THE BEST ROAD DISC WHEELSET UPGRADES
If you’ve bought a road disc bike recently, you’ve probably asked yourself…which road disc wheelset would be a real upgrade at a reasonable price?
Road disc bikes are now front and center, mainstream, almost in your face. If you are a road cycling enthusiast, your next road bike will most likely have disc rather than rim brakes. And if you’ve bought a road disc bike recently, you’re probably asking yourself the same question you did shortly after you bought your last good rim brake bike – what are the best wheels I can get to upgrade my bike at a reasonable price?
With new road disc bikes now outselling rim brake ones, there are more and better road disc wheelset choices coming to market each year. The same categories of choices you’ve had in rim brake wheels – upgrade, all-around, aero, and climbing – are filling out now with new wheelsets specifically for road disc bikes.
In this post, I’ll share my reviews of the best of these wheels from the upgrade category that are or will be available in 2018. They will provide a far better riding experience than the stock wheels that come with most new road disc bikes.
All are comfortable to ride, helped in part by having wide rims (19-21mm inside width) that can be set up with tubeless tires. And made from aluminum alloys and typically selling for around or under $/£/€1000, these road disc wheelset upgrades are less expensive than carbon wheels that make up the other categories. While primarily designed to ride on paved roads, many can also comfortably be ridden on dirt, gravel, cyclocross and other off-road surfaces where we take our road disc bikes these days.
Compared to last year’s review of this category, I have added a couple of very good new wheelsets, removed a couple that stopped being made, removed another that is no longer competitive, and updated the review of yet another that itself was updated this year.
Related: For a review of all-around carbon wheels for road disc bikes, click the Best Carbon Disc Wheelset
Related: Not sure what kind of wheels to get? Click Road Bike Wheels – How To Choose The Best For You
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ROAD DISC WHEELSETS
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ROAD DISC WHEELSET DEVELOPMENTS
Several market, product, and technology changes have occurred over the last few years that may affect your consideration and decision of which road disc wheelset to buy. I describe these here before providing you my evaluations of the wheelsets themselves.
New Road Disc Bikes For Endurance and Racing Displacing Rim Brake Ones
From everything I read and hear, 2018 will be the first year that more endurance road bikes with disc brakes will be sold to road cycling enthusiasts like you and me than those made with rim brakes.
These endurance bikes are made with carbon frames and sell for between $/£/€2,500 to $/£/€5,000 with some going for up to $/£/€10,000. Most have tier 2 or better component groupsets like Shimano Ultegra, Dura Ace or SRAM Force and Red with mechanical or electronic shifting and have hydraulic (rather than cable-actuated) disc brakes.
Among race bike models, road disc bikes are clearly in the ascendancy even though the pro tour and many amateur sanctioned races are still dominated by rim brake bikes.
I’ve been following the emergence of road disc bikes since 2014. There’s little doubt that we are now well beyond the tipping or inflection point in the shift from rim to disc brake bikes. My LBS, part of a chain of 7 stores that have won several retailer of the year awards says their enthusiast level road disc bike sales already sell at a ratio of 2:1 over rim brake ones.
Other retailers tell me that within 2 to 3 years, you won’t even be able to buy a new rim brake enthusiast level endurance road bike. I don’t doubt it among the bigger brands. The smaller and classic brands may take longer, unable to cover the added design costs in the short term or unwilling to change their iconic positions.
Campagnolo, which was the last major groupset and wheelset company to introduce disc brake components and did so years after the others, is probably Exhibit A for the financially challenged and legacy positioned late switchers. They are working to catch up to the fast-moving shift to road disc brake bikes, announcing and introducing new wheelsets and groupsets.
Among the leaders, Giant, the world’s largest bike manufacturer, has been selling only endurance road disc bikes for many years now. Specialized, another of the largest volume bike sellers, now offers its Roubaix model that once broke open the entire endurance bike category online with disc brakes. Trek, the third member of the world’s largest major bike brands now sells disc brake endurance and race versions of its most popular models
The shift to road disc has happened among smaller bike companies too. Canyon, one of the fastest growing bike brands, started selling road disc bikes in 2017 with more road race models in disc brake than rim brake and an equivalent number of models in their top endurance lines. BMC’ top endurance bike lines and all of Focus’ endurance bikes are road disc.
