BEST RIM BRAKE UPGRADE WHEELS
It’s a truism that one of the best ways to improve your cycling performance is to upgrade your wheels. The right set of rim brake upgrade wheels can provide you better speed, acceleration, climbing, handling, braking, comfort and confidence across the type of terrain you regularly ride.
While most new bikes for road cycling enthusiasts come with disc brakes wheels these days and wheel makers have shifted their product development and production to support them, many of us still ride great rim brake road bikes and may need to replace or want to upgrade them.
I and my fellow testers have reviewed a few dozen rim brake wheelsets over the years and shared them with you in a number of different posts. Fortunately, many of the best rim brake upgrade wheels we’ve recommended are still being made even if most we’ve evaluated no longer are.
In this post, I share with you the rim brake upgrade wheels we recommend in the alloy, value-carbon, aero, climbing, and all-around categories. If you’re looking to replace or upgrade your rim brake wheels, these are the best ones to improve your ride.
Related: Looking to replace or upgrade your disc brake bike wheels? Click Disc Brake Wheelset Reviews
Related: Not sure what kind of wheels to get? Click Road Bike Wheels – How To Choose The Best For You
In The Know Cycling is ad-free, subscription-free, and reader-supported. If you want to help keep it rolling without any added cost to you, buy your gear and kit after clicking the store links on the site. When you do, we may earn an affiliate commission that will help me cover the expenses to create and publish our independent, comprehensive and comparative reviews. Thank you, Steve. Learn more.
BEST VALUE ALLOY – CAMPAGNOLO ZONDA C17
The Campagnolo Zonda C17 wheels are both stiffer and more comfortable for light through heavy riders than the original or “stock wheels” that come with most rim brake bikes.
They handle and accelerate better than stock wheels and similarly to other alloy upgrade wheels. Their hubs require little maintenance, are long-lasting and relatively quiet.
You can use standard clincher tires and tubes with these wheels.
Read my full review here.
One of the first rim brake alloy upgrade wheelsets to go to a wider rim profile, the HED Ardennes RA Pro is still one of the widest available. Combine them with 28mm tires and these are the most comfortable alloy rim brake wheels we’ve tested.
They also handle well, have worry-free hubs, and are made by a long-established wheel maker with a prestigious brand name.
You can ride them with tubed clincher tires or tubeless. If you want to start riding tubeless or already prefer them, the Ardennes rims are one of the easiest alloy wheels to set up.
At US$850, they are available at Performance Bike.
Read my full review here.
BEST VALUE-CARBON – BONTRAGER AEOLUS PRO 5 TLR
Wheels in this value-carbon category have different performance strengths. As the category name suggests, they also bring weaknesses that you may be willing to accept given the savings you can get over more expensive performance-carbon wheels that have few weaknesses.
The Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR is the best value-carbon rim brake wheelset we’ve tested at going fast on relatively flat terrain. It is stiff, rolls smoothly, keeps its momentum once at speed, and handles confidently. That’s a combination we’ve not experienced in other wheelsets at or near its US$1400/€1300/£1200 price.
It isn’t a light or lively wheelset, the rear freehub coasts with a buzzy sound, and you need to manage your way through crosswinds.
The rims and components are well-built. If you crash them – whether on the road or entering your garage – Bontrager will replace or repair the wheels for free in the first 2 years or at a 50% discount thereafter. That’s far better than most from Chinese wheelset manufacturers and new brands that source their wheels from them and sell in the same price range as these Bontragers.
While you can see the Aeolus Pro 5 listed on the Bontrager site, the company is giving priority to their local bike shop Trek dealers where you can backorder this wheelset during this period of product scarcity.
Read my full review here.
ABOUT PERFORMANCE-CARBON WHEELS
For a performance comparison of what matters most in choosing between alloy, value-carbon, and performance-carbon wheels, go here.
At over US$2000/€2000/£2000 for a top performance-carbon wheelset, you need to first ask yourself whether you are so committed to your current rim brake bike to spend good money on wheels that you very likely won’t be able to transfer to your next new bike.
You might be better off putting that money toward the future purchase of a disc brake bike, the predominant and perhaps only type of new enthusiast-level road bike you’re able to buy now. Or perhaps you should first look for a used set of performance-carbon rim brake upgrade wheels at a certified pre-owned shop like The Pros Closet at a price that greatly reduces your investment in rim brake technology and the uncertain longevity associated with used carbon wheels.
