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Should you buy carbon fibre wheels? What are they best for?

Are carbon fibre wheels a good choice? We look at the pros and cons of composite hoops

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
Hunt 54 Aerodynamicist Carbon Disc Wheelset-2

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. Reliability is much improved and clever coatings on the brake track mean rim-brake carbon wheels actually stop in the wet now. With the rise of disc brakes you can swerve that whole issue of course.

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 results in a very heavy wheel; back in the early 2000s, for example, Campagnolo offered Shamal wheels with 38mm rims that weighed 1,950g. 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. 

However, the rise of disc brakes has made this yesterday's problem, provided of course you have a disc-brake-equipped bike. Without a brake track, rims can be made a little lighter too.

2022 Zipp 454 NSW Carbon Tubeless Disc-brake wheelset - rim 1.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 Novatec Jetfly SL wheels we tested in 2019 weighed just 1,335g yet can be found for as little as £450, cheaper than any carbon fibre wheels we're aware of. 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 take a look at the prices being asked by the big online retailers and you'll find plenty for well under one thousand pound mark and even some for less than £600. Yes, that’s still a lot more than most pairs 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.

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37 comments

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IanMSpencer | 2 years ago
1 like

With the near universal acceptance of disc brakes and a change in thinking on tyre width with a dash of tubeless, wheel rim design for road bikes is evolving.

Carbon wheels are much easier to design and manufacture as disc so the price difference has come down a lot.

Weight in a wheel does make a significant difference to climbing, even for a relatively slow rider where aero is less of a consideration.

We recently had a demonstration of the strength of a carbon wheel. A friend was at a junction, and a taxi had misjudged his emergence. He decide to reverse back, and didn't here mateycs shouts and reversed onto his front wheel. The taxi trapped the wheel and the number wrapped round the wheel. The wheel suffered no damage (straight on hit), the taxi's rear bumper was destroyed.

Anyway, having tried an adequate ALU rim and carbon rim on same bike with same tyre where the alu rim was similar price point of around £600 (as a branded bike replacement) the difference was readily detectable.

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philsinclair | 2 years ago
1 like

My bitter experience with carbon fibre Fulcrums, descending at high speed in the Alps with rim brakes, I burnt through the side wall of my rear tyre at over 70 kph. A few weeks later the front one delaminated on another descent. I threw them in the bin and bought some Easton rim break alu aero wheels. My good experience, I have Campag Bora discs on a new bike and love them. Carbon good for discs. Rubbish for rims. As an aside I have Dura-Ace 9200 rim brakes on those (alu rim) Eastons, they are pretty dam good.

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BobK | 2 years ago
0 likes

A generic & correct answer to any "Should you buy this expensive piece of cycling equipment?" question is "If you have to ask, then you should not buy it (unless you are super rich and want to impress your cycling buddies)". When you became good enough to need it and spot the difference, you will know.

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Pilot Pete | 4 years ago
2 likes

This is a pretty ancient article that is really out of date. Disc brakes are now here and are the perfect match for carbon rims. Some manufacturers are only supplying disc brakes road bikes now. No questionable braking in the wet, or cooking them in the dry as the last poster has shown us can still be an issue. Rim can be slightly lighter if no brake track is required and they can be wider and run wider tyres as they will not be limited by a caliper brake. Most of your downsides with that combination are negated. As for weight, unless you are going straight uphill out of your door and doing constant hills for the whole ride, then weight has been shown to come second to aero. And deeper section aero rims are certainly more aero than any box section alloy rim. When I swapped to them, on average my rides were 1mph faster for similar effort. The aero benefit is huge, no matter what the claims of the manufacturer. Why do TT bikes have a deep section front and a disc rear? Pretty obvious really.