North American bike brands Cannondale, Felt, and Cervelo sell road disc endurance and race bikes throughout their product line and for some models no longer offer rim brake bikes. Italian brands Pinarello and Colnago sell road disc endurance and race bikes throughout their lines. Even Bianchi, while still selling only rim brake racing bikes, has a good range of road disc endurance bikes on offer.
For those of us traditionalists out there, get used to it. Road disc bikes for endurance riding and racing is happening now, not something off in the future.
Stock Wheels No Better on Road Disc than Rim Brake Bikes
Continuing the practice from rim brake bikes, the wheels that come with most new road disc bikes – aka “stock wheels” – continue to be underperformers relative to the potential created by the bike frame and components. Disc brake components are more expensive than rim brake ones so bike makers need to find places to keep their other costs down to prevent bike prices from climbing further. Combine this with down sales and profit years for the bike industry starting in 2016 and you get a reinforcement of the old maxim that wheels are the first thing you’ll want to upgrade on your new bike including when it’s a road disc one.
You’ll find a good number of DT Swiss, Mavic, Fulcrum, 3T and OEM brand wheels (Axis, Cannondale, Giant) made by DT Swiss and others on new road disc bikes that you won’t find available or promoted for aftermarket or upgrade sales.
Canyon and, in a more limited way, Specialized and BMC are exceptions to this. Similar to what a couple other bike brands did their first year selling road disc bikes, Canyon puts carbon all around and aero wheels from Zipp, Mavic, Reynolds or DT Swiss on their more expensive ($5000 and up) road disc bikes. Specialized puts Roval CLX series carbon wheels on a few of their bikes at their highest price point and BMC is putting the newest DT Swiss carbon wheels on their most expensive bikes.
You will also find alloy upgrade wheels like the Zipp 30 Course or HED Ardennes coming stock on a few models. But, these are more the exceptions to the rule that new road disc bikes get stock wheels you’ll want to upgrade.
More Carbon Models Designed For Road Disc Performance; Few Alloy Ones Are
In my past annual reviews of alloy and carbon wheelsets, I’ve written about the performance and design differences between disc and rim brake wheels. Beyond the need to handle the forces of braking on the disc rotors placed at the center of the wheels rather than at the rims (more spokes and beefier, slightly wider hubs), there are ways to make purpose-built disc brake wheels perform better than adapted rim brake ones, once freed of the rim brake requirements.
I wrote about the opportunities to reduce rim weight, create more aerodynamic rim profiles, phase out carbon-alloy wheelsets, and build road-specific hubs rather than use off-road ones that have been adopted in many road disc wheels. We are also increasingly seeing “asynchronous” profiles or those with more material on the side where the rotor sits to handle the brake forces more effectively without affecting the ride quality.
All of that and more is happening in the carbon disc brake wheelset world. Sadly, almost none of it is happening for those of us looking for less expensive, alloy road disc wheelset options. And it’s not because of the material differences, at least not in my opinion. Rather, it is more likely because the innovation usually comes in carbon wheels first where the margins are bigger. I’m also guessing that there’s not enough volume yet for aftermarket road disc brake wheels to justify investing in lower margin alloy upgrade wheels.
Will it happen for those of us who want to upgrade the stock wheels that came with our new road disc bikes but are not able or willing to spend on carbon wheels? I believe it will and should soon.
When? As the number of new road disc bikes grows, the number of riders looking for purpose-built disc brake wheelset upgrades at alloy wheelset prices will grow with it. At that point, the volume of demand for alloy road disc wheels, if not the margins, will justify it. At the same time, the demand for alloy rim brake wheels will be going down as fewer new enthusiast level rim brake bikes are sold, and wheel makers will be anxious to replace the lost aftermarket sales on the rim brake side with more disc brake wheels. I have no inside information, but my guess is that by 2020, there will be a lot more innovation in this category.
I’ve seen a couple things that could be interpreted as initial signs of this switchover among alloy upgrade road disc wheelsets. The Zipp 30 Course, for example, is an alloy wheelset that has been sold for a few years now in both disc brake and rim brake models using different rims. It appears to be better suited and more competitive in road disc brake applications than rim brake ones.
