Keith Bontrager famously said of bicycle parts: “Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick two.” It’s a saying that still holds true when it comes to road bike wheels and they’re often a component brands look to save money on when you buy a new bike.
Once you’ve got a quality frame, wheels are arguably the best upgrade you can give your steed.
As the means to keeping you rolling, wheels must offer smooth and dependable hubs for drive; high stiffness for accurate tracking; be able to hold a tyre at great pressure; provide a surface for consistent braking if your wheel is rim braked; support ever-wider tyres; and achieve all of this while still being as lightweight and aerodynamically efficient as possible.
Upgrading to a wheelset that hits these marks more accurately than what you’re currently riding can inject some serious new life into a road or gravel bike.
Improvements can include improved ride quality, faster average speeds or just a lower weight – something that helps with both acceleration and deceleration.
Furthermore, the switch to tubeless tyres and disc brakes have also shaken up the market substantially, with new designs pushing the boundaries of what was previously possible on road bikes. Wider rims support wide road and gravel tyres a lot better and improve aerodynamics by smoothing the interface between the tyre and the rim.
But with hundreds of bike wheel brands offering thousands of options, buying new wheels can be a confusing task. Luckily, our expert testers put dozens of wheels through their paces every year so you don’t have to.
For road and gravel, we’re generally talking about 700c wheelsets and to make things easier, we’ve split them up into disc brake and rim brake options, but take a look at our round-up of best gravel wheels for some 650b options.
And while there are some phenomenally expensive wheels in this list, we’ve also included a few top-rated cheaper options that come perilously close to finally proving Mr Bontrager wrong.
Below the best list is our extensive buyer’s guide to road wheels too. It will help you with what to look for in wheels, understanding the various features and what commonly used terms mean.
Best road bike wheels in 2021, as rated by our expert testers
Best disc brake wheels
- Zipp 303 Firecrest: £1,600 / $1,939 / €1,900 / AU$2,921
- Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V TLR: £1,200 / $1,300 / €2,200
- Cadex 42 Disc: £2,500 / $3,200
- Campagnolo Shamal C21 DB 2WF XDR Carbon: £1,160 / $1,689 / €1,299
- ENVE SES 3.4 Disc: £3,150 / $3,200
- Hunt 35 Carbon Aero Disc: £779 / $926 / 854
- Specialized Roval SLX 24 Disc: £650 / $800 / €800
- Swiss Side Hadron² Ultimate 625 Disc: £1,961 / €2,288
- Vittoria Qurano 46 Disc: £1,699 / $2,199 / €1,990
- Zipp 202 NSW: £2,678 / $3,200
- Boyd Prologue Series 44mm: £762 / $1,050 / €905
- DT Swiss CR1400 Dicut 25: £700 / $1,047 / €827
- Easton EA90 SL Disc: £1,050 / $1,000
- ENVE 65: £1,850 / $1,600
- FFWD Drift: £1,500.00 / $1,699 / €1,399
- Hunt 60 Limitless Aero Disc: £1,189.00 / $1,689 / €1,539
- Parcours Strade: £999
- Reynolds AR 41 DB: £1,100 / $1,299
- Roval Terra CLX: £2,200 / $2,500 / €2,600 / AU$3,900
- Zipp 353 NSW: £3,200.00 / $4,000 / €3.600 / AU$6,027
Best rim brake wheels
- DT Swiss P-1800 Spline: £335 / $483 / €388
- Hunt 4 Season Aero: £369 / $499 / €469
- Hunt Sprint Aero Wide: £399 / $500 / €450
- Vision SC55: £1,150 / $1,462 / €1,228
- Giant SLR1: £1,000 / $1,344 / €1,350
- Halo Carbaura RC35: £1,000
- Knight 35: £2,000 / $2,400
Best disc brake road bike wheels
Zipp 303 Firecrest wheelset
- £1,600 / $1,939 / €1,900 / AU$2,921 as tested
- Great ride quality from redesigned hookless rims
- Wide, fast and lightweight
The 303 Firecrests are a premium choice for gravel and cyclocross as well as a good 40mm deep option for road riding, with a 25mm internal hookless rim that’s easy to set up tubeless with just a track pump. This latest version has gone on a diet and now weighs just 1,409g with valves, tape and rotor lockrings.
