ROAD BIKE WHEELS – HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST FOR YOU
How do you decide which are the best road bike wheels for you and where you should buy them? This post answers these and other questions we road cycling enthusiasts face when it’s time for new wheels.
Take this right-hand turn, I thought to myself.
Signal. Start the turn.
Oh crap! My rear wheel is sliding out. Bring her back in!!!
Agghhhh, I’m going to lose it.
It happened that fast. I was coming down a road I’d ridden a hundred times before. It was a moderate downhill, about a 5% grade. This time, I made a quick decision to take a right that I had only taken before in my car.
I came into the turn too fast and with a bad line. Overcooked it. My rear wheel went out. Moved my handlebars to compensate and then flipped over and onto my side. I landed on a grassy median. Stood up. A little wobbly, but only a few scrapes. Nothing serious.
And then I looked at my bike.
My rear wheel was twisted like a pretzel.
My first thought: that’s going to cost me a few bucks.
My second thought: now there’s the excuse I’ve been looking for to finally get some new wheels!
I had been interested in getting new wheels for a while but hadn’t gone any further than read a few articles, see what was on sale at a couple local bike shops, and ask some of my riding buddies about their wheels.
Now that I needed new wheels or at least a new rear wheel, I asked a bunch of specific questions at a couple different bike shops I frequented and searched through some of the better known online cycling publications and forums. But, I didn’t get clear, complete or consistent answers that could guide me to a decision of what I should by.
Bothered by all of this, I dug into this question of how best to go about choosing a wheelset like I was solving a major issue for a business client and borrowed a spare back wheel to keep me riding in the meantime. I blogged what I came up with, sent it to a few riding friends for their feedback, and bought my next set of wheels.
That was the start of In The Know Cycling. Now, after many wheelset purchases and reviews, a lot more analysis, and many exchanges with readers about which wheels they should buy, here’s the post I wish I had read or written when I first began to look for my next set of wheels. Hopefully, it will help you figure out how to choose the best road bike wheels for you, given your own rider profile.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT
Click on any red statement below to go directly to that part of the post
IT’S ABOUT THE BEST ROAD BIKE WHEELS FOR YOU
Each of us come to the conclusion to look for new road bike wheels in our own way. Hopefully few of you will have to crash and wreck one of your wheels like I did before you decide it’s time.
The cyclist mantra wheels should be your first upgrade make it hard for enthusiasts to not think about spending money on a new wheelset soon after we finish spending money on a new bike. And for those of us who aren’t buying a new bike anytime soon, regularly reading the hype or hearing the buzz about the newest wheelsets with its latest technology that promises even better performance often have us lusting for new wheels.
Unfortunately, if you walk into a shop or read most reviews (including my own), it’s hard to know whether what the shop is selling or what the wheelset reviewer is writing about will be right for you. That’s primarily because shops and reviewers don’t know enough about you without asking the right questions to be able to tell you which wheelset is best for you.
Whether they care or not is another consideration. One of the first shops I went into only asked me what my budget was before starting to suggest what wheels I should consider. And, of course, they only suggested wheels they carried. Most reviews, hopefully not mine, read as if they are starting with the assumption that each wheelset they write about is one you should consider.
Most of us road cycling enthusiasts (my definition here) know there are all sorts of wheels available for the different types of road riding we do. But, just because we like to climb or do endurance rides on varying terrain or like to ride as fast as we can doesn’t mean we should buy a climbing wheelset or all-around wheels or deep aero ones as our primary or next set of road bike wheels.
Further, some of us looking for new wheels have never really looked hard at what we want from a new set of wheels, what our riding goals and priorities are, or how we ride in a way that will allow us to choose wheels that will make a difference to whatever our goals are.
I don’t write this last bit as a criticism. Some enthusiasts just love to ride and don’t have specific goals for their riding or think about how much of their time is spent on different terrain or know how steep the hills are we ride or even how much we are willing to spend on new wheels. But, if you want a new set of wheels to really improve your experience, you should start by knowing more about your cycling self than about all the wheels you are considering.
Here’s a list of questions I’ve come up with that will give you your “rider profile”. Your answers should guide you to wheels that will best suit your riding, help you achieve your goals, improve your rider experience, and be in sync with your budget.
Some of these questions are obvious. If you can’t come up with good answers to why you want new wheels (question 1), what some of your riding goals are (2), what you like and don’t like about the wheels you have now (12), or how much you are willing to spend (13), it’s probably premature for you to be looking for new wheels. You’ll be going in circles without being able to answer these four questions. It’s not unusual for newer cyclists to ride several thousand miles before they can.
Once you have answers to these, they along with answers to the somewhat tougher ones in between can get you to the right place.
Let’s look at a couple of very abbreviated examples.
Example 1: You’re looking to move up from your stock wheels that came with your rim-brake endurance bike to help you better enjoy and keep up with your buds on your 18-20 mph, 40-50 mile group rides on mostly rolling terrain on decently paved roads that also have three to four short, quarter to half-mile 7%-10% grade sections. You want the wheels to give you both speed and comfort, and will also be great for the solo riding you do now at 17 mph speeds. You are training to do three 100-mile long rides this year and feel your current wheels aren’t very comfortable after an hour or so of riding.
