Years ago, a cyclist didn't have much choice in the materials of their bike's wheels. Metal, particularly aluminum, was the material of choice in the design and build of bicycle wheels. In the last 20 years, composite materials, particularly carbon fiber, have become a major force in the market. Wheels made of these composites offer advantages and disadvantages for the cyclist to consider when shopping for bike wheels.
Without doubt, one of the biggest advantages of composite wheels versus metal wheels is weight--composite materials have a clear advantage in this area. Cyclists will find a significant savings in weight when comparing wheels with similar profiles, in some cases as much as several hundred grams. On a bicycle, savings in weight on the wheels has a profound effect on the riding performance of the bike, in particular when the rider is climbing or accelerating.
There's an old saying about buying bicycle wheels: "Light, cheap and strong--choose two." Low price is not one of the attributes of composite wheels. While prices have dropped in recent years as composite materials have become more common, a buyer can expect to pay a premium price for wheels made from composite materials--as much as several hundred dollars when comparing wheels of similar design.
Composite materials are strong, but there are some durability issues to consider that are unique to them. Care must be taken to ensure that the composite materials of the wheel are not gouged or deeply nicked. This can lead to a catastrophic failure of the wheel in some rare cases, as the interwoven structure of carbon fibers in the composite materials basically comes "unwound" and shreds apart. A properly cared for composite wheel should last for years, but the user must take time to inspect their wheels on a regular basis for damage.
Article Written By Nichole Liandi
Based in Virginia, Nichole Liandi has been a freelance writer since 2005. Her articles have appeared on various print and online publications. Liandi has traveled extensively in Europe and East Asia and incorporates her experiences into her articles. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from West Virginia University.