Road Bike Wheels Buyer’s Guide

So, you’re in.

Buying your first road bike has ignited a passion for cycling, and you’re now truly hooked on this wonderful sport. Maybe you’re thinking about getting into racing, or simply want to look the part. Either way, a wheelset upgrade is one of the most cost-effective ways to achieve your goal.

Carbon vs aluminum? Shallow or deep rims?  Factory or hand built? With so much to think about, researching wheel upgrades can be a confusing task.

Through this all-encompassing guide, we’ll help establish what’s right for you and you’ll be the envy of your fellow riders in no time.

Be warned, though. A shiny new wheelset will likely only be the beginning of a far deeper investment in cycling. You might just find your bike becoming very much a third (and fourth wheel) in your relationship.

Bike wheel anatomy: a quick overview

First, a quick road wheel anatomy lesson. Despite their differences, all road wheels have four main components:

Hub – The hub is the heart of the wheel. It sits at the center, providing the axis about which it rotates. Each hub contains an axle, which attaches the wheel to the bike. The rear wheel is fitted with a splined freehub body, which allows the bike to coast and a cassette to be fitted. It is through the cassette, chain, and the rest of the drivetrain that power is transferred to the wheel.

Rim – The rim sits on the outside of the wheel and provides the braking surface, where rim-brakes are equipped. Rims come in a variety of widths, which dictates the width of tire that can be fitted. The depth of the rim also affects aerodynamics.

Spokes – The spokes attach the hub to the rim. Their importance is often overlooked, but they play a vital role in keeping the wheel true and running smoothly. In general, a greater spoke count means a stronger wheel. On the flip side, you’ll likely pay a weight penalty for this. Different shapes of spoke can provide an aerodynamic boost, which we’ll take about in more detail later.

Nipples – Spokes attach to the rim via a special type of nut, referred to as nipples. The majority of road wheels can be trued by adjusting tension through the nipple.

 

 

What are your requirements and goals?

The single most important step in the process is thinking about what your motivations are, and exactly what you want to get out of your shiny new hoops. The type of cycling you intend to do will have a huge impact on which wheels are best suited to your needs. The aspiring racer, for example, will likely have completely different requirements to the casual century/gran fondo rider. A cyclist who does the majority of their cycling in mountainous Colorado, may have vastly different needs to one who rides on flatter terrain.

Speed/weight

If you were to ask cyclists about their leading motivations for buying new wheels, the vast majority would likely put speed at the top the list. This will be particularly important for those looking to race. Even with this category of rider, there will be big differences in requirements. For example, a TT rider will be looking for pure, straight line speed. Conversely, a criterium rider may consider looking for a wheel allowing better acceleration out of the corners. In the next section we’ll take an in depth look at the types of wheels and what they’re best suited to.

While a wheel upgrade can obviously have a direct impact on your speed, it’s also important to think about the indirect effects. The best way to up your speed, by far, is simply through training. The more time you spend on the bike, the quicker you’ll get. If buying nice new wheels motivates you to get out on your bike more, then you’re bound to get faster.

Comfort & Ride Quality

Your comfort on the bike is another factor to consider. We’ve all been there. You’re halfway through a century ride, and already sore. There’s not much more demoralizing than knowing you’ve got another 50 miles of pain to endure. Of course, a lot of this comes down to your position on the bike. However, wheels also have a role to play here. For example, deeper section rims are likely to have a much harsher ride than shallow rims. This is certainly something to consider if you’re looking more at riding longer distances. There is always a trade-off to consider somewhere.

Aesthetics

Let’s face it. Upgrading your wheels is about far more than just how they perform. It’s of vital importance that they make you feel like part of the community. It’s undeniable that cyclists can be a harsh bunch, and heading off on a group ride with a vastly inferior setup is likely to make you the talk of the peloton for all the wrong reasons.

To the uninitiated, cycling does have its potential fashion faux pas to avoid. While not as terminal to your social status as mixing a Campy crankset with Shimano gearing, some might still take issue with Shimano wheels with a Campy groupset, for example. Despite the fickleness of some within the cycling community, it’s important not to get too carried away with how you look.

