Ready to corner? Your wheel choice will make the difference between winning and losing. (Photo: Roberto Bettini)
Want more straight-line speed, faster climbing or the ability to defy gravity around corners? Well then, start shopping for a performance wheelset. No single purchase can get you down (or up) the road faster. Wheels are the number one plan-to-buy item for enthusiast-level cyclists and the first concern for ProTour competitors. Problem is, however, that no wheel-regardless of price, performance or weight-is the perfect one for everyone. For instance: Lightweight carbon wheels may be perfect for flea-weight pro racers who rarely touch the brakes when they descend mountain passes, but an aggressive-riding, 200-pound weekend warrior will melt the carbon matrix right off the rims trying to stay under 55 miles an hour on the same descent. An aluminum rim can take the heat and, as long as its owner doesn’t care about aerodynamics, won’t cost much in the form of a weight penalty. If you want an aero profile wheel, however, you’ll be searching for carbon-no other material can span the depth necessary to provide a true airfoil and still hit the scales at a competitive weight. Add road tubeless, tubular tires, the specific demands of climbers, triathlon and time trialists, and you can imagine that the world of wheels is more like a small universe.
RBA devised a list of performance goals for wheels and a simple rating system with which we could translate our road-test evaluations into an understandable shopping list for potential wheel buyers. The system is easy: We rate each wheel from 1 to 5 (5 being best) in categories like climbing, durability, braking performance and cornering-and then we go farther by zeroing in on what each wheel does best. Read about the wheelsets, run your finger down the ratings and then choose which one fits your riding style and budget. We know a lot about wheels, but you are the expert on your needs. Use our rating system to define the performance that fits your riding style by selecting a wheel that scores high in at least three of the eight categories. Ignore low score that don’t relate. Sure, everyone would like a 700-gram wheelset, but one mountain descent later, we’d all be back at the bike shop buying 1200-gram wheels that actually remained round while they turned corners. So, check out the first five wheel tests in our continuing series from Easton, Hed, Mavic, Alex and Reynolds. We hope you enjoy reading the road tests as much as we did riding the wheelsets.
EC90 Aero Tubulars are Easton’s medium-depth, 56-millimeter, profile carbon wheels. With most ProTour teams road racing on medium-depth aero wheels, Easton responded with a bladed-spoke wheel with a carbon rim that is lightweight enough to be a contender in a fastpaced criterium event, and slippery enough to provide an advantage for time trialists, or to stick a solo breakaway in a road race.
Easton developed a rounded aero shape for the EC90 rim that tests surprisingly well in the wind tunnel with low drag in a straight line and excellent performance in crosswinds. The 21-millimeter-wide carbon rim is 56-millimeters deep and has a modified composite braking track to withstand higher temperatures and provide smoother stops. Spoke nipples are internal for aero purposes. The smoothrolling R4SL hubs are upgraded from last year with ceramic hybrid bearings and a more precise one tool bearing preload adjustment feature (last year’s were fingeradjustable). The rear hub is a high/low configuration. Spokes are Sapim-bladed stainless steel, and the 18-spoke front wheel is radial-laced, while the 20-spoke rear is radial on the left and two-cross on the drive side. Aluminum freehubs are sold for either Campagnolo (our wheels) or SRAM/Shimano, and the wheelset comes with Swisstop brake pads, Ti-shaft quick-releases, valve extensions and a spoke key for $1800. Weight is 1358 grams a pair without quick-releases.
We mounted the Easton EC90 Aero wheels to Schwalbe tubular tires inflated to 130 psi. The test bike was a BH G5, and the Easton wheels replaced a Campagnolo Eurus 2- Way Fit clincher wheelset for a weight savings of 170 grams. We had a few minor setup issues-the Easton-supplied cassette retainer nut was too thick to provide axle clearance for the right dropout (we used the thinner Campagnolo retainer with success). Minor, but worth mention, was that Easton’s valve extensions did not seal well with our Silca or Genuine Innovation pump heads.
BEST USE: Road racing, hilly time trials, criteriums, triathlon.
Initial setup: 2
Glue-on tires require some knowledge to mount, and if you don’t get a good seal on the valve extensions, you must remove the tires to refit them. Use a stock Campy cassette retainer and have a buddy help seat the pump head so you can get an accurate pressure reading on the pump.
1358 grams is good for a laterally stiff, 56-millimeter-profile wheel.
Smooth, fast acceleration. Easton’s EC90 Aero wheel feels fresh under power, and climbing performance is good, but we didn’t get the ‘snap’ of an ultra-lightweight climbing wheel.
