If this were a fashion magazine, here's where we’d be describing a set of carbon wheels as a statement purchase. There was a time when even the pros held them back for summer party season. Now they’re everywhere, from the commute to winter training rides.
Partly because disc brakes have allowed them to both last longer and actually be brought to a stop, partly because they’ve dropped in price, they’re now a viable choice for pretty much any situation. Also, life is just too short to ride crap wheels.
About the only thing you can buy to make up for your own shortcomings, their improved stiffness, aerodynamics, and weight flatter everyone from ProTour racers down to anyone making even the smallest effort on the bike.
Enve Foundation Collection
£1,850, Shop Enve
The equivalent of an entry-level Faberge egg. Enve’s budget wheelset will still cost the best part of two-thousand pounds. Available in either 45 or 65mm deep versions, their broad, tubeless design is intended to work best with wider 25c-plus tyres.
With a hookless design and the promise of increased impact resistance, they’re the definition of a modern racing wheelset. Feature-wise, they include a ratchet-drive hub, plus American-made rims that contain internal nipples which pass through holes around which the fibres themselves are moulded. So what don’t you get?
First, you miss out on the Smart ENVE System, which sees the rim depth increased slightly on the rear wheel. Also changing the geometry to better match the rims to either a leading or trailing position, it’s a great feature, but one that if you consider the physics involved is only ever going to make a small difference. Hubs also now come from Enve themselves rather than Chris King.
Retained is the five-year warranty, plus Enve’s Lifetime Incident Protection which means if you write-off your wheels, either in a crash or because you’ve reversed the car over them, the brand will repair or replace them. It’s certainly a nice thing to know as you go shoulder to shoulder into a sharp corner.
Scribe Aero Wide
£870, Shop Scribe
The headline specs on Scribe’s wheels would appear to give many more well-known brands a run for their money. Not only are weight and stiffness comparable, but the company arrived on the scene with a range replete with the latest design trends.
Being wide, gently curved, and tubeless-ready, they’re spot on when it comes to matching most riders’ requirements. With rims designed to the widely used National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics aerofoil shape, their 30mm external width means these work perfectly with tyres up to and around 30c.
With a ramped rim bed, this makes getting your tyres into place less stressful, while the traditional hooked bead lock design ensures excellent security, especially at lower pressures. Available in a range of depths from 32 to 60mm, some of the deeper options also come in asymmetrical front and rear combinations to balance aerodynamics and stability.
Built with Sapim CX-Ray spokes, the nipples for these sit outside the rim. Giving this area of the wheel a slightly more traditional look, it will nevertheless make the work of home mechanics easier, letting them leave tyres in place while attempting adjustments.
DT Swiss ARC 1100 DICUT 50
£2,199, Shop DT Swiss
Your knees are almost certain to give out before a well-maintained set of DT Swiss hubs will need replacing. The heart of many a World Tour racer’s wheelset, the brand’s latest line of complete builds adds broader and better-featured rims to the equation too. Its ARC 1100 DICUT range covers 50, 62, and 80mm depths and is aimed squarely at riders wanting to go as fast as possible. Featuring the brand’s latest 180 ratchet hub design, only Chris King punches in the same category when it comes to pick-up speed and durability.
Coming in disc brake or calliper varieties, each rim features similar key stats. With an internal width of 20mm and an exterior of 26.5mm, they may not be up there with the very widest, but this doesn’t seem to have harmed them when it comes to holding their speed. Ditto the weight. While it’s just about possible to find wheels a tad lighter, we’d struggle to name a pair we’d have as much confidence in as those made by DT. Now fully future-proof, the DT Swiss ARC 1100 DICUT range arrives ready to go tubeless and comes fitted with SINC ceramic bearings to reinforce the idea that you’ll be saving every watt possible.
Zipp 454 NSW
£1,965 (rear), £1,605 (front), Shop Zipp
Sawing through the air like a breadknife through a particularly tenacious hunk of sourdough might not be how most brands describe their wheels, but its how we’re going to describe Zipp’s.
The alternative is to go with the brand’s own explanation of how its radical ABLC Sawtooth technology works, which runs like this; ‘Zipp’s Sawtooth design consists of twelve nodes clocked to start aerodynamic shearing at a rate of 50hz at a rider speed of 20mph. Inducing small sheet vortices that shed at a low magnitude, but at a higher natural frequency, this decreases the laminar bubble effect on the shielded side of the rim, further reducing high yaw drag and improving crosswind stability’.
Basically, it would appear Zipp has some top people working on these things. Varying in depth between 53 and 58mm-deep, their rims have been taken from the pro peloton and converted into a user-friendly tubeless-ready version. Looking beyond their startling profile, at the heart of the 454s are Zipp’s Cognition DB hubs. With an axial clutch technology, this disengages the freehub’s ratcheting mechanism when coasting to drastically reduce the mechanical drag.
Roval Rapide CLX
£2,200, Shop Roval
Fast enough for Julian and Peter, almost certainly fast enough for you. Roval is the wheel component arm of Specialized bikes. A company with its own fleet of very slippery bikes and its own wind tunnel, unsurprisingly they’ve decided to depart from the traditional blueprint.
Primarily, rather than reproducing the same rim at both ends, the CLX range uses distinct profiles front and pack. At the front, you get an extremely broad 35mm rim with a 51mm depth. At the back where stability is less of a concern, the depth is increased to 60mm while the width drops down to 30mm.
The idea is that the front effectively breaks through the wind without compromising on steering torque while the rear is optimised to take up the following position. A medium 21mm width internally, they’ll suit modern size tyres, while at around 1,400-grams they're light too.
