Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist and a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.
Riders in the London 2012 Olympic Cycling Road Race chose their bike wheels for the course demands
Your bicycle wheelset makes a big difference to your ride
When you're looking at investing to improve your cycling performance and enjoyment a new racing wheelset is a great way to enhance your bikes performance.
A set of bicycle wheels can really affect the way your bike handles and you can really tell the difference between two different sets of wheels. A great set of the best bike wheels can help to make your bike feel faster while improving your endurance during climbs and helping to make those hard efforts to actually feel easier.
This guide will give you an insights into characteristics to look for when choosing the best bicycle wheels for your needs and make some suggestions of great wheel options for your riding demands- whether you're looking for the best wheelset for a faster Time Trial or looking for the ultimate wheelset to upgrade your $500 first road bike.
So what should you look for in a road bike wheelset?
The Clincher vs Tubular Debate
When you're buying a set of bike wheels there are two main types of bicycle wheel rims.
- Clincher Wheels feature a hooked rim and uses a beaded tire and inner tube set up. When you have a puncture you simply remove the tire and remove the item which caused the puncture, before fixing or replacing the inner tube.
- Tubular Wheels feature a smooth rim surface to which you glue a specialist tubular tire. They are popular for road race wheels and cyclocross wheelsets as offer better road feel- however if you get a puncture you effectively have to re-glue a new tire to the rim which can be a tricky task.
As tubular wheels require a new tire to be skilfully fitted before continuing riding it's advisable to keep tubular wheelsets for racing purposes only. This guide aims to provide an insight into various wheelsets to help with your general riding as well as some additional concentration on road racing wheelsets.
What should you look for in a bicycle wheel?
Characteristics to look for in a good set of cycling wheels
If you’re parting with a large percentage of your hard earned cash you really need to buy something that is going to last. Heavy wheels do not necessarily mean durability or reliability and paying more money for a set of bicycle wheels isn’t going to extend their lifespan in many situations.
Bicycle Wheel Weight
The weight of your bicycle wheels will determine how they feel on your bike. A light set of wheels will feel fantastic while you climb a mountain (if you have the fitness to appreciate them) and will help you spin up to speed quicker through faster acceleration.
The way your wheels perform is relative to your weight. A set of ultra light climbing wheels may have a recommended weight limit to follow for safety reasons. Your own weight will affect every characteristic of a wheelset from their long term bearing durability to how they feel on the road.
A deep section wheel can give you an aerodynamic advantage for faster cycling in Road Race events, Time Trials and Triathlons. The deep profile helps to cut through the wind however their depth may lead to bike handling problems in cross-winds.
Wheel Stiffness and Comfort
Every time you get out of the saddle and hammer on the pedals you want as much of that energy as possible to transfer into forward motion. Some wheels can feel like you’re making more movement in sideways in such situations and lack lateral stiffness. Unfortunately, too much stiffness and you can feel every bump in the road. This road ‘buzz’ can vibrate back through your handlebars and potentially lead to a condition called De Quervain’s Tensosynovitis.
Bicycle Wheel Serviceability
Will your local bike shop be able to service the latest new on the market carbon fibre wheels? And could you easily replace a damaged spoke? Some of the latest wheelsets are very complicated and require to be sent back to the manufacturer for any repairs.
Upgrading the wheelset on your 500-700 dollar road bike
Congratulations- you've caught the road cycling bug and got used to your first road bike and are looking at taking it further. The best first upgrade on your first road bike to improve your ride in terms of comfort and helping to improve your cycling.
A sub 700 dollar road bike is likely to have a set of wheels that are very heavy, with relatively poor bearing quality. Therefore a first road bike upgrade wheel set should feature a good set of bearings and relatively light weight while offering value for money. It's unrealistic to spend the cost of your bicycle on a set of wheels.
A great beginners road bike upgrade would be a set of Mavic Aksium wheels. The Mavic Aksium is a wheel that offers almost unmatched bearing quality. Many owners have had a set of the wheels for over 5 years and had no need for replacement wheels bearings. The Aksium's offer a relatively light weight (1735g without tires) with a responsive ride for a great value package to upgrade your first road bike or simply for use as a winter training wheel-set for experienced riders.
Deep section wheels cut through the air for aerodynamic advantage
The best road cycling wheels for a faster time trial or triathlon
So you have the racing bug and are looking for a road cycling wheelset which will also help to improve your racing performance against the clock.
There are two key ways that a bicycle wheel can be aerodynamic
- An Aerodynamic Bicycle Rim
- Aerodynamic Bladed Spokes
Usually a fast time trial or triathlon is all about gaining an aerodynamic advantage. When it comes to aerodynamics a cyclist should be looking for a deep section wheel rim which effectively looks like a V in cross section. This will help the wheel-set to cut through the air resistance to help the rider to a faster performance. A deep section wheel-set of around 50mm in rim depth.
If you're looking for a wheel set that you can also use day-to-day make sure you're considering a clincher wheel set so you simply have to replace an inexpensive inner tube on the unfortunate but inevitable occasions you do get a puncture.
You can go deeper than 50mm for additional aerodynamic edge however the deeper your rims are, the more susceptible you'll feel in crosswind conditions.
Choosing road cycling wheels to improve your climbing
If you live in a mountainous area with lots of climbing your best consideration is a wheelset which is targeted to get you over those hills. The original low weight alloy climbing wheelset was the Mavic Ksyrium SL which offered a reliable aluminium construction and a light weight of around 1550g (wheels without tires and skewers) allowing riders to accelerate up to speed quickly.
Ideally if you’re looking for the best wheels for climbing you should be looking at a wheelset around the 1500g mark or lower for clincher wheelsets. If you go too low in weight you risk reliability and you must remember that “what goes up- must come back down” again. It’s ok for Pro riders to use an ultra lightweight 1200g or less racing wheelset, however if they have a problem they can simply stop and wait for a team car with a spare wheel. It’s doubtful that this luxury is available to yourself so a degree of reliability is required.
Carbon Clincher wheelsets for climbing
A relatively new occurrence on the marketplace are carbon fibre clincher wheels which allow the low weight benefits of a full carbon fibre wheel rim whilst offering the quick and straightforward tire and tube replacement of a clincher wheelset. These offer some of the best low weight climbing wheelsets although those who have experienced braking on carbon fibre rims often prefer the assured brake surface of an aluminium rim for regular riding- particularly in the wet. Specialist brake pads are required for carbon fibre rims as the surface properties are very different to that of a traditional aluminium rim.
Consider hand built road bike wheels for longevity
Choosing bike wheels for long term reliability
If you're looking for a bicycle wheelset to offer the best in long term reliability it's an idea to consider a traditional 32 or 36 spoked hand-built set of bicycle wheels.
Modern bike wheelsets are mainly machine made and therefore lack the intricacy of a handbuilt set of wheels.A hand built set of bicycle wheels can be tailored to the needs of the rider by a specialist wheel builder depending on whether they're looking for a stiff responsive and light wheelset for racing, or something stronger and more reliable which may sacrifice lightweight in favour of a degree of longevity.
If you're considering a set of hand built wheels always consult with a local specialist wheel builder who will be able to put together a set of wheels that's right for you. Where possible never scrimp on the quality of the hub as this is the main rotational point of the wheel and a great set of serviceable bearings.
Good quality hand built wheelsets can be purchased from $100 up to over $1000 dollars depending on the components used. carbon rims are now becoming available to wheelbuilders hence such premium prices.
The additional reliability aspect of a hand built wheelset makes them great for heavy duty riding. They;re very popular for winter road cycling and their strength makes them popular for triathlon when built using a tubular rim.