The Real World Solution

The Real World Solution

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.

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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.

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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.

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12 comments

  1. Randall

    The thing I like about good-old ball bearings is that you can also pick your grease, whether you want light and loose for a race or packed with winter ready performance. Also, there’s never a need to wait for the end of a season to change them, it’s cost-effective to clean them up the second performance degrades.

    That said, I personally have a desire to support an American company when I can, and since these are similar to HED Jet 6s, I think the price definitely makes these less appealing.

    1. Stephen Barner

      You want light, loose grease in the winter, as well, if you live in a cold climate, to counter the grease’s viscosity change as the temperature drops. Bicycle bearings don’t heat up at all as they are used when it’s cold.

      The biggest advantage to cartridge bearings is their ease and low cost of replacement, at least when the manufacturer designs around standard cartridge bearing sizes. The smallest amount of moisture that finds its way into a bearing is going to result in rust, in spite of the presence of grease, and it’s a good idea to rebuild your bearings at the start of the off-season, not the end, as the damage typically happens while the hub is sitting stationary, which you can see when you pull apart a damaged bearing. You don’t have to go back very far before you’ll find a version of Dura Ace for which cones and bearing cups are no longer available, leaving you with a useless part. It would be nice if component manufacturers would continue stocking wear parts for obsolete groups, such as brake hoods and bearings, but they don’t. You have to look to companies who truly value the reputation of their brand, such as Mercedes, to findd this type of corporate behavior.

  2. Pat O'Brien

    Nice review. The last new bike I bought was built by my local bike shop (M&M Cycling) including the wheels on my choice of hubs, Shimano 105. I agree with Randall on picking your own lube and easy maintenance which provides very long hub life.

  3. ScottyCycles

    How do the ride? Is it as bone-jarring as Kysriums or do they absorb road shock well enough to be long day, every day wheels?

  4. Grego

    Why do people pay so much for wheelsets when they could get a pair built with top-tier components and pay 50% less? This is a real question from someone who’s never considered buying a two thousand dollar wheelset.

    For example, these wheels should be the same weight as, and have similar characteristics to, the C50, yet cost around half as much:
    Dura-Ace HB-9000 ($140), FH-9000 ($290) + Sapim CX-Ray ($200) + nipples, washers ($30) + two HED Belgium+ ($300) + professional build ($100) = $1060

    1. Josh Ross

      Because it’s damn near impossible to find deep section carbon hoops to build up a wheel with. My understanding is that Reynolds doesn’t sell their hoops anymore, Zipp only sells them to one retailer, and that leaves Enve or Knight Composites. Both good choices but it’s limited and likely not a 50% savings.

  5. DaSy

    I too miss the joy of building wheels as a bike mechanic, and agree that you have to really commit to it in order to not only enjoy the process but to make a really good wheel. I ended up always recommending Shimano wheel-sets to any customers who came in to the shop asking for a advice. There were plenty of wheels that looked much more flashy for the money, and this seemed to be a real draw for many, but if they wanted a wheel to last, be re-buildable and perform flawlessly, I couldn’t ever see past Shimano and Dura Ace in particular.

    It helped that all my bikes were shod with them in various forms despite all the more ostentatious options available in my shop, and all who bought them on my recommendation came back to say how much they liked them.

  6. Jackie Gammon

    I too miss building more wheels, and occasionally will build a pair. But I will note that I own a small shop and do NOT have an acct with Shimano! I do that for many reasons, one being the arrogance that Shimano has, who knew that when I placed an order with them that I wouldn’t receive it within the same month? Now I realize some orders are probably shipped out relatively soon, but others wait weeks and often times months waiting for their orders… here in Maine, that means our season is mostly over. Besides, there are PLENTY of other companies that build high quality wheels at whatever price point someone wants and they don’t play with bike politics with shops like Shimano. So whether any of you share this argument is up to you… but in the long run I support companies that are reliable, and work WITH shops rather than against like the big “S”. But the cool part of this rant…. we have plenty of choices out there folks!

  7. dubtap

    The RS81 versions get you same wheel minus Titanium freehub, DA skewers and bags for so much less cash. I’ve got the RS80 C50 and I’m a 200 pound fatass and I have never been near them with a spoke key in 4 years.

  8. Scott G.

    I have come to accept that no matter what wheels are on my bike,
    Tom Voeckler will continue to be faster than me.

    So I build my own wheels, using the shiniest hubs available,
    because it is fun. On the holiday menu, front wheel build, White T11 with DT 440 rims.

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