Road comfort: 3
Deep-section wheels tend to ride harshly, but not Easton’s. We ran them at 130 psi (moderate pressure for tubulars), and they managed to mute sharp bumps and smooth broken pavement. EC90 wheels are not plush, but they are smooth enough to fit into the road racing category.
Cornering feel: 5
Quote: ‘I’ve never cornered that fast before in a crit and held a steady line.’ In a word: magical.
Stopping power was good using the supplied Swisstop yellow pads. There was no pulsing, but the pad contact initially felt gritty with an audible hiss, and there was a bit of lag time before the brakes began stopping with authority.
Windy conditions: 5
Quote: ‘Just looking at them, I thought that I’d be all over the road, but they overachieved. They are really stable in high winds.’
Still tight and true after 500-plus hard miles.
Easton EC90 Aero Tubular wheels are perfectly suited for a racer who needs a truly aerodynamic wheelset that can be used for a wide range of conditions, from criteriums and road races, to hilly time trials. It is one of the rare deepprofile aero wheels with easy-to-ride handling qualities. Note: If you shy away from tubular tires, consider the fact that tubulars mute the normally rough ride of deep-section carbon wheels-and Easton’s EC90 Aero wheels are a match made in tubular heaven.
Alex makes millions of wheels for OEM bike makers throughout the world, so when they decided to up the ante and enter the high-performance market, their learning curve was short. The A-Class Aurelia is Alex’s top-line aluminum tubeless wheelset targeted at devoted cyclists in search of a road-tubeless racing wheelset that can stand up to a full training schedule.
The Aurelia features an extruded-and-machined rib on the inside of the rim circumference, an arrangement that eliminates spoke holes inside the rim channel and allows conventional bladed stainless steel spokes to hook into the rim. A beautifully machined hub holds the threaded nipples. The 24-spoke front hub is radially laced, and the rear hub uses a high/low flange setup with nine radial spokes on the left and 18 two-cross on the higher-stressed drive side. Aurelia wheels look sexy, and they fulfill the performance tubeless role without requiring funky rim strips. Alex Aurelia wheelsets come with quick releases, weigh 1622 grams a pair and cost around $889.
We tested the Aurelia wheels with Hutchinson’s durable Intensive Road Tubeless tires on a Cannondale Six, where they replaced a Shimano 105-level wheelset with Vittoria Zaffiro Pro tires. The switch to Alex wheels and Hutchinson tires reduced the bike’s weight by a full pound. The Hutchinson tires were a tight fit. Although we managed to get them mounted by hand, most users will probably resort to tire levers. The good side of this was that the tires inflated with a floor pump. We used 2 ounces of Stan’s sealant per tire and never experienced a flat or significant air loss in more than 300 miles.
BEST USE: Training, endurance, sport-level racing.
Initial setup: 3
A bit tough to mount tires, which can lead to an ill-placed tire lever damaging the bead interface and a leaky, hardto-inflate tire.
Although 1622 grams is not competitive in the uber-lightweight racing category, it is respectable for a true road tubeless wheelset.
Quote: ‘The wheels are laterally stiff, but I like that. I’m a big guy, and sometimes when I stand and grind in a big gear, wheels flex enough to hit the brakes on either side. Not these.’
Road comfort: 3
We ran them at 110 psi, and they rolled as if they were inflated at a higher pressure. Some long-distance riders will like them for the fast-rolling tubeless advantage, but racer types will gravitate to the Aurelias in greater numbers.
Cornering feel: 2
Rounding corners at speed over rough surfaces gave the Alex wheels some trouble. Steering was imprecise, as if the wheel lost some stiffness when it was loaded up in the vertical plane. When the tarmac was smooth, the opposite was true-the Aurelias seemed to run on rails.
No better or worse than our experiences with other quality aluminum wheels.
Windy conditions: 4
No crosswind effects, and only a little noise emanates from the spokes slashing the air. Not an aerodynamic profile.
Quote: ‘My guess is that they are fairly strong. I hit big holes all the time, and the wheels are still true. That can’t be said about any other wheels I have right now.’
Alex delivers the first dedicated road tubeless wheelset with an affordable price tag, and it can compete with the Mavic Ksyrium crowd. If you are considering road tubeless- as all clincher users should be-start here. The Aurelia wheelset is tubeless money well-spent.
