Aero wheels used to be regarded as things you owned and used only if you were doing time trials or indulging in the demanding sport of triathlon.
But these days you’ll see plenty of instances of them being used by road riders too. These cyclists have realised that they too could benefit from that same reduction in work – or an increase in speed for the same level of work – by reducing overall aerodynamic drag.
Aside from making yourself physically smaller (the less area you’re pushing into the wind, the less air you have to push out of the way), one of the most crucial areas on a bike when it comes to drag are the wheels. This is because of their relatively complex shape – the spokes – and the fact that they don’t just move forwards, but rotate in order to do so.
For this Buyers Guide we chose wheelsets and disc wheels that we've tested recently, hence there are a few omissions. We will update it as and when necessary.
Aero wheels: Points to consider
Aero shape: Rim shape is going through a revolution as more and more brands follow the lead of Zipp and HED in adopting wider and bulged ‘toroidal’ rims. These offer decreased drag in a wider range of conditions than thin, flat profiles and they’re generally easier to control in windy conditions. The design has to control the air passing over the whole wheel while it rotates. It must also be strong enough to last, or be sufficiently tough as a rim if it’s structural. At the same time it has to behave in side winds and not steer the bike around too much.
Brake track: Under hard or long braking a lot of heat can be exchanged (brakes turn kinetic energy into heat). The rim has to be able to handle it, and that includes any glue or resins used to bond carbon to aluminium alloy, or the carbon and resin if it’s a full carbon rim.
Spokes: A good rule is that fewer spokes make a more aerodynamic wheel, but there have to be enough to make the wheel sufficiently strong and stiff. And they don’t have to be aero shaped: round section spokes aren’t the disadvantage some people think they are. Straight-pull spokes give higher tension, and traditional J-bend spokes allow easy replacement. Spokes anchored into the outer edge of the rim add security, while others fix spokes to the inside edge for easier truing.
Rim depth: When it comes to ideal aero rim sizes, anything between 45-60mm tends to hit a sweet spot for aerodynamics versus handling, though this isn’t a rule set in stone. Shallower rims (30mm deep) can give good benefits over standard wheels too, and are less influenced by side winds.
Tyres: We’ve tested wheels suitable for both clincher and tubular tyres. Clinchers are the easiest to repair with an inner tube and best for day in, day out riding. Tubulars have to be glued onto the rim but are less prone to pinch flats. Rolling resistance varies, depending on the tyre, however there's plenty of data that shows the best clinchers are equivalent to the best tubulars in this area of tyre performance.
Hubs: What matters is what’s going on inside the hub. If these will only be sunny-day specials, sealing doesn’t matter as much as if you’re going to be using them whatever the weather. The pick-up speed of the freehub and how much noise it makes, and whether you get fancy skewers, can also be a ‘make or break’ aspect for some riders.
Best aero wheelsets under £1,000
Planet X 52mm aero carbon clinchers (£499.99)
They might be at the cheaper end of the scale but these Planet X aero carbon clinchers did a brilliant job for us. Our set weighed 1,796g – bang on what Planet X claims. The set consists of a 20-spoke front and 24-spoke rear, using aluminium hubs and braking track and a V-shaped 52mm deep carbon rim.
There are none of your fancy profiles in the rim design, but there’s also no doubt that these are a fast set of wheels. They ride beautifully and are stiff and confident under power, and they also stop quickly too. They also handle better than some more expensive wheels in sidewinds.
From: Planet X
American Classic Carbon 58 clinchers (£879.99 / $1,429)
The Carbon 58 adds a little more aero advantage than average, without any obvious weight or handling penalties. While 8mm more rim depth doesn’t sound much, when combined with a slightly hourglass profile, these American Classic wheels are likely to gain you a few more seconds when the wind is against you. The profiling also makes them no more precarious in gusty conditions than most 50s. J-bend, bladed spokes are threaded into the rim edge to make truing easy if necessary, and the white spoke aligned with the (included) no-leak valve extensions makes set-up and repair slightly easier.
Other nice touches include steel inserts on the freehub splines and large flange rear hubs to handle drive torque. Despite the deeper depth, they’re a bearable overall weight, and the alloy rim keeps braking predictable. Frontwheel tracking can be slightly vague when pushed, though. They’re not quite as tight and precise as the Hed Jet 6s, and lack a little in all-out speed comparison, but they’re smooth and more than stiff enough when pushed hard.
Shimano RS80 C50 clinchers (£849.98 / $1,299)
These have the same 50mm alloy edged rims and spokes as found on Dura-Ace 7900 C50 wheels but with hubs more in line with Ultegra. And while it’s not the latest fat shape, it’s rounded enough to be controllable and predictable in crosswinds and on more blustery days. The good news is they’re £450 less than Dura-Ace and weigh only 176g more.
