THE BEST CARBON WHEELSET FOR THE MONEY – PART 2
Summary: Value-carbon wheels some call the “best carbon wheelset for the money” sell for between $1000 to $1500. While a few have particular strengths, none match the range and level of performance of wheelsets that cost nearly twice as much. Many also come with very limited warranties.
The best value-carbon wheels I’ve found are the Zipp 303 S for cyclists committed to riding tubeless tires and available here from a store I recommend its competitive prices and customer satisfaction, and the Bontrager Pro 37 for those who prefer to ride tubed clincher tires and available here. You can read my reviews of them starting here.
What is the best carbon wheelset for the money? Should I consider Chinese carbon wheels from Yoeleo, Farsports, Light Bicycle or others? What should I expect of relatively cheap bicycle wheels that are only sold online from brands like Prime wheels, FLO Cycling, and Hunt wheels? What about those wheelsets from Profile Design or Rolf Prima that are available primarily through US retailers?
How do these compare to more expensive carbon wheelsets and the lower-priced carbon models widely available from the long-established, better-known wheel makers like Zipp, Bontrager, Reynolds, and Fulcrum?
That’s how I opened Part 1 of my Best Carbon Wheelset for the Money. In that post, I laid out a way to compare the companies making all-around carbon wheelsets selling in the $1000-$1500 price range. I provided you, my fellow road cycling enthusiast on a tight budget yet still wanting carbon wheels, perspective on how those companies approach engineering, production, sales, and service differently.
The post also included info about how long these companies have been selling carbon wheels, how much each company appears to be involved in the design and manufacturing of the carbon wheelsets they sell, what return, crash replacement and warranty policies they offer, and what the price and design specs are for their <$1500 all-around wheelsets.
All of this was intended to help you learn more about the companies whose wheelsets you might consider buying beyond the relatively low price of their carbon wheels. I certainly have, and I imagine you all have some basic requirements that must be met before spending a good chunk of change for cycling gear from any company. Hopefully, the added knowledge about these companies, some which you may have known little or nothing about before, will help you in your decision making.
What I didn’t do in that first post was share with you my on-the-road performance evaluations of these value-carbon wheels. Once I’m good with the company behind a wheelset and the price being in my budget range, performance matters most.
First, I’ll share my experience on how the performance of value-carbon wheels differs with that of full-priced performance-carbon wheels and lower-priced alloy upgrade wheels. Then, I’ll first summarize how the companies selling value-carbon wheels approach the business in different ways, the focus of what I laid out in Part 1.
Finally, I’ll give you my performance reviews for those value-carbon wheelsets we have completed testing.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE BEST VALUE-CARBON WHEELS
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WHY TRUST THIS SITE
After publishing Part 1, I received impassioned, sincere entreaties from some readers who asked if I would tell them immediately which of three or four value-carbon wheelsets on their radar from some of the nearly 20 companies I identified earlier they should choose. Since publishing this Part 2, I still receive requests for my recommendation of several wheelsets I didn’t review from companies whose products I did. They needed to know right away and their requests were written in a way that suggested it shouldn’t be that hard or take that long to simply tell them.
Well, that’s not happening. I don’t write click-bait pieces that you may see on other sites with titles like “14 of the Best (this or that) Wheels for (such and such type of) Riding” that regurgitate the specs and marketing narratives provided to their writers. Those articles have very little performance critique, little if any feedback from having ridden the wheels out on the road, and seldom include anything negative about the products being described.
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Because of our passion for cycling, our nerdy/analytical/gearhead tendencies, and our desire to figure out what gear we should get next for ourselves, we ride the gear and give you no-holds-barred evaluations of the good and the bad. Our reviews and recommendations are based on product performance, cognizant of price differences, circumspect of quality, warranties, and service, and curious though not affected by design, technology, and features. Hype is not tolerated.
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PERFORMANCE DIFFERS BETWEEN VALUE-CARBON AND OTHER CARBON AND ALLOY WHEELS
I’ve frequently heard some riders say value-carbon wheels, those that sell in the $1000-$1500 range get you 80%-90% of the performance at 1/2 to 1/3 of the price of full-priced or what I’ll call “performance-carbon wheels”.
While that is a memorable line, it lacks the kind context to make it useful, let alone accurate.
It’s really hard to make any overarching statement like that without knowing, for example:
- Which value-carbon wheels and which performance-carbon wheels are you comparing?
- Which performance characteristics are you considering?
- Which characteristics are most important to you in making a wheelset decision?
As you likely know and can see on the home page, I and my fellow In The Know Cycling testers review and compare a half-dozen or more wheelsets from an entire category that are intended for a similar purpose and put it into a single post for you. Which are the best climbing or all-around or aero wheelsets? Which are the best alloy upgrade wheelsets? Which are the best wheelsets in each of those categories for rim brake bikes vs. disc brake bikes?
Not sure which type of wheels to get? Check out this post:
Looking for the best performing all-around rim brake wheels? Click here
Looking for the best performing all-around disc brake wheels? Click here
Looking for the best performing rim or disc aero bike wheels? Click here
While there are performance characteristics that are unique to each category or more important when comparing wheels in some categories versus others, there are a handful of characteristics that are important across all categories.
Most of the value-carbon wheels I am reviewing in search of “the best carbon wheelset for the money” are all-around category wheels. This category includes mid-depth (40-50mm) wheelsets that are intended to be used for training and road racing, on the flats and in the climbs, mostly on the road but also for a modest amount of cross or dirt riding off of it. As the “all-around” description suggests, these wheels are good in most situations if not ideally suited for specific terrain (e.g. climbing), event (e.g. time trials) or surface (e.g. smooth, paved roads).
The performance criteria I and my fellow testers use in evaluating wheelsets in this category, and most other categories to a greater or lesser degree, are versatility, aerodynamics, stiffness, responsiveness (aka acceleration), comfort, handling, and braking. You can read more about what I mean by each of these on my wheelset selection criteria page.
In this section, I’ve compared some of the better and average value-carbon wheels against some of the better and average performance-carbon wheels and alloy upgrade wheels made for rim brake and disc brake road bikes using these same criteria.
This is a fool’s errand but I’m a fool and am trying to provide you a general reference point of what to expect for a specific performance characteristic between wheelsets we’ve tested representative of these three different groups. This will hopefully be better than the horribly inexact and simplistic “x% of the performance at y% of the price” statement I mentioned at the top of this section that some people lean on.
I’ve no doubt that I will get comments from some saying my $500 alloy wheelset far outperforms the $3000 carbon wheelset those I race against or ride with use in this or that situation. I won’t try to confirm or explain why your experience or evaluation differs from mine.
My fellow testers and I have ridden, compared and reviewed many, many wheelsets. You can read and compare my take on whatever wheelsets you are interested in by entering the wheelset name in the “Search reviews” box at the top of the page.
Rather, what follows is a distillation of our experience.
The most desirable all-around wheels will provide the versatility to ride different types of terrain (hills, flats, false flats, straights, corners, sprints, mountains, fast downhills, windy roads) that you’ll experience and a range of training and many events (club races, centuries, club, charity, group rides) you’ll do without compromise.
With the growing popularity of cyclocross and gravel or dirt riding, you can add a wheelset’s ability to ride road and these off-road situations to the versatility consideration.
Performance-carbon wheelsets clearly have an advantage here. The better and many of the average rim and disc wheelsets are more aero, responsive and comfortable, and climb better than value-carbon or alloy upgrade wheels we’ve ridden. That makes them more versatile for the range of terrain you might ride, events you might do, and surfaces you might traverse, especially if you are comparing the more modern disc brake wheelsets.
The better and average value-carbon wheels I’ve tested are somewhat more versatile than the better and average alloy upgrade wheels. Being deeper and with good hubs, they are better at holding aero speeds above 20mph/32kph. In quite a few cases, however, that comes with crosswind management issues that you don’t experience with the shallow alloy upgrade wheels (or the more advanced rim profile designs of the performance-carbon all-around depth wheels).
While most of the value-carbon wheels are wider than most of the alloy upgrade wheels, I haven’t found the former group to be any more comfortable. This limits your desire to want to ride them off-road (and in some cases on it).
