When it’s time to shop for your next pair of road wheels, you’ll find that you have plenty of options. The question is, how do you make sense of them all? In this article, we discuss what key points you should consider ahead of purchasing your next set of wheels.
Wheel and Rim Dimensions
Two key dimensions are important. First, what diameter is your wheel? 700C (622mm) is standard among most road bikes, but some bikes, especially smaller sizes, come with 650C (571mm) wheels. Secondly, what width of tires do you expect to run? You don’t want to run really wide tires on a skinny rim or really fat tires on a skinny rim. Running the correct width rim will ensure that your tire has its optimum profile shape for its best performance.
Be sure to check the manufacturer’s spec for each set of wheels on what tire widths are recommended for any given rim. Tire widths of 21, 23 and 25mm are common on road bikes, but increasingly larger width tires are being routinely spec’ed on road bikes, especially those that are also ridden on gravel roads. Some road bikes and wheels can accommodate up to 40mm tires.
Axle Type and Size
Wheels can attach to road bikes via more traditional quick release skewers or newer thru axles. Your bike’s frame and fork designs will determine which axle type you need for your front and rear wheels.
For either axle type, size does matter: both the length of the axle and its diameter are important. Road bike quick release skewer diameters are consistently 9mm in diameter, and skewer lengths are 100 mm and 130 mm respectively for front and rear, but thru axle skewer diameters are much more variable in sizing options.
Tubed, Tubular or Clincher
Road wheels come in three common types: for use with tires and tubes, for use with tubeless tires and for tubular tires. Racers have traditionally trained on tubed tires and raced on tubular tires, but recent advances in tubeless technology now make it a great option for the road.
Carbon fiber and metal alloy rims are your two most common choices. Carbon fiber rims come in more different shapes and are often lighter, stronger and more aerodynamic, but are usually significantly more expensive. For those using rim brakes, alloy rims are typically a better choice for a wider range of weather conditions, including extremely wet or hot weather.
Wheel design is influenced by factors such as aerodynamic vs conventional rim shapes and number and shape of spokes. Different rims shapes will handle better or worse in windy conditions, and wheels without enough spokes for a given rider weight may be more fragile and more frequently subject to broken spokes. Furthermore, some spokes also give better aerodynamic performance (less drag) than others. It will be much easier to replace the broken spokes that will inevitably occur over time if the wheel’s spokes are a standard size and design vs. proprietary.
Whether or not your bike has rim vs. disc brakes will affect which wheels you pick. If you’re still riding rim brakes, you’ll need to make sure your wheels are rim brake compatible – that is, they have a flat rim side surface that aligns with your rim brakes. Likewise, if you’ve got disc brakes, your new road wheels will need to be outfitted with hubs that can accommodate the kind of disc setup on your bike – such as six-bolt or centerlock.
Good hubs should be well sealed from the elements, easy to service with replaceable parts and give rapid engagement for transferring the power from your pedals efficiently to the wheels.
Nicer wheels are typically lighter, which makes them feel better performance while when you are accelerating or climbing.
All of the above factors influence cost. For example, carbon wheels are typically more expensive than alloy wheels; lighter wheels are typically more expensive than heavier wheels; aero wheels are often more expensive than conventional wheels because of more complicated designs and lower production volumes. When you are shopping for wheels, you’ll be balancing cost vs. all these factors to find the set that best works in a high quality way for you and your budget.