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.
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; 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 bike.
Improvements can include improved ride quality, faster average speeds, greater braking ability or just a lower weight – something that helps with both acceleration and deceleration.
Furthermore, the rise of technologies such as 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.
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, we’re generally talking about 700c wheelsets and to make things easier, we’ve split them up into rim and disc brake 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 to know what to look for in wheels, understand 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
- Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V TLR: £1,200 / $1,300 / €2,200
- Cadex 42 Disc: £2,500 / $3,200
- ENVE SES 3.4 Disc: £3,150 / $3,200
- Hunt 30 Carbon Aero Disc: £779 / $926 / 854
- Specialized Roval SLX 24 Disc: £650 / $800 / €800
- Vittoria Qurano 46 Disc: £1,699 / $2,199 / €1,990
- Zipp 202 NSW: £2,678 / $3,200
- Campagnolo Bora One 35 DB: £1,910 / €1907
- DT Swiss CR1400 Dicut 25: £700 / $1,047 / €827
- Easton EA90 SL Disc: £1,050 / $1,000
- ENVE Foundation 65: £1,850 / $1,600
- Parcours Strade: £999
- Reynolds AR 41 DB: £1,100 / $1,299
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
Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V TLR
- £1,200 / $1,300 / €2,200
- 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
- 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.
ENVE SES 3.4 Disc
- £3,150 / $3,200
- 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 30 Carbon Aero Disc
- £779 / $926 / €854
- 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 include a hooked rim, which helps with compatibility charts.
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
- 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.
Vittoria Qurano 46 Disc
- £1,699 / $2,199 / €1,990
- 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
- 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.
Campagnolo Bora One 35 DB
- £1,910 / €1907
- Low weight and excellent performance
- Good build quality
Optimised for 25mm and 28mm tyres, Campagnolo’s Bora One 35 DB wheels use a slightly more traditional rim shape than the most progressive wheels on the market, but weight (1,494g for the pair) is good and they feel great on the road.
The Mega G3 spoke lacing pattern offers a unique look too, and the build quality is as good as you’d expect from the legendary Italian component manufacturer. You also get ceramic bearings – something that’s often an aftermarket upgrade on even the most expensive wheels.
We’d love to see Campagnolo push the envelope just a little more (a slightly wider, tubeless rim would be perfect), but even so, these are still great wheels.
DT Swiss CR1400 Dicut 25
- £700 / $1,047 / €827
- 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
- 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.
ENVE Foundation 65
- £1,850 / $1,600
- ENVE quality at a (slightly) more affordable price
- Light and fast although subject to cross-wind buffeting
ENVE’s 65mm deep Foundation wheelset offers you the prestige brand at a (relatively) lower price than its SES wheels. Unlike the SES wheels, the Foundation’s 21mm internal/28mm external width rims are identical front to rear. They’re tubeless-ready with hookless beads.
The Foundation 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.
- 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
- 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.
Best rim brake road bike wheels
DT Swiss P-1800 Spline
- £335 / $483 / €388
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- Spokes: Pieces of wire or similar 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, adventure 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 creating that ‘pro look’. An aerodynamic wheel will usually feature a deeper section rim, with a rim depth of around 30mm being the typical starting point.
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.
Aerodynamic rims are often made from carbon fibre in order to keep weight low. However, some options (such as Mavic’s Cosmic Pro Carbon wheels) still feature aluminium rims with carbon fairings bonded on, and these are usually heavier as a result.
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 wear out over time with braking (if you have a rim brake bike), 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 – is a good choice (see below for more on these). Other options are budget wheels from major brands, which can be quite solid 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 finally starting to make serious in-roads 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 one of our recent podcast episodes, where a few 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 huge internal pressure of a clincher or tubeless tyre while also being used as a braking surface (on rim brake wheels) adds significant weight.
Tubular tyres can also be ridden flat for short distances, which can be advantageous in a race scenario.
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) 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 used to spec a 650c wheel on smaller frame sizes and these days some fit slightly larger 650b wheels, 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, 19mm and over is wide and anything between is sufficient for common 23 to 25mm tyres.
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 if the rim can integrate with the tyre more smoothly. This is because a wider rim can help form a smoother aerofoil shape with the wider road tyres that are currently on trend.