To fill out the versatility consideration, I think about how much I’d like to climb with these wheels. The value-carbon wheels are generally a bit heavier than the performance-carbon ones. Others are not as stiff. I haven’t found any that are as light and stiff than the better and average performance-carbon wheelsets.
Alloy upgrade wheelsets, though shallower than value-carbon ones, aren’t noticeably lighter and often not as stiff. This limits their versatility.
With few exceptions, this is quite clearcut and for understandable reasons. The better and even average performance-carbon wheelsets tend to have more engineering invested in developing rims that are more aero in the normal 0 to 10-degree yaw angles and crosswinds than value-carbon ones.
Depending on the company’s strategy and business activities (see Part 1), value-carbon wheels generally come with rims designs used in earlier generation performance-carbon wheels made by the company or are older designs from companies that just can’t afford to invest in updating the rims as often as those in performance-carbon wheelsets or are copies of generation or two-old performance-carbon rims.
Alloy upgrade wheels are typically in the 25mm +/- rim depth. This makes them about 20mm shallower than the value-carbon and performance-carbon wheelsets. At aero speeds, you will notice a difference. On the flip side, many of the value-carbon wheels with their older designs require a good deal of crosswind management whereas the shallower wheels general don’t.
No, I didn’t run any of these wheels through the In The Know Cycling wind tunnel. (There isn’t such a thing.) Instead, my observations are anecdotal and based on riding a lot of wheelsets at different aero speeds over time and doing back to back rides in similar conditions.
Stiffness is a performance characteristic that is specific to a wheelset. Some are stiffer than others regardless of the category of wheels they might fall into. There are plenty of stiff wheels that transfer your power efficiently within each category and at each price point.
You can see which wheelsets are stiffer in the charts that summarize and compare performance within each category review.
Responsiveness is a measure of how quickly a wheelset accelerates from a stop or when you attempt to accelerate while underway from one speed to a much faster one. You accelerate most often after slowing at a stoplight or sign or after making a turn. If you race or group ride, you might accelerate to start a breakaway, move past someone slowing in front of you, kick it in on a hill or when doing a sprint for the town line or finish line.
I’ve found that performance-carbon wheels are some of the most responsive around. This certainly isn’t the case with all performance-carbon wheels, but I’ve seldom found value-carbon or alloy upgrade wheels to be as responsive.
You might wonder, if stiffness is wheelset specific why wouldn’t responsiveness be as well? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why for a given wheelset but some combination of stiffness, aerodynamics, weight, carbon layup, hub engagement and perhaps other factors will determine how responsive a wheel is when you try to accelerate. Performance-carbon wheels may be some combination of more aero, lighter, using higher-grade carbon or better hubs than either value-carbon or alloy upgrade wheels.
Value-carbon wheels are usually more aero but heavier than alloy upgrade ones. This might explain why I’ve found little difference in their responsiveness.
Comfort is relative and very much in the eye of the beholder or should I say hands and rear end or the biker. We used to ride around on 15C wide alloy wheels pumped up to 120 psi with nary a complaint about comfort.
Now, the focus on comfort seems to be a sub-industry unto itself with some tires and wheels sold on the premise that their width will provide you comfort.
A few things to point out first. Comfort is an outcome of a wheelset’s vertical compliance, what tires you use, and how much you inflate them. You can make a wheel more or less comfortable by running it tubeless, using better tires and lowering the pressure.
But, you can only do so much to make a wheelset comfortable given its compliance. Vertical compliance is determined by the wheel’s rim, spoke, and hub materials and how they are aligned and assembled.
All the marketing around a wider rim making for a more comfortable ride is misleading. If everything I’ve written about above is the same between two wheels, then yes, a wider rim on a wheelset could be more comfortable. But, all else is never the same between wheels from two different companies and there’s often enough different that width isn’t the dominant factor in determining comfort.
Indeed, I found a 16mm wide (internal) value-carbon wheelset with 23C tubed tires inflated at 75 psi to be clearly more comfortable than a 21mm wide (internal) value-carbon wheelset with 25C tubeless tires inflated at 60 psi ridden on the same roads.
While it is unusual to find that situation, it illustrates the point that wheelset width does not predict comfort. Vertical compliance along with tire choice and inflation pressure does and there’s no way to predict compliance from specs. I set up our performance-carbon and value-carbon wheels tubeless using the same brand, model and size tires and at the same pressures. I was also able to spec most of the value-carbon wheelsets we tested with DT Swiss 240 hubs, a top-performing hub used on the best wheelsets in all three groups.
Some 19C wheelsets will be more comfortable than some 21C wheelsets. One 19C wheelset will be comfortable, another will be passable while a third will be harsh. It’s just not about the rim width.
For those of you focused on tire width, know also that aero performance, handling and comfort are interdependent. You just can’t put on a set of 25C tires to improve comfort without potentially affecting your aero performance and handling. I wrote this post about that subject a few years ago and it is still relevant (and much read) even today. And, one brand’s 25C tire can be a millimeter wider than a 25C tire from another brand, and both are almost never going to be as narrow as 25mm once mounted and inflated on even a 17C wheel.
So what about the vertical compliance of the three different groups of wheelsets?
Like stiffness, a lateral measure that is also dependent on the wheel’s rim, spokes, and hub materials and how they are aligned and assembled, vertical compliance is unique to a wheelset.
That said, I’ve found the better and average performance-carbon wheels as a group of individual wheelsets to be more comfortable than either better and average value-carbon or alloy upgrade wheels.
I’m not sure why this is but I’ll guess it’s simply a result of money. More engineering goes into performance-carbon wheels than either of the other types. Companies are hip to the reality that we cyclists want comfort today so the companies making performance-carbon wheels spend the money to engineer their wheels to be more compliant. The others either can’t afford to or don’t choose to.
This criterion, of course, relates only to rim brake wheels. For disc brake wheels, braking performance is determined by the brakes and rotors rather than the wheels, assuming the hubs and spoke bracing are structurally up to the job.
When evaluating a rim brake wheelset’s braking, I consider how much force is needed to slow or stop your wheels and how well you can modulate that force to control the rate of your deceleration as the two primary measures of braking quality.
If you use a good set of brake levers and calipers, well-maintained cables, the appropriate brake pads for the wheels, and properly aligned, spaced, and adjusted calipers, then differences in braking performance are going to be all about the difference in the brake tracks.
I recognize that’s a big if so if you are unsure whether your brakes are set up right, check out this video for a little home wrenching advice.
Wheels with alloy brake tracks still perform the best in dry and wet road conditions. The better and even average performance-carbon wheels are damn close in dry conditions and the better ones are not far off alloy upgrade wheels on wet roads.
The current generation of performance-carbon wheels have closed the braking performance gap by texturing or treating their carbon brake tracks to increase the friction during braking, using improved resins to raise the temperature at which brake tracks heat up and fade or worse kicks in, and by advancing the manufacturing techniques in their rim lay-up process.
Unfortunately, most value-carbon rim brake wheels perform more like earlier generation carbon wheels. While some use higher temperature resins, I’ve not seen any with textured or treated tracks. Manufacturing techniques vary. The force isn’t there to slow the wheels nearly as much as textured or treated tracks and you’ll experience squealing and/or fading as the tracks heat up from repeated braking.
Those from companies with several generations of experience making carbon wheels shouldn’t warp and delaminate if you don’t drag your brakes (apply them 10-15 seconds or longer) and if you do use carbon braking techniques (alternate front and back wheels, brake no longer than 5 seconds at a time, brake hard initially on wet roads to squeeze out the water).
Good handling comes from a combination of several of the performance criterion described above. Good lateral stiffness is required to minimize the amount the wheel deflects in a turn. Good vertical compliance is important to soak up any unevenness in the pavement. Good braking helps you get into the turn at the right speed. A more responsive wheelset helps you accelerate out of the turn.
Handling technique plays a big role in your cornering experience as do good quality and appropriately sized and inflated tires. Especially if they need improving, your technique and tires can be far more important than all the stiffness, compliance, braking, and responsiveness built into the wheelset to great handling.
With all of that, I really can’t differentiate as much between groups of wheelsets as between individual ones. So I’ll punt on trying to compare these and continue to point out which wheelsets have better handling than others.
