Carbon Bike Wheels: Do They Make a Real Difference?

The type of wheel you have on your bike can make all the difference in the way it rides and feels. You’ll see many professional racers use carbon fiber bicycle wheels, which are beginning to become popular outside of the professional racing world. 

Do carbon bike wheels make a real difference? Yes, carbon bike wheels make a noticeable difference in speed and performance. Their lightness allows for increased speed that provides a smoother ride. However, if you are not planning on going above 20mph, carbon wheels will not make much of a change in performance.  

When riding, you want to have wheels that feel good underneath you, ride smoothly, and are lightweight. However, you also want them to match what you need for your riding style. Spending extra money to have a tire that doesn’t match your riding needs can lead to money wasted. Here is what you should know.

Do Carbon Bike Wheels Make a Difference?

Many professionals have made the switch to carbon bike wheels, and they are becoming more and more popular for amateur racers and sports cyclists. But why are people making the switch?

There are many pros to sports cyclists using carbon bike wheels:

  • Lightweight – Traditional wheels are made out of aluminum, which is very hefty. Carbon wheels weigh less and can be made with tubular rims that make them even lighter. 
  • Performance quality – They can provide a smoother ride over rough surfaces and provide stiffness for sprinting and out-of-saddle climbing.
  • Aesthetics – Carbon wheels are very pleasing to the eye, which is a reason why many people choose them. 
  • Speed – The lightweight, aerodynamic wheels allow for higher riding speeds. 
  • Comfortable – People who have used carbon wheels have stated that they make their bike rides more comfortable.

When it comes to performance quality and speed, carbon bike wheels do make a positive difference. 

Cons of Carbon Bike Wheels

Carbon bike wheels look cool and are so lightweight that they can improve performance quality. But there are some disadvantages to these wheels, such as:

  • Price – Carbon bike wheels are far more expensive than the standard wheel. They have gotten more affordable throughout the years, but they are still pricey.  
  • Braking – Because of heat buildup, braking with carbon wheels has been a common issue. Manufacturers have worked on improving this problem, but there are still some faults, especially in rainy weather.
  • Durability – Carbon wheels are prone to damages when they are subject to conditions they are not designed to cope with. 
  • Heat resistance – Because of the heat buildup during braking, the resin that makes up the wheel begins to lose its stiffness. This is a problem for riders who have long descents.  

Carbon Vs. Aluminum

Aluminum and carbon wheels have several differences between them. These differences are important considerations when deciding if you should stick with the standard aluminum wheel or make the upgrade to carbon. 

Carbon wheels are seen as light, durable, and stiff, while aluminum wheels are seen as sturdy and durable. Depending on what type of terrain the rider is on, some people like to switch between the two.

Weight

Weight is the primary difference between carbon and aluminum wheels and the most considerable importance when choosing between the two. The wheels of a bike are rotating weight that increases inertia. The more rotating weight there is, the more the rider has to pedal to overcome it. 

The heavier the weight of the wheel is, the more energy the rider will have to exert to pedal. When the rider is doing lots of climbing and accelerating, they can benefit from a lightweight wheel that’ll be easier to pedal. 

Riders who have made the switch from aluminum wheels to carbon have noticed a significant difference in their speed performance. 

Stiffness

When it comes to carbon wheels, engineers can manipulate the fibers to improve the wheel’s stiffness. Carbon wheels tend to be stiffer than aluminum wheels because it is more durable than metals. 

However, wheels that are too stiff can cause there to be less traction and make the ride more uncomfortable. This happens more often on off-road terrain, where traction over stiffness is more important. The flex that aluminum wheels provide helps to absorb any bumps. 

Carbon wheels tend to be the better choice for pavement rides, and aluminum wheels work better for off-road trails. However, new carbon wheels are being designed to have more vertical compliance while remaining laterally stiff while on rough terrain. 

Durability 

The durability of wheels is also a deciding factor between carbon and aluminum wheels. Cyclists have concerns about carbon wheels not being durable. Most of these problems occur when the bike is being used on rough terrain where hard debris hit the wheel. This is with mountain biking, cyclocross riding, and gravel riding. 

That is why carbon wheels are more suited for paved road riding. Carbon wheels rarely get damaged on paved roads, and if aluminum wheels become a little damaged, they are usually still usable. Also, if an aluminum wheel becomes completely totaled, it is much cheaper to replace.      

