Best road wheel upgrades

Replace your entry-level wheelset

Assuming you have a decent frame, wheels are the most effective upgrade you can make, offering the greatest real-world gains in any chosen area, whether you want to achieve an aerodynamic advantage, climb faster, increase comfort or decrease weight. 

For this test, we chose 16 sets of wheels that would make an ideal first upgrade over those supplied with many entry-level machines. If you’re aiming to race, commute, crack your first century or just get more from your riding, there’s sure to be something here to suit your needs. From bespoke handbuilt beauties to big-name factory offerings, they’ve all been put through their paces.

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Cycle Surgery |

Evans Cycles |

Wiggle

The majority have aerodynamic features, with a variety of rim depths, aero spokes and wind-cheating hubs, and alongside these generally narrow wheels are some wider rim designs, claiming to offer increased stability, comfort and durability. Spoke patterns also vary, from minimal to artistic, with different levels of comfort and functionality. 

How we tested

Before using them, we checked all the wheels for trueness (side-to-side movement when spinning) and roundness. A rating of ‘perfect’ indicates less than 0.25mm total error from exactly true or round. A wheel with less than 0.5mm error was rated ‘excellent’; less than 0.75mm error ‘good’ and less than 1.0mm ‘fair’. 

We also rated the hubs for how much adjustment they needed when new, and measured the spoke tension before use. ‘Perfect’ indicates appropriately high tension that’s very even round the wheel; ‘good’ means high tension with some unevenness. A rating of ‘fair’ or less would have us reaching for the spoke key. After putting in the same distance riding each pair we took all the measurements again.

Flexible wheels can rob you of speed and cause the rim to rub on the brake blocks under power. To test for acceleration we carried out a series of ‘lamppost sprints’ – a test involving sprinting from one lamppost to another (the clue’s in the name!), starting at 15mph, to see which set of wheels felt quickest and easiest to wind up to speed.

To keep our tests consistent, we used several pairs of Continental’s new 23mm Grand Prix tyres and inner tubes for all 16 wheelsets. We performed the tests with equally fully inflated tyres for all the wheels, because tyres can effectively shrink the overall diameter of the wheel, which results in the reduction of spoke tension.

Despite meting out a sound thrashing, we didn’t suffer a single puncture, and the Black Chili rubber compound proved tenaciously grippy. When testing was complete, the wheels were again checked by our mechanic to see how they had fared throughout the process.

FULCRUM RACING 3 2-WAY FIT

£549.99 / US$929

Weight: F/R 670g/920g (incl. valves)  Spokes: 16/21  Rim depth: 25/29mm  Rim width: 21mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Perfect  R: Perfect  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Good  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

An extra 65g or so has been added to the Racing 3s to produce the 2-Way Fits. We ran them with conventional tyres and found them the tightest fit for our test rubber. With no spoke holes, the Fulcrums have ultra-rigid alu rims and right from go felt like a virtual training partner, egging us on. 

Differential rim heights and hub flanges produce a taut rear wheel, while the light front wheel is superb for placing just where you need, and changing direction fast. Climbing is very efficient and they’re uncompromisingly racy; you’ll feel the rough stuff, but glide over it – or go tubeless for more feel and lower rolling resistance. 

From: Fulcrum / i-Ride

MAVIC KSYRIUM ELITE

£475 / US$674.90

Weight: F/R 712g/892g  Spokes: F/R 18/20  Rim depth: 21/23.5mm Rim width: 20/19.5mm   

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Good  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Good  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

These aluminium wheels are no longer the lightest in their price category, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. With no spoke holes piercing it, the sealed asymmetric rim bed helps create a very stiff wheel, and Mavic’s well-proven bladed steel spokes keep everything taut, even under full power. The result is electric acceleration and very surefooted handling. 

A squared rim profile is less aerodynamic, but you’d be hard pressed to notice. Flat time trialling is the least suitable arena for the Elites for this reason, but it’s the only one, as they’re a true all-rounder for road or cyclo-cross.

