By Paul Norman
This article is part of Cycling Weekly's Love Winter week, guiding you through setting up your bike and yourself for riding through the winter months. There's plenty to enjoy about riding in winter, and we'll show you how to get the most out of it. For more Love Winter articles, click here.
Top of most people’s upgrade list when they buy a bike is a new set of wheels. Whether deep section aero or super-light they can dramatically improve your ride experience over the budget wheels that often come even with expensive machines.
So why wouldn’t you want to keep riding your new wheels, even now that winter is on its way?
Well, the main problem with riding your flashy wheels in the winter is the extra water on the roads, often coupled to dirt and salt. That’s a combination that can wreak havoc with delicate bearings, finding its way into even the best protected hubs and increasing wear. And more expensive wheels will usually have bearings that are pricier to replace and maybe less well protected from the elements too.
The freehub is also likely to need more maintenance in winter to keep it running smoothly. Again, dirt and water can find their way into the delicate mechanism, which may need to be cleaned and re-lubed.
It’s not just the internals of the hubs that can take a hit from damp and muck. They’re going to work their way into the spoke anchors and between the hubs and cassette too. Those are areas that are tricky to get to and keep clean.
More expensive wheels will often have spokes with alloy nipples to save weight. They’re more durable nowadays than they used to be, but they are still susceptible to the corrosive effects of salt and can either freeze to the spokes or crack. That makes wheel truing impossible and can mean that you need an expensive rebuild.
Brass nipples are a little heavier, but they aren’t prone to corrosion, so they’ll cope with a dose of damp and salt better.
Nipples on deep section wheels may be hidden in the rims too. Ride in wet conditions and they may stay damp for a prolonged period, meaning that there’s more time for corrosion to set in. It’s also harder to keep rims with recessed nipples clean as there’s a gap where the spoke enters the rim, which can attract dirt.
If your bike has rim brakes, there will be a lot more wear on the brake surface on the rims in winter. Grit can get lodged in brake pads, grinding down the brake tracks, particularly on more delicate carbon rims.
All that means that more expensive wheels may need more maintenance than a budget pair, wear more quickly and parts will be more expensive too. If you do need to replace your wheels, that’s going to be a lot cheaper if you’ve worn out a budget set of winter hoops and kept your best wheels for summer use.
Buy wheels that can cope with the conditions
If you’re only going to buy one set of wheels, it’s worth looking for one that will handle adverse conditions. That’s the advice of Ollie Gray from Hunt Bike Wheels. Gray points out that the performance of Hunt’s 4Seasons range is close to that of its lightweight race wheelsets.
But the 4Seasons wheels incorporate features like double sealed bearings with hub shells designed to deflect water away from their internals and use brass nipples. They’re still light though and include an easy-to-maintain free hub so that owners can service them themselves.
Don’t just change your wheels
With a swap to winter wheels, it’s a good idea to change to beefier tyres too. Winter roads are notorious for having more debris washed onto them. Along with damp that helps grit to stick to your tyres, that increases the risk of punctures.
Four season tyres will typically have a heavier build than summer tyres to add extra puncture protection. They may use more grippy tyre rubber and often have a more pronounced tread to up grip on wet roads.
If your winter wheels and tyres are tubeless ready, it’s worth setting them up tubeless so that you get added puncture protection from the sealant, lowering your risk of a stop by a cold roadside to fix a flat. You can lower your air pressure to up ride comfort on long rides too.
Wet conditions and dirty roads will play havoc with your drivetrain too, as it will pick up extra road gunk, increasing wear. So winter is a good time to switch to a cheaper cassette made of more robust steel rather than expensive alloy or titanium.
Cassettes and chains wear out quite quickly and need replacing regularly, so if yours are reaching the end of their lifespan, it might be worth keeping them going for the winter and replacing them once better conditions arrive next spring.
If you’re using rim brakes and you’re switching from carbon to alloy rims, don’t forget to swap your brake pads to alloy-specific pads too.
Swapping wheels for the conditions is a move that even pro riders make - and they’re not paying for their equipment. They’ll typically train on clincher wheels, only swapping to pricey tubular wheels with their expensive, difficult-to-maintain tyres for races.
Once the weather does improve and it’s time to swap back to your best wheelset, you’ll immediately feel the difference and enjoy their added performance. You’ll probably go a bit faster too.
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