How To Choose Road Bike Wheels: 4 Most Important Factors

Photo of author
Written by
reviewed by Jack Gazeley
Last Updated:

Upgrading your road bike wheels is one of the best bang-for-buck improvements you can make to boost your bike’s performance.

Road bike wheels have a huge impact on speed, comfort, and control. Whether you’re a speed demon, a long-distance enthusiast, or a casual rider, selecting the right road bike wheels can make a world of difference to your cycling experience.

In this in-depth guide, we’ll walk you through the essential considerations for choosing road bike wheels that are perfectly suited to your cycling.

We’ll be covering:

  • The Anatomy of a Road Bike Wheelset
  • What Makes a Good Road Bike Wheel?
  • Road Bike Wheel Materials
  • The Importance of Rim Width and Depth
  • Road Bike Wheel Compatibility: Freehubs, Brake Types and Tires

Let’s dive in!

How To Choose Road Bike Wheels: Title Image

The Anatomy of a Road Bike Wheelset

A “wheelset” is the term for a complete set of bicycle wheels.

It’s possible to buy the components separately and build the road bike wheels for yourself, but it’s more common to buy the complete wheelset as one.

These are the components typically considered to be part of a road bike wheelset:

  • Rims: the outer circular part of the wheel, where the tire is mounted. Rims vary in materials, depths, and designs, influencing weight, aerodynamics, and strength.
  • Hubs: the central component of the wheel that connects to the bike’s frame via the axle, and onto which the cassette is mounted via the freehub body. Hubs contain bearings that allow the wheels to rotate smoothly.
  • Spokes: thin rods that connect the rim to the hub. Spokes are arranged in a specific pattern and tensioned to provide structural support and stability to the wheel.
  • Nipples: small, threaded components that connect the spokes to the rim. Nipples are adjustable, allowing for tension adjustments to fine-tune the wheel’s strength and trueness (straightness).
  • Axles/Fastenings: a rod-like component that passes through the hub and onto the frame. Road bike wheels are traditionally fastened to the frame by quick-release skewers, but modern disc-brake wheels often use thru-axles instead.
A road bike wheel is calibrated by a machine during manufacture.

What Makes a Good Road Bike Wheel?

There are many factors that go into making a great road bike wheelset. Here are some of the key points serious cyclists look for in a great set of road bike wheels:

#1. Weight

For climbers, weight is an absolute priority.

Weight is always one of the headline specifications of a road bike wheelset. Additional weight makes acceleration slower and increases the power required to maintain speed while climbing.

It’s less of a factor when riding on flat terrain, but is nonetheless a point to pay close attention to when choosing a road bike wheelset.

A typical road bike wheelset can weigh anywhere between 1000 and 2000 grams, with high-quality carbon rims towards the lower end of that range.

A cyclist rides a Cannondale with deep rim road bike wheels.

#2. Aerodynamics

In recent years, the aerodynamics of a wheel have come to be considered even more important than weight for almost all styles of road cycling.

One of the main ways this is achieved is with deeper rims, which reduce the turbulence created by the spokes and allow the laminar flow of air to stick to the wheel for longer as it cuts through the air, reducing aerodynamic drag.

An extreme example is the disc wheels often used by track cyclists and time trialists. Bladed spokes can also improve the aerodynamic efficiency of road bike wheels.

Aerodynamics has a more pronounced effect at higher speeds, so is more important for riding on flat terrain than on steep gradients.

However, although deeper rims come with a weight penalty, the increasing emphasis on aerodynamics over weight is reflected that the modern professional peloton tends to opt for moderately deep rims even on high mountain stages.

Jonas Vingegaard wears the yellow jersey before Stage 12 of the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez

#3. Stiffness

Stiffness is a crucial characteristic of road bike wheels in ensuring that a greater percentage of the power you exert on the pedals is transferred to the road.

When you push down on the pedals, the mechanical energy you generate in your legs is transmitted through the drivetrain, and eventually into the wheel’s rotational kinetic energy.

Stiff wheels minimize the amount of rotational kinetic energy lost to lateral and vertical deformation in these components, resulting in more efficient power transfer.

This efficiency is especially critical during sprints, climbs, and high-speed efforts.

Stiffer wheels also decrease the likelihood of irritating brake rub, in which flex in the wheels allows the brake pads to come into contact with the braking surface during high-intensity efforts.