Mavic’s K10 is a wheel and tire system with the K10 wheelset adopting every trick in the French dictionary for aluminum wheelmaking. The Mavic K10 elevates its Ksyrium wheel concept to the highest level. The matching K10 tire is an open tubular design with a slick tread. Like tubular tires, the K10’s thin tread is bonded in a separate operation to a lightweight, latex-coated casing. Mavic’s tire is made under contract by Vittoria, which is a good thing, as that firm virtually invented the open tubular clincher concept.
Mavic’s magic begins with 3D inter-spoke milling, which means that they machine sections of aluminum from the rim between each spoke and along the sides of the extrusion to eliminate every possible gram of metal from the clincher rim. Mavic’s trademark aero-profile Zicral aluminum spokes are radial-laced to the 18-spoke front wheel, and the 20-spoke rear wheel uses ‘IsoPulse’-a counterintuitive radial lacing pattern on the drive side with twocross on the left-side hub flange. The ‘Maxtal’ aluminum rim has no spoke holes in its tire-side channel and employs Mavic’s externally threaded spoke-nipple system. The aluminum rear hub has a two-pawl freehub ratchet and an aluminum cassette spline, while the front hub uses a carbon fiber center section. Quick-releases are Ti-shaft Mavic items, and freehubs are available for SRAM/Shimano. K10 system wheels weigh 2100 grams, including K10 tires and tubes. Expect to pay $1400 for the set.
We mounted Mavic’s K10 wheels and tires to a BH G4, inflated to 110 psi. The K10 system replaced Zipp 202 tubular wheels and Continental 4000 tubular tires. The switch increased the weight of the test bike by close to a half pound-but don’t panic, as 202 wheels are among the lightest available. We remounted the K10 tires, which was an easy job, and noted that Mavic’s supplied tubes were almost 105 grams each. There is no need for rim strips, which offset the figure by 10 grams a wheel. Mavic supplies its own cassette spacer-a thick, 2-millimeter aluminum piece that offsets the cassette one turn of the derailleur’s adjustment barrel. Be prepared to dial in your rear changer when you switch wheels.
BEST USE: Training, fast-paced club rides, amateur racing.
Initial setup: 4
Easy to mount clincher tires to wheel. The Mavic cassette spacer requires a derailleur cable adjustment, and if lost, would require hunting down two, perhaps three of the slim, standard spacers to replace it.
Surprisingly lightweight aluminum clincher wheelset that mocks some of the heady carbon clincher wheelsets we have tested.
Very stable when laterally stressed, feels stiff without being immovable like a disc wheel. Acceleration and climbing feel was lively, but not quite up to the level of lightweight carbon wheels.
Road comfort: 3
With the K10 tires inflated to our clincher-ready 110 psi, K10 rims transmitted some road vibration, but not nearly as much as we experienced with previous Ksyrium wheels. We attribute some of this comfort to its smoothrolling K-10 tires, and the rest to the copious amounts of metal that Mavic machines from the rims.
Cornering feel: 5
Slick tires with supple open tubular casings hug the pavement like geckoes on a wall, and the K10 wheels stay online regardless of speed. You’d have to ride tubulars to corner better than this.
Braking is smooth (Swisstop pads), there are no grabby stops and the rim surface remained squeal-free. The K10’s smooth, positive braking feel and precise lateral feel was a big plus in the mountains.
Windy conditions: 3
No crosswind effects, and the bladed spokes run silently. While the K10 is not an aero wheelset, its thin, bladed spokes are an emotional boost when pushing headwinds.
K10 is a tire and wheel system (although it accepts any clincher tire), so part of its high ratings go to the flat-free tire, which we often rode on gravel roads to flaunt its ‘Proteklink’ nylon armor. The K10 wheels still roll true and feel fresh.
Aluminum wheels, especially Mavic’s blend of Zicral spoke and Maxtal rim, are the best value for a rider who needs one wheelset that is durable enough to train on, yet light enough to be within the realm of a racing wheel. For money-is-no object competitors, the K10 wheel/tire combination rolls fast enough to keep a bike snob happy on training days and offers aluminum security for high-heat braking when descending mountain passes.
MAVIC K10 WHEEL SYSTEM
Weight (wheels): 1456 grams (without QR’s)
Weight (tire): 245 grams each
Price: $1400 (wheels, QR’s, K10 tires, tubes and bags)
Hed wheels have been used to win everything from the Tour de France to the Hawaii Ironman. In the last couple of years, Hed has rethought the notion that a narrower airfoil is better and developed the C2 line of wheels. C2 introduces the tire into the aerodynamic profile of the rim, and wind-tunnel testing proved that a wider rim produced less drag and better handling in crosswinds. In addition, C2 rims give the tire a wider stance for better traction and less rolling resistance. Hed’s Jet 4 C2 is designed as a workhorse road racing wheel.
