Unless you bought a frame and components to build your own dream machine, your bike probably came with wheels – but an upgrade could transform your ride.
Any road bike wheels, provided they are true (round, not bent) will do the job - they’ll revolve and keep you moving and do everything they need to. Upgrading your road bike wheels wheels could make a huge difference to ride quality, overall bike weight, speed, and versatility.
The trick, if you do want to upgrade is to pick wheels that cater for your needs. Key considerations include:
- Spoke count
- Braking surface
- Rim width
- Tyres: - clinchers, tubular, tubeless
- Weight and cost – which are influenced by most/all of the above
The hub is located in the middle of the wheel and houses the axle and bearings which the wheel rotates around.
Hub bearings can be cartridge or cup and cone. Most road bike wheels use cartridge bearings, as they require no maintenance, whilst cup and cone bearings need some servicing. For the smoothest ride, look for ceramic bearings– these are usually on the lighter and more expensive wheels but are most pleasant to ride on.
The rear hub also contains a freehub mechanism – this contains the bearings, and clutch system, which often uses ratcheting teeth and pawls. This might sound a bit technical and boring – but the interesting point is that the a higher number of pawls means that the time taken for the drive chain to start moving as you shift from freewheeling to pedalling is quicker.
Therefore, if you’re racing, and the seconds are as important to you as minutes, you’ll want a higher quality hub with a high pawl engagement. Hope Hoops Pro 2 Evo wheels, for example, have a 40 tooth ratchet and 4 pawl engagement and are known for the satisfying click they make as they turn.
Your hubs need to be compatible with your cassette – so do check that if you’ve got an 11 speed cassette, for example, the hubs on your would-be wheels are compatible.
Spokes support the rim – and have an impact upon both aerodynamics and strength. Strong wheels fit for winter rides will have more spokes – for example Shimano RS 10s are fairly inexpensive wheels which have 24 spokes on the rear, and 20 on the front – they aren’t the fastest or lightest, but are reliable and will serve well on winter training rides or commutes.
Road bike wheels built to withstand greater loads, for example with touring in mind, may have a high spoke count, and they will cross where they meet the rim on both the front and rear wheel. This spoke pattern, and a high number of spokes provides added strength, but isn’t very aerodynamic – so though ideal for commuting or touring, not perfect for those after speed.
Racers wanting a wheel that gives them an aerodynamic advantage will go for a lower spoke count – this means that the wheel is a little more fragile and not very resilient to pothole damage.
The spokes will often be bladed, rather than round and on the front wheel they will run directly from the hub to the wheel, without crossing – these are called radial spokes. Shimano RS 81s, for example, have 16 bladed spokes on the front wheel and 21 on the rear.
Most road bikes use calliper brakes, though recently more sportive and endurance geometry bikes have been built with disc brakes – which are more effective in the wet and allow for a lighter rim.
In the case of calliper brakes, the rim braking surface is usually aluminium, or carbon. Aluminium rims offer smooth, quicker stopping and can be used with standard brake pads made from rubber. Though light, aluminium rims will be much heavier than carbon.
Carbon rims are generally found on road bike wheels designed for competition or competitive riders looking to achieve a quick time on a hilly sportive. These rims are much lighter, and have a gorgeous ride quality that feels smooth and fast rolling. The flaw in this seeming perfection is that the rims require the use of carbon friendly brake pads, made from a rubber and cork mix – stopping power is adequate, but not as quick, especially in the wet.
Some carbon deep section wheels to use a predominately carbon rim, with an aluminium braking surface or treatment – giving the best of both worlds, with a small weight sacrifice. Mavic’s ever popular Cosmic Carbone wheels are an example of this approach.
Carbon rims are also more fragile than their cheaper but heavier aluminium alternative, so they are best kept for summer use, and ‘special days out’ than used as a day-to-day wheel.
The majority of bikes come with road bike wheels built with shallow rims – around 25mm. These are perfectly adequate and many people opt to continue with shallow rims, even if they upgrade to a stronger or lighter version.
Badass looking bikes sometimes have deeper rims – 30 to 40mm – these are mid section wheels that have a little aerodynamic edge, whilst still being fairly lightweight, making them a good compromise for those who seek aerodynamic advantage and light weight – road racers, and serious sportive riders.
Deep sections rims – often around 50mm, are designed with aerodynamics in mind. They can be used for climbing, but are really designed for fast, flat rides, such as time trials or triathlons. There are a variety of spoke patterns available – from bladed radial (direct from the hub to the rim) spokes to those with just four moulded and often carbon spokes (such as the Corima 4 spoke), to full discs (like a Zipp 900) which cut through the air like knife to butter.
Deep section rims are more aero, but they can be a little trickier to manage in crosswinds – rather than filtering through the spokes, the wind hits the rim surface which can be harder to control. It does need to be very windy for this to be a problem, but in the event of high gusting winds, a narrower rim will be safer, and faster since the rider will have greater control.
Tyres; clinchers, tubular or tubeless
The vast majority of people opt for clincher tyres – these sit in the rim using a bead, and an inner tube holds air pressure which pushes the bead against the tyre and keeps you rolling. Clincher tyres are preferable for most people, largely because a puncture simply means the inner tube needs to be removed, and fixed, or just replaced.
Tubular tyres are used by most pro racers, and some amateurs. Tubular tyres still use an inner tube, but it is stitched into a casing, and the tyre is glued to the rim.
Tubular tyres are generally the lightest option available, and the weight is lost from the edge of the rim, where the weight matters (arguably) the most. The major drawback is that tubular tyres need to be glued – and this process is labour intensive, or expensive. It is possible to carry a pre-glued tyre, in the event of a puncture, but this takes some skill and a fair amount of strength.
The other option is to go tubeless – this isn’t that common on the road. These don’t use an inner tube, which makes pinch flats, where the tube is caught between rim and tyre, impossible, but they don’t have the same weight saving benefit of tubular tyres and are not as simple as clinchers.