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Carbon or aluminum wheels?

Carbon or aluminum wheels?

Carbon fiber wheels

The more you think about it, the more convinced you are to try carbon wheels? Wheels really make a significant impact on riding sensations and bicycle performance. Carbon wheels have become very popular in recent years, but are they only for professional or very experienced cyclists?

Among professional cyclists, carbon wheels have long replaced aluminum rims. Demonstrating that technology has made giant strides, even in races with cobbled sectors, such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, carbon wheels are now used. Manufacturers have solved most of the issues that carbon fiber wheels faced in the past. Braking has significantly improved, and breakages have become much rarer. In recent years, manufacturers have also introduced more affordable wheels, bringing more amateurs to this material.

Let's analyze the main pros and cons.

Pros: Aerodynamic, lightweight, and very attractive.
  • Aerodynamics. The aerodynamic advantages are one of the main features that lead many cyclists to switch to carbon wheels. There is a lot of data from manufacturers who have tested wheels in wind tunnels that show how carbon rims are significantly less subject to air resistance. If you race, either time trials or road races, you'll find great benefits from purchasing high-profile carbon wheels and notice a huge improvement especially at high speeds. A high-profile carbon wheel acts, in fact, with a certain flywheel effect that will help you maintain your pace more easily.

  • Lightweight. A high-profile aluminum wheel would be really very heavy. Carbon fiber, on the other hand, is simply much lighter and for this reason is used to make high-profile aerodynamic wheels. The stiffness/weight ratio is also better than for aluminum wheels. The lighter carbon fiber wheels are designed for tubulars. Some can even weigh less than 1 kilogram per pair. If you're a climber and want a very light bike, this is the right solution for you. Obviously, low-profile wheels will weigh less than high-profile ones, but will be less aerodynamic. Which to choose depends exclusively on you and how you intend to use them.

  • Performance and quality of the ride. Good carbon wheels can really transform the quality of a bike and the sensations you have while riding. Stiffness is greater compared to aluminum wheels, and therefore, for more powerful cyclists, in sprints and standing starts on the pedals, they can make a difference by giving the bike a better response. Some carbon wheels can even improve perceived comfort on rougher roads.

  • Attractive. The aesthetic aspect should not be underestimated. Carbon wheels, especially if high-profile, give a more attractive look to the bike. Just mount a nice pair of wheels like this, and immediately, the bike starts to resemble that of the professionals.

 Cons: Suboptimal braking, high price, and low impact resistance.
  • Braking performance. The first carbon wheels had really poor braking, but by now most of the past issues have been overcome. The majority of the difficulties were due to heat. The rim, in fact, would overheat too much and unevenly due to friction. To remedy the situation, manufacturers have changed the resins used to glue the carbon fibers and the pads that act on the rim. Current carbon wheels have, as said, solved most of the past problems and have significantly improved braking both in power and modulation, however, on aluminum rims braking continues to be significantly more performant, especially in rainy conditions. The advent of disc brakes, in any case, has definitively eliminated this nuisance. Without a braking track, moreover, the wheels are even lighter (even if the discs weigh significantly more than traditional brakes).
  • Weight. While carbon wheels for tubulars are very appealing for their very low weight, the more affordable and common carbon wheels for clinchers typically have a greater weight and are more similar to those in aluminum. The aerodynamic factor, however, weighs heavily, and a high profile in aluminum is out of the question. If you want light wheels at a low price without having a particular interest in aerodynamics, then it's better that you orient yourself towards aluminum wheels.
  • Aerodynamics in the real world. Manufacturers give a lot of space to the aerodynamic factor of carbon wheels and extol their performance under this aspect. Often, however, it is difficult to understand how this translates into the real world where there are conditions very different from the wind tunnel and various factors conditioning their performance. Factors such as tire size, frame design, and wind affect a lot, for example, on declared friction savings. High-profile wheels, moreover, become quite unstable with lateral wind, especially for light riders. For this reason, wheels with a medium profile (30mm) have become the most popular.
  • Robustness. Carbon is a fantastic material and fiber wheels are incredibly resistant. They do not bend, although, unlike aluminum, this means that they can be subject to impact damage or falls. In short, they are not made to withstand an overload. While an aluminum rim if it bends can be straightened to get home, a carbon rim when it breaks is immediately to be thrown away, it also becomes very dangerous.
  • Cost. Carbon wheels, very simply, are anything but cheap. In recent years, however, some models have become more affordable, but not reaching the accessibility of the more traditional aluminum wheels.


