Are Carbon Wheels Worth it? Aluminum vs Carbon Mtb Wheels

Carbon Fiber came into cycling in the 1980s as a wonder material. It was stronger, lighter, and faster than anything else which was available on the market. Everyone wanted it, and to this day, it is the go-to race material everyone uses. We are a huge fan of carbon bikes, and there are a few downsides to owning one.

What about wheels though? Many top-end bikes on the market don’t come with carbon wheels as standard, so are they even worth it? In this article, we’re going to talk all about this today.

What is Carbon Fiber?

Carbon fiber is a polymer material also known as graphite fiber. Carbon fiber is very unique in the process it is made. Typically we get carbon fiber in sheets, and these are very flexible and loose. We can mold these into any shape we want. Then, to give it its strength, we must add resin to the material, which hardens and creates the material. 

Old Carbon and New Carbon

Before we start, it’s important to discuss the difference between new carbon fiber and old carbon fiber. Carbon fiber has come a long way since the 1980s and is very different now compared to what it was. To understand this, we have to speak a little more about how it is made. To make a carbon fiber wheel, basically, you get sheets of carbon, layer them together on top of each other in a mold, and then resin is applied, and it is pressed into shape, and then it is neatened lacquered, and painted for protection.

On old carbon fiber, they would use fewer layers and a resin that, although it could bond it all together, would be thick and struggle to get into all the miniature gaps between the fibers. On modern carbon fiber, many more layers of carbon sheet are used. The resin is much more advanced and can fit into smaller gaps between the carbon fiber sheets. The carbon fiber sheets now are much more advanced, too, and the fibers that make up the carbon are woven differently and have much more strength.

What are the advantages of Carbon Fiber?

  • Five times Stronger than Steel
  • It can easily be molded into any shape 
  • Lighter 
  • Stiff and responsive
  • Looks incredible

What are the disadvantages of Carbon Fiber?

  • Expensive to produce
  • Although strong is weak to single point puncture

Looks

The first thing to mention is carbon fiber wheels look incredible. They don’t only make you go faster. They even make you look faster. The weave of the fibers crossing gives it an absolutely beautiful look, and when in a group, you can tell who’s rolling on carbon fiber wheels from a far away.

Weight

Carbon Fiber wheels are much lighter than the aluminum counterparts you have available on the market. An entry-level road bike wheel without tires weighs about 2kg, which isn’t a huge amount. Then you have carbon fiber wheels that can weigh as little as 1kg for the pair without tires. Who doesn’t want lighter wheels?

Although it may not seem like everything, the weight does make an incredible difference, and the wheel weight is very different from the frame weight. If you were to take a single kilo off your frame, it would feel lighter, but if you take a kilo off your wheels, it makes a huge difference. This is down to the fact the mass of the wheels is moving inside the frame. 

One of the biggest advantages is that they are so much lighter, and you won’t see professionals ride anything else but carbon in a competitive race. It’s the material of choice when it comes to being fast. They may not be cheap but taking a full kilo off your bike doesn’t come easily or cheaply.

Adaptability

The next thing about carbon rim is the fact that designers can be much more creative with designs when working with a carbon wheelset compared to aluminum. You will see full disc wheels and very deep-section rims, giving you a huge aerodynamic advantage. If you were to do this in aluminum, it would be very challenging, and because they would be so heavy, it would be very difficult to ride, and it would feel fairly uncomfortable. 

Then you get wheels like the Zipp 454 NSW carbon rim, which has been made with lumps on the inside of the wheels to help with aerodynamics, and things like this are just not possible with aluminum. So carbon fiber is not just about the weight. It also lets manufacturers be much more creative, and technology can progress further.

Braking

It’s vital we speak about braking on carbon wheels. The two types of brakes on the market are rim and disc. Rim brakes are where the surface of the wheel is used to create friction to slow down, and disc brakes use a disc to create friction. When it comes to carbon fiber rims as a braking surface, they are generally not as effective as alloy rims, which is fairly noticeable in wet weather conditions. You will also need special pads for raking on a carbon fiber wheel.

This isn’t a big issue though, as many modern wheels are now made for disc brakes, which is how the industry is going. Braking power on a disc carbon wheel is excellent and would definitely be the way to go and much safer in challenging conditions and off-road if you are using a gravel or mountain bike.

Stiffness

One of the best things about carbon fiber wheels is they are very stiff. Having stiff wheels makes a huge difference in making the bike feel very responsive and much better transfers the power better. It also helps hugely with handling, and when you’re coming round corners with speed, the last thing you need is any flexibility in your wheels.

This doesn’t mean aluminum wheels are more flexible than carbon, and they can both be made to be very stiff but to make aluminum as stiff as carbon fiber, it does come with a big weight penalty and means it does make it more challenging on those very hilly rides. Stiff carbon clinchers come with great performance benefits and give excellent ride quality.

Cost

There’s no doubt in saying that carbon fiber is more expensive than aluminum when it comes to wheels. This doesn’t all come down to the material. It is because the process of making them is much harder compared to their metal counterparts.