We really rated the ride quality, which is firm without flex, and the 66 engagement points on the freehub. Zipp’s price has come down too and you now get a lifetime warranty, while Zipp publishes a list of tyres it’s tested for compatibility.
Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V TLR
- £1,200 / $1,300 / €2,200 as tested
- Modern, wide design
- Great price for carbon wheels, relative to the competition
Measuring 37mm deep, 25.2mm wide internally and a whopping 32.6mm wide externally, Bontrager’s Aeolus Pro 3V TLR wheels are right on the cutting edge of road bike wheel design.
Naturally, then, they’re also tubeless-ready, with Bontrager supplying tubeless rim strips and valves with the wheels.
All you’ll need are tubeless tyres and some sealant, and our tester found it easy to set them up with Continental’s popular GP5000 TL tubeless tyres.
They’re not cheap wheels by any means, but you can find plenty on the market at double the price that don’t offer this kind of spec or performance.
Cadex 42 Disc
- £2,500 / $3,200 as tested
- Light and stiff for great performance
- Easy tubeless set-up
At 1,327g the 42 Disc wheels from Giant’s performance Cadex brand are light for deeper section carbon wheels. There’s outstanding stiffness and a very rapid ride feel with fast acceleration and the lack of weight making for fast climbing.
The aero tested rims are 42mm deep and width is 23mm external/19.4mm internal. The wheels are designed to work with 25mm or 28mm tubeless tyres, and Cadex sells tyres to match.
Campagnolo Shamal C21 DB 2WF XDR Carbon
- £1,160 / $1,689 / €1,299 as tested
- Carbon gravel wheelset that’s tubeless-ready without taping
- Differential front and rear rim depths
Campag’s first carbon gravel wheelset, the Shamal comes with the N3W freehub body, so it will work with the Ekar groupset, and there are also Shimano/SRAM and XDR options. They’re 21mm wide internally, quick to set up tubeless and come with easy-to-service, super-smooth cup and cone bearings which can cope with plenty of abuse.
At 1585g, they’re reasonably lightweight and come with differential 35mm front and 40mm rear rim depths to add firepower without sacrificing steering agility.
ENVE SES 3.4 Disc
- £3,150 / $3,200 as tested
- Low weight and good build quality
- Strong aerodynamic credentials
Designed in collaboration with aerodynamics expert Simon Smart, ENVE’s SES 3.4 wheels have a differential rim height (a shallower front wheel and a deeper rear wheel) that is said to optimise aerodynamics, weight and stability.
Supplied with ENVE’s own tubeless tape and valves, our test set weighed in at a respectable 1,491g with Chris King’s well regarded R45D hubs and their build quality impressed as much as the ride quality.
The only downside is the price, but if you find yourself shopping in this price bracket you won’t go wrong with these.
Hunt 35 Carbon Aero Disc
- £779 / $926 / €854 as tested
- Seriously lightweight
- Very competitively priced
At just 1,340g with tubeless tape and valves in place, these are seriously lightweight disc brake wheels.
Since we reviewed them, Hunt has updated the wheels to increase the rim depth to 35mm.
It’s also included a hooked rim, which helps with tyre compatibility. It does reduce internal rim width by half a millimetre, but they’re still very wide at 20mm, meaning they offer a fantastic tyre profile.
They also now represent even better value at £779 / $926 / 854, which is cheaper than alloy offerings from some manufacturers.
Specialized Roval SLX 24 Disc
- £650 / $800 / €800 as tested
- Low weight
- Good quality hubs
It would be easy to look at these wheels and see only a standard alloy clincher, but their understated looks belie their excellent performance.
