Great value with few competitors in current marketplace
What is it
Fair Wheel Bikes has always been a bellwether of weight-weenie goodness. They blur the line between manufacturer and retailer by sourcing and assembling parts to create customized offerings. And they have a knack for finding somewhat esoteric equipment that is always lightweight and generally an excellent value.
I’ve written about various products from them before including KCNC quick release skewers, which are incredibly light at just 45 grams for the set. We also checked out 1334-gram alloy clinchers built with TUNE hubs for $875, and sub 1500 gram 24mm wide clinchers for under $400.
Recently I clicked on one of their newsletters which explained that “wider is better,” in this case 25mm wide carbon clinchers that weigh just 1225 grams with rims from a brand that I’d never heard of. I thought the weight was a typo and clicked through to read more.
Sure enough, that’s what they claimed. There was some marketing text in there that said the rims, made by a company called FSE, were stronger and lighter than other carbon rims because they used a new kind of manufacturing process. At $1470, the price was much lower than what I would have expected for the weight. As Fair Wheel Bikes hyperbolically claimed, these may be the proverbial Holy Grail of carbon wheels. But this seemed too good to be true. I assumed there had to be a catch and I had to find out more.
- Super light 25mm clinchers
- Not fragile feeling
- Surprisingly excellent braking
- Incredible acceleration and handling
- Comfortable ride
- Great price
- Brake pads wear quickly
- Some noise under braking
- Freewheel is a bit noisy
- Have to swap brake pads to switch to aluminum rims
Going in to this test, I had three goals: to see if these wheels were as light as claimed; to see if carbon rims could really brake reliably; and to see if wider vs narrow rims really make a difference. There have been a lot of claims about wider rims being better, but what exactly does that mean? What does it feel like? How do you know they are better?
Fair Wheel outfits these rims with Italian-made Carbon-Ti hubs. Despite the brand name, they are actually made of 7075-T6 aluminum. At a combined weight of 224 grams, these hubs are impressively light and offer easy access external preload adjustment, along with durable and serviceable quality steel cartridge bearings. The hubs are laced with high-end straight-pull Sapim CX-Ray spokes (4.5 grams each) on the non-drive side, and stronger CX-Sprint spokes (6 grams each) on the drive side to ensure long term durability with only a slight increase in weight.
Moving to the rim, FSE says they use a new “filament spun” process that precisely adds just the right amount of epoxy resin to the carbon fiber strands by bathing the fiber in a well of epoxy as the carbon fiber yarn gets spun with very tight tolerances on to a mold. This process precision coats each strand and because just the right amount of epoxy is applied, overall weight is reduced and there is little waste, they say. In fact, because of the precision of this manufacturing process, FSE claims the rims to be 40% stiffer, 40% stronger, and up to 200 grams lighter than comparable carbon rims. You can check out their claims in this video.
While I can’t substantiate the 40% stiffer, 40% stronger claim, a wheelset weight comparison makes the up to 200-gram weight savings claim plausible. At 1225 grams, this wheelset is, indeed, extremely light, and in some cases 200 grams lighter. Here are some comparable wheelsets weights:
- ENVE M525 – 1320 grams (95 grams heavier)
- Reynolds Attack – 1365 grams (140 grams heavier)
- Alto A26 – 1447 grams (222 grams heavier)
- Zipp 202 – 1450 grams (225 grams heavier, though this is a 32mm tall rim)
How they ride
Frankly, my expectations were reserved prior to riding these wheels. I was still skeptical about this unknown brand, the claimed weight, as well as braking performance. That said, when they arrived, at 1270 grams with the rim strips installed, I was amazed. Sub 1300-gram clinchers? These wheels really lightened up my bike. In fact, even running wider 700x26mm tires, I was able to get my 2010 Cervelo S3 under 14 pounds. And as a bonus, the rims were easy to work with. Installing Specialized S-Works Turbo tires required just moderate thumb pressure.
Once under way, I was immediately impressed by the stiffness of the wheels. It was a palpable difference. Not sure if it was 40% stiffer, but these wheels accelerate incredibly quick. The feeling was in part due to the rear hub, which seemed to engage instantly. But the overall lateral stiffness of the wheel was the most noticeable factor.
