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How to Choose a Road Bike Wheelset
Especially for a road bike, the wheelset is a major contributing factor to the enjoyment of the bike. Multiple considerations exist going well beyond wheel weight.
A featherweight wheel accelerates more easily, see Do Lighter Wheels Matter?. It’s the rim weight that matters most, not the hub weight.
A lighter wheel (in the rim) is better, all things being equal. But all things are not equal!
There are some exceptions to weight: extra rim weight maintains more momentum. In certain types of time trials, that extra weight adds stability and perhaps an important smoothing effect and psychological one too. But wheel momentum is something I would consider not helpful for most types of riding, especially fast descents.
Clincher or tubular or tubeless
There is only one type of road wheel that I’ll ride: tubular (sew up). These are not for everyone, since they must be glued on expertly.
More on why I ride tubulars.
For riding on mostly flat roads, a wheelset with low aerodynamic drag should be a top priority, since aerodynamic drag dwarfs all other issues as speed increases, especially at 20 mph on up. Such wheels might be heavier than wheels designed for climbing, but the reduction in aerodynamic drag can be very substantial.
For climbing, aerodynamics are not important, but low wheel weight and low rotating mass are important. Even for descending, a light wheel that can be steered instantly is a big plus in my experience.
Maintenance and strength
A wheel that is so light that it requires constant truing is a hassle, and probably indicates a risk of premature failure of the spokes, or rim, or both.
A wheel that is fragile and can be used only for races is not a good value, why not enjoy something every day, since the journey is the reward?
Don’t cheat on wheel weight. If you’re about 180 pounds as I am, don’t buy wheels designed for 140 pound guys.
A lighter wheel, especially at speed, can be flicked around road hazards more easily. Rock, stick, pothole or whatever, a light wheel is highly maneuverable, and this difference is directly proportional to its mass. This effect is not to be underestimated for those of us riding on roads with unpredictable cleanliness. I’m constantly on the lookout for such hazards.
On the flip side, a too-light wheel could also mean a weak wheel. A too-light wheel and a too-heavy rider at the wrong pothole could spell disaster, or at least mean that frequent truing is required. Or that a spoke breaks at just the wrong time.
When I first became serious about road cycling, I used the stock aluminum wheels that came with my Trek Madone 5.9 SSL for the challenging Everest Challenge Stage Race. The stock wheels were relatively heavy. But that was by itself not a pressing issue.
Riding these stock aluminum wheels, I concluded that I was not so skilled at descending; I could never seem to hit my “line” on steep curvy descents. I ended up having to brake way too much, since it just felt risky dropping down 18° curves and wondering where I’d end up.
It was only when I purchased a set of ZIPP 303 carbon fiber wheels that I discovered the problem: the Bontrager aluminum wheels were not only heavy, they had absolutely awful lateral stability, which was causing the terrible handling on descents. With the ZIPPs on my favorite descent, I immediately found I could go much faster while paying much less attention, with a big grin on my face. I also felt much safer; the wheels did not demand constant attention, and I could hit my line every time with no guesswork about where the bike would end up coming out of the turn.
I once purchased a set of Shimano wheels made of Scandium, a very stiff material. Riding one day on a relatively rough road was the most miserable ride of my life— I could hardly feel my butt after 5 miles of constant vibration. The wheels handled like a dream, but they were just so uncomfortable that I returned them. In addition, the unforgiving wheel stiffness made the front fork go crazy-mad with vibration under heavy braking, something sure to cause a failure over time.
I prefer carbon fiber wheels for comfort and their other characteristics. Wheels with metal spokes tend to have more “give” as with my ZIPP 303 and ZIPP 404. Wheels that are all carbon such as my Lightweight Ventoux wheels tend to be a little stiffer, but this is also a win in handling and acceleration. I deem the Lightweight Ventoux comfort level an ideal solution using about 115 PSI, and a little too stiff at 120-125 PSI.
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Today’s carbon fiber wheels have excellent braking, as do metal wheels. I don’t consider this an issue with any well made wheel today when appropriate brake pads are used. However, if frequent rain-riding is in the cards, the choice of material might matter if a lot of braking is done in the rain.
Price vs value
Some people spend money on furniture, clothes, eating out, and trinkets. I spend my money on quality, whether it’s a bike or wheels or anything else. If I have to forgo the small things, or wait and save to buy the wheelset I want to ride and enjoy every day, so be it. I won’t buy things that are almost good enough— I end up wasting money that way.
My Lightweight wheels come with a 3 year warranty, and for 10% more an insurance option can be purchased for full replacement for just about any damage. That’s real value, and it shows a company that believes their product will hold up.
Elegance and build quality
Some wheels look like rolling billboards. They are most definitely not for me, and in my view, junk up an otherwise attractive bike. Many brands do this. I won't buy such tacky stuff.
Sometimes the construction just looks poor, even if it’s not (e.g., uneven visible seams in carbon fiber). For a beautiful carbon fiber build, check out the pictures of the Lightweight Ventoux wheels, like this. A thing of beauty and elegance usually bespeaks attention to detail in all areas.