You have budgeted about $1500 but would consider stretching it to $2000 if the XYZ brand wheels you fancy will make a notable difference. Oh, and you ride at between 190 and 200lbs, it feels like your current ABC brand/model wheels are sluggish when you try to pick up the pace and you ride 4-5 times totalling about 150-200 miles/week during the spring and summer seasons.
This profile should lead you to an all-around rim brake wheelset, including the one I picked as the best value you can usually get for slightly under your budget. Because of your weight, you’ll clearly want a wheelset that rates high on stiffness. With your weight and your preference for comfort along with speed, you’ll also want a wheelset that rates well for comfort, probably one you can also run tubeless. You’d also want to check out the pros and cons of a couple of the $2000 wheelsets, including one made by the brand your fancy but which you, coming from a stock wheelset, would probably not notice a difference over the best value one I recommended in the all-around review.
Here’s another one.
Example 2: You are planning a vacation in the Pyrenees, have a first-generation 1650 gram alloy upgrade disc brake wheelset now but want something lighter because you’ve always read that lighter wheels are better for climbing. You are willing to spend about £850/€1000 on a new set but would like to spend less since you are going to use the wheels for about a week a year. You’ve answered all the other questions.
You could read my review of carbon all-around disc brake wheels including a couple wheelsets that are well suited for climbing that are about 200-250 grams lighter than your current hoops. That’s an amount that you would notice climbing, but not without spending 2-3x what you have said you are willing to spend. I’d also tell you that if you have a few kilos you can shed between what you carry on your bike and your midsection, it would have a bigger benefit and cost a lot less.
Instead, you’d probably be better off and stay within your budget with a pair of newer alloy upgrade wheels. Given the model of wheels you currently ride and what you’ve said about your average speed, priority for comfort, weight and riding goals, buying a pair of these would suit you better than would the more expensive carbon wheels even though they would only be about 100 grams lighter than your current wheels, an amount you wouldn’t feel when climbing. They would be notably wider and improve your handling and comfort including on your trip to the mountains and also make for a far more enjoyable and better performing everyday wheelset.
There are many other real-world examples readers ask about. The enthusiast that is unsure whether he’ll notice the difference between the top performing and highest price all-around wheelset and one that sells for $1000/£850/€1000 less. Those that have been riding for a while and are trying to decide between two or three wheelsets they’ve been considering that are priced about the same but have different strengths (stiffness, comfort, acceleration) and one that looks really sweet with their bike. Those looking to get their first carbon wheels and wanting something deep because they mostly ride flats but are concerned about the winds that always swirl where they live. Riders trying to decide between a climbing and all-around wheelset. Others trying to choose between an all-carbon and carbon alloy aero wheelset. Etc., etc., etc.,
Further down in this post, I’ll suggest what you should look for based on answers to the individual rider profile questions. First, I’ll outline some of the categories of wheelsets and provide you links to reviews of each category so you’ll know what I’m referring to later when I provide the answers.
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ROAD BIKE WHEEL CATEGORIES
I put road bike wheels into one of five categories based primarily on what kind of riding they are best suited for. Here’s a description of each of those categories.
Stock Wheels – The wheels that come on almost all new road bikes that sell for up to $5000/£4000/€5000 (and sometimes more) are called stock wheels. Suffice it to say that when you buy a new bike you are principally paying for the frame and groupset (shifters, derailleurs, crankset, brakes, etc.) and not the wheels or cockpit components (bar, stem, saddle, post). Bike brands make their money on their frame and the markup on the groupset they buy from Shimano or SRAM. They usually put basic wheels and cockpit components on the bike to shave costs.
In almost all cases, stock wheels are the weakest link on a new bike. Their performance level is well below that of the frame and groupset. These wheels reduce the performance and enjoyment achievable from the rest of the bike.
Stock wheels are almost always made of aluminum alloy, low profile rims and durable yet basic hubs and spokes. They are usually well-built but not typically ones you are going to be happy with as you ride more often or get more serious about riding. You’ll find they aren’t as stiff, comfortable, responsive, light, fast or visually appealing as you’ll want your wheels to be.
They can work for occasional, recreational riders or newer enthusiasts who are in their first or second season of riding (before you know better). They can also serve more experienced enthusiasts as a winter, early or late season training wheelset when the road surface may be rough, gritty or wet and when you want to save the wear on a better set of wheels.
Most stock wheels should last 7,500 to 10,000 miles (12,000 to 15,000 kilometers) or a whole lot of seasons if you were to ride them as off-season wheels. Stock wheels typically sell for $200/£150/€200 to $500/£400/€500 if you buy them without the bike, though most stock wheels are made to be sold only on new bikes and aren’t readily available, if at all in the aftermarket.