From: Mavic 

VISION TEAM30   

£429.95 / US$675 

Weight: F/R 715g/875g  Spokes: 20/24  Rim depth: 31mm  Rim width: 18.5mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Vertical truth F≤.5  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

Vision’s premium aero alloy wheel has a 31mm deep rim that is aerodynamic enough to be a help, light enough on the climbs, and not an issue when it’s windy. Preload Reduction Hubs allow adjustment of the four rear and two front cartridge bearings without removing the wheel and are more aerodynamic. 

Wider flange placement gives the rear wheel extra stiffness, and it pays off in the corners or when leaning hard on the pedals. These handbuilt wheels are tough too, and would suit racing, training over rough roads or even cyclo-cross as they’re also available with a tubular rim.

From: Vision / Windwave 

STRADA HANDBUILT   

£696 / US$1,091

Weight: F/R 688g/866g (no skewers)  Spokes: 20/24  Rim depth: 25.5mm  Rim width: 23mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Perfect  R: Perfect  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Perfect  R: Perfect  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

West Sussex wheel maestro Strada hand-built these lookers using 23mm-wide all-black alu H Plus Son rims. Our test pair came with stunning British Goldtec hubs, but for £525 you get Strada’s own good quality, easily serviced road hubs, with preload adjustable sealed Japanese bearings. With all-black tyres fitted they look stunning, and their perceived bulk is forgotten once on the bike. 

With the tyres pumped to 85psi, the wide rims give great ride quality, smoothing out evil road surfaces and increasing tyre stability and grip. Acceleration was very lively, climbing and sprinting keenly without noticeable deflection.

From: Strada 

SHIMANO RS80 C24   

£449.98 / US$899.95

Weight: F/R 669g/903g  Spokes: 16/20  Rim depth: 24mm  Rim width: 21mm

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Perfect  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.75  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

With aluminium and carbon laminate minimising rotational weight, the RS80s accelerate and maintain speed with ease. Angular contact bearings spin smoothly and shrug off high loads, while the wide hub flanges and asymmetrically drilled rear rim offer great rigidity. The aluminium braking track and carbon rim, reinforced around the oversized nipple holes, gives predictable braking and low weight. 

The low spoke count may allow some rim deflection for riders over 85kg, and we saw a relaxing in tension post-test but the RS80s are great all-rounders that sprint, stop, corner and climb.

From: ShimanoMadison 

DT SWISS R1700

£599.98 / US$798

Weight: F/R 787g/940g  Spokes: F/R 18/24  Rim depth: 22mm  Rim width: 20mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: F: Perfect  R: Perfect  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.75  R≤.25  Vertical truth F≤.25  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Good  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

With their open crowfoot pattern, the R1700s are a firm but quick ride. The innovative Tricon hubs have a two-part design, enabling their silky bearings to spin more smoothly, and incorporating DT Swiss’s easy to maintain, high quality star ratchet system. The spokes are threaded at both ends, and are secured with rim inserts that keep the alu rim bed undrilled and tubeless-ready. 

The R1700s disguise those extra grams to roll beautifully, and respond well when pushed hard, resisting twisting forces to give a surging feeling when sprinting. Climbing and cornering are better than average, and build quality is excellent.

From: DT Swiss / Madison

ATR CYCLES    

£400 / US$627

Weight: F/R 795g/937g  Spokes: 32/32  Rim depth: 19mm  Rim width: 20mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth:  F≤.5  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: F: Good  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.5  R≤.75  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.75  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

The fanciest wheels on test show what some skill with a spoke key can produce. Hope’s Pro 3 Mono hubs, though noisy, are superbly sealed, the cartridge bearings buttery smooth. They’re laced conventionally at the rear to aluminium Mavic Open Pro rims and in a snowflake pattern up front. 

With paired spokes wrapped around each other, the shorter unsupported sections make a vertically stiffer and stronger wheel, but our mechanic thought they should have been pre-stressed a little more post-building. Ride quality is sublime: comfy over the worst roads, fast and bombproof. 

