Buyer's Guide for Road Bike Wheels
Why upgrade wheels?
- Because you don’t want to get dropped on group rides.
- Because new wheels enhance the aesthetic look of your bike.
- Because new wheels will provide a significant boost in performance.
Stock wheels on many bikes simply don't offer the performance characteristics you deserve. Upgrading your wheels means greatly improving your ride quality.
Beyond the pure performance characteristics, there is a hard to quantify feeling of having new wheels. Personally, upgrading my wheels increased my motivation to train harder and that alone was well worth an upgrade.
What are your cycling goals?
To begin narrowing your options, ask yourself the below questions:
- Do you see yourself racing one day?
- How often do you ride and what type of riding do you do?
- Are you mostly involved with local weekend club rides?
- Are you involved with Gran Fondos and similar long distance endurance rides?
- Is cycling your main hobby and do you feel higher end wheels are worth it?
- What does your local terrain look like and how will that impact your style of riding?
How to choose?
It’s hard to quantify but how you feel on your bike impacts performance. While that may mean different things to different riders, if the wheels you choose motivate you to get out on your bike and ride more, you'll be a happier, faster rider!
To help you find wheels that are a great fit for you, we created 3 different rider profiles and included wheel recommendations for each type of rider.
Plus, we provided other factors to consider like tires, rim sizes, and whether a custom wheel build is a good option for you.
To help further narrow down your options, take a look at the rider profile descriptions below to see which one most resembles you!
You have a road bike but are eager to get more out of your riding. You’ve heard a lot of talk about upgrading to new wheels and see the benefits.
You’re mainly involved in weekend club rides. Cycling is an exercise and social outlet for you. But, you don’t need or want to spend thousands on carbon wheels given the type and amount of riding you do.
Many of the wheels suited for this type of riding are shallow depth aluminum wheels. They are high quality and are a noticeable upgrade from the stock wheels found on many road bikes.
The wheels below offer a nice mix of performance and value:
Rim Depth: 21 mm
Weight: 1,735 grams
Rim Depth: 24 mm
Weight: 1,640 grams
Rim Depth: 24 mm
Weight: 1,440 grams
You’ve caught the bug and cycling is your passion. You're heavily involved in Gran Fondo's and other endurance rides. You may be leaning toward racing in the near future.
You're aware of the benefits of training with a power meter and understand what FTP is. Maybe you follow a training plan and climbing KOM leaderboards on Strava is a fun challenge. You've made a significant investment in cycling and you're eager to keep improving.
For you, wheels need to provide a noticeable performance improvement as you see yourself getting more involved with the sport.
The wheels below provide a nice blend of solid aerodynamics, lightweight, stable handling, and responsiveness.
Rim Depth: 30 mm
Weight: 1,655 grams
Rim Depth: 35 mm
Weight: 1,475 grams
Rim Depth: 50 mm
Weight: 1,590 grams
You’re a serious rider and need wheels that deliver a genuine lift in speed and performance. For you, wheels need to excel at all the factors important for a rider looking to take their performance to new heights!
That means wheels that are stiff but supple, lightweight but durable, aero with very little rolling resistance, offer crosswind stability, and excellent braking performance.
It’s a lot to ask of a wheelset. But, you invested the time and energy to excel at cycling and whether you ride criteriums, endurance rides, triathlons, or race you need wheels to perform flawlessly.
The below wheels offer an excellent combination of attributes that riders of your caliber demand:
Rim Depth: 50 mm
Weight: 1,555 grams
Rim Depth: 35 mm front, 45 mm rear
Weight: 1,320 grams
Rim Depth: 50 mm
Weight: 1,672 grams
Aero or Lightweight
It’s easy to get lost in all the back and forth about which of these two factors matter more. For years, finding lightweight bike wheels was all that mattered.
Now, most wheels offer a solid combination of both characteristics but when balancing the costs and benefits of wheels with an aero profile, there is strong evidence that show aero wheels play a larger role in increased performance.
Take a look at this article for deeper insights!
What does this mean for you?
If you are involved in any cycling events where time matters and you are looking to maximize performance gains, I'd highly recommend getting aero wheels.
If you are a lighter rider and ride on mostly mountainous terrain and comfort is a priority for you, lightweight wheels are likely to be your best option.
Here's a video with more perspective from the guys at Global Cycling Network!
Carbon or Aluminum
This ties in with the above observations about aero versus lightweight wheels. If you demand wheels that give you every performance advantage, carbon wheels are worth the investment.
If you are looking for solid all around wheels at a reasonable cost, there is a wide selection of aluminum wheels to choose from. Carbon bike wheels can deliver improved aerodynamics and a better aesthetic look, but you'll pay significantly for the added gains.
This article provides detailed observations that will help you prioritize your options.
One issue that often comes up is the braking limitations of carbon wheels particularly in damp or wet conditions.
Advances are being made to improve safety and ENVE and Zipp continue to lead the way in developing braking composites that greatly improve braking performance.
Just be mindful of these issues and recognize the added maintenance and care required when owning a pair of carbon wheels. Are you O.K. with that extra attention to detail to ensure you are safe on the road?
Arguably, there is nothing more personal on a bike than tires. There are numerous options to choose from but there is no doubt that higher quality tires can have a significant impact on rolling resistance and overall performance.
You have 3 options:
Which is the best option?
Unless you plan on racing, I’d advise you to stick with clinchers. Prevailing wisdom is that tubeless is a more lightweight, better option.
However, higher end clinchers are getting better and the performance gap has shrunk considerably allowing you to get a near race quality ride.
Weight differences remain a factor and tubulars will save you 150-200 grams. But, what you save in weight you lose in durability. They often don’t last as long as clinchers!
Changing tubulars are more work to repair and unless properly glued, the replacement tubular is often unstable for the remainder of your ride. For peace of mind, stick with the clinchers.
Just replace the inner tube and you are good to go! As a sidenote, tubeless tires may seem like a viable alternative to either of the above.
It would be nice to simply slap on a tire without worrying about an inner tube or gluing, but there is a limited selection of tires on the market, particularly ones for wider rim wheels that are becoming more commonplace. For this reason, I would steer clear of this option.
For more in-depth tire reviews, check out Bicycle Rolling Resistance!
Wider rims are becoming the norm
One of the more popular trends is a move to wider wheels that offer a number of advantages including a more stable, comfortable ride absorbing road shock under a varying set of road conditions.
While there continues to be a debate about the true aero advantages of wider wheels, assuming you are consistent with tire pressure from a 23mm wheel to a 25mm wheel, you'll experience reduced rolling resistance.
With improved handling and more control wider rims offer, you're ensuring a safer ride and in my mind, that's not to be overlooked. I'd recommend looking into the wider option as you shop for new wheels!
Are custom built wheels right for you?
While there is a large selection of wheels to choose from, sometimes you are looking for that extra custom look to fit your specific needs and match your bike's look.
Colorado Cyclist does a nice job walking you through a selection process where you can mix and match to get custom wheels that meet your needs.
Alternatively, many local bike shops have experience building wheels and they are a great resource to
help you find the rim, hubs, and spokes that best suit you.
You can do all this without spending a fortune. You'll learn a lot about wheels and you'll have someone with intimate knowledge of your wheels that can help service them if any issues arise.