THE BEST CARBON DISC WHEELSET
Summary: A carbon disc wheelset that’s fast, stiff, comfortable, and handles well on a range of road and the occasional off-road terrain gives you all you need most any day you ride. Because it performs better on more measures and is more versatile than any other carbon disc wheelset we tested, I recommend the ENVE SES 4.5 AR Disc available here, here, and here, links to stores I rate highly for their prices, customer satisfaction, and support.
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.
In this post updated with the best-performing all-around carbon road disc wheelset models from 10 leading wheelset makers, I’ll take you through the rapid evolution of road disc wheelsets, give you my ratings and reviews of each of those models against the criteria that matter most when choosing one, and recommend a Best Performer wheelset.
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 “impedance” losses or energy that sapps 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 tubeless tires 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 has 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 (equivalent or lower than the best clincher tires), the ability to run lower pressures, more comfort, and having nearly every puncture seal so far has 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, aerodynamics, crosswind management, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, and handling.
Design: Wheel weight and material, rim depth, rim inner and outer widths, rim profile, hub and spoke design, and wheel finish.
Quality: Durability, warranties, and service/support.
Cost: Purchase price, cost of ownership and replacement cost.
I detail what I mean by these criteria for rim brake all-arounds here.
Most of those are common with the ones I used for carbon disc brake all-arounds with a few exceptions and changes in emphasis that I’ll point out below.
While all these criteria are important, some are more or less important depending on what kind of riding you do and what kind of bike you have.
Since the latest all-around carbon disc wheelsets are deeper than earlier ones (some closer to 50mm versus most Gen 2 being 35-40mm), I’ve added crosswind performance as a criterion for this review.
And since these wheels are ideal for both a wide range of paved road terrain and for mixed or unpaved surfaces and for cyclocross racing, versatility is even more important when evaluating all-around carbon disc wheelsets than all-around rim brake ones.
Other criteria, like stiffness, are equally important whether you are talking rim or disc brake wheels or all-around, climbing or aero wheels regardless of your braking method.
Braking performance isn’t part of the disc brake wheelset evaluation since most hub and spoke systems on disc brake wheels effectively transfer the braking responsibility to the rotors and calipers.
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 acceleration, stiffness, and comfort on the road, for example, are far more important than the design specifications 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’m recommending a Best Performer but not a Best Value wheelset at this time.
I pick the Best Performer using the performance criteria mentioned above independent of cost. My Best Value wheelset pick considers both performance and cost criteria. There are several, relatively or brand new third-generation wheelsets I am currently evaluating, one of which may be a better Best Value choice than the second generation wheelsets now available at low prices.
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.
With all of that noted, here are my evaluations of the best all-around carbon disc wheelsets for road cycling enthusiasts.
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REVIEWS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
ENVE SES 4.5 AR DISC – PERFORMANCE AND VERSATILITY THAT’S HARD TO BEAT
If versatility is one of the key measures of an all-around wheelset, ENVE’s SES 4.5 AR Disc is the most versatile of any road disc wheelset.
It does more things better than any of the other wheels I’ve reviewed. At a market price starting at US$2550, £2700, €3000 depending on the hub choice, it also costs more than others.
That’s for each of us to decide individually. If you are a full-on road cycling enthusiast who likes to come out and play aggressively and comfortably on rough roads, gravel, dirt, or grass in addition to going really fast and smoothly on good roads in individual and group rides or races, the ENVE 4.5 AR is the place where your money will have the biggest payoff.
You probably already know that at 25.0mm measured, the 4.5AR carbon disc wheelset has a far greater internal width (by 4-6mm) than the 19C (19mm) and 21C (21mm) of others in this category and at 50.2mm front, 55.2mm rear per my measurements, are as deep or deeper.
The 4.5AR’s performance does bear witness to those design factoids. It feels as fast or faster on flat, rolling, and descending terrain, as comfortable on the good roads, more comfortable on rough roads and unpaved paths, and handles better than any other carbon bike wheels, disc or rim, I’ve ever evaluated.
I’ll just let that last statement sit there and breathe for a minute.
It accelerates, climbs, and deflects crosswinds on par with all but the best wheels in those categories that I’ve reviewed here. With the more than capable and relatively quiet ENVE alloy hubset, the 4.5 AR weighs remarkably little – 1569 grams – given its size. You can also get it at a higher price with Chris King R45 hubs if you prefer its freewheeling sound and faster engagement.