Even better, they ride as sweet as anything. They’re stiff (with no brake rub despite our best attempts), feel lively in a sprint and climb well too. Handling is great and the braking on the alloy rim is reassuringly predictable. They’re not the best in strong cross winds but they cope well. You’ll only get maximum life and value out of the old-skool adjustable bearings if you know how to service them too.
Reynolds Attack (£999 / $1,450)
Though the full carbon rims are only 32mm deep, these slice through the air. Couple that with low weight, tight DT Revolution spokes and quality Reynolds hubs and you have a pair of wheels that perform, whatever riding you do. The Attacks go like a set of wheels that cost twice as much. They’re quick from the start, handle wonderfully and the open-honeycomblike CTg brake track coating is outstandingly good in all weather conditions. The only drawback to all this is that they’re a little twitchy when it’s windy.
Vision Trimax T42 clincher wheels (£699.95)
These mid-section wheels from FSA are a tight, tidy easy-handling semi-aero set-up for the money. The 42mm section rim doesn’t carve the wind as well as deeper sets, but it’s less likely to be blown about in more gusty conditions. While weight is average, the fact that there’s less in the rims mean they light up easily under power and they climb better than most deeper wheels too.
The hand-built straight-pull bladed spoke build gives a very tight and accurate feel overall, and braking is consistent. That makes them more versatile than most deeper section wheels in terms of course profile, wind conditions and bike suitability. FSA wheels have a good reputation for long-term smoothness, and these have spun sweetly throughout extended testing. Quick-release levers are good quality too, and you even get tyre covers.
Planet X R50 Team Edition tubular wheels (£599.99)
The South Yorkshire price-slashing specialists have come up trumps again with their well-proven, superlight Team Edition carbon wheels. The versions tested here are Guru special editions (£499.99 special offer), so don’t expect big flowers on the normal versions. The full-carbon, 50mm deep-tub rim with elliptical profile and inside edge anchored spokes is standard though. Despite a stout rim, with a well-proven track record from amateur to World Cup level, they’re extremely light wheels regardless of the price.
This makes them impressively versatile for hillier courses, or tight stop/go short course events. The skinny, bladed spokes and ultra-narrow hubs that help lower mass do let some twang and flex into the wheels if you really work them hard, and aerodynamics and wind behaviour are only average. The R50s are relatively comfy though, and a total bargain at £600.
Best aero wheelsets above £1,000
Smart ENVE System 6.7 wheels (£2,100 / $3,045)
These were co-developed with aero guru Simon Smart and a lot of work has gone into making them suitable for all-round use. As a set they consists of a 60mm-deep front and 70mm rear built with 20 front and 24 rear Sapim CX Ray spokes on DT Swiss 240s hubs. We found the wheels stiff enough both for accelerating fast and for not rubbing against the brake blocks, and despite this they’re not harsh on rough roads and you get a smooth, almost stealthy ride quality.
When it comes to climbing, they suffer slightly on weight (1415g a pair, claimed) compared with pure climbing wheelsets, but make up for that with their superior aero and handling properties. At £2100 they’re high end but not overpriced for what is a fantastic all-round wheelset.
Zipp 303 Firecrest clinchers (£2,300 / $3,350)
Zipp’s Firecrest rim shape has a wider than standard tyre bed to produce a more rounded tyre profile that matches the curve of the carbon rim’s spoke bed, resulting in more balanced aerodynamics. The shape copes better in blustery conditions, with the front wheel being nearly immune to the effects of the wind.
Smart ENVE 3.4 wheels (£2,300 / $3,100)
ENVE say the specific front and rear shapes – the front is 35mm deep and 26mm wide; the rear 45mm deep and 24mm wide – make these wheels more linear in their reaction to crosswinds for more stability. We are pleased to confirm that their research and development has done the trick and the 6.7s seem even more stable than regular aluminium rims during gusts of wind.
Superlight Chris King R45 hubs are so called because they have 45 pawls on the freehub ratchet so there’s no slack when you get on the gas out of tight corners. Braking performance is excellent in the dry but only average in the wet and the extreme width means you'll have to set up your brakes from scratch when you fit them. There are cheaper and lighter carbon wheels available with similar rim depths and aero properties to the 6.7s but Enves wheels have a reputation for bombproof strength. Overall these are up with the very best wheels that we've ridden.