If you do want to buy a new performance-carbon rim brake wheelset, know that your choices are limited. Many of the best wheelmakers including Zipp, Bontrager, and Roval no longer make this category of wheels. Others like DT Swiss don’t distribute them in some major markets like North America and may not make them much longer for any customers.
ENVE still makes performance-carbon rim brake wheelsets and two of them have long been my top-rated ones in the aero and climbing categories.
BEST AERO – ENVE SES 5.6
The SES 5.6 is more responsive or “snappy” than any other rim brake wheelset I’ve ridden including shallower and lighter ones. Its stiffness makes a notable difference when going up rollers and steeper hills and it handles precisely and confidently going downhill and into corners.
While not quite as fast as rim brake wheelsets we’ve tested that have a deeper front wheel, it takes less effort to get it up to speed and holds it there incredibly well.
Crosswinds affect this ENVE SES 5.6 wheelset less than other aero depth wheels. It slows and stops confidently on its textured brake tracks while emitting a slightly higher frequency but lower volume than wheels from others with similarly treated brake surfaces.
You can order it from ENVE with a choice of alloy shell (US$2550) or slightly lighter carbon shell (US$3000) hubs.
Read my full review here.
BEST CLIMBING – ENVE SES 3.4
The ENVE SES 3.4’s stiffness and aero performance are superior to other rim brake climbing wheels we tested. That also leads to top-rated power transfer going uphill and fast speeds and responsive handling going downhill.
Braking is also among the best thanks to the textured brake tracks ENVE uses on these wheels.
While 50 to 100 grams heavier than rim brake climbing wheels we tested from other companies (none of which are still in production), the more efficient power transfer coming from the stiffer ENVE SES 3.4 more than makes up for the added weight on steep climbs.
The roughly 40mm rim depth also makes this a suitable all-around wheelset.
Available directly from ENVE with a choice of ENVE alloy shell (US$2550) or carbon shell (US$3000) hubs.
Read my full review here.
Both of the all-around rim brake wheels I previously rated best performers, the Bontrager Aeolus XXX 4 and Zipp 303 NSW, are out of production. If you can find either of them used in good condition at approximately half their original price, that would be a good option. Other all-around rim brake wheelsets we tested at the same time from Campagnolo, Easton, Mavic, and Roval did not perform to the level of the Bontrager or Zipp wheels.
If you ride mostly flat and rolling terrain, the ENVE SES 5.6 reviewed above can serve as an excellent all-around wheelset. I ride the disc brake version of this wheelset as my all-around wheelset. A lesser performing yet lower price option for this kind of riding is the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR, also reviewed above.
If you also do a fair amount of steep and long climbs along with rides on flat and rolling roads or live in a very windy area, the ENVE SES 3.4 can double as an all-around and climbing wheelset. While we did not test it, I would expect the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3 TLR would perform at a similar level as the Pro 5 (and at the same price) but be better suited to the terrain where the ENVE SES 3.4 shines than its deeper and heavier Bontrager sibling.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Click on any red statement below to go directly to that part of the post
The unfortunate reality is that most $2500 to $5000 modern bikes we road cycling enthusiasts buy come with inexpensive wheels that aren’t at the same level of performance as the frames that sit on them or the drivetrain components that transfer your power to them.
While it may seem crazy, many cyclists upgrade their road bike wheels within a couple of years after buying a new bike, which of course comes with a brand new set of wheels. If you didn’t get upgrade wheels for your rim brake bike when you first bought it’s been several years since you did, you may need to replace it or just want to upgrade it for better performance.
Why do cycling enthusiasts make a road bike wheel upgrade one of their first purchases after buying a new bike? Is there a real benefit in your riding performance and enjoyment or is it just one of those bike industry marketing mantras to get you to buy more of what they’re selling?
Endurance or sportive bikes that enthusiasts prefer for long, comfortable rides usually come equipped with wheels that aren’t as forgiving or compliant as the frame. Wider tubed or tubeless tires inflated to lower pressures than you can use with original wheels to dampen the road imperfections won’t make the wheels themselves any more forgiving. They can also reduce the wheelset’s responsiveness and won’t do anything to improve the precision of your handling.
It’s kind of like putting lipstick on a pig. Prettier, but still a pig.