The 1,562g weight is impressive for tubeless-ready disc brake wheels at this price, and the wide, rounded rims offer an excellent tyre profile for grip and stability.
They won’t set any wind tunnel tests alight, but as all-rounders for everyday use these are some of the best road bike wheels for the money.
Swiss Side Hadron² Ultimate 625 Disc
- £1,961 / €2,288 as tested
- More aero than Swiss Side’s original Hadrons
- Stable for a deep section wheelset
Swiss Side’s wind tunnel tested 62.5mm deep section wheelset isn’t too heavy for its depth, coming in at 1,687g taped up. They’re 20mm wide internally and built up on DT Swiss 180 Dicut hubs with SINC ceramic bearings.
More areo than the original Hadrons, they’re also more stable than many other deeper section wheels we’ve tested and their lateral stiffness makes for a keen ride.
Vittoria Qurano 46 Disc
- £1,699 / $2,199 / €1,990 as tested
- Impressively stiff
- Good weight for the price
With a 16.5mm internal rim width, the Qurano 46 Discs don’t have the most progressive rim design on the market, but they make up for that with a solid build, a good finish and impressive stiffness.
Considering their 46mm rim depth, a weight of 1,514g for the set is impressive for tubeless-ready disc brake carbon clinchers at this price.
Zipp 202 NSW
- £2,678 / $3,200 as tested
- Spectacular ride quality
With superlative ride quality, impressive levels of stiffness and wonderfully smooth hubs, Zipp’s 202 NSW wheels have a lot to offer.
The tubeless-ready rims, with their 21mm internal width, offer a great tyre profile with the recommended 28mm rubber.
This not only improves grip and smooths out the ride, but also apparently optimises the aerodynamic performance of the wheel/tyre combination.
The relatively high price is likely to be a stumbling block for some, but our tester felt the 202 NSW’s excellent performance lived up to the billing.
Boyd Prologue Series 44mm
- £762 / $1,050 / €905 as tested
- Well priced with 44mm deep carbon rims
- A comfortable ride that’s not over-stiff
Available for either disc or rim brakes, the Prologue wheels are 44mm deep with a 27mm external/19mm internal rim with the same profile as the brand’s premium Podium wheels. There’s a 28mm deep disc brake version available too. They’re tubeless-ready and laced with J-bend spokes to hubs with a 10-degree engagement freehub.
At 1,745g they’re not light but feel more lively than that, with enough give to be comfortable without dulling the ride.
DT Swiss CR1400 Dicut 25
- £700 / $1,047 / €827 as tested
- Wide, robust alloy rims
- Excellent hubs and freewheel
DT Swiss describes the CR1400 as an all-road wheelset. It’s built around DT’s lightweight, aero 240s hub with its sophisticated freewheel ratchet. The 25mm deep, 22mm internal/26mm external alloy rim works well with wider tyres.
Tubeless set-up is easy, with a secure seal to the rim and the 1,746g a pair weight is good for a wide alloy rim. We rated the ride feel, it had no lateral flex under load and not too much rigidity for a comfortable ride.
Easton EA90 SL Disc
- £1,050 / $1,000 as tested
- Great performance and high-quality construction
- Hookless tubeless rims
These are pricey for aluminium wheels, but when you consider they have a similar rim profile and weight to carbon options they start to look like much better value.
Our tester found this wheelset to have excellent rigidity, meaning they accelerate and climb brilliantly.
- £1,850 / $1,600 as tested
- ENVE quality at a (slightly) more affordable price
- Light and fast although subject to cross-wind buffeting
ENVE’s 65mm deep wheelset offers you the prestige brand at a (relatively) lower price than its SES wheels. Unlike the SES wheels, the Enve 65s’ 21mm internal/28mm external width rims are identical front to rear. They’re tubeless-ready with hookless beads.
