Are Carbon Wheels Worth It?7 March 2023
If you’re looking to improve your bike’s performance, one of the biggest contributors is your wheels. They are, after all, the interface between the tyres and the rest of your bike, so getting the right wheels can have a big impact on your ride.
In this article, we’ll look at the pros and cons of carbon fibre wheels in comparison to aluminium alternatives to help you decide what the best choice is for you and your cycling goals.
Do carbon wheels really make a difference?
First of all, let’s be clear about what a carbon wheel really is. When we talk about wheels made of different materials, we’re typically referring to what the rim is made of. This can have a big impact on performance, but performance isn’t the only thing to consider. You should also think about the practical aspects of buying and potentially replacing carbon wheels.
What are the benefits of carbon wheels?
The benefits of carbon wheels largely relate to performance, which is why they’re popular with pro-level cyclists and those looking to test themselves in race conditions.
The biggest and most well known benefit of choosing carbon wheels is that they are lightweight, particularly when compared to aluminium wheels. Lighter wheels means a lighter bike, which means you’ll find it easy to accelerate and climb as you ride. This makes it easier to accelerate and can boost your cycling speed and efficiency - meaning you’ll be able to go faster with less effort.
What’s less well known is that carbon fibre rims are remarkably strong given their weight - they tend to be stiffer than their aluminium counterparts. This improves the handling of the bike as a whole, reducing flex when accelerating, but that’s not the only advantage. Where aluminium wheels have to be reasonably narrow and shallow in order to avoid being too heavy to allow for good performance, carbon wheels don’t. Having deeper, wider wheels can further improve handling, comfort, rolling resistance and aerodynamic efficiency - meaning you won’t have to put in as much effort to get up to speed.
What are the drawbacks of carbon wheels?
Despite all those benefits, there are also some downsides to having carbon wheels, and these lie primarily in the logistics of buying them. First of all, carbon wheels are typically more expensive than their aluminium counterparts. This is partly due to the manufacturing process and partly a result of their impressive benefits. Some carbon wheels can set you back as much as a whole bike might, and while most aren’t quite as expensive, they’re certainly more of an investment than aluminium wheels. Fortunately, there are plenty of more affordable carbon wheel options around to get you started.
Additionally, while being lightweight can be a benefit in many circumstances, it can also have its disadvantages. In high winds, carbon wheels can be buffeted, making it harder for you, the rider, to stay in control. This is definitely something you should take into consideration if you’re a newbie or you’re not very confident in your bike handling skills - aluminium wheels could be what you need to build your skillset.
If you frequent steep, long climbs, you might also prefer shallower aluminium wheels to deeper carbon versions. In these situations, aerodynamics is less important than weight, so you’ll want to pick the lightest option available to help you accelerate and climb faster on those high gradient hills - and rim depth can have a big impact.
The other potential drawback of carbon wheels is that when they get damaged, you’ll almost certainly have to replace them. Carbon wheel repairs are tricky and often not worth it compared to buying new. Typically, carbon wheels are well made and able to put up with a reasonable amount of rough and tumble. Riders even suggest that they stay straight and true for longer - but they’re not indestructible. A crash which would dent an aluminium wheel may crack a carbon fibre one, and this makes the bike unsafe to ride until a replacement wheel is found.
This is less of an issue for road cyclists, as you’re less likely to crash or suffer big hits during a ride. For mountain bikers, however, the constant wear and tear associated with rough terrain could mean aluminium wheels are more suitable - and cheaper to replace.
Should I get carbon wheels?
If you're in the market for carbon wheels, you might spot the price tag and change your mind - but don't let the upfront cost put you off. Carbon fibre wheels are durable and designed to last.
Additionally, it can be worthwhile to think beyond the benefits and drawbacks we’ve listed above. While carbon wheels are more expensive than alloys, they’re also a sign of commitment to your hobby. They might be just the right motivation you need to get back in the saddle on a regular basis.