Wheels that come on bikes that retail for more than around $5000/£4000/€5000 are often carbon but not always great wheels or wheels that help you realize the potential of the steed you’ve just bought. Very few bike makers put top-end wheels even on their top-end bikes.
You’ll see house brand carbon wheels or lower end brand name wheels on most of these builds. They are certainly better performers than the stock wheels you’ll see on less expensive bikes but seldom the wheelset you would select if you were choosing them for yourself.
Unless you can buy the bike without the wheels or exchange them for a $1000/£800/€1000-$1500/£1200/€1500 credit toward the wheelset you want, it’s hard to decide what to do with these wheels once you own them. You’ll likely want something better and may have a hard time selling them at anywhere near what they cost you. Some riders I’ve talked to just continue riding them believing the hype that the wheels were chosen for the bike while others bite the bullet and buy a wheelset that works best for them.
All-Around Wheels – All-around (or “all-round”) wheels are nearly all made with carbon fiber rims now and will give you some aero benefits when you ride fast, climb pretty well when you go up steep hills, and handle confidently in most conditions on both group and solo rides.
If you can afford them, all-around wheels are the one wheelset to have that cover most types of riding and terrain well without being optimized for a specific type of riding or events (for example, alpine climbing and time trialing/triathlons).
The best ones are stiff and responsive enough to be the wheelset of choice to race on, comfortable enough to be the best hoops to ride in a day-long endurance event, and will stop you confidently and predictably if you are depending on their rims as your braking surface.
Set up with the right tires, some of these all-around wheels can also be the best choice if, in addition to road cycling, you also do cyclocross courses or like to venture onto dirt paths or fire roads from time to time.
All-around wheels are currently the “sweet spot” for the kind riding most road cycling enthusiasts do as their combination of versatility and performance is unmatched. It is the category that has advanced most over the last decade as wheel makers have figured out how to fashion carbon material rim profiles and heat dissipation, structural, and durability properties to achieve new performance levels.
These wheelsets require a major commitment of coin as they will run you from $1500/£1200/€1500 to $3000/£2500/€3000 depending on the combination of performance characteristics, technology innovation, brand name, and product support you are looking for.
You can click on these links to read my reviews of the best all-around wheelsets for rim brake bikes and the best all-around wheelsets for disc brake bikes. If your budget doesn’t allow for that kind of outlay and you don’t require the best performance, take a look at my post on the best carbon wheelset for the money which reviews value carbon wheels in the $1000-$1500 range.
Upgrade Wheels – Upgrade wheels are a step up in performance from stock wheels but a step below that of all-around wheels. They also price out between those two categories, with most good upgrade wheels running from $400/£350/€400 to $1200/£1000/€1200.
The wide price variation is driven by brand name and feature choice (for example tubeless-ready vs. tubed clincher rims or your choice of hub-shell and bearing materials). Upgrade wheelsets for disc brake bikes are typically more expensive than those for rim brake bikes as the disc brake wheelset market is newer and has fewer models competing for your business.
Upgrade wheel product performance on key characteristics like stiffness and comfort vary widely as do specs like weight and width.
Because upgrade wheel rims are made from aluminum alloys with their lower strength-to-weight ratio and more limited shaping flexibility compared to carbon composite ones, alloy upgrade wheels aren’t made to the depths or with the rounded shapes of carbon all-around wheels.
Upgrade wheels provide no aerodynamic benefit at higher speeds the way all-around or deeper aero wheels can and tend to weigh about the same as all-around wheels that are nearly twice as deep and often several millimeters wider.
All of that said, most upgrade wheels are a noticeable improvement over stock wheels and won’t challenge the budget harmony you work so hard to achieve. The good ones will accelerate better and are stiffer, more responsive and more comfortable than stock wheels. Their rims are typically wider, they are lighter and their hubs also roll better.
Some enthusiasts with many years of experience with alloy upgrade wheels swear by them and forever swear off carbon wheels, some whose first couple generations had serious quality problems. These enthusiasts also know that speed, handling, and other performance gains depend on bike riding skills and fitness more than the wheels or other gear you are riding.
Climbing Wheels – Unlike all-around and upgrade wheels, climbing wheels and aero wheels (next category) are designed to optimize performance for a narrower range of riding or racing.
If you live at the foot of or regularly visit and ride alpine ranges like the Rockies, Sierras, Pyrenees, Alps or smaller mountain ranges with steep, long roads near you, I’d definitely get a set of climbing wheels. These will help you climb and descend the 7%, 8% and even steeper pitches that go on for kilometers or miles at a time.
You don’t need dedicated climbing wheels if your regular routes have “rollers”, those 2-5%, quarter mile or km hills that might total 5 miles or 8 km during the course of a 50 mile or 80 km ride. And I also don’t think you need to have climbing wheels if, in addition to those rollers, your routes include a couple of half km or even a half mile climb that averages 7% during your ride.
