Carbon vs alloy wheels—There’s two sides of this coin. “Wheels that cost more than my bike?!? Are you crazy? No way that could be worth it” and the “Carbon wheels are the best money spent on your bike.” So which camp do you fall in? What wheels do we run on our bikes? Let’s talk about that.
Carbon vs Alloy Wheels in theory
Why would someone in their right mind spend a few thousand dollars on wheels? Well, they’re light, stiff and ride really well. Are carbon wheels worth it? To a lot of people, yes. A common misconception is the difference in price is all about weight.
If you look at it from a weight savings perspective alone, you’re spending about $5.25/gram of weight difference (using our premium carbon vs alloy wheels.) Don’t know about you, but that sounds like the price of some illicit substance you’d buy on the street in a seedy neighborhood. Thats why you have to factor in the whole equation in order to justify dropping some serious cash on carbon circles. Sure, they generally weigh less than their alloy counterparts. Lighter wheels accelerate faster, go uphill faster, slow down faster under braking… see the theme? Faster. Is it all about weight and speed? Not really. There’s also a big change in ride feel. Carbon rims are generally stiffer. Stiffer wheels feel more energetic, give you more support in corner and tend to make your ride feel more lively. Some wheels can be too stiff though. They feel chattery and rough in the bumpy bits of trail. There’s a fine line between lively, energetic wheels and bone-shaking, tooth-rattling wheels. That’s why some riders would actually rather ride alloy wheels even if price wasn’t a factor.
Alloy wheels tend to flex more, or in bike industry terms, they’re “more compliant.” The added compliance can offer more traction, a smoother ride and a more damped feel. They usually weigh a bit more, but that difference in weight is rather minimal. In some cases alloy wheels can be lighter than carbon. Don’t believe me? Keep reading, punk. Another advantage to alloy wheels is they’re cheap. Most alloy rims will run you about 100-130 bucks — can’t complain about that.
Carbon vs Alloy wheels: The selections
At first we had two wheelsets in the mix for the carbon vs alloy wheels test. The high-end carbon Enve M630s with Industry Nine Hydra hubs and the common, but high-quality, DT Swiss M1700 alloy wheels with 350 hubs. We decided to throw a curveball in the mix. Last year Zipp launched a single wall carbon wheel that put a big emphasis on compliance. Carbon wheels that ride more like alloy? Very intriguing. The Zipp 3Zero Moto wheels boast a smooth ride with gobs of traction. But how would they compare to our tried and true test wheels?
First, let’s talk about the test controls. The test bike was a 2020 Yeti SB130 LR with a Sram AXS drivetrain. We used the same pair of Maxxis Dissector 2.4” tires at 26PSI front and 28PSI back across all three wheelsets. We also used the same SRAM X01 cassette and 200mm brake rotors for each test ride. We rode the same test track with a timed climb, timed downhill and various types of terrain, from flowy berms to rock-filled ruts. The test track gave us a good feel for each wheelset in common riding scenarios. We put a few extra laps in on each wheelset to test specific characteristics (although not in the video reviews, these test laps helped greatly for this write up.)
Enve m630 Hydra
- Carbon rim.
- Trail application.
- 1605 grams actual weight (with tubeless tape and valves.)
- 30mm internal rim width.
- Industry Nine Hydra hubs with .5° engagement.
- 28 spoke holes.
- Warranty covers damage from riding.
Zipp 3zero moto
- Carbon rim.
- Trail/AM application.
- 2003 grams actual weight (with tubeless tape, TyreWiz and valves.)
- TyreWiz included
- 30mm internal rim width.
- Zipp ZM1 Hub with 6.9° engagement.
- 32 spoke holes.
- Warranty covers damage from riding.
DT Swiss M1700
- Alloy rim.
- Trail/AM application.
- 1938 grams actual weight (with tubeless tape and valves.)
- 30mm internal rim width.
- DT350 Hub with 20° engagement.
- 32 spoke holes.
- Warranty covers manufacturer defects.
