Choosing the Right Wheels by Roy Cervantes
Without question, wheels are the single biggest way to improve your bike's performance Chosen carefully based on a rider's weight and riding style, a wheel upgrade can instantly make a rider faster, climb better, and be more comfortable. I hate to say that you can buy speed, but over the past few years, I must admit that, when it comes to wheels, you can. I want to talk about three wheel designs we have direct experience with that have made a significant difference in our customers' performance: Aero wheels, tubeless wheels, and wide-rim wheels.
Aero wheels These wheels typically feature carbon or carbon-sheathed aluminum rims with rim depths of 40mm or more. The deeper the rim, the more aerodynamic advantage you have, but the more susceptible you are to strong crosswinds. For cyclocross riders, deep section rims also shed mud better than shallow rims, and the deep section adds vertical strength to the wheel. Riders have consistently seen an increase of 1-2 mph when using aero wheels.Watch out for gusty conditions, however. A stiff breeze can easily knock you off your line if you're not careful.
Pros- deep section rim is vertically stronger, better performance for muddy cyclocross conditions
Cons- slightly heavier, more affected by crosswinds, more expensive
Summary- 1-2mph gain especially on long sustained road efforts, better cyclocross performance, sharp aesthetics
My favorites: Enve 45 and 65 clincher, Shimano RS80-C50, Mavic Cosmic Carbon SL and SR
Tubeless wheels Tubeless wheels were my biggest cycling revelation in 2010. Former National Road and Cross champion Mark McCormack turned me on to Shimano tubeless wheels and they immediately became a best seller in the shop. Tubeless design eliminates the traditional inner tube so you never get oinch flats. By running your tire pressure 15psi less than normal, you gain speed by decreasing the bike's rolling resistance (this sounds counterintuitive- feel free to call or email me about this), increase your cornering traction and confidence, and increase comfort. You get tubular performance without the inconvenience that tubulars inherently have. Finally, if you ever feel the need to go back to a traditional inner tube and tire setup, you can easily do so because the rims can be set up either way.
Pros- eliminates pinch flats, decreases rolling resistance, increases comfort, wheels can be used with or without tubes
Cons- tubeless tire selection is narrow, tubeless tire can be tougher to mount
Summary- closer to a tubular ride, higher performance in climbing and cornering
My favorites- Any Shimano tubeless wheelset, but the Ultegra-level WH6700 at under $700 is a standout. Also, any Fulcrum Racing 2-Way tubeless wheelset
Wheels with wider rims In late 2007, HED introduced a wheelset called the Ardennes C2, which featured wider 23mm (as opposed to 19mm) rims. The wider rims would, in theory, be more aerodynamic (because a 23mm tire would sit flush to the rim sidewall thus smoothing out airflow), and be both faster and more comfortable due to the lower tire pressure (85-95psi vs. 110-120psi) that a rider could use. Increased comfort by using lower tire pressure may be obvious, but what is not as obvious is that the resulting increased tire contact patch and the tire's ability to hug the road leads to greater confidence when cornering and descending, and allows your bike to maintain its speed through rough patches of road.
Today, a number of manufacturers offer wheelsets with wider rims. Zipp, Velocity, and HED all offer such wheels, and we highly recommend trying the wide-rim design, especially if you spend long hours in the saddle.
Pros- Less rolling resistance and better comfort and traction than typical 19mm clincher rim wheels.
Cons- None, really
My favorites- Velocity A23 Comp or Pro, Zipp 101, the HED Ardennes range
Custom built wheels As good as the pre-built wheels that I've just talked about are, one still needs to be careful in choosing wheels for their bike. Just as a bike can behave differently for riders of different weights and riding abilities, so too can a pre-built wheelset. There have been a number of times that a set of wheels has altered the ride characteristics of a bike for better or worse. I have seen many riders turn sluggish bikes into lighter, more responsive machines by choosing the right wheelset. I have also seen bikes shimmy because a lightweight wheelset was not a good match for the rider's weight and riding style.
Sitting down with a client, understanding their needs, and building a custom wheelset can not only result in a significant improvement in their bike's performance, but may actually cost less than a pre-built wheelset. Many times, however, riders get seduced into wanting a sub-1,500g wheelset. Until recently, that 1,500g gram barrier was difficult to achieve with a custom built wheelset.
Ever since Mavic introduced its Helium wheels in the mid-1990's, I have envied the ability for manufacturers to offer extremely lightweight, reasonable strong prebuilt wheels. Manufacturers had the ability to control the design of a wheel's individual components such as the rim, spoke, and hub in order to achieve maximum strength with minimum weight. However, this resulted in wheels whose individual components (rim, spokes, and hub) only worked as a system; you couldn't just walk into a shop and expect the individual parts to be in stock.
Today, most wheel systems require very specific rims, spokes, and hubs, as well as specialized tools and service knowledge. As someone who loves to build wheels, I longed for the days when handbuilt wheels were the norm and wheel components were reasonably standard, so when someone came in with a broken spoke, I could typically repair the wheel on the spot.
Spoke threads are prepped before assembly
Spoke tension is checked for maximum wheel strength
Even today, I know I could build a stronger, more serviceable wheelset than most pre-built wheel systems. Unfortunately with strength and serviceability comes additional weight. I consider 1,500 grams to be a good target for a wheelset that will be used for everyday riding and amateur racing. A wheelset built in the classic style with 32-hole rims typically weighs about 1900 grams or more. The weight difference equals almost a pound of rotating weight that affects climbing and acceleration. If I could find individual wheel components that allow me to build a wheelset weighing 1,500 grams or less, yet have the strength for a 225lb rider, and be very serviceable, I wouldn't hesitate in offering it as the best option for all-around riding.
Well, I've built a set. Here are the individual components:
Hubs: DT Swiss 240S, 20-hole front, 24-hole rear
Spokes: DT Swiss Aerolite bladed with alloy spoke nipples
Rims: Velocity A23
Build details: Radial lacing in the front, 2-cross lacing in the rear
Pros- excellent strength to weight performance, very serviceable, closer to tubular ride, relatively inxpensive
Summary- Best balance of performance, light weight, and serviceability, while still being reasonably priced.
The ultimate beauty of custom wheels is that I can select the individual wheel components and tailor the build to account for a rider's specific weight and riding style. By doing this, we deliver not only performance, but value and peace of mind as well. After all, when the bike disappears under you, and all you need to focus on is enjoying your ride, that's what it's all about.