Do I need carbon fiber wheels?
That has to be the most common question asked by cyclists!
We spend hours researching and discussing it during group rides. We go back and forth trying to justify the purchase, the advantages that carbon fiber wheels will provide, and probably, even believe that they are the missing component to bring our riding to another level…maybe even conquer a few KOM segments on Strava!
But is there an answer to the question?
As amateur cyclists, for most of us, our goal is to ride bikes that are as close as to what the professionals ride. One of the biggest visual elements are wheels, seeing them on TV, magazines and online, showcasing various depths and colors. With social media, it seems that everyone has a set of carbon fiber wheels.
Manufacturers have done a great job at marketing carbon fiber wheels to the consumer, creating this image that you’re not a “serious” cyclists until you own a set of carbon fiber wheels. With a wide range of models to choose from, there is a carbon fiber wheel to meet your needs and make you faster.
Oh, how good they are at marketing!!
It is true that wheels make a huge difference to how a bike rides and feels, and carbon fiber wheels have become very popular in the last decade thanks to more companies manufacturing them as well as the lower costs of carbon fiber. While well known companies like Zipp, Enve, Campagnolo, and Reynolds (to name a few) continue to innovate and produce new models every year, smaller companies have joined the market with affordable wheels that can compete head-to-head with the industry leaders. Companies like Token, based in Taiwan, have been able to enter the market and offer a wide range of models that are capable of performing as well as models that cost twice as much, and in most cases, offering a 2-Year Warranty.
So what are the benefits of carbon fiber wheels?
The main benefits of carbon fiber wheels in comparison to alloy wheels are:
- Aesthetics – If someone tells you that looks are not the main reason why they considered carbon fiber wheels in the first place…they are full of it! Deep carbon fiber wheels make the bike look better, faster and radically change the appearance to the point that it looks like a completely different bike.
- Aerodynamics – The first thing most manufacturing companies do is provide wind tunnel data to prove how much faster their wheel is compared to alloy wheels and even their competitors. Believing the data is up to you, but if you’re racing, deep section carbon fiber wheels will make a noticeable difference at higher speeds.
- Ride quality & performance – Good carbon fiber wheels will transform the ride of a bike by providing greater stiffness than an alloy wheels. This can make a clear difference to how the bike feels, with a more responsive nature. Some carbon fiber wheels will provide a smoother ride over rough road surfaces.
- Weight – Since carbon fiber is a much lighter material than alloy, it gives you the opportunity to use deeper wheels that are more aerodynamic without sacrificing weight.
What are the disadvantages of carbon fiber wheels?
If there were only advantages, the choice would be much easier, wouldn’t it? Here are the main disadvantages:
- Price – While it’s true that the cost has gone down over the years thanks to the lower costs of carbon fiber as well as new manufacturers entering the marketplace, carbon fiber wheels are still expensive in comparison to alloy wheels. Carbon fiber wheels start over $1,000 per set and can reach as high as $6,000 depending on the company, while alloy wheels can be found for under $500.
- Durability – Carbon fiber technology has improved tremendously over the years, and while it’s a really strong material, it’s only under a certain type of load, meaning that if the wheel is hit in a way that it wasn’t intended to, like a side impact, it will most likely end up breaking.
- Braking – Compared to alloy wheels, especially under wet conditions, the braking performance of carbon fiber wheels is very weak. So if you live in an area with rain and lots of climbing/descending, carbon fiber wheels might not be such a smart idea.
- Theft – This might not be the case for most people, but since I live in NYC and bike theft is a common occurrence, a set of carbon fiber wheels will attract attention. It might not be a disadvantage, but it’s something to keep in mind and having to be a lot more careful when riding.
So…did I answer the question?
Ultimately, there is no definite answer. It’s up to you to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of carbon fiber wheels, figure out if the investment is worth it and just going with that decision.
I believe that if you can afford a set of carbon fiber wheels and you’ve been thinking about getting a set, you should. I think that the advantages that a carbon fiber wheel provides in comparison to an alloy wheel are enough to justify the purchase, plus they will transform the look of the bike completely.
In the next entry, I will tell you how this advice helped me when it was time to make a decision whether to purchase a carbon fiber wheelset or not, the research I did and what I ended up with.