You could certainly ride climbing wheels on those kinds of rides to give you some advantage going up the steeper sections. But, you have to ask yourself whether what you gain on the hills with climbing wheels is worth what you lose on the far greater percentage of flatter sections and downhills that you could be riding on a more aero, 40-50mm deep all-around that maintains your momentum and reduces your needed power output more than climbing wheels will.
The best climbing wheels are very stiff, light, brake well and aren’t bothered by crosswinds. That combination of properties has traditionally called for low profile alloy clinchers or carbon wheels that use tubular tires. More recently, carbon tubeless or tubed clinchers with much-improved brake tracks and more user-friendly tire setups have proven their value to enthusiasts as climbing wheels.
You can click on this link to read my review of the best climbing wheels for rim brake bikes. I haven’t written a review yet of climbing wheels for disc brake bikes as there are fewer of these models available. I do review a couple of all-around disc brake wheels in this review here that also climb quite well.
Aero Wheels – Most time trials or triathlons tend to be ridden on relatively flat terrain where aerodynamics are key from your body position to every piece of gear on your bike. And while riding through the mountains and on variable terrain seems to capture the romance of cycling for many, a lot of road cycling enthusiasts will never do a time trial or triathlon live and ride on relatively flat terrain with only the occasional hill.
For this kind of mostly flat riding, whether your do time trials and triathlons or not, aero wheels with carbon rims that are at least 50mm deep, and sized and shaped to work with tires to create superior aerodynamic performance are a good choice for you.
To get the speed benefit of these deeper aero wheels, you really should be averaging at least 20 mph or 32 kph and be riding in an aero position much of the time. You don’t have to be using aero bars but you are countering the benefit of the wheels if you aren’t at least in the drops or have your elbows bent at 90 degrees with your hands on the hoods when you are trying to max out your speed.
Wheel weight, acceleration, and responsiveness are less important with aero wheels than with the other wheel categories. It’s not that they are unimportant, it’s just that aero performance is far more important than anything else when considering wheels for flat terrain riding.
With this type of riding, you get up to speed and maintain it. You aren’t doing a lot of accelerating and decelerating with terrain changes, getting out of the saddle to climb, varying speeds, etc., all conditions where weight and the other characteristics I mentioned above are important.
You can click on this link to read my review of the best aero wheels for rim brake bikes geared to road cycling enthusiasts rather than just time trial riders or triathletes. I haven’t written a review yet of aero wheels for disc brake bikes but I plan to soon.
Aero disc brake wheels are likely more aero than those made for rim brake bikes. That is because disc brake wheels aren’t limited by the need for brake tracks. That gives designers much greater latitude to widen and shape the rims for maximum aero performance including crosswind deflection.
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ROAD BIKE WHEELS SUGGESTED BY RIDER PROFILES
In this section, I’ll go through each of the questions in the rider profile, give you some of the answers I hear often in exchanges I’ve had with road cycling enthusiasts, and tell you what category of wheelset those answers suggest you consider.
Within each of the category posts I’ve noted and linked you to above, you’ll find a half-dozen or more wheelsets I’ve reviewed and my evaluation of them based on the characteristics that matter most to the performance of wheels in that category.
In most cases, I’ve recommended a wheelset I rate as the “best performer” and occasionally add another as a “best value”. Along with 500 word or so reviews on each of the wheelsets reviewed in a category, you’ll see a table that compares the performance characteristics (like stiffness, comfort, etc.), specs (weight, width, etc.) and prices.
At the bottom of the reviews, there are comments from readers that are often posed as questions about some of the wheelsets and how well they might suit their particular situation.
So, once you get into a category review, you can go straight to a recommended wheelset or go as wide or deep as you’d like to help you choose among alternatives.
The Basic Questions
I wrote earlier that you should have answers to four basic questions pretty well figured out before you start looking for wheels. Here they are again, some answers I often hear and what that suggests to me.
1. Why do you want new wheels?
The answers I hear most often are a) go faster, b) perform better (in specific ways), c) have a more comfortable ride, d) there’s something wrong with my current wheelset and e) I’ve earned it, want them, there’s something better out there that I’m missing, or it’s time to move up from my stock wheels.
I hear “a) go faster” a lot. A whole lot.
Let me be clear on this one. New wheels aren’t the most effective and certainly not the most cost-efficient way to make you go faster. And depending on how and what you ride now, they may not help you to go faster at all.
For those of you looking at new wheels as the silver bullet, let that last paragraph sink in for a minute.
I’ve written two posts that cover the top 10 ways to ride faster (start here). Gear, including wheels, is far down the list at #7. And this is coming from a guy, me, who writes primarily about cycling gear.
Six training or cycling techniques are more effective if you want to ride faster and usually a whole lot less expensive than buying new wheels.
Lighter, more aero, wider wheels (and tires) and whatever other gear technology you’ve heard or read about may make you faster in certain situations but only once you’ve got your training and technique act together. If you do and ride fast enough (more on that below), the right wheels for the right situation will help you ride faster.
But, while many (most?) people want new wheels to ride faster, there are other reasons to get them even if you don’t ride fast enough for new wheels to enable you to ride faster.