- HED Jet 6 clinchers (£1,149 / $1,600)
- Corima Aero+ (£1,470 / $3,039.41)
- HED Stinger S6 tubulars (£1,500/ $2,099)
- Easton EA90 (£1,675 / $2,100)
- Cole C58 Lite clinchers (£1,099.99 / $1,784)
- Reynolds Assault C (£1,049.99 / $1,499.99)
- Zipp 303 tubular wheels (£1,900 / $2,299.95)
- Easton EC90 Aero carbon clinchers (£1,675 / $2,100)
- Mad Fiber clinchers (£2,500 / $2,899)
- Ritchey Apex WCS (£1,175 / $1,899.99)
- Giant P-SLR1 Aero (£1,250 / $1,600)
- HED Jet 5 Express (£1,099 / $1,550)
- Zipp 404 Firecrest carbon clinchers (£2,300 / $2,700)
- Pro-Lite Gavia P55 clinchers (£1,449.99 / $1,732.48)
- Edco Furka Competition (£1,549.99 / $2,508.35)
- Zipp 101 (£1,100 / $1,300)
Best disc wheels
Zipp Sub 9 (£1,850 / $2,075)
Zipp’s latest wheel is the ultimate lightweight speed-boosting wheel, as long as it fits your bike. The full carbon construction makes use of the latest toroidal section design and a dimpled skin, which smooths airflow over the Zipp Tangente tubular tyre. Zipp claim it actually sucks the bike forward at some wind angles. It certainly feels extremely quick.
At a hair over 1kg, with titanium rear skewer, it’s the lightest wheel here, and direct power delivery means it feels as responsive as most deep-dish wheels in acceleration and climbing terms. It’s also usefully comfortable over longer distances. PowerTap and custom sticker versions are available. Big riders can cause flex though and Zipp warn of tight clearances on some Cervélo, Ridley, Scott, Giant and Argon bikes.
HED Stinger FR Disc (£1,149/ $1,449)
Stinger Flamme Rouge is the top-end, tubular tyre disc from aero gurus HED, with a smooth, responsive, full-feature performance to match, at a surprisingly affordable price. Again, it’s a metal spoked wheel underneath, but the super-broad 28mm outer rim is carbon, and the Flamme Rouge also gets flexible high modulus carbon-fibre skins to form the toroidal shape, although they’re still flexible covers rather than structural.
Ceramic bearings and ti skewer drop weight further. You can get some brake rub, and they’re soft if you really crank the pedals hard, but the ride is outstandingly smooth for a disc. Low weight spins up to speed and climbs quickly too, and in performance terms, it’s a real bargain.
Reynolds Element T (£1,149 / $1,529.99)
Reynolds’ disc is a straightforward solid performer with particularly good braking. It’s a full carbon wheel, but with dead flat sides and a very broad, squared rim edge that produces a noticeable edge between tyre and wheel. Mid weight means it picks up speed OK and it rolls well too, with a firm, but not too harsh, feel and only slight brake rub if you really throw it round a corner or hammer a climb. The recessed valve cup means easy inflating though, and the ultra-light skewer and padded wheel bag are a nice touch for the price. The excellent braking response from the rim surface treatment and Cryo Blue brake pads really boosts confidence and there’s a ‘try before you buy’ scheme too.
HED Jet Disc, £799/ $1,049.95
The cheapest disc here comes from the one of the most experienced aero cycling component makers. The result is a reliably cost-effective, conventional tyre rear end for any bike. HED save money by essentially carbon skinning a standard spoked rear wheel. The ‘substrate wheel’ is hand built using their top C2 aluminium clincher rim with a broad 23mm tyre-fattening profile that matches the bulged toroidal section created by the carbon-fibre skins.
These flexible ultra-thin skins keep the aerodynamics clean, but allow the rear wheel to suck up bumps more smoothly than solid discs, making this a very comfortable long-haul wheel. It handles well through turns and blustery conditions and, despite the drumskin sides, it’s not as noisy as the full carbon sets. High weight and soft feel mean it is slow to accelerate though.
Mavic Comete (£1,900 / $2,899)
It’s not cheap, but Mavic’s super stiff, enhanced braking disc is a rock-solid boost for aggressive riders. The rims of the Comete are aluminium to allow use of the latest anchorage and life-boosting Exalith rim treatment that’s potentially a real control bonus in changeable UK conditions. The fully carbon wheel construction keeps overall weight reasonable though, and the power delivery is outstandingly direct, with no trace of flex in corners either.
The asymmetric design is claimed to actually create negative drag at certain wind angles, and the wheels certainly feel fast. Mavic’s steel freehubs are well proven, Mavic’s own tub tyre, wheelbags and brake blocks are included, and there’s a damage-insurance programme for an extra £147.