At the end of the day, it’s all about what makes you get out more and enjoy your cycling. If sparkly wheels help you feel like one of the gang, then it’s certainly something to think about.

Terrain

Another consideration is where you’ll be riding. If you’re looking at riding up Mt. Lemmon anytime soon, then you’ll probably want to consider something a little more lightweight.

Enjoyment & Motivation

For many, the major aim will simply be the pure, unadulterated pleasure that comes with a new set of wheels. Even if they don’t actually make you faster, you’ll feel faster. The quality they’ll bring over a stock set of wheels will give your bike a new lease on life, and if this doesn’t inspire you to train harder, then not much will.

Budget

Coming up with a budget is an important part of the wheel-buying process. Your first look at the wheel all the wheel choices can be overwhelming, but having a set price range will immediately cut out anything unsuitable. For some, money will be no object. In this case it obviously makes sense to splash out on the best that money can buy. For the rest of us, it’s important to weigh just how much more of an advantage that extra bit of cash is going to get us.

Is it worth splashing the cash?

Up to a certain price point (around $800), spending an extra bit of money is likely to see pretty big jumps in performance. This could be in the form of durability, lightness, or aerodynamics. Above this point, however, the gains tend to diminish. For example, the differences between a $350 wheelset and a $700 wheelset are likely to be huge. On the other end of the price scale, spending $1800 instead of $1000 isn’t going to result in such gains. Regardless of how much you spend, anything over $250 is likely to be a good improvement over many stock wheels.

As we’ll discuss later, for all but very serious racers, splashing out for carbon is simply not cost effective in terms of performance gains. This means that the budget for most amateur cyclists will fall somewhere between $350 and $800. If you’re really looking to up your speed, then a wheel at the higher end of this price range is likely to be for you.

This will allow you to look at getting some decent mid or deep-section rims. If you’re looking for something a bit faster, but also tougher than your current wheelset for everyday use, then it might make sense to spend a little less. You’ll still see some excellent performance gains, without breaking the bank.

If you’re going straight for expensive racing wheels, you probably won’t want to use them regularly. In this case, you’ll likely want to include a set of training wheels in your budget as well.

Things to Consider

So, now you’ve taken some time to think about what’s important to you personally, let’s take a look at the options. In an ideal world, your new hoops will be supremely comfortable, stiff, lightweight, aerodynamic, provide reliable braking, and of course turn heads on the road. Unfortunately, when it comes to wheels, you can’t have it all. Some higher end wheels may provide a good mix of all of the above, but they’re sure to break the budget of most cyclists.

Types of wheels

Road wheels generally fit into 3 broad categories:

Lightweight – These keep weight to a minimum by virtue of a shallower rim and a lower spoke count. They’re generally considered superior to aero wheels for climbing, but there is considerable debate surrounding this. Shallow rims are often considered to provide greater levels of comfort, compared to the harsher ride of deep section rims.

Aero wheels – Designed to be as fast in a straight line as possible, with deeper and wider rims to reduce drag. This often comes at the expense of weight and handling.

Training wheels – It’s not all about speed, and training wheels are built with durability in mind. These are likely to be your ‘everyday’ wheels, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a significant upgrade from what you’re using now. They come in a vast array of options to suit your riding style and budget. Those wheelsets which are not solely performance-focused usually have features aimed at making day-to-day cycling easier. This includes aluminium braking surfaces for improved all-weather braking and more spokes for toughness.

Types of rims

Rim Depth

Deep section rims look cool; there is no denying it. It’s also an inescapable fact that cyclists like their wheels to look cool. It makes it very easy to go down the path towards ‘aero’ wheels. The best policy here is to take a step back and think logically about what is most important to you personally. The sweetest looking wheelset may well not be the one most suited to your needs and budget.

