How to Choose Road Bike Wheels? (In-Depth GUIDE) [2022]

27.5″ disc brake road bike wheel vs. 28″ rim brake road bike wheel

New wheels are one of the best bike upgrades you can make, but also one of the most expensive ones. They can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars…

So, how to choose them to maximize the value you get?

In this guide, you find out.

Although I recommend reading the entire article because it is packed with helpful information, you can skip to the Summary for essential tips.

Let’s dive in.

Do You Even Need to Upgrade Your Current Wheels?

A great question you can ask yourself that can potentially save you a lot of money is:

Do I need to upgrade my wheelset?

Well, it depends on you, your goals, riding preference, budget, etc.

Before we jump into the guide, it will help if you also answer the following questions:

  • What type of rider are you?
  • How often and how far do you ride your bike?
  • In what type of terrain do you ride the most?
  • What is your budget?
  • Do you prefer speed, comfort, low weight, and durability?

What is a better upgrade? Carbon wheels or a power meter?


How to Choose Road Bike Wheels?

Below, I explain all the important features to consider when choosing road bike wheels. However, most of the tips apply to gravel, mountain, or other types of bicycle wheels.

Road Bike Wheels Size

The vast majority of road bikes come with 28 (700c) wheels. However, small road bike sizes (3XS, 2XS, etc.) may come with 27.5″ wheels.

Canyon 2XS vs. Canyon L wheel sizes compared
Canyon 2XS vs. Canyon L – 27.5″ vs 28″ road bike wheels compared

The 28 wheels are also referred to as 700c wheels or even 29er (29″) wheels. They have a rim diameter of 622mm. (Source)

Canyon Ultimate CF SL 8 WMN Disc Di2 Components Geometry Chart
27.5″ vs. 28″ road bike wheels (click to enlarge)

So, if you have a small bike size, make sure to double-check your wheels diameter to avoid an unpleasant surprise.

Material: Carbon vs. Aluminum

The first thing to consider is the rim material. Rims are made of carbon, aluminum, or its combination (carbon rim and aluminum brake track).

Carbon road bike wheels are known for their excellent weight-to-stiffness ratio. Carbon also allows manufacturers to produce deeper rim depths (more about rim depth below), so the wheels are more aero while maintaining a reasonably low weight.

NOTE: A few manufacturers produce deep-section aluminum wheels, but they are not widespread due to their high weight.

Aluminum road bike wheels are popular for their lower price than carbon wheels. Aluminum wheels are mostly shallow (rim depth of around 25mm). Manufacturers use them as stock wheels on more affordable road bikes.

The following table summarizes the advantages and disadvantages of these wheel types.

Wheels (Rims) MaterialProsCons
Aluminum (or Alloy)• More affordable*
• Better braking performance in wet conditions or long descents (rim brakes)
• Durable
• Heavier than carbon wheels
• Not as stiff (assuming the same rim weight)
• Less aero
Carbon• Lightweight
• Stiff
• More aero (widely available in various rim depths)
• Look cool
• Less affordable**
• Worse braking performance in wet conditions or long descents (rim brakes)
• The braking track of the rim brake carbon wheels wears off over time.
Comparison of the pros and cons of materials used for road bike wheels (rims).
*The price of aluminum wheels ranges from dozens of dollars to $1500.
**The price of carbon wheels starts from around $300 and can easily exceed $2000.
Please, keep in mind that these price ranges may vary. I included them to give beginners a better idea of what they can expect.

So, what wheel materials should you choose?

Well, it also depends on your riding style. For example, if you are a climber who wants a lightweight bike, high-end aluminum wheels may be a better option than mid-range carbon wheels at the same price.

My general recommendations are the following.

Buy carbon wheels if:

  • You have a larger budget.
  • You like deep-section (aero) rims.
  • You want better performance on flats and hilly terrain, thanks to the deeper rim profile.

Buy aluminum wheels if:

  • Your budget is tight.
  • You need affordable or spare training wheels.
  • You prefer better durability and braking performance (rim brake wheels) over low weight and aerodynamics.

TIP: Browse the best road bike wheels (aluminum and carbon).


Brake Type: Disc vs. Rim

The second thing that narrows down the available options on the market is the brake type.

Some wheels are available in both options – either for disc or rim brakes.

Did you know that about 85% of new road bikes in 2021 came with disc brakes? (Source)

Disc brake wheels use a thru-axle (also called through-axle), while rim brake wheels quick-release skewer.

