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Do you really need carbon fibre wheels on your bicycle? We explore the pros and cons

Do you need carbon fibre wheels? Wheels make a huge difference to how a bike rides and feels, and carbon fibre wheels have become very popular in the last decade. But are they just for professional bike racers?

All the pros race on carbon fibre wheels these days, and they’ve even replaced the traditional aluminium wheels for races like Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders, the last outpost for aluminium rims in the professional racing world. It's a long time since the Tour de France was won on an aluminium wheelset.

- Buyer's Guide to road bike wheels, plus eight of the best
[New wheelset] ENVE Smart 3.4 SES Clincher with Chris King R45 hubs

[New wheelset] ENVE Smart 3.4 SES Clincher with Chris King R45 hubs

They’re popular outside of the professional circuit, though, with more amateur racers and sportive cyclists making the upgrade. That has been helped by growing choice and a lot more affordable options in the past few years. Manufacturers have ironed out most of the problems that afflicted early carbon fibre wheels, with failures much less common and braking performance vastly improved.

With carbon fibre wheels a desirable upgrade, we look at the pros and cons.

Pros: Aero, lightweight and cool looks

Aerodynamic benefits. The biggest appeal of upgrading to a carbon fibre wheel is the aerodynamic advantage over a box section aluminium rim. There is plenty of wind tunnel data (if you want to believe it) from the leading manufacturers showing that carbon wheels reduce drag significantly. If you’re racing, whether against the clock in a time trial, or in a road race, carbon deep section wheels will make a noticeable difference at higher speeds.

- Reynolds aero expert Paul Lew talks wheel dynamics

Lightweight. Building a deep section rim in aluminium would result in a very heavy wheel. Carbon is simply much lighter and is the reason it's the material of choice for aero wheels. The lightest carbon fibre wheels have tubular rims, and can be exceptionally light: Lightweight does a set that are 940g for the pair! If you’re a climber and want your bike to be as light as possible, carbon fibre tubulars are the way to go, provided you’re happy to glue your tyres to the rims. The stiffness to weight ratio is also better than aluminium wheels.

Ride quality and performance. Good carbon fibre wheels can transform the ride of a bike. Stiffness is greater than an aluminium wheelset so for powerful riders, sprinting and out-of-the-saddle climbing, this attribute can make a clear difference to how the bike feels, with a more responsive nature. Some carbon fibre wheels also provide a smoother ride over rough road surfaces as well.

They look cool. Don't underestimate how important this is. You’ve got to admit, there’s just something undeniably appealing about the way a sleek road bike looks when rolling on a pair of deep section carbon wheels. While many might not admit it, many invest in carbon wheels mainly because of the appearance.

Cons: Braking, expensive and durability

Braking performance. Or lack of. Early carbon fibre wheels were pretty dire when it came to stopping, but manufacturers have engineered their way out of those early problems. Much of the problem had to do with heat buildup. A problem for early carbon wheels, great improvements have been made with managing heat, from the type of resins and carbon-specific brake blocks used. The latest carbon fibre wheels now offer a big improvement in braking performance compared to those early designs. Still, a good aluminium rim provides better performance, especially in the rain. Aluminium deals with braking heat well, carbon doesn't so well. 

The rise of disc brakes is beginning to make this yesterday's problem. Without a brake track, rims can be made a little lighter too.

Reynolds_Aero_46_Disc_Clincher_Wheelset.jpg

Reynolds_Aero_46_Disc_Clincher_Wheelset.jpg

Weight. While carbon fibre tubular wheels might appeal to weight weenies, the fact is that the cheaper and more common carbon fibre clinchers are typically the same weight, or heavier, than a good quality aluminium wheelset. If you want the lightest wheels on a budget, then aluminium is still the way to go. The Spada Stiletto wheels road.cc tested weigh just 1,290g yet cost £700, cheaper than most carbon fibre wheels. However, you do have to factor in the aerodynamic benefits of a carbon rim over an aluminium rim when comparing the weight. 

