Upgrading your wheels can be a simple and quick way to dramatically improve the speed, feel and ride quality of your bike. In this guide we take a look at why upgrade wheels make such a different, and what you should look for when making an upgrade...
Why upgrade your wheels?
Almost any road bike stands to benefit from an upgraded set of wheels. Unless you have a £6000 super bike, the chances are the wheels that came with your ride are not the best available on the market; but why should you upgrade? what are the performance benefits from upgrading?
The most significant change with most wheel upgrades is a reduction in rotational mass. The effort you put into riding causes your wheels to rotate; therefore the heavier they are the more effort is required to rotate the mass. This means that any reduction in weight of your wheels is significantly more noticable than "static" mass reduction in your frame for example. By reducing the weight of your wheels you reduce the effort required, or put another way, you increase the speed you will see for the same effort. That's an upgrade!
Weight reduction usually comes from the materials that are used for the build of the wheels. For example, exotic materials such as carbon fibre and titanium have allowed wheels to be built that are just as strong as alloy versions, but significantly lighter.
The next big advantage that you stand to gain from a wheel upgrade is aerodynamics. Look at any time trial bike and you'll see deep section rims and bladed spokes are often used on the wheels. The advantage of these is that they "cut" through the air better than "box" section rims that are typically found on production bikes. Aerodynamic rims are not just for time trials though; for racing and sportive riding, they can present significant gains in terms of lowering the required effort.
There are two principle disadvantages with using deeper section rims though. Firstly, the added material on the rim increases weight; second, the added depth the the rim profile can cause problems with the bike being less controllable in strong cross winds. Therefore there is always a compromise to be met; for calm days on flat courses (such as time trials) disk wheels could be used, however for extreme climbing events low profile rims will be used to reduce weight. A good compromise is rims around the depth of 50mm; these provide a good balance between aerodynamic performance and acceptable weight for rolling courses.
The rims of your wheels are the primary factor in the aerodynamic profile, however in terms of reducing rolling resistance there are also substantial gains to be made in the hubs. Upgrading to high quality bearings will dramatically improve the feel and performance of your wheels; helping them to rotate with ease, and reducing the noise that they generate. Moving from low grade to high grade wheels will often see the switch between cup-and-cone bearings and cartridge bearings; cartridge bearings fully enclose the bearings inside a sealed unit, and therefore reduces the chance of debris or water damaging the bearings during use. The cartridge containing the bearings can then be popped out and replaced easily, reducing the chance of damage and the need for careful adjustment that is often encountered with cup and cone bearings.
The evolution of the wheel...
Each year companies in the bike trade seek to improve their products; be it in terms of weight, aerodynamics, feel or even just appearance. There are always incremental and ground breaking changes going on. Even if your wheels were the height of technology a few years ago, the chances are there is new technology that has significantly improved the products further over the last few years. If you're looking for a way to 'revolutionise' your ride, a new set of hoops is a great choice.
The good news is that it is not just high end wheels that benefit from evolution. Because of the "trickle-down" effect, the high end technology we see in the top end wheels today will often be found in the next rung down the ladder the following year. Therefore every budget can benefit from improvements in technology, and even if you are buying a low-cost wheel set, the technology will likely be better than a few years previous.
Match your wheels to your performance...
Everyone starts somewhere, and we all seek to improve the more we ride. Therefore it is only logical that as your riding improves, so should the quality of your equipment. Upgrading your wheels will significantly improve the performance of most bikes, and if you started with an entry level bike it is a great place to start your upgrades.
View it as an upgrade to match your performance; the better you get, the more you will feel the incremental increases in performance from upgrading your wheels.