According to Josh Poertner of Silca, the rim’s external width should be at least 105 per cent of the width of the tyre for optimum aerodynamics – so if you want to use 28mm tyres, for example, you need 29.4mm wide rims to maintain the optimum aerodynamic performance of the system.
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, many 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.
This spline system hasn’t changed a great deal in the last 20 years, with the exception of 11-speed forcing a wider freehub. The latest Shimano-compatible 11-speed wheels include a spacer for use with 8-, 9- or 10-speed cassettes.
If you have an 11-speed drivetrain you will need to ensure the wheels are 11-speed compatible. Sadly, it’s not possible to simply replace a 10-speed Shimano freehub with an 11-speed one.
It is possible to buy a cassette that will allow you to use an 11-speed drivetrain with 10-speed wheels. Such a thing exists from the likes of Token, Edco and others. Just be aware that they are generally more expensive.
Alternatively, Shimano’s 11-speed 11-34t cassettes, for example, will fit on its 10-speed hubs – but be aware you’ll need a GS (medium cage) rear derailleur to use this cassette.
Beware of older Shimano 10-speed wheels from 2011. These featured a narrower 10-speed-only freehub body with taller splines and so will not work with any other speed cassette.
SRAM 10- and 11-speed cassettes use Shimano’s spline system, so are nearly all cross-compatible. The exceptions are newer SRAM cassettes designed for its XD driver (more on this below).
Shimano Micro Spline
Not wanting to be left behind in the new 12-speed arms race, Shimano developed its own tiny-cog compatible freehub, which it calls Micro Spline.
This has only appeared on Shimano’s mountain bike wheels so far, but when Shimano road groupsets eventually move to 12-speed, it’s likely we’ll see it appear on road wheels too.
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.
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.
Freehub ratchet speeds
A feature that’s commonly overlooked in a hub is the ratchet speed or the angle of uptake. Hubs typically don’t go lower than 18 points of engagement per 360-degree revolution, but hubs that offer more can provide the feeling of faster acceleration out of corners.
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 fast becoming a popular choice for road cyclists.
While most wheels are still designed for rim brakes, disc brakes add another element to the decision-making process.
Rim brake road wheels
Many road bike wheels are still designed for use with rim brakes, which means the rim must offer a consistent braking surface.
This is why good quality aluminium rims claim to offer a ‘machined’ surface, which generally guarantees an even braking surface at manufacturing.
Over time, braking in gritty conditions will not just wear down the brake pads, but the rims too. A worn brake track can be dangerous because the high pressure of a road tyre can cause the rim to crack and explode.
Look for a small dimple or groove on the surface of your rim – this is a wear indicator. When it starts disappearing, it’s time to get your rim or wheel replaced.
Carbon rims typically don’t perform as well when braking, especially in the wet or in extreme conditions such as descending long, steep mountains. Keep this in mind if you’re considering a carbon wheel for everyday use.
Disc brake road wheels
Disc brake wheels feature a hub with a mount for the disc rotor.
Because of the high forces these rotors exert on a wheel when braking, disc-brake wheels often feature higher spoke counts, which add a little weight and can negatively affect aerodynamics.
The flip side is that rims on disc brake wheels can be made lighter and more aerodynamic because they aren’t also required to act as a braking surface.
It’s worth noting that fitting disc brakes to a road bike isn’t as simple as swapping out the wheels, both the frame and fork must be designed to accept disc brakes too.
When buying disc brake wheels, it’s worth being aware that there are two types of rotor mount: centrelock and six-bolt.
Centrelock is a splined system originally from Shimano, which, with the use of an adaptor, can also use six-bolt rotors. Six-bolt hubs can only fit six-bolt rotors.
Spokes lace the hub to the rim. Generally, wheels with higher spoke counts are stronger and more durable, but this comes with a weight and slight aero penalty.
Typically a spoke is made from a piece of stainless steel wire that’s been cold-forged and then had a thread added to it. Some higher-end wheels can also feature spokes made from aluminium, carbon fibre or even titanium.
When it comes to a quality wheel build, correct spoke tension is critical. Too loose and the spokes can unwind, and the constant flex will eventually lead to broken spokes or cracked rims. Too tight and there’s an increased risk of the rim cracking at the spoke attachment point or a nipple failing.
Factory vs. handbuilt wheels
The merits of factory vs. handbuilt wheels are often argued.