Yeah, the 4.5 AR’s width makes them stand out against other bikes when you are riding in a bunch or stopping for a break. And with their hookless rims, you only should plan to ride them tubeless either with sealant or inner tubes. This takes a bit more effort to initially set up but is the only way to go if you want to get all the benefits of these wheels. You’ll also want to check the chainstay and fork width clearance on your frame if you’ve got an older road disc bike.
But, if you want great performance from one wheelset that you otherwise might need to have two different ones for the range of riding you do, the 4.5 AR stands alone and probably is a more price-competitive option vs. the cost of buying two wheelsets.
As I wrote just above, the ENVE 4.5 AR is “hookless” meaning the rims don’t have hooks on the inside to mate with the beads from your tubeless tires. When you run tires at lower pressures, as you should with these rims, you don’t need hooks to keep road tires in place. As some tubeless tires don’t work well with these hookless rims, ENVE publishes a list of tires they have approved and recommend and a few that are not compatible with hookless rims (including the Continental GP 5000 TL).
To see the full list, click this link, scroll down just below the wheelset photo and click “Tire Compatibility”. From the same link, you can also scroll all the way to the bottom to see recommended tire pressures given your weight and tire size.
You can get the ENVE SES 4.5 AR Disc at my top-ranked stores here and Merlin and others at Know’s Shop that I recommend because they have the best prices, customer satisfaction records, and selection on enthusiast-level cycling gear. You can also get it directly using this link to ENVE or at recommended store JensonUSA.
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ALL-AROUND CARBON DISC WHEELSET COMPARATIVE RATINGS
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BONTRAGER 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 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$2400/£2000/€2400 the Bontrager Aeolus RSL 51 certainly isn’t cheap but is one of the better all-around wheelsets we’ve ridden. They are out of stock at Bontrager’s online store until fall 2021 but you may be able to find them or get on a waiting list at your local bike shop that carries Bontrager gear.
CAMPAGNOLO BORA WTO 33 DISC BRAKE – GREAT LOOKS AND ENGINEERING
It’s easy to see how one can fall in love with the Campagnolo Bora WTO 33 Disc Brake wheels.
Taking them out of the box created one of those rare moments when I say to myself, “Wow. These look special.”
The glossy black paint finish on the rims is stunning. It’s as high quality as any I’ve seen on a fine automobile. I couldn’t help but look down at them gleaming in the sun from time to time during my month of test rides.
Likewise, the hub shells, while aluminum, look finely fitted and coated. The freehubs (I ordered Campagnolo 12-speed, Shimano HG11, and SRAM XDR bodies to test with different groupsets) look like they were precision machined.
I seldom even comment on the aesthetics of wheelsets or any bicycle component let alone open a review with the kind of praise of a product’s looks that I just did. One’s view of beauty, fashion, style, and the like are all subjective and personal. Far be it for me to suggest that my subjective perception of these things is how you should see it.
But the Bora WTO wheels are unique. Like them are not, their extraordinary look sets them far apart from other road wheels.
If that’s where the story ended – skin-deep beauty and all of that – this would be a rather shallow review.
Instead, what you see on the surface is an indication of the engineering that shows up in the Bora WTO 33 wheelset’s performance.
The pleasing-to-the-eyes hubs I commented on above roll silky smooth on the road. The freehubs sing a refined, even-tempered tune I can listen to for hours rather than the loud or harsh emissions of other hubs that shout to stand out or the uneven whomp, whomp of those that don’t sound as well made.
I sensed these wheels would roll better than most after putting my thru-axles into the hubs. They don’t slap in as with every other wheelset I’ve attached to a frame. Instead, they slide in with a little resistance and tighten up only with the proper alignment of axle and frame that suggests tighter tolerances than most wheels.
Once installed, they spin in the stand seemingly forever or, in reality, for enough time for me to grab something from my workbench and come back to the stand and see them still turning.
The Bora WTO 33 disc brake wheels are also sufficiently though not overly stiff. Whether doing a 20-minute climb up an average 7% grade or 20-minute tempo intervals punctuated by sprint bursts every few minutes, the wheels didn’t flinch even though my legs wanted to.
Going downhill and handling at speed feels confident both on the Vittoria Corsa G+ 2.0 and Continental Grand Prix 5000 tubeless tires I paired with these Campagnolos. At recommended tire pressures, they feel comfortable but not overly plush.
Despite their 33mm low-profile depth, the Bora WTO 33 rides more like a smooth-rolling all-around wheelset that isn’t affected by crosswinds than a highly responsive, fast accelerating wheelset to take on your next alpine climbing vacation. Its 1512 gram measured weight (including pre-installed rim strips but not tubeless valves) is also in line with today’s all-around road disc wheelsets.