In my experience, handbuilt wheels with carbon rims, bullet proof hubs like Hope and strong spokes, with a sensible spoke count (28 rather than 20 or less) have absolutely transformed my bikes for well under £1000 a pair. They are bombproof, serviceable, aero, and in the case of my 50mm deep set, certainly not heavy feeling when climbing. And you can discuss with a wheelbuilder what you want exactly - I was fed up of stock wheels with 20/24 spoke counts flexing when climbing, so wanted really strong wheels. My builder made suggestions and we worked together to get exactly what I wanted rather than guess and buy stock wheels with great reviews in cycling mags (because they get paid by the company for advertising!) And the added benefit of a trusted wheelbuilder? They tend to look after you - I get free collection and delivery when I ask my builder to give them a tweak (true and retension) and as I've had a number of sets built by him he doesn't even charge me for the tweaking. Now that's service, hence why I go back again and again and pass his details to all my mates.

I've hit a fair few potholes and never have any of the rims suffered damage. And an aluminium rim would normally splay rather than just go out of true hitting a pothole, so it would be toast if that happened, no different to a carbon rim if it cracked. I've suffered that fate in the past with aluminium rims. Another aspect regarding durability is that carbon rims don't corrode. Every aluminium rim I've ever ridden in winter has corroded, especially around spoke holes etc. No such issue with carbon. And there is no weld or sleeve joint to fail either.

As for instability in strong winds, well if you ride in windy conditions and you are really lightweight, buy lower profile rims! It's a non argument really, it would be the same issue with a deep section aluminium rim, but of course they don't make those because of the weight! I have 50mm rims and don't feel this is an issue, but I'm not 65kg. I have deeper section rims on my aero bike, but I wouldn't ride them on really windy days, up in the hills, I'd swap wheels or just jump on the other bike.

Well, that's my take anyhow.

PP

 

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Rapha Nadal replied to Pilot Pete | 4 years ago
0 likes

Which carbon rims are you using with the higher spoke count?

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Compact Corned Beef replied to Pilot Pete | 4 years ago
0 likes

And if you don't mind naming your wheel builder, that'd be grand. The combination of deeper rims/higher spoke count sounds pretty much ideal.

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hutch1972 replied to Compact Corned Beef | 3 years ago
2 likes

I wouldn't ask.. If he's sending them back for retensioning and truing there not that brilliant.. Im 80kg and ride 20/ 24h can't recall ever having a retention/ true apart from some straight pulls I built without lynseed and the non drive side came loose.

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tuljava | 4 years ago
0 likes

I am an owner of S-works Tarmac SL6 with Roval CLX50 wheels. One wheel got damaged during a steep descent after cumulative 3k km in 6 months of usage and I weigh around 65kg. It was a dangerous situation too, because I lost breaking power. Specialized took 2,5 months to respond to my guarantee claim and then rejected it with no clear explanation, but explicitly saying that the reason for the damage is not known. Do not believe their warranty or guarantee and mostly not what Specialized/Roval spokesmen wrote in response to Alto test saying that 'they’re able to handle a wide variety of real-world scenarios one might encounter'. My case is a proof that it is just the opposite. To top all that European Consumer Centres (ECC) warned Specialized authorized dealer to respect my lawful consumer right and they responded with a lawyer who threatened me and ECC to pay for his intervention to represent them, which was of course unjustified and nobody paid anything. They leave no other option but a lawsuit, which most people cannot afford.

Here is a photo of breaking surface of CLX50.

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hawkinspeter replied to tuljava | 4 years ago
3 likes

tuljava wrote:

I am an owner of S-works Tarmac SL6 with Roval CLX50 wheels. One wheel got damaged during a steep descent after cumulative 3k km in 6 months of usage and I weigh around 65kg. It was a dangerous situation too, because I lost breaking power. Specialized took 2,5 months to respond to my guarantee claim and then rejected it with no clear explanation, but explicitly saying that the reason for the damage is not known. Do not believe their warranty or guarantee and mostly not what Specialized/Roval spokesmen wrote in response to Alto test saying that 'they’re able to handle a wide variety of real-world scenarios one might encounter'. My case is a proof that it is just the opposite. To top all that European Consumer Centres (ECC) warned Specialized authorized dealer to respect my lawful consumer right and they responded with a lawyer who threatened me and ECC to pay for his intervention to represent them, which was of course unjustified and nobody paid anything. They leave no other option but a lawsuit, which most people cannot afford.