When it comes to durability, you should choose a wheel that you can afford to replace. Because carbon wheels are more expensive, you may want to opt for aluminum if you can not pay to have them replaced. You can also ride only on smooth pavement to avoid damages. 

Braking

One of the biggest problems people face with carbon wheels is their braking performance. Riders who have made the switch from aluminum wheels to carbon have stated that the braking response of carbon wheels is slower. 

They have also shared that when riding in bad weather, the braking ability worsens, and the brakes become damaged easily. Aluminum wheels are more comfortable and smoother to brake with. Some riders say that they eventually get used to the carbon brakes, and it becomes easier to control. 

When braking with carbon wheels becomes an issue, some factors are usually in play:

  • Carbon wheels not being paired with carbon brake pads – Regular brake pads can be rough on carbon wheels. 
  • A poor braking technique – Typically from over braking. Over braking usually occurs when someone is going downhill and becomes afraid. 
  • The carbon brake pads are worn out, which is more noticeable going downhill.
  • The carbon pads are not correctly installed – This can cause too much friction and lead to them being rubbed unevenly.

The Anatomy of Carbon Wheels

Carbon bike wheels are made out of layers of carbon that are glued together with resin. Several different parts make up carbon bike wheels; all play an essential role in how the wheels function and improve performance.

The following parts make up carbon wheels:

  • Rim – The rim is what holds the tire and where the spokes are inserted. You want the rims to be stiff to help the function of each pedal stroke reach the tire and road and not deflate the tire. 
  • Hubs – The hub is connected to your bike frame by an axel and wheel rim connected by spokes. 
  • Hub bearings – The bearings are designed to help lower friction between the hub shell and the axel.
  • Ceramic bearings – Ceramic bearings can help lower rolling resistance; this allows for faster speed.
  • Spokes – These are the thin metal wires that hold the hubs to the rims. Their purpose is to support your weight, transfer power from hub to the rim and tire, and reinforce the rim. 
  • Spoke nipples – These attach the spokes to the rims and can lower or raise the tension in the spoke. Some carbon wheels are designed to have the spoke nipples hidden, which helps make them more aerodynamic.    
  • Wheel braking system (rim or disc) – Rim brakes use friction against the rim to slow you down while disc brakes are connected to the hub. 

Rim Categories

Standard aluminum rims have a box shape, while carbon rims have several styles and designs – typically shallow (40C), mid (55C), and deep (86C)

  • Shallow – Lightest size rim you can get, suitable if you climb many hills. Provide less of an aerodynamic advantage. 
  • Mid – Light enough to climb with and aerodynamic enough for fast speeds on flats. Less susceptible to wind. This is a rim size you’ll want if you want to ride everything at faster speeds. 
  • Deep – These rims are more substantial and stiffer, making them best for flat roads and maintaining speeds. Should be avoided during windy weather. 

Tire Types

There are three types of tires – tubeless, clincher, and tubular. The type of tire you choose will determine what kind of rim you will need.

  • Clincher – This is the cheapest option and is the most common tire and easy to fit. It is also the heaviest type of tire. It is made with a bead that clinches onto the hook of the rim. 
  • Tubeless – This tire creates a tight bond between the tire and rim, making it so you don’t need a tube. These tires need a special rim to make sure they will not lose that tight bond. A benefit of these is that they are harder to get flats, which allows you to have a lower tire pressure. Lower pressure can increase your grip and provide more comfort. 
  • Tubular – Tubular tires require a rim with no hook and are the lightest type of tire. This makes tubular tires best for climbing hills and accelerating. They are set up by gluing or taping the tube to the rim, which can be a messy process. Tubular wheels can not be used with clincher or tubeless tires. 

Braking Systems

Carbon wheels can have two types of braking systems, rim or disc braking. The rim braking system is the one that people struggle with the most when it comes to braking performance and damages. This is because friction is used against the rim to slow down the wheels. This friction builds up heat and can damage the resins that make up the wheels, and the wheels begin to lose their stiffness. 

Rim brakes are a common choice because they are easy to assemble and are lighter than disc brakes. However, they will slowly eat away at your rims and eventually lose their braking power. Therefore, disc brakes may be a better choice.

