There are a lot of things that you can do to improve your bike, but if you want the single biggest upgrade, then a new pair of wheels is the way to go. The problem is that there are such a vast array of different models on the market, it can be difficult to know what to look for, and if you’re getting the best deal for your money.
Thankfully we’re here to help, so here’s a quick seven-point checklist of things that all the latest wheels should have, making sure that you get the best performance improvement for your buck.
1. Wide rims
One of the most important things to look for when buying a new pair of wheels is the width of the rim, and with the current trend being towards wider and wider rims, you should really be looking for a pair of wheels with an internal width of at least 17mm.
There are two main benefits that come with a wider rim. First off, you will get a more comfortable ride. This is because a wider rim (when combined with a wider tyre) will allow you to put a greater volume of air into the tyre at any given pressure, increasing the amount of cushioning you get when riding over rough roads.
Secondly, wider rims should be more aerodynamic too. Most riders have now switched from 23mm to 25mm tyres (and a few even as far as 28mm), but if you mount these tyres on narrow rims, they will bulge outwards. A wider rim will let the sidewall of a wider tyre to sit flush against it, creating smoother airflow.
Zipp 404 Firecrest clincher wheels
Vision TriMax 30 wheels
2. Tubeless-ready rim
While tubeless tyres have been used in mountain biking for age, us roadies have been a little slower on the uptake. It’s only been in the last couple of years that the more adventurous among us have begun to realise the benefit of a system that slashes the odds of having to spend time shivering at the roadside trying to fix a puncture.
Now you can convert non tubeless-ready wheels to run tubeless tyres, but the better solution is to buy wheels that are made to run with tubeless. These might cost a little more than wheels with a normal rim, but even if you’re still going to use normal clinchers and are not going to switch the tubeless immediately, it makes sense to make the investment.
Campagnolo Zonda wheels
Shimano RS610 wheels
3. Aero spokes
Go back a few years and it was only deep section aero wheels that came with aero spokes, but now the vast majority of wheels on the market now come with aero spokes. Of course, one of the reasons for this is that they cost the same as round spokes, so offer a little bit of “free speed” thanks to the aerodynamic gains, especially when riding in a straight line.
But there are other benefits too. Aero spokes are also used in mountain biking (where aerodynamic are not a factor) because they are just as strong if not stronger than standard round spokes, while they are also stiffer under acceleration and braking.
Shimano RS11 wheels
Fulcrum Racing Quattro LG wheels
4. Thru-axle compatibility
If you’re buying a pair of disc brake wheels, then it’s worth paying particular attention to the axles. Wheel and frame manufacturers are yet to settle on a single axle standard for road bike disc brake wheels and bikes, with some still sticking with quick release, while others chose from one of a number of different thru-axle standards.
The first thing to do when buying a pair of disc brake wheels is to check that they will take the same axles as your bike. Once that’s done it’s really important to check that the wheels come with adaptors that allow them to be used with a number of different axles, as sod’s law says that as soon as you decide on your axle standard, the industry will settle on something else.
Zipp 303 Clincher Disc wheels
Mavic Ksyrium Pro Disc Allroad wheels
5. Best braking surface
The temptation when buying a new pair of wheels is to desperately try and stretch your budget to get a pair of full carbon wheels complete with a carbon braking surface. However, while this might get you a ‘sexier’ pair of wheels, it’s not necessarily the best option for all types of riding, and a better pair of wheels with an aluminium braking surface might be a smarter move.
There are two main reasons for sticking with aluminium rather than carbon. First off if you’re going to be taking your new wheels abroad to the mountains then you will be tackling some long technical descents. However, if you’re a nervous descender and prone to dragging the brakes, then the build up in heat has the potential to cause delamination of the braking surface.
The other reason is that aluminium braking surfaces offer better braking, particularly in the wet. For those of us in ol’ Blighty, that can be a big issue when buying a new pair of wheels, and if you’re going to be tackling steep descents in wet conditions, then an aluminium rim is probably the safer option.
3T Accelero 40 Team wheels
Campagnolo Bullet Ultra wheels
6. Rider weight limit
Let’s face it, we’re not all Chris Froome, with a beach body that makes us look like we haven’t seen a square meal in months. If you’re at the other end of the spectrum, then it’s important to look for a pair of wheels with a rider weight limit that will make sure you’re safe when out riding.
The easiest way to spot wheels that are designed for heavier riders is to look and see if the manufacturer has given a maximum weight limit for the wheels (normally around 100kg). Unfortunately, not all do this, so as a rule of thumb look out for wheels with a higher spoke count, and make sure you check with the manufacturer or retailer when buying the wheels to make sure that they are safe for you to ride.
Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels
Kinesis Racelight Disc wheels
If you’ve blown all your money on a new set of wheels, you might want to save money further down the line by making sure they are a pair that you are able to service yourself, rather than having to take them down to your local bike shop for maintenance.
There are two main things to look for if you’re set on servicing your wheels yourself. First off, try and go for wheels with external spoke nipples which will enable you to true your wheels without having to remove the tyre, inner tube and rim tape. Also try and find wheels with cartridge bearings rather than cup and cone bearings, which are much easier to service and replace.
Easton EA90 SL wheels
Fulcrum Racing Zero Carbon wheels