Also, while wheels are getting wider for all road (and off-road) bikes, Fulcrum announced a new, 19C disc brake version of its Racing Zero wheelset before it said anything about updating its 17C rim brake model. The brand still does appear to be holding on to the mindset that the rim brake world is the reference point, as you can read in its description of the new disc brake Racing Zero DB when it says: We believe we have succeeded, developing a design along the same lines as those of conventional brakes. But I’ll write that off to someone writing copy that isn’t in on the product development discussions. A year after that announcement, Fulcrum has yet to feature the Racing Zero DB or any alloy road disc wheelset above its stock-level series Racing 4 DB through 7 DB wheels in its catalog nor make it widely available among its dealers.
Other wheelsets, like the Campy Zonda Disc Brake wheelset, have asymmetric rims to handle the differential braking forces on the wheels. These are modest changes not fully realizing the potential redesign opportunities I mentioned above but are still a good sign of added road disc wheelset focus.
Alloy road disc wheels still weigh more than their rim brake siblings – most an unnoticeable 50-80 grams – when they should weigh less by roughly the same amount, which would begin to be noticeable. And while their retail prices are now about the same in disc and rim brake versions (disc brake wheels used to be notably more expensive), most are still closer to $1000 than $500.
That’s the bad news.
More Brands Selling Road Disc Wheelset Upgrades
The good news is that most of the better rim brake alloy wheels are now made in disc brake versions, with brands like Campagnolo and Fulcrum slowly joining in at the alloy upgrade level and Bontrager and Mavic offering more alloy road disc wheels than in past years.
While there have some good upgrade wheelset choices out there when I’ve written this disc brake wheelset review past years, there are just a few new ones this year and prices have yet to come down significantly.
Shimano, which has been a pioneer in disc brake components and standards, has unfortunately done nothing to advance an early and now inferior alloy disc brake wheelset line. If or when they re-engage here (and their financial performance of late suggests it might be a while), I would expect to see prices pushed down.
There are of course many smaller wheel brands sourcing components and often complete wheels designed and assembled by contractors or assembling them in low volumes on their own. They are also increasingly offering alloy upgrade disc brake wheels.
Much as I would like to provide you, my fellow road cycling enthusiasts, guidance on the wheels offered by these brands and by custom-built wheel makers, the sheer number of them makes it such that there’s just no way I can evaluate them. And if I did, there’s no way I could determine that what I experience is what you would experience as the custom-built wheels are, by definition, unique and the ones designed, built and assembled by others on contract for the wheel brands that sell them are at the mercy of what their contractors are sending them from lot to lot and how those contractors or contracts may change from year to year. They also have limited distribution and support networks, making whatever they offer, no matter how good, available for sale and service only to a limited number of you.
Compatibility Exists Even if Standards Don’t
As with any relatively new product category – whether it be road disc bikes or new consumer electronics or most anything else that grows organically – it often takes years for standards to be set. Usually, the strongest players call the shots and if the product category or ecosystem that it is part of is fragmented, standards bodies can take eons to reach an agreement.
There are some dominant players in different segments of the cycling industry but none that cross all of its equipment segments. At this point, Shimano with its road disc groupset dominance and, to a lesser degree, some of the larger bike companies, are birthing and shaping the emerging standards for road disc wheelsets as there are no wheel makers nearly as dominant and the wheels must obviously work with the bikes and components.
What I’m seeing as the emerging road bike standard is Thru Axle (TA) with a 12x100mm front axle diameter and width (rather than a 15×100) and a 12x142mm rear. New wheelsets are far more commonly comming with Shimano’s standard Center Lock (CL) hubs rather than 6 Bolt (6B) ones.
For the time being, most (though not all) of the newer road disc wheelset hubs (and bike dropouts) are designed for thru axles and Center Lock, though you can still order many set up with TA or QR axles and to connect to CL or 6B rotors.
Many wheels come with end caps and QRs that allow you to set up the wheelset to suit your frame and components. In some cases, you have to order them separately.
I’m now beginning to see some wheelsets having very limited inventory or not even being offered in anything but the emerging standard I wrote about above. By 2019 or 2020, if your bike and components aren’t set up that way, you may have far fewer choices than you have today.
In the wheelset comparison table, I’ve noted the compatibility options for each wheelset.