Disc brakes are bolted to the hub and allow for the wheels to slow down by a caliper clamping them. Even though these are harder to assemble, they will give you the best braking power, even under adverse weather conditions. 

One downfall of disc brakes is that they are heavier than rim brakes but won’t cause your rims to be eaten away. The pros outweigh the cons in this situation.

There are also two versions of disc brakes you can choose from:

  • Hydraulic – Have their caliper controlled by oil pressure
  • Mechanical – Have there caliper controlled by a cable  

Riding Style

When deciding if you should make the switch to carbon wheels, it depends on your riding style. Carbon wheels are shown to be beneficial for riders who want to go over 20mph. So if you are riding typically under 20mph, you don’t need the extra advantage of speed with carbon wheels. 

At average speeds, carbon wheels don’t seem to make a difference in the rider’s performance. So, the price of these wheels can be seen as an expense disadvantage. But if you have a desire to ride fast and would like to see your riding times improve, carbon wheels can help with that.  

Depending on what you want to accomplish, the type of carbon wheel you choose matters.

  • For climbing hills, you want a lightweight wheel that doesn’t drag you back as you try to pedal up. A shallow or mid-section wheel will work best for that. 
  • If speed is what you are looking for, you want to opt for an aerodynamic set of wheels. These are the mid to deep-section wheels. Having a wider set of wheels will allow air to flow over your tire and rims.  

Because carbon wheels can become damaged while riding on rough terrain and also don’t provide much traction, they may not be the best choice for mountain biking, gravel riding, or cyclocross. The stiffness of carbon wheels makes them best for pavement riding. 

Depending on what kind of brakes you have, they can become wet and dirty while off-roading, which can then reduce their stopping power. This happens with rim brakes, which are best with pavement riding. Most people will purchase carbon bike wheels that they’ll use when only riding on pavement. When they want to ride rough terrain, they’ll swap them out for aluminum wheels. 

The Best Carbon Bike Wheels

Because carbon bike wheels will cost plenty of money, you want to make sure they will perform well. The best all-around carbon wheels will have 40-50mm deep carbon fiber rims to give you the benefits you are looking for – easier climbs, faster speeds, and a smoother ride. 

Here are some more affordable carbon bike wheel options:

WheelFeaturesRim Depth and SizePrice
Queen Bike Clincher Rim brakes Depth: 50 mm  Size: 700 c $340-$360
ICAN Clincher Rim brakes Depth: 50 mm Size: 700 c $540-$560
SuperteamClincherRim brakesDepth: 50mm Size: 700 c$360-$380
SunriseClincherRim brakeDepth: 50 mm Size: 700 c$340-$350

These carbon bike wheels are listed as sets. However, if one ever becomes damaged, you can purchase just one wheel if needed. It is beneficial to choose wheels that are compatible with both types of brakes. This allows you to make the switch from rim brakes to disc brakes if needed. 

Being able to switch your brakes from rim to disc brakes can help prolong the life of your brakes and wheels. With the price of wheels and brakes, you’ll want to make them last as long as possible. Replacing your rim brakes when they become worn down is another way to help your wheels last.

Some replacement rim brake pads are:

Remember, when purchasing replacement brake pads, you want to make sure they are for carbon fiber. You shouldn’t place regular brakes with carbon wheels because that can make the brakes wear out faster and not be as effective.

If ever you need help deciding which carbon wheel or brake you need, go to your local bike shop for help. They will be able to guide you in the right direction and help you pick something that suits your needs.

Conclusion

If you are thinking about making the switch to carbon wheels, you first want to make sure it is a price you are willing to pay, especially if you ever need to replace them. You also want to make sure you need the added benefits they provide and that they fit your riding needs.

Carbon wheels are lightweight and are great at improving acceleration and speed. The low weight of them makes it easier for riders to climb hills, so carbon wheels are beneficial for people who lots of hill riding. They are also great for riders who like to go above 20 mph. 

Related article:

Sources:

https://thechainlink.org/page/do-carbon-wheels-make-a-difference

https://icancycling.com/blogs/articles/carbon-road-bike-wheels-buyers-guide

https://www.theproscloset.com/blogs/news/how-to-upgrade-your-wheels