Basic Guide to Road Bike Wheels

For most riders, whether you race or not, wheels are the most overlooked and important upgrade. It’s incredibly tempting to upgrade your bike with the newest drivetrain, or all the carbon fiber you can find. While the performance gains you get from those parts are significant, they still pale in comparison to investing in a great set of wheels. Among the many improvements you’ll get will be stiffer rims, lighter weight, improved handling, and greater aerodynamic performance. But before you buy, here’s a quick guide to help you find the wheels that are right for you.


  1. What kind of wheels do you need: The first step to buying new wheels is ensuring they will work with your equipment. It may seem like a wheel is a wheel, but asking a few basic questions can help you get it right the first time.
    • Does your bike have rim or disc brakes? If disc brakes, what kind are they?
    • What brand of drivetrain do you have (SRAM, Shimano, Campagnolo)? SRAM and Shimano, for the most part, share the same cassette spline pattern, so you can use a SRAM cassette on a Shimano freehub or visa-versa (there are some exceptions though). Campagnolo cassettes and freehubs use a different spline pattern, and are only compatible with other Campy components.
    • How many speeds is your drive train? Most free hubs available today are designed for 9 and 10-speed cassettes. 10-speed hubs can sometimes be modified to work with 11-speed or 7 & 8 speed cassettes, however this requires the use of adapters and spacers, and the performance results aren’t always consistent.


  1. Know what you want: Few wheels can really be placed in the do-it-all category, and even specialized wheels have trade-offs. Knowing what you want to get out of your rides can help you narrow things down.
    • Love to climb? Lightweight climbing wheels are specially manufactured to cut every possible gram. Low spoke counts, shallow depth rims, titanium skewers and exotic materials make these wheels as light as possible, but there can be costs in durability and aerodynamic efficiency.
    • Like going fast? Aero wheels, which feature a deep section rim that cuts through the wind might be right for you. These wheels offer significant aerodynamic advantage, but at the cost of additional weight.
    • Just want a better set of wheels for your weekend ride? A great set of alloy clinchers will probably fit your bill. These wheels, such as the Mavic Ksyrium Elite or the Easton EA90 SL, are built to offer a good balance of durability, light weight and efficiency. These are heavier than climbers, slower than aero wheels, but offer significantly more durability for every day riding and improvements in performance from the OEM wheels that may have come on your bicycle.
    • Tired of flats? Tubeless wheels are becoming increasingly common on the road. You can read more on these types of wheels below, but they offer the ability to virtually eliminate flats.


  1.  Alloy vs. Carbon: For generations alloy wheels were the only way to go, and they have a proven track record. In the last 10 years however, wheels made partly or entirely from carbon fiber have entered the market and the technology has improved enough that they are becoming common place. Deciding which is appropriate for you is a personal choice, but here is a basic breakdown.
    • Alloy wheels are made of various aluminum or magnesium alloys. They are typically made by extruding alloy into a rim and then welding it into shape, or in more expensive models, by milling the wheels out of a single piece of aluminum. They are usually more durable, less expensive, and offer better braking performance than carbon fiber, especially in wet weather, but tend to be heavier, less rigid, and less aerodynamic than carbon wheels
    • Carbon fiber wheels are made entirely from carbon fiber, often molded with the brake track and rim as a single piece. They are much lighter, aerodynamic, stiffer, and (according to some) cooler looking than alloy, but are also much more expensive. Carbon road wheels also can have diminished braking performance, especially when wet, and require the use of manufacturer-specified brake pads to avoid problems with overheating.
    • Alloy-carbon hybrid wheels attempt to give the rider the best of both worlds. These wheels are made by bonding an alloy brake track to a carbon fiber rim, providing the braking performance of alloy with the aerodynamics and stiffness of carbon fiber. The trade off is that these wheels tend to be heavier than wheels made exclusively of carbon fiber.


  1. Tubular vs. Clincher vs. Tubeless: These are the three basic types of bicycle wheels, and each have their pros and cons.
    • Tubular wheels require tubular tires (tires with an inner tube sewn inside) which have to be glued onto the rim. They are very lightweight, and offer unsurpassed road feel and cornering abilities, but they require a special technique to mount the tires and may be difficult  to change if you flat on the road.
    • Clincher wheels are the most common, and use a tire with a separate inner tube that hooks onto a bead on the rim. Clincher wheels are very convenient for most rides, since it’s very easy to change a flat, and some of the best clincher tires approach the road feel of tubulars. The drawbacks are that clinchers are often heavier than tubulars, and if the tire is under inflated or flat it can sometimes roll off of the rim.
    • Tubeless wheels are quickly becoming de riguer on mountain bikes, and are finding their way onto the road. Tubeless wheels require the use of special tubeless tires and use no inner tube. The bead on both the rim and the tire is made very tight, so as to make an airtight seal when inflated. The benefits of tubeless tires are legion, specifically that they virtually eliminate the chance of flatting. The downside (for the road at least) is that they are the heaviest type of wheels.


For a little more information on other upgrades you can make, check out our Upgrade Yourself article.

Tires, Tubes and Wheels