some background first:
- amateur rider, haven't competed in any races yet
- have been riding road for 1.5 years, not much sport before that
- consider myself to be hyperperceptive
So, perhaps similarly to others, there was a question that was on my mind almost constantly: what's more, lower weight or more aero?
For myself, I have answered the question: aero is everything, followed by weight as a distant second.
I reached this conclusion through testing on my Giant Propel (built up on Dura Ace, carbon cockpit, etc.) - I have owned an aluminium wheelset (Easton EA90 SL) and I highly recommend a carbon wheelset to anyone that can afford it. I cannot say that the aluminium wheelset would be better in any regard to whatever else I have ridden.
Upgrading from the Eastons, I purchased a Scott Syncros RR 1.0 wheelset - effectively, a DT Swiss wheelset, with DT Swiss Hubs and what I believe to be Reynolds rims (V shape), 46mm, clinchers. The speed gain compared to the Eastons was substantial. And so, the quest for more speed began, with the ever returning question: what will make me fastest/happiest in the real world, a deeper wheelset, or a lighter wheelset?
And so, an opportunity to buy a used set of Lightweight Mielensteins came around... 47mm, 1100 g, effectively about 0.5 kg lighter than the Reynolds setup. And what happened?
I was dissapointed. The Lightweights came with Tufos, Elite S3s in 23c. My first ride was with the tubs pumped to 120 psi and the wheels felt much slower to accelerate than the Reynolds setup... So, next time I pumped the Tufos to 140 psi and things started to look promising - I could feel that the wheelset started to come alive... however, at the price of a very harsh ride. In short: I scrapped the Tufos, and as a last resort, glued up some Vittoria Corsa's G+.
Now, the comparison became quite controlled:
- Reynolds 46mm, 1450 g weight, clinchers, Vittoria Corsa G+ 23c
- Lightweight Meilenstein, 47mm, 1100 g weight, tubulars, Vittoria Corsa G+ 23c
To briefly discuss Tufos vs Corsas, the Corsas are much better in every regard, except puncture resistance. While the Tufos were "smooth" after about 200 km, the Corsas already have one hole in the tread in the rear, after 100 km. However, in terms of rolling resistance, the Corsas shine. Pumped up to 140 psi, where the Tufos already (at my 65 kg weight) began to feel sketchy, the Corsas remain composed. Ride comfort is much better. It's a no brainer - Corsas all the way.
And in terms of the wheels themselves? Does 500g make a difference? And what about the difference in aero profiling?
Where things are clear is uphill. The Lightweights feel substantially different to the Reynolds set, everything uphill is much easier on them - it's mesmerizing. It feels like you can always add an "extra bit" of effort, which translates into speed. For the heck of it, I tried going up the same hill 3 times (with about 15 km riding in between each attempt). Even on the last attempt, I was much faster on the Lightweights than I was during a single ride up the hill on the Reynolds...
Other areas, I can't quite draw a conclusion. Side winds, so far, seem the same wheelset to wheelset, perhaps slightly worse on the LW. On the straights and downhill? I can't quite put a finger on it, but it seems like the LWs lack momentum... how can I put it? The Reynolds took more effort to get going, definitely, but once they were up to speed, they just went... with the LW, once you stop pedaling (in certain situations), you can feel the wheelset stopping... This seems more evident downhill, where the Reynolds just seemed to pick up speed easier... where I didn't have to pedal with the Reynolds, I have to push with the LWs...
A real world scenario, which I feel is rarely considered in tests, is "acceleration" of wheelsets. The LWs accelerate much better than Reynolds, they respond to inputs better - which makes overtaking much, much easier. Where I could feel resistance to changes in momentum on the Reynolds, the LWs make it seem like a piece of cake. This I would especially relate to deeper and heavier wheels - while the deeper wheels will be faster no doubt once you get going, if you ride between other people/the general public, I believe constantly changing speed on the deeper and heavier wheels may get tiring...
And so, the search for a single "perfect" wheelset ends. Why? Because in a perfect wheelset, mutually exclusive factors would have to meet: deep aero profile and low weight. There will always be a deeper wheelset that is heavier, as there will always be a shallower wheelset that is lighter.
For me, swapping wheelsets is not an option: the amount of adjustment required between wheelsets is just too tiring (derailleur, brakes and whatnot).
So, all in all, what have I learned: one needs two bikes. If you can only pick one bike to have, I suggest aero - with 65mm+ wheels. Of course, get as light a wheelset as you can afford, but remember: aero first, weight as a distant second.
Aero bike: Trek Madone. Given my experience, I wouldn't be too concerned about the 0.5 kg weight penalty due to aero tubes.
Climbers bike: Take your pick, light and stiff...