Arguably, no other component plays as big a role in the bike’s performance and ride feel as the wheel. If you are looking to buy a new pair of wheels for your road bike, then this is the article for you. There is quite a bit of technical and non-technical information that you should be aware of before you make a final decision. We have tried to deliver that to you in a comprehensible manner via this article.
What to look for in road bike wheels
The specifications of the wheelset that you should buy will depend on what type of riding you will be doing. In general, almost all road bike wheels can be divided into 3 categories. These are climbing wheels, racing/aero wheels, and a third category which can be called all-round road wheels. To put it simply, climbing wheels need to be as lightweight as possible, racing wheels need to be as aerodynamic as possible, and all-round road wheels should have a good combination of both.
The rim depth is the height of the rims and is also known as the section depth. Shallow section wheels are the lightest and are therefore used for climbing wheels. The depth of such wheels is usually around 20-30 mm. The shallower the rim, the less rim material there is, and the less weight the wheel has. This means that you will require less effort to keep them rotating.
For time trials and triathlons, deep section wheels are used. This is because deeper section wheels allow air to flow around them better. Even though deep section wheels have more weight, the improved aerodynamics provides better speed and acceleration. Any rim depth more than 50 mm can be considered to be deep section wheels.
Wheels with a rim depth of around 40-50 mm are called midsection wheels. These wheels are quite streamlined while also being lightweight. Hence, these wheels are versatile. They can be used for nearly all forms of road cycling.
Next, you should think about the kind of tires you prefer to use. Again, there are three types – clincher, tubeless, and tubular tires. Rims are compatible with only one type of tire.
Clinchers are the most common tires on road bikes. They have beads that hook inside the rim and make use of an inflatable inner tube. Clinchers are the least expensive, easiest to install, and a simple change of the tube will be enough for most flats. However, they can get pinch flats easily, cannot run lower pressures, and are the heaviest out of the three.
Tubeless tires do not have an inner tube. The rims themselves create an airtight seal with the tire. Because of this, a tubeless tire is not susceptible to pinching and you can run a wider range of pressures. Additionally, a liquid sealant poured into the tire during the installation can seal up small punctures without you even noticing. The downsides are that they are pricier and the initial setup is trickier.
A tubular tire has an inner tube, but it is sewn shut inside the tire. They do not have any metal beads, making them the lightest tire option. Instead, they attach to the rims using glue or double-sided tape. Although tubular are less prone to flats than clinchers, they are a hassle to change when you do get one. Hence, tubular tires are used only by those who care only about getting the best performance.
➥ If you’re strictly into climbing steeper slopes, in that case, we suggest you have a look at some of the top road bike wheels for climbing upwards and downwards
Just about all bike wheels, these days are made from either aluminum (aka alloy) or carbon fiber. Carbon rims are both stiffer and lighter than aluminum wheels. This is why they are now commonplace in high-end performance road bikes. However, carbon wheels have a hefty price tag, and there are plenty of high quality aluminum wheels available that are much less expensive. Aluminum wheels can cost $100 and up to $1200. Meanwhile, carbon rims usually cost more than that.
If you use rim brakes, alloy rims function better in all conditions compared to carbon rims. This won’t really matter while using disc brakes. A word of advice: if you find carbon wheels that are cheaper than a set of alloy wheels, opt for the alloy ones as carbon wheels at this price range might not be of a good enough quality.
Size (Diameter and Width)
The standard diameter of road bike wheels is 700c which is roughly the same diameter as a 29” mountain bike wheel. There are other, less common sizes as well such as 650c, 650b, and 27”. Another component of wheel size is the rim width. Traditionally, riders have used narrow rims which were around 13 or 14 mm wide. However, nowadays the trend has been shifting towards wider rims.
When the rim width is closer to the tire width, the tire forms a squared-off profile instead of a bulbous one. This offers a more aerodynamic shape, larger tire volume, lower rolling resistance, stiffer wheel, fewer pinch flats, and improved control. Modern rims can be 17 mm, 20 mm, or even wider.