HOW COMPANIES SELLING VALUE-CARBON WHEELS DO BUSINESS
There are two dimensions along which I organize the companies selling “the best carbon wheelset for the money” or what I’m calling value-carbon wheels that sell in the $1000-$1500 price range.
SCOPE – By scope, I’m referring to the range of business activities and operations, number and range of products, breadth of the cycling market segments served or countries and geographies the companies sell to. Those selling value-carbon wheels either have a broad or focused scope.
SALES – Companies today are selling wheels (and most cycling products) through dealers, either online or at shops that represent them, or directly to cyclists from their own company websites.
Companies combine their scope and sales approach to follow one of four primary strategies shown in the chart below. You can read about each of these strategies in more detail here.
Within those strategies, companies either conduct or have other companies conduct for them a set of business activities shown in the chart below and described in more detail here.
A wheelset’s price is determined in part by how comprehensive or limited these business activities are. The price is also determined by how much margin companies need to put on top of the operating and investment costs of those activities and others supporting them to make an acceptable return and stay competitive in the market.
You can often find a lower-priced wheelset if you put a lesser value on some of these activities. Some of the companies selling value-carbon wheels spend less on those activities than others either by doing them more efficiently, by narrowing the scope of what goes into them or by contracting some out some of them to lower-cost sources.
For example, if you don’t put a lot of value into the research or testing that goes into some bike wheels, you can typically find lower priced ones from companies that don’t spend a lot on those activities and select the rim, hub and spoke choices offered by those that have. On the other hand, if you want a set of wheels with a brand name the company has spent money to build through design, marketing, and service, you will likely pay more.
Do you care who or where the wheels are made, how long it takes to get it, how well it is made, how long the warranty is? All those preferences have costs or cost savings associated with them.
The conventional thinking is that price differences are primarily guided by whether companies sell wheels and other cycling products through their distributors or direct to consumers. The reality is that the price differences between value-carbon wheelsets (and value-carbon and more expensive wheelsets) come because companies make a wide range of choices about how they run their business through the strategies and activities they choose to run their business.
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REVIEWS OF VALUE-CARBON WHEELSETS
Integrateds themselves do the activities or actively manage what others do integral to designing, producing, selling and servicing wheels. They all use distributors and sell principally through online or shop dealers though some also sell direct from their company stores.
Since the Integrateds build wheels in advance and stock their distributors and dealers, you can usually order and get value-carbon wheels from them immediately or within days, the time it takes the order to ship to you.
It takes somewhere between 2 to 6 weeks to get wheels from nearly all the other companies selling value-carbon wheels as they build to order.
All the Integrateds sell more expensive performance-carbon wheelsets, certainly a greater range and most likely a larger number than the value-carbon wheelsets they sell.
These companies do the research, design, and testing that goes into the rims and, in many cases, the hubs they sell. Many make, assemble, and QC their own wheels. Other companies have subcontractors do the actual production for them using production lines and molds dedicated to their wheelsets while they as Integrateds define and oversee the material, construction, assembly, and testing methods that go into making these wheels.
Bontrager Aeolus Pro 37 TLR – A Best Value for standard tire devotees
Performance: The Bontrager Aeolus Pro 37 is a wheelset that seems designed for the value-carbon road disc rider from the get-go. It is a capable performer in all the key areas I look for in an all-around road disc wheelset.
“Capable performer” may read like a backhanded compliment. I don’t intend it to be. It’s just that nearly all the wheelsets in the value-carbon category have one or more major performance weaknesses that limit what you can do with them and this Bontrager doesn’t.
While the Aeolus Pro 37 doesn’t perform at the level of $2000 and up carbon road disc wheelsets, its ride gave me equal or better performance across-the-board compared to other wheelsets I’ve tested within hailing distance of the Aeolus Pro 37’s $1300 price-point.
It accelerates well and climbs without restrictions. It was plenty stiff enough for me doing either of those efforts and when I powered up for some town-line sprints.
Shod with 25C Continental Grand Prix 5000 tubed tires at 70 psi for my roughly 145lbs/66kg weight, I found this Aeolus Pro 37 wheelset’s comfort and handling good – neither outstanding nor lacking.
The DT Swiss 350 rear hub freewheels with nary a whisper, allowing you to enjoy the peace of your ride or the calls from paceline mates. Audible preferences aside, they perform inconspicuously, neither rolling or engaging noticeably better or worse than most hubs in its price range.
I rode these wheels with standard clincher tires and tubes and I’d recommend you do as well. Bontrager includes a cloth-like strap that simply stretches over the wheel’s sidewalls and snaps into place over the rim bed’s spoke holes.
To go tubeless, Aeolus rims require plastic strips that added over 100g to these wheels and aren’t easy to install. I snapped one and couldn’t get the other one centered correctly. You can also use rim tape to seal the beds for tubeless or tube-type tires, but that takes a bit of experience to get right.
I also found installing my recommended Continental Grand Prix 5000 TL tubeless tires was a lot of work to mount and more work to get off than you’d ever want to deal with on the road. That’s just what happens with this tire and some rims, but this is one of those bad combinations. The tubed Grand Prix 5000 version mounts easily.
While I recognize everyone has different tastes and therefore don’t usually share my opinion on the looks of a wheelset, I will say that if you prefer stealthy looking, matt finished rims with sufficient badging to let people know what you are riding, these Bontragers will be right up your alley.
Design: As with most bike wheels introduced lately, this model year 2020 Bontrager Aeolus Pro 37 TLR wheelset is only made with a disc brake option and is “tubeless ready”. As per my comments above, I’d recommend you ride it with a tubed-tire setup.
The wheelset with the easy to install cloth-like straps for tubed tires weighed 1519 grams on my scale. With the plastic tubeless strips, the weight increased to 1648 grams.
The rims I rode measured 21.2 mm wide on the inside (between the rim hooks) and 27.8 mm on the outside near where the tire and rim joins. With the 25C Continental Grand Prix 5000 tubed tires at my benchmark 100psi, the tires measure 27.6 mm wide. At a more comfortable 80psi, they run 27.4 mm. True to its name, the rims measured 37.0 mm deep.
The carbon rim’s profile starts off on the inner spoke edge with a softened V profile and quickly adopts a U shape as it travels toward the outer tire edges. The spokes are bladed DT Swiss Aerolites attaching to the rim with external alloy nipples. The hubset is also a DT Swiss branded 350 model.
Quality: While I’ve usually found Bontrager wheels to be very well built, the easy to break, hard to center tubeless rim strips that I wrote about above was disappointing.
The rim and hub shell finish are first-rate. The decal labels also appear to be well adhered and integrated nicely into the rim design.
Bontrager’s crash replacement policy for these and all their carbon wheels is very strong. They will replace or repair your wheels for free within 2 years of when you bought it 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.
They offer the industry standard 2-year materials and workmanship warranty. You can also return them if unused within 30 days for a full refund.
Price: You can use this link to order the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 37 for $1300 direct from the Trek Bikes store.
Zipp 303 S – A Best Value for tubeless road disc riders
Performance: If the Zipp 303 S Tubeless Disc-Brake wheelset I rode for this review didn’t have the Zipp logo on the side of its rims, I wouldn’t have guessed it was from Zipp.
It has better than average lateral stiffness and average vertical compliance (aka comfort). That’s the opposite of most every Zipp wheelset I’ve ever ridden, and I’ve ridden quite a few in the 202, 303, and 404 series.
The high lateral stiffness is certainly welcome. Over the years, I’ve suggested to many larger or heavier than average readers that they go with a wheelset that is stiffer than those from Zipp. Lateral stiffness also translates to good handling in these wheels and effective climbing for a wheelset of its weight.
Less than Zipp-like comfort in the 303 S isn’t a knock per se and it’s certainly not an issue. These are more like the comfort of the average mid-depth carbon wheelset. I did many 50 mile rides on them without any compliance-induced fatigue. It’s just that I had just gotten used to Zipp wheels being supremely comfortable.
