Buyers' Guide To Bicycle Wheelsets
At Lakeside Bicycles we spend a lot of time obsessing about your bicycle's wheels. When they're old or heavy, or beat-up and knocked out of true, you wobble along and can hardly enjoy riding. Meanwhile, nicely engineered hoops, built light and strong, let you soar over the road and trail with speed, precision, comfort, and grace.
Four Reasons Why Wheels Matter So Much
With their impossibly thin spokes, light and often skinny rims, and minimal hubs, bicycle wheels appear spider-web delicate. In fact they are marvels of engineering, remarkably strong and exceptionally well suited to cycling. Here is why they are so important.
1. Ride quality. Because wheels are a bike's contact point with the ground, they have a lot to do with how the ride feels. A burly wheel made to withstand the rigors of downhilling resists flex more than one made for cross country, so the former will feel stiff, while the XC will be more supple. Likewise, tall-section triangular, aero triathlon and time trialing wheels slice through the wind but can't compete with the svelter all-around road rims for compliance and comfort.
2. Ease of pedaling. Wheels are constantly spinning, and most of the time it's your pedaling that's keeping them turning. Because of inertia, the more weight there is at the outside of the wheels (the rims, tubes and tires), the more effort it takes to get your wheels turning. Think about if you had car wheels and tires on your bike instead of bicycle ones and you can see how heavy means less efficiency and more effort to keep your machine going. This is especially noticeable when you're accelerating and climbing; not as much when you're riding the flats at a steady pace.
3. Reliability. As we pointed out in our earlier, the wheels are what's between you and the ground. They must support your weight and keep rolling no matter what you ride over or through. In the case of rim brakes, they need to stay true and round so your brakes work safely. Poor quality wheels won't do these things well or for long. Quality models will roll true and strong for years. When properly engineered and manufactured even the lightest wheels are abundantly strong to support you at near orbital speeds safely. That is why it always pays to buy wheels built by reputable, experienced manufacturers (the only kind we stock).
4. Functionality. As the hardest-working parts on your bike (next to your legs), your wheels also need to match your riding style. You may buy a nice bike to ride around on and then decide to mount racks and bags to haul heavy groceries or tools. Pretty quickly you can ask more of your stock wheels than they were built to handle. Or, maybe you want to turn your bike into a fixie and won't be happy until your rims are the right color (we know, but you might)? With today's wide range of purpose-built wheels, satisfying these needs (and more), with new wheels is easy.
Once you've decided it's time for a wheel upgrade, how do you know what will be best? It's actually pretty straightforward. You already know what bike they're for, so simply check the label on the tire to find the size. Write that down. That's the tire size but also the wheel size and it's the starting point for getting the right wheels (or you could just ride by Lakeside and we'll take a look and tell you).
Next think about what you want these new wheels to do for you. Maybe you're replacing old, bent wheels and looking for a set that'll hold up better to the way you ride. You could be looking for an easier, faster ride from lighter wheels. Or, it could be a second set of "event" wheels to give you an advantage on certain types of courses, or race wheels to replace your heavier, slower training wheels on the big day. If you can tell us what you're looking for in wheels we can point you toward a perfect pair.
Options And Tips On Deciding
Following are some of the common features found on today's road, tri and mountain wheels, and some guidelines to help you determine what's best for you, your bicycle and your riding.
Obviously, there are wheels for the dirt and different wheels for the road so that's one starting point. If you're looking at off-road wheels you decide, based on your bike, whether they're disc-brake specific or ready for rim brakes. The difference is that wheels for discs have hubs that accept the rotors (what the disc brakes grab), and often have rims without a true braking surface, which saves weight at the rim.
Rim-brake wheels usually don't have any provision for attaching rotors and feature rim sides made to withstand the wear and tear of rim brakes. If you need wheels to use on two bikes, one with discs, one with rim brakes, you can find those too. They'll have a rim made for braking and a hub setup to accept rotors.
When it comes to wheels for the road, there are all-around models made to deliver excellent ride quality and durability that work great for upgrading an old pair. There are also models designed to give you some free speed according to how you use them. For example there are climbing wheels that are built lighter for easier ascending, aero wheels practically invisible to the wind and all-around road wheels that combine lightness, aerodynamics and a compliant ride. One of the best things about riding a bike today (as opposed to 20 years ago) is the fact that every part of almost every modern wheel is stronger than it needs to be, making modern bicycle wheels safer, stronger, lighter and smoother rolling than ever before.