➥ If you happen to be a heavyweight rider, then, we highly recommend you go for some of the top road bike wheels for heavy riders
Rim brakes are lightweight and have a low profile. They are cheaper as well. However, they do not have as much stopping power as disc brakes. They can also be less reliable in wet conditions, especially on a carbon rim. And the extra weight of a disc brake is somewhat offset by the additional material required for the braking surface in a rim brake wheel. It is up to you which one you want to use.
There are some things that you should keep in mind. The wheels should not be so wide that your rim brakes cannot accommodate them. When using rim brakes on carbon wheels, you can get ones with an aluminum braking surface which improves braking performance. Disc brakes have two types of attachments – center lock and six-bolt. Make sure your brake rotor and wheel hub are compatible.
Each wheel has an axle that runs through the hub and keeps it attached to the bike frame. There are two designs available. A quick-release (QR) skewer has a 9 mm diameter, with a 100 mm width in the font and a 130 mm width at the back. Thru axles are a newer innovation and are sturdier than traditional QR axles. The standard size is a 12 mm diameter, with a 100 mm width in the font and a 142 mm width at the rear wheel.
The number of spokes and their design varies from wheel to wheel. The more spokes a wheel has, the stronger it will be, but it will also be heavier. Spokes can be circular or bladed. Bladed or aero spokes cut through the air and provide better speed. The arrangement of spokes can also be different. Mostly they are in a three-cross pattern. Some can have a two-cross or a radial pattern.
Spoke tension is an important part of maintaining the wheel’s performance. The tension in every spoke must be equal and it must be within a safe range. When spoke tension is uneven, the wheel is out of true and it wobbles as it rolls. This can be fixed by adjusting the spoke nipples.
Freehub and Drivetrain
The freehub, mounted to the wheel’s hub, is where the cassette is attached. You should ensure that your bike’s drivetrain and freehub are compatible with each other. There are predominantly three brands that make drivetrains – Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo. Mixing and matching between brands may cause problems. Even within a brand, there could be issues. The compatibility is usually mentioned in the packaging.
➥ Lastly, when it comes to the price of the wheels themselves if you happen to be on a tight budget, in that case, we suggest you have a look at some of the top affordable road bike wheels under $500 as well as other top budget options of road bike wheels under $1000
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1. What is meant by freehub ratchet speed?
Ans.: This is a feature that is often overlooked. In a hub, the ratchet speed refers to the travel in degrees by the pedal crank before the freehub engages to propel the bike forward. With more points of engagement in the ratchet, you get faster engagement and faster transfer of power. Fewer points of engagement mean slower engagement but better durability due to the ratchet teeth being bigger. A typical hub does not go lower than 18 points of engagement per revolution.
Q2. Should I buy second-hand wheels?
Ans.: Since wheels can be very expensive, a good option is to go for a second-hand wheelset. These are commonly available for sale. Just like with a bike, it is important to know the amount of use and repair history of used wheels before buying. First of all, you should check if the wheel is true. Give it a spin and see whether it wobbles. Next, check for any bumps on the rim, you do not want an egg-shaped wheel. The individual parts of a wheel – the rims, spokes, and hub – should be inspected thoroughly as well.
Q3. What are road bike training wheels used for?
Ans.: Low weight, aerodynamics, and low rolling resistance are the ideal properties for a set of high performance road wheels. However, it is also worth it to invest in a pair of training wheels. You could call them ‘everyday’ wheels, and these must be durable and be able to withstand a beating. Rims wear out with braking (for a rim brake bike at least) and accidents might take place which slightly damages the wheels. Hence, having a cheaper wheelset for training or daily use will help to extend the life of your expensive race wheels. While they are cheap, they will also be heavier and will not be able to produce as much acceleration.
Wheels are not the easiest things to buy compared to other components of a bike. There are plenty of things you should take into account before buying a set. However, the time that you spend now will be worth it in the long run. When facing any trouble, don’t hesitate to head to your nearest bike shop and ask for help. Getting the right set of wheels can significantly improve your riding experience and your performance on the bike.