From: ATR Cycles

EASTON EA90 SL

£580 / US$740

Weight: F/R 665g/912g  Spokes: 24/28  Rim depth: 22/26mm  Rim width: 20mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Perfect  R: Perfect  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Vertical truth F≤.25  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

Sporting more spokes than most and differential rim depths, the EA90 SLs have Sapim round double butted spokes for increased durability. Easton’s sponsored pros use these for training, but for us mortals they’d be a fine race wheelset. We rode a pair in the Alps and they performed faultlessly, climbing keenly and certainly not hindering progress over many hours in the saddle. 

The svelte spoking keeps them surprisingly supple when the surface is rough, and they gave enormous cornering confidence on mountain hairpins at high speed. Back home they still perform, and are a firm favourite.

From: Easton / Extra UK

COLE ROLLEN ELITE  

£299.99 / US$470

Weight: F/R 700g/926g  Spokes:F/R 20/24  Rim depth: 28mm  Rim width: 20mm

BEFORE: Lateral truth F≤.5 R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.5 R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: perfect R:perfect  Hub adjustment: F:perfect R:perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth F≤.25 R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.5 R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: perfect R: good  Hub adjustment: F:perfect R:perfect

Looking like wheels costing twice as much, with their black rims, hubs and spokes, the Rollens – when rollin’ – could be mistaken for some shallow profile carbon numbers. Being aluminium they aren’t carbon light, but are lively nonetheless, with a compliant ride when the roads are rough, and a willingness to pick up speed. 

Their lateral stiffness easily copes with out-of-the-saddle heaving, and keeps cornering neat and tidy, while climbing isn’t at all arduous. The 28mm profile doesn’t cause any crosswind dramas, and the rim width gives good stability and excellent braking.

From: ColeEvans Cycles

AMERICAN CLASSIC 420 AERO 3

£599 / US$1,070

Weight: F/R 700g/ 885g  Spokes: 18/24  Rim depth: 34.5mm  Rim width: 18mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Good  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Good  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

The 420 Aero 3s don’t beat around the bush with aesthetics or performance. The high-low flange rear hub equalises spoke tension across the wheel, and the slim front hub reduces frontal area. Broad bladed spokes and the knife-like lightweight 34mm aluminium rim are incredibly aerodynamic and tough – suitable for racing, training or even cyclo-cross. 

They don’t dull acceleration and exhibit next to no lateral flex when climbing out-of-the-saddle. Maintaining speed just feels easier, even when the road drags upwards. Braking is excellent, and if pink isn’t your thing, they’re available in two other colours.

From: American Classic / Eurobike

RITCHEY WCS ZETA 

£475 / US$749.90

Weight: F/R 697g/929g  Spokes: 20/24  Rim depth: 24mm  Rim width: 19.5mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Good  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Good  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

Outwardly conventional looks hide some quirky features here. A pencil-slim front hub is laced to the alu rim with spokes crossing once and never touching, and the rear hub has narrowly spaced large flanges, giving minimal dish, and a crow’s foot spoke pattern on the drive-side. 

The design is aimed at increasing lateral rigidity but allowing vertical compliance, and it succeeds, the wheels resisting sprinting and climbing forces well, but although they give great drive and fly along at race speed, they lacked a spark. That said, they’re stiff, fast and would suit a strong rider in need of do-everything wheels.

From: Ritchey / Paligap

PRO-LITE BRACCIANO   

£349.99 / US$594.98

Weight: F/R 636/880g  Spokes: 20/24  Rim depth: 27mm  Rim width: 19mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

As well as being among the cheapest wheels on test, the Pro-Lites are also some of the lightest. Welded light 6066 alloy rims and triple butted aero spokes shed valuable grams, but with 20 front and 24 rear spokes, they don’t lack strength. The narrow-flanged, undished rear is built in a two-cross pattern on to the asymmetrically drilled rim, and although not the most direct, it’s quite responsive to acceleration with a fair degree of compliance. 