As is often the nature of the cycling community, there is huge debate over the advantages and disadvantages of deeper rims. Cyclists can be pretty militant with their views at times (look on the forum of any cycling site and you’ll get what I mean), and many will stick to their guns despite scientific evidence. Although this can make for some pretty interesting, often hilarious, reading it can make things pretty confusing. We’ll do our best here to disentangle fact from stubborn opinion.

Shallow Rims

Best For:
Serious climbing
Training/everyday
Criteriums
Your bank balance

Most wheels on the lower end of the price spectrum will have shallow profile rims. This doesn’t mean that shallow rims are inferior, however, and there’s also much on offer at the top of the scale. A top of the range super light carbon climbing wheelset, for example, could easily cost upwards of $1000. Many so called ‘training wheels’ will also fit into this category.

Due to there being less material in a shallow rim, it’s easier to keep weight down. The material of the rim also plays a role here, and there are deep section carbon wheels which will be lighter than shallow-profile wheels. Of course, if you don’t have the money to splash out on carbon, then shallow rims are a good way to keep weight down.

Another significant advantage of shallow rims is that they are considered to have superior handling. This is particularly noticeable when riding in crosswinds, where aero rims tend to catch the wind. Due to their weight advantages, they also allow faster acceleration.

It’s important to make the distinction here between wheels designed for climbing, and those designed as everyday training wheels.

Training wheels are usually designed to provide good ride quality, while being bomb-proof. The increased durability often means increased weight, however, due to a higher spoke count. If you’re on a budget, or simply want cost-effective upgrade over your stock wheels, then these may be the way to go.

On the other hand, climbing wheels are designed far more with weight in mind. Until recently, weight has been overwhelmingly considered the single most important factor affecting climbing. However, there is an ever-growing body of scientific evidence to suggest that, for many riders, aerodynamics may be a more important consideration.

Mid-Section Rims

Best For:
Racing
Moderate hills
All-rounders

Mid-section rims are an excellent compromise, and are considered to give the best of both worlds. They are anything up to 40mm in depth, and are now very common in the pro-peloton. The moderately deep rims help cut through the wind, while reducing the impact of crosswinds. They give a good mix of ride quality, handling, and low weight, with the added benefit of looking fantastic.

Rim Width

There has been a switch in recent years to wider rims, which allow the use of wider tires. This provides improved comfort, lower rolling resistance, and increased control. There is also evidence that wider rims improve aerodynamics, helping to increase speed.

In terms of internal width, under 14mm is considered narrow and anything over 19mm is suitable for 23-27mm tires.

Deep-Section Rims

Best For:
Time Trials
Triathlon
Looking cool

If you’re looking for pure straight-line speed, without too much concern for handling or comfort, then deep section rims are definitely the way to go; this is any rim deeper than 40mm. According to wind tunnel testing, at any speed above 20mph aerodynamic drag becomes the largest force which a rider must overcome.

This becomes even more apparent at higher speeds, where air resistance is increased. Deep section rims are designed to be more aerodynamic, cutting through the wind with less turbulence. A major (or not) trade-off here, however, is weight.

While deep-section rims are usually constructed using carbon fiber to keep weight down, they are often significantly heavier than shallow rimmed wheels (there are also aluminum options at the lower end of the price range). But just how important is weight?

The general rule used to be that lightweight was the way to go for any kind of hilly terrain. However, with improved scientific testing, this has been proven not to be the case. Indeed, testing by Cervelo has shown that aero gains are more important that weight for anything up to a gradient of 8%, for a pro rider.

For your average amateur cyclist, this changes to a 5% gradient. So, for any climb with an average gradient of less than 5%, deeper section rims are likely to be more efficient. However, if you’re planning on doing some serious climbing then you might go for something lighter.

Basically, for it to make sense ditching the aero advantage of deep rims, a course would need a lot of steep climbs with a big weight penalty. So, if you’re looking purely for performance, it makes sense to go for aero rims.

 

 

So, why isn’t everybody using deep-section rims?

