Whatever your type of cycling, this brief guide is designed to give you some of the main practical and technical factors you might like to consider when buying bike wheels. We hope its useful for cyclists who are upgrading their wheels or who are starting to get serious about their rides, whether for touring or competitive road racing, TT, triathlon or mountain biking.
Many bikes are supplied with a good set of wheels, but once you get involved in a particular area of competitive cycling, you could also find that they don't suit it very well.
It should also be said that its the first new set you buy that is likely to lighten your bike the most, assuming you buy a mid-priced set of wheels, for example in road-racing that could be the popular Mavic Kysrium or Fulcrum Red Metal. This is because once the bike wheels have been lightened by the first relatively easy design steps, it becomes increasingly difficult to lose more weight while maintaining strength; so the price rises steeply for each improvement.
As you might expect, the lighter and stronger the wheel, the more you have to pay, as getting both these benefits at the same time requires a lot of research and development from the cycle wheel manufacturers. In general, carbon based wheels deliver the top performance in this respect for competitive cycling. For instance the road racing Campagnolo Zonda or Zipp 404.
The rigidity of a wheel is a different matter and depends more on the level of responsiveness you need. Very rigid wheels are excellent for acceleration, but not for comfort over a long ride. So you'll find wheels like the Zipp 808 used in time trials, but not so often for triathlons, where lighter more forgiving wheels are used.
A considerable amount of research and development goes into producing aero spokes to minimise the drag. In the case of a higher profile wheel, the turbulence is reduced because the air is flowing past a solid, smooth surface.
Secondly, the higher profile wheels are more rigid and responsive to acceleration and power input (less flexing of the wheel).
The choice of whether you use high profile wheels depends on your type of cycling event. So length of ride, comfort, stops and starts and response to power input all come into play in any decision.
We cover some of the the most important considerations for different types of cycling below.
For long distance races, many competitors value lightweight wheels above everything else, because its the weight that saps your energy over time. Also for high speed events, aerodynamic wheel qualities are important, more so in consistently flat events, than in hilly ones.
This is where aero spoke design in a lightweight wheel is crucial. High profile wheels are not often a good option because of the lack of comfort over distance as a result of their rigidity. So in this category you'll find competitors often using a wheel like the Fulcrum Racing 1 or the Campagnolo Neutron.
The other key factor is wheel responsiveness (rigidity), so you can accelerate rapidly, transferring maximum power at the right time.
In any one event there can be several different types of terrain to cover, so the choice can be quite complex.
Unless you are in a long distance event, the weight and comfort are less important than the rigidity of the MTB wheels as in many mountain biking competitive events you need maximum responsiveness from your wheel to keep control.
So, if you want a lightweight wheel, make sure its strong as well. For commuting you can probably put up with a more rigid wheel than for touring, as the distances are normally shorter.