A quality set of aero race wheels can make an instant impact on your ride. Jamie Wilkins tests 10 sets to get you beating your previous bike split PB.
A set of deep-section aero wheels will give you a significant aerodynamic advantage over the alloy clinchers most bikes are specced with and, as an added bonus, they’ll make your bike look fantastic, too. They’re also an upgrade that will make an instant and noticeable difference to your riding.
Along with aerobars, your helmet and clothing, deep-section aero wheels offer some of the biggest speed gains you can find. The difference between basic training wheels and the best of this group can be 4mins in a 40km bike leg, 18mins if it’s iron-distance racing. In short, they’re essential if you’re looking to compete and not just complete.
Super-deep wheels, such as the 70mm-plus hoops here, are specialist tools for racing on flat and rolling courses. While they’re faster than standard wheels, they’re slightly heavier than shallower carbon wheels and even the best can get pushed around on windy days.
Ideally, if you’re racing on mixed terrain, you’d have a set of lighter mid-depth wheels for hillier races. For that reason, we’ve included two mixed-depth wheelsets with deeper rears and two mid-depth circa 65mm pairs to serve as more rounded options and to see if deeper is always faster.
As with any wheel test, we’re looking for speed, stability in crosswinds, effective all-weather braking and high lateral stiffness for handling and response. While speed is the priority here, braking performance and especially stability are key to ensuring that you can use your best wheels confidently regardless of the conditions.
The top brands have been working hard on stability and braking, with new rim shapes and brake tracks, so we were keen to see what progress they’ve made.
Bike race wheels: how to choose the right ones
Bike race wheels: benefits for triathletes
The best road bikes for triathlon
How we tested the wheels
We spent a day at the University of Southampton’s wind tunnel gathering precise aero data at two yaw angles to simulate calmer and windier conditions. Before that, we tested each wheelset on the road, racking up more than 2,000 miles, often in competition and in all weather.
We used Michelin Power 4 Competitions as control tyres (except on the Mavics that come with specific tubs), running them all at 100/105psi and noting the inflated width measured with a caliper to see if it matches the rim and you can enjoy the rolling, comfort and grip benefits of a 25c tyre over a 23. Every wheel was tested using the supplied brake pads and, of course, we weighed them all (weights given are for the combined wheelset). On the road we studied stability, braking and stiffness, plus a subjective idea of speed by riding hard on well-known roads and seeking out crosswinds.
But, as ever, if you can try a set before you buy it, you should.
There are few triathlon-specific wheels but the clip-in ‘blades’ here, which perfectly smooth the transition from tyre to rim, are a clever idea that isn’t legal for pro roadies, so these are all ours. The 1,723g CXR 80 from the venerable French brand is now nearly four years old but it’s still a force. It’s tubular only and comes with Mavic’s specific tyre (that makes the price look better), the pattern of which is designed to influence airflow.
Both grip and braking are good in the dry but are almost entirely absent in the wet. We had a scary slide in a corner at 35mph and, whereas most carbon wheels have a delay before braking arrives in the wet, with the CXR 80s it simply never arrives. They’re stable and prove extremely fast at high yaw in the wind tunnel but they prove bizarrely slow at the low yaw angle (see the panel on the last page).
Verdict: Fast and stable in crosswinds but poor in the wet and when facing low winds 79%
The super-wide 7.8 replaces the 6.7 and 8.9 in the Americans’ range. Those are big shoes to fill but the 1,696g 7.8 crushed this test. It was the fastest at both angles in the wind tunnel and it feels it on the road. What’s more, its stability and braking set new standards for deep-carbon wheels; the former is astonishing for a 71/80mm wheelset, so you’re never afraid to ride it even when the flags are straight. The new machined brake tracks require a little pad toe-in and then deliver very strong and progressive dry braking, and excellent wet braking with almost zero delay before the pads bite. They’re stiff and light, too. 25c tyres align perfectly and aren’t too much of a struggle given that the 7.8 is tubeless ready. The major issue will come down more to the size of your pay pocket as to whether they warrant the spend.
Verdict: Outstanding. The best speed, stability and carbon braking. A new benchmark, but at a price 95%
The wheels pictured are 81mm tubs because the test set of 55/81 clinchers were already in testing and unavailable for the studio. While the tubs are lighter and the deeper front might be faster, the mixed set is a lot more appealing. The 55 front is stable even for its depth and so offers an advantage over all but the Enves and HEDs. Rear wheels don’t affect stability so the big 81 in the back makes sense to add speed.
On the road they feel quick but not on the pace of the best and the tunnel backed that up with a solid mid-table placing. They’re a bit heavy at 1,823g and braking is only adequate, but the price mitigates that. If you’re on a budget and concerned about riding deep wheels on less than calm days, these are worth a look. Their main problem is that everything they can do, the HEDs can do better and for less outlay.
Verdict: Good value and stable but heavy and not super-fast compared to the best 83%