With regard to the wider is better claim, the wheels are surprisingly comfortable and the ride is now much suppler. Perhaps this is because the footprint is 34% wider than a traditional rim. Think of it like low-profile tires on wider car rims. Effectively the wheel does more to contribute structurally to the bike’s handling by creating a laterally stiffer contact patch with a more responsive sidewall. This 30%-plus increase in width is why a lot of folks who used to run 120psi now dial it back to 80psi (myself included).
What about the braking
I’ll freely admit I am cautious about braking on wheels such as this. I’ve heard too many horror stories about carbon rim failure. But I rode these down long mountain descents and through the rain and they were impressive, delivering a feel that was secure, confident, and well-modulated.
That said, the rims do affect the brake pads. Using SwissStop Black Prince pads, there is some whine from the wheels while scrubbing speed. And the brake pads wear quicker than what I am used to on aluminum rims, but they felt confident and secure regardless. To see if there was any hint of the rims delaminating or failure under braking, I did a test comparing one bike with the carbon wheels to another with aluminum rims.
I rode down a very steep hill, accelerating to 37mph, then hit the brakes and kept them applied for two-tenths of a mile, likely longer than most cyclist would apply the brakes at any one time on a descent. Using a digital thermometer, I measured the carbon rim at 101 degrees, while the aluminum rim hit 98 degrees. The results were much closer than I had expected, and both cooled quickly at what seemed like the same rate. In any case, FSE claims their epoxy resin is good to 240 degrees Celsius, so it seems that there is a wide safety margin.
With this wheelset, my model year 2010 bike felt transformed. The Cervelo S3 is meant to be an aero road bike and because of this, the frame is vertically stiff. While this is good for accelerating and climbing, it can be fatiguing on longer rides. To be honest, I have always appreciated the bike, but didn’t always relish riding it because of its harsh ride.
But with these wheels and 26mm tires, the bike has been transformed. The ride is now positively plush. Even after a 70 miler with over 6700 feet of climbing, I felt great on the climbs, confident descending (rare for me), and more importantly, didn’t feel beat up at the end. The wheelset even helped me to my second fastest benchmark climb of the year on a dreary cold December day, at the end of the season.
Overall, the wheelset made the bike so much more fun to ride. They seemed frisky and light, but also stiff and responsive. It feels like my bike is a hot rod. I’ve found myself looking for excuses to ride more, having already put in over 700 miles on the test wheels.
The downsides? Besides brake pad wear, the only other minor quibble is the rear hub is a bit noisy while coasting. It’s not Chris King hub noisy but slightly bothersome.
To make sure my findings weren’t anomalous or too caught up in the moment, I loaned out the wheels to my friend Dave. Locally, he is legendary as a climber and an insanely good descender, with over 500 Strava KOMs to his name. On his test ride, we used 28mm wide Donnelly Strada LGG tires. Suffice to say Dave liked these wheels, too.
“I put the FSE wheels on my 2009 Cervelo R3,” explained Dave. “The 28mm tires barely cleared my fork, but cleared the rear pretty easily. For my test ride I wanted to pedal up something steep, then down something steep, so I headed out on a ride that had sections up to 16% in a couple spots. I could tell the FSE were pretty efficient. I’m used to my Easton Aero 90s, which I thought were stiff, but these FSEs were stiffer even when climbing out of the saddle. On the downhill (where Dave nabbed another KOM that day) braking was awesome. It almost felt like my disc brake bike, very controlled. And the brakes never rubbed, even during hard braking in tight turns. All in all, I was very impressed with these wheels.”
These wheels have helped me fall in love with an 8-year-old bike all over again, improving handling, comfort, and responsiveness. They accelerate quickly, feel great in turns, and brake with confidence. On the weight-weenie side, the bike is now under the magic 14-pound mark. Imagine what shaving 200 grams of rotating weight would do to your bike. By far, this has been the best upgrade to my bike yet. They are a great value that seems pretty much unmatched in the marketplace right now.
- Rims: 25.6mm external width, 17mm internal width, 25mm tall, 390 gram weight
- 20 front/24 rear spoke drilling
- 1225g claimed weight for wheelset; 1270 actual with rim strips
- Rider weight limit: 180lbs.
- 2-year rim warranty with crash replacement
- Fair Wheel builds available in 25, 35, 45, and 55mm variations
- Hub weight: 62 grams front; 162 grams rear. Available in green, silver, black, blue, and red
Rating: 4.5 out of 5