Road bike wheels explained
Road bike wheels are fundemental to your cycling experience. A great wheelset can transform the performance of your bike and choosing whether to go with road clinchers, tubeless, or carbon road bike wheels is a major decision.
Our guide to finding the best road bike wheels for you will help you navigate the various options and pick the best hoops for the way you ride.
The anatomy of road bike wheels
Here are some of the key components of a road bike wheel:
- Hubs: Hubs are the central component of the bike wheel structure. To put it simply, wheels rotate on hubs. The mechanism behind this is the wheel’s bearings and axle.
- Bearings: Wheel bearings enable the hub to rotate on the wheel axle. Hubs either have cartridge bearings or cup and cone bearings. Cartridge bearings are now increasingly popular in hubs due to simple installation and require no maintenance. Cup and cone bearings are easy to service, but you must adjust very carefully to ensure adequate friction. For ultimate performance look out for ceramic bearings, these are the smoothest and roundest bearings available.
- Spokes: Spokes provide support to the rim and distribute pressure evenly around the bike wheel structure. They are either round or aero/flat/bladed in profile. Aero/bladed/flat spokes are rapidly becoming a standard feature on wheels of all prices. They offer an aerodynamic advantage while retaining the strength of a standard round spoke. The spokes are kept in tension on virtually all but the most expensive wheels with small nuts, called nipples.
- Nipples: Nipples add tension to the spokes and are often made from brass for strength. Aluminium can also be used to save weight, which helps with reducing rotating mass.
Bicycle Rims explained
The rims on your bike play a big part in determining your wheel durability, the overall rotating weight of the wheel, and how the bike reacts under braking. Generally rims come in shallow section (less than 25mm in depth), mid section (40mm in depth or less) and deep section (anything deeper than 40mm).
Wheel types explained
Shallow Section wheels
These are common on entry level wheels as they are well priced and have a healthy strength to weight ratio, giving the rider a comfortable experience.
Shallow section wheels are a great all-round wheel and suitable for all types of riding. There are many different models and types, which can range from entry level to top-of-the-range, lightweight, carbon fibre climbing models.
Mid section wheels
These wheels are not as popular or easily noticeable as a deep section alternative. This is largely due to a common misunderstanding that a deeper wheel means faster and better. This is not necessarily the case. Your riding style and characteristics may lean towards one wheel type more than another. A mid section wheel, however, means you can reap the benefits of a lightweight rim, combined with the aerodynamic gains of a deeper section. Lots of riders highly recommend them for all-round use, as they're light enough for climbing and fast enough for the flat roads.
Deep section wheels
Deep section wheels over the biggest aerodynamic gains for road riding speed. They cut through the wind with ease and make out-of-the-saddle sprinting an exhilerating experience that's hard to put into words. They are suited for flat terrain in general as this is where aerodynamics play a greater role. But due to technological advancements in manufacturing, they can be light enough even for riding in the mountains.
Road wheel braking surfaces
There are two types of braking surfaces available on wheels; aluminium braking surfaces or carbon braking surfaces. The smoothest and most consistent braking surface is generally aluminium, as it is easier to manufacture a perfectly flat surface with aluminium.
That isn't to say carbon road bike wheels aren't up to the job - far from it. When used with the right brake pads, carbon braking is more than adequate.
Tubular, clincher or tubeless wheels?
Clincher road bike wheels
This type of wheel is by far the most popular and offers maximum convenience for instant riding upon installation of clincher tyres and tubes. A bead seat on the rim prevents the tyre from leaving the rim while the pressure inside the inner tube pushes the bead of the tyre into position giving you a safe to ride on wheel.
Tubular road bike wheels
These are normally lighter than a clincher alternative, as there is no need for a bead seat on the inside of the rim. If using tubular tyres for sportives or while training, it's recommended to carry a spare tubular tyre with you. These are more cumbersome than a spare innertube. Changing a tubular tyre is just as quick as changing an inner tube, so there is no time penalty.
Tubular wheels require more preparation depending on whether you choose glue or tubular tape as a mounting method for your tyres. YouTube has some great videos showing methods of installing tubular tyres.
Tubeless road bike wheels
Tubeless wheelsets have become hugely popular in recent years. These wheels are usually slightly heavier than a clincher-only version as there is extra material required on the rim to provide an airtight seal for the special tubeless tyres used. The upside is you don't use inner tubes so lose some of the all important rotating mass. Pinch punctures are also less likely due to the construction.