Nothing inspires mountain bike peer pressure – and anxiety – like a conversation about upgrading wheels. Once predominately the property of a race scene, carbon wheels are now widely (no pun intended) seen on recreational trails. With prices exceeding $2,000 some people still see carbon rims in the same light as a Manhattan family’s third child: a marker of financial success. Yet an increasing number of riders are embracing an ROI in ride quality and are making the investment.
All wheel reviews build stoke with words like “snappy” and “dampening” and “acceleration”, but in order to feel good about any upgrade, we still have to answer the 10,000 foot level question: “But is it worth it?” After some straight-talk about analyzing worthiness, this article will list some of our favorite carbon wheel upgrade options and their starting price points.
Carbon wheel worth will necessarily be established on the basis of one or more of the following attributes:
You will gain time, no questions asked. Across a complex matrix of rim widths, profiles, and lacing patterns, carbon rims weigh on average 300 grams less than aluminum. If moving from an aluminum rim with tubes to a carbon rim that is set up tubeless, the typical weight loss is just under 1 pound. And rotational weight savings impacts acceleration disproportionately. To quote Lennard Zinn, “The bike always has to accelerate at least once to get up to speed, and that will take more energy to do if the added mass is at the rim than if it has instead been added to the frame.” In other words, just taking a pound of snacks and tubes out of a hydration pack will not have the same effect. Be careful, however, about making weight the only criteria for upgrading. Weight is mathematically driven: we’re talking about $2,000/pound.
This characteristic is the most controversial on the list, and the most important. The stiffness of the wheel will either cause a rider to fall in love with carbon wheels, or reject them outright. A stiffer rim is a harsher ride. Many people mistakenly think something is wrong with their suspension tuning during his or her first ride on carbon wheels. Additionally, you may feel as though the wheels are ricocheting unpredictably off of rocks. There is a place for flex (namely traction and comfort), and carbon won’t offer much. Though less applicable in today’s market, it is much harder to make an argument for 26” carbon rims, where smaller rotational forces require less stiffness to maintain the same handling.
Stiffness, however, also means quicker acceleration and tire stability. Using a lighter material means that manufacturers can build wider rims. Tires stand more vertically on the rim and are subject to less pinching. Not only are the days of pinch flats virtually gone, but tire PSI can drop a few pounds without detriment. Once accustomed to the feel of carbon, the stiffness gives bikes a hard-charging point-and-shoot quality as well as cornering precision. One way of describing this quality is “they roll like a mofo”.
Two different things to consider with longevity, the first of which is maintenance: carbon wheels require less truing. All things being equal, even carbon wheels that live a hard life in tough terrain will spend less time in the truing stand due to the fact that the spokes are not subject to the same compression and expansion as with an aluminum rim. Secondly – and for the same reason – your carbon wheels will last longer. It will take a much harder hit to “blow them up”.
It is officially okay to buy carbon wheels because they look cool. We don’t even care if you justify the upgrade with any of the three previous arguments. If you fall in the status camp, own it. And ask us about custom decals while you’re at it.
Enve M70 Thirty HV – starting at $2,718
Cross Country Wheelsets
Industry Nine Ultralite Pillarcarbon 24H – starting at $2,300
29” Trail Wheelsets
Roval Traverse SL Fattie 29 – starting at $1,500
Enve M60 Forty HV – starting at $2,718
27.5 Trail Wheelsets
NOBL TR33 Sram XD – starting at $1,620.00
Nox Kitsuma 27.5 – from $1,800