Off the bat, we can tell you, with full confidence, that you can’t go wrong with either material for your bike wheels. Putting a “versus” between the two actually implies that one of these two industry favorites is better than the other or the argument can be made black and white.
➥ We recommend you have a look at some of the top carbon MTB wheels you can buy today
News flash: It can’t!
The bike wheel manufacturing industry has matured over the past couple of decades, to the point that the question now turns from “which wheel is better?” to “which wheel is better for me?”
To help you with that, we have researched many factors of the wheel that make or break a mountain biking experience and have boiled it down to the following major comparison criteria:
When it comes to the cost of MTB wheels and if you’re on a budget, then, we suggest, you have a look at some of the top budget MTB wheels you can buy today
Expect the differences to not be game breaking, but how it will impact your preference and riding style.
Comparison of the two at a glance:
|Durability||Brittle (can form cracks on impact, rendering the wheels useless)||Flexible (dents and deformities caused by impacts can be hammered straight. Has a better longevity)|
|Stiffness||Very Stiff (provides better control and traction, but can be very uncomfortable to ride over very rocky surfaces)||Flexible (provides a smoother riding experience. But can’t withstand heavy pressures)|
Without further ado, let us break down these points and find out the strengths and weaknesses of carbon and aluminum wheels and which material is the right one for you.
The weight of the wheel determines the energy that you need to expend to overcome inertia to rotate the wheel. The heavier the wheel is the more energy it requires.
Carbon fiber wheels boast some of the best strength-to-weight ratios. Its density is nearly half of that of aluminum but is also stronger than it.
Due to its lightweight frame, carbon wheels make it easier for you to reach top speeds at a lower time period, whether you are climbing or riding downhill. This is especially helpful when you are climbing as you will not need to expend extra energy to rotate the wheel’s weight.
To put things into perspective, a top of the line aluminum wheel will weigh around 1700g, whereas a carbon wheel of the same dimensions will weigh around 1400g. That difference of nearly 300 grams is very significant towards MTB performance as the weight will add up every moment you are pedaling.
Thus our winner in the weight department: Carbon Wheels.
The durability of the wheel is one of the biggest concerns when it comes to MTB wheels. It is a hotly debated point in any bike forum with different takes from different people.
We have already mentioned that carbon wheels have a great strength-to-weight ratio. But this strength comes at a big price: brittleness. Carbon wheels are essentially carbon fibers weaved and glued together, leaving no room for flex.
This non-flexibility has made many bikers experience cracks and wheel failures during their time on the trail, giving carbon wheels a bad rep.
Under the right conditions, even aluminum wheels can fail. But this light flexible metal will more likely deform or dent rather than outright crack under pressure. These dents can be easily hammered back into place, but of course, you will be sacrificing durability if you do that. That is why most cyclists leave the small dents in place.
These traits drastically increase the longevity of the aluminum wheel than that of the carbon one.
Experienced bikers will know how drastically the stiffness of the bike can change one’s riding experience.
You can ask yourself, why does the stiffness of the wheel matter?
A stiffer wheel:
- Gives better ease of control
- Has a faster response to pedaling
- Gives more response from the riding surface (you may feel every bump on the road)
- Is more energy efficient, due to little to no flex
That said, carbon wheels, being the stiffer of the two, will give you a better sense of control as you are riding the trail. Your cornering leans will be more responsive (better traction) allowing you to ride more aggressively and with confidence.
On the downside though, for carbon wheels, the riding experience can be very harsh. These wheels are notorious for giving a very high impact response to every bump the bike goes over on the road. Manufacturers have taken notice since then and have come with great solutions to this problem, and were able to find the balance between compliance and stiffness.
Aluminum wheels, on the other hand, never faced such issues. Being a supple metal, these wheels can easily absorb more shock than their carbon counterparts.
The increased flex of the aluminum makes for a more comfortable ride. Especially if you are a heavy set person, the vibrations that you would feel on a particularly rough ride will be greatly subdued.
In mountain biking, comfort can, more often than not, trump speed and aggression. Aluminum can be a great choice in that regard, but carbon wheels are very close behind and may even catch up pretty soon due to manufacturing innovations.
Perhaps the most unattractive trait of the carbon wheel is the price tag that is attached to it.
For comparison, a top-of-the line aluminum wheelset will cost you approximately $1200. Whereas, a premium carbon fiber wheelset will take a $2000 chunk out of your wallet. That is a nearly $800 difference right there for a wheel that is essentially similar in performance.
A premium set of aluminum wheels will generally have a price range of $500-1500. Compared to that, a premium carbon wheelset will have a range of $1500-2500.
This high price range is a common scenario, but it is very well justified.
As a raw material, aluminum can be very cheap and easy to acquire compared to carbon fibers.
Aluminum rims are usually manufactured using automated means. This process has been refined over many decades and manufacturers can now push out thousands of them every day.
Compared to that, carbon rims require skilled labor for the manufacturing process. Specific tools and molds are required to create any component of the wheel, which themselves can be very expensive. Since it is a labor-intensive process, the output numbers can be very low, further adding to the price of these premium quality wheels. The customizability of these wheels also adds another layer of costs.
These high price numbers will put off many buyers, especially for those who are on a budget. But this is the price that you have to pay for performance.
How Carbon Fiber Wheels Are Made:
Conclusion: Which one should I choose?
Choosing between carbon and aluminum can be very difficult as there are really no major differences except pricing. That too is well justified under the circumstances driven by basic economics. What you have to keep in mind is what works for you.
So, if you are:
- Concerned about performance
- Seeking the best strength to weight ratio
- Experienced in riding more challenging trails
- Not looking to maintain wheels more often
Then, carbon wheels could be the way to go.
➥ Get to know for sure, whether, carbon wheels are really worth buying
But if you:
- Are concerned with your budget
- Are a beginner to the MTB lifestyle
- Have a heavy set build or looking for a supple riding experience
- Just enjoy long periods away from civilization
Aluminum wheels will possibly serve you better.
Q1. How long do carbon fiber wheels last?
Ans.: Carbon rims theoretically have a nearly infinite life expectancy on the condition that the resin and carbon matrix (the mixture that is used to create the rims) is not damaged. Damages can occur in the following ways:
- If you have a rim brake: Rim brakes use friction and will wear away on the carbon rims over time. The timeline is usually around 15000 to 20000 miles before you may need a replacement. It is better to opt for a disc brake in this regard.
- The rim has suffered a piercing impact: Riding a trail or rocky surface may enable a stray rock to impact the rim surface, piercing and cracking it (carbon fiber is strong but brittle). A cracked rim is useless and you should immediately replace it.
Q2. Are wheels the best bike upgrade?
Ans.: Yes. You may sit on the frame and control your bike from the frame, but the parts of the bike that actually interact with the track are the wheels.
This is especially true for MTBs. The wheels bear loads of both the user and the frame all the while absorbing the impact of the trail.
Manufacturers have noticed this and most bike innovations nowadays go towards wheel design. This renewed focus is justified with the great leaps of performance that bike wheels now bring compared to the marginal ones brought about by a new type of brake.