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Are Carbon Fiber Road Wheels All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

November 2018
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Forgive the pun. I couldn’t resist.

For approximately 2,556 days as an exceptional cyclist, give or take, I was under the impression that the frame was the most important part of the bike to be carbon fiber… well, fork too, but you get my point.

Having ridden a smashingly cool, old-school 1991 Cannondale SR-400, I can honestly tell you, friends, compared to a carbon fiber rig… wait, there is no comparison. Seriously. Riding an alloy bike on anything but perfect roads is a bit on the sucky side. Still, it beats walking. And mountain bikes (just in speed, ladies and gentlemen, just in speed). Chuckle.

Having gone from that Cannondale to a full carbon Trek 5200, it’s the difference between riding…. um… something really uncomfortable, and hopping onto a limo:

Not a super-stretch, of course, a really fast limo, like a Dodge Challenger limo (yes, they actually do exist). The point is, the Trek was outrageously more comfortable than the Cannondale, especially on our chip seal roads. To put the difference in perspective, I went from 17-mph up a particular hill, to 18-19-mph. Simply put, for those not in the know, the additional comfort of the carbon fiber bike translates directly into speed. Even though the aluminum bike is vastly stiffer and transfers power from the pedals to the rear wheel better, the vast comfort improvement of carbon fiber makes the ride faster (modern alloy frames are a notable improvement over old-school.

However, my experience over those 2,556 days (give or take) was limited because I had two sets of alloy wheels (a heavy set for rain and train on the Trek and a light set for big rides on my Venge).

Then I bought a set of carbon fiber wheels for the Venge. Before the new wheels, the Trek was more comfortable than the Specialized by a slight but noticeable margin. After, it was a whole new ballgame. The Venge is on par with the Trek, and maybe even a little superior. The geometry of the Venge is vastly superior to that of the Trek (modern compact frame compared to old-school standard) so the comfort of the Venge was, and still is, superior in the geometry of the bike. The Trek always excelled in smoothness of ride… sadly, only us super-geeks know the difference. There is a difference, though.

Then there’s the aerodynamic benefits of a carbon fiber wheel. I chose 38mm wheels because we deal with some crosswind here in Michigan. I wanted a wheel I wouldn’t be nervous about in the wind. I could have gone with 50’s but chose the 38’s instead. The difference between that and a 25mm aero alloy wheel is surprising. Without gushing too much, the aero wheels are easier to keep up to speed. It’s like a few extra free watts. Free watts are good.

Finally, there’s the weight advantage. My carbon fiber wheels are a little more than 100 grams lighter than the shallower alloy wheels. That’s a quarter-pound lighter than a spectacular set of alloy wheels, with the aero gains. Enough said.

Having ridden approximately 52,914 miles on alloy wheels and a little more than a thousand on carbon fiber, I can tell you without doubt, the carbon fiber wheels bring a surprising level of comfort and speed* to a ride. Up until this past September, my fastest rides were all on the Trek. With the carbon wheels I’ve managed to put in two rides that were much faster than the old “bests” and I finished feeling much better than I had during the slower rides on the alloy wheels. The faster rides on the carbon wheels took less out of me, in other words.

In a sentence, they’re worth it if you’re going to be riding fast enough to get the benefit.

* The speed part of this is a little tricky. There isn’t much of a benefit below 20-mph – at least I can’t feel it – between the alloy wheels and carbon fiber. It’s when you start topping 20 and 25-mph that you begin to notice the improvement.

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7 Comments

  1. joliesattic says:

    The new stuff is so amazingly lightweight which then translates to less encumbrance that goes into speed. Makes sense. My hubby just had a new bike built and I’m able to lift it with one finger! It’s amazing.

  2. buckyrides says:

    Totally agree with that above 20 or even 22mph for sure. Below that, no point other than feel, if you like the sensation or looks, because they look cool, which they do.

    • I recon I start to feel the aero benefits of my 60’s at around 17mph. Not a huge difference, more of an ease of holding that speed. Above 20mph though and it’s the “ooooh mama!” difference! 😆

      • bgddyjim says:

        That very well could be a difference between 38’s, 50’s, and 60’s… more benefit at slower speeds the greater the depth. Brother, this requires testing!!! Woohoo!

      • Alright then. I’ll get on and order a few sets of 38’s and 50’s. Maybe an 80 front / 110 rear combo too. All in the same of science, you know… 😉

      • bgddyjim says:

        Yep… but call Zipp and ask them to send you the sets so you can test them. No reason we should have to defray that cost for science. While you’re at it, have them throw in a plane ticket – wait, two – from Michigan to New Zealand… I’ll help you. We can call it a double-blind Study. Yeah!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Indeed they do. Thanks, man.

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