The Enve 65 wheels weighed 1,640g, which is only 160g heavier than the SES wheels and the hub internals are the same, just with steel bearings in place of ceramic ones. We reckoned that was a fair trade-off for the £1,500 saving
The wheels are really fast on still days, holding their speed well, although the depth makes acceleration slightly slower than shallower wheels. There was some buffeting once the wind got up, but ride comfort is good, particularly for such deep wheels.
- £1,500.00 / $1,699 / €1,399 as tested
- Sturdily built gravel wheels with quality DT Swiss spokes and hubs
- Light and stiff, but fragile rim tape
Another first-for-the-brand gravel wheelset, the Drifts’ aero 36mm deep hookless carbon rims are 24mm wide internally to handle tyres up to 60mm wide. They’re easy to set up tubeless, although the supplied rim tape is fragile and we needed to replace it.
They’re built up on DT Swiss 240 EXP hubs with extra-sturdy DT aero spokes for durability, but still weigh a respectable 1,525g.
Hunt 60 Limitless Aero Disc
- £1,189.00 / $1,689 / €1,539 as tested
- Very fast on undulating roads
- Taut feel and fast engaging, noisy freehub
Hunt has wind tunnel tested its 60mm deep (which we tested) and 48mm deep wheelsets against its competitors and says it equals or betters their performance. Hunt uses special non-structural inserts to keep the weight down to 1,770g with tape, valves and lockring. There’s the option to upgrade to CeramicSpeed bearings.
They feel super-fast and come with a 7.5 degree engagement freehub for fast pick-up and noisy freewheeling. We loved the build quality and taut, responsive handling, although they are a bit twitchy in stronger crosswinds. Value is impressive too.
- £999 as tested
- Premium looks and progressive design
- Fast, with good crosswind stability
The result of 12 months of development, including wind tunnel testing, the Strade wheels have different front and rear rim profiles because Parcours’s research showed that front and rear wheels experience different average wind yaw angles.
The 49mm-deep, 32mm-wide front wheel has a more U-shaped profile while the 54mm-deep, 30mm-wide rear is more V-shaped to compensate for this. Weight is a claimed 1,520g.
You can set up the Strade wheels tubeless, although they don’t ship with the necessary hardware. You can also upgrade from the standard steel bearings to ceramic and specify other custom options.
The ride feels fast and they handle well for their depth, being relatively unaffected by crosswinds. They look smart too.
Reynolds AR 41 DB
- £1,100 / $1,299 as tested
- Good aerodynamic credentials
At 1,630g these aren’t the lightest wheels in their category, but you needn’t be afraid of a few extra grams because they are well spent on this wheelset.
You get versatile 41mm-deep rims with a bulbous 30mm external width (21mm internal width), meaning they’re faster in most conditions than most shallower wheels without being so tall you get buffeted by the wind.
They’re also built with Sapim Sprint spokes – a stiffer version of Sapim’s legendary CX-Ray spoke – and more durable brass nipples, which make for a wheelset that can handle a lot of abuse.
Roval Terra CLX
- £2,200 / $2,500 / €2,600 / AU$3,900 as tested
- Very fast on undulating roads
- Taut feel and fast engaging, noisy freehub
A gravel/all-rounder wheelset, the Roval Terra CLXs are 25mm internal width and 32mm deep and handle gravel tyres as well as 28mm road tyres with aplomb, with the width adding stability to wider tyres.
They’re laced up with alloy nipples, which contributes to the low weight of 1,296g. Hubs are Roval’s own but have DT Swiss Ratchet EXP hub internals, which should be readily serviceable. We baulked at the £2,200 price tag though, when Roval makes significantly less expensive wheels with a similar spec but a little heavier and there’s significantly cheaper competition.
