Today we continue with our Real Advice series – hard-earned practical knowledge from real riders here at our home office. This week Brian, a member of our content team, is going to share with you some thoughts on wheels.
Several years ago, when I got my first carbon fiber road race bike, I was so amped. It had SRAM 10-speed Rival on it, a full carbon frame and fork, and a carbon seatpost. I’d even splurged on some carbon fiber bottle cages. In those days, this was some pretty heavy artillery to be bringing for the level of racing I was at. Admittedly, I didn’t know an awful lot about bikes at the time, and I hadn’t ridden the bike much before the race. All I knew was I had the latest and greatest carbon 10-speed stuff, while most of those other chumps were rockin’ alloy 9-speed gear. According to all my mental math, I was already standing at the top of the podium.
When the race started, everything seemed to be going fine. I rode well and felt strong. Until I got out of the saddle at speed or tried to sprint in the drops. Every time I did, I could hear the rim hitting the brake pads with every pedal stroke, shedding speed and momentum. When I leaned into a corner, the rims squealed against the brakes the entire time, slowing me down drastically, and I watched furiously as other riders flowed past me, despite me having the extra 10th gear.
After the race, I was fuming. I had just spent all this money on a carbon fiber frame that I believed to be about as stiff as a wet noodle. I ranted to another rider about how flexible the frame and fork were, and how poorly the bike had performed. The other (more experienced) rider took one look at my bike and said simply “dude, it’s not your frame—it’s your wheels.” I did the next race on a borrowed wheelset that proved him right.
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.
- 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.
- Know what you want: Few wheels can really be placed in the do-it-all category. Knowing what you want to get out of your rides can help you narrow things down.
- Alloy vs. Carbon: This one is entirely up to you, and a full discussion would be another blog post, but here’s a basic breakdown:
- Alloy wheels are usually more durable, less expensive, and offer better braking performance, especially in wet weather, but tend to be heavier and less aerodynamic than carbon wheels
- Carbon wheels are much lighter, aerodynamic, stiff, 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 (this isn’t a problem with MTB carbon disc brake wheels)
- 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 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.