Quick release vs. Through Axle side by side
Quick release vs. through axle (thru-axle)

The thru-axle standards differ. Its dimensions for the front wheels are almost always the same (100mm x 12mm), but for the rear wheels differ:

  • 142mm x 12mm
  • 135mm x 12mm
  • etc.

You can measure your thru-axle dimensions with a caliper and meter or check out your bike’s manual to determine its dimensions.

Clincher vs. Tubular vs. Tubeless

Road bike wheels use one of the following three types of tires:

  1. Clincher
  2. Tubular
  3. or Clincher (tubeless-ready)
Illustration of different types of wheel profiles (clincher vs. tubular vs. tubeless)
Clincher vs. Tubular vs. Tubeless Tires

The following table summarizes the most important pros & cons of these tire/rim types.

Wheel/TireProsCons
Clincher• Easy to replace
• Easy to repair
• More prone to puncture
• Heavier than tubular or tubeless
Tubular• Allows very low and high tire pressure
• Less prone to puncture
• Lightweight
• Difficult to replace
• Difficult to repair
• More expensive than clincher
Tubeless• Allows lower tire pressure
• Self-repairing capability (sealant
fills out small holes)
• Difficult to replace
• Difficult to repair
• More expensive than clincher
Pros & cons of clincher, tubular, and tubeless wheels/tires
Sources: theproscloset.com, cyclingtips.com

I recommend clincher or clincher-tubeless for beginners and advanced riders. Tubular wheels are suitable for pros or experienced riders.

You can learn more about all types below.

Clincher

Clincher wheels/tires are the most widespread. The rim bed is compatible with a clincher tire supported by an inner tube (made of rubber or latex).

Replacing the inner tube or the tire is the easiest of all types of wheels. They are also cheaper than clincher (tubeless-ready) and tubular. That’s why clinchers are so popular.

The major disadvantages of clincher wheels are that they are heavier than tubular wheels (because of the rim sidewalls), and you cannot use them with as low pressures as tubular or clincher tubeless tires.

Tubular

Tubular wheels have no rim sidewalls (resulting in lower wheels weight) because the tire is glued directly on them. They also have no inner tube inside.

Not many hobby cyclists use tubular tires because of more complicated maintenance. However, they are more widespread among pros.

On the other hand, you can use them with lower pressures to get better riding comfort and puncture resistance.


You might also be interested in these best budget road bike wheels.


Tubeless

Tubeless tires (also called clincher tubeless-ready) are becoming increasingly popular. They don’t use the inner tube as standard clincher tires. Instead, they use liquid sealant that fills out gaps and possible leaks.

Thanks to this sealant, tubeless tires have a self-repairing ability. If you get a puncture, the sealant fills it and allows you to continue riding.

You can also use tubeless tires with lower pressures for better comfort and better puncture resistance.

The biggest downside of tubeless wheels is their higher price and weight than tubular wheels.

Rim Depth

Rim depth is one of the most critical features of wheels that influence aerodynamics and weight.

The equation is simple:

THE DEEPER THE RIMS = THE MORE AERO = THE HIGHER WEIGHT

Rim depth vs aerodynamics (the deeper wheels, the more aero)
Rim depth vs. aerodynamics

Deep section wheels also have better inertia. So once you make them spin on flats and rolling terrain, they will keep their momentum easier than on shallow rims.

The rim depths of around 45mm are the most versatile. They are aero while reasonably lightweight. They are suitable for flats, and hilly terrain, and you can climb with them pretty easily too.

Pure-blood climbers will appreciate shallow rim depths of around 25mm, while time-trialist (eventually triathletes) choose rim depths above 60mm in the front and a disc wheel in the rear.

If you want to understand the aerodynamics behind deep-section wheels better, I recommend watching the following video by aerodynamics expert Hambini.

Rim Width

NOTE: You can skip this section if you are a beginner or don’t care too much about tire width and aerodynamics.

The inner rim width plays a role in how wide tires you can use and the outer rim width in which tire width is optimal for a given rim width.

In the past, riders used narrower tires than they use today. Studies have shown that wider rims and tires (25mm and 28mm) are faster, more comfortable, and more efficient than 19mm or 20mm tires, for example.

The general rule is that the wider tires you want to use, the wider wheel rims you should get.

Illustration of the inner and outer wheel rim width
Rim inner & outer width

The ‘Rule of 105’ is a more scientific approach for choosing the rim width:

The Rule of 105 states that the rim must be at least 105% the width of the tire if you have any chance of re-capturing airflow from the tire and controlling it or smoothing it. (Source)

This means that if the outer rim width is 29.4mm, you should use 28mm tires to maximize aerodynamic benefits.

