Where to Start
Now you may not actually race or you might be regionally ranked in your class, but regardless of how good you are, your equipment might be holding you back. That is one of the real drawbacks to a sport like cycling, with good bikes starting around $2000 and quality wheelsets at $500, the money adds up quick.
But I think we can all agree there is nothing really quite like riding your bike and there is a reason why we have all sunk some good money into it. A new wheelset is one of the tried and true ways to immediately upgrade your performance. It just depends on how good you really want to be.
Factory wheelsets are just not as good and everyone seems to know it. Manufacturers save money on the wheelsets by often offering alloy wheelsets even on full carbon bikes. This is likely because it keeps bikes priced right around $2000 affordable for their given market instead of bumping it up to $3000 and making them unattainable for several buyers.
For example the lowest model Cannondale Super Six evo is priced at $2199 and the next price level up with a carbon wheelset is priced at $5699. It does come with several other upgrades as well, but that is a great deal higher just to get a factory carbon wheelset, wouldn’t you agree?
The Colnago C-RS Ultegra is the entry level carbon frame from Colnago and it is priced right around $3200 US. And you wouldn’t believe it but it comes stock with a $136.99 alloy wheelset. That is absolutely ridiculous.
Now it is up to the seller what options they want to include and how they want to price it. The mark up on carbon wheels versus the cost of production is also a lot higher because you are essentially buying performance.
In the two instances mentioned above those wheelsets are perfectly fine and actually preferred for training which is where you are going to put most of your miles in anyway, but you can’t expect to outperform your carbon friends on a heavy boxy wheelset that cuts through air like a brick wall. If you have read my other posts you know that carbon is more aerodynamic and often lighter than aluminum. Rotational weight (how a heavier wheel rotates versus a lighter one) isn’t as important as the aerodynamics at least so far as the engineers know right now. However, overall bike weight is extremely important. Maybe your friends are actually outperforming you because of all those donuts and beer you love, losing 5 lbs in your gut is the same as losing 5 lbs on your bike; the less weight you have to carry up a hill the better.
Upgrade your Wheelset, Upgrade your Performance!
However I think most people/riders/trainers would consider upgrading the wheelset to be the most important upgrade that should either subtly or dramatically improve your performance without much real effort initially.
Paying for an advantage is something you can do in cycling but eventually this might lead to a plateau if you are not also improving your training and planning.
Carbon wheels come in a few different designs. For flatter smoother courses you might try a full carbon dish or aerospoke design. These have huge carbon blades or are themselves a carbon dish. You can imagine how much the wind will push you around if there are any cross drafts.
If you are going to be racing regular roads with various imperfections then perhaps a deep dish carbon rim on a solid hub is a better fit. On the bigger end, rims start at 60mm deep and go to around 19mm on the shallower end.
They each have their own advantages with 60mm being the most aerodynamic but adding weight and crosswind hazards for lighter riders. The 19mm wheels are much lighter but not as aerodynamic or comfortable. Bigger dished rims are going to dampen more road vibrations and be stiffer under applied forces like cornering at speed.
Whether or not you’ll be able to notice those things is entirely up to you. But most riders immediately notice the difference in responsiveness and comfort of their carbon wheels versus their alloy training wheels.
In the early days of carbon (like any new material) there were several problems especially when weather was added to the equation. Brakes didn’t stick, or they would stick too much and the friction would cause too much heat.
Manufacturers have made some solid advances even within the last five years. They experimented with different materials and bonding agents for the carbon fiber and came up with some solutions that work pretty well. However, the biggest advances have been in road disc brakes.
Flat mount and screw on discs are becoming very popular on a new class of bike called “all road”. With a little bit wider tire clearance and slack geometry these bikes are super comfortable over long distances.
And the carbon rim with disc brake combination is the best of both worlds. Light, responsive, dampening, and amazing stopping power; it won’t be too long before even UCI events are allowing disc brakes.
The shimano rs11 Clincher set runs at $141 roughly and is considered a decent alloy wheelset. It weighs in at over 1800g (no surprise) but is surprisingly aerodynamic and makes for a great training set. They can fit up to 11 spd cassettes and roll smoothly for the price.
By comparison the Shimano Ultegra WH 6800 set is closer $350 and around 1600g. The extra money gets you the weight savings, tubeless compatibility and bladed spokes. The hubs roll marginally smoother and don’t need to be adjusted ever.
For those of us who can’t afford the minimal carbon setups this looks like a pretty good alternative. You will just have to train harder to account for the extra weight and aerodynamics.
If you add the carbon ferring to the last shimano wheelset, you get the shimano WH R9100 C40. Priced at $1349 these are dramatically more expensive just for the carbon. It comes in right at 1500g and has balanced spoke lacing and titanium hum for smoother rolling and extra rigidity.
There are more perks than just being more aerodynamic and lighter with the deeper carbon rim. These wheels will flex less and roll faster. That is what you are paying for. Those two factors alone will elevate your performance.
Just to put things in perspective I wanted to list the most expensive combo on the site. The Zipp 454 uses biomimetic technology to simultaneously cut air and reduce cross drag.
It has a patented rim sidewall pattern that redirects cross air flow to reduce the drag on the wheel. It sports silicon braking surface technology to bring you a stop in the worst conditions as well. The set weighs in at 1525g which is not the lightest on the site but at $4521.
Every racer is racing with carbon. It is really that simple. If you are looking to better your performance in one fell swoop; upgrade your factory wheelset.