Zipp 353 NSW
- £3,200.00 / $4,000 / €3.600 / AU$6,027 as tested
- Superb performance and stability with low weight
- Excellent hubs and freehub
Zipp says that the wavy profile of the 45mm deep rim gives it the aerodynamics of a deeper wheelset, with the variable sized, clustered dimples helping with crosswind stability. The hookless design also leads to a weight of just 1,304g a set. They roll on Zipp’s Cognition V2 hubs with a magnet-engaged freehub.
We rated their stable yet speedy and smooth ride, while the light weight means that they climb really easily and their aerodynamics and stability make them fast on the downhill side too. They’re expensive though, especially when compared to the already excellent Zipp 303 Firecrest.
Best rim brake road bike wheels
DT Swiss P-1800 Spline
- £335 / $483 / €388 as tested
- Good value tubeless package
- Aero spokes and lightweight for the price
Priced at just £335 (and often found cheaper online), DT Swiss’s P-1800 Spline wheels have a lot going for them.
At 1,630g, they won’t weigh you down and the 17.5mm internal rim width is wide enough to provide a nice round tyre profile with 23 to 28mm tyres.
Pick-up from the standard pawl system is a little slow, but this is splitting hairs on a wheelset at this price point.
Hunt 4 Season Aero
- £369 / $499 / €469 as tested
- Reliable build
- Painless tubeless setup
Hunt’s 4 Season Aero wheelset is a dependable, relatively affordable and unfussy alloy rim brake wheelset that is great for all-season use.
Built with a sensibly high spoke count, up-specced winter-proof bearings and a wide-ish rim, the wheels presented no issues in testing.
Hunt Sprint Aero Wide
- £399 / $500 / €450 as tested
- Retro looks
- Fast and responsive ride
Most wheelsets seem to want that all-black, carbon look these days, so these polished alloy wheels from Hunt really stand out from the crowd.
Their retro looks hide a thoroughly modern rim (18.5mm wide internal width, 24mm wide external width), which is 30mm deep for a small aerodynamic benefit and tubeless-ready so you can run the latest tyres.
They’re also reasonably light at just 1,520g a pair, so it’s very hard to find anything to moan about at this price.
- £1,150 / $1,462 / €1,228 as tested
- Effective rim braking performance
- Available for disc brakes at the same price
The latest version of the Vision SC55 has a new 19mm internal/27mm external rim profile that’s been wind tunnel tested and is tubeless-ready.
We were impressed at the wheels’ ability to smooth the road and add comfort to our rides. Rim brake performance has had an upgrade too, with progressive action. There’s a fast ride feel that’s unaffected by gusts.
Weight for the Vision SC55 came out at 1,566g, which is competitive. Although we tested the rim brake version, both the 55mm depth and the 40mm depth SC wheels are available with disc brakes too at the same price.
- £1,000 / $1,344 / €1,350 as tested
- Low weight
- Easy tubeless set-up
As usual with Giant, these carbon wheels are reliable and solid without being too flashy.
They’re pretty lightweight at 1,463g (including rim tape and tubeless valves) and have a respectably modern rim laced to high-quality DT Swiss 360 hubs.
Tubeless set-up was pleasingly easy and braking is good in the dry too, though it does suffer in the wet somewhat (as often with carbon wheels).
Yes, there are cheaper aluminium options that will fulfil a similar purpose, but if you’ve just gotta have carbon wheels then these are a reliable option at a competitive price.
Halo Carbaura RC35
- £1,000 as tested
- Good braking
- Fast and stiff
Even with only 35mm deep rims, these wheels offer an aerodynamic performance advantage without being affected by side winds.
They’re also lightweight (1,450g for the set), tubeless-ready and braking is great too, with the supplied SwissStop Black Prince brake pads combining with the rim for powerful and consistent braking.
- £2,000 / $2,400 as tested
- Reliable and easy tubeless set-up
- Good all-rounders
Knight’s 35 wheels tick plenty of the right boxes on paper, and in the real world mostly live up to that promise.
As you’d expect, they have 35mm deep rims. This is deep enough for a little aero benefit, but shallow enough to be lightweight and unaffected by crosswinds.
