Carbon Wheels - Experiences and Tests

The next biggest thing in the wheel market at the moment seems to be carbon wheels. As significant parts of a bicycle they look great and are sold at the top of most brands product range list and are generally quite expensive, well actually very expensive, normally between €1000 and €1500 euros a wheel depending on the hub setup and if it is a front or back wheel.

So the big questions are: - Carbon rimed wheels, they any good? Are they worth the money?

This is more of an experienced based article rather than a test, but we based it on time on various sets of wheels and observation of test sets around and about. Plus a few conversations with some pro mechanics that follow the DH world cup.

Normally it is not easy to test these wheels not many people have them, but as it happens we have spent time on some ENVE AM rims and also some SRAM RISE wheel sets. We have seen and heard about DT Swiss variants and last but not least we have spent time on some cheap Chinese no brand imports. In all we have discovered how most carbon rims ride, feel, last (up to a point - due to limited testing time) and cost.

Carbon rims tend to be stiff, roll quickly and are great for cornering precision. The ride is different to normal wheel rims and in some cases staggeringly so. The weights are normally lighter compared to alloy wheels but not in all cases. Recently when we compared Mavic and DT Swiss we discovered that with a complete carbon setup there was basically no difference in weight compared to a complete Mavic Crossmax SX setup.

Chinese carbon rims on Hope hubs.

Are Carbon Rims Any Good? 

Talking to Jason Marsh the mechanic of Greg Minaar 2012 DH World Cup Champion about ENVE DH rims, he said that, ” Once you have built them, you don’t need to do anything, the spokes remain tight and they don’t need truing and we use a lot less through the year as they are stronger…” The wheels are used in the hands of the fastest athletes in the world that push components to the limit.

Sounds great can it really be true? Well we have spent time on a set of AM versions and we can honestly say they are pretty amazing, but we have seen once a small dent on one rim on the bike of another rider, after they rode with a deflated tyre. The rim had to be discarded as the risk of sudden failure was higher, but they were still true and in all honestly perfectly ridable. ENVE has an excellent replacement scheme and can replace them at zero, or very low cost.

The next set of rims we have seen that caught our eye were DT Swiss EXC 1550,  these were being used fairly well by a competent rider, and after a long winter with no problems the rear suddenly broke when the rider hit some large trail rocks when going fairly fast. The rim failure was sudden and dramatic, however the tyre remained inflated  and seated on the rim. Unfortunately we don’t have copy-write free pictures of the failure, but the rear was no longer ridable.

Carbon wheel set from DT Swiss as displayed on their website.

A while back we got to test some SRAM rise carbon wheels in various forms and most notably concurrently on a 26″ wheeled bike and a 29″ wheeled bike. These were not all mountain versions but more leaning towards Cross Country/All Mountain, however they again showed the characteristics of being stiff, fast rolling and performance enhancing when riding, especially the 29er versions. After all the riding we did, we found that the ENVE AM set felt better as they were stiffer and faster rolling in feeling on the bike, we noted that spoke tensions were higher on the ENVE AM rims, and we would like to investigate further how this affects wheel performance, along with rim profile. We would be interested to try the more comparable AM versions from SRAM which have just been released and see how they compare next to the ENVE AM versions.

Chinese Light Bicycle Carbon Wheel Test - Video

Lastly but by no means least we have got to try some cheap (€150 per rim - all the others we tested are starting at €850 plus.) Chinese wheels built on to Hope hubs. These were the most interesting as they didn’t have any branding, cost the same a high end alloy rims, but they were stiff, light, precise for turning, rolled well and after many long hours in use showed no signs of damage or failure.

Carbon weave is visible in the Light Bicycle set of rims.

Are Carbon wheels Worth it?

It all depends on what a rider needs. There is no doubt that the ENVE AM carbon rims, which in our opinion are the best ones out there, made riding more of a joy and significantly changed they way it was possible to ride, up and down hill. However at €2500-€3000 euro for a set with hubs they are extremely expensive.

Comparing the ENVE to the cheap Chinese versions, which were bought online and included a warranty should there be any problems, (which was honoured when one had a surface finish problem) the question starts to evolve. The performance of the Chinese rims was for the price not that far behind the ENVE AM rims and was completely comparable to the SRAM and DT Swiss versions we used at various points. Which brings us to the point, If a rider has money and wants the best then the ENVE AM rim is a really good option, they are hand made in the USA and have high quality warranty support. However if as a rider you are considering one of the other brand options out there, for the price the performance increase is not really worth it.

The fact that these Chinese carbon rims have held together no problems, and are still perfectly straight and un-damaged under normal riding conditions, makes us think why do other branded complete wheel sets cost three times more? It doesn’t seem sensible to buy other brand wheel sets.

When placing an order online for the Chinese rims it is possible to specify the weight according to the intended use. The factory lay up the rim set for the customer as requested. It seems in our experience it is possible to trust the product. We are led and convinced that non ENVE branded rims are not worth it currently, based on performance alone. The ENVE are expensive, partly because they are made in the USA and partly because they are a top level product with proven race pedigree that has a high price point, however they do have a noticeable higher performance that changes how it is possible to ride.

Compared to the Mavic Cross Max SX which we have tested at the same time, the Chinese imports were better in feeling, lighter and faster when changing direction. After factoring in the built wheel price, they turned out similar in price to the Mavic Crossmax SX.

Photos - What Happens to  Wheels when they Break?

This is more for information, but we looked around the web and found a few pictures of broken wheels, including carbon, which seems to be more dramatic when they break.

Found on Pinkbike.com reference their carbon ENVE DH wheel test.

Sam Hill’s destroyed wheel set a few years back, Alloy wheels here…


Carbon rimmed wheels are definitely better performing than normal alloy rims, they are stiffer, lighter to manoeuvre and roll quicker. However not all brands are the same and we have found that ENVE AM rims seem to be ahead based on our experience.

With regards to strength there is no doubt that carbon as a material is very strong and with the different carbon wheel sets that we have used it is evident how good they can be. However we have seen some carbon wheels, which when they broke were completely destroyed. Does this mean that they are not very good? Probably not, what would be interesting though is to test an aluminium rim with the  same forces applied in the same situation to see if it survived as well as the carbon variants that failed.

Whether or not a normal rider should buy carbon rimed wheels is another interesting question. Over the last year we can honestly say that carbon rims do improve bike performance and are stiffer, not necessarily lighter, but if as a rider you are not racing and like to have high performance parts anyway then it is a worth while consideration. If though as a rider you have limited funds and need something that is good and works well, almost up to carbon rim standards, then a wheel set like Mavic Crossmax SX or Fulcrum Redzone XLR will not leave you disappointed.

Apart from the ENVE AM wheel set, the other mainstream brands of the wheel sets we have tried left us unimpressed when considering their retail price.  However the Chinese import set, which for the price were really quite amazing. They were strong and light, with a great performance for price ratio. It is even possible to order them with and custom sticker set. (Ahem… why not get some custom ENVE stickers… )



Posted under:  News, Parts Test

Tagged:  , , ,

I-MTB is an online MTB magazine and trail areas operator based in Tuscany, Italy

Sign up for email updates