Here is a photo of breaking surface of CLX50.

If you're in the UK, it doesn't cost much to pursue them through the small claims court and I think that covers claims up to £10,000.

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Grahamd replied to hawkinspeter | 4 years ago
2 likes

hawkinspeter wrote:

tuljava wrote:

I am an owner of S-works Tarmac SL6 with Roval CLX50 wheels. One wheel got damaged during a steep descent after cumulative 3k km in 6 months of usage and I weigh around 65kg. It was a dangerous situation too, because I lost breaking power. Specialized took 2,5 months to respond to my guarantee claim and then rejected it with no clear explanation, but explicitly saying that the reason for the damage is not known. Do not believe their warranty or guarantee and mostly not what Specialized/Roval spokesmen wrote in response to Alto test saying that 'they’re able to handle a wide variety of real-world scenarios one might encounter'. My case is a proof that it is just the opposite. To top all that European Consumer Centres (ECC) warned Specialized authorized dealer to respect my lawful consumer right and they responded with a lawyer who threatened me and ECC to pay for his intervention to represent them, which was of course unjustified and nobody paid anything. They leave no other option but a lawsuit, which most people cannot afford.

Here is a photo of breaking surface of CLX50.

If you're in the UK, it doesn't cost much to pursue them through the small claims court and I think that covers claims up to £10,000.

Correct, the fees are tiered, for example for claims up to £1,000 the fee is £60, up to £1,500 the fee is £70.

 

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Dhill replied to tuljava | 3 years ago
1 like

I returned a Cervelo a few years ago, seat post clamp bolt got stuck. Couple of weeks later new frame and latest model to boot. Sorry to hear of your poor experience. My was was not all good as had to sell bike to pay a bill.

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CXR94Di2 | 4 years ago
1 like

I only buy the £249 60mm carbon wheels off ebay. Work just as well, throw away when they break after smashing a pothole- you will hit a pothole!

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maviczap replied to CXR94Di2 | 4 years ago
1 like
CXR94Di2 wrote:

I only buy the £249 60mm carbon wheels off ebay. Work just as well, throw away when they break after smashing a pothole- you will hit a pothole!

Link please?

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Barraob1 replied to CXR94Di2 | 4 years ago
0 likes
CXR94Di2 wrote:

I only buy the £249 60mm carbon wheels off ebay. Work just as well, throw away when they break after smashing a pothole- you will hit a pothole!

.

Any chance of a link saw some from a seller with 100% feedback, but I still have the fear...

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flobble | 5 years ago
1 like

Alternatively, choose wheels like HED or some Mavics with traditional alloy outer rim with a lightweight carbon fairing,

Spokes go all the way to the edge for rigidity

Alloy braking surface is the same as traditional wheels

Carbon fairing gives the aerodynamic performance.

Oh and they're cheaper too  1

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Vlad the Impailer replied to flobble | 4 years ago
0 likes

flobble wrote:

Alternatively, choose wheels like HED or some Mavics with traditional alloy outer rim with a lightweight carbon fairing,

Spokes go all the way to the edge for rigidity

Alloy braking surface is the same as traditional wheels

Carbon fairing gives the aerodynamic performance.

Oh and they're cheaper too  1

 

I'm selling my HED Jet's along with the Trek Madone their attached to if anyone wants it  2

I just brought a great set of very lightweight Roval CLX 50's in a sale for less than £1400.   At 1375 grammes they are light and there is hardley any flex at all and i'm 93kg's

 

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Mungecrundle | 5 years ago
3 likes

Carbon fibre is easily formed into smooth, organic shapes, and as the article states, carbon fibre, being light, can be used to create the deep sections required for aerodynamicicicity with a reasonable weight penalty.