#4. Hub Quality

High-quality hubs reduce resistance when the wheel is rolling, making the bike more efficient. Good-quality hubs are also likely to be lighter and more durable than the competition.

Hub bearings are traditionally made of steel, but in recent years some high-end manufacturers have switched to ceramic bearings, which further improve durability and performance under load.

How To Choose Road Bike Wheels: 4 Most Important Factors 1

Road Bike Wheel Materials

Steel was traditionally the material of choice for road bike wheel rims, but in the modern era, it has been superseded by carbon fiber and aluminum alloys.

Carbon Fiber Road Bike Wheels

Almost all high-end road bike wheel rims are now made from carbon fiber.

Carbon offers exceptional stiffness-to-weight ratios, can be easily molded into aerodynamic shapes, and has natural vibration-dampening qualities. All of these characteristics make it exceptionally well-suited as a road bike wheel material.

However, carbon fiber is prohibitively expensive for cyclists on a budget, and durability can be an issue as it can be more vulnerable to impact damage than alternative materials.

Carbon fiber also creates issues as a braking surface for rim brakes, as it is prone to overheating under prolonged braking. However, the migration to disc brakes for road bikes has largely negated this issue for high-end road bike wheels.

Aluminum/Alloy Road Bike Wheels

Aluminum road bike wheels can’t quite rival the outright performance of carbon fiber, but are an excellent alternative for entry-level and mid-range wheels.

Aluminum rims are almost always shallow as the material is more difficult to shape, so lack some of the aerodynamic benefits of deeper rims. They also have a slightly inferior strength-to-weight ratio, meaning they’re typically heavier than carbon rims.

However, they offer reliable, relatively consistent stopping power for rim brakes (which remain common on more affordable road bikes), and are much more durable than carbon rims.

While they may not match the elite performance of the best carbon fiber road bike wheels, good-quality aluminum wheels still offer strong performance relative to entry-level models.

Close-up of a deep-section bike wheel rim.

The Importance of Rim Width and Depth

Understanding Rim Width

In days gone by, conventional wisdom held that when it came to road bike tires, thinner meant faster.

However, recent research has turned this thinking on its head. Contrary to popular belief, wider tires can actually make you faster.

Not only do their wider contact patches with the ground mean they deform less, reducing rolling resistance, but the lower pressures accommodated by wider tires provide a smoother ride in real-world conditions.

This allows the rider to put down power more consistently and reduces the rotational kinetic energy lost to vertical vibrations when bumping over imperfect roads.

So, where standard road bike tire widths used to be 23 mm (or even thinner), many road cyclists – including the pros – now run tires between 28 and 32 mm.

However, to reap the full rewards of a wider tire, it needs to be paired with a wider rim.

Internal rim widths of around 13 mm used to be fairly standard for road bike wheels, but modern rims are typically anywhere between 19 and 25 mm.

So, if you want to take advantage of wider tires, internal rim width is an important consideration.

Understanding Rim Depth

As touched on previously, deeper rims sacrifice a small amount of extra weight for substantial aerodynamic gains.

Here’s a breakdown of typical road bike rim depths and how they affect performance:

Shallow Rims (<30 mm)

A cyclist in full lycra riding a red road bike on a sunny day.

In modern bike racing, any rims with a depth of less than 30 mm are typically considered “shallow”.

Shallow rims are lightweight and responsive, making them well-suited to climbing steep gradients, and are also more resistant to crosswinds than deeper rims.

Almost all aluminum rims will fall in the “shallow” category.

Mid-Depth Rims (30 mm to 50 mm)

The peloton rounds a corner in Madrid at the Vuelta a Espana.
© Unipublic/Charly López

Mid-depth rims fall in the range of 30 mm to 50 mm.

Road bike wheels in this range offer a good balance between aerodynamics and weight savings. They can provide a noticeable aerodynamic advantage without being overly affected by crosswinds.

They’re also well-suited to all but the steepest of climbs, on which the rider travels at such low speed that weight supersedes aerodynamics.

If – like most of us – your budget only stretches to one set of good-quality road bike wheels at most, the versatility of mid-depth rims makes them the obvious choice.

Deep Rims (50+ mm)

Anything above 50 mm would typically be described as a “deep rim”.

These rims exaggerate the aerodynamic benefits available, particularly at high speeds, but to the detriment of weight and stability in crosswinds. They’re well-suited to time trials and flat, fast road stages.