You can certainly make these ride more comfortably by using a 28C tire. But you’ll pay a speed penalty doing so, much as you do with nearly every other wheelset these days as the tires will be wider than the rims and greatly diminish the aerodynamic performance. For more on this topic and tires I used and recommend against for these wheels, see the details in my dedicated review of the 303 S here.
Thanks to Planet Cyclerly for providing me a demo of the 303 S wheelset to review. Planet Cyclerly is one of the stores I recommend to readers based on its competitive prices, broad selection of enthusiast-level gear and kit, strong satisfaction record from independent services that collect customer reviews, and support of In The Know Cycling’s goal to help fellow enthusiasts figure out what cycling gear to get next and where to get it.
Despite their 45mm depth, I felt only a small amount of “free speed” with the narrower 25C Schwalbe tires mounted on the 303 S. The pedaling effort (aka “watts”) I put into creating forward momentum with the 25C and 28C Zipp tires didn’t feel any easier to maintain as it does with more aerodynamic wheel-tire combinations when my speed gets above 20mph.
The 3 pawl Zipp 76/176 hubset is one of the few design aspects or components that carry over from the 302. It’s pretty basic and pleasantly quiet and there’s certainly nothing objectionable about it. But don’t expect to get the same performance and smooth-rolling of the Cognition hub Zipp puts on its NSW wheels just because they have the same logo.
The 303 S wheels did take notice of crosswinds but didn’t trouble me much about them. That was a very good thing as they climbed very well for a wheelset their depth and weight.
Also new for Zipp, the 303 S wheelset along with the new 303 Firecrest is the first in their new gravel wheelset category. While what qualifies as a gravel or a road or cyclocross wheelset or one that’s well suited for all those disciplines these days is debatable, the 303 S internal width helps to make the gravel argument.
From my testing, however, they ride on gravel more like most 21mm road disc wheels that are only slightly narrower than this one’s 22.5 mm internal width (per my measurement) and not the 25C rim width platform I’ve found is best for 35mm to 40mm width gravel tires.
Many ride 21mm (and 19mm and even 17mm) road wheels on gravel these days and you can certainly ride these as I did for many miles on various types of dirt and gravel terrain but they lack the comfort and handling of wider, dedicated gravel wheels.
Because it’s a Zipp wheelset, I’ve reviewed it as critically as I would any wheelset that sells at historically Zipp-like prices. But this new Zipp wheelset sells for far less and should be compared to those from other brands in this review of value-carbon wheels that sell in the same price range.
Given its combination of stiffness, handling, climbing, and acceleration performance better than most others in this category along with Zipp’s broad dealer service network and lifetime warranty, this Zipp 303 S is a value-carbon wheelset Best Value pick for those already or willing to ride with tubeless tires on their disc brake bikes.
Design: These Zipp 303 S tubeless disc brake wheels have hookless rims that require you use tubeless tires. While most tubeless wheels these days have hooked rims that will lock in the flexible beads of tube-type clincher tires and give you the option to choose between going tubeless or tubed, you can only use tubeless tires on these wheels. If you aren’t on board with that, these wheels aren’t for you. And there is no rim brake version.
The wheels weighed 1556 on my scale with pre-installed rim tape but no tubeless valves. They measured 45.2mm deep with a 22.5mm inside and 27.5mm outside rim width. The rim profile starts V-shaped at the spoke bed and quickly transitions to more of a parallel U shape.
Zipp uses their 3-pawl 76/176 hubset on the 303 S, one they used previously on the first 302 and 303 Firecrest disc brake wheels. They use 24 bladed, j-bend spokes on the front and back with external nipples.
The rims are made and the wheels are assembled in SRAM’s Taiwan factory
Quality: Like many lower-priced wheelsets, the hubs use push-in end-caps. That’s usually not a problem but if you frequently remove the wheels and change the tires to go from a road to gravel set up as the 303 S are intended for you to do, it’s not difficult for the end-cap on the freehub to pull off from the weight of the cassette. It happened to me on a couple of changeovers and I had to scramble to put a pawl or two back in place. I was more careful after that.
Otherwise, the rims appear to be well-built and the wheelset assembled without issue.
Most notably, Zipp now gives the original owner a lifetime warranty on materials and workmanship for model year 2021 and later components including these wheels. They also have a “Life Happens” crash program that discounts repairs 50% for damages caused during transportation, accidents, and misuse.
As with the other integrated wheelset makers and different from those I put in the Regionals, Branded, and Manufacturers category, Zipp has an extensive dealer network and you can bring your wheels to any of them for service or warranty regardless of where you purchased them.
Price: The 303 S wheelset sells for US$1300, £985, €1110, a very un-Zipp-like price. That’s less than what you’d pay for just the front wheel of their top-of-the-line NSW wheels, US$900 below what was the price of their just replaced 303 Firecrest disc wheels, and US$200 less than the 302 disc wheelset that the Zipp 303 S is replacing.
This wheelset is currently out of stock at all the stores I recommend. You can pre-order it using this link to Planet Cyclery which expects to have it back in stock in early July.
Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR Disc – Fast, stiff, good handling wheels for flat terrain
Performance: The Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR Disc 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.
Design: The Aeolus Pro 5 are made from the same rim molds used for the original, full-price Aeolus 5 D3 wheelset that the new 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.
Claimed weight for the disc brake model is 1720 grams. Mine came in at 1806 grams including the rather hefty rim strips that Bontrager doesn’t include in their claimed weight but requires for these wheelsets to fill up the rim shelf volume that enables you to run them tubeless. I suspect the claimed 1605g rim brake wheelset which uses the same rims and strips would come in close to the 1700g mark once measured. You can save yourself some weight by pulling out the rim strips and use rim tape if you prefer to use for tubes and tires.
Quality: 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 it 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.
They offer the industry standard 2-year materials and workmanship warranty. You can also return them if unused within 30 days for a full refund.
Reynolds AR41 – A disappointing successor to the well-liked Assault
Performance: As the successor to the similarly priced Assault I recommended for years as a best value, I expected the AR41 performance to get better by taking advantage of the many carbon wheelset advances in the industry during the Assault’s long run. Instead, the AR41 is a disappointment.
While the AR41 is a stiff wheelset, seemingly stiffer than the Assault, both Nate and I found it lacked the lively responsiveness that set the Assault apart from other value-carbon wheelsets. The hub engages quickly but you don’t get that same snap, or any snap at all actually, that you got from the Assault when accelerating.
The braking is also poor both on dry and wet roads using the recommended blue pads that come with the wheels. Nate and I also tried a set of Black Prince pads with no better results. The AR41 squeals after braking for a while on dry roads and is a bit scary braking on wet ones. The rims are stiff enough to allow you to set the pads close for better modulation but you have to squeeze your levers so much more on these wheels than most others to build up the braking force needed to slow them that modulation really isn’t a consideration.
The AR41 braking is clearly a step down from the Assault’s performance which was average compared to other carbon wheelsets designed mid-decade. The braking performance gap is even larger between the AR41 and what we’ve become used to from textured and treated brake tracks on today’s more expensive, performance-carbon wheelsets, less expensive alloy upgrade ones and certainly the disc brake experience.
At 19mm internal and 27.5mm external, the AR41 rims are 2mm or so wider than Assault but aren’t any more comfortable. They aren’t harsh but they also aren’t comfy on long rides even if you run them tubeless and at reasonably low pressures in the 60-75psi range that Nate and I experimented with.
AR41 handling is slightly improved over the Assault. You get a confident, planted feeling likely due to the stiffer, wider platform. It isn’t on par, however, with the better, more expensive, performance-carbon all-around wheelsets. The AR41 also doesn’t get pushed around as much in the crosswinds as the Assault did but again, not as good on this dimension as the better, performance-carbon wheels.
There doesn’t seem to be any “free speed” coming from the AR41’s hub or rim profile to help you maintain your momentum going downhill or riding the flats at 20mph+. The freehub is also a little loud, something I don’t prefer but that some people like.
Design: I measured the AR41 at 1521 grams and 40.5mm deep. The rim is tubeless-ready, has a U-shaped profile and measured 19.0mm wide between the bead hooks (“internal” width) and 27.5mm at the brake track (external).
The Reynolds brand hubset has a 10-degree engagement rear freehub. The Sapim Sprint spokes are rounded and attach to brass nipples.
