Climbing Wheels: What Features Should I Look Out for?

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Wheelsets are the easiest and the most efficient section of the bike that you can upgrade to get the best performance out of your road bike. But all bikes are not created equal, and neither are wheels.

Climbing Wheels

There are a lot of factors and considerations that go into the various disciplines of road biking. And in this article, we will be focusing on the aspects of the wheels that will boost your climbing performance of your road bike.

These aspects of climbing wheels are major:

  • The Material of the Wheels
  • The Depth of the Rims
  • The Type of Wheels
  • Braking

These and other factors that will determine your experience on the road are discussed in detail below.

Wheels for Climbing: Our Approach to the Discussion

In climbing, the utilization of energy into the power to push yourself and your bike uphill takes precedence. And as a customer of cycling goods, the budget will also play a huge role in this exciting endeavor of road biking.

That said, we will be discussing the major factors that define a good climbing wheel from the perspective of the weight and price that surrounds them.

1. Material of the Wheel

The first step in overcoming gravity is to reduce the weight of the wheel. That is primarily done by the material it is manufactured with.

Aluminum vs Carbon Wheels

Aluminum vs Carbon Wheels

While many carbon enthusiasts will confidently claim that carbon fiber climbers are the lightest, and undoubtedly the best, wheels to choose from, aluminum wheels are nothing to scoff at. The considerations of either go much deeper than that.

Carbon wheels are roughly around 100-150 grams lighter than their alloy counterparts of around the same depth. This makes a noticeable difference especially when doing a climbing run. Keep in mind that not only are you going uphill but are also coming down as well.

This added 100 grams of weight of the alloy wheel will build up every kilometer or mile you travel uphill. It is also a 100 grams less you feel with a carbon wheel as you descend, and vice versa.

Though some might argue that it is still a very small difference, even with other conditions being equal (body weight, brakes, weather conditions, etc.), they aren’t really wrong as aluminum has other benefits compared to carbon. We will see some of those in a bit.

The argument enters a whole new dimension when price tags are involved. Carbon is, almost insanely, more expensive than your typical aluminum wheels of the same depth. Almost two to three times more!

This price gap mostly stems from the manufacturing process. Aluminum wheels can be pumped out in the hundreds per day with an industrial machine whereas a carbon wheel requires a skilled touch and delicate molding processes to be created.

The price is possibly the only reason this argument between alloy and carbon truly exists. If given the choice to cyclists to get either wheelset for free, almost all would naturally choose the carbon ones.

Alas, we do not live in such a perfect world!

2. Depth of Wheels

The next big consideration to make is the aerodynamics of your wheel, in other words, the depth of your rims.

Check out our reviews of some of the top aero wheels that you can buy for the money in 2021

Shallow Depth (25-40mm): These are standard to all road bikes and much more common to the climbing scene. The shallow-profile cuts the added weight that you’d see on deeper rims, especially on aluminum ones. As light as they are, they offer little to no aerodynamics to your riding experience. So, if you are looking to race and overall performance is of utmost importance, shallow rims might not be the ones for you.

Mid Section (40-60mm): These provide a good balance between weight and aerodynamics, and possibly the most suggested among all depths with good reason. If you are riding anything greater than a 7% steep pitch, chances are that you would need to find the perfect balance to maximize your performance. A 45mm deep rim section would provide low weight and high speed for your laps.

Anything over a 60mm section is not very attractive for climbers, in terms of performance. And we are not only talking about the weight. The crosswinds captured by a deeper section wheel will be more detrimental than positive to your riding experience. And dangerous too!

According to a study done for The Engineering of Sport, crosswinds can account for an increase of aerodynamic drag by about 2.5 times!

As most climbing is done on open and windy areas, it is best to stick to shallow to mid depth rims for more efficient performance.

rim depth

3. Clinchers vs Tubulars vs Tubeless

Similar to our weight comparison of wheel material previously, the type of tire the wheel can accommodate also impacts its weight.

Clinchers are typically a bit more weighty, by about 150-200 grams, compared to tubular. And like our material comparison, this weight difference is noticeable on a longer or steeper climb. Being standard, clinchers are the cheaper option among the three.

