Our complete guide to what to look for when buying your new wheels. In association with Chain Reaction Cycles
If there’s one upgrade that will help to take your bike to the next level, it is a new pair of wheels. Some new hoops can completely transform your bike, shedding weight to help in the hills or improving aerodynamics so you can power along on the flat, hoovering up KOMs without breaking a sweat.
The thing is that if you want a wheel that is light and aerodynamic, while also being stiff to cope with the power you put out when sprinting and hardy enough to stay straight and true when faced with rough roads, you’re going to notice a sizeable dent in your bank account. So what should you look for to get the best wheel for the type of riding that you do, and what can you get at different budgets?
Entry-level wheels under £500
Buy if… your bike cost under £2,000 and you want a step up in performance without breaking the bank
On all but very high-end bikes, manufacturers generally down-spec on the wheels. What this basically means is that in order to make their bikes hit a certain price, companies will fit wheels that are of a lower quality than the frame.
Even if your bike costs as much as £2,000 then you shouldn’t need to spend more than £500 to get a pair of wheels that will offer better performance than the ones that came on your bike, and if your bike cost you £1,000 or so, then the jump in performance that you’ll get from a wheelset of this price should be considerable.
Now, for this sort of price you’re certainly not going to get anything carbon, and are going to be hard-pushed to get anything aero either. Instead a new pair of wheels around this price should offer a lower weight than those already on your bike, and also give improved stiffness. What that means in practice is a lower rotating weight that will help when climbing, and less side-to-side movement of the wheel when you put the power down, giving sharper acceleration.
Our pick of the best wheels under £500
Fulcrum Racing 3 wheels
White hubs may not be the most practical choice for typical British conditions, but subjected to months or riding on filthy roads, the Fulcrum Racing 3s run as smoothly as if you’ve just pulled them out of the box.
Performance is also exceptional. At a smidgen over 1500g, they’re light for the price, helping you bound up steep gradients, while their stiffness make them a good choice for more powerful riders too.
Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels
Mavic Ksyrium wheels seem to have been around forever, and if you ask anyone in the know what their recommendation for a wheel upgrade would be, their answer would probably be a pair of Ksyriums.
And for good reason. The latest version comes with a wider rim for improved comfort and aerodynamics, and the same impressive stiffness that will suit sprinters, all the time maintaining the bombproof-ness that means they’re still running straight and true after months of use.
Campagnolo Zonda wheels
Campagnolo might be best known for its pricey groupsets, but the Italian company does a pretty extensive line in wheels too. These Zonda wheels might be towards the bottom of the ladder, but maintain many of the same features as Campag’s more exclusive offerings.
Most importantly, they retain the famous G3 spoke pattern used on the iconic Campagnolo Shamal wheels which not only makes the rear wheel looks cool, but also means that power transfer is instantaneous for lightening fast accelerations.
Mid-priced wheels (£500-£1,000)
Buy if… you’ve got a bit more money to spend and want a high quality wheelset designed for the riding you’re doing
If you’re willing and able to spend between £500-£1000 on a new pair of wheels, then you will find a lot more choice than with cheaper wheels, and will be able to choose between wheels with different riding characteristics, picking the pair that are best suited to the type of riding that you’re doing.
At this sort of price you can begin to find a fair few deep section wheels on the market. These are wheels that have extra material extending down from the rim, helping the wheel to cut through the wind and reducing aerodynamic drag. This is great if you’re racing or just want to increase the average speed of your rides, but for this money deep section wheels will have an aluminium rather than a carbon rim and braking surface, often meaning a significant weight penalty.
If you want a stronger all-round wheelset that performs well whatever the terrain, then for this sort of money you can get a really high quality shallow aluminium wheelset. These might not be quite as quick on the flat and certainly won’t look as sexy as deep section wheels, but can offer the same stiffness, and should also be significantly lighter for faster climbing.