The AR 41x and other ARx series wheels sell for $250 more ($1550) and use the same rims, a lighter hubset with the same engagement, and bladed Sapim CX-Sprint spokes. The AR41x’s 1480g claimed weight is 65 grams less than the claimed weight of the AR41 tested here.
Quality: Reynolds has one of the best set of policies in the wheelset business. Despite what I wrote about their performance, would you like to test out the AR41 wheelset yourself before committing to them? If you live in the US or Canada, you’ve got 30 days to return them for a full refund and they’ll even pay for shipping if you decide it’s not for you.
While a 2-year warranty is standard for most companies, Reynolds gives the original owner a lifetime warranty, promising to replace or repair the wheelsets if any material or workmanship issues arise. The crash protection policy also lasts for the life of the wheelset. Regardless of how they were damaged, Reynolds will provide you a 50% discount on new wheels. You can also purchase an upgrade to assure your wheelset will be replaced at no cost no matter how it gets damaged.
We evaluated these wheels shortly before Reynolds was sold. All the policies mentioned above remain in place. Reynolds’ telephone tech support line, however, is no longer operating.
Price: Retailing for $1300, you can click on this link to top-ranked store Competitive Cyclist or this link to Know’s Shop to find and order the AR41 rim and disc brake wheelsets at the best prices from the best stores.
Roval C 38 Disc – Stiff but uncomfortable on the road and twitchy in cross breezes
Performance: The C 38 disc is made only for disc brake bikes but marketed for use on both paved and dirt or gravel surfaces. I review wheels for my fellow road cycling enthusiasts and evaluate wheels on paved roads, albeit some that are in such disrepair they seem little better than what a packed dirt path might feel like.
For Roval’s sake, I hope the C 38 does better on dirt and gravel surfaces than what I experienced on paved roads.
Despite its modern 21C/21mm internal rim width, I couldn’t find a tire pressure at which it rode comfortably. On smooth paved roads at 60 psi where I normally ride 25C tubeless tires the width of these (26.6 mm outside width), my 150lb body found the C 38’s comfort no more than acceptable. On chip-seal roads at pressures from 55 psi up to 75 psi, it was harsh to the point where I was backing off my speed to reduce the vibration.
The C 38 also got pushed around by steady 10 mph crosswinds. While it was disappointing that a 38mm depth wheelset would be affected so easily in these modest breezes, I was even more surprised at how twitchy and hard to control the wheelset was going downhill at 35mph in these crosswinds.
I did find the C 38 quite stiff and handled very well when on good paved surfaces. While there was no snap when I accelerated, they did respond on par with the deeper 45mm and 50mm wheels I’ve been testing in this comparison of value-carbon wheelsets, most of which are also not rubber burners.
While I shouldn’t expect much aero help at the depth of these Rovals, I actually felt I was working harder to maintain my speed while doing intervals in the 20 and 25mph range than other value-carbon wheelsets I’ve reviewed that are both deeper and heavier.
Roval likes to claim their performance-carbon CLX wheels are more aero than others of similar depth. I don’t know whether it is the C 38’s rim depth or profile, hubs (DT Swiss 350 is the only option) or weight (1608 grams measured), but it didn’t seem any faster or better at climbing than the deeper and heavier wheelsets from the other Integrated wheelset companies.
The Zipp Tangente Speed RT25 25C tubeless tires I’m using in all the value-carbon wheelset evaluations mounted easily on the C 38 rims. Once installed and inflated to the 80psi pressure I use as a benchmark, the tires measured 26.9mm wide, essentially the same width that I had previously measured for the external rim width. A 25C tire that measures slightly narrower then these rims might help its aero performance at >20mph speeds.
There’s no denying the C 38 comes at a good price from a company whose dealer network through parent Specialized offers great service and support. Despite all that goodness, its better-than-most stiffness and handling performance, these wheels weren’t fun to ride and held me back from going as hard as I normally like to.
At the end of the day, that’s what matters most to me.
Design: I measured the wheelset I tested at 1608 grams including the rim strips but not valves, slightly higher than Roval’s 1560 gram claimed weight. The difference is probably in the strips. The rims measured 38.0 mm deep, 21.3mm inside and 26.9 mm outside on the U shaped rim.
DT Swiss has been known to make complete stock wheels under the Roval brand name for parent Specialized’s bikes and may be making the C 38 as well. The wheels come with round DT Comp Race spokes, 24 both front and back attached by brass nipples and use a DT 350 hubset.
Quality: Roval provides a lifetime material and workmanship warranty to the original owner. If you buy the wheels from the original owner, Roval will still stand by them for 2 years from the original purchase. This is unique. I’ve not seen a “second owner” warranty offered by other wheelset sellers.
The 30-day return policy (new only or new and used) and crash replacement policy (“repair or replace for a fraction of a new wheel’s cost”) are less specific and probably provide discretion to the dealer to help keep the customer happy if there is an issue with the wheels.
Price: The C 38 Disc is the only carbon wheelset in Roval’s road wheelset line that sells in the value-carbon price range between $1000-$1500 ($1200 to be exact). Roval’s CLX 32, 50 and 64 sell for $2400-$2500 and the 50mm deep CL version with a lesser hub still sells for $1750. You can buy the C 38 and other Roval road wheels online direct from Roval or at bike shops that sell parent Specialized’s bikes and other gear.
Zipp 302 – A stiff, aero, confidently braking kin of the original 303 Firecrest
Performance: After riding the Zipp 302 rim brake wheelset on the range of course profiles, group and individual rides, hard and easier efforts, and at different speeds, it’s clear to see why Zipp started producing the 302 and moved forward to develop the NSW line.
The 302 is a younger brother of the original 303 Firecrest that for years was one of the better all-around carbon wheelsets. It uses the original 303 Firecrest rim without the golf ball-like dimples and a detuned version of the trouble-free Firecrest hubset that the company finally settled on during the 303 Firecrest’s long run.
The 302 retains the good braking of Firecrest rims, one of the better braking wheelsets of any of the carbon wheels regardless of price from the era before textured and treated brake tracks put carbon wheels nearly on par with alloy ones. They modulate nicely, there is no noise emitting from the brake tracks, and you decelerate confidently.
Their lateral stiffness provides for good and stable handling on fast descents and in the turns. While they don’t give you the “riding on rails” handling that some of the modern performance-carbon wheels do, Nate and I certainly felt confident about the 302’s handling in any challenging situation.
The Zipp 302 also feels quite aero, holding your momentum nicely in the 20-22mph range and managing crosswinds well for wheels with rims of mid-40mm depth.
Beyond 22mph on the fast flats where Nate usually rides (and I do for short periods of time), they require more work to keep going than what we’ve experienced with today’s better performance-carbon all-arounds with newer rim profiles. Wheels like the 303 NSW or Bontrager XXX 4 excel here and show the results of recent rim profile development.
Responsiveness is ok, nothing inspiring, but climbing is clearly one of the 302’s shortfalls. The stiffness helps transfer your power well when you are doing either of these things but the weight of these wheels likely offsets it.
The ride is decently smooth and comfortable though again suffers in comparison to more modern, wider and tubeless wheelsets with higher-end hubs. You can go tubeless or use tubes and clinchers with the 302, the latter which is still the preferred combination for most roadies but you really want to stay with 23C tires for the best aero performance due to their relatively narrow rims. Despite their good speed and crosswind performance I wrote about above, not being optimized for 25C tires is a non-starter for some riders today.
The 302 is an all-around that performs reasonably well on nearly all my criteria, a combination that’s hard to find at its price. It’s certainly not on par with today’s more expensive all-around performance-carbon bike wheels but the 302’s balanced performance makes it one to consider if your budget prevents you from going above its price.
Design: I wrote above about the 303 Firecrest origins of the 302. The set we tested measured 1705g (1645g claimed), 45mm deep, 16.3mm internal and between 25.8mm and 26.2mm external width along the angled brake track.
FYI, a 23C Conti Grand Prix 4000S tire measured 24.3mm wide, consistent with the 105% rim to tire width guideline for best aero performance. The 25C measured 26.7mm, slightly wider than the rim and likely to reduce your aero gains. If you go with the 25C, try to hold your aero position on the bike for longer to offset the wheelset losses :).
