Buyer’s guide to road bike wheels

From factory to custom, clincher to tubular, aero to adventure — we've covered it all

Keith Bontrager famously said of bicycle parts, "Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick two." It's a saying that still completely (and unfortunately) holds true when it comes to road bike wheels, which once you've got a quality frame 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 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 an improved ride quality, faster average speeds, greater braking ability or just a lower weight — something that helps with both acceleration and deceleration.

With thousands of options available, buying new wheels can be a confusing task. This buyer’s guide will help you to know what to look for in wheels, understand the various features and what commonly used terms mean.

The anatomy of a road bike wheel

  • Hub – The wheel spins around the hub that sits at its axis. 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 stomp on the pedals. The hub contains the axle, which is what 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.
  • Nipples – The spokes thread into a special nut called a nipple. Most wheels can be straightened through 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.

What type of road wheels should I buy?

Just as road bikes are now increasingly being designated according to their use (race, endurance, aero, adventure and so on), wheels too 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.

Climbing wheels

Rotating 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 superlight 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, budget options are likely to be made of or feature aluminium, so will be heavy.

Deep-section aerodynamic wheels

Deep racing wheels offer aerodynamic benefits, but only at higher speeds
Deep racing wheels offer aerodynamic benefits, but only at higher speeds

When speed is a priority, a deep-section rim of 50mm or more cuts through the wind with less turbulence. However, the additional depth can cause problems if riding in high cross-winds and often adds weight, which is why mid-depth wheels have become a popular compromise outside of time trials and fast sprint courses.

People who race on deep aerodynamic wheels will often own a set of training wheels for use outside of racing.

Training wheels

While speed and low weight are a priority for racing wheels, training or ‘everyday’ wheels must be durable and able take a beating.

Because rims wear out over time with braking, alloy training wheels are often best. A custom, handbuilt wheelset — where replacement spokes and rims are relatively cheap — are 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 1,500–1,800g for something that is well priced. A budget wheelset is likely to be 1,900g or over.

Gravel / adventure / touring wheels

Back-country road or gravel riding, which is fast growing in popularity, calls on similar demands to a good touring wheelset. The wheels must be near over-built for the occasion and easily serviceable. For this type of riding, a high spoke count (28-32) wheelset is often best.

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 explanation 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. 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.

Tubular tyres explained

Tubular tyres require plenty of work to get them set up
Tubular tyres require plenty of work to get them set up

Tubulars, while less known, are nothing new. While they too use inner tubes, they're stitched into a fully enclosed casing that's then glued to the rim. 

With that in mind, it's easy to see why tubulars are best kept for racing. While they continue to be the standard in professional racing, there are very few everyday riders who can simply (or reliably) repair them when out on the road.

Tubeless tyres explained

Tubeless rims are another mountain biking innovation that's becoming more common on the road — pictured is an airtight rim design
Tubeless rims are another mountain biking innovation that's becoming more common on the road — pictured is an airtight rim design

Tubeless, a technology that's been well-proven in mountain biking, has increasingly got some brands touting its benefits for road too.  

A tubeless road tyre is effectively an airtight clincher system that uses no inner tube. Tubeless rims are also backwards compatible with clincher tyres.

Road wheel rim materials

Modern wheels are available in two common material types: carbon fibre or aluminium. Aluminium is typically found in any wheel below £800 / $1,200 / AU$1,500. Carbon fibre has become the standard for performance race wheels, where stiffness and light weight are an absolute priority.

Aluminium still sets the benchmark for braking performance, although carbon rims are making strides in this area all the time.

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. Rarely do modern road bikes sway from 700c wheels.

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 (23c, 25c). The second series of numbers, in this case 622, is the bead seat diameter (BSD) of the tyre designed to fit a 700c rim.

Road wheel rim width explained

Internal rim width is becoming a very popular metric to look at in road wheels
Internal rim width is becoming a very popular metric to look at in road wheels

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 flats. For those racing, wider rims have been shown to be more aerodynamic too.