The third option around this price are the handful of full carbon clinchers that can sneak under the £1000 mark. These wheels have a fully carbon rim, with a carbon braking surface that helps to cut weight, but can also compromise on braking performance, particularly in the wet. Full-carbon wheels around this price generally won’t have a rim any deeper than 40mm, meaning that they will only offer a slight aero benefit, but shouldn’t get you pushed around in crosswinds.
Our pick of the best £500-£1,000 wheels
Mavic Ksyrium Pro Exalith SL Limited wheels
At not much more than 1300g for the pair, these Mavic wheels are some of the lightest aluminium wheels on the market. And because their from Mavic, the home of the aluminium bike wheel, you can be sure that other elements of the Pro Exalith SLs are more than up to scratch too.
Yellow spokes and rim highlights aside, the most eye-catching piece of tech is the Exalith 2 braking surface, which looks pretty cool with its all-black finish, but also gives these wheels some of the best braking on the market, especially in wet conditions. Just don’t be put off when the squeal for the first few rides, they’ll quieten down eventually.
Campagnolo Bullet 80mm wheels
If you live in the flat lands and have a need for speed, then these Campagnolo Bullet wheels with their whopping 80mm deep rim should certainly live up to their name when you get them rolling along at high speed.
But it’s not all about the rims. Campagnolo has also worked to give an oversized flange on the drivetrain side of the rear hub, meaning improved stiffness and acceleration, while the “anti-rotation system” helps to keep the bladed spokes pointing in exactly the the right direction so they can cut through the air.
Fulcrum Racing Quattro Carbon wheels
With their 40mm carbon rims, the Fulcrum Racing Quattro Carbon wheels aren’t the sexiest or most aero carbon clinchers on the market, but they’re probably some of the most versatile, offering very good performance whatever riding you choose to do on them.
They’re exceptionally stiff, accelerating up to speed with minimal fuss, and, for carbon wheels, offer pretty decent braking too, even in the wet. But most impressively, the wide rims are exceptionally comfortable, so they’re just as at home doing long miles in the lanes as they are smashing round a criterium circuit.
High-end wheels (£1,000+)
Buy if… you’ve got deep pockets and want the ultimate performance upgrade
If you’re after the ultimate performance upgrade, then a pair of high-end wheels will truly transform your bike, giving you absolutely no excuse for not pulling on the front when you’re out riding with your mates.
The vast majority of wheels that you can buy at this sort of price are going to be deep section wheels with at least a 50mm deep rime. However, unlike deep section wheels in the £500-£1,000 price bracket they will have a full carbon construction so as not to give too much of a weight penalty.
Our pick of the best high-end wheels
Zipp 808 NSW wheels
Yes, you could get a couple of half-decent bikes for the same price as a pair of the brand new Zipp 808 NSW wheels, but that wouldn’t make your mates’ jaws drop as you rolled out for the club run on these beauties.
The 82mm deep carbon rim has a massive 26.44mm internal width, meaning they are perfectly suited to use with wider tyres, will save you 3-4 watts over the standard 808s, and also come with an updated Showstopper braking surface that is claimed to be as good in the wet as aluminium rims.
Mavic CXR Ultimate 80 Tubular wheels
Mavic make 33 different road wheels, and the CXR Ultimate 80 Tubulars are the fastest if the lot. That’s because Mavic have designed them to work specifically with its own Powerlink and Griplink tyres, with the sidewalls of the tyres being perfectly aligned with the rim for perfectly smooth airflow.
But these wheels aren’t all about aerodynamics, with certain parts of the hub being reinforced for better power transfer, while at 1630g, they’re not too heavy for 80mm deep section wheels either.
Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 C75 Tubular wheels
While lots of pro teams ride the Dura-Ace C50 wheels in the majority of races, for flat, still days, the sprinters often switch the ultra-aero C75s, with their 75mm deep section rims that really slice through the wind, holding their speed really well.
Despite being a few years old, the C75s are bang up-to-date with their 24mm wide rims, and even with an aluminium hub shell and skewers they hit the scales at only a little over 1500g.