Carbon rim brake bikes made to be ridden or raced aggressively in the enthusiast price range often came with wheels that also aren’t laterally stiff enough to take advantage of the frame’s stiffness and actually dampen the responsiveness the bike is capable of when you want to accelerate, go aggressively into a turn, climb out of the saddle or sprint for the line.
The wheels that came with your bike, commonly known as “stock wheels”, and many you may have upgraded to five years ago also tend to be heavy by modern-day standards. They usually weigh at least 200-300 grams more than a good road bike wheel upgrade, an amount most enthusiasts will notice when you want to accelerate from a stop, increase your speed during a ride, or do long, steep climbs in the mountains.
Stock wheels also typically have hubs that are durable but don’t roll as smoothly as those that help you maintain your speed with less effort. The rims are shallow and boxy and provide no aerodynamic benefit that deeper ones with rounder noses and sides do, and have a pretty basic look to them.
Unfortunately, you can’t upgrade your older stock or upgrade wheels merely by putting a set of wider 28mm tires on them. Doing this will make your ride on them more comfortable and that is one of the reasons why so many of us might do it.
With wider tires, you can inflate them to a lower air pressure while still having the same amount of air needed to hold your bike and body weight in what is now the larger volume of space between your tires and wheels. Lower pressure tires are more comfortable because they absorb more of the road’s imperfections.
But, putting wider tires on the same width wheels can also make your bike slower and your handling worse if you go too wide and inflate them too low. And, wider tires without wider wheels certainly won’t make your bike any more responsive, accelerate any faster, get you in and out of turns more precisely or roll noticeably better or faster, all of which should happen, along with improved comfort, from upgrade wheels.
A tire that’s too wide for its rim is also more likely to experience a pinch flat when you are leaning into a turn or cornering at a high speed. The tire bead can also pull away from the rim hook in the turn, also resulting in a flat. Not good, to say the least.
A wider tire and a wider rim together provide better handling. The wider rim sets the foundation for the wider tire to better keep its shape as you can see in the drawing on the left above.
The square tire shape of a wider rim supporting a wider tire provides a wider “contact patch” than on a narrower tire that produces more of a lightbulb tire shape. While the total area of the tire patch for both tires is the same as long as your weight and the tire pressure are the same, that area spreads further across the width and less along the length of a wider tire.
So how wide should you go with your wheels and tires and what combinations are best? It depends on whether you prioritize comfort or speed and handling or whether you want the best of both and, as always, what your budget is.
I’ve written a separate post here that gives you my take on what mix of comfort, speed, and handling you can expect with different tire-rim combinations.
Of course, tires, rims, hubs, and spokes aren’t developed in isolation. Among the wider wheels I’ve reviewed, you’ll see more rounded rim shapes, more straight-pull spokes that connect the hubs and rims for higher reliability and easier replacement when necessary, and more tubeless-ready wheelsets than ones that are strictly set up only for tubes and tires to reduce pinch flats at lower pressures.
You’ll also find wider rims with the same width between hub flanges to make for a bigger angle for the spokes running between them. And you’ll see wheels with great distance between the hub flanges or larger diameter flanges that also make for bigger angles. All of this theoretically creates more laterally stiff wheels, something that should be welcome for heavier and stronger riders.
Using tubeless tires instead of the traditional tube and tire combination can provide you still more comfort on top of wider wheels and tires. While there is nothing inherently more comfortable about a tubeless tire, you can run them at 10 psi or so lower pressure than you would a tubed tire to make the riding experience more comfortable without noticeably affecting other performance characteristics.
At lower pressures, inner tubes and tires will move more independently when you hit a bump or some road debris and you are more likely to get a pinch flat when the tube rubs against the tire. With a tubeless tire, you don’t have this concern.
WHAT MATTERS MOST IN CHOOSING UPGRADE WHEELS
I consider about 20 criteria – either performance, design, quality, or cost-related – when making my wheelset recommendations.
Here’s a summary of those criteria. You can read an in-depth description of them here.
Performance: Versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, acceleration, comfort, handling, rolling smoothness, and braking are the key measures I’ve used to assess wheelset performance.
Design: Design defines how manufacturers want their wheelsets to perform. Sometimes they perform as designed, sometimes not. The key design criteria are wheel weight and material, rim depth, width and profile, hub and spoke selection, and brake track and wheel finish.
Quality: Durability, warranties and service/support are the selection criteria that define wheelset quality.