All of this may sound a bit confusing. If you are unsure of what you have, there are a few things you can look at on your bike to sort through it all. First of all, if you have to unscrew your axle to get your wheel off, you’ve likely got TA. You can also look at your dropouts. If they have a slot, it’s a QR. If the ends are completely enclosed, it’s TA.
As for the rotor interface and rotor itself, if your rotor attaches with screws it’s a 6B. If it attaches with a ring, CL.
Tubeless is Nearly Ubiquitous
Wider and tubeless ready rims are one thing that most all disc brake wheelset makers seem to agree on. For the first time that I’ve written this annual update of disc brake wheelset upgrades, all the wheels in this review are “tubeless ready”. You don’t have to run them with tubeless tires but they are ready if you want to.
They also range from 19mm to 21mm wide across the inside of the rim, the dimension that affects wheelset comfort and handling along with the type of tire you use, how much you inflate it, and the amount of vertical compliance built into the wheelset. (The outside rim width at the brake track in relation to the mounted tire width along with the shape and depth of the rim provides an indication of how the wheelset will perform aerodynamically.)
I mention tubeless and rim width together as, while this review is for road disc wheelsets, I know some of you plan to take your wheels off-road for a change-of-pace ride during the season or race cyclocross in the fall. Don’t hide. I know you are out there. I’ve seen you out there! (Oops).
A wide, tubeless wheelset will allow you to install and run tubeless tires down to very low pressures and still provide you comfort and good handling on dirt, gravel or grassy trails.
Note, however, that all tubeless rims are not created equal. While replacing a tube and installing and inflating a clincher tire is pretty much the same experience on most wheels of similar width and depth, the experience of mounting, getting sealant in and blowing up a tubeless tire varies greatly from one model wheelset to another. Does it ever!
On the flip side, none of these alloy upgrade road disc wide wheels are very wide on the outside, ranging from 22-25mm. This likely ties to most of them using the same rim design as their rim brake wheel siblings and perhaps some practical alloy rim manufacturing limitations or the added weight that accompanies added alloy width.
Carbon road disc wheels, while having similar inside widths to alloy road disc ones, are now ranging in the 27mm to nearly 30mm range allowing for wider 25C and 28C tires that still optimize aero performance by having the inflated tire width remaining less than the rim width. Since none of the alloy wheels are very deep (most ranging in the 25mm to 30mm range) and some still have older box and V-shaped profiles, there’s no aero benefit you should expect to gain from them in the first place and 25C tires on these wheels that measure wider than the rims aren’t going to change your aero performance and can provide you more comfort.
I wouldn’t recommend going to 28C tires unless you plan to do a lot of off-road riding. 28Cs on alloy wheels the width of those in this review can make your road handling quite mushy with the lower tire pressures you’ll likely run them at and the 5-8mm of tire extending beyond your rims that create a less vertical (more lightbulb like) tire sidewall shape.
Improved Performance That You’ll Notice, At A Price
Of course, you upgrade your wheels to give you better performance over the wheels that came with your bike and a better and more enjoyable riding experience overall. Wheels are usually the weakest link on your new bike and hold you back from getting the performance and enjoyment you can obtain from the frame and components that are the foundation of your bike.
I have found that that to balance the potential of what your bike can do, you should plan to spend somewhere between 20-40% of your bike’s original price on better wheels. The price of most stock wheels is about 5-10% of the bike.
Looking at the price tags rather than the percentages, these wheels aren’t cheap. $/£/€1000 give or take a few hundred is the asking price for a good road disc wheelset upgrade that will give you a noticeable improvement in performance.
However, if you think you also might want a more versatile or more dedicated aero or climbing wheelset in addition to the stiffness, acceleration, comfort and other basic performance improvements you get with an alloy upgrade, you’ll need to move to a carbon wheelset and spend close to that 40% number or more. If you are thinking of going that way or want some guideline in deciding which way to go, I suggest you read my post Road Bike Wheels – How To Choose The Best For You.
It’s important to think now about what kind of riding you plan on doing 2-3 years out and what kind of wheelset will best serve you then so you can avoid buying an alloy upgrade now only to decide you’d prefer to have put that money into a carbon wheelset a year or two down the road.
When evaluating wheelsets, I consider 20 specific criteria that fall into one of four categories – performance, design, quality, and cost. You can read the descriptions of those criteria here.
