Our complete guide to what to look for when buying your new wheels
If there’s one upgrade that will help to take your bike to the next level, it is a new pair of wheels. Some new hoops can completely transform your bike, shedding weight to help in the hills or improving aerodynamics so you can power along on the flat, hoovering up KOMs without breaking a sweat.
We’ll start this guide with our immediate product recommendations, split into three different price groups. Firstly there will be sub-£550 wheels, then £550-1000 before the best £1000+ wheels. There’s a lot to think about when buying a new pair of wheels, so further down the page you’ll find a detailed guide to help you make the right choice.
This guide only features rim brake wheels, we’ll be creating a best disc brake wheel guide very soon, we’ll update this piece when that’s finished.
With each product is a ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Best Deal’ link. If you click on this then we may receive a small amount of money from the retailer when you purchase the item. This doesn’t affect the amount you pay.
The best road bike wheels under £550
Mavic Ksyrium Elite UST £529
Read more: Mavic Ksyrium ELite UST review
For any bike costing £2000 or below, a pair of the Mavic Ksyrium Elite UST wheels will be a huge step up in performance. The UST stands for Universal System Tubeless, and the Ksyriums are now tubeless ready at the point of purchase. That means a wider rim that better suits 25mm tyres, with no more mushrooming of the tyre on the rim.
The wheel comes with high quality QRM+ bearings, which are the same as those found in the more expensive Mavic Cosmic wheels. The wheels are also bombproof and stiff and have survived being clattered into potholes and up curbs.
Cero AR30 EVO wheels £499 10/10
Read more: Cero AR30 wheels review
You can tell that these Cero AR30 wheels are built with considerable thought, and that’s what makes them standout from the competition. You get class-leading Sapim CX Ray straight-pull spokes, an anti-bite guard on the hub to stop the cassette digging into the body and wide internal rim widths.
This means the tyre sits wide on the rim, and we found that 25mm tyres look more like 28s. This gives an aerodynamic advantage as well as bolstering comfort. They’ll definitely bring any stock bike to life.
Hunt Race Season Aero Wide tubeless ready wheels £369 10/10
Read more: Hunt Race Season Aero Wide wheels review
Being tubeless ready, strong, light and stiff we honestly thought that the Hunt Race Season Aero Wide wheels were too good to be true – but thankfully we were wrong! Out the box, these wheels are ready to ride because Hunt provides them tubeless ready, and once set up the rims give a perfect seal.
This is because internally, the rims are 19mm wide and work well with both narrow 23mm tyres and wide 25s. A reasonable weight of 1570g, an aerodynamic rim and a killer price tag make these wheels a must have.
The best road bike wheels £500-1000
Fulcrum racing zero wheels £849.99 9/10
Read more: Fulcrum Racing Zero wheels review
They’re not the lightest wheels available, but for the price they’re excellent all-rounders and tubeless ready. We threw these on a Pinarello Dogma F10, a bike known for showing up flexy wheels and they held their own. Partner this stiffness with decent rolling speed and these upgrade wheels would be very good for budding racers.
Prime RP-50 Tubular wheelset £844.99
Read more: Prime RP-50 tubular wheelset review
With these being tubs (something we see less and less of nowadays) we thought we’d give them to a young British racer to try out in the rough and tumble of junior racing – and they held their own nicely.
Speed and stiffness are all present and correct, while they also proved very tough, completing Paris-Roubaix and surviving a crash that actually broke the racer’s collarbone!
Cero RC45 Evo carbon clincher £999
Read more: Cero RC45 Evo carbon clincher review
Lightweight, stiff and robust, Cero has managed to create a superb set of carbon wheels. Their 45mm depth gives them a great rollover speed, especially off the bottom of descents or when turning along the flat and they really hold their speed.
They’re a touch lacklustre at low speeds, but fortunately a light weight 1475g means they aren’t a chore on the hills.
The best road bike wheels £1000+
Zipp 302 carbon clincher £1299
Read more: Zipp 302 carbon clincher review
Zipp’s first foray into this competitive price point has been a complete success. It’s clear that the Zipp 302s have retained all of Zipp’s extensive knowledge and experience, just in a stripped back form.
But meeting this price point has done nothing to dampen the performance of the wheels and these clinchers are devastatingly fast, holding their speed like a deep aero wheel.
Zipp 454 NSW carbon clincher £3,417
Read more: Zipp 454 NSW carbon clincher review
With their sawtooth profiles and humpback wale led designs the Zipp 454 NSW has been coveted and joked about in equal measure. But when testing them we quickly realised that these wheels are no joke, they roll exceptionally well and climb better than their almost 58mm depth would suggest.
