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by Matt Wikstrom
May 7, 2018
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
Carbon wheelsets may be more popular than ever, but alloy clinchers still dominate the market, if only because they are much cheaper to buy. Better yet, time has proven that alloy wheels are incredibly robust and reliable, and with the rise of factory-built wheelsets, they are also very easy to obtain at short notice.
Fulcrum has enjoyed enormous success based on its ability to service this sector of the market. It is one of just a handful of major manufacturers that maintains a deep catalogue of alloy wheelsets that caters to a wide range of price points. As a result, it’s inevitable that buyers looking for a new set of alloy wheels will spend time considering what the brand has to offer.
In this review, Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom tests three of Fulcrum’s alloy wheelsets — the Racing Zero, Racing 3, and Racing 5 LG — to see what each has to offer. While his results are clear — you get what you pay for — the distinction between each is not as great as the difference in price.
It has been almost 15 years since Campagnolo launched Fulcrum, a brand that was created to sell the company’s factory-built wheelsets. At the time, the popularity of factory-built wheelsets was on the rise and Campagnolo understood that it needed a separate identity to maximise the appeal of its wheels.
It was a canny decision because Fulcrum quickly grew to become a recognised wheel manufacturer that could compete with brands like Mavic and Shimano for both OEM and aftermarket sales. And, as hoped, buyers were prepared to pair Fulcrum’s wheels with any brand of groupset by taking advantage of the choice of Shimano/SRAM- or Campagnolo-compatible freehub bodies.
Fulcrum’s wheels are not simply re-badged Campagnolo products (or vice versa) even though the two brands share much of the same technology. For example, Campagnolo’s distinctive G3 lacing pattern for the rear wheel does not appear anywhere in Fulcrum’s catalogue, and its wheels are purely road- and track-oriented. By contrast, Fulcrum’s wheel range is much more diverse, including lower-priced offerings and wheels for MTB and cyclocross/gravel.
There are over twenty wheelsets in Fulcrum’s current road catalogue with a choice of aluminium alloy, carbon/alloy, and carbon rims. Rim profiles range from 25-55mm with options to suit clinchers, tubeless, and tubular tyres as well as rim- and disc-brakes. And all but the carbon/alloy hybrid rims now have external widths between 22.5-24mm, along with 17mm beds that are better suited to 25c tyres.
All of Fulcrum’s alloy wheelsets wear the “Racing” prefix along with a model number; as a rule, the higher the number, the cheaper the wheelset (although the Racing Quattro Carbon is an obvious exception). The wheels also get heavier with fewer technical features as the model number increases.
The Racing Zero, 3, and 5 models have all been in Fulcrum’s catalogue for over a decade, and together, they essentially define the spectrum of options that the company has to offer for its alloy wheelsets. As such, I decided to bring all of them together for this review — courtesy of Fulcrum’s Australian distributor, FRF Sports — to learn more about what each has to offer, and to decide just how much difference there is in performance of each.
The Racing 5 LG is an unassuming wheelset with a relatively low asking price, however it does have a few features — like wide rims, a low spoke count, bladed stainless steel spokes, and alloy nipples — that make for a modest upgrade from an entry-level wheelset.
It has been some years since the first wide-profile road rims began appearing on the market, and after some initial hesitation, Fulcrum has been slowly overhauling its Racing wheelsets with wider rims. Where once the Racing 5 featured rims with a 15mm bed, it has grown to 17mm for the Racing 5 LG (LG stands for large) with an external width of 23mm. On paper, the difference may seem minor, but it’s enough to alter the contact patch of the tyre to provide more grip and comfort.
The front rim of the Racing 5 LG is 24.5mm-tall compared to 27.5mm for the rear. This differential in rim height promises a little extra lateral stiffness for the rear wheel while saving some weight for the front wheel. And in another nod to the unique demands on each rim, the rear rim has an asymmetrical profile that offsets the spoke nipples to the left so as to help even out the spoke tension between the driveside and non-driveside of the wheel.
Spoke tension is always much higher on the driveside of any wheel fitted with multiple sprockets, and the imbalance accelerates spoke fatigue. Over the years, a number of strategies have been developed to ameliorate this imbalance, and it is generally accepted that even a minor increase in spoke tension on the non-driveside of the wheel is beneficial.
