How do you like to ride? Do you like to just eat up miles by yourself; or just get stuck cranking in the Peloton? Do you just ride to work or to the next town over every weekend with your riding buddies?
When you are ready to commit to getting better for your own sake or for the sake of your competition, you will have to admit that riding a carbon wheelset, although very expensive, is going to help you get better. Maybe not infinitely better but definitely measurably better.
It will be more comfortable and faster than any alloy wheel you ride. Do not let the price deter you as although it is a lot, engineers and designers are making carbon wheels that are stronger and last longer than ever before. At any level it really should be something that riders consider seriously.
After interviewing a few friends, colleagues, and even some amateurs in the college racing scene, I am here to inform you that yes, every single one of them said carbon is faster, more responsive, and better in every way compared to alloy rims.
But why? In the interest of performing at the top of your ability sometimes, in a sport like cycling where you are only as good as the equipment you use, there is always room for improvement.
We must trust the engineers and industrial designers to provide us with the equipment that will help us reach the pinnacles of our own performance. Plus if you drop $2000 it’s not like you’re just going to let it sit in your garage while you get fat on the couch.
Carbon is better over alloy for these reasons; less flex, more aerodynamic and generally lighter even though aluminum is becoming more highly engineered still. Let’s unpack each of those features with a little more information.
Most likely as an amateur rider you aren’t too terribly concerned with riding the Vuelta a Espana but you do want to get a little faster, and carbon can help you do that. Even if you don’t want to get faster, think about the benefits of comfort that carbon can provide.
Carbon is Lighter
Let’s start with weight; this is perhaps the easiest truth about carbon wheels to understand. The general principle being that the lighter you are the faster you will go or perhaps the easier it will be to maintain a higher speed for a longer period of time. Seems like a pretty solid principle to hang your hat on for a few reasons. It mostly applies to climbing; ie the less weight you have to carry up a hill with you, the easier it should be.
Now whether or not you are carrying the weight in your wheelset vs. on your frame is a different question entirely as rotational weight is a very hard thing to test, but for all respective purposes lighter is still better. Try it yourself, ride a 15 lbs bike up a hill then after ride a 20 lbs bike up the same hill and you will certainly feel the difference.
Also, lighter wheels seem to be more responsive to the rider and easier to maneuver while riding. One thousand grams will not give you an overwhelming advantage but I think you will notice a little more comfort and control in your ride.
Carbon is More Aerodynamic
Now let’s get into aerodynamics. Because of the way carbon rims are constructed, engineers can get a little more creative in this department. Carbon rims are made either by first lacing carbon strips into effective weight supporting lattice patterns and then heat treated with a resin bonding agent to form hard carbon shapes. Or the resin is added to a carbon composite and then molded into shape similar to 3D printing with a hot steel mold or press.
These processes make it far easier to construct unique aerodynamic shapes as opposed to aluminum which can really only be pushed through steel dies to create the shape of the rim. In the past this made aluminum clinchers more reliable because the entire rim was one solid shape as opposed to older carbon rims where the peak (clincher part) of the rim was added after the original shape of the rim was molded.
There was always this concerning that friction from braking would heat up the epoxy or resin, it would evaporate, and then the carbon lattices would just come undone, or blow up etc. That doesn’t happen anymore. With new materials being used in braking surfaces and brake construction, friction heat is very easily managed.
Carbon Provides a Smoother, More Rigid Ride
Now let’s talk about flex. Flex is how much the rim moves from side to side on a horizontal axis, and how much the rim moves up and down on a vertical axis. While a properly tensed wheel can support some pretty heavy bikes and riders it will still flex on these axis under normal riding conditions.
Mainly in cornering and during flat out assaults riders can produce some amazing power and torque. Cornering and turning under speed will cause side to side flex while speed and uphill assaults will cause up and down flex.
The beauty of carbon is that it reduces flex compared to aluminum while still absorbing road vibration. That coupled with it already being a lighter construction material, engineers can work with more spokes and rigid lacing patterns so that it can outperform aluminum in any circumstance. Every major tour winner for a long time has won using carbon. The only drawback is cost.
Carbon and Alloy Wheels on the Market
Let’s take a look at some of the best wheels on the market along with some of the more reasonable sets to give you a good idea of how you can start to improve your performance.
First a set of alloy wheels for price and weight comparisons:
The Miche Excite is one of the most painfully average wheelsets, super heavy, but also can support a lot of weight. It comes in at over 2100 grams and the hubs roll smooth but not excellent. It costs about $74E or around $130.00 American dollars depending on where you find it.
A little better on the weight scale and perhaps a little smoother ride is the Shimano RS11. At 2000 grams this is still a solid set that will support a lot of weight. It retains high lateral rigidity due to different rim heights on the top and bottom, and at around $180 at most per set depending on the bearings these are slightly more expensive and better quality.
And finally, the Campagnolo Khamsin is actually a pretty quality wheelset in that it can match the weight reduction of carbon but maybe not the responsiveness or rigidity. It weighs only 1740g and has balanced tension of spokes all the way around. At $230 it is slightly more but not too bad in comparison to some of the carbon sets we will look at.
For carbon, the market for decent wheels starts around $500 per set, maybe a little cheaper for no name sets from china but from I have heard the quality control isn’t always as good and the wheels can potentially have defects. The Mavic CXR Carbon 60mm weigh in at 1800g but with 60mm carbon blades it cuts the air unlike the shallower rims on the list. Super rigid and responsive, they are around $1300 for the set.
Next up is the Shimano Carbon series with blades at 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm. They come with the Dura Ace 9000 hub, with optibal bearings and titanium freehub body. The braking surfaces are aluminum for solid stopping power. They cost around $1500 American dollars.
I think the lightest set on icebike.org is the Mavic Ksyrium. At around 1225g they are super responsive, aerodynamic and rigid. The disc wheelset is probably also the most expensive at $2200 American dollars. Now if you have that kind of money to spend I can guarantee better performance on you current bike setup. However for the lighter riders you might want to consider cross drafts when looking into deeper rims.
To recap, will carbon rims make the average rider better? Yes, just by virtue of being lighter. Are there other ways to save weight; of course. Tubular or tubeless tires will save you weight. Carbon bottle cages, Kevlar cables, carbon stems, seatposts, and bars.
All of these things will save you weight but they may not improve the feel and responsiveness of the bike may not change as much as if you were to replace the wheelset.
It is also important to consider that many nice road bikes will come stock with not such a great wheelset, but most likely will come stock with decent other components just due to relative costs. Just something to consider as you look for what you like best.