Real-world aerodynamics. Manufacturers make impressive claims for the aerodynamic efficiency of carbon fibre wheels, but how that translates into the real-world with a vast range of conditions is questionable. Factors such as tyre size, frame design and wind conditions make a big impact on any claimed drag savings. Another important factor is that deep carbon rims can be very unstable in strong crosswinds, especially for lighter riders. Shallower section carbon rims (30mm) have become popular for that very reason.

Durability. Carbon is fantastically strong stuff and carbon fibre wheels can be impressively durable. They don’t bend, though, unlike aluminium, which means they can be prone to damage from sharp impacts or crashes when they’re subject to loads they’re not designed to cope with. While a bent aluminium rim can be straightened, enough to get you home, it’s not the same with a carbon rim, which will most likely be a write-off. That’s why it’s always worth buying a wheel with a decent crash replacement policy.

They’re expensive. Carbon wheels ain’t cheap. They have got a lot more affordable in recent years, however: just look at wiggle’s new £600 Cosine wheels as an example of how affordable carbon wheels have become. That’s still a lot more than a pair of traditional aluminium wheels and you can still pay £2k+ for a set of the most advanced aero carbon wheels from the likes of Enve and Zipp.

Conclusion

So, carbon fibre wheels are clearly very popular these days, with more choice and lower prices than ever before, but there are clear pros and cons. If you’re racing and can afford them, carbon fibre wheels are easy to justify, but if you’re not racing and value durability, braking performance and affordability, there’s still life in traditional aluminium wheels yet.

David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.

10 comments

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Vegita8 [50 posts] 2 years ago
2 likes

Probably the best choice is some carbon rims with aluminium braking surface such as shimano c50. No need to change breakpads when changing wheelsets.

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Batchy [386 posts] 2 years ago
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Vegita8 wrote:

Probably the best choice is some carbon rims with aluminium braking surface such as shimano c50. No need to change breakpads when changing wheelsets.

Of course you could go the whole hog and upgrade to discs. Let's see £1000 for half decent carb wheels a new frameset plus discs say £1500  = £2500. Personally I think that I'll stick to my Kysium Elites and SwissStop pads and spend more on cake !

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hampstead_bandit [614 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

"Stiffness is greater than an aluminium wheelset so for powerful riders, sprinting and out-of-the-saddle climbing, this attribute can make a clear difference to how the bike feels, with a more responsive nature"

I disagree with this point. All of the deeper section carbon fibre wheels (several top end brands) I have ridden have been noticeably more flexible under power than a good set of low profile aluminium alloy rim wheels?

You can grab the tire of a rear Zipp 404 wheel and literally flex the wheel from side to side against the brake blocks using just firm hand pressure. None of my aluminium alloy clinchers exhibit this trait. 

I really enjoy the aero advantages of deeper section carbon fibre wheels on flatter ground when riding 35-40 km/h+, but for climbing the constant brake block swish is irritating and they don't have the same precise tracking when descending and braking hard. 

easily the best deeper section wheel I have ridden for better lateral rigidity and all round weather performance due to aluminium alloy brake track is Shimano C50. As used by many professional riders  3

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robthehungrymonkey [173 posts] 2 years ago
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It seems that top end carbon wheels are great, but the lower/mid end seem to be carbon for the sake of it. The weights don't seem to be any lower than a decent alloy wheel, but a lot more expensive. 

I've bought two wheelsets this year, some aero swisside wheels and a winter hunt wheelset. Both sets seems to be pretty light in comparison to much more expensive carbon, and a hell of a lot cheaper. Very happy with both.

If money was no object, i'd probably be riding Enve though...

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Mungecrundle [866 posts] 2 years ago
3 likes

In my opinion, disc brakes are probably the best thing to have happened as far as carbon fibre wheels are concerned. Braking has always been their achilles heel. You had to compromise by incorporating a special braking surface, be it an aluminium rim or a textured / treated surface and / or require special brake block compounds. I well remember the terror of descending English Bicknor Hill in the wet on a set of HED trispokes; no noticeable retardation of progress, brake blocks visibly disintegrating before my eyes, all accompanied by the soul sickening, wallet wrenching noise of road grit turning to grinding paste against my beautiful carbon rims, at least the water may have helped with heat dissipation!