Beginners and advanced riders may not notice the difference. These marginal gains play a role among pros and racers.

However, for those interested, I calculated the optimum rim widths for different tire widths based on the Rule of 105.

Tire WidthMinimum Rim Width
20 mm21 mm
21 mm22.05 mm
23 mm24.15 mm
25 mm26.25 mm
28 mm29.4 mm
Tire width and minimum rim width based on the Rule of 105

In the following video, Josh Poertner from SILCA explains the effects of rim widths on aerodynamics using CAD software.

Hooked vs. Hookless

When buying road bike wheels, you may encounter so-called hooked and hookless rims.

So, how do they differ?

  • Hooked rims have ‘hooks’ for hooking the tire.
  • Hookless rims don’t have these hooks.
A profile illustration of hooked vs. hookless rims
Hooked vs. hookless rims

Hookless rims are not very widespread in road cycling. They are more common on mountain bike wheels. There is a risk that hookless rims won’t securely hold the tire (blow-off) because of the high pressures used in road cycling.

Furthermore, not every road bike tire is compatible with hookless rims. So, the advantages like the better transition between the rim and the tire, and lower manufacturing costs, don’t outweigh the downsides. (Source)


Get some inspiration. These are the best road bike wheels under $1000.


Weight

Weight is another feature that comes into consideration when choosing road bike wheels.

Their weight depends mainly on:

  • Used materials
  • Rim depth
  • Rim type
  • Hubs
  • Spokes
  • etc.

I researched hundreds of road bikes and found out their weight varies as follows:

Material / BrakesDiscRimTotal Avereage
Aluminum1685g1614g1654g
Carbon1531g1493g1514g
The average weight of road bike wheelsets, depending on the material and brake type. Data are based on more than 350 wheelsets of mainstream and Chinese wheels manufacturers.
Keep in mind that included aluminum wheels were shallow (under 35mm), while carbon also included deep-section rims (from 20mm to 88mm).

You can learn more in my road bike wheels statistics.

As you can see, aluminum road bike wheels are around 140g heavier than carbon wheels. This makes about a 7.5% difference. This difference is even more significant when comparing wheels of the same rim depths.

The lightest carbon road bike wheels can weigh under 1000g. For example, Meilestein Obermayer (47.5mm rim depth) wheels weigh 935g. (Source)

So, are lighter wheels better than heavier wheels? Not necessarily. If the wheels are light but not stiff (i.e. flex under torque), they won’t transfer the energy as efficiently as stiffer wheels. This may cause bigger losses than heavier but stiff wheels.

Heavier wheels also have better inertia and can maintain speed more easily. These features make them ideal for flats or rolling terrain.

Cassette Compatibility

Before you order the first road bike wheelset you see, make sure its freehub body is compatible with your groupset/cassette.

Shimano and SRAM cassettes are interchangeable. However, if you have Campagnolo, you need a Campagnolo compatible freehub.

Hubs 

A hub is the heart of a wheel, so it has to be quality and well-made to maximize the longevity and performance of your new wheelset.

Established and experienced companies like DT Swiss, Shimano, Campagnolo, etc., make quality hubs, so you can’t go wrong with their products.

Some wheel manufacturers heavily invest in the research & development of hubs. If a brand takes this step, it says a lot about its expertise and experience.

Unfortunately, there is no way to tell whether the hubs are quality before you can try them except for checking reviews of other customers or 3rd party tests.


Check out the best Chinese carbon wheels from established and reliable brands.


Spokes

Spokes connect the rims with the hub. You probably heard of established brands like Sapim or Pillar. These are the leading brands, but some wheel manufacturers develop their spokes in-house.

Spokes can be made of metals (like steel and aluminum) or carbon. Metal spokes are cheaper but heavier. Carbon spokes are more expensive but lighter, stiffer, and more durable.

However simple spokes may seem, they differ in many features (like the maximum tension they can withstand, weight, aerodynamics, shape, etc.).

Spokes Shapes
  1. Rounded (straight gauge) spokes are the most common and the most affordable. They are used on low-end and budget wheels. But, they are less aero and less stiff than bottled or bladed spokes.
  2. Buttled spokes are a compromise between rounded and bladed spokes.
  3. Bladed spokes are the most aerodynamic. They are also stronger but can compromise crosswind stability.

