New wheels are one of the best upgrades you could bestow upon your beloved road bike. A lot of bikes come with mediocre wheels as standard. Manufacturers do this to keep the retail prices down. In reality though, it’s a shame this happens. Some of the great properties boasted by many bikes are nullified by the fact that the wheels simply can’t match up. So if you think your wheels are in need of an upgrade, just what do you have to look out for? Martin explains the differences between the various types of road bike wheels in this road bike wheels buyer’s guide.
A Road Bike Wheel might not look like much more than just a rim, a bunch of spokes and a hub to tie them together. But there’s a lot of research being done to create the perfect road bike wheel these days.
Wheel manufacturers spend their time trying to get the best performance possible from their wheels. They do so by altering the width of the rim, the depth, the weight, and whether or not it’s tubeless ready.
The choice of material is another important one. Do you go for aluminium or carbon, or a combination of the two? Finally, you’ll have to decide on what brakes you’ll use them with. Disc brakes, or are you sticking with “regular” rim brakes?
What are the advantages of a wider rim?
Firstly we take a look at the rim width. Road Bike Wheels have been involved in an ongoing transformation to increasingly wider rims. So what are the advantages to having a wide rim? We can be brief about that one: a wider rim means you can use a wider tyre. Which in turn has several advantages.
The rolling resistance of a wider tyre is lower than that of a narrower one. The aerodynamics are improved, and the tyres sit flush on the wider aerodynamic rims. Another marked improvement is in comfort levels. Wider tyres can be run at a lower pressure without sacrificing rolling resistance.
How wide is the rim of a road bike wheel?
Just to illustrate the rate of progress. 13 mm used to be the golden standard. That became 15 mm, and these days 17 mm of internal rim width has become the norm. 17 mm is considered ideal for use with 25 mm tyres.
Some brands offer even wider rims still. Road bike wheels with an internal width of 19 or 21 mm are becoming increasingly commonplace. These wide rims are well-suited for even wider tyres of up to 28 mm or even 32 mm wide. These wider tyres offer you even more grip and comfort.
An interesting fact is that, up to a point, the 28 mm tyre is faster than the 25 mm version. This has to do with the lower rolling resistance. At high speeds, the 25 mm tyre is quicker since it’s slightly slimmer on the rim.
A downside to wider tyres is that they don’t always fit every bike. Older bikes in particular simply don’t have the clearance in the frame or at the brakes for a 25 mm or 28 mm road bike tyre.
What rim depth do I need?
Rim depth and aerodynamics are closely intertwined. A deeper section rim is able to better guide the airflow along its surface, which reduces drag.
Depending on the shape of the rim, its depth, and the technologies used in its design, this can save you a considerable amount of time. Wheels with a deeper section rim do tend to be more sensitive to wind conditions though. The extra material also means that they’re a little heavier.
For regular all-round use, a rim depth of between 33 and 45 mm would be ideal. This depth provides you with a clear aerodynamic advantage over a shallow rim, but the weight can be kept low as well as the level of wind sensitivity.
Deeper rims are more aerodynamic
Want the best possible aerodynamic advantage? Then you’ll really have to turn to deep section wheels. The downside to these are that they’re more sensitive to winds from the side due to their taller design.
There are techniques out there which help reduce the impact of the wind on the wheels. Zipp uses the well-known dimples on the rim for instance. These create a boundary layer of turbulent air around the rim which reduces the overall drag. This also makes them less sensitive to winds from more extreme angles.
Just how important is the weight of road bike wheels?
Weight is an important factor when it comes to wheels. Lightweight wheels accelerate noticeably easier and handle better. Saving weight also helps when the road starts angling upwards. The same goes for stiffer wheels as well. A well-balanced blend of stiffness and weight is what’s really important.
Some tubular wheels weigh in at just 1200 grams, which is extremely light. Clincher road bike wheels use a little more material in their construction since they need to hold the tyre in place.
Clincher wheels with a shallow or medium-depth rim that come in between around 1400 to 1500 grams really do well in the weight department. For a deep section wheel, that rises to around 1600 grams.
Why would I opt for tubeless road bike wheels?
Tubeless cycling (using a tyre without an inner tube) is something which has blown over from mountain biking. One of the main advantages of tubeless tyres is that you can just carry on if you suffer a minor puncture.