They may be faster and more aerodynamic, but there are some pretty big downsides. Weight is the obvious one. More significant, however, is the issue of handling. Crosswinds can be a real nightmare, making your bike difficult to control. The effects can be tempered to some extent through practice, but it’s an important consideration. If this is a concern, then mid-section rims may the solution.

In addition, unless money is no object, these don’t tend to be used as everyday wheels. Many cyclists will keep these as their racing wheels, opting for a pair of cheaper training wheels for general use.

Do I Need Carbon Rims?

The answer to this question really comes down to how much you want to spend. Although prices have come down in recent years, you’re still looking at paying upwards of $1000 for a pair of fully carbon wheels from a reputable brand. There are cheaper offerings on the market, however. Shop around, and you can find a pair of Chinese carbon wheels for around $400. There’s much debate in the cycling community surrounding the quality of these wheels. Some cyclists swear by them, while others question their safety. As the jury is still out, our advice would be to avoid these budget carbon wheelsets and opt for a pair from a known brand at this price point.

Are They Worth It?

While carbon rims are undoubtedly lighter, they come with the caveat of decreased braking performance. They tend to perform poorly in wet conditions and during long descents. Carbon rims also require the use of specific brake blocks, which can make switching back to your training wheels a pain. This can be made a non-issue, however, with the use of disc brakes; we’ll talk about this option later. It’s also possible to get carbon rims which feature an aluminum braking surface.

The main selling point of carbon is of course it’s low weight. As previously alluded to, however, weight isn’t as important as some may think. Unless you’re a serious racer with an enormous budget, or an amateur with an equally enormous belly, it makes sense to forget about weight and opt for trusty aluminium. If money is no object, then by all means opt for carbon; it will save you a few watts for sure, but it’ll take a pretty steep gradient to notice any real benefit.  

Factory vs. Hand Built

This can be a little confusing as the majority of ‘factory’ wheels are actually hand built anyway. The main difference here is that factory wheels are built to a specific configuration; each manufacturer (e.g. Fulcrum) will have a range of wheels, and each wheelset in this range (e.g. Racing 3) is built with exactly the same components. They often have proprietary rim and spoke designs, and are made to be bought straight off the peg.

Hand built wheels, in contrast, allow the buyer to specify their exact requirements for each component. For example, you can pick everything from your rim down to the color of the nipples. Interestingly, this is the only way that you can get premium hubs such as Chris Kings on your wheels.

It used to be the case that the best way to get a high-quality wheelset was to go for hand built, but times are changing. All of the big manufactures now spend a fortune on research and development, meaning that they dominate the market. These companies have worked out which components work best together.

There are several distinct advantages to going for hand built wheels. Perhaps the most tempting of these is customizability. You can specify exactly the components which are most suited to your requirements. This can be particularly useful if you’re a cyclist who likes everything on their ride to match. Why not go for those red nipples to match your frame? Another major advantage is that, should a component break, it should be relatively simple to source a replacement part.

 

 

Hubs

Unless you’re going for a custom wheelset, then hubs are easy to overlook. Nonetheless, they are an integral part of the wheel’s assembly. Any wheelset from a reputable manufacturer will come with a decent hub, but there are still a few things to consider.

Compatibility

Firstly, is the freehub compatible with your drivetrain? While Shimano and SRAM cassettes use the same diameter and spline pattern, Campagnolo cassettes do not. This means that, when buying your wheels, you’ll have to pick either a Shimano/SRAM or Campagnolo compatible freehub. Most manufacturers offer a choice, but it’s definitely something you don’t want to get wrong when you order.

Disc brakes require the use of specific hubs which allow for the attachment of a disc. If you’re building up a wheel from scratch, and want disc brakes, then it’s important to get the correct hub type fitted. Due to the issue of rubbing caused by misalignment, the use of thru-axles is becoming increasingly popular with disc-equipped bikes. This increases rigidity over quick release skewers and allows for more accurate wheel placement, but means slower wheel changes.

