Your wheels are the contact point between you and the ground and have a big impact on how your bike feels when you ride it and how it performs when you accelerate.
There is lots of jargon involved when choosing a set of wheels, but the two main factors you need to consider are rim material (aluminium or carbon) and rim depth. The answer to this depends on what you want to do with your bike as well as personal taste.
There is also a question of compatibility; if you have a bike with rim brakes you can only use rim brake wheels, and if you have a frame with disc brakes you must opt for disc wheels.
Key components of a wheel
Rim brake wheels have a braking surface machined into the rim, which your brake pads rub against to slow you down. A disc brake wheel does not have a machined surface, but instead has mountings on the hub for disc brake rotors to be installed.
Hub: The hub is the central part of the wheel and is attached to the rim with spokes. On the rear wheel, the hub is usually made of alloy and features a mechanism known as a freehub, which allows the bike to coast, but drives forward as desired when you pedal. The cassette mounts onto the body of the freehub. The hub contains the bearings that the axle rides within, and the axle is the part that attaches the wheel to the bike. It also lets you mount a rotor if designed for disc brakes.
Spokes: Spokes are the connecting rods between the hub and the rims. They tend to be made from steel or carbon fibre. The number of spokes uses to build the wheel and the material choice is important. The more spokes you have the stronger the wheel, but also the heavier the wheel. The spokes are fastened to create tension and this gives the wheel its structure.
Rim: Sitting on the outside of the wheel, the rim holds the tyre and provides a braking surface for rim-brake-equipped bikes. The rim can be made of alloy, steel or carbon, and come in different widths and depths.
What style of wheel is right for me?
Different wheels will excel over others depending on the use and terrain.
Shallow Section Wheels
Bike weight is important when you are climbing hills or mountains with a gradient greater than 6% and a length greater than 1km. You are often travelling slower as you ascend and therefore aerodynamics are not as important as weight. Shallow or climbing wheels generally feature a shallow-profile rim and a low spoke count, as this uses less material and saves weight.
Another benefit of such a wheel is seen in ride quality. The deeper a rim gets in its profile, the harsher the ride, and therefore shallow wheels are often more compliant. If you’re grinding your way up a climb you’ll want a comfortable ride to help you get into a rhythm.
Where a wheelset is below 1,500g and doesn’t claim to be aerodynamic, it can often be put into the climbing category. When budget is no issue, a super-light climbing wheelset should weigh between 900g and 1,300g. The rim depth is usually around 20-30mm.
Mid Section Wheels
Mid section aerodynamic wheels are a popular choice as they add free speed thanks to a more aerodynamic profile, and they suit the terrain in the UK, which is mostly rolling rather than long alpine ascents. An aerodynamic wheel will usually feature a deeper section rim of around 35mm being the typical starting point. They’re typically made of carbon, although there are alloy options available as well, and the majority are designed for disc brakes.
As aero designs have improved in recent years, there has been a big uptake in these mid-depth wheels as they provide a sensible balance between low weight, ride quality, and improved performance when it’s windy.
Deep Section Wheels
When speed is a priority, a deep-section rim of 50mm or more can potentially cut through the air with less aerodynamic drag. It requires more energy to get a deep section wheel up to speed, but once up to speed they cut through the air better than any other type of wheel.
The additional depth can cause problems if riding in high crosswinds and often adds weight, which is why mid-depth wheels have become a popular compromise outside of time trials and fast sprint courses.
Riders who race on deep, aerodynamic wheels will often own a set of training wheels for use outside of racing.
Gravel riding means different things to different riders, but it typically involves running 32 to 50mm wide tyres. Unsurprisingly, wider rims must be used with wider tyres, which give your tyres a better profile with more volume and less of a ‘lightbulb’ shape, which occurs when the tyre is significantly wider than the rim. Secondly there is less risk of deforming the tyre, causing excess wear, and the tyre popping off the rim.
Rims designed for the road typically have an internal width of 15 to 19mm. Gravel wheels have an internal width of 20mm or greater.
Wheels designed primarily for gravel are likely to be burlier than their road counterparts, although this is a generalisation. They will typically have better-sealed hubs and/or larger bearings for durability and to keep the mud, grit and wet out. As a result, dedicated gravel wheelsets tend to be heavier than road ones, although the difference may not be significant in the scheme of things.
Gravel wheels are mostly tubeless ready and designed for disc brakes. Just like with road wheels, gravel wheels are available in low (climber) and mid section depths. 30mm mid-section gravel wheels are suited to riders who are racing in events or covering lots of ground without too many technical trail sections.
Training, Commuting and Winter Wheels
Training or ‘everyday’ wheels must be durable and able to take a beating. Because rims on rim brake bikes wear out over time with braking, particularly if you’re riding through winter, having a cheaper set of wheels for training can extend the life of your performance summer wheels. A custom, handbuilt wheelset, where replacement spokes and rims are relatively cheap and easy to source, is a good choice. Other options are budget wheels from major brands, which can be well built and have parts that aren’t too expensive to replace. For this type of usage, expect a wheelset weight of 1,500 to 1,800g for something that is well priced. A budget wheelset is likely to weigh 1,850g or more.
Factory vs. Handbuilt Wheels
Most wheels are factory-built, where a machine laces the wheel and tensions the spokes, and then tests the spoke tension electronically. It is not possible to choose the components yourself when it comes to factory built wheels.
Handbuilt wheels take a more classic approach, where the hubs, spokes and rims can be selected separately and chosen to best suit a rider’s individual needs. There are two approaches: a handbuilt wheel for touring or everyday use, or a performance handbuilt wheel.
Performance-focused handbuilt wheels will use a hub that is lightweight, CNC machined, and with high-performance bearings, ceramic materials and seals. They’ll run incredibly smoothly and are lightweight. Brands such as Hope, Chris King and Phil Wood are renowned for their hubs.
Rims available are usually low or mid section and typically made from high-grade aluminium, although there are a few carbon rim options available.
Handbuilt wheels for touring or everyday use are typically stronger than a budget factory built wheel, offering better ride quality and compliance. It is easy to replace spokes if they are broken or damaged whilst riding on a long adventure.