In the case of the Racing 5 LG, offsetting the spoke nipples towards the non-driveside of the wheel reduces the length of spokes required, which in turn, produces a small increase in spoke tension. In addition, the driveside flange on the rear hub is considerably larger than the non-driveside one, and Fulcrum also uses a differential spoke lacing pattern: two-cross on the driveside, and radial on the non-driveside. Taken together, the design ensures a sturdy wheel where the tension on the non-drive-side spokes is no less than half that of the drive-side spokes. For the Racing 5 LG sample sent for review, driveside tension measured ~110kgf compared to ~55kgf for the non-driveside.
The front wheel is laced with 18 spokes while the rear wheel has 20. That’s a low spoke count, even by contemporary standards, and while Fulcrum insists on a weight limit for the rider, it’s pretty generous at 109kg. With that said, for those riders that are close to this limit and/or desire an exceptionally stiff rear wheel, I’d recommend a higher spoke count, taller rims, or both.
The straight-pull and bladed stainless steel spokes add a modern touch to the wheels, but a broken spoke may be difficult to replace at short notice. At least Fulcrum has not resorted to a proprietary spoke design, so any 14-gauge (2.0mm) straight-pull spoke (round or bladed) in a matching length should suffice.
The asymmetric rear rim is a subtle feature that improves spoke tension on the non-drive-side of the rear wheel.
A set of skewers with external cams is supplied with the Racing 5 LG.
The Racing 5 LG is served by a fairly simple alloy hubset with hollow alloy axles and cartridge bearings. Each hub is easy to pull down for servicing with just a few common tools (17mm spanner, 5mm hex key, and a 2.5mm hex key), however specialised tools will be required to replace the cartridge bearings. A locking threaded collar allows the amount of play in the axle to be adjusted, although some care should be taken to prevent overloading the cartridge bearings.
All of Fulcrum’s rear hubs utilise the same design for the freehub body. The drive mechanism comprises three pawls that are secured by a light spring and a 30-tooth ratchet-ring in the hub body. It’s a simple design that is hard-wearing and easy to service. With that said, the internal cartridge bearings that support the freehub body on the axle of the wheel are prone to wear, and while the outer bearing is relatively easy and inexpensive to replace, the inner bearing (at the base of the freehub body) can be difficult to remove.
The Racing 5 LG is made in Romania and Taiwan, and is finished with machined brake tracks and alloy nipples (red, no less). Total weight for the wheelset is a modest 1,732g (front, 764g; rear, 968g), including rim strips, but without skewers.
The Racing 5 LG has a recommended retail price of AU$360/US$390/€288 and includes a pair of rim strips, skewers, and a choice of an 11-speed Shimano/SRAM- or Campagnolo-compatible freehub body.
The front hub of the Racing 5 LG is relatively easy to dismantle.
The end cap unplugs from the axle and then a 2.5mm hex key is required to unlock the threaded bearing collar, which then unwinds from the axle.
There is a bearing shield under the collar that simply slips off the axle.
There’s no need to service the cartridge bearings; just replace them whenever any play develops. A smear of grease can be added on top of the bearing for extra water resistance.
The front axle assembly comprises just a few simple components.
The rear hub of the Racing 5 LG is also quite simple to dismantle, starting with undoing the axle cap with a 17mm spanner after a 5mm hex key is used to secure the axle from the opposite side.
A 2.5mm hex key is required to unlock the bearing collar…
… which then unwinds from the axle.
Like the front hub, there is a shield on the bearing that simply slips off the axle.
The axle is then free to slide out of the hub, leaving behind a cartridge bearing on each side.
The driveside axle bearing sits below the drive ring, but there’s no need to remove it when replacing the bearing.
Rear axle assembly with the freehub body.
The freehub body of the Racing 5 LG (and all Fulcrum road wheelsets) can be serviced without removing the rear axle. A 5mm hex key is used to hold the axle while a 17mm spanner is used to unwind the lock nut, which loosens in a clockwise direction.
A spacer sits below the locknut that slides off the axle…
… and then the freehub body is ready to be removed.
The rear axle remains in place after the freehub body has been removed.
