Upgrading your wheels can make a huge difference to your bike, but with such a large amount of choice and prices it can be confusing. Here we explain what to look for and what the key differences mean
In this road bike wheels buyer’s guide we look at the different options available, and guide riders through the best choice for them. The perfect wheel would be aerodynamic, stiff and light. Superior aerodynamics will enable you to go faster with less effort. A stiff wheel will not flex under load and means that all the energy you are putting through the drive train is being used to propel you forwards and not lost through bending the wheel.
If a wheel is not very stiff it will feel spongy when accelerating hard out of the saddle or sprinting and in some cases it may rub on the brake blocks. A lighter wheel is useful for climbing as it improves your power to weight ratio, but it should also be noted that lighter wheels accelerate faster too, which is very useful in racing where you are sprinting out of corners, or if you want to attack on a hill.
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.
Of all the parts of a wheel, it is most important for the rim to be lightweight. 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 its 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 and more expensive than aluminium.
Disc brake specific wheels don’t feature a braking surface on the rim. On other wheels, the braking surface will either be aluminium or carbon. 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 Elixiath brake rim. Carbon can work well, but braking performance is 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. This can cause de-lamination of the braking surface and potentially wheel failure.
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 free wheel bicycles, the rear hub is a free hub. This means you can freewheel without turning the pedals. The cassette is fitted onto the freehub body.
Whether a wheel set is Shimano or Campagnolo compatible depends upon the free hub body, as the cassettes from the two manufacturers are a slightly different design in the way they slot onto the free hub. This isn’t a problem as different free hub bodies can be purchased and changed on the wheel. Note Shimano and SRAM are compatable with each other. In addition, Edco now make a free hub body that is Shimano/SRAM and Campagnolo compatible.
10 or 11 speed?
The majority of new wheels now feature a free hub body designed for 11 speed cassettes. Use of a 10 speed cassette is possible by placing a single spacer on the free hub before the cassette. 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. The most expensive and most smooth bearings are often ceramic.
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.
The nipples hold the spoke in place on the rim and are typically made of brass for its tensile strength. 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.
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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. 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, such as the Mavic Cosmic SLS feature a carbon fairing placed over an aluminium rim. These are heavier, but are cheaper than a completely carbon rim, owing to lower cost manufacturing.
- Easy to repair punctures, just by carrying spare innertubes
- 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
Once upon a time, prior to the invention of clincher tyres, tubular wheels were the only option available. Today their main application is for use in racing. This is because tubular tyres 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 a tape can be 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 in particualr 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 tradition clincher/inner tube set ups. The wheels involve a tyre seated in the rim, like a clincher, but with an airtight seal. Instead of an inner tube, the tyre is filled with air and sealant.
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
- A fiddle to set up
- More weight at the rim
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 de-lamitation
- No industry standard yet on axle design
- At present there is limited choice
- Less aerodynamic than a calliper wheel
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.
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.