If you want to improve bike performance, you should always consider the type of wheels your bike is using first. The wheelset is arguably the most critical component of your bike.
Having good and high-quality wheels can turn even entry-level bikes lighter and faster than they originally would have been. The most common materials used for bike wheels are carbon fiber and aluminium.
When choosing the best type of wheels for your bike, you also need to consider other factors such as the terrain you usually ride your bike on, your budget, the type of bike riding you do and, of course, your own personal preference.
Let’s go over the differences between carbon fiber and aluminium wheelsets, as well as their advantages and disadvantages, to help you decide which one would fit your bike better.
Carbon Fiber Wheels
This type of wheel is commonly used for high-end and high-performance road and mountain bikes. You’ll notice that most professional racing bikes use carbon fiber for their wheels.
Carbon fiber is an extremely rigid, lightweight and strong material, which explains why it’s the most common choice for high-performance wheels. It’s great for improving the bike’s acceleration and handling.
Carbon fiber wheels aren’t all made equally. Some of them have variations in the way the wheels and the carbon fiber itself were made. These variations could range from the type of resin used to the density of the fiber used to how manufacturers molded and heated the material.
The differences in how carbon wheels were manufactured affects their weight, stiffness, and durability. But, generally, they share the same advantages and disadvantages.
The stiffness of carbon wheels can be both an advantage and disadvantage, depending on your own riding needs but generally, it is seen as an advantage. A stiffer wheel results in sharper steering and a more responsive bike.
Although this aspect is generally subjective, it’s undeniable that the different surface finish techniques used in the construction of carbon fiber result in some really great-looking wheels.
- Speed and acceleration
Carbon fiber wheels tend to be lighter which makes them spin faster, thus contributing to the speed and acceleration of the bike.
- Better aerodynamics
The rims of carbon fiber wheels can be easily turned into high-tech aerodynamic shapes. This gives professional racers a huge advantage in triathlon, road and time trial racing.
- Can maintain their shape longer
It’s a lot more difficult to bend carbon than with alloy. Thus, they’re less likely to lose their shape even when frequently used on aggressive terrain.
- Strength-to-weight ratio
Rotating weight matters a lot on a bike. With carbon fiber wheels being lighter, their power transfer and acceleration are much more immediate making the bike feel significantly snappier.
Riding wheels that are lighter and stiffer take up much less energy and stamina.
- Good overall quality
Carbon wheels just have an overall better quality because of their ability to achieve a good balance between rigidity, performance, and weight.
With the high-quality performance they’re able to provide, it’s no surprise that carbon wheels are more expensive than aluminium wheels.
- Less durability
Rims made up of carbon fiber are brittle. It can be easy to crack them if you’re not careful.
- Cannot be repaired
Once your carbon rim breaks, you won’t be able to repair it. Instead, you need to replace it which only adds to your expenses.
When you’re riding your bike through a long descent, the carbon rims can easily overheat and stop working as good as it’s supposed to.
- Less eco-friendly
Carbon fiber wheels are not as environmentally friendly because you can’t recycle carbon fiber.
Aluminium, on the other hand, is the bike wheel material that is most commonly used. Other than a few high-end bikes, all bikes are manufactured with aluminium rims.
Aluminium is a material that’s lightweight, durable, stiff and affordable, which is why manufacturers tend to use them a lot. However, aluminium, on its own, isn’t enough to use as material for bike wheels. This is why it’s alloyed with other metallic elements like zinc, silicon, and magnesium.
Alloys can also vary in characteristics. There are some that are stiffer while others are lighter and offer more resilience. These variations in the different alloys can affect the weight of the wheel, the durability of the rim, and the overall quality of the ride.
But just like with carbon fiber wheels, they still share the same general advantages and disadvantages.
Compared to carbon fiber wheels, aluminium wheels do not easily break. They can take harder impact forces and still not sustain any damage.
- Cheaper and more affordable
Even the highest quality aluminium wheels are a lot more affordable than carbon fiber wheels. They usually cost about less than half as much as carbon fiber.
- Better ride quality
The metal alloy has material flex that’s inherent to it. It’s what allows aluminium rims to offer a more compliant and comfortable ride compared to the stiffness of carbon fiber. They’re also able to absorb any shocks or vibrations.
- Easily repairable
When your aluminium wheels get bent out of shape, it’s fairly easy to return them to their original shape. Finding a replacement for your alloy rim is also a lot easier than finding one for carbon fiber.
Aluminium rims are less likely to break and fail while in the middle of a ride. They also dissipate heat better which means they’re less likely to overheat compared to their carbon fiber counterparts.
Because aluminium wheels are denser and require more material, they end up weighing more than their carbon fiber counterparts. This results in them also being a lot slower.
Although its flexibility can be an advantage, it’s also very disadvantageous because it makes the wheels less responsive to what the rider wants. They also end up deforming on impact which can be annoying to have to constantly bend them back into shape.
- Less efficient
The extra weight and flexibility of aluminium wheels makes riding them less efficient. You would need more energy and stamina compared to using bikes with carbon fiber wheels.
There are both upsides and downsides to using carbon fiber and aluminium bike wheels. Aluminium is probably better for bike riders who lean more into casual and recreational riding while carbon fiber is better for those who engage in competitive riding.