If the Campagnolo Bora WTO 33 Disc Brake’s combination of looks, engineering, and performance suits you, order them using these links to the wheelset’s page at Competitive Cyclist, ProBikeKit, and Chain Reaction Cycles, stores I recommend for their combination of low prices and high customer satisfaction ratings on a broad selection of enthusiast-level cycling gear.
DT SWISS ERC 1100 DICUT 47 – PREDICTABLY GOOD PERFORMANCE
Even though they sell a ton of wheelsets under their own brand name and as stock wheels for leading bike makers including Giant and Specialized, DT Swiss has never been known for the performance of their own branded models of more expensive wheelsets. Hubs and spokes? Yes. But, high-end wheels? No.
DT Swiss seem to have always been behind the curve with rim shapes, widths, carbon, and whatever else goes into making rims that combine with their ubiquitous hubs and spokes to make top-performing wheelsets. They seemed to lack a design point-of-view about how to make great rims that, right or wrong, is clear and consistent at other companies making high-performance wheels.
Perhaps realizing this deficiency, DT Swiss has gotten aero design and testing help for the ERC 1100 DICUT 47 and other new DT Swiss brand wheel products from the wheelset design company SwissSide. The latter is a relatively new company led by race car designers that sell mid-depth and full-depth aero wheels targeted to triathletes and time trialists. As for DT Swiss, their new line of endurance wheels are only made for road disc bikes. Very Gen 3!
Has this collaboration brought the ERC 1100 to the performance level of the best all-around wheelsets? Not in my evaluation, but they seem to be getting closer.
Overall, I’d say the ERC 1100 is predictable. That word can have both positive and negative connotations, but it best sums up for me what I find in this wheelset.
It is certainly fast and stiff, as you would expect from a wheelset this depth. Anecdotally, and I say that since construction on the In The Know Cycling wind tunnel is not scheduled to start until 2038, I’d put the ERC 1100s in the range of the faster wheels of this group on the flats and hills. Tour magazine put their aero performance only behind the ENVE SES 4.5 AR amongst the wheelsets we both evaluated.
Though their weight measures in the middle of the pack and they certainly can climb, they wouldn’t be my first choice for a long ride with a lot of hills and steeper climbs. They just don’t go uphill as well as other all-around wheels I’ve reviewed in this post.
The ERC 1100’s ride is firm, even at the 70 psi pressures that I ride 25c tubeless wheels with its19C inside width dimension. Firm is not harsh and it’s not cushy. You’ll get the kind of response from the road you would expect based on what you see in front of you. You won’t get jarred nor will you float above it.
If you want to go off-road and not get tired out riding on dirt or mixed surfaces, I’d suggest dropping the pressure on these wheels another 10 or 20psi from the level you normally ride.
Wind conditions are manageable with the ERC 1100. When the winds come, you can comfortably steer through them. You certainly won’t get blown over nor can you plan on the wheels totally taking care of the crosswinds for you.
Finally, handling is confident, precise and … predictable. So are the hubs, which use the very solid DT240 internals I’ve come to know and very much enjoy. They are used on many top-performing wheelsets.
Predictable for me means you are going to get what you expect and not be let down. Applied to the ERC 1100, it means you aren’t going to get any special thrill or surprise, good or bad, from these wheelsets. They are solid performers that do what you expect. Very Swiss.
Perhaps it is surprisingly good to get a predictably good top-end wheelset from a company that has, for me, turned out only average wheelsets in the past. I’ll take it.
Despite an MSRP/RRP that is as high-end as the carbon disc wheelset they aspire to be, you can often find the ERC 1100 DICUT 47 at a far more competitive market price by clicking through to my recommended store Tredz (10% discount with code ITKTDZ10) and others at Know’s Shop.
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, rim brake ones, the latter which have improved braking performance.
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 tire 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 $1900 in the US from Planet Cyclery and direct from Easton, 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 (Tredz 10% discount with code ITKTDZ10).
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 lock out 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.
INDUSTRY NINE i9.45 – A DISTINCTIVE WHEELSET WITH RACE-LEVEL PERFORMANCE
I’ve always thought about Industry Nine as a hub company with its high POE (points of engagement) and brightly colored hubs garnering all the attention.
Turns out, “i9” also sells all-around, aero, and climbing carbon road disc wheels amongst a broader wheelset line.