Cost: While you often get what you pay for, some wheels cost a lot more than others with only a tenuous relationship between cost and performance, design, or quality. Non-custom wheelsets north of $2000 appear to be priced based on their brand name, business model, product and market strategy, and product volume more than any other factors.
Note that I do put an emphasis on performance and cost-related criteria. Quality is a go-no-go consideration. I won’t write a review on anything that is poor quality and I’ll note those products that have an exceptional quality level or longer than normal warranties.
Wheel makers have for years marketed wheels around some of the design factors – wheel weight, rim width and profile, hub materials, spoke shape and butting, etc. – because they are easier to quantify and promote. Specs and design factors often take up the first half (or more) of many reviews.
The more important and harder to describe and quantify performance factors including stiffness, comfort, handling, acceleration, braking, aerodynamics, and rolling smoothness are what truly separates one wheelset from another and is where I like to focus my attention.
There is usually a relationship between price and performance. Generally, you have to spend more to get something that performs noticeably better.
I find it’s best to know what you are willing or able to spend and then seek the best performance you can get within that budget.
As a guide, here’s the range of what different categories of rim brake upgrade wheels will cost.
- Stock: US$150-$300/€125-€250/£100-£200
- Alloy: US$400-$1000/€400-€1000/£300-£800
- Value Carbon: US$1000-$1500/€900-€1400/£800-£1300
- Performance Carbon: US$2000+/€2000+/£1800
Find what you’re looking for at In The Know Cycling’s Know’s Shop
- Compare prices on in-stock cycling gear at 15 of my top-ranked stores
- Choose from over 75,000 bikes, wheels, components, clothing, electronics, and other kit
- Save money and time while supporting this site when you buy at the store after clicking on a link*
*While there’s no added cost to you, some stores pay commissions that support our product review and site expenses.
FULL REVIEWS OF RECOMMENDED RIM BRAKE UPGRADE WHEELS
Campagnolo Zonda C17 – A stiff wheelset comfortable enough for Moose and Squirrel
The current model Zonda C17 introduced in 2017 increased a couple of millimeters to 17.0mm wide inside (measured between the bead hooks) and about 22.5mm outside (across the brake tracks). Little else about the wheelset changed. The Zonda still has a box rim profile, steel bearings, and aluminum shell hubs, signature 3-spoke groupings around the rear wheel, low profile alloy rims (measured 24.4mm front, 27.2mm rear), middle of the pack weight (measured 1537 grams) and use tubed and clincher tires only.
It also still remains a bargain at a market price under US$500/€500/£400. You can order it by clicking on these links to recommended stores Merlin, Wiggle, and Chain Reaction Cycles, and these search results from Know’s Shop where you can price compare the Zonda from additional stores I recommend because they have the best prices, customer satisfaction records, and selection on enthusiast-level cycling gear and kit.
The good news for stout riders is that the new, wider Zonda remains very stiff alloy rim brake wheels. My 200lb/90kg (or so) friend and fellow tester Moose reported that it has the best out-of-the-saddle stiffness while climbing of any alloy bike wheelsest he’s ridden. And I call him Moose for both his strength and weight so that’s saying something.
For a squirrel like me at 150lbs/68kg who finds many wheels plenty stiff for what I do to them, the Zonda is noticeably stiffer and seems to transfer every last watt I can put out with utmost efficiency.
The big question before riding these Zondas was, would the extra width make them less harsh than the 2016 and earlier models, ones that only a heavier rider could love and for their stiffness rather than their compliance.
I mounted them up with 25C Michelin Power Competition tires and at 85 psi front and 90 psi back and found them middle-of-the-pack comfortable. Neither harsh nor plush. Moose, who rode them closer to 100psi, felt they rode pretty smoothly on the typical unevenly paved and occasional bumpy roads he normally rides.
While they might handle better with 23C tires at 5-10psi higher pressure or be more comfortable on 25C tires inflated 5-10psi lower, the size and pressures that Moose and I ran them provided for a great combination of handling and comfort. I also recognize that with all the hype around wider tires, few are going to buy these wider Zondas and put 23C tires on them. That’s ok because they are too shallow to get any real aero benefits from them, even if the inflated tire width were narrower than the rim width to improve airflow.
The hubs are also solid, middle-of-the-pack performers. They certainly aren’t the fastest to accelerate but aren’t slow. They aren’t super quiet but also don’t put out the clickety-clack of louder hubs that some riders love. Overall, reasonably good accelerating, rolling, and sounding hubs that aren’t going to set themselves apart from the others for these qualities.
