Of all the upgrades available for a road bike, a set of the best lightweight wheels is one of the easiest ways of improving the manner in which your bike handles and reacts to different topography types.
This buyer's guide is one for the weight weenies; the grimpeurs or mountain goats who enjoy dancing on the pedals in a quest to overcome gravity as quickly as possible. Unlike their burlier, deep-sectioned brothers, the best lightweight wheels feature shallower rim depths that accelerate quickly and help dismiss both climbs and crosswinds with ease.
Contrary to modern cycling doctrine which preaches prophetically about the feathery benefits of carbon fibre, aluminium has proven to be just as effective if not lighter in some applications and in many ways more resilient. Both Mavic and Campagnolo are pioneers of lightweight wheels made from aluminium and feature some impressive rolling stock options.
To help you bag that elusive Strava KOM, we've compiled a list of the best lightweight wheels currently available in both carbon and aluminium specification for rim- and disc-brake-equipped bikes.
Scroll down to see Cyclingnews’ roundup of the best lightweight wheels you can buy for 2020 or jump to find out everything you need to know about lightweight wheels for climbing.
Best lightweight carbon wheels
Available in both rim and disc-brake variety, the Scope R3 wheelset caters for everybody
Material: Carbon | Depth: 30mm | Brake: Rim, disc | Tyre format: Tubeless and clincher (23mm-30mm) | Rim width (internal): 19mm | Spoke count: 18/21 (rim), 21/24 (disc) | Weight: 1440g (rim brake version) | Wheelset RRP: £1,298.00 | Priced: Per pair
The Scope R3 is the company's lightest wheelset, weighing just 1440g in rim brake guise (1447g for the disc version). Like all Scope products, the R3 wheels are designed as a system, meaning everything used in its construction has been meticulously thought out to deliver the best performance.
Despite their impressive weight, the Scope R3 wheels are also impressively stiff thanks to the 19mm internal rim width and wide-flange hubs.
Stopping-power is superb on both the disc and rim-brake options, the latter utilising a special surface that delivers linear-like brake performance and feel, regardless of the riding conditions.
A premium, lightweight carbon wheelset with the hardiness to match
Material: Carbon | Depth: 32mm | Brake: Rim, Disc | Tyre format: Tubeless, tubular and clincher (23mm-32mm) | Rim width (internal): 20.7mm | Spoke count: 16/24 (rim), 21/24 (disc) | Weight: 1350g (Disc) | Wheelset RRP: £1,850.00 | Priced: Separately
Available in both rim and disc versions the Roval CLX 32 is a low-profile carbon wheelset Specialized claims is more aerodynamic than the previous-generation deeper section CLX 40 wheels.
As a tubeless-ready option, they can be set up to work with either rim tape or a plug system to block the spoke holes - the latter, however, is trickier to install and heavier.
Despite the Roval branding, the hubs feature DT-Swiss internals complete with a 240 star-ratchet freewheel system and CeramicSpeed sealed bearings.
Zipp 202 NSW
Light, fast, stiff and expensive
Material: Carbon | Depth: 32mm | Brake: Rim, Disc | Tyre format: Tubeless and clincher (23mm-28mm) | Rim width (internal): 16.25mm | Spoke count: 18 front, 24 rear | Weight: 1375g | Wheelset RRP: £2,400.00 | Priced: Separately
Engineered in the Zipp's Nest Advanced Development laboratory, the 202 NSW wheelset is the lightest and fastest-accelerating carbon clincher offered by the company.
Based on the 202 Firecrest model, the NSW wheels are designed with the mountains in mind, offering stiffness in spades while still retaining impressive aerodynamic properties. At 1375g, they're on par with other carbon clincher wheelsets in the segment but at £2400, they're one of the priciest.
Like other models in the Zipp portfolio, the 202 NSWs employ Cognition hubs which utilise a magnetic, drag-reducing Axial Clutch that not only improves coasting functionality but pawl engagement, too.
