BICYCLE WHEELS – BUYERS GUIDE

Shaun George BOTS Guides

Wheels are one of the most important components on your bike, after the bike frame itself. Wheels, for that very reason, are also one of the most value for money upgrades you can make to your bike. Besides the need for an upgrade, all bicycle wheels reach a point in their life where they need to be replaced. Replacement mileage will vary from thousands of kilometers to even lakhs or more, depending on your road or trail conditions, your weight, how much overall weight your bike is carrying, how aggressively you ride, and, most importantly, how much braking you do (rim brake wheels).

WHY ARE GOOD WHEELS IMPORTANT?

A good set of wheels can bring out the best in your bike. Upgrading to a higher-quality wheelset usually means lighter wheels with lower rotational weight, improved acceleration and an overall speed advantage.

Certain different disciplines of riding such as off-road usage will require tough and burly wheels that can take plenty of punishment and still roll true.

A good wheel is subjective in nature. To put it comply, a good wheel is one that meets the needs and expectations of the particular rider. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. What you have to take into account for each wheel is your budget, body weight, and type of usage.

The ideal wheelset for you should offer the correct balance of lightweight, strength, and durability for your preferred riding discipline, at a price that suits your pocket.

CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD BICYCLE WHEEL

1. STIFFNESS

A bicycle wheel is made to be complaint, as well as stiff enough to provide efficient power transfer. Let’s not confuse a wheels ability to be compliant and provide comfort. A wheel is not designed with comfort in mind as a primary objective.

You must look to the frame, saddle, seat post, biking shorts, etc., for comfort and not the wheels. The wheels are not shock absorbers and still be maximally strong at the same time.  Any overly springy feeling in the wheels can only come from spoke tension that is too low to provide efficient power transfer and a strong, durable wheel. 

The stiffness provided by your wheel is determined by a few things. First and foremost, the number of spokes, their thickness, and the width and construction of the rim. More spokes and thicker spokes make a wheel stiffer both laterally and radially. When it comes to rims, rim depth has a greater impact on radial stiffness, and rim width has a greater impact on lateral stiffness.

You want to look out for relatively stiff wheels as they offer good performance gains and are usually very durable.

2. DURABILITY

Bicycle wheel durability depends on a bunch of factors including:

  • Spoke count
  • Rim material
  • Spoke tension
  • Lacing pattern
  • Hub flanges

The strength of a wheel comes mostly from the spokes, and secondly from the rim. To have a strong, durable wheel, the quality of the wheel building is far more important than the quality of the parts.

You must set your priorities when it comes to the intended usage of the wheels. Here in India, our roads aren’t in the best of shape, meaning that we need wheels that are fairly strong while still being lightweight for performance.

On performance road wheels, you will usually see a spoke count of between 16-32 in front and 18-34 at the rear. The fewer the spokes, the lighter the wheel – not necessarily weaker.

The greater the number of spokes, the heavier and stronger the wheel. Wheel building technology has come a long way so don’t assume that lightweight performance wheels are “weak”. It’s just that a greater spoke count usually means a stiffer wheel. Most touring bikes and mountain bikes have wheels with around 25-35 spokes front and rear.

3. AERODYNAMICS

Aerodynamic features are of significant advantage and prominence primarily in the world of road biking. Some Cross-Country MTB wheels have aero features like bladed spokes but it’s not of as much significance.

Most people feel that aerodynamic wheels are only for racers or for really fast riders. The truth is that even at speeds as low as 30Kph, minimizing wind resistance starts to pay big dividends. So, for all types of road riding, from cruising to criteriums to century rides, upgrading to more aerodynamic wheels perfect makes sense.

Aero wheels come in all shapes and sizes. For maximum aerodynamics, TT/Triathlon/Track cyclists usually use deep-section or wheels. But remember, to make a wheel more aerodynamic, a wheel must have greater rim depth, and therefore more surface area – aero wheels tend to be heavier for this very reason.

4.WEIGHT

Weight is another major factor that road cyclists find especially important. Lighter wheels pay off especially when you are climbing.

Lighter wheels lower your overall bike weight, meaning you expend less energy to move. A 200-500 gram savings over your current wheels can provide a noticeable performance boost.

Weight placement on the wheel can also affect the performance of the wheel. Wheels with a greater percentage of their weight at the rim are harder to get moving. On the other hand, wheels with less of their weight at the rim and more of their weight at the hub, will feel more responsive. Reducing the mass of the wheels – especially the rims and tires – can save a lot more energy than removing considerably more mass from the bicycle or rider.

5. AFFORDABILITY

You get what you pay for. As with most things, the more you pay, the more value you get. The more expensive wheels are going to be sturdier, lighter and better performing for sure. But what are the main differences between a cheaper wheel and a more expensive wheel?

  • Brand name – More often than not, you’re paying for the branding and manufacturing processes. Brands like Zipp, Roval, Mavic, etc are premium brands that often have a premium price tag attached to their products.
  • Materials – Bearing/axle quality and rim material in particular.
  • Technology – Double-butted spokes to save weight, rim construction, etc.
  • Manufacturing process – Cheaper wheels are usually machine-made.

Cheaper wheels are mass produced from softer materials with heavy spokes and axles and relatively soft bearings. They usually aren’t very strong so they buckle out of shape when you hit obstacles such as potholes.

Expensive wheels, on the other hand, are produced by hand using tougher materials that have been specially machined for the purpose, weight is trimmed from all components, bearings are hardened and usually sealed against dirt and water better than cheaper wheels. This produces strong wheels that are much more durable and long-lasting. The weight savings go a long way to making your rides faster.