In summary, the Zonda C17 addresses one of the biggest issues with stock wheels – lack of stiffness – with a solution that works for riders large and small, the latter thanks to the little bit of added width.
Perhaps the best news for Campy and Fulcrum fans (I’m a fan of good wheels, not of brands) is that all of the variants of the Campy Shamal and Fulcrum Racing lines have moved to 17C widths. The bad news is that they haven’t gone to 19C widths and I don’t expect they will.
The Campagnolo Shamal Ultra C17 (price compare here) and twin Fulcrum Racing Zero C17 (price compare here) are the flagship alloy bike wheels from Campy, essentially the same wheels and from the same company under different brand names.
They are part of lines that also include the Campagnolo Zonda C17 /Fulcrum Racing 3 (the latter now also made in the 17C width), which run at half the market price of the Shamal Ultra/Racing Zero, to the Campagnolo Shamal Mille C17 (here)/Fulcrum Racing Zero Nite C17 (here), the models with blacked-out brake tracks that sell for even more.
These wheelsets all share the same rims and spoke patterns with differences in rim etching, brake treatments, spoke materials, hub shell materials and bearings, freewheel, and flange materials. Whether you would notice any performance differences between these wheels or could justify the price differences is for each of you to decide. I, for one, can’t and am just happy to have a decent upgrade option at a great price.
I recommended the last, narrower model Zonda as the best alloy bike wheels for 175lb/80kg and heavier riders. If you need or want a stiff wheel and budget is your first consideration, the Zonda C17 should be your first stop for riders of all sizes and my recommendation as the Best Value among your rim brake upgrade wheel choices.
HED Ardennes RA Pro – An innovator that combines performance and prestige
HED has been one of the leaders in the wide rim movement with the Ardennes. First introduced with wide rim dimensions and a 24.5mm deep V-profile, HED went wider with the Ardennes Plus model in the 2014 season. It now measures at 20.6mm inner and 25mm outer width, one of the widest alloy rim brake wheels still available.
Renamed the Ardennes RA (for Rim Alloy) in 2020 but unchanged from the earlier Plus rim, the Ardennes’ added width enables the same tire to square up that much more and contributes to better aerodynamics and handling. While I can’t speak to the relative aero performance of these wheels, they do feel fast and I can certainly feel the effect of the wider rims and tires in their excellent handling.
Of course, whether my “feel” is real or just imagined is debatable; it’s definitely subjective and something you might not feel or care about if comfort is your priority.
The Ardennes is available now as the RA Pro with the same rim, spokes, and hubs as the earlier Ardennes Plus SL, and the RA Black. The Black is the same wheelset as the Pro except that, for a $300 premium, the alloy brake track is blacked out to make it look more like a carbon wheelset.
For this review, I chose to evaluate the RA Pro. It delivers big on a comfortable ride with confident handling even with the 23C tires I tested with them. I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek since people have been led to believe that only wheels with 28C tires are comfortable these days. You can certainly run 28mm wide tires on them for more comfort but be careful not to lower your air pressure so much that your handling gets mushy.
If you ride tubeless, you’ll find this wheelset one of the easier wheelsets to work with. Tires install and remove relatively easily and inflate with a floor pump. These are also very well built and HED wheels have a reputation for being very durable over time.
While not flexy, these aren’t the stiffest wheels out there, so if you plan to race or ride them hard up hills, in and out of corners, etc. and you weigh north of 185lbs/80kg a stiffer wheelset might suit you better. For most enthusiasts, however, this won’t be an issue.
There’s really is a lot to like about this wheelset and while it was introduced years ago, it still has a lot going for it. Priced at $850 (Performance Bike), you can consider it the luxury choice of wider alloy bike wheels. It performs well enough if not the best on all my criteria but is one of the two most comfortable I’ve reviewed in this category. The other is no longer being made. It is worry-free and if you are willing to spend for it, is one that will also add a little cache to your steed.
Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR – Fast, stiff, good handling wheels for flat terrain
The Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR is a stiff, fast wheelset. It rolls smoothly and keeps its momentum once at speed quite well even though the hubs sound a little buzzy. I felt very confident in all aggressive handling situations on these wheels. Serious crosswinds don’t go unnoticed but the Aeolus Pro 5 isn’t terribly bothered by them and you can easily manage your way through the breezes.