Two front and five rear bearings help the Pro-Lites to easily hold high speeds on the flat, and their confident handling makes them a fine choice for the hilly sportive rider on a budget.

From: Pro-Lite / Hotlines UK

HED ARDENNES GP    

£599 / US$750

Weight: F/R 710g/895g  Spokes: 18/24  Rim depth: 25mm  Rim width: 23mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Perfect  R: Perfect  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.5  R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

HED’s take on the classic all-rounder introduces the alu C2 clincher rim. At 23mm it’s 5mm wider than some, aimed at making the most of your tyre’s grip. The profile of a 23mm tyre on a 19mm rim is lightbulb-shaped, whereas the more rounded profile on the Ardennes increases the contact patch for more cornering stability. 

Even with the recommended 85-105psi tyre pressure due to their greater volume, the HEDs are a very firm ride, possibly due to decreased sidewall deflection, but the pay-off for riders up to 95kg is increased cornering grip. Spoke tension relaxed post-testing, but the wheels stayed true.

From: HED

GIPIEMME TECNO 1.55 LIGHT

£475 / US$745

Weight: F/R 670g/854g  Spokes: 20/20  Rim depth: 30.5mm  Rim width: 18.5mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.5  R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Perfect  R: Perfect  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Vertical truth: F≤.25  R≤.25  Spoke tension: F: Good  R: Good  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

Similar in style to the American Classics, the slightly shallower alu rim of the Gipiemmes and their lower spoke count make them lighter still. Undoubtedly fast to accelerate, and no slouches uphill, they gave a greater degree of lateral deflection when cornering or sprinting. 

The relatively tall tyre profile seemed to squirm a little during maximal efforts, which sapped confidence, especially in tight corners. Ride quality was decent for mid-section aluminium wheels with good vibration reduction, they excel at maintaining speed, are strong enough to handle some hits and are beautifully finished.

From: Gipiemme / Osporto

HALO CALIBER 

£500 / US$784

Weight: F/R 713g/ 994g  Spokes: 16/24  Rim depth: 39.5mm  Rim width: 20mm  

BEFORE: Lateral truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Vertical truth: F≤.5  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Fair  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

AFTER: Lateral truth: F≤.5  R≤.25  Vertical truth F≤.5  R≤.5  Spoke tension: F: Fair  R: Fair  Hub adjustment: F: Perfect  R: Perfect

With a rim depth of almost 40mm, these aren’t the lightest, but svelte hubs, Ti skewers and slim aero spokes do their bit for aerodynamics and mass reduction. The alu rims are joined with an internal sleeve rather than welded, but the finish is fairly smooth. The front has the same number of spokes as the RS80s, but here they’re slimmer and tensioned less, and there’s noticeable deflection when heaving up a climb. 

The rear has 24 spokes and performs well, but the extra weight dulls acceleration, despite instant pick-up from the 120-tooth Supa Drive hub. Our biggest gripe is the noisy freehub, though.

From: Halo / Ison Distribution

What to look for when upgrading your wheels

Weight: A lighter wheel will be faster, right? Well, yes, but although reducing overall mass is important, the most critical factor is rotational weight, namely the rim, tyre and tube, and to a lesser extent spokes and nipples, but it’s a fine line between light and fragile.

Spokes: Wide, bladed aero spokes are not essential for speed; butted, slim, round spokes can be just as efficient while soaking up more vibration. Spoke count and pattern will also make an enormous difference to performance and suitability for different pursuits.

Rim width: There has been a realisation over the last few years that when it comes to rims, wider doesn’t necessarily mean slower, with companies like Zipp embracing wider rims for their improved aerodynamics, strength and the better grip of wider tyres.

Rim depth: Aluminium builds into heavier rims than carbon fibre, and therefore a highly aerodynamic aluminium rim will weigh much more. If you’re looking for an aero boost, ensure you don’t actually end up with weightier wheels, which may be slower when the road ramps upwards.

This article is featured in issue 265 of Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio from Tuesday 24 July.

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