Different types of wheels
Your bike probably came complete with clincher wheels and this is for good reason. Clinchers are the most common type of bike wheel currently available and are defined by the type of tyre they use. Clinchers utilise an open cross section tyre with a bead that holds it in place on the rim profile and an inner tube is placed inside the rim. This offers a great deal of convenience as it is easy to repair when you get punctures.
Carbon clincher wheels are significantly heavier than their equivalent tubulars because the rim needs to be stronger to cope with the demands of braking pressure and force from the rim. Some deep section wheels feature a carbon fairing placed over an aluminium rim. These are heavier, but are cheaper than a completely carbon rim, owing to lower manufacturing and development costs.
- Easy to repair punctures, just by carrying spare inner tubes
- Easy to change tyres, can be done in minutes
- Clincher tyres are typically cheaper than tubulars
- Typically heavier than a tubular rim
- Higher rotational weight than a tubular
- Braking surface encounters higher stress, having to withstand outward pressure of the bead and inward pressure of heat from the brakes
Prior to the invention of clincher tyres, tubular wheels were the only option available. Today they’re a rare sight away from racing as they are an enclosed tyre, with an inner tube sealed or sewn inside, making them less convenient if you have to change a tyre than a clincher.
Tubular wheels are usually lighter than the clincher alternative. This is because the rim does not need to be as strong in order to hold the bead of the tyre. Instead, the tubular tyre is glued or taped onto the rim.
Bonding of the tyre to the rim is crucial, in order to avoid rolling the tyre off the rim while cornering. Gluing is most traditional way and considered the most reliable, but it typically takes a couple of days to set, where as tape is much quicker.
If you are racing, riding a sportive, or training on a tubular tyre (tub for short) and you get a puncture there are a couple of options. Sealant, such as Vittoria Pit Stop can be injected into the tyre to seal the hole, but this may not work if the hole is too big.
Alternatively a spare tub can be placed on the rim, but this will not be bonded as strongly to the rim. If you are racing, or riding with a support vehicle, tubulars can be a joy to ride, but for training rides and everyday use, even professionals use clinchers. In summary:-
- Lighter wheels
- Lighter rim is better for acceleration
- Tubular tyres roll very nicely
- Less easy to fit than clinchers
- Repairing a puncture not as straight forward as a clincher
Our pick of the best tubular wheels
Vision Metron 40 tubular wheels
The Vision Metron 40 wheels have to be one of the most versatile wheels that you can possibly buy, being comfortable on or off road.
Zipping along on smooth tarmac and the 40mm deep rim gives you a slight aerodynamic benefit while not adding too much weight that they become sluggish when the road ramps up, while the wide, sturdy rim also means that you can take these wheels and stick them on your cyclocross bike when winter rolls around.
Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 C35 tubular wheels
Shimano Dura-Ace wheels are the hoops of choice for countless pro teams, with these lightweight C35s being a common sight in the front group once the big races hit the mountains.
And they’re the choice of Chris Froome for a reason, weighing a scant 1362g for the pair, and coming with a freehub engagement angle of just 10º so that there’s no lag in acceleration when putting the hammer down.
Tubeless wheels are growing in popularity with many clincher wheel sets now being compatible with both tubeless and traditional clincher setups. Instead of having an inner tube inside a tyre, the tyre itself creates an airtight seal against the rim, so all you have to do is inject some sealant and pump some air into the tyre.
A consequence of making the rim airtight can be that it is slightly heavier, but this is somewhat offset by the lack of inner tube. The sealant is designed to seal holes and punctures as they happen. It is still possible to get a flat on a tubeless wheel, at which point an inner tube can be placed inside, but the risk is considerably less, making them ideal for those wanting to avoid punctures.
- Much lower risk of flat tyres
- Low rolling resistance
- Fiddly to set up
- More weight at the rim
Our pick of the best tubeless-ready wheels
Shimano RS610 wheels
If you fancy going tubeless but don’t want to splash out on a super-expensive pair of new wheels, then these Shimano wheels are a sensible budget option with an RRP that is well below £500, and with further discounts easy to find.
For that price you’re not going to get exceptional performance, but you do get a dependable, hard-wearing wheelset that will be perfect for a pair of winter training wheels.