BICYCLE WHEEL ANATOMY

1. RIMS

Rims are the skeleton of a wheel. In addition to the important function of holding the tire onto the wheel, the rim also serves as the anchor for spoke heads, or nipples. Rims can be made of various materials such as steel (coated to prevent rust), aluminum, or carbon fiber.

The ideal rim is strong where it’s needed yet flexible enough to absorb impacts; light to improve speed; aerodynamic if you race; reliable, and durable. Rims must also be able to hold the tire on securely and provide a braking surface for the brake pads (unless disc brakes are used).

The most common type of rim is a “clincher“. Tubulars and tubeless rims are also popular in the world of road cycling.

Read more about the different kinds of road rim and tire types by reading our post on HOW TO CHOOSE ROAD BIKE TIRES – BUYERS GUIDE

2. SPOKES AND NIPPLES

Spokes are the metal wires that you see connecting the rim to the hub. They can be made of various materials such as stainless steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber. They can also be of different designs. Spokes must always be under a specific tension in order to maintain the proper wheel shape, both laterally and radially. The tension is controlled at the nipple, the part that attaches the spoke onto the rim. Nipples are the parts that connect the spoke onto the rim. They are the part that will control spoke tension and require a spoke tool to be tightened/loosened.

Spokes are usually “laced” in a fashion so they cross each other near the hub, which provides strength. The cross can be quadruple, triple, double, or even non-existent (usually on the front wheel). The more crosses, the stronger. However, more crosses mean the spokes will be longer which will increase the wheel weight.

The number of spokes on a wheel can vary, with a traditional wheel having 34-36 spokes. Some modern wheels can have as few as 14-16 spokes.

3. HUBS

Hubs are another super important of the wheel as a whole. Hubs attach to the fork or the frame and hold the spokes. It consists of an axle, bearings, and the flange. A good quality hub, besides being lighter, will have good internal components such as high-quality bearings that reduce friction. The hubs must also be well guarded against the elements.

Good hubs are determined by the quality of their bearings. Bearings in the hubs are primarily of two types: Cup & cone system and the sealed/cartridge bearing type. Cup & cone bearings are serviceable and cartridge bearings are not. The cups & cones which hold the bearings in place should occasionally be taken apart to check for wear and damage. The biggest enemies of these bearings are over-tightening and dirt. Proper greasing is vital to avoiding to maintaining the integrity of the bearing.

HUB TYPES

FREEWHEEL- This type of hub is found primarily on older 6 or 7-speed bikes, this type of hub is compatible with a freewheel cluster, a set of rear cogs that attaches by way of simple threads. This style of hub will accept any type of threaded freewheel cluster.

FREEHUB – The freehub is found on most bicycles these days. It has a spline that precisely fits into the center of your rear cassette. The cassette typically has a lock ring to secure it to the freehub.

AXLES

The axle is considered a component of the hub. It holds the hub along with the wheel to the bike frame.

The axle mechanism is usually a “quick release” system, allowing quick removal of the wheel. Some bikes, such as single-gear or stunt bikes, have a bolt, which makes them more secure. There are different sizes of axles so make note of yours if you’re considering replacing them.

There’s a kind of newly emerging axle type called the thru-axle. The thru-axle is essentially a thicker axle that is stronger and stiffer than traditional axles. You will usually see these axles on heavy-duty mountain bikes. They’re a lot harder to break than a 9mm traditional axle. The stiffness also helps the bike handle better.

Axle diameter: If you have a thru axle, you’ll need to know the axle diameter. Common examples include 12mm (road front, and mountain rear), 15mm (road front, and mountain front).

Axle length: Whether you have quick-release skewers or thru-axles, you need to know the internal distance within the frame where the wheel mounts. Common examples include 100 or 110mm at the front and 130, 135, or 142 at the rear. Some wheels include adapters to fit a variety of axle lengths.

CONSIDER UPGRADING YOUR WHEELS

WEIGHT – A lighter wheelset can significantly alter your climbing- and acceleration performance. Getting yourself a lighter set of wheels can really help your time up a climb, and make it feel just that little bit better.

AERODYNAMICS – Chances are, your stock bike wheels are neither light nor aero. A set of deep-section wheels can make all the difference. They will make a noticeable difference in a time trial, criterium, or even in the pursuit of your next KOM on your local training ride.

HUBS – Better wheels often come with better hubs. These hubs are lighter, stiffer, and often feature better bearings. This means the wheels spin more freely, and you lose less power. The seals on these hubs are also often better, meaning your smoother bearings will last longer and require less maintenance as well. Cartridge bearings are the way to go.

WHEN DO I REPLACE MY WHEELS?

There are multiple reasons as to why you may want to replace your wheels:

  • Impact damage is the most common reason. This can range from a tacoed rim, to flat spots or flare impacts. These are usually very visible and can drastically affect performance.
  • Spoke fatigue is another common issue. As a wheel is ridden, the constant tension and release of stress on the spokes will fatigue the metal until it breaks. You usually see breaks of several spokes in a short period of time. More than 3 spokes broken should be a cause for concern.
  • Brake wear is caused by the use of a rim style brake over extended periods of time. You literally wear away enough of the metal on the sidewall of the rim that it becomes too thin to support the pressure of an inflated tire. This is rare, because a rim usually perishes from damage first, but it is dangerous, and should be replaced. There are indicator marks on newer rims to tell you this is happening.

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