Why are carbon wheels so expensive

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Why are carbon wheels so expensive

Carbon wheels will leave you a couple of thousand dollars short than what you have entered a bicycle store with. Now, you can ask why would you be spending a couple of thousand dollars on wheels? Carbon wheels justify their high price by being stiff, lightweight, and will allow you to enjoy a great riding experience. Given all the advantages that they offer, is this enough for brands to charge really high prices? Well, yes and no. Let us take you through the reasonings below.

Carbon wheels need significant research and developmet
Picture: A lot of R&D goes into designing carbon wheels

The R&D that companies have to engage in designing their own carbon rims is massive. The industry standard is testing the wheels in wheel tunnels and evaluating the performance of the wheels – which takes up a lot of time and effort. To stand out in the market, manufacturers incorporate carbon wheels with cutting edge technology that is being used by their competitors and then some. They also resort to other means to maintain the quality of their carbon rims, like hand-assembling them by a skilled worker. Carbon molds are usually more expensive, and after the tubes are placed inside the rims – special equipment is used to inflate them. This is why it takes so long to develop and produce carbon wheels in comparison to their alloy counterparts – which drives up the production cost of the former. Rims made from carbon fiber are somehow more prone to issues while riding, but since replacing them takes so little time and cost – you might consider this to be an acceptable compromise. Over the course of this article, we will take you through the budget you should allocate to get a pair of decent carbon wheels, why they have gathered popularity in recent years, and the features that justify their higher prices. At the end of the article, you will also find a few FAQs that will address the general queries that are associated with the high prices for carbon wheels.

Carbon fiber wheels are often hand made
Picture: Carbon wheels are expensive because they are often hand-made

You are going to spend between $1000 and $2500 for your carbon wheels in American dollars. Having said so, there are a few manufacturers who charge even more – around $3000. This is because manufacturers have to maintain a norm of offering the widest rims sizes – 27.5 and 29 sizes while the internal rim width has to be 30mm. Based on product warranty, customer service, and several options for the build – you can spend more than $3000 too. It is very difficult to go the other way ( spend less) in terms of price if you are looking for carbon wheelsets.

Carbon wheels becoming significantly expensive in the past 8 years or so

In the last 8 years especially, the process of carbon wheels has skyrocketed. While manufacturers blame the increased cost of the rim material for this price hike, the fact that other high-end components like hubs from DT Swiss are preferred with the carbon rims has also played their part. Most of the manufacturers can charge higher prices thanks to their brand name, so the actual price of the carbon wheels may not be reflected in the prices they are charging.

‘Enve’ being a renowned brand are setting high standards

Enve carbon wheels
Picture: Enve Wheels are setting the standard in the carbon wheel market

Even with the increased competition in the market for carbon wheels, one brand, in particular, has been able to set high standards. Based out of Utah in America, Enve is one of the few manufacturers who have decided to do their R&D and production both in the US. Therefore they have been able to build up a dedicated group of customers for their carbon wheels. The exceptional engineering and dedication to upholding quality are what sets them apart. They specialize in using carbon fiber for their wheelsets and have been able to patent several cutting edge techniques to produce aero rims – like the “molded-in spokes” design that they have patented for their wheels.

Molded spokes for Enve carbon wheels
Picture: Molded spoke hole design patented by Enve

They have to lead the way to use carbon rims for mountain bikes – carrying out extensive testing on both their own wheels and that of their competitors. – which are poke holes used by Enve is the main difference, which actually is a pretty big difference, which they patented. Hard for anyone to tell the quality difference of good carbon by looking at it – Enve does extensive tests on their wheels and also on those from its competitors. While they do not disclose all of their secrets, Enve has allowed journalists to visit their facilities several times so that the cycling world has an idea of the rigorous testing that they undertake – even breaking thousands of dollars of expensive rims in front of them just to prove that Enve wheels are capable of withstanding huge amounts of force in comparison to other carbon fiber wheels. They also take advantage of their US-based manufacturing facilities to offer new wheels to their customers in a relatively short amount of time. With a prototyping process that is miles ahead of other players in the field – Enve has been able to easily take over the market for carbon wheels.

Carbon fiber used in Enve wheels
Picture: Carbon fiber used on Enve wheels

Features

The following features of carbon wheels have increased their popularity in the world of cycling.