Zipp uses their own 76 and 176 front and rear hubs on these wheels and bladed, J-bend spokes. These are decent hubs free of quality problems Zipp had with hubs on the Firecrest wheelsets’ earlier years, but not on par performance-wise with the ones used in the current Firecrest or NSW lines.
There’s a new logo on the 2020 model. Otherwise, it’s the same as the one I rode and reviewed here.
Quality: Zipp provides a standard 2-year warranty for materials and workmanship. They leave it to their individual dealers to determine the return policy – how long you have and what refund or credit you get if you decide you don’t want to keep them.
The crash replacement policy also appears somewhat negotiable. They do offer what they call “discount factory repair” in the US for 5 years from purchase. They don’t specify the amount of the discount. I’d ask the store about this and get it in writing before you buy this wheelset.
Price: The Zipp 302 retails at USD$1500/£1369/€1530 but UK and EU residents can often find them market priced for less. You can click on these links to top-ranked stores Competitive Cyclist and Merlin Cycles or to Know’s Shop to find and order the 302 at the best prices from the best stores for both the rim and disc brake models. Due to the restrictions in their dealer agreements with Zipp, UK and EU online stores cannot sell Zipp wheelsets to US and Canadian residents.
Regionals use a similar selling approach as the Integrateds mostly using online stores and local bike shop dealers but also through sales from their web store. They sell a far smaller range and number of products than the Integrateds with wheelsets being their primary focus. Most also sell performance-carbon wheels as well as wheelsets for mountain biking, cross, and gravel segments.
These companies design their rims and some of the hubs used in their wheelsets. They own their rim molds but mostly have others do the production of their wheelsets.
As the name suggests, Regionals sell through dealers to cyclists in a specific geographic region. The Regionals selling value-carbon wheels I’ve identified – Profile Design and Rolf Prima – are focused on the US. They have distributors around the world but no dealers outside the US.
There are many EU and AU wheelset company Regionals but none I could find selling value-carbon wheels.
Rolf Prima Ares3 LS Disc – Light and stiff for the casual rider
Performance: The Rolf Prima Ares3 LS is a responsive wheelset that feels both light and stiff going down the road on a casual ride. It handles confidently and, set at the right pressure with the right tubeless tires, offers a comfortable if not plush ride.
While many >USD$2000, 50mm deep carbon wheels have figured out how easily manage the crosswinds, this isn’t the case for most value-carbon wheels of the same depth. I didn’t feel any crosswind effects on these Ares3 LS wheels, however, likely because of their relatively shallow 32mm depth rims.
When I turned up the speed on the flats, the wheelset didn’t offer any aero benefit or help maintain my momentum. And when I cranked up the power going uphill, the rims started to feel a little flexy with the rear rotor rubbing the caliper. I tried different calipers, tires, tire pressures, and rotors to find a combination that felt fast, stiff and comfortable above 20mph and 4watts/kg (about 275 watts for a 150lb/68kg rider) and just couldn’t get there.
I rode the disc brake version so I can’t comment on how the rim brake model performs in braking.
As with the other wheelsets in this review, I rode these tubeless though I had to divert from my benchmark Zipp Tangente Speed Road Tubeless tires with these wheels. The Zipp tire beads and the Ares3 LS bead hooks didn’t play well together and the combination wouldn’t hold air overnight or if I went for a ride immediately after inflating them.
No worries, the tubeless setup worked with the Continental Grand Prix 5000 TL, Hutchinson Fusion 5 Performance 11 Storm Road Tubeless, and Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless after a while. I have previously recommended all of these tires along with the Zipps for enthusiast riders.
If you aren’t a super-aggressive or powerful rider but enjoy cruising in both calm and windy conditions at a good price, the Rolf Prima Ares3 LS Disc wheelset would be one to consider.
Design: This disc brake wheelset measured 1633 grams without rim tape or valves, essentially the same as claimed by Rolf Prima. The U profile rims measured 19.0mm wide between the bead hooks, 26.4mm wide at the “brake track”, and about 26.8mm maximum across the rims.
25C road tires are well suited for the Ares3 LS rims. The Hutchinson Fusion 4 11Storm at my benchmark 80psi pressures measures essentially the same width (26.5mm) as the rim while the Continental Grand Prix 5000 TL (27.0mm) and Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless (28.0) run slightly wider. Since the rim depth is 32.0mm, these wheels aren’t intended to provide aero gains and the slightly wider tires don’t affect that equation but do offer good handling and rolling resistance.
The hubs are Rolf Prima design though it’s unclear who makes them or the mechanism inside the freehub. Rolf Prima’s paired spoke design used on these Ares3 LS wheels has separated the look of all their wheels for years. There are 24 bladed Sapix CX Speed spokes on the front and rear wheels, attaching to the hubs with J-bend ends and to the rims with external nipples.
Quality: Due to a miscommunication, my wheels came with rim strips intended for a tubed tire set up which I mistook for a tubeless rim strip. After pulling those out and taping them up, 3 of the 4 models of tires I noted above sealed up but took several days and rides before they didn’t lose 5-10psi overnight.
Across the wheels in this review, this set took the longest time to settle into “tubeless equilibrium”. Rolf’s service folks were very helpful but judging from the tubeless tape and valve stems the company sent me and the time it took for the wheels to adapt to tubeless tires and sealant, you might be better off going with a conventional tube and tire set up.
Price: Both the Ares3 LS rim and disc brake models sell for USD$1299 and can be ordered directly through this link to the Rolf Prima website.
Branders create equity or value by building their businesses around a name that customers come to recognize and equate to offering unique attributes and benefits to them. The value of these brands in the minds of cyclists allows the companies to successfully sell their products directly rather than needing the value a distributor and dealer network can bring promoting the company’s wheelsets through their own brand, sales, and marketing efforts.
The wheelset Branders I’ve found didn’t start with rim or hub expertise to design or engineer their own wheels. While some claim to have built that expertise, they still depend largely on their ability to source the design and manufacturing of their wheelsets and market their wheels to fill the needs they originally saw in the market and have built their brand around.
For most of the Branders of value-carbon wheelsets, an element of their brand has been built around the need in the market for lower-priced wheelsets, carbon or alloy. Beyond that, they have differentiated themselves from other branders by, for example, the suitability of their wheelsets to the road and weather conditions where they are based or their purported technical insights and event focus or the wide range of wheelsets and other components they sell.
Most of the branders including the FLO and Hunt wheels reviewed here have been offering carbon wheels only since 2016 and are selling their first or second-generation carbon hoops.
FLO and Hunt both use a pre-order model. They make batch orders from their suppliers and receive shipments about once a month. Unless they have stock of the wheelset you want leftover from their last shipment, you reserve your wheelset with an advance deposit or full payment and then have it shipped to you when the new batch arrives. Depending on demand and timing, that means you could get your wheelset shipped immediately or wait a month or two from when you order to when you are riding it.
FLO 60 – Pay no attention to the name; it may fool you
Performance: FLO wraps its brand around speed and, based on their marketing appears to target the triathlete as one of if not their primary customer segment. With that in mind, testing this 63.0 mm deep carbon value rim brake wheelset (thanks Mark L!) seemed to be a good way to see how well FLO’s product performance lived up to the brand image it tries to create and how it compares against equally deep performance-carbon wheelsets that we reviewed here.
Bottom line, the results of the test riding Nate and I did were not what I would have expected.
The FLO 60 is clearly a stiff wheelset. Nate called it the stiffest wheelset he has ever ridden, stiffer than performance-carbon aero wheels like the Bontrager XXX 6 and ENVE 5.6. We also found that it was very responsive, essentially on par with the ENVE 5.6. This was surprising for a wheelset of this depth and 1728 gram measured weight, but perhaps not when you consider how stiff it is. That stiffness translates your power very efficiently on a climb.
But wait! Isn’t this an aero, triathlon/TT wheelset or at least front wheel for a 60/90 wheelset combination? Accelerating and climbing aren’t what you do much of when you race those events.
Yes, you could also use the wheels for crits where you accelerate often so we’ll take that performance benefit. And there are plenty of time trials that include rollers so this wheelset’s climbing performance is another nice-to-have.