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fixit | 5 years ago
0 likes

ok, all good, but how the hell a material can improove aerodynamics?? it is the airfoil shape that induces aerodynamic drag and lift and not the material. Mr Arthur, do you have any idea what are you talking about??

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David Arthur @d... replied to fixit | 5 years ago
3 likes

tsarouxaz wrote:

ok, all good, but how the hell a material can improove aerodynamics?? it is the airfoil shape that induces aerodynamic drag and lift and not the material. Mr Arthur, do you have any idea what are you talking about??

The point is that carbon fibre lets you use a deep section profile without the weight penalty you would undoubtedly get if you used aluminium

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PRSboy replied to fixit | 5 years ago
4 likes

tsarouxaz wrote:

ok, all good, but how the hell a material can improove aerodynamics?? it is the airfoil shape that induces aerodynamic drag and lift and not the material. Mr Arthur, do you have any idea what are you talking about??

The point is that complex rim profiles and surfaces are achievable in carbon that are not achievable in alu.  Also, deeper and wider section in alu would be heavier than carbon for a like for like strength.

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Barraob1 replied to fixit | 4 years ago
0 likes
fixit wrote:

ok, all good, but how the hell a material can improove aerodynamics?? it is the airfoil shape that induces aerodynamic drag and lift and not the material. Mr Arthur, do you have any idea what are you talking about??

I think it's to do with keeping the air flow intact for as long as possible, I've also seen the "sail effect" mentioned.

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Hub_Gears | 7 years ago
15 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!

 

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a1white replied to Hub_Gears | 5 years ago
1 like

Hub_Gears wrote:

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!

 

Good points. Reading up online, it appears Carbon fibre is a pretty difficult material to recycle. Quite glad I have a steel framed bike with aluminium rims.

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Griff500 replied to a1white | 5 years ago
5 likes

a1white wrote:

Hub_Gears wrote:

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!

 

Good points. Reading up online, it appears Carbon fibre is a pretty difficult material to recycle. Quite glad I have a steel framed bike with aluminium rims.

Some gross oversimplification here, and in choosing landfill, you have not chosen the best battle to fight. In terms of landfill alone, the steel industry is not itself guilt free, and despite attemps to reduce its solid waste problem, steel production does still produce solid waste. However landfill is only the tip of the carbon fibre iceberg! Carbon fibre takes around 14x as much energy to produce as steel.  There are loads of papers and studies around comparing the environmental impact of the two products and as always these vary according to who did the study and what assumptions were made, but all point the same way. Taking typical numbers from a study carried out by the Welsh Composites Centre, carbon fibre production produces around 25 times much CO2 and has 30 times the overall environmental impact as steel, per kg produced. Although in many applications less carbon fibre is required by weight, the results are still pretty damning. Note also that in relation to aluminium, carbon is assessed as being 7x more environmentally harmful.  

It is interesting that the WCC study used above set out to identify environmental benefits and impact, the benefits appear to be very limited, citing areas such as aircraft production (a steel airliner would be pretty inefficient) wind turbine blades, and in some applications, better thermal insulating properties.

With regard to recycling of carbon fibre, this is on the increase, but is estimated currently at only about 20% of that produced. The recycling process itself is also energy intensive. 

Having said that, I love my carbon bike, but have no intention of fitting carbon wheels. 

 

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Chris Hayes replied to Griff500 | 4 years ago
0 likes

I guess carbon wheels have come on a bit since this article was written 4 years ago.  

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Sriracha replied to Griff500 | 2 years ago
0 likes
Griff500 wrote:

In terms of landfill alone, the steel industry is not itself guilt free, and despite attemps to reduce its solid waste problem, steel production does still produce solid waste.

Presumably that is one more point in favour of recycling steel?

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tritecommentbot | 7 years ago
0 likes

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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Mungecrundle | 8 years ago
5 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.

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Crazyhorse replied to Mungecrundle | 3 years ago
0 likes

TBF, descending English Bicknor Hill in the wet is a special thrill on any wheelset! Memorable going up the bugger too... 

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robthehungrymonkey | 8 years ago
0 likes

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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