Specialized aerodynamic wheels have come a long way from being only used for races and triathlons to being accessible to any cycling enthusiast.
Achieving higher speeds and shedding more weight off your bike has been a challenge tackled by manufacturers and cyclists alike since the inception of the bicycle.
So you must choose the right aero wheels for yourself to enhance your riding experience if higher speeds are your target.
The two major factors that you should be looking at when buying aero wheels are:
- The Construction of the Wheel
- The Depth of the Rims
There are other factors of course, like the type of tires or brakes, but these are more generic to wheels and will also be touched on in detail later on in the article.
What does Aero Wheels accomplish?
If you are looking to go fast on your bike, there are two major considerations you have to make:
- Rolling Resistance
- Aerodynamic Drag
The rolling resistance of the wheels is mostly felt during startup (acceleration), up to the 10-12mph mark. After that point, you will feel the aerodynamic drag (air resistance) truly kick in.
Since the wheels and tires are the leading edges of the entire biking body, all of these resistances are experienced by it first. And thus it is up to them to overcome the resistance first.
Say hello to Aero Wheels.
The deeper sections of the rims help cut through the wind easily and, quite literally, ‘sail’ through them. A forward thrust is created with the wind’s angle and drag is also decreased along with turbulence on the front and back of the section. This allows you to achieve great speeds beyond 15mph with ease.
There are two approaches manufacturers take when constructing wheels: the traditional alloy or the more modern full carbon approach.
In the traditional approach, manufacturers can go full aluminum for their wheels. A modern concept of this is just keeping the braking section aluminum with carbon fairings to provide rim depth and the rest of the rim being aluminum alloy. Companies like Mavic and HED use this procedure.
On the other hand, and with ever rising popularity, aero wheels now also come with a full carbon frame. Carbon is lighter than its alloy counterpart and also much more customizable. The best of both worlds when it comes to wheel engineering.
These carbon wheels can be filled with foam or just come hollow. The filled option will definitely be a bit weightier (but not as much as an alloy), but they will prove to be more solid and stiffer.
Carbon wheels do tend to be a bit pricier (two to three times more than aluminum!) But they do give the best of everything you would ever want out of your aero wheel: light, fast and strong.
The biggest point of consideration of the aero wheel is its rim depth. The deeper the rim, the more aerodynamic the wheel will be, and sometimes with a weight compromise.
Shallow Depth (25 – 40mm): These are the lightest options available with little to no rim depth. The air behind the wheels is turbulent, this increases drag experienced by the bike. But these options are the best for climbing or tracks that involve climbs.
Mid Section (40-60mm): With rims deep enough to provide decent cutting power and aerodynamics and light enough to make themselves unnoticeable, the midsection rims are a much more all-round option. Climbing racing or triathlon, you can’t go wrong with this depth of wheels.
Deep Section (60mm+): With the highest rim depth available, these wheels boast the best aerodynamics among the three. The amount of aerodynamics these wheels provide, they, more often than not, grant larger benefits to speed against the extra added weight that the deeper rims bring.
But thanks to advances in carbon fiber manufacturing technology, engineers are now able to make better designs for more aerodynamic rims all the while being competitive in weight against shallow rims. A win-win situation in any competitive cyclist’s book.
65mm is a manageable depth and is perfect for any racing environment. But keep in mind that deeper rims mean more crosswind. This can be detrimental to an inexperienced cyclist, especially in open and windy areas.
Other Factors to Look Out For
Type of Wheel
The types of tires that your wheels can accommodate usually depend on the riding style. Aero wheels can be of three types:
The clincher: Your standard road wheel type that usually comes out of the box. They are very easy to set up. Meaning you can just change the tires by yourself if need be, and that can be done very quickly as well. These tend to be heavier than tubular though, but perfect for a regular user.
Tubeless: These types are more commonly seen on MTBs rather than road bikes, due to their high puncture resistant tires (presence of sealant). They appear to be similar to clinchers but are slightly lighter due to the absence of tubes in the tires.
The only downside of them would be the difficulty of setup. It can be fiddly and frustrating (edges of the tire might pop out of the opposite side of the tire that you are working on) and will take a lot of your patience. That is why you rarely see these types of wheels in races where time is key.
Tubular: The oldest wheel type available and perhaps the most desired by racers. Both the rim and tires are light encouraging faster acceleration. They roll very smoothly over the road and have very low rolling resistance.
But they are a very rare sight to see beyond races as they can be very difficult to set up, especially compared to clinchers, as you may need a team for assistance.
➥ If you happen to be a heavy rider and is on the lookout for road wheels, in that case, we suggest, you have a look at some of the best road bike wheels you can buy today
Rim Brakes: These provide a better response to your braking since it is friction based. These are easier to manufacture and less costly. Rim brakes are often paired with aluminum wheels as it has the best braking surface. But if you have carbon wheels, you may need a special compound of braking pads to protect your rim from damage.
Disc Brakes: A slightly more costly alternative to rim brakes. Uses rotors to achieve braking. The material of the wheel doesn’t matter as it is installed around the hub.
More spokes add strength to the wheels but also adds weight. 16 spokes are standard on carbon wheels but it can be more, especially on the rear wheel.
Spokes nowadays come in different shapes: aero, bladed, or flat adding a new layer to your riding experience.
Q1. How deep do aero wheels need to be?
Ans.: It really depends on the riding situation.
If you are racing and speed is key, like a time trial or a criterium, you should be looking for deep section rims. 65mm is perfect in a TT but anything around or above 60mm is great.
In other cases, midsection rims, above 40mms, will do just fine. At this range, you will not be compromising weight and comfort for aerodynamics.
Q2. Is it worth upgrading to carbon fiber wheels?
Ans.: The material that your wheels are made up of does bring huge differences to your riding experience. Carbon fiber wheels, in this case, are very light and can be easily molded to more aerodynamic shapes by the manufacturer.
But these added benefits come at a steep price. Carbon wheels can cost up to two to three times more than your traditional aluminum wheels. Thus they are mostly seen around competitive races.
Though recently more affordable options are available, thanks to innovations in manufacturing, the price point can still be costly to many. If you are willing to pay upwards of $1000-2000 for a wheelset, then carbon wheels are definitely worth it.
➥ Get to know, the expert analysis on whether carbon bike wheels are actually worth investing your money on
Final Words: What kind of rider are you?
We have discussed the major factors that will go behind your aero wheel purchase, but what will enhance your choice is understanding what type of rider you yourself are:
Racer: As a competitor, you will be looking for the best acceleration, best weight, and best times for your time trials. Perhaps even at the sacrifice of your wallet. Though midsection wheels will provide a decent all-round speed-to-weight ratio, deep rimmed carbon wheels will give you the best performance. Be mindful of your track as well, a rougher road will call for a clincher, or even a tubeless if you are confident enough. But for flat, smooth roads, nothing beats a good tubular.
Regular: As a regular cyclist you may not be looking for maximum speeds, but to reach a decent speed comfortably. A midsection rim can provide a good balance between weight and speed. That paired with a clincher makes for a worry free tire set up in case of a puncture. If you are looking for even lighter weights, you can go for a carbon construction. That can be optional as it may be a sharp pinch in your wallet.
We hope that we were able to help you with your next aero wheel purchase.
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