But how good are the FLO 60’s aerodynamics and its crosswind management? These are perhaps the two most important performance benefits triathletes and other speedy flatlanders want in their wheels.
Uh, not so good. Nate summarized it well when he said the FLO 60s didn’t perform consistent with their rim depth. “I didn’t feel the same exhilaration of flat-ground, momentum-sustaining performance as I did with the ENVE 5.6 or Bontrager XXX 6 or Zipp 404 NSW or even the [45mm deep] 303 NSWs.”
I too was non-plussed by their ability to hold speed. They seemed no better than the 45mm-50mm depth wheels I’d tested for this review and our performance-carbon all-around rim brake and disc brake wheel reviews.
They also didn’t manage the crosswinds nearly as well as modern performance-carbon rims of similar depth. Nate found the crosswinds noticeable but not problematic while riding the FLO 60. I found they didn’t respond in any consistent way and took some real mental energy to keep adjusting the front wheel to my chosen line.
Neither of us found the wheels very compliant. Nate called them “harsh”. My descriptor was “horrible.” Yes, we both prefer to ride our wheels tubeless and at lower pressures and the FLO 60 are only made for tubed tire clincher tires. The rims are certainly wide enough (18mm internal, 26mm external) to be comfortable on 25C tires.
Perhaps the hubs were part of the compliance underperformance. The hub-spoke-rim component system needs to work right in combination to get a wheelset that is both laterally stiff and vertically compliant. A lot of wheelsets have a hard time getting that combination right.
The hubs performed more like those on stock wheels and certainly not at the DT Swiss 240 level of many of the other value-carbon wheels in this comparative review. They didn’t roll as smoothly and the rear didn’t seem to have as many points of engagement.
Handling, likely because of the poor compliance and in spite of the great stiffness, was average at best. I didn’t feel terribly planted when cranking through a turn and coasting through one was not terribly stable.
The braking was decent though not refined and typical of better earlier generation carbon braking performance. Plenty of braking force, minimal noise and no squealing but not much modulation to be had. On or off.
If you do shorter TTs or races on hilly courses with good pavement, the FLO 60 would be a low-cost option to consider. Beyond that, you’ve got better choices available to you.
Design: Measured weight 1728g. Rim depth 63.0mm. Internal width 18.2mm. External width 26.0mm at the brake track and 26.6mm maximum. Essentially a V-shaped rim profile. Bladed Sapim CX-Ray spokes and a FLO VORTEX 2 hubset with EZO stainless bearings.
Quality: FLO provides standard 2-year materials and workmanship warranty. You can return unused wheels within 30 days if you decide not to keep them but you’ll pay for shipping and a 10% restocking fee to do so. There is no crash replacement policy.
Price: $1200 direct from FLO Cycling.
Hunt 50 Carbon Aero Disc – Buzz Overwhelms Performance
Performance: Hunt generates a great deal of buzz for its products and brand, seemingly as much as or more than some wheelset sellers many times Hunt’s size and experience. I bought these wheels looking to experience how they actually performed, separate from the buzz.
It turns out that you can’t separate the buzz from the performance. Unfortunately, it’s the freehub buzz rather than the marketing buzz that is inseparable from these wheels.
Simply stated, the freehub sound on the Hunt 50 Carbon Aero Disc is the loudest fellow tester Miles and I have ever heard from wheels we’ve tested or ridden alongside. Far louder than a Chris King or i9 that are known for their distinct and loud freehubs but nowhere near the refined sound from the multiple points of engagement those hubs offer.
The freehub is so loud that you can’t have a conversation with a friend while coasting on these wheels. I tried it. Could hardly hear a thing he (or I) was saying.
Miles, a fan of distinct sounding freehubs, wrote in his test report: “It was not quite a chainsaw, but it was close.” With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he added: “It was cool and will turn some heads, but I could have used a slightly quieter freewheel sound.”
My more practical concerns – 1) being able to communicate with fellow riders in a paceline and 2) wrecking the peace I so enjoy (and deserve) going downhill after a hard climb.
Aside from the freehub, the Hunt 50 Carbon Aero Disc performance is a prime example of what separates most value-carbon wheelsets from higher-priced performance-carbon ones.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the price. Rather, this wheelset lacks the comfort, stiffness, climbing, and handling qualities of performance-carbon wheels. It also underperforms other value-carbon wheels that have a strength in one or two areas that might align well with what you are looking for and cause you to overlook other weaknesses because you’re getting the wheels at a lower price.
Though it was not outstanding, the 50 Carbon Aero Disc wheelset’s aero performance was probably its strongest characteristic. They feel more like a 40mm deep wheelset with some sense that your momentum is being sustained but not to the level of a 45mm deep Zipp 302 or 50mm deep Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR Disc, both value-carbon wheels reviewed earlier in this post.
You also feel a little bit of push from crosswinds, though nothing to move you dramatically of your line.
For those of you that enjoy sprinting hard out of the saddle, Miles found these Hunt’s responded well and shot forward with purpose. Going uphill, however, they felt quite average to both of us and offered no help from their lateral stiffness or aerodynamics.
Design: The Hunt 50 Carbon Aero Disc rims measured 50.1 mm deep with 19.5mm internal and 26.5 mm external widths. The internal width I measured was considerably less than the 21.3mm width Hunt currently lists for these rims on their site. The external widths were the same as what is listed. It’s possible that Hunt changed the source or design (or both) of these wheels in the five months’ time between when I ordered and reviewed them.
The rims have more of a V than U shaped profile. My benchmark Zipp Tangente Speed RT25 tubeless tires set up about 0.5mm narrower than the rims at 80psi. The tires went on the rims easily using the rim bed’s deep center channel though I needed to use my compressor to inflate them.
Hunt uses bladed and butted Pillar spokes on these wheels, 20 in the front and 24 in the back. The hubs are Hunt branded Race Season Disc straight-pull with 7.5 degree engagement. Novatec has made hubs for Hunt in the past but I was unable to determine whether they make the ones on this wheelset.
With rim strips but no valves, the wheels weighed 1579 grams on my scale or about 90 grams more than the 1487 gram weight Hunt claims for this wheelset.
Quality: The wheels themselves appeared well made and had a very even matt black finish. They came with extra spokes and other spares in case you ever need to replace them.
The quality of Hunt’s service, while very polite and well-intentioned, gave me every indication that the company lacks established processes and financial controls in important customer service areas.
The set I ordered came damaged with the freehub having come through the box. It happens and was likely caused by the shipper or a customs handler rather than Hunt. The replacement set was shipped from the next monthly allotment unscathed and well packaged. Hunt initially charged my account to ship the damaged wheels back but refunded me after several requests.
Because I didn’t care for the wheelset’s performance, I decided to return them under Hunt’s 60-day tryout policy. It took me over 20 emails and several more exchanges with their online chat over a month’s time to get the wheels back and refunded.
Getting Hunt to respond to the return request, securing the shipping labels, scheduling the shipper, acknowledging the return, and then processing the refund each took at least 3 e-mail requests each from my end. (The refund process took many more than 3.)
There were 6 or 7 Hunt advisors that responded over that time with, at times, incomplete, incorrect, or contrary information, occasionally with multiple responses from different advisors and email domains to the same email from me.
Price: When I bought these wheels, they sold for USD$1079. At last check, they sell for USD$1039, £790 including shipping. They are available directly from Hunt’s online store.
Manufacturers are in business to fabricate and sell carbon products including rims, wheelsets, bike frames, and other cycling components. They sell wheelsets under their own brand names and also make them to order for lesser-known brands and wheel builders. Manufacturers are based in China and are not to be confused with the Taiwanese-based carbon frame and component OEMs that make exclusively for major bike brands.
Manufacturers sell wheelsets to individual cyclists direct from their company websites or through Amazon or eBay stores. Most give you the feel of being high-volume custom wheel builders by giving you the choice of a couple dozen or more of their carbon rims combined with a range of brand name hub and spoke options. While they ship hundreds and some over a thousand wheelsets a month, depending on what wheelset you want built, it takes them several weeks from order to receipt of your wheelset.