Maintenance

Another thing to think about is the ease of maintenance. If you’re going for a wheelset for everyday use, this is key. Hubs with cartridge bearings, sitting in a race, are a good option here. As are Shimano hubs, which use an easy to service cup and cone bearing system. Both are easy to maintain for the home mechanic with basic tools.

Custom Builds

If you’re going for a custom build, and have the budget, then it’s definitely worth investing in some high-quality hubs.  Chris Kings are generally considered to be the ‘gold-standard’ here. They’re expensive, but are nearly bomb-proof. They’re made with incredible craftsmanship, and cope well with extended use in wet conditions.

 

Rim Brakes vs. Disc Brakes

Another very contentious issue within the cycling community (what isn’t?) is that of disc brakes. This is by far the hottest topic with professional cycling at the moment. They’ve been on trial in professional racing since 2015, but are yet to be officially introduced to the UCI WorldTour. This is partly down to delays caused by a crash at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix. Much of the debate surrounding their use refers to the professional peloton – some riders are concerned about flying hot metal discs flying around in the result of a crash. In the amateur circuit, however, the general consensus is that they’re superior to rim brakes for 3 important reasons:

Power

Disc brakes provide a huge amount of stopping power, meaning that the rider has to apply far less force to stop. As well as the increased confidence in your brakes, this will help reduce muscle fatigue during long descents. The amount of power can be customized through the use of varying diameter rotors. Heavier riders can therefore use larger rotors to improve stopping power.

Control

Depending on how they’re adjusted, pulling on rim brakes can produce very inconsistent results. A major advantage of disc brakes is that braking force is much more consistent; pulling on your levers with the same force will produce the same stopping power each time. Some argue that this helps you go faster through corners, as you spend less time on the brakes.

Reliable wet-weather braking

In wet weather, your rims are likely to be wet and covered in road grime. This means that when you first pull the levers, all the brake pads are doing is clearer water and grime off the rims; this results in delayed braking. This issue is even more apparent with a carbon braking surface.

Disc brakes remedy this, and there’s very little noticeable difference in performance in poor weather conditions.

Wider Tires

Negating the need to accommodate calipers, bikes equipped with discs mean it’s easier to fit wider tires for increased traction and handling. This makes disc the brake of choice for cyclocross riders.

So, what possible reason is there for sticking with rim brakes?

Sometimes people just like to stick to what they know. Rim brakes have been the standard system for years, and they work pretty damn well. For many cyclists they are more than sufficient and provide plenty of stopping power. As is often the case, many will simply be set in their ways. Why change something when it works prefect adequately for me? We cyclists can also be a pretty stubborn bunch; even once something is well and truly proven to be better, it can take years to convince us it’s the best option. Despite the obvious advantages of discs, rim brakes do have their positives:

Simplicity

The major appeal of rim brakes comes in the form of their simplicity. Replacement parts are cheap and easily to get hold of, and roadside maintenance is a fairly simple task with a multitool.

Compatibility

Sadly, if you’re looking to switch over to disc brakes then it’s likely you’ll need to switch the rest of your setup too. Disc brakes require the presence of dedicated fittings on both the frame and fork, meaning it’s unlikely they will be compatible with your current rim-brake equipped bike. This means started from scratch with a purpose-built frame set. If you do go down this route, however, you’ll need to go for wheels specifically designed for use with disc brakes; disc brakes require a different hub design, as previously mentioned.

Due to these compatibility problems, once you’ve made a decision you’re basically stuck with it. You won’t be able to use rim brakes with your disc frameset and wheels, and vice versa.

Weight

All-in-all when you add up all extra equipment, such as rotors and specific frameset, it’s likely they’ll be about an additional 500g on your ride. This won’t be a concern to most, but is certainly something to consider.

Mechanical vs. Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Although all types of disc brakes have essentially the same advantages, they function in different ways. While both types feature pistons that push brake pads into a rotor, they differ in how force is transferred to the calliper and rotor.

Mechanical disc brakes, much like rim brakes, use a cable to move the pistons. This means they are compatible with standard rim brake compatible shifters, but come with the same downsides; they can be difficult to set up without rubbing, and the cables can get contaminated with dirt. Due to the similarity to rim brakes, this system is much more home mechanic friendly.