The confusing part is that some brands quote external rim width, while others internal. Looking to internal width, anything under 14mm is considered very narrow, 19mm and over is wide and anything between is sufficient for common 23-25c tyres.

Axle sizes

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 130x9mm), and a 100mm (100 QR, or 100x9mm) quick release front.

However, the introduction of disc brakes has greatly confused this and now there are multiple standards for bikes with disc brakes, many of which like the brakes themselves are thru-axle designs borrowed from mountain biking. It is best to refer back to the manufacturer of your bike to find out exactly what standard is used on your model. 

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 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. The latest Shimano-compatible 11-speed wheels include a washer 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.

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.

Ensure that the freehub body is right for your drivetrain — number of gears and brand does matter
Ensure that the freehub body is right for your drivetrain — number of gears and brand does matter

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 cassettes use Shimano’s spline system, so are nearly all cross-compatible. The exception here is SRAM’s new 1x11 specific XD-Driver, which is its own standard.

Campagnolo freehubs

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).

Freehub design and durability

The internal mechanisms of freehubs vary greatly from brand to brand and, as a moving part, do require occasional lubrication and maintenance. Generally, more expensive designs allow easier servicing and maintenance of the mechanism with only basic tools required. Some cheaper designs aren't as easily serviced, while certain brands (such as Shimano) recommend replacing the whole concealed unit if worn.

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 most 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, nor last as long as aluminium rims — especially in the wet. 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. The latest designs do away with the rim braking surface entirely and modify this traditionally reinforced area to achieve lower weight.

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.

Disc brakes are fast becoming popular among those who don't race. Pictured is a Shimano Centerlock spline system to hold a disc brake rotor. The other system is a six-bolt mount
Disc brakes are fast becoming popular among those who don't race. Pictured is a Shimano Centerlock spline system to hold a disc brake rotor. The other system is a six-bolt mount

When buying disc brake wheels, it's worth being aware that there are two types of rotor mount: Center Lock and six-bolt. Center Lock is a splined system 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

Spokes lace the hub to the rim. Generally, wheels with higher spoke counts are stronger and more durable, but this comes with a weight 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 the ride quality will be harsh, with an increased risk of the rim cracking at the spoke attachment point.

Factory vs. handbuilt wheels

The merits of factory vs. handbuilt wheels are often argued.

Confusingly factory wheels are, in fact, commonly built 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 secondhand road bike wheels

Wheels can be expensive and secondhand 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.

  • Rims – Check for wear of the brake surface, 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).

 Best road wheels — our top picks

Congrats if you've come this far! Now that you're clued up on what makes a great road wheel, you can head over to our round-up of the best road wheels currently available on the market.

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
  • 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 lever
  • 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 perishable, where old ones are taped out and new cartridges pressed in place
  • Center Lock: 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 relation of the rim over the hub. On nearly all frame designs, the rim must be perfectly centered 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: effectively a type of clincher tyre system. 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 is slid 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
  • 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 and air pressure to hold the tyre in place. No inner tube is required. This system is backwards compatible with standard clincher tyres and tubes
  • Tubular: a type of tyre, also known as a ‘single’. The inner tube is stitched with the tread and glued to a concave rim. This is the standard for pro-level racing
  • Tubular glue: a specific glue used to bond a tubular tyre with a tubular rim
  • Tubular tape: a substitute to tubular glue, it’s effectively a double-sided tape that’s cleaner and easier to apply than tubular glue — although many argue 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
David Rome

Former Editor, Australia
Dave was the editor of BikeRadar Australia until early 2016.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road and cyclocross
  • Preferred Terrain: Fast and flowing singletrack with the occasional air is the dream. Also happy chasing tarmac bends.
  • Current Bikes: Trek Fuel EX 27.5, SwiftCarbon Detritovore, Salsa Chilli Con Crosso
  • Dream Bike: Custom Independent Fabrications titanium, SRAM Etap and Enve wheels/cockpit
  • Beer of Choice: Gin & tonic
  • Location: Sydney, Australia

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