Depending on their shape and how they are connected to hubs, we can distinguish:

  • Straight pull spokes
  • J-bend spokes
    (Source)

You can learn about their benefits and disadvantages in the following video:

Nipples

Once marginal gains stack up, they make a difference. One of these marginal gains is how much the spoke nipples are exposed.

There are 3 basic types of spoke nipple exposures:

  1. Fully-exposed nipples are the most common and great for maintenance but are the worst for aerodynamics.
  2. Half-exposed nipples are less common than fully-exposed nipples. They are good for maintenance and aerodynamics. It’s a great compromise between the other two.
  3. Hidden nipples are the best for aerodynamics but worst for maintenance (you have to take off the tire if you want to adjust spoke tension).
Detail on fully-exposed spoke nipples of carbon wheels
Fully-exposed spoke nipples
Detail on half-exposed spoke nipples of carbon wheels
Half-exposed spoke nipples
Detail on hidden spoke nipples of carbon wheels
Hidden spoke nipples

Brand

Some of us prioritize brands more than others. More established and mainstream brands sell their wheels at higher prices than less-known manufacturers.

Did you know that the following bike/accessories brands also have wheels (sub)brands?
Specialized – Roval | SRAM – Zipp | Trek – Bontrager

This is because they heavily invest in marketing and sponsorships. These additional costs are then passed onto products and then to – us consumers.

The brand is part of the price.

If you look for the best value for the money, feel free to check out less-known brands or Chinese brands, which make high-quality wheels at a fraction of the price of mainstream brands.

High-end wheels also bring diminishing returns. They can bring some marginal gains, but they don’t play a significant role for ordinary mortals.

So, the question is:

How much should you spend on road bike wheels?
As always – it depends.
If you have a limited budget, browse these budget road bike wheels for under $500. These entry-level wheels are a perfect upgrade to stock wheels.
If you want to invest more, feel free to check out these road bike wheels for under $1000. Wheelsets at this price range are the sweet spot for enthusiast road cyclists.
And if you have higher demands, and care about the best performance possible, see the best road bike wheels on the market.

What’s in the Package?

Here are a few things to expect in the package when buying different types of wheelsets:

  • Rim brake wheels – braking pads, quick-release skewers
  • Brake wheels – thru-axles
  • Deep section wheels – valve extenders
  • Tubeless wheels – tubeless valves

Not all wheelsets come with these accessories. They are optionable.

Wheelsets also usually come with included rim tape and spare spokes. The spare spokes come in handy if one (or more) spokes fails. For example, when you hit a deep pothole and you need to fix the wheel.


Extra Services (Warranty, Crash Replacement, etc.)

Customer support is important when you need to get more information about the product or when an issue occurs. Choose a brand with helpful and reliable customer support.

A good warranty policy is a must. In most countries, the warranty is regulated by law. Based on my research, most manufacturers offer at least a 2-year warranty. Some offer extended warranties for 3 years, 5 years, or even a lifetime warranty.

Crash replacement programs are a nice bonus. Unfortunately, not every brand offers them, but when they do, you get a discount on your next wheelset if you crash with the current one.


Road Bike Wheels FAQ


Summary

Here is a summary of the most important things to consider when buying wheels. Please, keep in mind that these are general recommendations that suit most riders. However, every rider has unique preferences, so the resulting wheels may vary.

The first thing to double-check is the wheel size. Some small road bikes come with smaller 27.5″ wheels (650b). However, the industry standard for road bike wheels is 28″ (700c).

You can buy aluminum road bike wheels that are usually more affordable or carbon wheels that tend to be more expensive. If you look for deeper section rims, get carbon wheels. Aluminum wheels have shallow rims, ideal for climbing or as spare training wheels.

Depending on the brake type on your bike, buy the disc or rim brake wheels.

Clincher tubeless-ready wheels are becoming more popular. If your budget allows you to buy them, go for them. Eventually, purchase standard clincher wheels.

The rim depth depends mainly on the type of terrain you ride in. While shallow rim depths of around 25mm are ideal for high-mountainous climbing, 45mm are a sweet spot suitable for flats and hilly terrain. Rim depths above 60mm are perfect for flats.

The low weight of wheels doesn’t always mean the better choice. The wheels should also be stiff (especially if you are a heavier rider) so they won’t flex under you.

Choose a freehub body depending on your groupset. Shimano/SRAM cassettes are interchangeable, but not with Campagnolo cassettes.

And last but not least, buy wheels only from trustworthy and reliable brands that offer a warranty, helpful customer support, and eventually crash replacement programs.

If you want to learn more, make sure to read the entire article.

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