Black Inc Thirty
A fast and furiously good wheelset
Material: Carbon | Depth: 30mm | Brake: Rim, Disc | Tyre format: Tubeless, tubular and clincher (25mm-28mm) | Rim width (internal): 17mm | Spoke count: 20 front, 24 rear | Weight: 1390g | Wheelset RRP: From $2,299.00 (£1,885.18) | Priced: Per pair
Anything manufactured by Black Inc is going to be exotic, both in form and function and the Black Thirty wheelset isn't any different. An out-and-out lightweight wheel for climbing, the Black Thirties tip the scales at 1390g in clincher configuration (1230g in tubular).
Measuring 30mm in profile, they're not particularly wind-cheating in function but they do a sterling job maintaining progress on the flats, not to mention devouring the inclines thanks to the stiff and responsive rim architecture and spoke tension.
Like all Black Inc wheelsets, the hub shells and axle tolerances have been carefully crafted around CeramicSpeed bearings for smooth and worry-free riding.
Best lightweight aluminuium wheels
Mavic R-Sys SLR
Mavic’s lightest clincher wheelset is a climber's dream
Material: Aluminium | Depth: 24mm front, 26mm rear | Brake: Rim | Tyre format: Clincher (21mm-30mm) | Rim width (internal): 15mm | Spoke count: 16 front, 20 rear | Weight: 1295g | Wheelset RRP: £1,629.00 | Priced: Per pair
At 1295g, the Mavic R-Sys SLR wheels are ridiculously light thanks to the clever use of hollow carbon-fibre spokes, which also provide lateral stiffness of the highest order.
The Tracomp technology used in the spoke design helps with shock absorption and compliance — which offsets the 15mm rim width and narrower tyre profiles quite superbly.
The rims feature a special braking surface - dubbed Exalith - for increased friction which improves stopping distance by as much as 20 per cent in both wet or dry conditions.
Campagnolo Shamal Ultra
The benchmark for aluminium wheel excellence
Material: Aluminium | Depth: 24mm front, 27mm rear | Brake: Rim, Disc | Tyre format: Tubeless and clincher (25mm-28mm) | Rim width (internal): 17mm | Spoke count: 16 front, 21 rear | Weight: 1449g (Shamal Ultra) | Wheelset RRP: Circa £999.95 | Priced: Per pair
The Shamal moniker has formed part of the Campagnolo wheel portfolio for a quarter of a century now and it continues to promote the lightweight principles that made the earlier version so popular.
Constructed from aluminium the Shamal benefits from an internal rim width of 17mm which has not only improved ride comfort and traction but aerodynamics too — particularly over its C15 predecessor.
There's room for both a conventional clincher tyre or tubeless system to be installed but the positive here is the meagre 1449g weight which puts it in line with many mid-range carbon-fibre options.
Shimano Ultegra RS-700
Hard-to-beat value proposition that can double up as both training and racing wheel
Material: Carbon-aluminuim | Depth: 31mm | Brake: Rim | Tyre format: Tubeless and clincher (23mm-32mm) | Rim width (internal): 20.8mm | Spoke count: 16 front, 21 rear | Weight: 1540g | Wheelset RRP: £399.99 | Priced: Separately
Featuring a 31mm rim profile and 20.8mm internal rim width, the RS-700 wheelset was released with the introduction of Shimano's all-new Ultegra groupset.
At 1540g they might not be the lightest climbing wheelset around but, compared to the other rim-brake options listed here, they offer the most in terms of brake-surface longevity with their carbon laminate construction paired with an alloy brake track.
As an all-rounder the RS-700 wheels are just as capable during racing as they are in training conditions - the fact they're also tubeless-ready is an added bonus.
Hunt Race Aero
Unbeatable value for money
Material: Aluminium | Depth: 27mm | Brake: Rim | Tyre format: Tubeless and clincher (23mm-34mm) Rim width (internal): 18mm | Rim width (internal): 18mm | Spoke count: 20 front, 24 rear | Weight: 1479g | Wheelset RRP: £359.00 | Priced: Per pair
Boutique wheel maker, Hunt Wheels, boasts an extensive line-up catering for every discipline. Hunt's Race Aero wheels are one of the most impressive offerings on the market and are very hard to beat in terms of value.