You can “b) perform better” and “c) ride more comfortably” with a new set of the right wheels. But, here again, it’s not just the wheels that will improve your performance. Perhaps you want to climb better or take a few more pulls in your group rides or just make your riding more comfortable. Training and technique and the interaction of all of your gear (e.g., inflation pressure, drivetrain maintenance) will help you do that.
A couple of obvious examples. You’ll climb better with your current wheels if you drop 5lbs/2.5kg and do hill repeat training periodically. And, you may find your ride a whole lot more comfortable with a better set of properly inflated tires.
From what I’ve written, you may think I’m trying to dissuade you from getting new wheels. Actually, I’m just trying to manage your expectations for what new wheels will do for you and won’t, and what else can help you achieve the objectives you may have, often at a far lower cost, that led you to want new wheels.
As to “d) something wrong with my current wheels” and “e) I’ve earned it,” etc., those reasons to buy new wheels are hard to deny. Unfortunately, they don’t lead me to suggest a set of wheels without answers to other questions. So let’s keep those reasons and others you might have for buying new wheels in mind as we go through the other questions. But, have a reason for buying new wheels. It will help ground your search and choice.
2) What are your riding goals?
Almost anything from “I want to make time to ride 2x what I did last year” or “I want to do a 5-day riding vacation in the Alps” or a detailed plan of events, distances, KOMs, podiums, w/kg levels, etc., etc. that you are going to accomplish works if that is what motivates you to ride.
The more specific and measurable the better and the easier it is to find the wheelset that will help you accomplish your goals.
12) What wheels do you ride now? What do you like and don’t like about them?
The first of these two questions is often hard to get much value out of if you have stock wheels. Many stock wheels are made under contract, branded by the bike company, and there’s little or no published information or independent evaluation on them to use as a baseline to compare to. So be it. They are stock wheels so that’s usually enough to tell you that they aren’t as stiff, compliant (comfortable), responsive, etc. as what you can find elsewhere.
Identifying what you like and don’t like should be a little easier. I often hear that a rider feels their wheels are “sluggish”, “not very stiff (or too stiff)”, or are “not as comfortable as they’d like on long rides” or any number of other qualitative things. That’s all good in building up a profile so you can compare wheels on those characteristics later in whatever category best suits your riding profile.
13) How much are you willing to spend on new wheels?
I put this question last on my list because, unless you are living on a very tight budget, most road cycling enthusiasts often don’t know what they should spend to get the wheels that best suit them and their goals.
The price ranges I gave you in the category descriptions above offer you an idea of what new wheels that serve those riding purposes go for.
The rule of thumb I use is that you should spend about 40% +/- 10% of the retail price of your bike for a wheelset that realizes the bike’s potential, suits your needs, and matches whatever brand or look you may prefer. Note that I’m talking about the bike’s retail price (MSRP or RRP), not what you paid for it.
For example, if your bike retails at $2500/£2000/€2500, you likely have an entry level carbon frame bike with a tier 3 groupset, likely a mechanical Shimano 105 or maybe one with some Ultegra and FSA components. Applying the rule of thumb means you should plan on spending around $750/£600/€7500 to $1000/£800/€1000 for a wheelset. That puts you in the alloy upgrade category.
If you bought a $5000/£4000/€5000 bike, it’s likely a pretty good advanced road bike or perhaps an aero frame bike or nice disc brake bike. 40% of that price takes you to $2000/£1600/€2000 for your wheels. That puts you in good, if not the best, carbon all-around, climbing or aero wheelset territory. You could spend $500/£400/€500 less and go with a value carbon wheelset that does many if not all the things you are looking for your wheels to do or spend $2500/£2000/€2500 to $3000/£2500/€3000 for the “best performer” and get the highest level performance in the category.
Own a bike that retails for $7500/£6000/€7500 or so? Probably top-end carbon layup, tube design, electronic groupset, etc. Sweet! You may race on this bike or do some nice vacations with it or just enjoy and be able to afford top-end performance and quality. A similar top performing wheelset will run $2500/£2000/€2500 to $3500/£2800/€3500.
It’s just my rule of thumb, but I’ve found it holds up pretty well. FYI, my groupset rule of thumb is 20-25%.
With the wheels I’ve evaluated over the years, I’ve found you will get diminishing performance returns if you spend a whole lot more than 50% and might be disappointed with the performance if you spend less than 30%. Your psyche may feel good if you spend more and your budget may be salvaged if you spend less, and there’s value in both of those situations, but your performance won’t necessarily be better in the former situation or meet your objectives in the later.
The other thing to note about wheelset prices is that you generally get what you pay for. The combination of design, testing, component manufacturing, assembly, product quality, distribution, service network, expertise, and brand is what you pay for.
Wheels sold by companies that don’t have the full complement of these things generally sell their wheels for less. Sometimes that’s ok and sometimes not. Companies that design and test wheels they have others make to jointly agreed manufacturing and assembly standards, and have networks to sell and service the wheels usually make good products.
