If you’ve bought a road bike worth anything from £1,000-£2,500, the chances are that the wheels on it are pretty basic.
Speccing a basic wheelset is one of the key ways manufacturers keep the prices of their bikes down and it makes sense when attracting potential customers. It makes the price less intimidating and, to the layman, wheels are just wheels, right?
Wrong. Wheels are one of the very few immediately appreciable upgrades you can make on a bike. Swap out a set of basic £150 training wheels for even a set of £400-600 aluminium clinchers and you’ll notice the difference straight away. For starters, you’ll probably save 250-300g of weight, and it’s amazing how such a seemingly small margin can be noticeable when you’re accelerating.
The other reason why cheap wheels are added to otherwise smart bikes is a simple one. They are, supposedly, bombproof – in other words, built to last for a long time with very little maintenance. That strength is part of the reason why they’re so heavy: the materials are cheap and strong rather than better quality and performance-oriented.
Wheels can cost anywhere up to north of £3,000, which for many is more than we’re prepared to spend on an entire bike. Of course, there is a middle ground; in the sub-£1,000 price range you can get a set of wheels that’ll boost your bike’s performance, its looks and generally make the whole ride experience feel better. Although buying aluminium hoops over carbon will get you more for your money.
But, before you rush out to grab a new set of rims, there are various factors you need to mull over. In this article, we'll consider what wheels are right for you by taking into account weight, aerodynamics, rim type, build quality and more.
What are your goals?
Slightly existential as it may seem, the road to a new wheelset starts with you, and, specifically, what you want to achieve on the bike.
If you want to break your 10-mile time trial PB, getting a shallow, light set of climbing wheels is counter-intuitive and, similarly, if you want to head uphill quickly, grabbing a set of deep section wheels adds a lot more weight into the rims that you're going to have to move up a mountain.
Let’s get this out of the way first: on the flat, weight isn’t all that important. Until the gradient starts to ramp up, the power savings you get from being light simply aren’t enough to warrant the amount of money you’d have to spend to get them.
In his excellent book, Faster: the science of triathlon speed, Jim Gourley shows that the wattage difference between the same 68kg rider on a 6.8kg bike and a 5.3kg bike is barely noticeable until the gradient hits 10 per cent. In fact, it’s about ten watts.
The best way, of course, to reduce your power requirement for going uphill is to reduce your own body weight and/or improve the number of watts you can sustain - your power to weight ratio - and on the flat, weight is nowhere near as important as aerodynamic drag. Basically, on the flat it’s far more efficient to get out of the air’s way than to try to overpower it (and we'll come on to aerodynamics later).
The noticeable difference a lighter set of wheels makes on the bike is in acceleration - and a bike that accelerates quickly feels good. When climbing at a constant speed, weight is weight, and when you’re accelerating, more weight in the wheels equates to more effort to get the bike up to speed.
This is especially true if there's a greater proportion of weight in the rims versus the hub, because that weight then requires extra energy to move around the circumference of the wheel, as opposed to spinning on its axis at the hub.
So, if climbing performance is your focus, a light wheelset with very light rims would be a good purchase.
At lower price points, it can be hard to find a wheelset that offers a tangible aerodynamic benefit. But there are a few about if you look around.
However, it’s worth keeping in mind that roughly 80 per cent of the drag on a bike is a result of the rider, so getting aero on the bike and reducing your frontal area is as good a way as any to get immediate results.
The main factor that affects wheel aerodynamics is rim depth. In general, the deeper the rim, the more aerodynamic it is, providing all things such as rim profile remain equal.
However, they don’t. A V-shaped profile with a sharper leading edge is likely to perform very well in still conditions, or block head or tailwinds, but a U-shaped profile will perform more efficiently over a wider operating range of crosswinds.
While the HUNT 50Carbon Aero Disc wheels above are considerably aero, if you're budget is perhaps a little smaller there are nominal aero gains to be found on many alloy rims these days, with better manufacturing techniques resulting in deeper profile rims while maintaining both strength and a low weight.