The tubular’s reduced weight does come at a hefty price though. The extra time and work that you might need to expend if your tubular gets a flat in the middle of your session may not warrant them to be your primary choice of wheels.

Somewhat of the middle ground can be achieved by going tubeless. Even though they are more fiddly to change, tubeless tires are more friendly in case of punctures and hold well on their own on mountain roads that aren’t in a great shape, which is surprisingly common.

You will be happy to know that most carbon clinchers already come tubeless-ready.

4. Braking

If your bike uses a rim brake, then the braking surface of your wheel becomes an important point to consider since rim brakes rely on friction to work.

An aluminum braking surface is preferable in this regard. Heating is not an issue as the metal can easily dissipate it. Heating is especially apparent on long downhill descents.

The same cannot be said for carbon surfaces. Carbon naturally cannot conduct heat very well and might cause the brakes to overheat. As true as it is, modern engineering has made changes to the design and how carbon rims are made to bypass this limitation.

The depth of the rim also comes into play in this regard, as more surface equals better braking. The more rim depth you have, the faster and more efficiently heat is dissipated through the wheels.

There is a newer disc braking module that is taking the cycling world by storm. It uses rotors, not friction, to achieve braking and is usually fitted across the front wheel hub. The new disc brake attachment will add some extra weight, however, but the tradeoff being you to be able to keep your wheel away from frictional wear and tear.

disc vs rim

Disc vs Rim Brakes

Other aspects to consider

Compliance vs Stiffness

This is for the performance prudes out there. Many cyclists take stock of how the ride feels into consideration. The stiffer the wheels the more your efforts are converted to road performance, but the more compliant the wheels the smoother the ride you will experience.

Carbon wheels provide a certain stiffness to the riding experience, which means that you will most likely feel every bump on the road as your carbon wheels will be reacting to them.

On the other hand, aluminum wheels are more compliant, meaning that you will have more control on a rougher road making for a smoother ride.

Spoke Count

The stiffness of the wheel can also be determined with the number of spokes that are available on the wheel.

16 spokes are standard for a typical road bike, with possibly more on the rear wheel. The pokes will definitely add weight, however small, and is a factor that might come into consideration.

Final Words: How Steep Do You Ride?

While you can splurge and get the best carbon rims money can buy, it will fall short of (or overshoot) efficiency on the track that you ride.

If you are planning to ride the “rollers” that are 4-5% steep, going standard aluminum shallow section rims will serve you well, especially in heavy crosswinds.

But if you are a nut for performance or are planning on a race on steeper pitches of more than 8%, midsection carbon clinchers, providing great stiffness and a lightweight frame, are the way to go.

Know that whatever you choose, finding the right wheels for yourself will always come with tradeoffs in other departments.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1) Do deep section wheels climb faster?

Ans.: No, not really. This is true only under certain under certain circumstances.

Deep sections do make the wheel more aerodynamic, with the obvious tradeoff of weight added. If you are rocking carbon deep sections, however, the few added grams really does not trump the aerodynamics it provides. That is if you are climbing a section that is only 5-7% steep.

But as the gradients increase, the weight adds up progressively, and eventually, you will see significant rises to your lap times.

Q2) What steps can I take to improve balance when descending?

Ans.: Descending may seem comfortable at first but it can be very dangerous. Without the proper steps, you can see yourself lose stability during higher speeds. Here are a few steps you can keep in mind to keep yourself stable and perhaps improve your time:

  1. Position your body low when going down a straight path.
  2. Keep your elbows tucked to your sides.
  3. Raise your butt out slightly to improve balance.
  4. When cornering, throw your knee out if required for balance, but keep your elbows and head tucked in.
  5. Control your body weight when braking, raise your torso if need be.
  6. Relax your grip on the handles when braking. Helps absorb shock.

My name is Dion Lewis. I’ve been cycling since my childhood. When I was in high school, I started racing in our local competitions. In my college life, I took a part-time job in a bicycle shop and I learned how to repair and maintain bicycles professionally. Though I love racing, mountain biking is another thing I do frequently. My friends, neighbors, and colleagues treat me as an avid rider and take my suggestions while they plan for a new bike or bike gear.

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