that you are looking to ride at aero speeds on these aptly named Reynolds Aero 46 DB wheelset (and the other wheelsets in this carbon disc wheelset category), know that only 25C tubeless tires measure narrower than the 28.2mm wide rims at the “brake track” that have a 28.6mm max width. The Zipp Tangente Speed tires measure 25.8 mm wide and Schwalbe Pro One measures 27.5 mm, both at 80 psi, the max pressure you’d want to run tubeless tires on 19C rims even if you weigh 200lbs/80kg. 28C tires measure wider than the outside width of the rims.
I didn’t measure them with tubed clincher tires. From my experience with other 19C rims, the benchmark 25C Continental Grand Prix 4000S II at 100psi measures very similarly to the Schwalbe Pro One at 80psi. Both measure wider than other popular tubeless and tubed clinchers.
With the 25C Zipp Tangente Speed road tubeless inflated to 65-70 psi where I run my tubeless tires on wheels with this one inside width, the Aero 46 DB wasn’t comfortable. Tolerable, yes. Comfortable no. If I were racing, I’d go with these tires both for their width on these wheels but also because they handle beautifully. You can read about other tire options in my review of tubeless tires
WHY I MAY NOT HAVE INCLUDED WHEELSETS YOU’VE HEARD ABOUT
Carbon disc wheelsets are a fast-growing and fast-changing category of cycling gear. The generation chart displayed near the top of this review shows how much has changed in the last few years.
In this post, you’ve got the latest, best, all-around depth, carbon disc wheelsets available widely to consider in this category. Several others are sold in low volumes or supported only within a limited geographic region or both.
There are several wheelsets whose depth might suggest they might fit in the all-around category. This includes the ENVE SES 3.4 Disc and SES 3.4 AR Disc, the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37 Disc, and the Zipp Firecrest 303 Disc and 353 NSW. From our testing, you can certainly use them as all-arounders but they aren’t as fast on the flats and rollers as those in this review and are better as dedicated lightweight, climbing wheels. You can see my reviews of them here.
There are a growing number of deeper, mid-depth aero (55mm to 65mm) carbon disc wheelsets you can read about here. While specializing in high-speed riding, few approach the versatility of all-around road disc wheelsets reviewed here.
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Thanks and enjoy your rides safely! Cheers, Steve
First published on September 23, 2018. Date of the most recent major update shown at the top of the post.