There are an increasing number of sellers now that are using a different model. They essentially buy wheels completely designed and made by others, put on their brand name, market them heavily, and sell online direct to customers or through a few regional retailers.
In most cases, they buy the assembled wheels or rims from factories that don’t make them for the better-known brands, and delegate or have very little input in the design, testing, manufacturing, assembly or product quality. Their expertise is in contracting, branding and marketing. You can read more about the different approaches to get to less expensive carbon wheelsets in a post I wrote on that topic here.
I’ve tested a handful of wheels from companies using this model, hoping to find competitively performing wheels at lower prices than from the better known and more integrated wheel makers. I certainly haven’t tested them all but for those I have, it’s fair to say that I’ve found wheels made under this model below par on one or more key performance characteristics. You can read those reviews here.
I don’t recommend for or against custom-built wheelsets. These are made to a unique customer specification and sometimes sold at prices below standard-built wheelsets, the latter made in volume to an existing product standard. With many small shops or businesses making one-of-a-kind, one-at-a-time custom-built wheelsets, there is just no way for me to judge the range and consistency of products made under this model.
Note that custom-built wheelsets are not the same as hand-built wheelsets that you may have read about. And standard-built wheelsets are not factory-built wheelsets. Many and most of the better carbon wheelsets are hand-built, made to a standard and built in a factory.
Answers to the following rider profile questions will tell you how important stiffness, versatility, and aero performance characteristics are to your wheelset choice. Together, and with answers to the basic questions above, they can begin to put you into the category of wheels that suit you best.
4) How much do you weigh? If you know it, what is your FTP?
Answers to these questions will tell you whether wheelset stiffness is an absolute requirement, won’t make a difference, or is somewhere in between. A stiffer wheelset will more efficiently transfer your legs’ power through the wheels to the pavement.
If you weigh more than 185lbs or 85kgs, or your FTP is more than 300 watts, you’ll want a wheelset whose stiffness is at least as good and probably superior to others in a category. You are going to put your wheels to the test.
If you weigh less than 155lbs or 70kgs, or your FTP is less than 200 watts, and you aren’t looking for climbing wheels, most wheels will be plenty stiff enough for you.
If your weight and FTP is between the two ranges above, you’ll want a wheelset whose stiffness is at least on par with others in the category.
Carbon wheels have a higher strength to weight ratio than alloy wheels and will generally be stiffer. But, there are several very stiff alloy wheelsets and some carbon wheelsets that aren’t very stiff so you need to look closely at this performance measure. The entire wheel must be considered however as the larger the width between and diameters of the hub flanges and the greater the spoke angles between the hub and rim, the stiffer the wheelset will be.
I note the relative stiffness of wheelsets in my reviews.
5) What mix of flats, rolling hills, and climbs do you typically ride?
Mostly flats and rollers? Your speeds will benefit from deeper wheels in either the aero or all-around categories if your average speed is at least 18mph/29kph for combined flat and hillier rides and 20mph/32kph for flat-out flat rides.
If you are doing a high percentage of your riding on >7% grades for miles or kms at at time, say 800-1000 feet of climbing per 10 miles or 250-300 meters per 15 kilometers, you should be picking out a climbing wheelset or a low profile all-around.
If you are doing a mix of flats, hills, and climbs, all-around wheels are the category you should select from.
If your budget doesn’t allow you to go carbon, your answer to this question will have little effect on your choice within the alloy upgrade category.
6) What speed do you average doing solo rides on this mix of terrain on 30-40 mile/50-60 km rides? If you aren’t averaging 18mph/29kph and don’t think you’ll get there in the years you’ll own your new wheelset, there’s no aero performance benefit in going with a carbon all-around or aero wheelset. Sorry, but it’s just physics.
If you are averaging at least this speed, you will get aero performance benefits, all else about riding faster (e.g., training, body position, etc.) being equal. And as you ride faster still, your aero benefit will increase exponentially. It’s a great feeling.
7) Do you put a priority on speed or comfort, or do value both equally?
Wider tires and wider rims have been one of the biggest developments in wheels the last handful of years. It’s a much hyped and misunderstood development in my view, but there is no denying that a lot of enthusiasts have moved to 25C or wider tires and 17C or wider rims.
Improved comfort is the primary motivation for most people to go wider though there are also improved speed and handling benefits available if you get the right combination of rim and tire widths. More on that here.
If improved speed is your priority, the relationship between the rim and tire width is more important than the absolute width of either. The fastest setup is often one where the mounted and inflated tire width is no more than 95% of the width of the rim at the brake track (or, for disc brake wheels, where the brack track would have been if they left one there).
The most comfortable setup usually makes the tire wider than the rim but that wrecks the aero benefit if you are going at speeds where aero benefits are available. Tires wider than rims can also make for sloppy handling and more frequent pinch flats if the mounted and inflated tire width is more than 4mm or so wider than the brake track rim width and the inflation pressure is lower than what would be a typical range for your weight.