Disc Wheels

Jonas Vingegaard climbs to victory on Stage 16 of the 2023 Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez

Disc wheels take the concept to the extreme, with the rim effectively extending all the way to the hub.

They’re exceptionally efficient in terms of aerodynamics, but sluggish on any uphill kicks and positively nightmarish in crosswinds.

On flat time trials, you’ll often see the professionals using a disc wheel at the rear paired with a deep rim at the front in an attempt to balance the aerodynamic benefits with stability.

They’re commonplace in the controlled environment of track cycling but banned under UCI rules for mass-start road races – meaning time trialing is the only situation you’re likely to see them used on the road.

Depth Alone Isn’t Everything…

However, it’s also important to understand that depth alone isn’t the sole consideration; deep rims that aren’t properly shaped will throw away much of the benefit, which can sometimes be the case with cheap Chinese carbon wheels bought online, for example.

This is an area in which reputable manufacturers really earn their salt. Two different 50 mm carbon wheelsets may look roughly the same on paper based on their headline specifications but can perform drastically differently.

A black road bike on a wet tarmac road.

Road Bike Wheel Compatibility: Freehubs, Brake Types and Tires

Before you rush out to find your ideal road bike wheelset based on everything we’ve discussed so far, take a moment to factor in all the compatibility issues that can arise with road bike wheels.

Here we’ll quickly run through the three most significant compatibility factors: freehub standards, brake types, and tire widths and systems.

Freehub Standards

The freehub body is the component that protrudes from the hub, onto which the cassette is fitted.

Unfortunately, freehub standards are not one-size-fits-all.

Different manufacturers use different spline patterns on their freehub bodies. When replacing a road bike wheel, you’ll need to ensure that the freehub it comes fitted with is compatible with your groupset.

As a general rule, Shimano and SRAM freehubs and cassettes are interchangeable, but Campagnolo cassettes are proprietary and will only work with Campagnolo freehub bodies.

Matters are complicated slightly if you’re using SRAM XD or XDR components – check out our full guide here for more information.

Bear in mind that it is a relatively straightforward job to change a freehub body if necessary, although the replacement parts can become expensive – particularly if they’re fairly niche.

In most cases, it’s preferable to purchase a wheelset already equipped with a compatible freehub body.

Brake Types: Disc Vs Rim Brakes

Close-up of a Dura-Ace hub on a road bike wheel with a disc brake.

In almost all cases, road bike wheels will be designed to work with either disc brakes or rim brakes.

While each has its pros and cons, your frame will only be compatible with one of them – so assuming you already have a frame in mind for your wheelset, you have little room for maneuver when it comes to choosing one or the other.

Tire Width Compatibility

While we’ve already touched on the relationship between tire and rim width, it’s also important to check that the tire width you intend you intend to use is compatible with your frame.

Some frames (particularly older ones) simply won’t have the clearance to accommodate wider tires, meaning there’s less value in using wider rims.

Moreover, if your frame only has clearance for, say, 25 mm tires, it could create serious problems if paired with super-wide rims. Check out more info on tire and rim compatibility here.

A row of road bike wheel rims hang from a rack.

Tubeless and Tubular Systems

Compatibility issues also arise when it comes to tubeless and tubular tire systems.

If you want to run tubeless tires, you’ll need to make sure you purchase rims that are tubeless-ready (or clincher rims that are compatible with self-applied rim tape), and the same is true for tubular tires.

However, you can usually run clincher tires in a tubeless-ready setup if that’s your preference or you get a puncture out on a ride.

The same is also technically true of using clincher tires on tubular-compatible rims, although it’s not recommended due to poor ride quality and the dangerous risk of the tire rolling off the rim while cornering.

A cyclist on a turquoise road bike rounds a corner during a race.

Now you know all about road bike wheels…

You’re ready to go out on the hunt for yourself!

The best road bike wheels for you will vary depending on your budget, the type of riding you want to do, and personal preference.

With the information in this guide, however, you should be well-prepared to make an informed decision on the road bike wheels that are right for your riding!

Photo of author
As a UESCA-certified cycling coach, Rory loves cycling in all its forms, but is a road cyclist at heart. He clocked early on that he had much more of a talent for coaching and writing about bikes than he ever did racing them. In recent years, the focus of Rory's love affair with cycling has shifted to bikepacking - a discipline he found well-suited to his "enthusiasm-over-talent" approach.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.