The wheelset isn’t very lively or responsive. You can definitely move out quickly on these thanks to their stiffness but it’s more based on your strength rather than any snap offered by the wheelset itself. I also found taking them uphill to be a grind. Despite their ample width and running them tubeless all the way down to 55 psi, they don’t offer the compliance that would make me comfortable riding them for longer than a couple of hours.
I really enjoyed the speed, stiffness, and handling of these wheels on flatter terrain and think that is where they are best suited.
The Aeolus Pro 5 are made from the same rim molds used for the original, full-price Aeolus 5 D3 wheelset that the Aeolus XXX line replaced in 2018. Both the disc and rim brake models use the same rim that measures 19.5mm internal and 27mm external width and 50mm deep. They use a lower grade carbon than what was used in the 5 D3 and a lower spec, heavier hub as well. Save for the DT Swiss Aerolite spokes, the Aeolus Pro 5 wheelsets are made and assembled in Asia.
I found this wheelset and other Bontrager Aeolus wheels I’ve tested to be extremely well built. I stupidly was distracted one day while riding this wheelset and ran straight into a deep pothole. While my shoulders may never be the same, I didn’t even hear a burp from the Pro 5s and they remained true thru my testing.
Bontrager’s crash replacement policy for these and all their carbon wheels stands alone in the industry. They will replace or repair your wheels for free within 2 years of when you bought them no matter how they get damaged and provide a 50% discount to repair or replace them for as long as you own them after that.
The Aeolus Pro 5 TLR value carbon upgrade wheels sell for $1400 direct from the Bontrager and can be ordered from bike shops that sell Trek products.
ENVE SES 5.6 – A snappy wheelset that excels in nearly every measure
ENVE introduced the SES 5.6 in 2018 as the successor to the SES 4.5. When I last reviewed this category of aero bike wheels, I picked the SES 4.5 as the best performer. After comparing the wheels in the category this time, the SES 5.6 is the one I’d choose to ride on.
No, I don’t have an ENVE tattoo anywhere on my body. And sadly, I returned this wheelset just like every other one sent to us to demo for reviews.
In fact, among all the wheelsets I rode this past season, I enjoyed riding the ENVE SES 5.6 more than any other one. While my riding profile would normally suit a shallower wheelset, I’d happily ride this one most any day of the week.
The SES 5.6 is more responsive than any other wheelset I’ve ridden including shallower and lighter ones. It jumped forward when I wanted to move out or ramp up my speed while underway. When I cranked up the watts going up rollers and steeper hills or working to close a gap, it was stiff. And it handled precisely and confidently going fast downhill and into corners.
This ENVE wheelset seemed to take less effort to go fast and held my speed incredibly well. I didn’t measure watts vs. mph but it sure felt like I was putting out less of the former and getting more of the latter than any other wheelset I can remember. You know when you feel like you are going fast but not working that hard? You look down at your speed and say to yourself… whoa, I’m going fast. It felt like that a lot on these wheels.
The Chris King hubs on the SES 5.6 rolled very smoothly. The wheelset was comfortable on their tubeless rims with 20mm inner widths. I also felt confident braking on the textured rim brake tracks that emitted a slightly higher frequency and lower volume than Zipp’s textured ones.
On a fall day full of crosswind, the ENVE SES 5.6 compared favorably against the Bontrager XXX 6 and Zipp 404 NSW that I rode back to back to back. And the Bonty and Zipp were amongst the best I’ve ridden in crosswinds in this racing bike wheels category.
So that’s my take. For context, I’m a B-group, 18-20mph enthusiast on an endurance frame. I don’t race or time trial but I do try to ride fast.
Nate is my evil twin tester. While we weigh practically the same (150-155lbs – that’s the twin part), he’s an A-group ride leader, does road races, hill climb events, and even the occasional TT. He wins some of them in a pretty tough age group. And he has a stiff Specialized S-Works Tarmac racing frame.
He’s also a very, very nice guy but truly evil if you try to outdo him on the road.
Nate and I reached similar conclusions about the SES 5.6 on some criteria and different ones on others. He really liked how they performed at high speed and how well they maintained their momentum once there. “Wheeeee!!!” was the technical term he used to sum up his aero evaluation.