Fortunately, most good wheelsets are plenty comfortable no matter the width. Their comfort, aka “compliance” or “vertical stiffness” is a function of how the rim, hub, and spokes work together, not just the rim or tire width. I’ve ridden on plenty of “narrow” 15C wheels that are comfortable at 100psi and a few 19C wheels with wide, tubeless 25C tires at 60psi that are less comfortable.
But of course, all things aren’t equal when it comes to wheel comfort and you simply can’t mount up wider tires and lower the pressure and get a comfortable ride.
The answer to this question of your speed vs. comfort priority helps you choose between wheels in the all-around and aero wheelset category where the speed or aero performance comes into play. (You make all your speed yourself with lower profile wheelsets in the climbing and upgrade categories.) Some all-around and aero wheels are comfortable but not as aero as the best, others are very aero but not as comfortable as the best, and some manage to pull off both pretty darn well.
In most of my category reviews, I note the relative comfort or compliance of different wheelsets and, where relevant, the relative aero performance.
8) What priority do you put on brand name and looks?
Consciously or not, this is a priority for many riders. After all, companies spend a good portion of their marketing budgets trying to make their brand and wheels attractive and not just based on their performance or price. Many marketing campaigns are based on wheel designs and specs but those don’t directly determine wheelset to performance. (See rim width role in wheelset comfort discussion above.)
Some riders have really liked the experience they’ve had with their XYZ brand wheelset in the past or have heard good things about it from friends, in ads, or from the people they’ve come to know over the years at their local bike shop. They want to buy that brand of wheels.
Others like the way a wheelset looks or how it enhances the look of their bike and that’s a strong influence on their buying decision.
There’s no denying that the confidence or pleasure of riding a wheelset you like, or any piece of gear or kit you like for whatever reason will likely improve the joy you get from riding. I’m all for that.
Since brand or aesthetic preferences are personal, however, I really can’t steer you to one set of wheels or another because they are made by a brand some prefer or look sweet to others. I can only compare performance, price, quality, and design specs (in that order importance) but know that brand or looks may sway you one way or another regardless of how wheelsets rate in my evaluations.
I will say that in my experience evaluating wheelsets, there isn’t a direct correlation between brand value and performance or quality. (There is, however, a pretty good correlation between brand value and price.) Two or three top brands make some of the best wheels in a category and two or three other top brands make wheels that don’t measure up. In some cases, a top brand makes a great wheelset in one category and a middle of the pack or worse one in others.
It also seems that more and more wheels are made with blacked out or “stealth” graphics these days. This makes them harder and harder to tell apart by looking at them, not that it was ever easy to do so while they spin along going down the road.
Riding Type Questions
9) What combination of solo riding, group riding, endurance events, road races, time trials or other types of rides do you do?
10) What kind of bike or bikes are you looking to use your new wheels on – endurance, racing, aero/TT, cyclocross/gravel? Rim or disc brake?
Answers to these questions can further point you to a wheelset category. If you do a lot of time trials and have an aero/TT bike, for example, look at aero wheels. No big insight there.
Solo riding, group riding, endurance events and bikes, road racing and racing bikes? Upgrade or all-around wheels. Perhaps aero wheels for some road racing.
Cross/gravel? Upgrade or all-around once again but the wider the better and tubeless more often than tubed clinchers so you can ride the same wheels at low pressures on treaded tires when on dirt, grass, sand or gravel roads and use the same wheels, pumped up on regular road tires when you are riding on the road.
Note that aero performance is more important when you are riding solo and less important when you are drafting in a group ride setting. Rolling resistance, which can improve with the right tires on wider rims, is relatively more important in group riding.
11) What specific road or weather situations, for example, wet roads, heavy crosswinds, rough roads, if any, do you often ride?
If you ride often in adverse conditions, you’ll want a wheelset that performs well in those specific situations. The conditions mentioned in the question above are the ones readers most refer to, so let me look at the implications of those on your wheelset choice.
Wet roads are best ridden on alloy rim brake clinchers or all types of disc brake wheelsets. Some carbon rim brake wheelsets with specially treated brake tracks ride better in wet weather than others, but most don’t ride as well as alloy ones. Carbon brake tracks tend to wear faster in wet weather as road grit finds its way onto the wheels and between the brake tracks and rims. Not good!
If you ride regularly in crosswinds, a lower profile alloy or climbing wheelset will be affected less than many deeper all-around or aero wheelsets. That said, the better all-around and aero wheelsets today have rim profiles that limit the effect of crosswinds.
Rough roads call for more compliant wheelsets, better yet that you can ride with tubeless tires. Tubeless tires aren’t susceptible to pinch flats when you run them at lower pressures as you’ll likely want to do if you ride regularly on rough roads.
If you only occasionally ride in these conditions, I wouldn’t suggest you buy wheels ideally suited to handle them. I often receive comments from riders who appear to put too great an emphasis on these or other unique conditions that don’t happen frequently or that they can avoid.
