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Road Bike Wheel Upgrade: Worth it?

So, you’ve had your road bike for a while and now you wish to upgrade it? Many people may have suggested you get new wheels. But is it worth spending hundreds of dollars on wheels? Well, upgrading to a better set of wheels is the best way to see the biggest jump in performance. They are an integral part of the bike and investing in the right wheelset will translate to long-term benefits. In this article, we will describe all the advantages that you can get from a better pair of wheels for your road bike.

Road bike

Road bike | Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/rumn3j2jTa4

What you get by upgrading road bike wheels

Low Weight

The most noticeable result of buying more expensive wheels is usually a lower weight. Aluminum wheels are lighter than steel rims, and carbon wheels are lighter still. High-end wheels also have a better spoke design. This allows fewer spokes to be used without compromising too much on robustness. The advantage of lightweight wheels is not just a reduction in static mass, but also a reduction in rotational mass.

The effect of lowering weight is much higher on rotational mass than on static mass. Having a lower rotational mass means that you don’t have to exert as much effort to keep the bike moving. More notably, it becomes significantly easier to pedal uphill. Overall, you will see much improved acceleration and speed.

➥ If you happen to be someone a bit on the heavier side, then, we recommend you have a look at some of the top road bike wheels for heavier individuals 

Aerodynamics

The main feature of a wheel that affects aerodynamics is the rim depth or section depth. A wheel with a deep section can move through the air with much reduced drag compared to a shallow section wheel. Another feature you could look for is flat or bladed spokes. These cut through the wind much better than regular circular spokes. Some wheels also have recessed nipples to make the wheel even more streamlined.

However, there are two downsides to having sections that are too deep. Firstly, the extra material adds to the weight, which might be okay for flat sections but will require excess effort on a gradient. The second disadvantage is that it might get tougher to handle the bike in strong crosswinds. Therefore, having a rim depth of around 40-50 mm provides a good balance for most riding conditions.

Deep section wheels

Deep section wheels

Better Quality

When you spend more on a set of wheels, the quality of each component improves. One of these components is the hub and its bearings. The more expensive cartridge bearings are sealed, function better, and are easier to replace than the simple cup and cone bearings. Bearings can be made of either steel or ceramic. Ceramic is the better choice due to it being smoother and stronger.

Other than that, all other parts such as the spokes, nipples, air valve, etc. will be longer lasting in a high end wheel. Even if we talk about a single material, there are different qualities. Carbon is normally considered to be superior to aluminum as rim material. However, an expensive, high-quality aluminum rim is a much better option than a cheap carbon one.

➥ With quality, comes the question of price, if you happen to be on a budget and still look for some of the best road bike wheels, then, have a look at affordable road bike wheels under $500 & budget road bike wheels under $1000

Better Handling and Ride Feel

The molecular structure of carbon fiber allows engineers to make wheels that are not only lighter, but stiffer as well. The increased stiffness makes the wheel more robust and improves handling on corners. The overall ride quality is also enhanced with upgraded wheels. You will generally start enjoying your rides more. It is a bit hard to describe what it feels like. You’ll have to try it out yourself.

Rim Type: Clincher vs Tubular vs Tubeless

When switching to a new pair of wheels, you should also think about what sort of rims you want. There are 3 types of rims for 3 types of tires. You can choose between clincher, tubular, and tubeless tires. Each type has its pros and cons, and the choice really depends on your riding style and preferences.

  1. Clincher Tires: These are the most commonly found tires. A clincher tire has beads that hook into the rim and an inner tube that is inflated. They are pretty cheap, easy to set up, and easy to repair in case of a flat. However, they are quite prone to pinch flats and cannot be run at lower pressures.
  2. Tubular Tires: These also have an inner tube but it is sewn shut inside the tire, giving it a ‘tubular’ shape. The tire is attached to the rim using glue or double-sided tape. Tubular tires are lighter, faster, and less prone to flats than clinchers. However, installation is cumbersome and quick changes are not possible unless you are carrying extra wheels. If your top priority is performance, then tubular is the way to go.
  3. Tubeless Tires: This type of tire gets rid of the tube and so, the rims have to be able to create a tight seal to contain the air. Owing to this, tubeless tires rarely get pinch flats and can be run in a wide range of pressure. Moreover, a liquid sealant is poured inside the tire which can cover up small punctures while riding. The downside is that initial installation is difficult.
Tire types

Tire types | Source: https://www.slowtwitch.com/

F.A.Q.s

Q1. Should I buy a new bike instead of upgrading my wheels?

Ans.: If your bike is not too old and everything is working fine, then there is no need to get a new one for better performance. Swapping out the wheels for a new pair will provide a lot of improvement to your rides. If you buy a new bike that is not super expensive, chances are that the stock wheels are nothing too special. Instead, it will be wiser to spend less and get some new wheels or even customize other parts of the bike.

Q2. Are carbon wheels worth it?

Ans.: The answer depends on your budget. Carbon wheels are both lighter and stronger than aluminum (alloy) wheels. You will undoubtedly get better performance from your road bike with carbon wheels. However, they are a lot more expensive, costing more than $1000. You can find cheaper carbon wheels but the quality of those shouldn’t be trusted. Aluminum wheels at around $500-$700 are of much better quality. For beginner and intermediate level riders, getting a good quality alloy wheelset will be a good option.

Q3. Are wider rims better for road bikes?

Ans.: There used to be a common belief that narrower wheels will be more aerodynamic. While there is some truth to that, the difference can be marginal. In fact, matching the tire and rim width will give a more squared-off profile which improves airflow around the wheel. Nowadays, wider rims and tires are preferred, even by road cyclists. Other than the above reason, wider wheels have better stability and surprisingly, lower rolling resistance.

Q4. Should I get disc brakes for my road bike?

Ans.: While disc brakes are the mainstay for mountain bikes, many road bikes still use rim brakes. The problem with rim brakes, however, is that they require an additional braking surface on the rims. When this wears down, the wheel needs to be replaced. Both disc and rim brakes have pros and cons. The following table compares the two to help you decide.

Rim Brake ProsDisc Brake Pros
Less expensiveHigher braking power
Lightweight and compactReliability in all conditions
Simplicity in setup and useDecreased wear on wheels
Easy maintenanceWider tires possible

Conclusion

As you can see now, upgrading your road bike wheels is the best way to improve your overall performance on the bike. Wheels are the main contributor to your motion, and hence, it affects the quality of your ride more than other components. If you are serious about cycling, then it is definitely worth spending a few hundred dollars or even more on a new wheelset.

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Dion Lewis
My name is Dion Lewis.

I’ve been cycling from my childhood. When I was in high school, I started racing in our local competitions.

At 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 a bike gear.

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