Confusingly, factory wheels are, in fact, commonly built at least partly by hand. The key distinction however is that factory wheels are built to an exact specification and you buy them as an off-the-shelf item, often with proprietary spoke and rim designs.
Handbuilt wheels take a more classical approach, where the hubs, spokes, nipples and rims can be bought separately and chosen to best suit a rider’s individual needs.
Generally speaking, race wheels, whether climbing or aerodynamic, are mostly sold as factory options. The big wheel brands dominate this space due to their research, development and marketing through sponsored teams.
Handbuilt wheels are commonly kept for training, long-distance and everyday uses. However, there are of course examples where the opposites are true.
Buying second-hand road bike wheels
Wheels can be expensive and second-hand items are commonly available for sale. Just as with a bike, the actual use and repair history of the wheels is crucially important when buying used.
Your first step is to check how straight (true) the wheel is. Give it a spin and ensure it’s not buckled. Also, check for any ‘hop’ within the height of the rim – nobody wants an egg-shaped wheel.
- Rims: Check for wear of the brake surface (on rim brake wheels), which should be flat and without any concave shape. Look for any sign of chips and then inspect the whole rim for cracks, especially around the spokes.
- Spokes: Check that all the spokes are straight and without gouges or scratches. Squeeze the spokes two at a time – all the ones on the right should feel roughly even in tension with each other. Now do the same for the left, which should feel similar. Unevenness is a sign of a bent rim that’s being held in shape by spoke tension.
- Hubs: Spin the wheels by holding onto the hub axles. The bearings should spin freely without any drag or notching. Check that the freehub spins yet grabs when you rotate it forward. Also, be sure to double-check freehub compatibility with your gears (as outlined above).
Road wheel glossary
- Asymmetric rim: As the rear cassette sits on the right side of the hub, the point at which the spokes attach from the rear hub is offset to the left. With this, an asymmetric rim is designed to give a more direct path from these offset spokes to the rim, with the desired result being a sturdier and stiffer wheel, and more even left–right spoke tensions
- Axle: The hub spins around the axle, which is attached to the dropouts of the frame and fork. On a road bike, the axle is always hollow and most commonly designed to work with a quick release skewer
- Bladed spoke: A flattened spoke that’s designed to cut through the wind with less resistance. Bladed spokes are common in high-end wheels and also serve the purpose of providing an edge for a tool to hold onto, which can allow for a higher spoke tension to be achieved. Top spoke brands DT Swiss and Sapim both claim that their best bladed spokes are not only their lightest option, but also the strongest and most durable
- Butted spoke: A process that sees the centre of the spoke being made thinner than the outer sections. When done correctly, this is known to encourage spoke flex away from weak points, therefore leading to improved durability at a lower weight. Double-butted means two different thicknesses and triple-butted means three thicknesses
- Cartridge bearing: In this system, bearings are contained in a cartridge that features the ball bearings and inner and outer race as one unit. The outer race is a tight press-fit into the hub shell, while the axle contacts the inner race. These items are considered disposable, where old ones are tapped out and new cartridges pressed in place
- Centrelock: a Shimano spline system for mounting a brake rotor onto the hub
- Clincher: The most common type of tyre system on a road bike. Here a bead on the tyre locks with a lip on the rim. Clincher tyres use inner tubes to hold air
- Cup and cone bearing: The alternative to cartridge bearing hubs is cup and cone. It’s most common on entry-level wheels and all those sold by Shimano. These feature loose ball bearings that run on a permanent outer bearing race, with a cone-shaped inner race that can be adjusted
- Disc brake: Brake technology proven in mountain biking (and automotive prior to that) that places a thin plate-like braking surface (rotor) at the hub with a caliper that clamps onto it to slow the bike down
- Dish: The relative position of the rim to the hub. On nearly all frame designs, the rim must be perfectly centred over the hub
- Double-wall rim: This refers to the internal cross-section of a rim. Where a single wall rim has one layer of material for the spokes to connect to and the tyre to sit on, a double wall rim adds an additional level of material separating the two. This additional layer creates a box type section, which greatly aids in rim stiffness and wheel durability