The reasonably wide 19.5mm internal width and 27.5mm external width also gives a nice round profile to 25mm and 28mm tyres.
Tubeless set-up was simple too, though our tester did use a dedicated tubeless pump, and the DT Swiss hubs performed reliably over the five-month testing period. Unfortunately, they don’t come cheap, though.
Buyer’s guide to road bike wheels
The anatomy of a road bike wheel
- Hub: The wheel spins around the hub that sits at its centre. On the rear wheel, the hub features a freehub mechanism (unless you’re riding a fixed-wheel bike), which allows the bike to coast, but drives forward as desired when you pedal. The hub contains the bearings that the axle rides on, and the axle is the part that attaches the wheel to the bike. It also lets you mount a rotor if designed for disc brakes.
- Spokes: Pieces of wire or sometimes carbon fibre that lace the hubs to the rim. The number of spokes per wheel and the material choice is important. In most wheels, the spokes are under tension and this is what gives the wheel its structure.
- Nipples: At the rim end (usually), the spokes thread into a special nut called a nipple. Most wheels can be straightened (trued) by adjusting spoke tension via the nipple.
- Rim: Sitting on the outside of the wheel, the rim holds the tyre and provides a braking surface for rim-brake-equipped bikes.
Types of road bike wheels
Just as road bikes are now increasingly being designated according to their use (race, endurance, aero, gravel and so on), wheels also fit into similar categories.
Knowing what type of rider you are and what you want out of your wheel upgrade will simplify and narrow your choices.
Weight is felt most when ascending, so a wheel suited to climbing is usually designed with low weight in mind. Such wheels generally feature a shallow-profile rim and a low spoke count.
Another benefit of such a wheel is seen in ride quality. Typically, the deeper a rim gets in its shape, the harsher the ride – therefore climbing wheels are often more compliant.
Where a wheelset is below 1,500g and doesn’t claim to be aerodynamic, it can often be put into the climbing category. When budget is no issue, a super-light climbing wheelset should weigh between 900g and 1,300g.
Mid-section aerodynamic wheels
Aerodynamic wheels have quickly become a popular choice for adding some free speed and creating that ‘pro look’. An aerodynamic wheel will usually feature a deeper section rim, with a rim depth of around 35mm being the typical starting point. They’re typically made of carbon, although there are alloy options available too and the majority are designed for disc brakes.
As aero designs have improved in recent years, there has been a big uptake in these mid-depth wheels which, unlike some deep-section models (see below), now provide a sensible balance between low weight, ride quality and improved performance against the wind.
Deep-section aerodynamic wheels
When speed is a priority, a deep-section rim of 50mm or more can potentially cut through the air with less aerodynamic drag.
However, the additional depth can cause problems if riding in high crosswinds and often adds weight, which is why mid-depth wheels have become a popular compromise outside of time trials and fast sprint courses.
Riders who race on deep aerodynamic wheels will often own a set of training wheels for use outside of racing.
While speed, low friction and low weight are a priority for racing wheels, training or ‘everyday’ wheels must be durable and able to take a beating.
Because rims on rim brake bikes wear out over time with braking, particularly if you’re riding through winter, having a cheaper set of wheels for training can extend the life of your race wheels.
A custom, handbuilt wheelset – where replacement spokes and rims are relatively cheap and easy to source – is a good choice (see below for more on these). Other options are budget wheels from major brands, which can be well built and have parts that aren’t too expensive to replace.
For this type of usage, expect a wheelset weight of 1,500 to 1,800g for something that is well priced. A budget wheelset is likely to weigh 1,900g or more.
What type of tyres do my wheels use?
There are three types of tyres for road bikes and each type needs a specific rim. For more details, read our explainer on the differences between tubes, tubeless and tubular.
Clincher tyres explained
The term ‘clincher’ refers to standard tyres that use separate inner tubes to hold the air, which pushes the tyre bead into a hooked rim to hold it in place.