Each of these wheelsets fills a unique place in the market. The Enve M630 reigns supreme as the industry standard in carbon mountain bike wheels. Enve has been around for a long time and has built a reputation for being some of the best wheels in the game. The DT Swiss wheels also carry some serious brand recognition. The M1700 wheels are a common stock wheelset on a lot of $4000 – $6000 bikes. They are solid alloy wheels that hold up, and ride ride really well. The Zipp 3Zero Motos are the newcomer on the block. They are maybe the most intriguing wheels in the test. We were stoked to land a set of testers and put some quality time on them.
carbon vs alloy Wheels: the tests
Enve M630 Hydra – best all around
At the top end of the price range for bicycles wheels, you’d hope these would hands down be the best of the test. And, they are — for the most part. As a do-everything wheelset they perform better than the other two. The main advantage they have over the Zipp and DT Swiss wheels is in the climbing department — they are fast. They are 398 grams lighter than the Zipp wheels and 333 grams lighter than the alloy DT Swiss. The difference in weight is noticeable enough to be felt on trail by most people. The wheels accelerate quicker and feel way more lively on the climbs. Not only are they lighter, the hubs engage waaaay faster than the other offerings. Why does hub engagement matter? On smooth sections of trail where it’s easy to keep the cranks turning, hub engagement isn’t all that noticeable or important. Roadies don’t really care all that much about it. It’s in the technical and steep bits of trail where engagement maters most. When you have to ratchet pedal through some awkward rocks, or you can barely spin the cranks on really steep terrain, high engagement hubs prove their worth. If you’re not familiar with how hub engagement works, let’s get nerdy. Most hubs use a pawl drive system. That means inside the hub there’s a ring with inward facing teeth. Opposite that is another ring with outward facing pawls that engage with these teeth. When you’re coasting, the clicking sound you hear is the pawls hitting these teeth. When you start to pedal, the teeth engage and turn your wheel. Some hubs will have lots of teeth and others only a few. Some hubs have more pawls than others. The combo of the two is referred to as points of engagement. The more POE, the faster the hub engages. The Industry Nine Hydra hubs on the Enve M630 wheels have 720 POE giving them .5° engagement (360/720=.5) Because of this insanely fast engagement, you have less of a dead zone when you turn the cranks — such a small dead zone that it pretty much isn’t noticeable. You can imagine how beneficial this is when climbing technical terrain when you can’t complete full pedal rotations. A half turn of the cranks goes a long way when it engages nearly instantly. Phew. Glad we got through that.
The M630s are the stiffest wheels of the bunch. It’s immediately noticeable on the trail. Compared to the other wheels in the test, the Enves don’t flex or conform to the ground quite as well. This means in rocker bits of trail, they skip around a little more. You could counteract this by dropping the air pressure in your tires, but for the sake of this test, I ran the same pressures for every wheelset. Dropping your air pressures will only get you so much compliance. Eventually you’re going to need more flex in the wheel to get more compliance. This is the only potential critique I have for the Enve wheels. They are at the upper limit of how stiff I’d want a wheel to be. I think they could be slightly flexier and still be the most energetic and lively wheels of the test. As is, they can be a little chattery in the bumpiest sections of trail, especially when riding them back to back with the Zipp and DT Swiss wheels. It almost felt like I was running too much air in my suspension. It took away a little bit of the plush feeling of my bike. I’m a little torn on wanting the M6s to have a little more give, though. Then you’d start to sacrifice the lively ride quality. It’s pretty remarkable when you push into a corner and rocket out the other side. It’s something I didn’t feel on the other wheels. It completely transforms the ride quality of your bike. They make your bike feel fast — everywhere — uphill, downhill and in the corners.
In conclusion, if you want the fastest wheel around with the most lively ride feel, the Enves are going to be your first pick. The are the best all-around wheel in our test.
Zipp 3Zero Moto – Best for rough and rocky trails
I was beyond stoked to try these wheels out. I’m not always looking for the fastest times on the trail. I prefer to find challenging lines, hit corners hard, jump and just have a good time on two wheels. The Zipps fit the bill. If I could only use one word to describe the 3Zero Moto wheels, it would be “Traction” — “Traction For Days” if they’d let me have three. The extra compliance is noticeable, although not always in a good way. Hang tight, we will get to that.
The Zipp wheels are built with a single wall rim — something found in the moto world, hence the name. Most bike rims have 2 walls and a hollow inside. The Zipps are a thicker, single piece of carbon. They have to use more material to make them strong enough to hold up to trail duties. I’m guessing the thick wall of carbon combined with TyreWiz on each rim is what makes these the heaviest wheels in the test. They even weigh more than the alloy DT Swiss wheels — not much though. The single wall design allows for what Zipp calls ankle compliance — a fancy way of saying the rim is able to rock side to side along the spokes. The diagram below should help illustrate the principle.
You can imagine how helpful it would be to have ankle compliance for off-camber sections of trail. Because the rim is able to rotate, the tire will conform better to the ground resulting in more traction and less potential for pinch flats. Apart from ankle compliance, the Zipp wheels have more vertical and lateral compliance than the Enves and possibly even the DT Swiss wheels. The vertical compliance is what makes them ride so smooth through bumpy terrain. It’s what I appreciated the most during my test rides. Zipp nailed it with vertical compliance.
