Bicycle Wheels 101
Wheels are perhaps the most important part of the whole bicycle. Because wheels provide the link between the bicycle and the road, problems with the wheels can make a bike ride unpleasant or even dangerous -- and high quality wheels can make a ride feel smooth and fast.
Different wheels are designed for different purposes. The first major difference is between road and mountain wheels. Road wheels are lightweight and designed for speed and light weight. Mountain wheels are designed to be beefier, made for stiffness and strength when faced with jumps, rocks, and drops.
Other specialty designs include super-aerodynamic models designed for triathlon and time-trial use. These are the strange looking wheels you may have seen that have only three or four thick “spokes.”
Most wheels are a more normal style called wire wheels, which use wire spokes to tension wheels and keep them straight. This style has been produced for over 100 years and provides a strong, stable and easily repairable ride.
The quality of your ride largely depends on the wheels that you use, so it is important to choose a wheel that is matched with your riding style. The process of choosing a wheel is actually quite easy.
The weight of the wheel is more important than the weight of other components on your bike, because the wheels spin. This rotation throws the weight of the wheels around and around, which means that heavier wheels take more pedaling effort to get moving. This effect is not as noticeable on flats, where heavier wheels may actually help a rider retain their speed. But in the mountains, weighty wheels will slow a rider down.
If you’re heading to the hills, pick up the lightest set of wheels you can afford.
The number of spokes on a wheel determines its strength: more spokes lead to a stronger (but heavier) wheel. Bigger folks or people who will be touring with pannier bags, carrying loads of groceries, or riding over and off of obstacles should get wheels with more spokes. Racers and folks who ride more casually or are smaller can get by with fewer spokes.
Most wheel descriptions include a maximum recommend weight and a description of the riding style they are best suited to. This information can help you in your purchasing decisions.
All wheels sold at bike shops include hubs, which are the enclosed system of bearings around which the wheel rotates. Modern wheels from reputable sources will have solid hubs that will give you many years of service. Rear wheels (for bikes with more than one speed) are built differently than forward wheels to include a mounting point for the rear set of gears (the “cassette”).
More expensive wheels typically include higher quality hubs with better ball bearings that provide a more efficient ride and more durability.
Rims are another factor that determine which wheels will be the best fit for you. Thicker, beefier rims are stronger and more rigid, which makes them more efficient and suited for racing, while thinner rims provide a more comfortable ride with a bit of flex. The rim material also effects braking power: steel rims, once common, are now out of favor because they are slippery when wet. Modern wheels use aluminum or carbon fiber for better stopping power.
If you get carbon fiber wheels or want to mount disc brakes on your bicycle, you may have to use special wheel-brake combinations -- consult a mechanic or bike shop employee before making a final purchase on these styles.
To tube or not to tube?
Some modern tire designs have eliminated the need for a separate inner tube, which is required on standard bike wheels. These “tubeless” designs match with a special tire and a wheel that is designed to create an airtight seal around the rim. These are most common on mountain bikes, because tubeless designs can be run at low pressures to get maximum traction, but without the danger of pinch flats.
Another option for racers are tubular wheels -- the lightest and fastest models on the market. These require specially designed round tires with built-in inner tubes which are glued in place on the wheel. While tubular tires will increase your speed and reduce the weight of your bicycle, these tires are much more difficult to change and are almost exclusively designed for races.
Choosing the correct size of wheel is an easy process; just look at the current tires on your bicycle and note the diameter (something like 700C or 26 inches) and the width (usually 18mm or wider). In general, wider tires give more traction while narrower tires are more efficient and faster.
Make sure your new tire does not exceed the diameter and width that can safely be used with your bike -- the size of your frame and fork, as well as your brake setup, determines these limits. Sizing tires to fit a wheel properly can be confusing, so consult an expert to make sure you get the right fit for your wheels.
Prices for bicycle wheels range from less than $150 for a pair to over $2000 for a high-end wheel set. As with all bicycle parts, you get what you pay for. Higher priced wheels are typically more durable and will provide a stable ride for many years and even decades. It also costs more for lightweight, high-tech materials like titanium spokes, carbon fiber rims and ceramic bearings, instead of the standard aluminum and steel.
With proper maintenance, a good set of wheels will keep you safe and riding for thousands of miles. Lucky for us, there are many choices on the market today, and if you stick to reputable brands, you can’t go wrong.