The i9.45 road disc wheelset reviewed here is a collaboration between i9 and the rim and wheelset maker Reynolds. After evaluating them, it’s clear this 45mm deep all-around wheelset stands out in a number of important ways and has me now thinking about Industry Nine as both a hub and wheelset provider.
When I took it out of the box, I didn’t quite know what to think. The hubs and spoke nipples on my test set are purple, one of 9 distinct colors you can order in addition to black and silver. The labels are full rim height, stick-on ones with i9’s large, hub-inspired logos attached.
The rims themselves look like they are 2nd generation, converted rim-brake hoops with a hybrid-toroid profile whose curvature abruptly stopped in time for an unfinished brake track. Yet they are 3rd generation width (21mm internal, 28mm external) and tubeless-ready.
I wondered if I was about to test a wheelset designed by a committee, the kind that melds the voices of past successes, exciting new ideas, and compromises needed to meet management’s cost and schedule targets.
It’s a good thing I don’t bias my reviews on initial impressions or how a product looks. While this wheelset doesn’t align with my aesthetic preferences, every cycling enthusiast has their own perception of what looks good to them.
On the road, the i9.45s are full-throttle, road race wheels. They are stiff, snappy, and responsive, great on a rolling course and one with a lot of climbing.
While the POE isn’t something most enthusiasts will notice or should care about, the Torch’s 60 POE (or 3 degrees between engagement points) is 2x or more than most hubs, something you do notice if you are doing any kind of competitive riding. Fellow In The Know Cycling tester and USAC Nationals Masters racer Miles felt near-instant engagement when sprinting out of corners or off lead-out wheels when he competed on the i9.45s.
A distinctive sound comes from that hub, louder than most but similar in volume to Chris King and Mavic hubs. Here are videos comparing the Chris King and i9 Torch and another comparing the Mavic 360 and DT Swiss. These hubs or their internals are used in many of the best road disc wheels.
The Torch hubs ride buttery smooth both in the front and rear. They make the wheels roll about as well as any Miles and I have ever ridden on the road.
Smooth-rolling doesn’t equate to ride comfort though. The later is a function of your tire width and pressure and the compliance available in the integration of the wheel’s rims, spokes, and hubs. While your tire choices can improve comfort, your wheels are usually what limits it.
While not uncomfortable and despite trying different tires at different widths and pressures, we didn’t find the i9.45 to be as comfortable as others in this all-around road disc wheelset category.
That stiffness along with the rear hub engagement make these wheels very responsive, fast to accelerate, and good on climbs. They also handle precisely and confidently, helping to keep you on your line going through a turn.
You can pick these wheels up, while supporting In The Know Cycling reviews, through this link to Competitive Cyclist, one of my top-ranked stores.
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.
ROVAL CLX 50 – ANOTHER GOOD CARBON DISC WHEELSET OPTION THOUGH AT A HIGHER PRICE THAN MOST
The Roval CLX 50 is one of those all-around road disc wheels that makes me smile. Not because it does anything notably better than other carbon disc wheelsets I’ve reviewed in this post, except perhaps accelerate, but because it does so many things well just like other wheelsets in this post.
I couldn’t have written that paragraph above a couple of years ago. Not just about Roval but about a good-sized, competitive collection of carbon all-around road disc brake wheelsets we enthusiasts now have to choose from. Like the Roval CLX 50 Disc, there just weren’t that many all-around wheelsets that really did road disc bikes justice a short while ago.
Now there are. And that makes me smile.
Interestingly, the Roval CLX 50 rim and disc brake wheels share the same profile – width, depth, shape, tubeless-ready, rim bed, etc. Sure, the two wheels have different spoke counts and hubs but even the hubs have the same DT Swiss 240 internals.
While many of the first two generations of road disc wheels were optimized for rim brakes and tweaked for discs, this one appears to suit both formats well, if not necessarily optimized for either. It may straddle the Gen 2/3 characteristics I laid out earlier, but these compete on performance (and specs) with the latest Gen 3 all-around wheels.
Yes, these road disc wheels are heavier than their rim brake brothers, but the CLX 50 disc brake wheelset, at a measured weight of 1457 grams, is one the wheelsets in this review coming in at under 1500 grams. So, it’s not sacrificing anything by being a rim twin with its rim brake brother.
[By the way, the 1415 gram claimed weight is probably without rim tape. I and several others that have reviewed this wheelset and their actual weight all come in somewhere between 1440 and 1460 grams.]
The Roval CLX 50 has a modern aerodynamic profile and maintains your momentum well. It’s what you should expect from 50mm deep wheels that will set you back US$2400, £1870, €2200 as these will. Not all wheels deliver speed even at that price that but these clearly do.