By moving to a disc setup it is generally accepted that you get better braking, period. By removing the need to have a braking surface at the rim with all the associated drawbacks, it can be redesigned to focus on the requirements of aerodynamic shape, stiffness and light weight. All attributes that carbon fibre is exceptionally good at fulfilling. Opt for the tubular tyre route and the weight savings are even more impressive as the rim no longer needs to be designed to hold a tyre bead in place.

Still expensive, but getting cheaper and will become more affordable as they become more mainstream. 2016 could be the start of a golden age for carbon wheels with scope for innovation and an enabling technology (disc brakes) that will expand the market considerably.

Having said all the above, I'll freely admit that my number 1 personal reason for buying some aero carbon rims is because they look fecking awesome on my bike.

Avatar
mzz [1 post] 1 year ago
0 likes
hampstead_bandit wrote:

You can grab the tire of a rear Zipp 404 wheel and literally flex the wheel from side to side against the brake blocks using just firm hand pressure. None of my aluminium alloy clinchers exhibit this trait. 

This is true, I also had Zipp 404 FC and it was crap...  but the issue were the hubs.

Because I also tryed chinese carbon wheels 50mm with premium hubs and those wheels didn't bend at all.

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tritecommentbot [2268 posts] 1 year ago
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By the way, if anyone wants to buy a new set of those Reynolds in the picture (Strikes 62mm) give me a shout. They're the new version, tubeless ready. Came with a bike but want to sell on.

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number9dream [38 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
mzz wrote:
hampstead_bandit wrote:

You can grab the tire of a rear Zipp 404 wheel and literally flex the wheel from side to side against the brake blocks using just firm hand pressure. None of my aluminium alloy clinchers exhibit this trait. 

This is true, I also had Zipp 404 FC and it was crap...  but the issue were the hubs.

Because I also tryed chinese carbon wheels 50mm with premium hubs and those wheels didn't bend at all.

 

I second this point. My 202s were horribly flexy climbing out of the saddle and caused constant brake rub, replaced the 177 hubs with Tune and never had any flex issues at all. Not cheap mind.

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Rapha Nadal [638 posts] 9 months ago
0 likes

hampstead_bandit wrote:

"Stiffness is greater than an aluminium wheelset so for powerful riders, sprinting and out-of-the-saddle climbing, this attribute can make a clear difference to how the bike feels, with a more responsive nature"

I disagree with this point. All of the deeper section carbon fibre wheels (several top end brands) I have ridden have been noticeably more flexible under power than a good set of low profile aluminium alloy rim wheels?

You can grab the tire of a rear Zipp 404 wheel and literally flex the wheel from side to side against the brake blocks using just firm hand pressure. None of my aluminium alloy clinchers exhibit this trait. 

And in turn, I'd have to diasgree with your point on stiffness! At 93kg, I can get things to move without too much trouble but my Roval's don't move at all when I'm out of the saddle and i can run my back brake pretty close to the rim.  My Kysriums on my winter bike flex as did my older Campag Bora 35's.

However, I'd agree with your point on the Zipps - they just seem really poorly made!

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Hub_Gears [4 posts] 9 months ago
2 likes

Like carbon frames, an extremely important point is always overlooked - end of life.

Carbon frames and rims are not recyclable like steel frames and aluminium rims.

If you are in any way environmentally conscious (and you probably are a little bit, given the cycling you do instead of driving everywhere, e.g. reduced carbon emissions) then it's quite difficult to justify carbon.

I've had a carbon bike and realised when it cracked after 4 years that it was destined for landfill. No recycling options existed (Australia). Trek does have limited recycling options in USA, but it's not very common and the resultant product is not as strong/useful.

I've reverted back to high-end steel frames and alloy rims. I ride Dura-Ace and all up my bikes are under 9kg.

6.8kg UCI weight is not important enough to me to justify the pollution & waste products of riding carbon. I just make sure I'm 2 kilograms lighter than the next bloke on the climb, it negates the weight-weenie-difference!