While all these criteria are important, some are more important depending on what kind of riding you are intending to do and what kind of bike you have. Braking performance, for example, is an important wheelset criterion for riders climbing and descending or riding in the rain on rim brake bikes.
It’s hardly even 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. Rotor selection – both size and material – and hydraulic brake components are key to road disc brake performance but largely independent of wheelset choice. For this reason, I’ve dropped braking as a criterion in this review.
Other criteria, like stiffness, are equally important whether you are talking rim or disc brake wheels or upgrade, all-around, climbing or aero wheels regardless of your braking method. Still others, like acceleration, need to be looked at a bit more closely on disc brake wheels rather than rim brake ones since the former tend to be a tad heavier and have road hub designs that haven’t had as many years of refinement as the off-road ones they may have been born with.
While design specs like weight and rim width are worth noting in and of themselves and 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 on (and sold on) and too easily equate to those performance attributes.
When it comes to choosing between a road disc and rim brake bike, most cycling enthusiasts will likely go with a road disc bike for its superior braking performance, its ability to be ridden more aggressively and faster down hills, in and out of corners, and for the versatility to ride it in most any weather on varying road terrain. Those things have more to do with the bike than the wheels.
Disc brake wheelset upgrades will noticeably outperform the stock wheels that came with the bike through some combination of accelerating better, being stiffer, more comfortable, handling better and improving the bike’s versatility to ride a variety of terrain mostly on the road and on some off-road surfaces. And that will make a world of difference to the performance and enjoyment of a good $/£/€2500 to $/£/€5,000 (or more) road disc bike that you’ll likely have invested in as an enthusiast.
Road disc upgrade wheels combine these performance improvements typically for $/£/€1000 or less, a far better price than carbon wheels which are often priced 1.5-3x more.
If you want a wheelset with better aerodynamics for flats and rolling terrain, that climbs exceptionally well in the mountains, that combines the versatility to perform well in all types of terrain, to help you ride competitively in endurance rides or club and higher level road races, or even mix in some gravel or dirt or cyclocross with your road riding, you’ll want to go with a carbon disc wheelset instead of one the alloy upgrades I’ve reviewed in this post.
Sorry, but you do get what you pay for.
Note that I have only evaluated wheels for their performance riding on a paved road surface. Gravel, dirt, cross and other alternative or off-road riding is entirely another kettle of fish, bag of bones, set of spokes, etc. Many road disc bikes can be taken on fire roads or dirt tracks or gravel paths with the road wheels I’m evaluating and some are intended to perform well both on and off-road.
Set up with the right tires, many of the wheelsets I’ve evaluated can also be used off-road with CX or ‘alternative’ bikes that have higher bottom brackets and have more space in the frame and forks for wider, lower pressure tires and other frame, component, and wheelset characteristics designed principally for off-road riding. My evaluations, however, are based on road riding and I can’t tell you which ride better off-road or in some combination.
With all of that noted and uploaded to the cloud, here are my reviews of the current group of best disc brake wheelset upgrades.
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ZIPP 30 COURSE DISC BRAKE CLINCHER – STIFF, RESPONSIVE, COMFORTABLE AND VERSATILE
The Zipp 30 Course Disc-brake Clincher gets my vote as the best road disc wheelset upgrade for your road disc bike. It’s a good all-around performer with nearly all the current design benefits and at a competitive market price ($900, £700, €800, A$1000).
What you’ll notice most about the Zipp is its strength and responsiveness. It’s laterally quite stiff, a bit on the heavy side but still very responsive to your acceleration efforts. Good acceleration depends as much and probably more on rim aerodynamics and hub performance as low weight (see here for a recent discussion of this). These wheels use the Zipp-patented toroid aero profile and the 77/177 hubs that also Zipp puts on their more expensive Firecrest carbon wheels. This probably offsets the weight disadvantage when compared to most other wheelsets in this category.
The Zipp 30 Course is a very comfortable ride, the most comfortable and smooth riding one of this group. The rims are wide (21mm inside/25mm outside), wide enough to enable you to ride 25C or even 28C tires if you want to maximize comfort on rough paved or gravel roads. However, I wouldn’t go any wider than 25Cs (which will measure 28mm+ once mounted) if you plan to do mostly road riding. They are plenty comfortable with tires of that width riding even rough paved roads at normal pressures.
