Does carbon have a future in wheels?

Before we start today's post, if you are anywhere close to Newport we (which in the case means the royal we for Dave, as Mike will be in MD) will be hosting an open house and the first of a series of wheel discussions - think of them sort of as live interactive in-person blogs - at our new shop at 79 Thames Street in Newport on Wednesday March 8th at 7p. Refreshments will be served, and since the move has unearthed some great relics I am sure no one will go home empty handed. 

The title question will of course sound provocative and ironic, but it's not meant to be either. My favorite cycling journalist, James Huang, has written an article on CyclingTips about whether Specialized is pressuring riders to use disc brakes. This followed closely on a previous tech article about whethere there is value in carbon wheels (which is in fact an update to an old article, originally posted on August 1 2012 under the same name, which they've tried to scrub away but the internet never forgets). In any case, the key underlying point that James's article makes is that if Specialized does in fact believe in disc brakes, it would be wrong of them not to encourage their riders to use them. We're in a similar place. 

I've always loved this photo

First I'm going to reiterate our positive position relative to the alloy rims with which we've chosen to work. Accentuate the positive. By and large, their reliability is orders of magnitude better than carbons (more on this later), braking is profoundly better on alloy than carbon (especially if you keep a set of rain compound pads handy), they can be just as aerodynamic as the most popular carbon wheels and their aerodynamic deficit to "deep" carbon is overcome by something as simple as switching to latex tubes, they are profoundly less expensive than carbon, there is a broad and reliable supply of great options, they offer a weight ADVANTAGE to most carbon that is as aerodynamic... and probably some others that aren't top of mind right now. Aesthetics is really the only clear case to be made for carbon, and that's subjective. 

People tell us that we're "pushing" alloys because that's what we have to sell. The inverse is actually much closer to the actual truth - we believe so strongly in the value of alloys that they are what we've chosen to sell. If we believed so strongly that carbon did irreplaceable things for our customers, then we'd choke down the insurance cost quite willingly and whip that pony for what it's worth. Alas, the insurance part of the decision came down to something more like "why suffer this insurance cost for something we don't feel too much in favor of?" And the same can be said of a number of things - substitute "this insurance cost" with "spend half of our nights on Skype to Taiwan" or "tie up all of our working capital in carbon WIP" or a bunch of other things and the sentence is just as valid. 

There's a popular conception that the switch to disc brakes will make the world immediately safe for carbon clinchers. Our experience, and the experience which we know most others have had, dictate otherwise. Carbon manufacture is VERY process intolerant - by which I mean very easy to screw up - and it relies on complex processes with significant human involvement. The number of things that can go wrong is huge. This is not scare mongering, this is simple cold fact. 

Most common issue with carbon rims is spoke hole issues. When you include the number of rims we weeded out in build to actual customer warrantees, this is a VERY dominant number one issue. I know this to be true of many other carbon rims. Disc brakes do nothing to alleviate that and actually make it worse since now the front is more like a rear and rears are more stressed. Then there are laminating issues. Those are number two, some of which manifest in brake track issues but most of which are more like clincher wall issues. Then comes brake heat in third, and it's a distant third at that. Part of that is of course that we were always freaks about creating awareness of that issue, but it's still there. 

This is already too long but I'll quickly say that in talking with customers about carbon versus alloy, we've solidly shifted from the "you're not giving up much" stance to "you're just plain getting more."

As a final coda, we have a lot of carbon customers out there. We haven't abandoned you, we certainly never sold wheels that our then-present knowledge set didn't lead us to believe were valid and valuable products. We don't hate on carbon (every single bike we own is carbon, as one example) and there are things it can do that alloy never could. The very most aerodynamic wheels would always be made from carbon over alloy, but we were never relevant in that part of the market. Instead we've been on this fairly vigilant quest to gather info about the best solution for the customers we actually serve, and that quest has led us to the undeniable conclusion that the present answer to that question is alloy. 

Does this mean "never again" for carbon? Never say never. A lot would have to change. I think never is a good answer for rim brakes, yes. We've done enough leg work on this to know that we could sell a ~$3000 domestically produced set of carbon wheels that would be of America's Cup level quality (because that's the supply stream that would build them) that would be an amazing product. But at that price level, we don't see the value in it. 

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My first thought on seeing the cycling tips article was that it was thinly plagiarized from your recent blog posts. Do you see any difference in the manifestation of issues in carbon between road vs mtb? I think any observer to the industry would quickly realize that Specialized believes in $'s. I have no doubt that a company that would sue numerous others for infractions perceived as infractions only by them (I particularly enjoyed the 'roubaix' one where it turned out they didn't even own the rights to the name themselves), and pushes eMTB sales in the US knowing that it will impact trail access would also force their sponsored pros to use discs. OTOH – pros are there there to advertise. $ is within their rights to put them on the bikes they want to sell. And of course, discs are in fact superior. I'll avoid rim brakes in the future, along with purchases of the big $.


Nice post…and I agree with your logic. However. It appears you forgot to mention that there's nothing wrong (in fact it might be the best overall compromise) with aluminum wheels that have deep carbon caps (or other lightweight materials…see the Mavic wheels with the "foam" attachments). In other words, keep the aluminum where it does the best job, and then use the carbon for the non-structural shapes that enhance aerodynamics. The independent aero data on the HED Jet+ wheels shows this can be a world class performance combination. IMHO, the fact that folks think that a rim needs to be constructed of a single material is quite the head-scratcher…

Tom Anhalt

Very long but very productive day shipping wheels and getting the new joint buffed out. It's getting pretty nice. Anyhow…Jay M and Ryan – Thanks for the thoughts. You can I'm sure relate that Mike and I are exceedingly glad that you've enjoyed your Rails. I think we're going in the right direction on this, and while we've always been pretty outspoken advocates for alloy wheels, they keep on getting better and giving us more to like about them, and for the first time in probably 5 years it's not hard work to convince people that alloy wheels are worth considering. In my head at some point today I wrote this ad that said "If Zipp took their Firecrest 303 and made it wider, tubeless ready, compatible with latex tubes, made the braking radically better, made it impervious to overheating, easier to handle in crosswinds, gave them way better hubs, kept the aerodynamic speed as good as it is, and dropped the price by $1300, you'd buy a set today, right?" And that's kind of where we think the FSW3 and RFSW3 are. Jay M – send pictures pleaseRyan – I'm totally back in love with mountain biking. Stupid unrideable frozen slush mud bog winter trails are killing me. And as I said above – all of the bikes we own are carbon. That's an entirely different story, though. Worth discussing for sure, but not now. I'm beat.


Man, I really like my Rails, but I also really like my aluminum wheels I got from you guys. Either way, each wheel build is great and they ride wonderfully. This year I have toyed with the idea of giving up road riding in favor of mtb and cross, which is really more my style of riding anyway, but I will say that the 52 Rails on my Emonda make a killer combination where I live.I will have to get a good set of aluminum wheels for the cross bike eventually, and actually on a sweet set of I9 aluminum for the mtb, and have no problem with the performance, stiffness, or weight. I actually applaud the move to alloy only for now because it makes wheel buying decisions much easier for myself and…the wallet isn't hit so hard either. I consider it a total win. Now, how do you feel about carbon frames? lol.


I was bummed to see you no longer here get Carbon wheels. I've been on your rail 52's for a while now and they are just so good. I was looking forward to a set of 34's when we visit the States this June! (we moved overseas to Australia). Still glad to see you are providing thoughtful products, though. Good work.

Jay M

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