In all honestly, we found them to be the perfect do-it-all wheelset and the probably the pinnacle of deep section wheels at the moment.
Deda Elementi SL38C wheelset £1,319
Read more: Deda Elementi SL38C wheelset review
These sit at the top of Deda’s wheel tree, and they offer premium performance. They’re wide and robust, even robust enough to be ridden off road. The extra width allows you to run wider tyres at lowers pressures which helps deflect some of the discomfort from the rough road surface. These are also tubeless ready, but the conversion kit must be bought separately.
They are more expensive than other carbon options of the same stature, but we were able to forgive them because of their versatility and excellent rolling speed.
Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL UST £1,579
Read more: Mavic Cosmic Pro carbon SL UST
It’s rare that we test a pair of wheels that we feel have genuinely changed the game, but with these we’re confident in saying that. Mavic updated the wheels to be tubeless ready and improved the braking. The result is one of the fastest and best braking deep section wheels on the market.
Choosing the right road bike wheels for you
The thing is, if you want a wheel that is light and aerodynamic while also being stiff to cope with the power you put out when sprinting and hardy enough to stay straight and true when faced with rough roads, you’re going to notice a sizeable dent in your bank account. So before buying, it’s important to know exactly what you want from your wheelset.
If you know you live somewhere with terrible roads, or choppy terrain then you’ll probably put a great emphasis on robustness, and having a set of wheels that will stand the test of time. Typically, “bombproof” wheels are shallow, with a box design and an aluminium rim. That doesn’t mean they’re slow though, and we’ve been very impressed with box aluminium rims from the likes of Hunt, Mavic and DT Swiss. Similarly, though, that’s not to suggest carbon isn’t strong, and many pros run carbon wheels at the toughest cobbled classics, but it can offer a harsh ride on rough ground.
If you’ve just bought yourself a snazzy new aero bike, then you’ll probably want a wheelset with an aerodynamic edge. These are wheels that have extra material extending down from the rim, which helps the rim cut through the wind. They can give a real advantage if you’re racing, or if you want to improve your average speed on your rides. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that to get the most aerodynamic benefits you need to be consistently travelling above 32kph. Of course, if you want a deep section wheel with a carbon build you’re going to be spending a fair whack. You can get cheaper, aluminium builds but these tend to be a bit heavier.
Watch: How much faster are aero wheels?
The lightest wheels are reserved for those who do a lot of climbing, or live somewhere very hilly. The weight reduction is possible because of carbon fibre builds, and other neat features like lightweight spokes, carbon fibre hubs and the general removing of any excess material – and for that reason they tend to have a shallower rim. As you might expect, you’ll need deep pockets to buy these lightweight hoops.
These categories are a general guide to the types of wheels, but fortunately for us cyclists most wheels are spread across the three types, and in general it is possible to get a very good set of do-it-all wheels.
Different types of road bike wheels
Clincher road bike wheels
Your bike probably came complete with clincher wheels and this is for good reason. Clinchers are the most common type of bike wheel currently available and are defined by the type of tyre they use.
Clinchers utilise an open cross section tyre with a bead that holds it in place on the rim profile and an inner tube is placed inside the rim. This offers a great deal of convenience as it is easy to repair when you get punctures.
Carbon clincher wheels are significantly heavier than their equivalent tubulars because the rim needs to be stronger to cope with the demands of braking pressure and force from the rim. Some deep section wheels feature a carbon fairing placed over an aluminium rim. These are heavier, but are cheaper than a completely carbon rim, owing to lower manufacturing and development costs.
Advantages of clincher wheels
- Easy to repair punctures, just by carrying spare inner tubes
- Easy to change tyres, can be done in minutes
- Clincher tyres are typically cheaper than tubulars
Disadvantages of clincher wheels
- Typically heavier than a tubular rim
- Higher rotational weight than a tubular
- Braking surface encounters higher stress, having to withstand outward pressure of the bead and inward pressure of heat from the brakes
Tubeless road bike wheels
Watch: How to set up tubeless road wheels
Tubeless wheels have become very popular over the last few years, with more and more brands fitting the standard on their bikes. Instead of having an inner tube inside a tyre, the tyre itself creates an airtight seal against the rim, so all you have to do is inject some sealant and pump some air into the tyre.