The wheels are set up at the factory with rim tape to run tubeless. It is one of the easier wheelsets to mount tubeless tires on so if you’ve thought about taking the leap into tubeless, this would be a good wheelset to go with for that reason as well.
Like many of the best road disc wheelsets, this one comes with all the hardware to easily convert between quick release and thru axle of the range of sizes your bike might need. The wheelset hub only comes in a 6-bolt option. If you are currently using Center Lock rotors and weigh under 165lbs/75kg, you can pick up a set of 140mm 6-bolt rotors here that I use made by Avid (Shimano doesn’t make 6-bolt in that size). If heavier, go with 160mm 6-bolt Shimano rotors here. It will cost you under $65 for either pair.
There’s not much this wheelset can’t do well. You can cruise on it comfortably, you can race on it confidently, and you can take it on dirt roads and to cyclocross events capably. It didn’t do anything for me going uphill but it sure was solid going down. That’s a pretty good combination of performance characteristics for an upgrade wheelset.
MAVIC KSYRIUM ELITE UST DISC – COMFORTABLE AND STIFF AT A GOOD PRICE
As you may have heard, and you are a cyclist living in a tunnel without Internet service if you haven’t, Mavic announced its entry into the road tubeless market recently with its typical bravado that goes something like: We waited years after others had entered the road tubeless market until we had invented a miraculous new form of technology that is the new standard and no one will ever approach it. (My hyperbolized and satirized paraphrasing.)
Mavic blanketed the major cycling media which promptly repeated the company’s claims (but none of their own testing) in article after article writing that UST or Universal Standard Tubeless was easier to install, lighter, safer, yada, yada, yada.
You can’t blame Mavic for executing a well-crafted marketing campaign. You certainly can (and I do) laugh at all the ad-sponsored online and print publications for being Mavic’s megaphone.
Well, now that the echo chamber has subsided and Mavic has been selling its UST product line that stretches from low-cost-alloy wheels to high priced carbon ones, let me give you my impressions of UST and specifically, the Ksyrium Elite UST Disc road disc wheelset.
I’ve been evaluating two UST wheelsets… a low-cost alloy one and a high priced carbon one.
First, I was amazed at how consistent the inside width is in these wheels. I typically measure a wheel’s inside width at several at a half a dozen places along the wheel and take an average. Even the most expensive wheels vary by 0.2 to 0.4mm along the rim. By contrast, the Mavic wheels varied by less than 0.05mm and that may be due more to the limitation of my measuring technique than the variability in the wheel’s inside width.
Secondly, I’ve been installing a whole bunch of different tubeless tires on a whole bunch of different tubeless rims for a few years now and watching a lot of YouTube videos to make sure I’ve got all the tricks down. And with Mavic UST, I found the Yksion Pro UST Tubeless tires that Mavic sells with these wheels no easier to put on, inflate, seal or remove than most other road tubeless tire and rim combinations.
That’s neither a plus or a minus, it’s just me injecting a bit of reality into the marketing hype that’s been going around.
There are three factors, all plusses, that I believe are more important than the two above for those of you who want all the benefits of tubeless but uncomfortable about having to install tubeless tires.
- Mavic’s UST wheels are sold with 25C Yksion tires already installed on the rim. All you have to do is unscrew the valve core, pour 30ml of the sealant that Mavic provides with the wheels into the open valve, screw the core back in, and pump up the tire with a regular track pump. Done.
- The price of the wheelset includes the tires. That’s a good thing, and about $100, £80, €100 you don’t have to spend for another set of tires if the Yksion Pro UST Tubeless tires are any good.
- My experience riding these tires on a couple different wheelsets leaves me feeling pretty good about them. And, a review published by independent tester Jarno Bierman at Bicycle Rolling Resistance shows that the tire’s rolling resistance and tread puncture resistance are within you-won’t-be-able-to-tell-the-difference range of the Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless and Continental Grand Prix 4000S II tubed clincher tires that are the current
goldrubber standards for road tires these days.
How about the wheels’ performance?