Add a little liquid latex to the tyre, and small punctures are sealed instantly. That’s because the latex contains little granules which are sucked into the hole in the event of a puncture. The particle build-up then seals the hole. This technology works for punctures up to about 3 mm in size.
Furthermore, the rolling resistance of tubeless tyres is lower since there’s no inner tube, and omitting the latter also saves weight.
Not all wheels can be made to run tubeless though. In any case, you’ll be needing tubeless (airtight) rim tape. The rim also needs to have a certain size hook on the inside of the rim bed to which the tyre can grab on. Naturally, we’ve done an extensive write-up on how to convert your wheels to tubeless.
What’s the difference between aluminium and carbon road bike wheels?
Wheels are predominantly produced using two different materials. Aluminium wheels are fairly easy to build, which is why you often see these wheels at the low-end of the price range.
Producing carbon wheels is a lot more difficult. That’s why carbon wheels are often more expensive than aluminium wheels. The advantages of carbon wheels are that they’re often stiffer and lighter than aluminium wheels.
Carbon has also made creating wheels with a deep section rim at a low weight a lot easier. Carbon is something you’ll often find with deep section road bike wheels then.
What are the differences in brake track materials with road bike wheels?
Wheels are available with several different types of brake surfaces. Most wheels are fitted with an aluminium brake track. This offers reliable brake performance under all conditions, and it’s one of the least expensive ways of building a wheel.
Some manufacturers take this one step further and have developed a specially treated brake surface. This includes systems like Mavic’s Exalith brake tracks, Fulcrum’s (and Campaganolo’s) Plasma Electrolytic Oxidation (PEO) process, or DT Swiss’ OXiC brake surface. These brake surfaces offer further improved braking performance, which is something you’ll particularly notice in wet conditions.
Most high-end wheels are entirely made of carbon. This allows manufacturers to create a flush transition from the edge of the rim to the rest of the rim, creating a more aerodynamic whole and keeping the weight down at the same time.
Although brake performance of carbon wheels has markedly improved over the last few years, carbon wheels still don’t brake quite as well as aluminium wheels in the rain.
Why would you choose to use disc brakes on your road bike?
The arrival of disc brakes has moved the task of stopping your bike away from the edge of the rim. It’s something we’re very much in favour of, since the edge of your rims simply shouldn’t primarily be intended as a brake surface.
No matter how well manufacturers engineer a wheel, the level of brake performance made possible by disc brakes is simply unattainable for rim brakes. Disc brakes also make your wheels considerably more durable, since you won’t wear out the brake track on the wheel any more.
That means that carbon road bike wheels with disc brakes will last longer, thereby becoming more durable. Making the switch to carbon wheels becomes increasingly attractive that way.
What type of road bike wheels best suit my needs?
The biggest differences between various wheels lie in three different factors: rim depth, weight, and price.
Since keeping the weight of wheels down requires intricate technologies and expensive materials, lighter wheels will often be more expensive than heavier ones. The same goes for deeper section wheels, and doubly so if these need to be lightweight as well.
In short: the lower the weight, or the deeper the rim, the higher the price you pay for a set of wheels. In reality, a wheel can only score well on two out of the three factors at any given time. What wheels you can get at a certain budget really depends on what you’re going to be using them for then.
On flat roads, you’ll benefit more from a deeper and more aerodynamic wheel compared to a lightweight wheel. A deeper wheel with a slightly higher weight will, in most cases, still be faster than a lightweight, shallow wheel with poor aerodynamic properties.
If you find yourself on more hilly or mountainous terrain, lower weight can tip the balance the other way. You’ll have to accelerate more often and do more climbing, and both are easier with lighter wheels.
The same goes for participating in crits or races. The agility of lighter wheels and the easier acceleration they offer frequently outweigh the aerodynamic advantage of deep section wheels.
Perhaps the perfect blend would be the wheels with a medium-depth rim of between 33 mm and 45 mm. These wheels offer you a marked aerodynamic advantage as well as decently low weight. Particularly if these wheels are made of carbon.
Below are a number of wheels which really do well in specific areas.
Road bike wheels buyer’s guide – Martin’s recommendations
Lightweight road bike wheels with a shallow rim
Road bike wheels with deep section rims, but at a relatively high weight
Lightweight road bike wheels with deep section rims
Disc brake road bike wheels
Het bericht What are the Differences between the Various Types of Road Bike Wheels? [Road Bike Wheels Buyer’s Guide] verscheen eerst op Mantel.