The business end of hand-built Hed Jet 4 C2 wheels are their 45-millimeter-deep rims. The braking tracks and flanges are aluminum extrusions bonded to a carbon aerodynamic shell. Hed makes its Sonic Hubs-sleek, forged aluminum beauties with recessed spoke interlocks-and laces the 4 C2 wheels with black, bladed stainless steel spokes. The 18-spoke front wheel is radial-laced. The rear has 24 spokes-radial-laced on the left and three-cross on the drive side. Sonic hubs are outfitted with top-quality Abec 5 bearings, and the freehub body is lightweight aluminum. Hed’s C2 rim design is as wide as the tire 23.4 millimeters on the outside and spans about 21 millimeters inside the well-so the tire sits wider on the rim and adopts a more rounded profile. The carbon aero profile shell follows suit, which makes the C2 rim visibly fatter. Spoke nipples are recessed in the rim for increased strength and better aerodynamics. The advantage, according to Hed, is that while the C2 rim has about the same drag as a thinner airfoil shape in a straight line, it can handle crosswinds without creating speed sapping turbulence and steering issues. As a bonus, the wider tire profile increases the tire’s contact patch for extra traction in the turns-and lets it flex more so the wheel passes over rough pavement with less rolling resistance. Hed says the wheels have a rider weight limit of 190 pounds, with beefed up versions available for larger riders. Jet 4 C2 wheels weigh 1678 grams without skewers and cost $1600.
We mounted the Hed wheelset with a set of 23c Continental 4000 Grand Prix tires and tested them on a titanium-frame Everti Falcon, as well as a carbon Kestrel 900SL with Specialized S-Works Mondo tires. We are happy to report that C4 wide-profile rims make mounting of tires quite easy. Once inflated, it becomes clear how much the wider rim affects the tire’s profile. The Continental tires took on a domed shape, with the sides aligning almost parallel to the sides of the rim.
BEST USE: Training, club rides, century events and sport-level racing.
Initial setup: 4
Easy tire mount-up and precise cassette spacing made switching out the the Hed wheelset a slam dunk. Resetting the brake caliper wider can require a cablestop-screw experience, however.
1678 grams is fat for a wheelset from one of the world’s premier innovators-and it is weight-limited to 190 pounds.
Quote: ‘Out-of-the-saddle efforts result in quick acceleration, and the wide rims seemed to add to the wheel’s lateral stiffness.’
Road comfort: 4
Jet 4 C2’s make it feel like you are running large 25 or 28c tire.
Cornering feel: 4
Nevermind the wind tunnel data-the wheels are fast, and the real advantage of the design comes in the added traction when cornering. On descents and through tight corners, the wheels inspired confidence.
Aluminum braking tracks feel super smooth, and they don’t store heat like a carbon wheel does. The big profile that the C2 rims give the tires makes braking on compromised surfaces much more secure.
Windy conditions: 4
We will believe Hed’s wind tunnel testing on the Jet 4 C2’s aerodynamics-the wheels felt fast-and steering was unaffected by blustery crosswinds.
Well, we weren’t going to tell Hed, but we raced the Jet 4 C2 wheelset through the second half of the cyclocross season with no durability issues. Still, it’s hard to believe that a 1678-gram wheelset is weight limited.
If you are hard on your wheels, yet demand maximum performance, Hed’s Jet 4 C2 wheels are made for you. Jet 4s are not the lightest wheels on the market, nor are they the most aerodynamic; however, Jet C2s are tough and they offer exceptional overall performance that few wheels can match.
Reynolds Composite Studio is the Utah-based brand’s elite carbon fiber laboratory where, spearheaded by composite wheel pioneer Paul Lew, carbon fiber is carefully molded into the all-carbon RZR 46 Tubular wheelset. There is a lot of wild technology packed into the RZR wheels, but you only need to know four things about them: a pair weighs under 900 grams; the carbon fiber hubs, spokes and rims are bonded into a one-piece structure; they cost more than a pro racing bike; and they are foolishly fast.
