Are Wheels Getting Any Faster?

It’s 2021. Are bicycle wheels done getting faster?

Perhaps I should clarify further that I’m talking about upper-echelon carbon wheels, which will set you back four figures or more. I’ve been involved in the high-end wheel game for over 15 years now, and have worked both as a journalist, and directly for two major carbon wheel manufacturers. I’ve toured the factories of several more. I’m not bragging here – just trying to communicate that I’ve analyzed and used more wheels than the average cycling consumer.

Every year, I receive press releases saying roughly the same thing – our new wheels are faster than our old wheels, and faster than our competitors. I’m not suggesting that innovations and improvements aren’t happening; I’m just pondering out loud whether we’ll see any meaningful improvements in the future – at least under the given rulesets of our sports.

That last point is an important one, because it has driven much of the recent evolution. I’m referring, of course, to the recent introduction of disc brakes to road and triathlon bicycles. I was an early proponent of disc brakes, and built up my first disc brake-equipped cyclocross/road/gravel/everything bike in 2007. People scoffed and laughed at me back then. Now everyone and their brother has a bike like that.

But that’s beside the real point – which is that the adoption of disc brakes and thru axles required that we buy new carbon wheels for our new bikes – and these new wheels had the opportunity to be designed differently (and potentially faster). In other words, we all generally agreed that we were reaching the limits of wheel speed, and the current focus is now on potential improvements due to the rule changes around braking systems.

The state of road and triathlon racing wheels is interesting in 2021. For the most part, wheels have gone wide. Rims from 20 years ago had internal widths of 13 - 15mm. Now they’re at 17 – 21mm. Tubeless compatibility is near-standard (which allows, but does not require, that you use tubeless tires). Some brands, such as ENVE, are moving heavily into hookless beads. Others, such as DT Swiss, are staying with hooks.

The hooked vs hookless debate is interesting. We’ve reported on it extensively (yes, extensively). To be clear, the rider won’t perceive any difference between a hooked vs hookless rim (i.e. with ride quality); its design affects tire compatibility, rim diameter control, and potential tubeless tire sealing.

And what of aerodynamics? Is there any consensus on whether modern wheels are becoming faster? Is this affected by the bead design (hooked vs hookless)? Has the move to disc brakes allowed for unique rim shapes that weren’t possible before – and which outweigh the aerodynamic cost of the brake caliper and extra spokes required to build a strong disc brake wheel? After an intense investigation into these topics, I can only respond with a resounding… ‘I don’t know.’

I truly don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer. Many of the newest wheels are outstanding. If you can afford the price tag, you can take your pick of a number of wonderful premium products. You won’t be disappointed.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that I think the time may have arrived where the debate about any continued marginal performance gains is largely not worth our time. I look at the behavior of actual consumers, which confirms my viewpoint. Even out on smooth roads and paths, I see a lot of gravel bikes. Fatter tires and wheels. Also: People choosing bikes and wheels because of the cachet, and because they just like them.

I ask people about their equipment choices, and it appears that people have been overwhelmed by tech information overload, and just end up buying what their buddy or bike shop recommended. It’s as if we’ve gone backwards in time – to a purer state of riding – and I think it’s a good thing. I’m on board. When I shop bike products today, I look for brands that I trust, backed by good people. Am I always choosing the fastest stuff? Gosh, I don’t know.

With that said, it’s been easy for me to get behind the latest efforts of DT Swiss. I haven’t had a single failure or reliability problem with any of their products in my ~20 years as a serious cyclist (and I value reliability above all else… what good are fast wheels if they can’t make it to the finish line?). We’ve reviewed their newest carbon wheels (see the link below), which performed as you’d expect from such a price point. Their new video details their design philosophy behind the renewed and refreshed ARC line.

BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY for you, the reader – they’re giving away a set of wheels! Click through to watch the video on YouTube, which has details in the video description on how to enter. May the best Slowtwitcher win!