I don’t know whether any of the Manufacturers I identified have particular wheelset design skills or how much CFD (computational fluid dynamics), wind tunnel or in-the-field prototype testing, or other engineering they do. They don’t make claims about any of this.
Carbon manufacturing and wheelset assembly appear to be their primary focus and competence. Reverse engineering is a skill many manufacturers of all sorts of cycling and other industry products often have and that some of these Manufacturers may also possess.
Yoeleo SAT C50|50 DB PRO Clincher/Tubeless – Laterally compliant, vertically stiff
Performance: While most roadies like a laterally stiff wheelset that transfers power efficiently to the road that is also vertically compliant to help cushion imperfectly paved paths, I found the Yoeleo SAT C50|50 DB PRO underperformed the better value-carbon wheelsets on both measures.
As a lighter and therefore less powerful rider, I’ll typically have to work hard climbing and sprinting to notice stiffness differences. With this Yoeleo wheelset, I noticed it right away. Compared to a stiff wheelset like the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR reviewed elsewhere in this post, the SAT C50 felt imprecise pedaling up the first modest hill I hit within a mile of my house.
When I increased the tire pressure 10 psi, they rode a bit stiffer though they still weren’t stiff. And lowering the pressure the same amount didn’t really improve the comfort.
The handling did improve at higher pressure.
After many rides at different pressures and considering the tradeoffs, I ended up riding them about 5 psi higher than I normally ride. This seemed to get me the best performance balance between stiffness, comfort, and handling for these wheels. Unfortunately, the Yoeleos still underperformed on all three of these criteria.
Strangely, however, the balanced underperformance seemed easier to get used to over time than wheelsets that were good performers on one of these criteria, say stiffness, and subpar performers in others, for example, comfort.
While 50mm deep and with a good DT Swiss 240 hubset, the SAT C50 didn’t feel particularly fast or helpful in maintaining aero speeds. While weighing only 1459 grams, quite light for any road disc wheelset of this depth, they didn’t climb or accelerate markedly better than far heavier, stiffer wheels like the Bontrager.
Design: The Yoeleo SAT 50|50 DB PRO would seem to have all the specs to make it one of the better performing wheelset. My conclusion that it is a below-par performer further proves that you can’t go on specs in predicting how well a wheelset will ride out on the road.
My 50.2mm deep test wheels weighed 1459 grams which compares favorably to the claimed weight of 1518g. Unlike many lower-priced carbon wheels that use Toray T700 standard modulus fiber, Yoeleo uses the higher modulus, higher tensile strength Toray T800 intermediate modulus carbon fiber for these wheels. With all else being equal (rim wall thickness, spoke bracing angles, hub flange diameter, etc.), this should give the wheels a higher strength to weight ratio and make them stiffer than what I experienced. Clearly, something wasn’t equal.
The rims have a classic toroid profile even more pronounced than the Zipp 302 whose predecessor 303 was one of the originators of this shape. These Yoeleo wheels measure 26.0mm wide at the brake track and 27.7 mm at their widest point. The internal rim width between the bead hooks is a healthy 18.5mm, a bit narrower than the 19 and 21mm width you find in today’s widest rim and disc brake road wheelsets, respectively.
As with all the value-carbon wheelsets I could specify for this review, this SAT C50 had DT Swiss 240S hubs with Sapim CX-Ray straight-pull spokes.
Quality: Similar to most Manufacturers, Yoeleo’s quality policies are relatively limited. They do offer a 3-year warranty but only cover the shipping costs for the first 3 months should there be a problem. And remember, you’d need to ship the wheelset to China.
If you decide you don’t want the wheels after they first arrive, you have just 3 days to inform Yoeleo that you want to return them and here again, you pay for shipping. They offer no crash replacement policy.
My test wheels arrived true and looked well built. While I rode them less than 1,000 miles, I encountered no quality issues with them during that time.
Price: At the time I ordered these wheels (before the US tariffs on Chinese imports were put in place), they priced out at as specified at $1225. You buy them direct from Yoeleo.
Light Bicycle WR46C02
Performance: While the performance of these all-around disc brake wheels is a long way from $2000 and up models, the Light Bicycle WR46C02 wheelset with DT Swiss 240 hubs offer the most balanced performance of any in the sub $1500 value-carbon wheelset category.
That’s a qualified statement so let me break the performance down to its components and comparisons.
First, it’s not on par with stiffness, comfort, responsiveness, handling, and other key performance criteria of the better all-around carbon rim brake or all-around carbon disc brake wheelsets I’ve reviewed that will cost you $2000 or more. None of the wheelsets in this category are.
Yet, while some of the wheels in this category offer performance strengths (e.g. stiffness) relative to other value-carbon wheelsets only to be offset by comparable weaknesses (e.g. crosswind management), these Light Bicycle wheels impressed me and fellow tester Miles for doing most everything on our performance lists decently.
While not as stiff as say, the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 TLR Disc wheelset reviewed above or as aero as the Zipp 302 also written up above, these WR46C02 wheels are both adequately stiff and do help hold your momentum somewhat. Though not climbing wheels, they also go uphill reasonably well and certainly better than some of the heavyset hoops in this review.
While I haven’t found any of these value-carbon wheelsets to be in the same comfort ballpark as the performance-carbon ones, they were comfortable enough to run tubeless at the low end of my air pressure range to not wear me out when I did a 4-hour ride on them.
The handling was decent, the DT Swiss 240 hubs I speced the wheels with are relatively quiet and roll smoothly, and the rims managed the crosswinds predictably despite being an older V-shaped profile. Set up with my benchmark 25C Zipp Tangente Speed RT25 tires, they measured a mm narrower than the outside rim width which is good for aero performance.
In a flat out sprint, while not floppy, they did not feel super fast in a straight line. Instead, they seemed rather average among similarly priced wheels. While they are also made in a rim version, we weren’t able to test their braking performance since we rode the disc brake model.
It’s also worth noting that their subtle finish is attractive and the tires went on easily, sealed with only a track pump, and held air and sealant well.
Design: This wheelset tested weighed in at 1504 grams without rim strips or valve stems. Light Bicycle claims the rims weigh 435 grams though I was unable to verify that. They measured 21.3mm internal width and 28.3mm external. The rim has a classic V-shape profile and uses 28 CX-Ray J-bend spokes in the rear wheel, 24 in the front, both connected to external alloy nipples and the DT Swiss 240 hubs. You can have the wheels built with a list of more or less expensive hubs if you prefer.
Quality: The wheels looked well built and stayed true during our testing. While Light Bicycle states a 3-year warranty, the conditions of that warranty make it quite limited compared to others and don’t add up to the 3-years stated.
Light Bicycle gives you only 30 days from purchase to replace defective rims during which they pay the shipping costs. If the rim defect occurs after the first 30 days and up to 15 months, they’ll replace the rims but you have to pay for the shipping to/from their North American assembly center in Canada if you bought from there or from their Global center in China if you live outside of North America. Nothing is stated about what happens after 15 months.
If you have issues with the hubs or spokes, you need to go to the manufacturers of those parts to deal with those issues. Hub warranty terms are usually a year. There are no warranties on spokes.
Light Bicycle doesn’t warranty the workmanship surrounding the assembly of the wheels’ components. When I asked about that, they offered to write a one-year warranty on the invoice but claimed they have never had the need to provide this type of warranty.
Frankly, this warranty would make me uncomfortable buying wheels from Light Bicycle.
Light Bicycle will take care of wheels damaged in shipment as long as you refuse the shipment or make them aware of a shipment damage issue for ones that are dropped off within 10 days.
You’ve got 30 days to return unused, stock wheelsets for a refund. Non-stock orders can only be returned if there is an error made by Light Bicycle. There is a 10-25% discount on new wheels if you crash yours within an unspecified period.
Price: As specified, the WR46C02 wheelset runs $1267 if bought from their North American assembly center and $966 if purchased from their China location, not including shipping. If you live in North America, duties and taxes are already built into the price. If you don’t, those fees along with added shipping charges are added to the price. It will also take you longer to get them and cost you more should you need to return them under warranty. You can purchase them directly on the Light Bicycle website.
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First published on June 2, 2019. Date of the most recent major update shown at the top of the post.