A Closer Look: Are Carbon Wheels The Best Upgrade You Can Make?

A Closer Look: Are Carbon Wheels The Best Upgrade You Can Make?

As cyclists, we’re always looking for the next upgrade to make our bikes look and ride better. While you could choose a power meter to help you train more effectively or some fresh new finishing kit, a set of carbon wheels will always undoubtedly be one of the best upgrades you can make to your bike.   

Woman riding Reynolds carbon wheels

Promising to make your bike faster and lighter than before, carbon wheels are an excellent choice for racing and general road riding. However, being reasonably expensive and less robust than alloy wheels, they certainly still have drawbacks. Thankfully, we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll be meticulously unpacking the advantages and disadvantages of carbon wheels so you can weigh up your options effectively when making your next upgrade.  

First, we’ll look at the advantages.

They’re more aerodynamic. Owing to its relatively low density, manufacturers can manipulate carbon fibre into the most aerodynamic rim profile possible without incurring a huge weight penalty, as would be the case on an alloy rim of the same shape and size. As a result, many carbon wheels (like those below) come with a deeper rim to stabilise airflow, making them ideal for road racing, time trialling and triathlons on flat terrain.   

Secondly, carbon wheels are lighter. Thanks to the relatively low density, carbon wheels will be immeasurably lighter than alloy wheels of a similar size. Although we hasten to point out that there are a wide variety of factors at play when it comes to the weight of your wheels, you can generally expect a 300-gram weight saving on an alloy wheelset of a similar depth. Certainly not a saving to be sniffed at. As a result, carbon hoops are an excellent choice for climbing and are generally more responsive out on the roads and trails.   

Two cyclists riding up a hill with carbon wheels

Anyone who says they don’t care about how their bike looks is lying. Modifying your bike and making it look as good as possible is half the fun of being a cyclist – we think anyway, and a fresh set of carbon hoops is a great way to do that. Indeed, there’s nothing better than a high-end road bike sporting a pair of deep carbon wheels with a stealthy set of graphics.   

So, while there are certainly a few excellent reasons to treat yourself to a new set of carbon hoops, like with anything, there are a few key drawbacks.   

Now, let’s consider the shortfalls.

Unfortunately, carbon wheels tend to be significantly more expensive than alloy wheels due to the materials used and manufacturing processes required. While there are a few bargains out there, and you should be able to find a pair of carbon wheels for around $1000 (like those below), it’s easy to pay double, even triple that for a premium carbon wheelset.   

Despite such astronomic cost, carbon wheels have a habit of being somewhat brittle and lack durability. Notably, if you hit a particularly nasty pothole when riding a set, they won’t dent – like an alloy wheel will – they’ll crack. As a result, if you damage your wheelset when you’re out and about, you won’t be able to ride back home. Safely, that is. As a slight consolation, many carbon wheels come with a crash replacement policy to cover against the worst-case scenario.   

Reynolds carbon wheels

Carbon wheels also have a reputation of suffering from poor braking, but this depends on the conditions and only applies to rim-brake compatible wheels. Nonetheless, without the ability to dissipate heat build up on the rim, the first generation of rim brake carbon wheels could fail under prolonged braking.  Similarly, it can take a while for your brakes to bite in wet conditions, which makes stopping suddenly tricky. While both of these problems have gotten better with modern design techniques and the advent of disc brakes, we’d probably stick to alloy hoops when roaring down alpine passes and riding in the rain.   

So, should you buy carbon wheels?

Well, it all depends. If you value durability and braking performance above all else, then we’d stick with alloy wheels which are robust and economical. However, if you want to boost performance beyond all recognition out on the roads and trails, then a carbon wheelset could be the best next upgrade. Thankfully, we stock a huge range of bike wheels, so you should always be able to find the perfect pair.

Writer and expert