For a good set of carbon wheels, you will be looking at $600 all the way to $2500, and the more money you spend, the lighter and stiffer wheels you will get. On the other hand, aluminum wheels can get for as little as $200 and a maximum of about $1000. There’s a very big gap between the two, but carbon wheels do offer much better performance.

Durability

Aluminum as a material is excellent, and it is very durable and will last year after year. There’s a big misconception when it comes to carbon fiber, and people think it is not very strong when you couldn’t be more wrong, but it does have a weakness.

What gives carbon fiber its strength is how it is bonded together, and as a large structure, it is able to withstand incredible pressure, but if it’s pierced at a single point, it can break easily. A good example is a carbon fiber wheel. When the wheel is being used, the whole structure of the rim is able to support the contact point it has on the floor. This is how it is designed and where it is strongest.

A good example is like popping a balloon. Using your whole hand flat would be challenging, but using a single pin would be very easy. This is the same with carbon fiber. With the right tires on a carbon wheel, you will be able to handle rocky trails with ease providing it wasn’t bottoming out.

Longevity 

Many people ask about carbon fiber and how long a single wheelset will last. You will hear many people speak about the shelf life of carbon fiber wheels, and yes, it does have a shelf life, but this has been greatly expanded in recent years.

Take carbon mountain bike wheels, it comes down to a few things. High-quality wheels will last much longer because structurally, they are built with more layers and use a higher quality resin. Companies will also go to the extent of even lacquering and painting carbon to protect it from the sun, as this can take years off if they are left in the sun consistently. 

Carbon fiber as a material has a very high fatigue point, and this means if the wheels were to take a hit, they would probably be ok unless they went past their maximum fatigue point. It might not break it, but it will have fatigued it and consistently returning past this point often will eventually break it in time.

Are Carbon Fiber Wheels worth the money?

If you are looking at carbon fiber wheels as an upgrade, they are definitely worth it. They are very strong, very fast, and can completely change the way a bike rides and performs. One of the most important things to remember is how far technology has come in the past 30 years, and it is not the vulnerable material it used to be when it was first created. Carbon wheels do make a smoother ride and when paired with good hubs such as DT Swiss are incredible.

So What Do We Recommend

When it comes to carbon fiber wheels, there are a few things you might want to know before buying your first set. Here are our recommendations of things to think about before you upgrade.

Price

One thing with carbon fiber is you do get what you pay for. The more you spend, the better quality wheel you will be getting, which will be stronger, lighter, and last much longer than cheaper models on the market.

Brand

The next thing I would highly recommend is to go for a well-known brand. When you go for a company like Shimano and Zipp, you get the most amazing quality and essentially buy a set of wheels that will last for years, not just one or two seasons. They will also have a long warranty, and the testing process for durability is much more in-depth compared to smaller brands trying to break the market.

Second-Hand Wheels

I personally would avoid second-hand carbon fiber wheels unless you know the history. With carbon, you can’t always tell how it has been treated, and if they have been knocked a little bit too much, you might find you riding it could finish it off totally.

Weight Limits

Another thing to take into account is the weight limit on some carbon wheelsets. Although typically, most will be the same and an aluminum wheelset, some high-end models tend to have a much lower limit. This is due to making the wheel as strong and as light as possible. Always worth checking as you don’t want to use a set that isn’t right for you.

Conclusion

Modern carbon wheels are amazing and can add so much value to the experience of riding your bike. We highly recommend getting a set, and once you go carbon fiber, it can be challenging to go back to standard aluminum. Are they worth it, 100% worth it? The difference between carbon and aluminum rims is huge and it is very noticeable.

FAQ’s

How much should I spend on Carbon Fiber Wheels?

Obviously, spending within your budget is very important. I would aim to get a set that is from a reputable brand and try and buy new if possible. Unlike with bikes where you change often, wheels you can take to your next bike so spending a little more goes a long way as it’s a long-term investment. 

What are the best Wheel Brands

Brands like Zipp, Shimano, Reynolds, Hunt, and Vision are a few of the top brands you will see on the market. It’s good to read some reviews before and see what other riders make of them. 

What about copies of brand wheels?

Copies are wheels that are made to imitate top brand wheels, and often companies who make these say they come from the same mold in the same factory and are just as good. They do not use the same materials to make the wheels, and they cut corners on the hubs and spokes. I personally wouldn’t recommend this as it takes away from the industry, and also, many have been found to be unsafe. The quality of carbon wheels has to be excellent.

 Are Carbon Wheels for lighter riders?

They are for everyone, some of the top-end wheels might have a limit of about 100kg but most road cycling carbon wheels’ weight limit is about 130kg. Alloy wheels are not far off this either.

Are Lightweight Carbon Wheels good for mountain biking?

The beauty of carbon is that it can be made for any discipline and many pros use carbon mountain bike wheels as the benefits of carbon just can’t be ignored. Mountain bikers will be often seen ripping through a rock garden on carbon blades using ceramic bearings. They can be designed for any riding style.

Photo of author
Written By Robbie Ferri
My name is Robbie Ferri, I’m an Ultra Endurance cyclist from the UK. I have been lucky enough to have cycled all over the world. With some amazing world record attempts, bikepacking races, and many miles under my belt I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than on my bike.

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