Sometimes riders just aren’t sure what else to base their decisions on and they remember that harrowing ride when one of these conditions made a lasting impression. Personally, if I’m not testing wheels, I’ll get on the trainer to avoid going out in the rain or on a very windy day. If I’m out riding and encounter these conditions, I’ll just ease off my pace, find a shelter or just ride it out.
WHERE TO BUY ROAD BIKE WHEELS
In the ongoing debate about whether to buy your gear online or at a local bike shop, I’ve found online is clearly a better place to buy wheelsets. There are several reasons for this.
Selection – Between the better online stores (see my ranking of the best-rated ones here and do price comparisons of specific wheelsets at my Know’s Shop), you can find most brands and models of wheels that road cycling enthusiasts ride. There are still a few large volume brands that only sell through local bike shops (most notably Specialized’s Roval) and some smaller volume brands that sell either direct or are only distributed to bike shops within the country or region where they are based.
Most of the wheelsets I’ve reviewed and recommended are available at one of the better online stores with strong customer satisfaction records. I’ll tell you if they are only available at local bike shops or direct from the wheel maker.
Even the biggest local bike shops or chains these days are only going to carry and sell a half dozen brands of wheels in volume. Most will sell fewer brands than that. They will stock the most popular, high turnover models but will typically have to order the higher priced, less frequently purchased ones like carbon all-around, climbing and aero wheels. They can’t tie up their money in inventory.
Their distributors will also have or can order the more expensive models and have access to other brands. The local bike shop will special order these but they won’t be motivated to sell them to you at the discount you can often get from online stores since they haven’t paid for them and don’t have to move them. These may also be wheels that their salespeople don’t know a lot about because they aren’t normally on the sales floor.
Shops have incentives to sell the lines they represent. They will make more profit on some than on others and will seldom see a wheelset they don’t carry as more worthy than a competitive one they do. It’s just the way bike shop businesses are set up.
Price – Wheelsets sold through online stores will typically be advertised at the same or lower prices than those in bike shops. Online stores typically buy a higher volume of wheels so can get them at a lower price. Again it’s the economics of the business.
Some bike shops will match online prices or lower their prices to try to win the sale. In some cases, there is such a big discount from the online store that shops can’t lower the price to match it without selling the wheels at a loss.
In other cases, online stores and bike shops will advertise the wheels at the same suggested retail prices (MSRP or RRP) due to agreements with the wheel brands. The brands do this to protect the local bike shop from online competition and from their wheels developing the reputation that they are always discounted and not worthy of their retail prices. ENVE, Zipp, Mavic, and HED will do this and enforce it to greater or lesser degrees depending on the market and retailer.
Bike shops can and will offer some customers unadvertised discounts on even these wheels if they want the sale. Some online stores offer exclusive discounts or run special sales that apply to these brands as well.
A few wheelset brands, most notably Zipp and Mavic, “geo-restrict” sales of their wheelsets. This means they only allow stores and shops to sell to customers who live (or at least have shipping addresses) in the geographic region of the store selling their wheels. So, for example, a North American resident can’t buy a Zipp or Mavic wheelset from a UK online store where it is sold at a lower price than from a North American store.
Geo-restricted selling affects a number of brands that sell other cycling gear including, for example, SRAM groupsets, Specialized shoes, and Kask helmets.
Simplicity – While there is some cycling gear that requires sizing or installation that enthusiasts would prefer to shop for at their local bike shop, wheels are about the simplest piece of gear to buy and install yourself. If you can mount tires and install a rear cassette (see here), it really does make sense to order your wheels online. As detailed above, you will have a greater selection and usually a lower price online than you’ll get at a bike shop.
If you are an enthusiast and aren’t totally comfortable installing new wheels yourself, I’ll look the other way and suggest you find a riding buddy who can help you out or take it into the service department of your local bike shop. Service departments of larger bike shops are typically separate profit centers and most won’t turn you away if they see they can make some money even on wheels that weren’t bought there, especially if you bring a six-pack or some sugary treats along with you. (Same goes for your cycling buddy.)
The amount you save buying the wheels online will typically more than cover the financial cost of having someone else install them. Not sure about the cost of the hit to your enthusiasts’ image though.
Support – Regardless of where you buy your wheels, if you bought from an authorized dealer, any other authorized dealer of that brand can handle a warranty claim if something comes up.
Some stores will ask you to return it to them if you bought it there so they can provide you customer service and retain your loyalty. However, the wheels will typically go to one of the same central locations if it requires warranty service or replacement.
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I hope this post helps you choose and buy the best road bike wheels for you. Please let me know what you think of anything I’ve written or ask questions you might have about the post in the comment section below.
With the answers to your reader profile and category links above, you should be able to get to the wheelset reviews and stores that will have the best wheelset for you at the best prices. If you are still uncertain and want me to recommend a couple wheelsets and stores to you, email your rider profile to [email protected] and make a contribution here of 5% of the amount you answered to profile question #13 to support our review and site costs.
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Thanks and enjoy your riding safely!