I used to build a lot of wheels. It’s something I really miss, but in life if you choose to be a great wheel builder you must renounce all other ambitions. I had many ambitions, but being a great wheel builder was a bit down the list. Nonetheless, building wheels is one of the more sublime processes in cycling. At a certain level, I don’t mind because the proliferation of the wheelset means that you don’t hear conversations about building up Shimano, Campagnolo and Mavic hubs anymore. I mention this because the rise of the pre-built wheel drew our attention away from hubs and focused it (understandably) on the wheel as a system. In some ways, I don’t think Shimano gets as much consideration as they once did.
I’ve been swapping between sets of wheels from FSA, Zipp and Shimano for the last year. All three feature deep-section aero rims and all three have particular strengths.
What I love about Shimano’s componentry is how reliable it is. Early in Shimano’s production of bike componentry they made reliability a priority and their pursuit of that has been as unrelenting as Pepe Le Pew’s pursuit of his heart’s desire. We are all better for it and if you doubt that, all you have to do is Google Fiamme Red Label rims and Campagnolo Syncro. In the 1980s, like it or not, we put up with some real crap.
One of the things I think about when I choose a product for review is its availability. That’s what drew me to the Shimano Dura-Ace C50 wheelset. I’ve yet to encounter a bike shop that doesn’t have an account with Shimano, which means that if you want a set of Shimano wheels, all you have to do is visit your local retailer.
The C50 is a deep-section wheelset featuring a carbon fiber and alloy rim. The years go by and still we are having a conversation about carbon fiber wheelsets, particularly clincher wheelsets. We should have conquered melted carbon clinchers by now and have moved on to the more substantive conversation of wheel aerodynamics, once, if not for all. This is as dismaying as a misspelled tattoo.
The only way to settle that conversation for some folks is to stick with an aluminum brake track, and while Shimano does offer some all-carbon fiber tubulars, their clincher wheels all go with the virtually foolproof aluminum brake track.
The C50 rim is 50mm deep, putting it in the neighborhood of Zipp’s 404 rim. Maximum rim width is 23mm, which leans wide relative to some other rims, but isn’t super wide. Spoke count is 16 front and 21 rear, which is one of the wheelset’s best features. Most wheels with super-low spoke counts sacrifice lateral stiffness to improve weight. Amazingly, the C50 is stiffer than many higher-count wheelsets, making them ultra-responsive and aiding the wheels’ aerodynamics thanks to that low spoke count. The rear wheel’s odd-numbered spoke count comes via seven pairs of spokes on the drive side opposed by a single spoke on the non-drive side. That allows the wheel to be built with more even tension, making for a more durable wheel. The rear rim also features an asymmetric design that improves wheel dish, also making the wheel stronger, and better able to stay true under the lateral loads caused by big out-of-the-saddle efforts.
Aiding the wheels’ aerodynamics and the builders’ labors are the bladed spokes. You can use a wrench to hold the blade in place as you tension the spoke and prevent windup that causes a wheel to come untrue after the first few rides.
Our review wheels weighed in at 1668 grams, a few below advertised and though not super-light, they are still light enough that acceleration isn’t a challenge.
The one issue I take with these wheels are that the rim shape is still essentially a deep V, rather than employing the rounded spoke bed of the double-leading-edge designs produced by Zipp and Enve (not to mention an increasing number of their competitors). I prefer the improved handling and aerodynamics those designs offer. That said, the C50 handles pretty well when compared to some deep-V designs.
These hoops aren’t for the bargain hunter, unfortunately. They carry a suggested retail of $2199, which is as much as some bikes, but still less than some premium wheels. And for all that cash, you get more than just wheels. Shimano includes quick releases (an internal cam design that will remain easy to operate for years to come), wheel bags, valve extenders, rim strips and spoke wrench. Put another way, these are the Volvos of wheelsets; no one will accuse Volvo of competing with Kia, but they aren’t guilty of the excesses of Lamborghini; you get a lot for your money.
It seems like I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in my of my recent wheel reviews talking about braking performance. Either the wheels didn’t stop well even with the manufacturer’s proprietary pad (those early Rovals and Eastons were scary), or they stopped well, but you were often scared that if the road didn’t get flatter soon, you might be walking home. With the C50, unless you’re riding in a deluge, braking is a nonissue. There’s just not much to discuss. Brake performance is everything you’ve come to expect from an aluminum rim—all the feel, all the power, all the modulation. I’ve ridden these on some very long and technical descents and didn’t sufficiently heat the tire and tube to flat, and honestly, I permitted myself to brake more than usual because I knew I didn’t have to worry about that dreaded glass transition point, a temperature unique to each carbon clincher that is an absolute death sentence. GTP is to carbon rims what 33 degrees Fahrenheit is to Frosty the Snowman.
Concerning the hubs I should note that while many wheel manufacturers have gone to cartridge bearings that are replaceable, Shimano has stuck with a traditional cup and cone design and grade 20 ball bearings. It seems old tech until you see just how well these things roll. Just ask Porsche, you can still do a lot with a naturally aspirated engine, yo.
These wheels are fast and because they handle reasonably well in cross winds, they serve well as daily drivers. Most of us want to be fast every day, not just Saturday, and these wheels give that extra edge without sacrificing durability or serviceability. It’s the speed and handling of a Ferrari combined with the reliability of a Honda.
Final Thought: High-tech insurance plan.