He also liked how they accelerated from a stop or when he wanted to make a big power burst while already at speed. They were noticeably tougher to climb with than the 40mm-50mm carbon wheels he normally rides but he found this to be true of many of the wheels in this aero wheels category. That was my experience too.
For the record, the wheelset we rode had Chris King R45 hubs and came in at 1559 grams on my scale, the same as what ENVE claims for them. The front wheel was 5g lighter and the back 5g heavier than what ENVE claimed but obviously, well within the margin of error and manufacturing tolerance.
If you think riding a 1481 gram wheelset will help you climb better, you can save those 78 grams (and get a quieter freehub too) by going with the ENVE carbon shell hub on these wheels for the same $3000 price as the one we rode with the King. Alternatively, if you prefer spending $2550 for the wheelset, you can spec it with the ENVE alloy shell hub at 1593 grams.
Nate didn’t love the SES 5.6’s ride and handling. At least, he didn’t love it compared to the equally stiff Bontrager Aeolus XXX 6 or the more forgiving Zipp 404 NSW.
Using the Goldilocks testing method, he found ENVE wheelset rode too hard at 80 psi, was less accurate at 65 psi, but at 72 psi offered the best combination of comfort and handling. (FYI, I rode it at 60 psi, closer to where ENVE suggests riders that weigh what Nate and I should).
While Nate found the ENVE and Bonty equally responsive at 72 psi, to him the ENVE seemed to exaggerate the roughness of the road at that pressure while the Bontrager and Zipp wheels dampened it.
In the crosswinds, Nate felt ENVE and Bonty were better than the Zipp.
Nate summarized his evaluation of the SES 5.6 using the practical framework of ride time and road terrain.
“Over shorter rides (<3 hours) without too much elevation or on smoother roads, I’d take them in a heartbeat…there are some KOMs I’ve been needing to claim back and these might just be the right tool :-). However for longer rides and certainly on my stiffer bike frame, I think I’d rather have the smoother Zipp/Bonti ride, even if sacrificing some of ENVE’s responsive snap.”
So bro, I guess we come out at much the same place?
You can order it from ENVE with a choice of alloy shell (US$2550) or slightly lighter carbon shell (US$3000) hubs.
ENVE SES 3.4 – Superior stiffness, aero, and braking performance
When ENVE introduced the second generation SES 3.4 wheelset as “climbing wheels with an aero advantage”, it seemed like we were being fed a new product with an identity crisis. The first-generation SES 3.4 was an all-around wheelset. And, ENVE also had the SES 2.2 climbing wheels in their lineup, ones I’ve previously evaluated and rated the Best Performer in my first review of carbon clinchers for climbing.
Well, the SES 3.4 are better climbing wheels and the SES 2.2 are now retired from the lineup. And, while you can use the 3.4 as all-around wheels, they aren’t as fast as the leading ones in that category.
Anyway, those product line issues aren’t for me or you to worry about. What I have concluded, however, is that these second-generation SES 3.4 wheels rate Best Performer of all the carbon clincher climbing wheels I’ve evaluated.
Simply put, the ENVE SES 3.4 performs better than other wheelsets on most of the performance criteria that matter in choosing the best lightweight wheels for climbing.
Nate (our hill and mountain climbing specialist), Moose (our 200lb/90kg rouleur), and I (middle-aged, middling B-group rider and climber) all gave these ENVE wheels a go each on different, mountain climbing adventures we had planned during the test period. Our takeaways weren’t unanimous (that would be unusual), though, for each of the performance criteria, we pretty consistently rated the SES 3.4 better or on par with the other climbing wheels.
Nate and I, both in the 150lb/68kg weight range found the wheels incredibly stiff. Nate, whose watt/kg is so good that he regularly finishes in the top 10 overall and wins his age group at the Mt. Washington Hill Climb, rated the SES 3.4 stiffness top of the charts compared to the many climbing and all-around wheels he’s ridden.
I couldn’t flex them at all. Everything I had seemed to go straight through my drive train, bike frame, and these wheels to the road surface. With other wheels on the same bike, that certainly isn’t the case. If you have a somewhat flexy frame, as was the case with one of the bikes I was riding during this test, putting these wheels on will harden you the f-up.
Moose, on the other hand, whose power can probably flex a steel I-beam, didn’t find the ENVE SES 3.4 as stiff as a Campy Zonda, the stiffness benchmark for alloy wheels, or even as stiff as some all-around wheelsets. So, if you are a heavy guy looking for a dedicated climbing wheelset (an unlikely combination, I’ll admit), you may not find this, or any climbing wheelset stiff enough to your liking.