A consequence of making the rim airtight can be that it is slightly heavier, but this is somewhat offset by the lack of inner tube. The sealant is designed to seal holes and punctures as they happen. It is still possible to get a flat on a tubeless wheel, at which point an inner tube can be placed inside, but the risk is considerably less, making them ideal for those wanting to avoid punctures. Plus, the general consensus is that these are faster than other types of wheel and tyre combinations.
- Much lower risk of flat tyres
- Low rolling resistance
- Fiddly to set up
- More weight at the rim
Tubular road bike wheels
Prior to the invention of clincher tyres, tubular wheels were the only option available. Today they’re a rare sight away from racing (where teams have support) as they are an enclosed tyre, with an inner tube sealed or sewn inside, making them very inconvenient if you have to change a tyre.
Tubular wheels are usually lighter than the clincher alternative. This is because the rim does not need to be as strong in order to hold the bead of the tyre. Instead, the tubular tyre is glued or taped onto the rim.
Bonding of the tyre to the rim is crucial, in order to avoid rolling the tyre off the rim while cornering. Gluing is most traditional way and considered the most reliable, but it typically takes a couple of days to set, whereas tape is much quicker.
If you are racing, riding a sportive, or training on a tubular tyre (tub for short) and you get a puncture there are a couple of options. Sealant, such as Vittoria Pit Stop can be injected into the tyre to seal the hole, but this may not work if the hole is too big.
Alternatively a spare tub can be placed on the rim, but this will not be bonded as strongly. If you are racing, or riding with a support vehicle, tubulars can be a joy to ride, but for training rides and everyday use, even professionals use clinchers. In summary:-
Advantages of tubular wheels
- Lighter wheels
- Lighter rim is better for acceleration
- Tubular tyres roll very nicely
Disadvantages of tubular wheels
- Less easy to fit than clinchers
- Repairing a puncture not as straight forward as a clincher
The anatomy of a road bike wheel
The rims are usually the first thing you notice on a pair of wheels. Deeper section wheels are more aerodynamic, but are heavier than their shallow rim counterparts. In addition, crosswinds can catch the deeper section like a sail, which can make keeping the bike in a straight line a handful. A lower profile is much easier to control and is often lighter in weight – meaning it will accelerate faster.
Having a carbon or aluminium wheel is going to directly impact the braking surface of the rim. It is easier to manufacture a perfectly flat braking surface with aluminium, resulting in more consistent braking. In addition, aluminium can be machined to feature grooves and patterns to improve the efficiency of the braking.
Carbon braking is consistently improving as technology moves forward, but compared to aluminium it is often not as good in the wet. Carbon braking surfaces can also suffer heat build, especially if you drag your brakes for a long time. This can lead to de-lamination of the rim.
Hubs are at the centre of the wheel and contain the axle and bearings. Higher quality hubs are better made, often with superior bearings that roll with less friction. Cartridge bearings are the usual standard on anything except the cheapest wheels because they are simple to replace. The smoothest bearings are ceramic ones, although they come with a price tag to match.
In freewheel bicycles (i.e. anything that is not a fixie), the rear hub is a freehub. This means you can freewheel without turning the pedals. The cassette is fitted onto the freehub body.
Whether a wheelset is Shimano or Campagnolo compatible depends upon the freehub body, as the cassettes from the two manufacturers are a slightly different design in the way they slot onto the freehub. This isn’t a problem as different freehub bodies can be purchased and changed on the wheel. Note Shimano and SRAM are compatible with each other. In addition, Edco now make a freehub body that is compatible with Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo cassettes.
10, 11 or 12-speed?
All new wheels now feature a freehub body designed for 11-speed cassettes. But don’t worry if you’re still running 10-speed, as you can use a 10-speed cassette on an 11-speed freehub by using a spacer. These spacers are often included with the wheels, but if you are unsure, check with your local bike shop.
Campagnolo has become the first cycling groupset maker to create a 12-speed groupset. The good news is that the cassette fits on the same body as the 11-speed Campagnolo ones, meaning you should be able to keep using your old wheels.
Spokes and Nipples
Spokes provide support from the hub to the rim and distribute the pressure around the bike wheel, working in both tension and compression. Pay attention to the spoke count, as the more there are the stronger but heavier the wheel. Meanwhile, fewer spokes often make the wheel more aerodynamic. The shape of the spokes also matters – with flat/aero/bladed spokes becoming increasingly standard over all price points.
Nipples help hold the spoke in place on the rim and are typically made of brass (although aluminium can save weight). When a wheel is trued the spoke tension is adjusted via the nipple.