RZR rims are squeeze-me-thin carbon layups with a special heat-resistant composite layer in the braking tracks. The 46 millimeter-deep profile has a pair of ridges near the rounded point of the airfoil that trip the airflow so it breaks cleanly away from the rim surface instead of ducking around the corner of the airfoil and creating speed-robbing drag. The feature is called a ‘swirl lip generator.’ Knifesharp carbon spokes are bonded into the hub flanges and also into the rim. The front wheel uses a 16-spoke radial pattern. The RZR rear wheel begins with an innovative, three-flange carbon fiber hub. The outer flanges support the lateral and compressive loads-the weight of the rider and cornering forces-while the spokes bonded to the third, central flange are angled to counter pedaling torque. Reynolds’ ‘Torque Flange’ hub and bonded spoke system help to reduce weight because they places exactly the right amount of material directly in line with the forces that aggressive riders introduce into the wheels. Bearings are high-quality steel cartridge types (Reynolds does not recommend ceramic hybrid bearings). Reynolds sent us the RZRs with Swiss-made, 10-gram, titanium quick-releases; a rubberized computer magnet; and a note mentioning that RZR 46 Tubular wheels are weight limited to 185-pound riders. Aluminum Campagnolo and Shimano/SRAM freehubs are available, and the wheels come with a two-year limited warranty. RZR 46 Tubular wheels are weigh less than 900 grams without quick-releases and cost $6000.
We used a BH G4 to test the RZR wheels. Reynolds sent us the RZR wheels pre-glued to Vittoria Corsa EVO CX tires and a set of Reynolds’ carbon-specific brake pads (they insist that their pads be used exclusively), titanium quickreleases, a digital presentation and a beautiful pair of wheel bags. The Reynolds-provided valve extensions proved to be problematic, with neither sealing well at the interface of the extensions and the Presta valves. We checked, and noted that the assembler properly wrapped the Presta valves with Teflon tape, so it took some finagling to inflate the Vittoria tubulars to 120 psi. We installed a Shimano Dura-Ace cassette using the recommended 1-millimeter spacer and noted that the drive-side axle protruded 5 millimeters too far. A call to Reynolds indicated that the wheelset had the wrong spacer kit for Shimano/SRAM, and they insisted on fixing the mistake. We were more interested in the wheel’s performance than perfect shifting, so we made do with what we had and readjusted the derailleurs to shift with an inboard chainline.
BEST USE: Elite racing, climbing and windy time trials-race day only.
Initial setup: 2
Tubular tires are time-consuming to mount up to wheels, and care must be taken to get the valve extensions mounted air-tight and secure before the tires are glued in place, otherwise the Presta valves cannot be accessed from outside the rim. Note: We didn’t score the improper spacer glitch.
The entire wheelset, ready to ride with tires, quick-releases, an 11/27 Dura-Ace cassette and valve extensions, weighed exactly 1300 grams-less than most racing wheels weigh when stripped bare.
Wow! What fun it is to power away without a care about lateral flex-with wheels so lightweight that the legs forget they are on the bike. Under full-power sprints, we could get the wheels to budge a tiny bit, but never so far that they touched the brake pads.
Road comfort: 4
The Vittoria tubular tires were supple rolling and very smooth, even at 120 psi or higher pressures, but the RZR wheels transmitted more of the road chatter to the bike than we expected from such a lightweight wheelset.
Cornering feel: 4
Fast and secure cornering was the norm, but you’ll have to be ready to take some of the bumps when you rail around a bend on rough pavement. The RZR/Vittoria combination sticks a tight line, but the stiff wheels let you know what’s underneath the tire’s contact patch.
We tried many braking techniques but never found a sweet spot. The RZR’s carbon braking tracks and pads chirped and pulsed slightly. Braking was firm, but not optimal.
Windy conditions: 3
RZR 46 Tubular wheels are as aero as one would want to take to a road race or criterium. They hold an acceptable line in stiff crosswinds (25 mph at 45 degrees during one ride), but you’ll need a couple of rides to acclimate to them before you ride with a group.
We rode the RZRs over some rank urban roads that could swallow mopeds, and bashed some awfully big sections of missing pavement-and they remained unphazed. To withstand the rigors of the ProTour, RZR wheels must handle worse situations, so we are not surprised.
Once in your life, you should ride a wheelset of this caliber, if only to understand why someone would spend more on a wheelset than the bike that he or she is attached to. Reynolds hit the center of the target for no-compromise racing wheels the RZR 46 T has a liberal amount of aerodynamic profiling for solo breaks, and enough stiffness to handle a high-watt climber or sprinter, and all this at a mythological, sub-900-gram weight figure. If you’ve spent the money for a pro bike, for coaching and professional nutrition, you owe it to yourself to pony up for some raceday-only wheels like Reynolds’ RZR 46 Tubulars.
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