Carbon vs. Aluminum Wheels: Pros & Cons Compared

My YOELEO R12 road bike on a bike path with a rear carbon wheel and front aluminum wheel.

This article compares carbon vs. aluminum wheels. I compare mainly road bike wheels, but most principles apply to MTB and gravel wheels.

Based on my experience, discussions with mechanics, and pro cyclists, I summarized the pros and cons of both.

In short:

Carbon wheels are more aero, stiffer, lighter, and look cooler, but are also more expensive than aluminum wheels. They are suitable for serious cyclists who care about their performance and have extra money to spend.

Continue reading to learn helpful info that will help you decide whether you should upgrade your current wheelset or not.

What Are Carbon Wheels?

Carbon bicycle wheels use carbon rims instead of aluminum wheels. Their depth can vary from shallow (around 25mm) to deep-section (88 mm).

*There are also carbon discs used in time trials.

Farsports Ventoux S 45 mm deep carbon rim detail.
45 mm deep carbon road bike wheel rim

The deeper the rims, the better the aerodynamics. One of the benefits of carbon wheels is also their lower weight than aluminum wheels.

You might be interested in the best carbon road bike wheels from various price ranges.


What Are Aluminum Wheels?

Aluminum bicycle wheels use aluminum rims instead of carbon. They are mostly shallow because deep-section aluminum wheels would be heavy.

Mavic Aksium aluminum rim detail.
Aluminum road bike wheel rim

Aluminum wheels are more affordable than carbon wheels and are often used as stock wheels on bicycles.

But some riders use them as training wheels or for bad weather.

TIP: Browse the best budget road bike wheels. The selection also includes aluminum wheels.


Advantages & Disadvantages of Carbon vs. Aluminum Wheels

I summarized the most important advantages and disadvantages of carbon vs. aluminum wheels in the following table. I explain them more in-depth below.

Wheels (Rims) MaterialProsCons
Aluminum (or Alloy)• More affordable¹
• Better braking performance in wet conditions or long descents (rim brakes)
• Durable
• Heavier than carbon wheels
• Not as stiff (assuming the same rim weight)
• Less aero
Carbon• Lightweight
• Stiff
• More aero (widely available in various rim depths)
• Look cool
• Less affordable²
• Worse braking performance in wet conditions or long descents (rim brakes)
• The braking track of the rim brake carbon wheels wears off over time.
This table compares the pros and cons of materials used for road bike wheels (rims).
¹The price of aluminum wheels ranges from dozens of dollars to $1500.
²The price of carbon wheels starts from around $300 and can easily exceed $2000.
Please, keep in mind that these price ranges may vary. I included them to give beginners a better idea of what they can expect.
Source: cyclistshub.com

Price

The price is the first and most obvious talking point when choosing new wheels.

Should you buy cheap carbon wheels or expensive aluminum ones?

Well, there is no clear answer. It depends on your preference and riding style.

Aluminum wheels start at dozens of dollars and can exceed $1000, while carbon ones start at around $300 and easily exceed $2000.

However, you don’t have to spend $1900 on a quality carbon wheelset. For example, most Chinese carbon wheels offer a better price/value ratio than wheels from mainstream brands.

Aerodynamics

Many people wrongly assume that the main advantage of carbon wheels is their weight.

Well, it’s one of their benefits (more about it below), but carbon wheels excel mainly in aerodynamics.

Especially if you often ride on flats, rolling terrain, or descents, the deeper rim profile will save you precious energy.

Rim depth vs aerodynamics (the deeper wheels, the more aero)
Rim depth vs. aerodynamics (simplified)

There are also deep-section aluminum wheels, but they are much heavier than carbon wheels.

Weight

Carbon wheels are lighter on average than aluminum wheels. I summarized data of more than 350 road bike wheelsets and got the following results:

Material / BrakesDiscRimTotal Avereage
Aluminum1685g1614g1654g
Carbon1531g1493g1514g
The average weight of road bike wheelsets, depending on the material and brake type. Data are based on more than 350 wheelsets of mainstream and Chinese wheels manufacturers.
Keep in mind that included aluminum wheels were shallow (under 35mm), while carbon also included deep-section rims (from 20mm to 88mm).

If you are looking for deep-section carbon wheels, the lower weight doesn’t always have to be a better choice. It again depends on the terrain you ride in.

Heavier wheels have better inertia, so they can maintain speed better than lightweight wheels but are not as suitable for climbing.

Braking Performance

The braking performance is another often discussed topic.

For example, carbon rim brake wheels are known for their bad braking performance in wet conditions.

Shimano 105 front rim brake
Shimano 105 front rim brake
Shimano Ultegra front disc brake
Shimano Ultegra front disc brake

Additionally, if the carbon rims are poorly made, braking can heat up the tube, which expands and explodes during long descents and in a hot environment.

However, this topic seems to be less relevant with the growing popularity of disc brake wheels.

Stiffness

Comparing the stiffness of two wheelsets requires a lot of experience and special equipment.

However, the general rule is that carbon wheels are stiffer and can transfer energy more efficiently than aluminum wheels.

I’ve tested multiple carbon wheelsets, and their differences are sometimes hard to notice.

But the differences between aluminum and carbon wheels are noticeable.

Appearance

The last thing I want to point out is the appearance. A bicycle with deep-section carbon wheels looks much cooler than with shallow aluminum wheels.

See for yourself:

Blue YOELEO R12 with DT Swiss aluminum wheels on a bike path during a sunset.
Aluminum wheels
Blue YOELEO R12 with YOELEO SAT PRO carbon wheels on a bike path during a sunset.
Carbon wheels

Carbon vs. Aluminum Wheels FAQ


Conclusion

Both aluminum and carbon wheels will find their fans. I used aluminum wheels for years before I switched to carbon wheels.

I see their biggest benefit in better aerodynamics which allows me to ride faster.

The lower weight and higher stiffness are handy for sparing valuable energy (i.e., watts).

And lastly, they simply look much cooler than shallow aluminum wheels.

Their main disadvantage is the higher price. Luckily, there are many quality but affordable carbon wheels on the market.

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