Prior Ksyrium Elites have earned the reputation of being stiff. Elites and Campy Zondas have always been the wheels you recommended to your heavier friends because they were unbending no matter how much weight or power someone could put into them. My fellow tester Moose, self-appointed president of the FFCC (Fat F***ers Cycling Club) tells me these current Elites uphold their reputation for stiffness.
With the Mavic Ksyrium Elite UST Disc now available, I’ve dropped the Zonda disc brake wheelset from this latest version of the road disc wheelset upgrade category review. While a little less expensive, the Zonda is narrower (17C vs. the Elite’s 19C) and is not tubeless ready.
The Elite is also quite comfortable to ride, track well and cruise well on the tarmac. It’s not as comfortable as the Zipp 30 Course but it’s no less comfortable than the other wheelsets I’ve reviewed in this category.
It’s not the fastest accelerating wheelset nor does it do anything special tracking through hard turns so I wouldn’t race on it. But if you are a cruising enthusiast and want a good deal, it’s the Best Value of those I’ve reviewed.
BONTRAGER PARADIGM ELITE TLR DISC – GREAT HANDLING AND CRUISING
Bontrager added the Paradigm Elite TLR rim and disc brake models to their line a couple years ago. They sit above the Paradigm Comp and Paradigm models. All of them use the same rims but the Elites use DT 240 hubs that you’ll see on many of the better alloy and carbon wheelsets sold by a wide range of top brands.
So, my question was, are they “Elite” compared to the performance of disc brake wheelset upgrades from other brands in this review?
One of the first things my fellow tester Moose (90kg/200lb) and I (68kg/150lbs) both noticed after riding the Paradigm Elites was their handling performance. They tracked very well in and out of corners on the flats and on downhills, giving you plenty of confidence.
We ran them with the recommended Bontrager 26C tubeless tires and at about 10 psi lower than regular clincher pressure. This, in combination with the wheelset’s 19.5mm internal width likely helped produce the solid handling platform.
What makes many alloy wheels an upgrade over the stock set is the way they roll – usually smoother and quieter. The Paradigm Elites are good, on par with the hubs on the Zipp 30 Course.
These wheels, while stiff enough for most riders, aren’t as stiff as the Zipp, Easton EA90 SL or Mavic Ksyrium Elite for heavier enthusiasts.
Comfort? With tubeless tires and inflated to a lower pressure than a tubed clincher, the Paradigm Elites absorb the bumps better than most. But, I still felt bumps, surface cracks, and rougher roads and it seemed as they the tires were dampening them more so than the compliance of the wheels.
Speaking of the tires, the Bontrager 26C R2 TLR on these wheels measured 26.7mm wide once installed (piece of cake) and inflated (one with a hand pump, the other took a compressor).
Overall, the Paradigm Elite wheelset gives you an enjoyable upgrade over the average stock set – confident handling, smooth rolling, and dampened rough road surfaces. At $900 through this link to Trekbikes.com, a marginally lower price than most of the other wider upgrade wheels, they give the cruising enthusiast a good option for a better ride but don’t stand out among this strong group of road disc wheelset upgrade options.
EASTON EA90 SL DISC – A STRONG, VERSATILE PERFORMER WITH A NEW HUB
As I’ve found with other Easton alloy and carbon rim brake wheelsets I’ve tested in the last couple of years, Easton gets a lot right with the EA90 SL Disc wheelset.
The rim and disc brake models of this wheelset use the same rim and have a contemporary rounded rim shape and width. The EA90 SL Disc wheels are amongst the stiffest wheels you’ll find, absolutely unbending no matter how much effort you put into them. This, of course, is a good thing when it comes to wheels.
They handle precisely going around corners, accelerate well and are very comfortable on either tube and tire or tubeless rubber, the latter which sets up quite simply.
While their actual measured weight is similar to the Bontrager and HED wheelsets (and about 100g less than my recommended Zipp 30 course), they climb better likely due to their stiffness and perhaps owing to their rounded rim profile.
While it’s a personal thing, I also like the look of their black matte finish and lettering and find it more attractive than most others in this review. If your last name is Easton, even better.
So, a lot to like.
Since last evaluating the EA 90 SL Disc, Easton started selling this wheelset with their new Vault hub along with the same rim and spokes as before. While I’m waiting for an opportunity to test out the new hub before recommending this wheelset, I like what I’ve read about it, especially compared to the M1 hub used on these wheels before.
