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Should You Buy Carbon Or Alloy Wheels?

by John Neugent

Tech articles | Commentary articles

John Neugent probably knows more about bicycle wheels than anyone else alive. Maybe more about bikes as well. He's spent his life in the bike business, at every level. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price. If you are in the market for a set of wheels, please, check out John's site. He really knows his stuff. —Chairman Bill

John Neugent

John Neugent

Carbon or Alloy wheels?

I first started building with carbon rims about 15 years ago. I bought them from one of the well known US makers. Back then they were really Formula One stuff – used for racing only and extremely fragile. I know of people who cracked them in their first mile. As they say, being on the cutting edge means you’re going to bleed.

But carbon technology has come a long way, to the point where they can now be considered everyday wheels. Low spoke count wheels typically wear out by getting rim cracks on the drive side rear spoke holes. In the 15 years of selling carbon wheels, I have never had a spoke hole failure on any of my carbon rims. The only two durability issues with them are melting and scratching the brake tracks, both of which can be avoided with some care. Keeping the brake pads clean and avoiding overheating the rims are all that is necessary.

Outside of the cost (all carbon rims are still handmade and expensive) what are the factors that should go into determining whether or not you use them? On the plus side, they are lighter and faster, and look cool. But you can also get pretty light alloy wheels so it tends to focus more on speed. They are faster primarily because they are more aerodynamic. They can be made deeper than alloy without the extra weight.

Sylvain Chavanel

Top pro Sylvain Chavanel picks up his carbon-rimmed bike to start a road stage in the 2018 Etoile de Besseges

But aerodynamic drag is much more critical at higher speeds. At 10 mph it’s a small issue, at 25 mph it’s somewhere around 85% of your effort. I find people who average less than 15 mph find little perceived advantage but people who generally go 17 and above notice a big difference. At race speeds I frequently hear it’s about a gear difference. The good news is you can buy speed, the bad news is it’s expensive.

John Neugent was was one of the first to establish quality hand building in Taiwan around the turn of the century. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price.