There are two cartridge bearings within the freehub body that can be replaced if they develop any play.
The Racing 3 is positioned two tiers above the Racing 5 LG, and as such, it is a more sophisticated wheelset that weighs less and costs more. Nevertheless, the two wheelsets still share a few features, such as moderately wide rims, low spoke counts, stainless steel spokes, alloy hubs and nipples, and differential rim profiles.
The Racing 3 rims have the same 17mm bed as the Racing 5 LG, however the external width is a little narrower (22.5mm) and the rims are constructed from a higher-strength alloy (6082-T6). And like the Racing 5 LG, the rear rim of the Racing 3 is a little taller than the front, 29.5mm versus 26.5mm, but there is no asymmetrical profile. Instead, the front and rear rims are machined in between the spoke holes, not only to save weight, but also to balance the rim without compromising durability.
Another key difference is one that normally goes unseen: the rim bed of the Racing 3 is not drilled with entry holes for spoke nipples like the Racing 5 LG. This has nothing to do with tubeless tyres, because the Racing 3 is not tubeless-compatible; rather, it makes for a stronger and more robust rim. In addition, there is no need for rim tape, but it makes it much trickier to assemble the wheels. At the factory, each nipple is fitted with a steel inset so that a magnet can be used to thread each nipple through the rim cavity.
The Racing 3 is built with the same kind of bladed straight-pull stainless steel spokes and alloy nipples as the Racing 5 LG, however the front wheel has 16 spokes while the rear wheel has 21. The same rider weight limit of 109kg applies to the Racing 3.
At face value, the lacing pattern used for the Racing 3 is identical to the Racing 5 LG, and while that is true for the front wheel, the arrangement of the spokes in the rear wheel is quite different. Instead of arranging the spokes evenly on each side of the wheel like the Racing 5 LG, the Racing 3 has twice as many driveside spokes.
Fulcrum refers to this arrangement as its 2:1 spoke ratio, but it is no difference from a triplet lacing pattern that has long been used by wheelbuilders. And for good reason, because it is a proven strategy for reducing the imbalance in spoke tension for the rear wheel.
With fewer spokes on the non-driveside, more tension is required on each spoke to centre the rim over the hub, and while this strategy doesn’t achieve a perfect balance, non-driveside spoke tension is typically greater than 50% of the drive-side spokes. For the Racing 3 sample sent for review, tension on the non-drive-side spokes was measured at ~70kgf compared to ~110kgf for the driveside spokes, which is a marked improvement over the Racing 5 LG.
The exterior of Racing 3 rims are machined in between the spoke holes to remove some weight from the rims.
Compared to the rim bed of the Racing 5 LG (right), the Racing 3 has just one hole for the valve stem.
The Racing 3 is supplied with a set of internal-cam skewers.
The hubs that are found in the Racing 3 are made from aluminium alloy, and have oversized hollow axles that are supported by traditional cup-and-cone bearings. Pulling down the hubs for service is similar to the Racing 5 LG, however the bearings can be cleaned and re-greased with ease. No special tools are required, and the bearings are easy to adjust with a threaded sleeve that locks on to the axle with a small bolt.
The freehub body of the Racing 3 has the same design as the Racing 5 LG, but rather than steel, it is made from aluminium. It is supported on the axle by the same two cartridge bearings, and uses the same driver design, with three pawls that engage with a 30-tooth ratchet ring in the hub.
The Racing 3 wheelset sent for review weighed 1,590g (front, 690g; rear, 900g), making for a weight saving of 142g over the Racing 5 LG, but it comes at a significant cost: the recommended retail price for the Racing 3 is AU$750/US$791/€599.
Like the Racing 5 LG, the Racing 3 is made in Romania and Taiwan, and is supplied with skewers plus a choice of an 11-speed Shimano/SRAM- or Campagnolo-compatible freehub body.
The end cap of the axle unwinds with a 5mm hex key, but a second 5mm hex key is required to secure the axle from the opposite side.
A 2.5mm hex is required to unlock the bearing collar, which then winds off the axle.
The bearing cone is not threaded; instead, a compression ring locks it into place (like the upper assembly of a threadless headset).