On the other hand, hydraulic brakes use a fluid filled system. The advantage of this is better braking consistency. The caveat here, is that this system requires dedicated levers. This additional expense, coupled with their complexity, means they’re probably not a good option for most.

Are disc brakes right for me?

Unless you’re looking to switch your entire set up around, it’s probably best to stick with rim brakes for now. Disc brakes require specific fixings so, unless your bike is compatible, you’ll need a new frameset. If you’re looking to upgrade the wheels of your existing disc equipped setup, just make sure that the hub is compatible.

 

 

Tires

You should now be pretty well equipped with the knowledge to make an informed decision on your new wheelset. There’s just one final consideration: which tires to run with your shiny new hoops. While this shouldn’t have to much of an impact on which wheels you choose, it’ll certainly have a marked effect on how they feel to ride.

Types of Tires:

Clincher

Clinchers are by far the most common type of tire outside of the pro peloton. For the vast majority of amateur riders, including racers, they’re the most suitable option. The main advantage being the simplicity of fixing a flat: simply pry the tire off on one side, remove the tube, and replace it with a new one. To save money, you can even repair your inner tubes. This is something far too few cyclists seem to do.

Clinchers come as either folding or non-folding tires. Folding clinchers are usually more expensive, but generally lighter and easier to fit than their counterparts. As the name suggests, they also fold up smaller for storage and transport.

Tubular

The majority of professional riders use tubular tires. Unlike clinchers, the casing is sewn shut around the tube. The tire is also glued onto rims which are specifically made to run tubular tires. This means that if you’re planning to run tubular tires, then this needs to be reflected in your choice of wheel. Many pro cyclists prefer the feel of tubular tires. They can still be ridden following a puncture, allowing more time before a change is required. They’re also apparently more resistant to pinch flats.

The major downside of tubular tires is that they’re very difficult to repair on the road. While this obviously isn’t an issue in professional racing, it makes them impractical for the vast majority of other cyclists.

Tubeless

No longer reserved for mountain bikes, tubeless tires are now creeping their way into the road cycling world. Rather than using an inner tube, the tire and rim seal together. To achieve the necessary airtightness, a tubeless set up needs specific tires, rims, tape, and sealant.

The advantages are that they can be run at lower pressures for a smoother rider with more grip. Furthermore, in the event of something sharp puncturing the tire the sealant will plug any holes to keep air in the tire. They may have their advantages, but they can also be a pain to fit and the negatives probably trump the positives here for most people.

Tire Width

The current trend in the cycling world is to use wider tires than were used traditionally. Most commonly, this means a 25-27mm tire instead of 21mm or 23mm. This is considered to be more comfortable, and even faster than narrower tires.

Play the long game

Hopefully you now have a good idea of the kind of wheels suit you best. Wheels are an investment so think about your longer term aspirations. 

If you’re looking to race, and looking for serious straight-line speed, then a set of deep-section wheels may be the way to go. This is of course if you’re not too concerned about strong crosswinds.

For those looking for an excellent compromise between aerodynamics and handling, for general racing or just to up your speed and enjoyment, then a set of mid-sections wheels are ideal. This will also appeal to the serious amateur who wants to be taken more seriously by the cycling community.

If you’re simply looking for a set of sturdy wheels which are an improvement over stock wheels, and suitable for everyday riding, then a set of low-profile training wheels will be suited to your goals.

If you’re planning on cycling up a lot of mountains in the future then you might want to consider some super lightweight climbing hoops.

No matter what you go with, your first wheel upgrade will likely put you on the path to a much fuller investment in cycling. It will inspire you to get out on your bike more and train harder. You might find that the sport takes starts to creep into your life in unforeseen ways.

You’ll want to find other ways to go faster, and before you know it you’ll be crunching power numbers with your pals on club rides. Be warned, a wheel upgrade may just be the beginning.

Cycling will take over your life!