Aluminum wheels

Aluminum rims, by now, as said, are no longer used by professionals. Among us amateurs, however, this type of wheel is still the most common. The aluminum wheel is still today a guarantee of high safety at an affordable price. This does not mean, however, that an aluminum wheel is not performant, indeed, high-end aluminum rims are an excellent compromise between quality and robustness.

Let's briefly analyze the main pros and cons.

Pros: Safe even on wet, contained price, practically indestructible.
  • Safe on wet. The aluminum rim always guarantees reliable braking, even in the rain. The arrival on the market of disc brakes has eliminated the problem for carbon. If traditional brakes are still used, however, the aluminum braking track is undoubtedly the most performant and ensures a powerful and well-modulable braking.
  • Do not give problems in case of wind. Aluminum wheels, for reasons of weight, are tendentially low profile. This means that they never give problems even in case of strong wind. If high-profile carbon wheels are used, instead, this risk must be taken into account. Manufacturers, moreover, for the more affordable versions focus on stability and safety. The high weight and, often, a greater number of spokes compared to top-of-the-range versions, make them, therefore, more comfortable and easy to drive, particularly downhill.
  • Contained price. Aluminum wheels, as often repeated, are definitely cheaper than their carbon rivals. They are ideal as training wheels and are advisable as a second wheel if you already own another set in carbon. They will allow you to preserve your best wheels in case of adverse weather conditions or outings on very rough roads. Mid-range complete bicycles usually come standard with low/mid-range aluminum wheels.
  • Indestructible. The materials used and a non-extreme search for lightness make them really robust. With adequate maintenance they can last almost a lifetime. Moreover, if a spoke should break, or they should bend following a fall, aluminum wheels, unlike carbon ones, guarantee a safe return home.
Cons: Generally high weight, not aerodynamic and aesthetically not very beautiful.
  • Generally high weight. The materials used entail a greater weight for aluminum wheels compared to those in carbon. Top-of-the-range wheels are definitely better but, if you like to face long climbs, and measure your performances, you would probably do well to orient yourself towards something in carbon that is lighter.

  • Aerodynamics. They are definitely less aerodynamic compared to the high profile of carbon wheels. However, you only notice the aerodynamic benefits at speeds above 30-35 km/h. It always depends, therefore, on the use you intend to make of them. An amateur who does not intend to race, probably, can very well give up having high-profile carbon wheels. On the contrary, if you decide to take part in tendentially flat races, low/medium profile aluminum wheels will be less indicated.

  • Aesthetics. Needless to beat around the bush, aluminum wheels are aesthetically less attractive than their carbon rivals, especially if medium/high profile. Even the aesthetic aspect must be taken into consideration, but it is certainly not in first place.


To sum up

In summary, carbon wheels are certainly more performant than aluminum wheels. They have many advantages and it is not necessary to be professionals to be able to use them. Sure, as for many aspects, even for carbon wheels, especially if traditional brakes are used, it takes a little bit of habit to be able to master them at best. The high profile, then, makes them more aerodynamic but, certainly, does not simplify things. If your goal is to excel in races, then you cannot do without carbon (high, medium or low profile depends on the race). A set of aluminum wheels, however, could be convenient to have even in this case. Carbon wheels, in fact, are more delicate and it is not the case to risk ruining the good pair of rims.

If, on the other hand, you are more indifferent to aerodynamics and lightness but much more oriented towards robustness, then aluminum wheels are the most suitable choice for you. Buying a pair of aluminum wheels does not mean opting for low-quality wheels, it simply means opting for a compromise of quality and resistance that carbon cannot always guarantee. Aluminum wheels are also more suitable for beginners because they are more stable and safe. It is better to evaluate the purchase of carbon wheels once you have gained more experience. Budget reasons, finally, tip the balance towards aluminum rims. As always performance and innovation have a price, sometimes not affordable. Aluminum wheels, however, I repeat, are an excellent compromise.

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