Also created by roval, the hub flanges have been whittle down to be as aerodynamic as possible. However, more noticeable to those without a lab to calculate the benefits will be their DT internals. Using the brand’s ratcheting EXP freehub, this is incredibly efficient while also allowing for tool-free disassembly.
Hunt 48 Limitless Aero Disc
£1,299, Shop Hunt Limitless
Having started in Sussex, Hunt wheels are soon to be ridden around the world by Team Qhubeka ASSOS. Powered by the minds of co-founder Peter Marchment and his father John, between them this father and son team have serious expertise when playing with carbon fibre, having worked in Formula One and gained a Masters Degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University respectively. Assisted by Luisa Grappone, whose previous experience includes working in aerospace alongside stints at 3T and Campagnolo, the trio are already making some pretty radical claims. Foremost among them, that they’ve created the world’s quickest wheelset in the shape of their 48 Limitless Aero Disc. And how have they managed this?
Following the latest in aerodynamic thinking, rims have been getting wider. Most designers now agree that a wider rim produces the most aerodynamic profile. However, even with the trend for wider tyres, there comes a point beyond which it’s not practical to expand. Hunt’s trick has been to sever the relationship between internal and external rim width. Allowing a 25 or 28c tyre to be run on its huge 35mm rims, the Limitless’ design uses a low-density polymer to build out the side of the rim while maintaining a widely compatible 22.5mm internal width. Certainly, they look like nothing else on the market. Resulting in a 1,618g wheelset possessing rims that are 48mm deep and 35mm wide, Hunt says it’s got the wind tunnel data to prove they’re the fastest you can buy.
€1,399 Shop Ere
Dutch brand Ere Research was founded by a group of designers who between them had accumulated stints at brands including Trek, Specialized, Colnago, Pinarello, Shimano, and Sram. Available in three depths its Genus wheels are designed to provide race-level performance, at a price that will appeal if you’re still only negotiating with a sponsor to pay for your kit.
Built around straight pull hubs these contain tough Japanese EZO bearings. Laced via 24 spokes to tough carbon rims, with an internal width of 19mm they accommodate tyres up to 36c. Meaning they’re suitable for gravel use, and aerodynamically optimised for tyres between 26 to 30c.
Available in 30, 45, and 65mm variants, the middle of these options seems the best choice for balancing aerodynamics and weight with the need to navigate changing air currents. With a claimed weight of 1,600 grams, they’re not giving away much to wheels twice the price. Driven by a four-pawl ratchet system, there hubs can also be bought separately for anyone with the wherewithal to construct their own set.
Mavic Cosmic SLR 45
£1,649, Shop Mavic
After being placed into receivership last year, it looked as if Mavic might have sunk right up to the axles. However, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the brand has found a new and more secure owner, and unveiled an entirely new 2021 range.
The flagship of the new range, at least as far as clinchers go, is the new Mavic Cosmic SLR disc, which comes in 32mm, 45mm and 65mm rim depths. Naturally, as the goldilocks principle stipulates, our recommendation would be the 45mm for a balance of aerodynamics, weight and stability in the wind.
The wheels use fore-technology carbon rims with a fully sealed inner rim bridge which does away with the need for tape and cuts rotating weight. At the same time, the load spreading design of the rim’s integrated spoke insert allows the spokes to be directly screwed into the rim, in a design Mavic claims is slightly lighter yet twice as strong. The internal width is a trendy 19mm, which is plenty wide to equip some wider gravel-ready tyres – should you be off-road inclined.
An added benefit is that if you happen to be a pro, you'll enjoy ample compatibility with Mavic's neutral service wheelsets.
£6,599, Shop Lightweight
Occasionally narking team Ineos’ listed wheel sponsors by making unannounced appearances on the team’s bikes, German firm Lightweight make wheels that more than live up to their name. Minimalist in mass and also very expensive, at 1.2 kg a pair, they’re about as light as you can get. Yet available for disc brakes and wide tubeless rims, they’re not nearly so Spartan when it comes to features.
They’re not just for hill climbs, either. At 48mm deep, they’re as ideal an everyday wheel as you’ll find for a little under seven grand.
Appealing to engineering fans, their construction is also pretty unique. With flat carbon spokes, these run uninterrupted from one side of the rim to the other. Bonded as they cross both the carbon hub flanges and each other, this design drastically cuts down on the number of parts involved. At the same time, it should make the Obermayers stiffer than heavier alternatives.
Taking care of pushing you forward, a DT Swiss 180 EXP ratchet mechanism provides the drive and freewheel functions. Named after company founder Heinz Obermayer, they’re handcrafted in Germany and start at £6,599 for the pair. You can read more on their design here.
Fulcrum Speed CMPTZN DB
£2,599, Shop Fulcrum
Rolling along the road significantly more easily than their name rolls off the tongue, Fulcrum’s CMPTZN line has extended to makeover the brand’s Speed wheels. Available in 40 or 55mm deep versions, this refresh sees the bearings and aesthetics getting an overhaul.
They’re now so smooth if you were to spin these in the vacuum of space, you’d almost certainly be able to watch the entire universe succumb to entropy death before they ceased rotating. However, back on earth, you’d also be able to enjoy a promised saving of 3.5 watts per pedal stroke thanks partly to their oil-lubricated CULT ceramic bearings.
Looking like you’d need a permit to possess them in a public place, with black logos over raw carbon, not only does this look cool, it’s also lighter than a more conventional finish. Unlike some other brands, Fulcrum hasn’t gone massively wide on its predominantly unidirectional carbon fibre rims.
Still, with an internal width of 19mm they’ll play nicely with broad tyres, while they’ll also work well set-up tubeless or with traditional inner tubes. Despite being fabulously high-tech they still also have conventional external nipples, which unlike my existing wheels, means they haven’t yet made my wheel truing skills totally redundant.