- Eyelet: A reinforcing ring in the spoke hole of a rim. An eyeleted rim typically allows for greater spoke tension and therefore a more durable wheel. A rim that claims to feature double eyelets will have the eyelets travel through both walls of the rim (see double wall rim)
- Freehub body: The mechanism on the rear wheel that allows a rider to coast or pedal backwards without resistance
- Hub: Sitting at the centre of the wheel is the hub, which contains the axle, bearings and rear freehub and holds the spokes
- Machined sidewall: A finishing process after the rim is made, which helps ensure its braking faces are parallel and even
- Nipple: The nipple is the nut of the spoke. Typically the nipple sits at the rim, though some wheel designs place the nipple at the hub
- Open-tubular: A type of clincher tyre system that replicates the construction of a traditional cotton tubular, but in clincher form. Open tubulars differ slightly in their manufacturing technique, which is generally to a level similar to high-end tubulars
- Quick-release: A tool-free mechanism for attaching a wheel to a bike. It consists of a threaded rod connected to a lever-actuated cam assembly. The rod slides through a hollow hub axle and a nut on the opposing side allows tension adjustment
- Radial lacing: Where the spoke leaves the hub and meets the rim in a straight line. This is the easiest form of wheel building and results in the shortest length (lightest weight) spoke possible. This style is popular for front wheels, but does not resist torque appropriately for use on the driveside of a rear wheel or with disc brakes
- Rim: The outward hoop of the wheel that holds the tyre and acts as a braking surface for rim brakes
- Rim tape (AKA rim strip): Protective tape used to cover the multiple spoke holes in a rim. Without this, an inner tube would expand through the rim holes and puncture. Some top wheelsets from Shimano, Fulcrum, Mavic and others do not require rim tape. Tubeless setups often require tubeless-specific rim tape because the system must be made airtight, so make sure to check you have the correct tape for your tyres
- Sealed bearing: Another name for cartridge bearing
- Sleeve join: A method by which an alloy rim is joined to form a circle. Sleeve joins are a form of rivet; they are cheaper to produce than a welded join
- Spoke: Bars or wire rods that connect the hub to the rim. They can be made from steel, stainless steel (most common), titanium, aluminium or carbon fibre
- Spoke flange: The section of the hub that the spokes attach to
- Spoke gauge: This refers to the thickness of the spoke. Most common is ‘14G’, which commonly equates to a 2mm diameter, ‘15G’ is thinner at 1.8mm. Therefore, ‘straight gauge spokes’ feature a single diameter, whereas the most common double-butted spokes with a 2/1.8/2mm diameter across the length are sometimes referred to as ‘14/15G’
- Three-cross: This refers to the lacing pattern of the spokes where each spoke crosses past another three times. This pattern is most common on 32 or higher spoked wheels
- Thru-axle: A large axle that slides through closed frame dropouts and the hub for a stiffer and more secure wheel connection. Thru-axles are commonly used on mountain bikes (especially higher end ones) but are gradually becoming a more frequent sight on road bikes
- Trueness: This refers to how straight a rim runs, adjusted via spoke tension (hence the expression to ‘true’ a wheel)
- Tubeless: An airtight clincher tyre system that uses a tight tyre fit, air pressure and tubeless sealant to hold the tyre in place. No inner tube is required. This system is backwards compatible with standard clincher tyres and tubes, but tubeless tyres require tubeless-specific rims
- Tubular: A type of tyre, also known as a ‘tub’, a ‘single’ or a ‘sew-up’. The inner tube is stitched into a carcass that has tread on the outside and is glued to a concave rim. This is the current standard for pro-level racing, but tubeless may be about to take over
- Tubular glue: A specific glue used to bond a tubular tyre with a tubular rim. There are different kinds of tubular glue for aluminium and carbon rims
- Tubular tape: A substitute for tubular glue, it’s effectively a double-sided tape that’s cleaner and easier to apply than tubular glue – although some argue it’s not as good as glue
- Two-cross: This refers to the lacing pattern of the spokes where each spoke crosses past another twice. It’s most common on wheels with 20-28 spoke counts
- Valve hole: A hole in the rim for the tube’s/tubular/tubeless valve to fit through
- Wear indicator: Grooves or small holes on a rim’s braking surface to show rim condition. When the grooves or holes become flush with the rest of the rim, replacement is advised
- Welded join: A method by which an alloy rim is joined to form a circle. Welded rims are typically more expensive than sleeve joins because this method results in a stronger and lighter connection