That same stiffness likely contributed to fantastic responsiveness and very good downhill handling. These wheels tracked well and cornered confidently in high-speed turns. We didn’t find them quite as precise or comfortable as a couple of other wheelsets on test that were outstanding, but none of us had any hesitation riding the SES 3.4 hard and fast on descents. You can put on tubeless tires if you’ll be riding them on rough mountain roads or just want a more comfortable ride.
You also notice the clear aero advantages of the SES 3.4’s added rim depth and profiles going downhill. Despite being the deepest of the climbing wheels evaluated (38mm front, 42mm rear), they weren’t affected at all by crosswinds. Having ridden ENVE’s 10-15mm deeper SES 4.5 wheels with similar U front wheel and V rear wheel profiles with minimal crosswind effect, I’m not surprised at how well the SES 3.4 did in windy conditions.
Another huge plus for those of you who continue riding full-gas going downhill is how fast the SES 3.4 ride on gradual descents where you still need to be putting out tons of power to keep up with or ahead of those riding deeper wheels or who outweigh you. I always hate when I can beat heavier riders to the top only to have them pass me going downhill. With the aero performance of these wheels, you stand a far better chance of getting to the top and the bottom ahead of your buds. And we all know how important that is!
What about weight, you may ask. These are the heaviest wheels in this lightweight wheels category, right? Well, yes and no. Claimed weights are often notoriously understated and they are for most wheelsets in this review. The ENVE 3.4 SES with Chris King hubs that we tested for this review actually measured about 14 grams less than the claimed weight, bringing it to within a you-can’t-tell distance of nearly all the wheelsets in this review.
If you want a lighter version of these same wheels, and of course the overall wheel weight matters less than the rim weight (which ENVE is one of the few that publishes), you can whack off a claimed 60 grams for the same $3000 price by ordering these with ENVE’s carbon shell hub. Alternatively, you can configure the SES 3.4 with the ENVE alloy shell hub and reduce the price to $2550 while increasing the weight to a claimed 1509 grams.
The Chris King hubs have that distinctive ratcheting sound when you freewheel that they could probably patent. ENVE’s branded hubs use the Mavic Instant Drive 360 internals, a DT Swiss 240-like dual ratchet design that’s quieter than the Kings but not as quiet as the DT Swiss 240s. The Kings also require annual maintenance whereas the DT Swiss design, assuming Mavic accomplished the same thing, never needs maintenance.
Personally, I prefer a quiet hub and a lower-priced wheelset that more and more wheel makers seem to be moving to but I know the ratchet freewheel sound is more traditional. A stiff, light rim is also more important than one that is less stiff no matter its weight.
Finally, there are the brakes. While we certainly don’t use them going uphill and hate to use them going down, you do need to slow and brake from time to time going into corners, when there are cars or other riders on the road, in the occasional unexpected situation, and when your heart and head tell you are going too damn fast.
ENVE’s textured brake tracks on these and their other carbon rim brake wheels are simply the best around. They are equal if not better than any other carbon wheels on dry roads. They are clearly and measurably better in wet conditions.
Yes, they sing a bit when you brake. It’s a muted, predictable song, however, far different than the shrill shrieking, squealing or squeaking you get from some other wheels anytime you brake or that comes on more and more as the tracks heat up after repeated braking.
So, all in all, the ENVE SES 3.4 are complete and terrific wheels climbing and descending the steepest, longest mountain roads you’ll find and my selection as the Best Performer among carbon clincher climbing wheels
You can order the ENVE SES 3.4 directly by clicking this link to ENVE.com.
* * * * *
Thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think of anything I’ve written or ask any questions you might have in the comment section below.
If you’ve benefited from reading this review and want to keep new ones coming, buy your gear and kit after clicking the store links in this review and others across the site. When you do, we may earn an affiliate commission that will help me cover the expenses to create and publish more ad-free, subscription-free, and reader-supported reviews that are independent, comprehensive, and comparative.
You can use the popup form or the one at the bottom of the sidebar to get notified when new posts come out. To see what gear and kit we’re testing or have just reviewed, follow us by clicking on the links below or the icons at the top of the page to go to our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and RSS pages.
Thanks and enjoy your rides safely! Cheers, Steve