1. Drive ring

The drive system used by most hubs is pawl operated. If you look closely inside the hubs, you will find that the teeth are facing inwards on a ring. To engage them, another ring that has its paws facing outwards has been used on their opposite side. The pawls engage with the teeth to create a clicking sound as you are coasting – which eventually leads to wheel rotation as soon as you begin to pedal. The number of pawls varies with the hub models – where the two combine to create POE or points of engagement. With increased POE, the hub can engage faster.

Hub engaging on carbon wheels
Picture: Carbon wheels with more pawls

Carbon wheels allow quicker engagement of the hubs because the manufacturers tend to use more pawls. This means that your crank will only need to cover a short distance until the drivetrain comes into play – which means that the responsiveness of your bike will increase. While this effect is not so noticeable on smooth trail sections, it becomes more prominent while going up technical terrains. Even though you may not be able to pedal with much efficiency here, even if the crank turns by 180 degrees – it will be enough to engage the drivetrain instantaneously. The carbon hubs with their high engagement will also justify their price when you come across awkward rocks that will force you to ratchet pedal if you have to go through them.

2. Width

Wider rims can offer a bunch of advantages while riding, such as: i. Improved Traction; ii. Better quality of ride; iii. Stability; iv. Reduced resistance to rolling; v. Weight; vi. Better suspension.
A carbon wheel with a larger inner width will present a much wider contact patch for the tire when it is moving on the road. As a result, the tire profile becomes squared instead of being rounded. The increased tread is coupled with consistent riding surface contact for the cornering knobs – boosting traction for cornering. The extra width for the rims is also beneficial while making a climb. There is more air inside the tires now, which will allow you to even go with lower tire pressures so that you can take advantage of better climbing traction.

Cross section of carbon bike wheels
Picture: Cross-section of carbon fiber wheels used for biking

Tire pressure remains consistent throughout the duration of your rides with carbon wheels. With more air volume available, you can use your tire more effectively. Even if you bring down the tire pressure by 3 psi, rolling resistance will remain the same here while traction is boosted. It is even possible to maintain the same speed in this scenario.

Wider carbon wheels will allow you to have 1 to 2 inches of additional suspension from impacts. Thanks to the wider base – stiff suspension can be used too without compromising your ride quality. On the contrary, you will find that you have more control over the wheels now.

Advantages of using carbon wheels

As we look at carbon wheels, a significant characteristic that they offer is the low weight in comparison to wheels that are made using aluminum. As a result:

  • If you find yourself climbing at a higher speed – carbon wheels will make sure that you are not carrying too much load. As a result, it will be much easier for you to reach higher speeds. Since the rotational weight has also decreased – the significance of this reduction is much more noticeable. As the rotating mass of the wheel is reduced – you can sprint, accelerate, and climb better too.
  • The next advantage of carbon wheels comes in terms of aerodynamics. The cross-section of carbon rims has much more depth than those made with aluminum. So the latter is made to be 20mm while the former can be as deep as 40~100mm. Their shape is optimized too so that the wheel can cut through the air much better. In addition to this, the carbon wheels will not “disturb” the air as much as aluminum ones – boosting the efficiency of your rides. Your body is less susceptible to drag force and you will be able to exhibit better aerodynamics. Very little effort will allow you to reach the higher speeds and hold on to it too. Going 1-3 miles faster will make a significant difference over your whole ride – that too with less effort.

Superior aerodynamics of carbon wheels
Picture: Carbon wheels are more aerodynamic

  • With carbon being more stiff than aluminum, you will be able to transfer a larger amount of input power via your feet to the pedals, which are passed on to the road by the wheels. Going forward, you will be able to attain a higher top speed with ease. This is also the reason why carbon rims can be used with fewer spokes – around the 20 to 24 range while for Aluminum rims this has to be 32. This benefits the manufacturer as the lower weight can be maintained.
  • Better aesthetics is another advantage. Carbon wheels are all black with deeper cross-sections so that they have an appealing look. They also sound great when you are riding – making a distinctive zooming sound.

Carbon wheels are better in every way than aluminum wheels except for braking performance as traditionally aluminum wheels have been better at bringing you to a stop. However, recent innovations for braking surfaces as well as the rise in popularity of disc brakes mean that they can deliver comparable performance.

Physics behind bicycle wheels

1. Power
2. Air Drag
3. Force

Here, we will be using a set of conventional wheels and aero Zip NSW 808 wheels(which cost around $3400) to see the effects of using a pricier wheelset.