The M1 hub was one adopted from Easton’s mountain bike wheel line and required a 6-bolt rotor interface and quick release axles. If you wanted thru-axles, you had to pay extra for the hardware and likely to get it installed. Worse, most mountain bike wheel hubs are over-designed for what road bike or even cross bike wheels need and that typically makes them heavier as well.
The Vault hub is Center Lock and comes with end-caps that any enthusiast can easily switch out for whichever axle configuration suits your frame. If the hub is no better than these changes and no less a performer than the M1 was, the wheelset is already better off. If the Vault performs similarly to Easton’s Echo hubs which I have tested on their carbon wheels, it will be a performance as well as configuration improvement.
I’ll update this review once I’ve had a chance to evaluate the wheelset with the Vault hub or see a report from a reviewer I trust who has.
In the meantime, if you want to give them a shot, go to these search results at Know’s Shop to see where you can buy the EA 90 SL Disc at the best prices.
HED ARDENNES PLUS LT DISC – THE INNOVATOR THAT OTHERS CAUGHT UP WITH
Before the Zipp 30 Course was introduced in 2016, I picked the HED Ardennes Plus Disc as the best performer amongst road disc wheelset upgrades. It weighs much the same as its rim brake sibling with which it shares the same rim design, rides as comfortably as its rim width would suggest (20.6mm inner, 25mm outer) and handles extremely well.
HED led the revolution to wider road wheels and the Ardennes went to its current “Plus” width in 2014. As you can see from the chart, most of the others in this category have caught up or nearly so in their rim dimensions. I personally can’t tell much improvement in comfort and handling on the road between 19C and 21C width rims with 25C tires but the 21C rims do allow you to more easily roll 28C and even wider for off-road riding if you want to use your wheels that way.
The disc brake version of this wheelset is stiffer than the average stiffness level of the rim brake model, the latter of which was underwhelming. The more robust, HED designed Sonic Disc hub and added front spokes undoubtedly contribute to this.
Like most wheels in this category, the Ardennes is made tubeless ready. You select your QR or TA axle preferences at the time of order rather than switch between axles and end caps after you’ve received the wheels.
If you plan to use these wheels on different bikes, say a road bike and cross bike or gravel bike that have different axle specs, you’ll have to buy some extra hardware and do some installation work. The 15mm diameter front hub TA uses different bearings and a sleeve than the 12mm ($65 for the kit) and the wheels don’t come with QR skewers ($40) as many others reviewed in this post do.
The wheels are set up standard with a Center Lock rotor interface. You can get an adapter kit ($20) if you want to use your 6 bolt rotors.
A couple years ago, these wheels really stood out among the pack of alloy upgrade road disc wheels in handling and comfort and also climbed better than most. Others have caught up or exceed the Ardennes’ performance in some categories.
To better compete, and not unlike what you’ve seen from Campy, Fulcrum, and Mavic over the years, HED offers these wheels using the same rims with slightly different hub components and spokes to create SL, LT and GP models. The price drops about $300 from the SL to the LT and another $200 to the GP. On the flip side, the wheelset weight increases about 80-100g from model to model.
The SL and LT models use the same HED designed Sonic hubs whereas the GP uses catalog hubs available to any wheel builder instead of HED’s proprietary design. The SL uses high end, lighter Sapim CX-Ray spokes whereas the LT uses Pillar spokes that add about 80g to the total weight of the wheels. Hard to believe you pay $300 more to save 80g but I guess that’s cycling economics for you. The GP uses still lesser spokes.
I’d expect the SL and LT to perform quite similarly so would recommend the LT between the two. The GP is more of a stock wheelset and you do see it on some new bikes.
You can find and order the HED Ardennes Plus Disc at the best prices using these links to my top-ranked store Competitive Cyclist where US and Canada residents get 10% off one-time w/code ITKCC19 exclusively for In The Know Cycling readers and compare prices from other recommended stores at Know’s Shop.
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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 are interested in a better performing and more versatile wheels, click and take a look at my review of the Best Carbon Disc Wheelset. As I wrote in the developments section above, carbon is the most fertile (and expensive) segment of the road disc wheelset market now with new all-around, aero, climbing, and all-terrain wheelsets being introduced.
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