Tube or Tubeless
Another choice is whether to get dedicated "tubeless" wheels or standard models. Tubeless means that the rim is made to provide an airtight seal for use with tubeless tires. This is important since you run tubeless tires without inner tubes, which allows running lower pressures for more traction and control. It is also our impression at Lakeside Bicycles that Tubeless wheels and tires are showing signs of offering unmatched comfort, and that includes tubular wheels.
It's possible with a conversion kit to install tubeless tires on standard wheels, however, getting the dedicated wheels made for tubeless means easier tire installation and no need for the special conversion rim strips. So, if you enjoy riding tubeless on the pavement or dirt, you should consider upgrading to tubeless wheels which will accept standard tires with tubes too.
or Tubular Wheels
If you race the road you might want to consider "tubular" wheels, which are the lightest available and most unusual. They require special tires called "tubulars" or "sew-ups" (because the tire is actually sewn together around the tube). These tires have truly round profiles and they are installed by gluing them to the rim. Proponents of this design love the quickness and suppleness of these featherweight, round-profile tires and don't mind the more difficult mounting procedure.
The shape of the rim has a lot to do with how the wheel rides. The stiffer the rim the more you feel the road and trail. And, the more triangulated and deep (tall) a rim is, the more rigid the ride. Most of the time, on smooth surfaces you'll notice stiffness less than on rougher ones. And, stiffness is a good thing for racing and hammering because more of your power makes it to the road.
If you're looking for slippery wheels for an advantage racing triathlons or time trials, or even for getting maximum rest sitting in the pack at your road races and then sprinting faster for the line, look at wheels with deep-section rims, which can be as tall as 90mm or more. For lighter weight and better handling in crosswinds, check out wheels with smaller profiles like 28mm.
Besides how deep the rim is, the width makes a difference too. Wider rims (about 23mm) tend to offer a nicer ride and more durability since they spread the tire sides allowing more air and flotation. Meanwhile, narrower (usually 19mm) means more aero advantages and lighter weight.
While you can still find bicycles with steel (or even, heaven help us, wood) wheels, they're pretty much not used on nice bicycles anymore due to their weight and even more important, how poorly they brake (and rust) when it rains, Instead most wheels today feature light and durable aluminum rims. At the high end are carbon rims. Carbon can be molded into many shapes, can save weight, and is a nice match for full-carbon bicycles. There are numerous competent carbon fibre tubular rims, clincher rims are another matter and require the next level of engineering expertise: be very careful in selecting carbon clincher rims. All carbon rims with carbon braking surfaces require carbon-compatible brake pads, which we can supply.
This is the number of spokes used in the wheels. Modern wheelsets typically use the minimum number required to suit the wheel design, more for heavier uses, less when the wheels aren't pushed so hard. Good news: spokes have improved right along with every other part of the wheel allwoing ever reducing spoke counts on ever more reliable wheels.
We can discuss what's right for you in person, as learning more about you and how you ride tells us a lot. You can start by thinking about how much you weigh, the condition of the surfaces you ride on and how you ride, such as long hard miles, weekend fun riding, racing, etc. In general bigger riders who ride a lot should use more spokes and lighter cyclists on smoother surfaces can get by with fewer.
Wheels spin on the hubs, which are the component at the center of the wheel where the spokes originate. They have bearings and axles inside, and on the drivetrain side either threads for cogs or a "freehub," that the cluster of gears (called the "cassette") mounts on. Cassettes are sold separately.
All our wheels come with quality hubs that are built to last, easy to service and super smooth. As you move up in wheel quality and price, the hubs get lighter with better alloys, or carbon, and more advanced, with superior bearings, axle parts and seals. Since the cassette drives the wheels, the freehub often improves too.
Come Check Out Some Wheels In Person
We are obsessive about wheels. They are almost as important as your frame in determining the quality of your riding experience. We hope these basic tips take some of the mystery out of wheel shopping. Be sure to swing by to see our wide selection of wheels and learn more about them. And don't hesitate to ask if you have any questions. In our experience upgrading your wheels is second only to getting a new bicycle so we're always happy to help. Thanks for reading!