A light tap on the axle is normally enough to free the compression ring and cone, which then slide freely off the axle.
The bearings are held in place by a shield, which can be pried off with a small screwdriver. There’s no need to worry about loose balls falling to the ground because they are held in a retainer.
Compared to the Racing 5 LG, there are a lot more parts in the front hub, but it’s much easier to service the bearings.
The rear hub of the Racing 3 is pulled down in exactly the same manner as the front hub.
The end cap is removed with a 5mm hex key, then the collar is unlocked with a 2.5mm hex key.
Once the collar has been removed, a tap on the axle will release the compression ring and cone…
… which will slide off the axle as it is removed from the hub.
A shield keeps the bearings in the hub.
A small screwdriver is all that is needed to lift the shield off each bearing.
Rear axle assembly including the freehub body.
The freehub body can be removed from the rear wheel in the same way as shown for the Racing 5 LG (see above).
The Racing Zero is Fulcrum’s most expensive alloy wheelset, and the only alloy wheelset that the company produces in Italy. These wheels have a variety of high-end features that save some weight and improve the performance of the wheels, however the design and assembly remains unchanged from the Racing 3.
Racing Zero rims are made from the same 6082-T6 aluminium alloy, and prior to milling, they share the same basic form as Racing 3 rims. Extra milling is used to carve away more material between the spoke holes to further reduce the weight of the rim, though the final dimensions of the rims remain much the same. Thus, the front and rear rims are 27mm and 30mm-tall, respectively, with an external width of 22.5mm and a 17mm-wide tyre bed.
The machining process is also used to balance the rim, such that extra material is left behind to offset the weight of the valve stem. While the final result is subject to the length of the valve stem, it promises to smooth out the rotation of the wheels.
The front wheel of the Racing Zero has 18 spokes, laced radially, and 21 spokes for the rear, arranged according to Fulcrum’s 2:1 lacing pattern, just like the Racing 3. But while the Racing 3 is built with stainless steel spokes, the Racing Zero makes use of proprietary straight-pull aluminium alloy spokes with oversized alloy nipples. According to Fulcrum, they offer a weight saving of almost 2g/spoke, but they are expensive to replace and difficult to source at short notice.
The front hub of the Racing Zero has a carbon fibre shell in between the alloy flanges while the rear hub is all alloy. The internals are essentially identical to Racing 3 hubs with hollow alloy axles and cup-and-cone bearings, however the standard steel balls have been replaced by Fulcrum’s USB ceramic balls. A few common tools (17mm spanner, a pair of 5mm hex keys, and a 2.5mm hex key) are all that is required to dismantle and service the hubs.
Like the Racing 3, the rims of the Racing Zero are machined between the spoke holes, but the treatment is much more obvious.
Oversized alloy spokes require oversized alloy nipples.
The Racing Zero is supplied with the same internal-cam skewers as the Racing 3.
The Shimano/SRAM-compatible freehub body that is fitted to the Racing Zero is made from alloy, however it is treated with “plasma”, hence the white finish. According to Fulcrum, this treatment renders the freehub body more resistant to the bite of sprockets.
All of these refinements produces a wheelset that weighs 1,482g (front, 634g; rear, 848g) without skewers, making for a saving of 108g over the Racing 3. As for the asking price, expect to pay around AU$1,200/US$1,244/€916, though some buyers may be tempted by a couple of extra upgrades that are offered for the Racing Zero.
The first is the Racing Zero Nite, which is essentially a stealth version of the wheelset that sells for AU$1,400/US$1,546/€1,190. The rims are treated with a plasma electrolytic oxidation coating that yields an all-black finish along with an extra-durable brake track that requires specialised pads. Alternatively, there is the Racing Zero Competizione, which sells for AU$1,500/US$1,645/€1,247, and feature tubeless-ready rims along with hubs that have been upgraded with carbon shells and Fulcrum’s premium CULT ceramic bearings, which are built with crygenically treated steel bearing races.
The assembly of the Racing Zero front hub is identical to the Racing 3.
The same set of tools is required to remove the axle and bearings.
The axle won’t fall out of the hub until the compression ring and cone are dislodged.
Once the axle has been removed, the bearing shield can be lifted out of the hub with a small screwdriver…
… so that the bearings can be removed for cleaning and re-greasing.