Despite its name, the Hunt Race Aero wheels are more suited to climbing than aerodynamic proficiency - the wheels are just 27mm deep. The straight-pull hubs and spokes have reduced weight, leading to an impressively responsive and compliant wheel.
The best bit? The sub-£350 price point. In fact, as a bang-for-buck proposition, there's nothing quite on its level.
Mavic Ksyrium Elite UST
A do-it-all lightweight high-performance wheel
Material: Aluminium | Depth: 22mm | Brake: Rim, Disc | Tyre format: Tubeless and clincher (25mm-32mm) | Rim width (internal): 17mm (rim), 19mm (disc) | Spoke count: 18/20 (rim), 24 (disc) | Weight: 1670g (Disc) | Wheelset RRP: £545.00 | Priced: Per pair
The Ksyrium has formed the crux of Mavic’s wheel line-up for the past two decades having replaced the venerable Helium hoops as a reliable, lightweight wheel.
With wheels ranging in application from rim and disc, tubeless has also been added to its ever-growing bag of tricks. Of all the models available it’s the Ksyrium Elite UST Disc wheels that offer the most in terms of balancing price with performance.
Weighing in at 1670g for the pair and laced up with bladed, straight-pull spokes, they might not be the lightest, but they are stiff and responsive, ideally suited for lumpy terrain, and capable enough to effortlessly dispatch the flats.
Campagnolo Zonda wheelset
Dependable, lightweight alloy training wheels
Material: Aluminium | Depth: 24mm front, 30mm rear | Brake: Rim, Disc | Tyre format: Clincher (25mm-28mm) | Rim width (internal): 17mm | Spoke count: 16 front, 21 rear (rim) | Weight: 1540g (rim) | Wheelset RRP: £440.00 | Priced: Per pair
The Zonda wheelset is a lightweight option geared towards those looking for a durable and capable training wheel. It comes in both the disc and rim-brake variety and can accommodate wider tyres, too.
Where the Zonda shines, however, is in the stiffness stakes, a result no doubt owing to the Mega-G3 spoke pattern of the rear wheel and oversized hub flange.
Not only do the front and rear wheels utilise different hub sizes and spoke patterns, but the rim depths also vary between the two — 24-27mm front and 27-30mm rear.
How to choose the best lightweight wheels
Before splashing out on the first set of wheels you set eyes on, it's worth looking at the various attributes that make up a good, lightweight climbing wheelset. Not only are the following factors fundamental in terms of compatibility with your bike (disc, tubeless, wheel width), they also have a direct impact on the strength, efficiency and longevity of a wheel.
Reducing the rotational mass of a wheel is a far more important upgrade than trying to lighten your frame. If you think about it, climbing wheelsets are around 350-500g lighter than the aero equivalent, so not only are you losing total mass, you get the added benefit of saving energy (and wattage) to overcome inertia.
2. Brake type
The rise of disc-brake modulation has changed the game in many ways, the most pertinent being wheelset/frame compatibility. In layman's terms, a disc-brake wheelset won't work with a rim-brake frame and vice versa.
3. Rim depth
Lightweight wheels for climbing possess a far narrower profile than their deep-dished brethren, around 22-32mm, which is great for climbing and cross-winds but not so much for straight-line efficiency. For many, however, the sacrifice in aerodynamics is worth the gain in gravity-trumping weight. It all comes down to the type of terrain you ride - if your local training roads are mountainous or hilly then it's wise to go with a climbing wheelset; if it's flat or rolling, go aero.
While it's no secret that carbon is stiffer and more responsive than aluminium, there isn't much of a weight discrepancy between the two materials. In fact, in some instances, aluminium is lighter.
Lightweight wheels for climbing are all about keeping weight to a minimum while still retaining stiffness so it's imperative that you choose a tyre that complements its function - there's little point fitting chunky 30mm tyres as this defeats the purpose.