This is the most common wheel type on road bikes. Generally, where tyre type isn’t mentioned, it’s safe to assume it’s a clincher.
Tubeless tyres explained
Tubeless tyre technology has been a thing in mountain biking for a long time, but it’s now making serious inroads on road bike wheels too.
As the name suggests, tubeless tyres don’t require an inner tube – just like a car tyre. Instead, sealant and tubeless-ready rims are used to create what is essentially an airtight clincher system.
Manufacturers claim that removing the inner tube can decrease rolling resistance, banish the risk of pinch flats at lower inflation pressures and that the sealant can seal small punctures while riding.
For more info on road tubeless technology, check out our podcast episode where some of our most knowledgeable writers sat down to discuss the what, why and how of road tubeless tyres.
Tubular tyres explained
Tubulars (often shortened to ‘tubs’) are the oldest type of road bike tyres. They usually consist of an inner tube sewn into a fully enclosed tyre casing, which then has to be glued or taped onto a compatible rim.
Tubeless tubulars do exist (i.e. an airtight tubular with no inner tube), but these are relatively uncommon.
The advantage of tubular tyres largely lies in the fact that a tubular wheelset can be made relatively lighter. This is because the material used to create a rim that can withstand the high internal pressure of a clincher or tubeless tyre adds significant weight.
Tubular tyres can also be ridden flat for short distances, which can be advantageous in a race.
It’s for these reasons, and tradition, that tubular tyres and wheels are still dominant in the professional peloton (where riders don’t have to fix their own punctures or pay for new tyres) and hill climb events, though this is beginning to change, albeit slowly.
Road wheel rim materials
Aluminium is typically found in any wheel below £800 / $1,200 / AU$1,500, with carbon wheels generally being priced above that (although we are starting to see brands offer carbon wheels below that mark).
Just like with road bike frames, carbon fibre has become the standard material for performance race wheels, where stiffness, weight and aerodynamics are the priorities.
Aluminium still sets the benchmark for braking performance on rim brake wheels, especially in wet conditions. Carbon rims have made massive strides in this area in recent years, though. However, if your bike has disc brakes, this isn’t a concern.
What diameter are road wheels?
The standard road bike rim size is 700c, with the name coming from an approximate metric measurement taken from the diameter of the wheel including an inflated tyre.
Some brands will spec a 650b wheel on smaller frame sizes to improve their geometry and 650b is an important option for gravel bikes, but the vast majority of modern road bikes use a 700c wheelset.
If you look closely enough at your road bike tyre, you’ll likely see numbers such as 23-622 or 25-622. These numbers are the international tyre sizing standard, with the first numbers referring to the tyre width (23mm, 25mm) and the second series of numbers, in this case 622, referring to the bead seat diameter (BSD) of the tyre designed to fit a 700c rim.
Road wheel rim width explained
While the 622mm bead seat diameter is an industry standard, the width of the rim is not.
Recently there has been a trend towards wider rims because they offer greater tyre volume and a stiffer wheel, which in turn provides a more comfortable ride, improved bike control, lower rolling resistance and potentially fewer pinch flats.
The confusing part is that some brands quote external rim width, while others internal.
Looking at internal width, anything under 14mm is considered very narrow, 20mm and over is wide and anything between is sufficient for common 25mm tyres, although they’ll sit happily on wider rims too.
Internal width is important because of the effect it has on tyre profile. Narrow internal rim widths give tyres a ‘lightbulb’ cross-section which can narrow the contact patch and reduce grip, whereas wider internal rim widths cause the contact patch to flatten out and increase in size.
For those racing, wider rims have been shown to be more aerodynamic too, as the rim can integrate with the tyre more smoothly. This is because a wider rim can help form a smoother aerofoil shape with wider road tyres.
