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They’re a key part of your bike, affecting its performance and your riding enjoyment. But many bikes are sold with sub-par wheels. Here’s why your bike’s wheels may be its weakest link and why a smarter pair might be a smart investment too.
If you’ve bought a bike off the shelf, you’ve probably looked at its frame’s credentials and which groupset it has before deciding to splash your cash. Bike makers usually major on these features in their marketing.
But wheels are often neglected. You’ll find quite smart bikes sold with low profile, non-aero alloy wheels. These wheels are often heavy too, with the extra weight concentrated in the rims, making for extra inertia and blunting acceleration. Rims on older wheel designs are often narrow as well, with internal widths of under 20mm. Look at the retail price of these wheels if bought separately and they’ll often represent less than 10% of the overall value of the bike.
In some ways that’s a sensible decision: it’s a lot easier to upgrade the wheels on your bike than the groupset, or than to buy a new frame. You’ll be less worried too about riding a cheap set of wheels through the winter or in grotty conditions than you would be an expensive wheelset.
But a budget set of wheels may be stopping your bike from feeling its best to ride, deadening its responsiveness and impacting your riding pleasure. A quality wheelset can bring out the best in your steed and up your performance. Here’s why.
Many cheaper wheelsets can be pretty porky. It’s not unusual for a budget set of wheels to weigh close to 2kg, whereas a more premium set will usually weigh closer to 1500g, even with a deep section rim.
A lot of that extra weight tends to be in the cheaper wheel’s rim too. Like a flywheel, more weight in the rims means more inertia, so your wheels will spin up more slowly and often feel less lively than a lighter weight set of hoops.
A modern carbon wheelset will have much lighter rims, even if they’re a lot deeper than alloy ones, leading to faster acceleration and a more snappy feel to your ride. The hub components are likely to be lighter too, also lowering the overall weight.
Most modern wheelsets will be designed to provide the aero benefits that come from a deeper section. As with our Hoopdriver carbon road wheels, 50mm or so tends to be the sweet spot for the rear wheel for an all-rounder aero wheelset, helping it cut through the air more readily, saving watts, and providing the rigidity to let you put the power down.
First generation aero wheels usually had a rim profile with a sharp top edge, which could lead to tricky handling in crosswinds. The aero benefits were greatest when airflow came from straight ahead and dropped off quickly when the wind came from the side.
Modern designs are usually much more bulbous, with a rounded profile that handles crosswinds better and continues to offer aero benefits at greater wind yaw angles. They’re a better match for the conditions you’ll typically find when out on the road, when airflow rarely comes from straight ahead. You’ll find this shape on our own Hoopdriver wheels as well as on the Mavic and Bontrager aero carbon wheels which we also sell.
In our Hoopdriver road wheels, handling is further improved by a lower 38mm deep profile to the front rim, so there’s less susceptibility to crosswinds and better handling while you still get the aero edge.
As our understanding of wheel performance has increased, other microfeatures have been found to improve aerodynamics. It’s all about creating small vortices between the surface of the wheel and the airflow. This leads to smoother airflow over the wheel and less wind resistance overall. You can see this tech in the profile and surface dimples of Zipp’s NSW wheels and it’s something we’ve exploited in our upcoming Tooth and Nail wheelset - look out for further details.
Another feature of upgrade wheels is that they’re often wider than stock wheels that come with a new bike. That also helps to improve aerodynamics, as the tyre forms a less bulbous shape on the rim, with flatter sides. The transition from the tyre to the rim is also smoother, so there’s less turbulence there.
Our Hoopdriver road wheels are 23mm wide externally. The extra width also means that modern, wider road tyres are better supported than on a narrower rim, for more predictable handling. You get more air volume in a tyre too, so that a 25mm tyre comes out closer to 28mm across. That saves weight over a tyre with a wider carcass and gives you a more comfortable, grippier ride than a narrower tyre - it’s a win-win.
Head off-road and wheel width is even more important, as tyres for gravel bikes are typically 40mm or so wide. A wider rim will support the tyre better and make it less likely to squirm over uneven surfaces.
Our Hoopdriver Bump and Grind carbon gravel bike wheels have rims that are 21mm wide internally and 29mm externally for good tyre support. Aerodynamics aren’t so important for gravel bike wheels as speeds are generally lower while crosswind stability is important for more precise handling in iffy weather, so we’ve dropped the rim depth to 28mm. They’re light too, at 1410 grams a pair.
Better bearings and components
It’s not just the carbon rims that will be better on a smarter wheelset. Hubs and their constituents are likely to be higher quality too.
That’s particularly true of bearings, where pricier bearings are likely to be smoother and rounder than lower priced ones due to more extensive machining. They are likely to be made of harder materials too. The ultimate is ceramic bearings, as used in our new Hoopdriver Tooth and Nail wheels. Quality bearings will have less friction, better sealing against the weather and should last longer.
The freewheel mechanism in the rear hub should be better built too. That usually means more points of engagement, so there’s less slack in the system before your effort starts to move the wheel forward. The ratchet is likely to be higher quality, often including three pawls, so again it should be more durable.
Higher spec wheels are likely to use better quality spokes too. They’re often straight pull rather than J-bend, which helps to build up a stiffer wheel and makes the spokes less prone to failure, and they will usually have an aero bladed cross-section to reduce wind resistance. Sapim CX-ray spokes, as used in our wheels, are among the best out there.
Finally, quick release wheels will often come with higher quality skewers, which are less prone to contamination by dirt, provide better leverage when closing the lever and help hold the wheels in place more securely.
Early rim brake carbon wheels had notoriously poor braking, particularly in the wet. That’s improved now, with special treatment of the braking surface on quality wheels to improve its friction. We roughen our brake track, while Mavic uses a laser to ablate the resin and expose the carbon to improve grip. Along with better carbon-specific brake pad formulation, this leads to much more confident braking whatever the weather.
Heat build-up is also an issue that’s been addressed, with more heat-resistant resins used on higher spec wheels. You still need to be careful not to drag your brakes on long descents though, to give the brake tracks time to dissipate heat.
These aren’t problems with disc brake wheels, where the rotor takes care of braking duties. That change also means that the rim shape can be optimised for better aerodynamics, as it doesn’t need to include a brake track or fit in the brake caliper. It can be wider too and built lighter as it isn’t having to deal with the heat and pressure generated by braking, as well as having to hold the tyre in place.
You’ll find tubeless ready rims on wheels at many price points, but with few exceptions they’re more-or-less standard in higher priced wheels. All our wheels are tubeless ready, which allows you to fit a tubeless clincher tyre like the Continental Grand Prix 5000 and, using sealant and a tubeless valve, set them up without an inner tube.
That saves weight and lets you run the tyres at lower pressure. Since you’ve removed the friction between the inner tube and the tyre casing, there’s lower rolling resistance too, while the sealant gives you a measure of protection against punctures.
The power to choose.
At Pearson, we spec our own quality carbon wheelsets on our complete road bikes and gravel bikes - after all, we want you to have the best riding experience you can and, as we’ve shown, a quality pair of wheels is a big part of that.
If you don’t want to splash out on carbon wheels right away - you may have a best set of wheels already or want time to decide what will suit your needs - we offer quality lower priced alloy alternatives from the likes of DCR and Mavic on our complete bikes as an option.
If you’re thinking of upgrading your wheels but aren’t sure what you want, drop us a line or come and talk to us.
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