The 3Zero Motos fall somewhere between the Enves and DT Swiss in terms of ride quality. They seem to spin up just a bit quicker than the alloy wheels, and still retain some of that energetic carbon wheel feel. Although, they aren’t what I’d call fast. When climbing the extra flex was great for keeping the back tire glued to the ground. I didn’t slip around on the loose, steep pitches of my test climb. The rubble-filled tech section went down with ease. I’m struggling to put it into words how it felt, but I’d probably say it feels like you have a little less air in your tires and suspension. There’s a certain damped quality to the ride. It feels smooth and quiet. That feeling was most noticeable in the rougher parts of the trail. If you like riding rocky trails with flat corners and off-camber sections, these wheels would be a good choice. If you like riding flow trails at the bike park, you might want to look elsewhere.
The only downside I could find to the 3Zero Moto wheels is in the lateral compliance department. If I could use two words to describe how much they flex laterally, I’d say “a lot.” At one point I felt the rear wheel nearly taco in a corner. Granted, I was peel the tire off the rim in the corner to see how much the wheel would flex — not really a normal riding scenario here. I can’t say the feeling filled me with confidence. A downside to the flex is the vague feeling in berms. With the Enve wheels, I could tell exactly where my tires were. That was not the case with the Zipps.
In conclusion, the Zipp 3Zero Motos are our top pick for rough and rugged trails. They would be an excellent option for riders who value compliance and comfort. Like an alloy wheel they “ride quiet” and smooth out some of the bumpy bits. If that sounds like you, but you still want a premium carbon wheel with an awesome warranty, look no further.
DT Swiss M1700 – best value
At around $800 retail, you might expect these alloy wheels to get smoked by the two high-end counterparts. That’s not necessarily the case. They weren’t as fast and energetic as the Enve M630s or as compliant and quiet as the Zipp 3Zero Motos, but they did strike a great balance between the two. They were stiffer than the Zipps when pushing into berms and a little less chattery than the Enves. You might call them the goldilocks wheel. Let’s dive in.
On the climbs the DT Swiss wheels were the least exciting and impressive of the bunch. They didn’t spin up with the same enthusiasm as the other two. They weren’t bad, I just don’t have any praises to sing about them. If you are fine to just sit and spin until you reach the top of the climb, you’ll be happy with these wheels. If you like to stand up, sprint, pick hard technical lines and get after it on the climbs, the other two wheelsets in the group will be more rewarding. The M1700s have the slowest engaging hub. That might be why I had a harder time in the technical terrain when compares to the Enve and Zipp wheels. DT Swiss uses a different drive mechanism for their hubs. Instead of a pawl drive like the other wheels, DT Swiss uses a star ratchet drive. The design is pretty slick and incredibly reliable. Two rings with teeth on their outer sides face each other. When you pedal, these teeth engage and drive your wheel. The hubs in our test wheelset have an 18 tooth star ratchet. This gives you 20° engagement (360/18=20) When you need to give the pedals a quarter turn, depending on where the teeth are in your hub, the cranks could actually turn a significant amount before the hub starts to drive the wheel. It can make technical climbing a little tricky.
On the downhills, the DT Swiss wheels put up their best fight. They struck a nice balance between compliant and stiff. They flexed less than the Zipps and were a little quieter than the Enves. They smoothed out bumpy, rocky bits of trail nicely. They seemed to offer quite a bit of traction as well. I didn’t notice any of the drawbacks of the more compliant Zipps with these wheels. Although, they still lacked the energetic feel of the Enves. Again, they felt the most dull out of the group.
In the end, the Dt Swiss M1700s win the best value award. For less than half the price of the other two wheelsets, you can get 90% of the performance. It’s that extra 10% that really costs you. It’s not like these wheels will make biking any less fun.
Carbon vs alloy Wheels: which material wins?
From a pure performance standpoint, carbon. It’s hard to refute the performance benefits of a carbon wheel. For the most part, they feel more energetic, spin up quicker, and add a lively quality to your ride. But, if you’re like most folks, budget comes into play at some point. A good alloy wheel doesn’t cost more than your entire bike. It gets you to the top of a hill and back down it without too much fuss. For less than half the price of a high-end carbon wheel, you can have an alloy wheel that spins in a nice circle just like its expensive cousin.
I’ll leave you with a final thought. What wheels do I have on my bikes? Carbon. Hands down.