We’ve got a separate guide to road bike axle standards, but here’s a quick run-down…
If your road bike was built in the last 20 years and has rim brakes, it most likely has a 130mm width quick release rear axle (written as 130mm QR or 130 × 9mm), and a 100mm (100 QR, or 100 × 9mm) quick-release front.
However, the introduction of disc brakes greatly confused this and for a while there were multiple standards for bikes with disc brakes, most of which were thru-axle designs borrowed from mountain biking.
If you were an early adopter of road disc brakes, it’s best to refer back to the manufacturer of your bike to find out exactly what standard is used on your model.
That said, it looks like the industry has finally settled on one unifying standard for disc brake road bikes: 12mm thru-axles with 100mm spacing in the front dropouts and 142mm spacing at the rear.
If only they could do the same for bottom bracket standards…
Freehubs and drivetrain compatibility
Situated on the right side of the rear hub, the freehub is what holds the drivetrain’s cassette and allows drive to the rear wheel.
Although most 11-speed designs are now backwards compatible, you must be careful to match the freehub to your drivetrain brand.
Shimano/SRAM 11-speed freehubs
This spline system hasn’t changed a great deal in the last 20 years, with the exception of 11-speed forcing a wider freehub. Shimano-compatible 11-speed wheels usually include a spacer for use with 8-, 9- or 10-speed cassettes.
SRAM 11-speed cassettes use Shimano’s spline system, so are cross-compatible. The exceptions are newer SRAM cassettes designed for its XD driver (more on this below).
Shimano’s new 12-speed cassettes and wheels come with a new spline pattern too, with smaller more numerous splines, although it’s not the same as the Micro Spline format used in its 12-speed MTB freehubs. The new pattern means that 12-speed Shimano road cassettes are backward compatible with 11-speed freehubs, but you won’t be able to fit an 11-speed cassette to a freehub with the new spline pattern.
The freehub diameter and splines of Campagnolo freehubs are very different to that of Shimano/SRAM.
If you have Campagnolo gearing, ensure that the freehub body is matched. Many aftermarket wheel brands will sell freehub bodies as a replacement part – so it’s possible to switch a Campagnolo wheel to Shimano and vice-versa (Shimano-branded wheels being a key exception here).
It’s perfectly possible to use an 11-speed Campagnolo cassette with a Shimano or SRAM 11-speed drivetrain (and vice versa) though, so you might not need to switch the freehub at all in that instance.
When Campagnolo went 12-speed it simply reduced the width of the 12-speed chains and cassettes to fit on existing 11-speed Campagnolo compatible freehubs. Hallelujah.
The latest Campagnolo wheels use a new standard called N3W. This uses a freehub body that’s shorter and compatible with the Ekar gravel groupset. Campagnolo makes an extender that fits on the N3W freehub, so that it will also accept its road cassettes.
SRAM XD and XDR driver
The increasing popularity of 1× and the advent of 12-speed drivetrains (and the subsequent desire for cogs smaller than 11t) has thrown a spanner in the cross-compatibility charts.
Rather like tubeless tyres and disc brakes, this tech began life on mountain bikes before eventually making its way over to road wheels with the introduction of SRAM’s AXS groupsets. The XDR freehub is slightly wider than XD, so you can run an MTB cassette on an XDR body (with a spacer), but not vice versa.
Freehub ratchet speeds
A feature that’s commonly overlooked in a hub is the ratchet speed, also expressed as points of engagement or the angle of uptake. Hubs typically don’t have fewer than 18 points of engagement per 360-degree revolution, but hubs that offer more can provide the feeling of faster acceleration and pick-up out of corners. Typical values are between 24 and 48, but some hub designs go much higher.
Some brands quote points of engagement, while others tell you their hubs’ engagement angle, which is 360 degrees divided by the number of points of engagement.
Road wheel braking explained
Rim brakes have long been the standard for road bikes. But as mentioned above, disc braking, a technology proven with cars, motorbikes and mountain bikes, is rapidly taking over for road cyclists.
Disc brakes add another element to the decision-making process.