The rear hub of the Racing Zero is also dismantled in the same way as the Racing 3.
The rear axle assembly of the Racing Zero.
The freehub body can be removed from the rear hub and axle in the same way as the Racing 5 LG.
A light spring holds all three pawls in place, and sits within a slot that circles the freehub body.
This spring can be lifted off the pawls for servicing, but some care is required to avoid bending it.
A comparison of the Shimano/SRAM free hub bodies: Racing 5 LG (steel, left), Racing 3 (alloy, centre), and Racing Zero (plasma-treated alloy, right). Plasma treatment of the Racing Zero freehub body creates a harder surface finish that is more resistant to sprocket-bite.
From the discussion above, it’s clear that the Racing 5 LG, Racing 3, and Racing Zero all have some common features, and as the price of the wheelset increases, so too does the number of refinements. All of these features, including weights and prices, are summarised in the table below:
It’s worth noting that the difference in the asking price for the Racing 3 and Racing Zero over the Racing 5 LG is far greater than the weight savings they offer. The Racing 3 costs more than twice as much as the Racing 5 LG yet weighs just 8% less; the Racing Zero, by contrast, costs three times more than the Racing 5 LG and offers a 14% weight saving.
Of course, the Racing 3 and Racing Zero have more to offer than just weight savings. Of these, it’s the improvement in the balance of spoke tension for the rear wheel and the cup-and-cone bearings that stand out for me. That’s because the former promises to extend the life of the wheels, while the latter is not only easier to service and maintain, but also more durable than conventional radial cartridge bearings.
On the flip side, the use of proprietary alloy spokes utilised by the Racing Zero is something of a turn-off compared to the more conventional stainless steel spokes of the Racing 3. For most riders, this is unlikely to be an issue, especially during the first year or two of ownership, but spoke fatigue is unavoidable as the wheels age.
As a result, I see the Racing 3 as the strongest proposition on paper. These wheels have almost all of the same features as the Racing Zero, and while they weigh a little more, they cost a lot less. The Racing 3 is still quite pricey, though, so it won’t appeal to bargain hunters, but it sits well against similarly priced wheelsets from other brands, such as Mavic’s Ksyrium Elite and Shimano’s RS700.
A systematic approach was adopted for assessing the on-road performance of the Racing 5 LG, Racing 3, and Racing Zero. Each wheelset was fitted with a pair of 25c Michelin Power Competition tyres that were inflated to 70psi. The same bike (Baum Corretto) was used for every ride. The wheels were tested on a range of paved surfaces and a mixture of climbs and descents.
Overall, each wheelset behaved exactly as expected for a good set of low-profile alloy clinchers: easy to ride, untroubled by the wind, sturdy with no obvious lateral flex, with excellent braking. And in general terms, they performed equally well to the point where I found it difficult to discern one from the other.The Racing 5 LG, Racing 3, and Racing Zero could all be ridden on a wide variety of terrain with satisfaction, be it under power on flat roads, grinding up hills, or bombing tricky descents.
It was only when I started looking closely at how well I could accelerate that I noticed a difference between the wheelsets. The Racing 5 LG suffered the most from some obvious inertia, which isn’t surprising given that they weighed over 1,700g. By comparison, the Racing 3 was a livelier wheelset because it was a little easier to accelerate from a standing start or on a slope.
Fulcrum’s Racing 5 LG is finished with black components for a contemporary look.
The red spoke nipples won’t suit all bikes, though.
The Racing 3 has a very subtle and stealth-like finish.
The hubs have a logo on them but it is black and easy to miss.
From a distance, the Racing Zero wheelset appears very similar to the Racing 5 LG and Racing 3.
Up close, though, the hubs are quite distinct, as are the oversized alloy spokes.
The Racing Zero was the most impressive wheelset under these conditions. Agile and responsive, it will probably impress most riders, especially those looking for a tangible upgrade from an entry- or mid-level wheelset. However, the distinction is a mild one at best, a nuance perhaps, and my sense of it was often fleeting.
Nevertheless, I quickly developed a preference for the Racing Zero. The extra agility and responsiveness of the wheels was probably the biggest part of that attraction, but my overall impression was that the wheels were simply a little nicer, and more enjoyable, to ride.