As we said at the start, at the sub-£1,000 price point, aluminium is a far better option than carbon. However, advances in carbon manufacturing technology in recent years have made the more expensive material a viable option to those on a budget.
Wheels are becoming wider and wider with many following the trend measuring anywhere up to 27mm. However, understandably due to issues in keeping the weight down, most alloy wheels still tend to live in the 22-24mm-wide region.
"If you do make that switch to a wider rim, and with it a wider tyre, then other benefits including improved stability, ride comfort and lower rolling resistance also come into play."
Wider rims have various benefits. One of them is that when your rim and tyre width are closely matched, airflow around the whole system is improved, so if you like to ride 25mm tyres, it makes sense to pair them with a wider rim. If you do make that switch to a wider rim, and with it a wider tyre, then other benefits including improved stability, ride comfort and lower rolling resistance also come into play.
Better build quality is one of the key elements behind more expensive wheelsets. You’ll get higher quality bearings in the hubs for a start, and that'll improve how well the wheels roll.
Another difference you’ll notice is in the spoke pattern. Not only will a lot of more expensive wheelsets use fewer spokes (which, let’s face it, looks cooler), but they’ll arrange them in different patterns too, usually for improvements in stiffness. Fewer spokes means lower weight but pattern doesn’t always matter as long as the wheel is tensioned correctly. Remember, as we said before, while a cheaper wheelset with a higher spoke count will be heavier, it does come up trumps in terms of durability.
"Remember, as we said before, while a cheaper wheelset with a higher spoke count will be heavier, it does come up trumps in terms of durability."
Stiffness is another factor to consider. Although it's a huge buzzword in the bike industry on the whole, stiffness in wheel terms is important because it affects how much lateral movement there is in the wheel as force is applied to it. A poorly tensioned or 'flexy' wheel can cause brake or frame rub if the space between the parts is narrow. Ramping up the quality of the wheels almost certainly means improvement in this department, and any issues regarding ride comfort can often be solved by adjusting tyre pressure.
Clincher or tubeless?
The other choice you’ll have is whether to buy a tubeless-ready wheelset or stick with standard clinchers.
It’s not an either/or scenario, because most tubeless-ready wheels will still accept clincher tyres with inner tubes, albeit with a fit that tends to be a lot tighter. A tighter fit also increases the chances of inadvertently pinching the tube during installation which, as everyone who’s ever done it knows, is both highly inconvenient and downright annoying.
There are, however, a few benefits of road tubeless systems. The first is that you can’t pinch flat as there’s no inner tube to flat, which is a big bonus, especially when riding in areas where the road’s rough or there are large numbers of potholes. Plus, road tubeless tyres are filled with sealant so that when something does penetrate the rubber, the sealant fills the gap with only minimal pressure loss so you can keep on going.
Another bonus is pressure. Because there's no inner tube to potentially pinch, road tubeless systems can be run at lower pressures than standard clinchers which means a more comfortable ride. It can also increase traction while improving rolling resistance.
On the downside, there’s still a far smaller choice of tyres if you go tubeless, so you’ll likely be wedding yourself to one of comparatively few options. If you want to know if switching to tubeless is the right option for you, you can check out our guide on that too.
A wheel upgrade is, for people riding stock bikes, a really good option to instantly improve performance. It’s probably the best place to spend your money (aside from a training plan or a good coach for rider improvement) and you’ll notice the difference even if the upgrade is relatively small.
There’s a good chance that, if you’ve bought a bike off the shelf, the wheels are probably the lowest quality part of the build, so there's a clear and obvious improvement to be made.
So, figure out what your riding goals are, and then think about what wheels would fit the bill. Overall, high-end aluminium clinchers are probably the best value in the sub-£1,000 price range, and will get you comparatively more quality for your money than a cheap set of deep section alloy/carbon hybrids – although watch this space as that gap is becoming ever smaller as carbon technology becomes cheaper.