Disc brake-specific wheels
Disc brake road bikes are coming whether you like it or not. Disc brake-specific wheels feature a different hub design, so that the disc can be accommodated and the axle design can be different. The bike industry has not yet agreed on a standard, with disc brake wheels currently featuring either through-axles and quick release skewers.
Without the need for a braking surface, disc brake wheels can be lighter at the rim, a potential big advantage. They can be tubeless, clincher, or tubular in their profile.
- Lighter rim possible
- No heat build up in the rim, so no risk of delamitation
- No industry standard yet on axle design
- At present there is limited choice
- Less aerodynamic than a caliper wheel
Our pick of the best disc brake wheels
Kinesis Racelight Disc wheels
All you need to do is look at these Kinesis wheels to know that they are built to last. Just look at all those spokes!
But even with this hardiness, Kinesis has still managed to put together a reasonably lightweight package, with a pair of Racelight Discs coming in at not much more than 1,500g, which really isn’t bad for 400 quid wheels.
Mavic Ksyrium Pro Disc Allroad wheels
If you’re into your adventure bikes and gravel bikes, but don’t like the sturdy (i.e. heavy) wheels that generally come as standard, then these Ksyrium Pro Disc Allroad wheels are an excellent upgrade, coming in at little more than 1600g for the pair.
Mavic has used an exclusive MAXTAL aluminium alloy to construct the rims, which is what has enabled it to produce such light wheels while still maintaining the strength needed for tackling rocky and rutted off-road tracks.
Fulcrum Racing 5 LG Disc wheels
There’s a reason that the standard Fulcrum Racing 5 LG wheels are incredibly popular, so it’s no surprise that Fulcrum has decided to take that winning formula and make it even better with the addition of disc brakes.
That makes for an exceptionally durable and versatile pair of wheels that are nice and comfortable thanks to the wider 17mm rim, but will also stop on a dime thanks to the addition of disc brakes.
Track wheels do not feature a free hub and are fixed gear. This means that as the wheel turns, the pedals always turn too. Track bikes do not have brakes, so again there is no braking surface on the wheels and the hubs don’t feature a quick release mechanism, instead they are bolted in. Track wheels can be tubular or clincher.
Anatomy of a wheel
The first thing to understand is the different parts that make up a bike wheel and how they affect the performance.
The rims are usually the first thing you notice on a pair of wheels. Deeper section wheels are more aerodynamic, but are heavier than their shallow rim counterparts. In addition, crosswinds can catch the deeper section like a sail, which can make keeping the bike in a straight line a handful. A lower profile is much easier to control and is often lighter in weight.
If you’re after wheels that are quick to accelerate, then it is important for the rims to be as light as possible. This is because of moments. People often talk about ‘rotating weight’ being important and they are right, but the rim has a greater moment than the hub as it is further away from the central axis. Think of it in terms of a lever or seesaw.
Once a wheel is up to speed on the flat, a lighter rim is less important as the rim’s own inertia will help keep it spinning, but for accelerating, particularly uphill, a light rim is best. With regards to materials carbon rims are generally lighter, although that does also mean they’re more expensive too.
Disc brake specific wheels won’t feature a braking surface on the rim, but all other wheels will come with either an aluminium or carbon braking surface. It is easier to manufacture a perfectly flat braking surface with aluminium, resulting in more consistent braking. In addition, aluminium can be machined to feature grooves and patterns to improve the efficiency of the braking.
An excellent example of this is the Mavic Exalith brake rim, found on the likes Mavic R-Sys SLR wheels. Carbon can work well, but braking performance is often considerably diminished in the wet. Carbon braking surfaces can also suffer from heat build up if you drag the brakes for a considerable amount of time, which can cause de-lamination of the braking surface and potentially wheel failure in extreme cases.
Hubs are at the centre of the wheel and contain the axle and bearings. Higher quality hubs are better made, often with superior bearings. In freewheel bicycles (i.e. anything that is not a fixie), the rear hub is a freehub. This means you can freewheel without turning the pedals. The cassette is fitted onto the freehub body.