They remain stable and easily handle in the crosswinds. These will tell you they are feeling the wind but they won’t jerk you around. A light steady touch on the tiller will keep them on course.
They also accelerate and climb better than most. Their light weight, good depth, and sufficient stiffness makes for a great combination leading into and going up hills.
The CLX 50 wheelset is also compliant and handles well, on par with many of the wheelsets in this review.
Run them tubeless and lower your pressure if you want maximum comfort. Toss the plastic spoke hole plugs they come with and run rim tape if you want minimum hassle installing tubeless tires. The tires can get hung up on the plugs and make installing and removing them a whole lot more work than anyone should have to do to enjoy cycling.
Click on these links to Competitive Cyclist, Performance Bike and Know’s Shop to buy the CLX 50 wheels online at stores I recommend because of their superior price, selection and customer satisfaction ratings.
ZIPP 353 NSW – VERSATILITY TO A FAULT
The Zipp 353 NSW wheelset isn’t easily typecast as an all-arounder. It plays that role for sure but also climbs with the best and performs well on mixed surfaces.
Indeed, versatility is one of its greatest strengths.
At 1248 grams with an XDR freehub (20 grams more with an HG aka 11-speed Shimano/SRM freehub), the 353 NSW is almost freakishly light for a non-tubular wheelset. It’s 100 grams lighter than any climbing wheelset I’ve reviewed.
And boy, does it climb! I almost had to check that I hadn’t left my water bottle or saddle bag at home when I hit the hill a quarter-mile mile from my house the first time out.
Miles blew away the competition when he rode the 353 NSW in the Crank the Kanc race that has a 5 mile, 7% uphill finish. Since the race starts with a 10 mile 1-2% grade, he put these Zipps on his Giant Propel aero bike. It turned that bike into a legitimate climber. That’s versatility for you.
We didn’t experience any effects of crosswinds riding the Zipp 353 NSW both on flat and downhill terrain. While its rims have the sawtooth pattern that is designed to neutralize them on their deeper 454, crosswinds haven’t been an issue with the last couple of generations of Zipp mid-depth wheelsets we’ve tested. Even Zipp told me they used the sawtooth design on the 353 NSW principally to reduce weight.
Tracking in turns, making quick direction changes, and doing other handling maneuvers on both good and rough roads with these Zipps produces a confident thrill unmatched by most wheelsets.
And comfortable? You bet. Nate described them as “plush over bumps at high speeds.” Miles called them “fantastic, so comfortable cruising over imperfections.” I concur.
With its inside hookless rim width I measured at 25.5mm, we rode the 353 NSW with 28c Schwalbe Pro One TLE during our test rides between 55 and 60 psi. I measured these tires as well as the 28c Specialized S-Works Turbo and Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite all within the Rule of 105 modified a few percent for the straighter tire sidewall shape you get when mounted on a hookless rim.
Yet, these Zipp 353 NSWs aren’t aero stars. All of us noted that you’ve got to keep the pressure on the pedals to keep your speeds up.
I rode the 353 NSW back to back on the same day and same route against the Zipp 303 NSW that it replaced. The 303 NSW was clearly superior in my ability to hold speed or momentum. I’m not sure why – likely because the 303 NSW is a 250 grams heavier wheelset while only a touch deeper than the undulating 42-46 mm deep 353 NSW and with an earlier generation of the smooth flowing Cognition hub – but I sure noticed a big difference.
We had split opinions on the stiffness of the 353 NSW. Nate, one of the strongest age-group climbers in the region was “underwhelmed by their stiffness”. He found them sluggish on short, punchy climbs. On the other hand, he thought the rear hub engaged more rapidly than the many other wheelsets he’s tested.
Miles, no slouch when it comes to climbing and only a few kgs lighter than Nate thought these Zipps were “incredibly stiff” but engagement felt average especially when he accelerated on the steepest gradients during his hill training. Once engaged, however, he loved the way they accelerated.
To-mA-to, To-mAH-to? Hard to know.
I didn’t dare ride these expensive beauties on dirt and gravel. But, I’ve every indication that the comfort, handling, and climbing ability we enjoyed on the road would translate well off of it.
While the Zipp 353 NSW is clearly a standout climber and would likely perform with the best of them on gravel, it’s not as fast against other all-arounders. It’s almost as if its versatility is working against it, especially when trying to justify the US$4000 price tag.
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. From our testing, while 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, some 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.