Our complete guide to what to look for when buying your new wheels
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
Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels
Hunt Race Season Aero Wide wheels
Fulcrum Racing 3 wheels
Fulcrum Racing 5 wheels
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
Zipp 30 Course disc brake wheels
Hope Carbon 30 wheels
Fulcrum Racing Quattro Carbon wheels
DT Swiss RR21 DiCut wheels
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
Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL C wheels
>>> Read our full review of the Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL C wheels here
DT Swiss RRC 65 DiCut wheels
Enve 3.4 SES wheels
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
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
Hunt Race Season Aero Wide wheels
Zipp 30 Course disc brake wheels
DT Swiss RC 38 Spline 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
Zipp 30 Course disc brake wheels
Cero ARD23 wheels
DT Swiss RC 38 Spline wheels
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.
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.