Whether a wheelset is Shimano or Campagnolo compatible depends upon the freehub body, as the cassettes from the two manufacturers are a slightly different design in the way they slot onto the freehub. This isn’t a problem as different freehub bodies can be purchased and changed on the wheel. Note Shimano and SRAM are compatible with each other. In addition, Edco now make a freehub body that is compatible with Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo cassettes.
10 or 11-speed?
All new wheels now feature a freehub body designed for 11-speed cassettes. But don’t worry if you’re still running 10-speed, as you can use a 10-speed cassette on an 11-speed freehub by using a spacer. These spacers are often included with the wheels, but if you are unsure, check with your local bike shop.
The hubs contain bearings which enable the hub to rotate on the axle. More expensive wheels will often feature superior bearings, which roll more smoothly with less friction. Hubs feature either cartridge bearings or cup and cone, with the latter often found in Shimano wheels.
Cartridge bearings are increasingly popular owing to simple installation, replacement and maintenance. Cup and cone bearings can work just as well, but require careful adjustment.
However if you’re after the smoothest bearings, then it is worth looking for a wheelset with a hub that has ceramic bearings. The bad news is that these are usually rather expensive, and the bearings are prone to wearing out more rapidly than normal steel bearings.
Our pick of the best deep section wheels
Zipp 404 Firecrest wheels
Let’s face it, a big factor in deciding which pair of deep section wheels you should buy is how much sexier they’ll make your bike look, and these Zipp 404 Firecrest wheels are surely the sexiest of the lot.
Not only that, but the 404s also come with a dimpled rim surface which helps them slice through the wind just that little bit easier. The hub is also all-new for 2016, eliminating the durability issues that Zipp hubs have suffered from in the past.
Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbone
If you can’t stomach splashing out mega-bucks on a pair of all-carbon deep section wheels, then Mavic’s Cosmic Pro Carbone wheels are a very good option.
That’s because these wheels are the same shape as their full carbon brothers, meaning very similar aerodynamic performance, with the only difference being the aluminium braking surface that might add a little bit of weight, but also offers more assured braking in the wet.
Rolf Prima Ares6 ES wheels
The natural thing to do when looking at a pair of deep section wheels is to look at the rims, but the big talking points on any Rolf Prima wheels are the spokes.
The American company “pairs” its spokes, putting one next to another, which allows it to match the stiffness of other wheels while shedding unnecessary weight. And thankfully this doesn’t compromise on durability, as all the Rolf wheels we’ve tested have stood up to the worst the lanes could throw at them.
The spokes provide support from the hub to the rim and distribute the pressure around the bike wheel, working in both tension and compression. It is important to pay attention to the spoke count and lacing pattern (the way the spokes are arranged) as this can affect the wheel’s strength and stiffness. A higher spoke count generally translates into a stronger, but slightly heavier, wheel.
A lower spoke count can be more aerodynamic, but the spoke shape can also play a part, with spokes available in different profiles. Traditionally spokes were round in cross section, but flat/aero/bladed spokes are quickly becoming standard at all price points.
Watch: how to puncture proof your tyres
The nipples hold the spoke in place on the rim and are typically made of brass for its tensile strength, although aluminium alloys can also be used to save weight. Spokes are typically laced into the hub and tensioned at the nipple on the rim. When a wheel is trued (straightened) it is the spoke tension at the nipple which is adjusted.
We would recommend that you buy the best wheels available to your budget and style of riding. Bikes often come with wheels that are below par, when compared to the frame and groupset, so an upgrade can often make a huge difference to your performance and enjoyment. Aero wheels with a deep section look ‘pro’ but can often be heavier and less easy to handle in high winds.
Light wheels offer superior acceleration and climbing, so if you enjoy hills or live in a hilly area, they may be a wise option. Also factor in that to get the maximum aero benefit from deep section wheels you need to be consistently travelling at speeds over 32kph. If you are concerned about weight limits and stiffness, a very good option is a custom built wheel, with a higher spoke count.