Having spent time on Fulcrum’s earlier wheelsets with narrow rims, the new 17mm bed is a welcome addition. Most tyres will sit a little wider on these rims (the 25c Michelin tyres measured 26mm at 70psi), and therefore, provide a little extra grip to improve the handling of the wheels. Lower tyre pressures can also be used for extra comfort. However, there is even more grip and comfort on offer with wider rims (such as Zipp’s 30 Course wheelset and Easton’s R90 SL rims), which is something that I’ve come to prize.
There was no discernible distinction in the ride quality of each wheelset. The Racing 5 LG, Racing 3, and Racing Zero all seemed adequately stiff without any overt rigidity or harshness. In the past, I had been convinced that the alloy spokes in the Racing Zero made for a more rigid wheel, but on this occasion, back-to-back testing did not reveal any difference between the wheelsets. In contrast, altering the tyre pressure had an obvious impact on the amount of feedback coming from the wheels, regardless of the model, so this is what buyers should pay attention to when putting the wheels to use.
As a road tubeless convert, it’s disappointing to see that Fulcrum’s “2-Way Fit” has largely disappeared from its alloy clinchers. Tubeless compatibility remains an option for the Racing Zero, as mentioned above, but for buyers looking at cheaper wheels, it doesn’t exist. According to Fulcrum, there was very little demand for tubeless-ready wheels at the lower pricepoints, so it has been discontinued for the time being.
The Racing 5 LG, Racing 3, and Racing Zero were all trouble-free during my time on the wheels, however the review period was much too short to judge the reliability of the wheels. With that said, having inspected and serviced a multitude of Fulcrum wheelsets over the last decade, I’ve seen only one recurring problem, namely the cartridge bearings in the freehub body that can be quick to fail.
For those wondering about how much freewheeling buzz there is, the freehubs were quiet (but not silent) for all three wheelsets. I found the Michelin tyres and a set of Vittoria tyres were a pretty tight fit on these wheels, however both brands of tyres were quick to seat once inflated. The internal-cam skewers that are supplied with the Racing 3 and Zero were a pleasure to use; by contrast, the external-cam skewers that come with the Racing 5 LG are an obvious economy that are much less satisfying to use and will suffer once exposed to wet weather.
When factory-built wheelsets started to take hold of the market at the turn of the century, buyers were wooed by a heady combination of technical features and convenience. There was no longer a need to wait for a busy workshop to build a set of wheels; buyers could buy their wheels off-the-rack and start riding them the same day. As for the features, manufacturers were able to develop wheel systems with components that had been optimised to produce a robust and reliable wheelset.
This is what Fulcrum has been doing with its alloy clinchers for most of this century. At the heart of its alloy wheel collection is a reasonably lightweight wheel design with a versatile rim profile and a low spoke count to which a growing number of refinements are added to save weight and improve the performance of the wheels. As a result, the Racing Zero is more sophisticated and lighter than the Racing 3 and Racing 5 LG, and it proved to be livelier and more responsive, too.
However, in practical terms, the distinction between the Racing 5 LG, Racing 3, and Racing Zero was relatively minor — a matter of nuance — that might be lost on some riders. In my hands, the Racing Zero shined the brightest, but if I was spending the money, I’m not sure I could justify it.
With an asking price of AU$1,200/US$1,244/€916, and no prospect of readily re-building the wheels once the brake tracks have been scrubbed away (or a rim is damaged by a pothole), it’s a lot to pay for a consumable product. This has always been the Achilles’ heel of factory-built wheelsets, but judging from the way the market has grown over the last 20 years, it doesn’t seem to be something that troubles many shoppers.
From a pragmatic standpoint, the Racing 3 is more attractive on paper, and while it doesn’t quite match the performance of the Racing Zero on the road, it gets close. The cup-and-cone bearings and the 2:1 lacing pattern for the rear wheel are attractive upgrades over the Racing 5 LG (and the Racing Quattro LG, for that matter) that easily justify the extra expense of this wheelset. If the buyer has no intention of using tubeless tyres, then the Racing 3 should serve as an enduring upgrade and/or a robust set of training wheels.