 Duration of rideAverage speedAverage Power
Conventional Wheels20 min41.12 kph379 W
Zip NSW 80851 min41.13 kph344 W

Note:

  • To get a reading for the power – a computer with a power meter has been used. At regular intervals, rotation angles are noted along with the input rotational force that is exerted at the crankshaft or pedals. To get the energy that is acting as input here, the following formula is used:
    Input power at pedals
  • Assumption: All other conditions are constant, only the wheels have been swapped for the two tests.
  • The formula below will give us the air drag on the wheels:
    Air drag formula for bike wheels Assumptions for effect of air drag
  • The frictional force is generated as the tires and the road come in contact with each other.
  • We are considering that human effort is the source of the frictional force. So more human effort will make the bike go faster. Assuming that forces are balanced,
    Physics behind carbon wheels Physics behind carbon wheels
  • Since power is denoted by the overall change in energy over a certain period of time,
    Physics behind carbon wheels
  • Average power depends on the cube of velocity, with no dependency on the distance traveled.
  • P1 = Power requirements of the convenient wheel; P2 = Aero wheel power requirements
  • Using their ratio gives us:
    Physics behind carbon wheels
  • With P1 = 379 W and P2 = 344 W, we get C2( drag coefficient of the Aero wheels) = 0.908C1.
  • Therefore, Aero Wheels will offer a slight advantage – something that will make the difference if you are racing with the aero wheels, and every advantage you can get will make a difference.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. How much difference do carbon wheels make?

Ans.: Your carbon wheels have a huge effect on your feel and ride quality. This is why their popularity has received a boost over the past decade. Carbon wheels have a variety of advantages. They will allow you to become more aero thanks to their stiffness. Since carbon is great at damping vibrations from the road, you can experience smoother rides. Since these high-quality wheels use superior hubs, you will find them rolling with ease, even if you cannot engage the pedals completely. The reliability of the stiff carbon rims also boosts the quality of the tires being used. Cheaper wheelsets make compromises, which is not the case for carbon wheels.

Q2. Can you true a carbon wheel?

Ans.: Yes it is possible to”true” a carbon wheel. However, thanks to their increased strength – the frequency of trying will be much lower in comparison to Aluminum wheels. If you see that the shape of your carbon fiber wheels has small warps, take a closer look because if the warp is large – it is likely that your rims have cracked. This is quite different from Aluminum rims that can bend and flex under stress without cracking.
When you are trying your carbon wheels, tighten and loosen the nipples of the spokes to see if the warped sections can be realigned. A wheel that is “out-of-true” will wobble laterally towards the drive side from the non-drive side. Therefore your bike needs to be lifted. Follow this up by spinning either the rear or front wheel and try to look at it from the rear or front side. Left-right wobbling that exceeds 5 mm means that you will need to “true” your bike wheels. In rare cases, you will find that when a wheel is untrue – it is coming in contact with the brake pads of the rim or the chainstays/seat stays are being brushed by the tire itself.

You will also check if there are any cracks in the hole on the rim where the spokes are being attached. Cracked spokes will lose tension in their structure. Carbon wheels that are 50 mm wide usually find 3 – 5 of their spokes to wobble. Actually, this number might be the multiples of an odd number. In that case, try to locate where the wobble has originated and also focus on the spokes that are adjacent to the one in the center of the wheel. Check out the video link below to know how you will be able to “true” a carbon wheel.

Can you true a carbon wheel?

Q3. Are carbon wheels stronger than aluminum?

Ans.: Carbon rims rarely undergo deformation until they break down. This is why carbon wheels remain true and dished far better than their alloy counterparts. The surplus stiffness of carbon wheels will also contribute to the predictability and accuracy of your rides. With wider rims, the stiff rims allow manufacturers to produce rims that weigh less. This is why carbon wheels need very less or no maintenance at all and will last longer.

Conclusion

Speaking from the performance standpoint, it is very hard to disagree that carbon wheels offer several performance benefits. They feel more lively, spin quicker while making your rides fun and enjoyable. However, the price that manufacturers charge for them can be discouraging. Since higher-grade spokes and hubs often accompany these high-quality wheels – you are likely to spend even more. With carbon wheels, you will face both sides of the coin as they are superior in every way possible except their price.

My name is Dion Lewis. I’ve been cycling since my childhood. When I was in high school, I started racing in our local competitions. In my college life, I took a part-time job in a bicycle shop and I learned how to repair and maintain bicycles professionally. Though I love racing, mountain biking is another thing I do frequently. My friends, neighbors, and colleagues treat me as an avid rider and take my suggestions while they plan for a new bike or bike gear.

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