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What are the differences between all types of road bike wheels? [Road Bike Wheels Buyer’s Guide]

One of the best ways to upgrade your road bike, is to invest in a new pair of road bike wheels. A lot of road bikes aren’t equipped with high-end wheels as standard. This is done on purpose by the manufacturer, so they can keep the selling price down. But actually, this is really a shame. Because proper road bike wheels really can make the difference. The characteristics of a road bike work best with good road bike wheels. However, which wheels would you need? Tubeless? High rim? Carbon or aluminium? We listed the most important focus areas for you in our Road Bike Wheels Buyer’s Guide.

A road bike wheel may seem like nothing more than a rim, a few spokes and a hub. And yet, there are a lot of differences between road bike wheels. Just the difference between carbon and aluminium is very big already. Moreover, there are many other important factors to pay attention to when you buy new road bike wheels…

Road Bike Wheels Buyer’s Guide - Beautiful road bike wheels can refurbish your whole bike.
Road Bike Wheels Buyer’s Guide – Beautiful road bike wheels can refurbish your whole bike.

For example, aerodynamics, material, weight and rim width play a very important role in determining whether a road bike wheelset is right for you. And the question of whether or not you want to ride tubeless is also relevant. And then there’s the decision between disc brakes or rim brakes. Choices, choices, choices…

Main focus when buying new road bike wheels

But how important is which aspect of a road bike wheel for you? We’ll take a look at some of the key points and the benefits they can offer you.

Which rim height do I need?

Road bike wheels with a high rim not only look very nice, they are also aerodynamic. Rim height and aerodynamics are inextricably linked to each other. A high rim leads the air currents better and therefore provides less air resistance.

A half-high rim, like this 32 mm, gives an aerodynamic advantage, but is also light.
A half-high rim, like this 32 mm, gives an aerodynamic advantage, but is also light.

But not every rim height is suitable for every cyclist. The higher the rim, the heavier it becomes. But we’ll tell you more about the weight later on. It is important to find a nice rim height that is aerodynamic, but relatively light.

A higher rim also becomes much more wind sensitive. Driving around with very high rims or even a closed rear wheel is much more difficult than you would say when you see the pros in action.

Aerodynamics is time saving

Depending on the shape of the rim itself, the height of the rim and the techniques used, a high rim can save a lot of time.

However, this time saving is particularly significant for longer rides on flat or long descents. Are you a real mountain goat and you can’t let a climb pass you by? Then it is much more rewarding to go for a light wheelset.

The dimples on the Zipp wheels make sure that the wind doesn't bother you.
The dimples on the Zipp wheels make sure that the wind doesn’t bother you.

For general use, so ideal for the Netherlands – a relatively flat country, a rim height of 33 to 45 mm is actually perfect. With this height you already have quite an aerodynamic advantage over a low rim.

But the weight is limited and the wind sensitivity is not too bad either. Are you going into the mountains or the hills of Limburg? In that case you don’t have to get those relatively heavy wheels up the mountain.

High rims are logically heavier than low rims. Fortunately, higher rims are often made of carbon, which in turn saves weight. But carbon bike wheels are more expensive. The next decision is then whether you go for carbon or aluminium bike wheels.

Aluminium or carbon road bike wheels?

In addition to the rim height, the choice of aluminium or carbon bike wheels plays an important role for many cyclists. Carbon has a lot of advantages, but it also comes with a price tag.

Carbon road bike wheels have a number of advantages over aluminum road bike wheels. First of all, carbon wheels are much lighter than aluminium wheels. In addition, they are also stiffer. And stiff wheels provide better grip and more control.

Thanks to the introduction of disc brakes you don't have a brake edge anymore and your beautiful carbon wheels will last for many years!
Thanks to the introduction of disc brakes you don’t have a brake edge anymore and your beautiful carbon wheels will last for many years!

The only real disadvantage of carbon wheels was the brake edge, because a carbon rim brake brakes more poorly in bad weather. And in the mountains, carbon can even become overheated during very long and steep descents. But thanks to the introduction of disc brakes, that issue is no longer an issue at all.

As a result, carbon has become a lot more profitable. The wheel itself no longer wears out. A brake disc or the small parts like bearings or a broken spoke can always be replaced relatively cheaply, but the base, your carbon bike wheel, remains ‘eternally’ strong and good.

So when opting for a carbon or aluminium wheel, you can focus entirely on whether you go for more expensive, but stiffer and lighter carbon, or cheaper, but heavier and less stiff aluminium. Additionally, there is an option to combine the best of both worlds when you go for rim brakes.

Carbon wheel with aluminium brake edge?

Another solution to keep the brake force better for rim brakes is an aluminium brake edge with a carbon rim. This gives you the advantages of carbon, but not the disadvantages. However, the wheel does get a little heavier.

The brake edge of these Zipp wheels is clearly visible.
The brake edge of these Zipp wheels is clearly visible.

The fact that aluminium wheels or carbon wheels with aluminium brake edge are a bit cheaper, doesn’t mean that they are bad quality wheelsets. You can get very good aluminium road bike wheels and very good carbon road bike wheels with an aluminium brake edge. A great example of that is the Bontrager Aeolus Comp 5.

When choosing aluminium wheels, you do get wheels with a bit of extra weight, but that difference isn’t too big. However, for the true weight weenies out there who think every gram on your bike is too much, it is best to go for carbon wheels.

The special Plasma Electrolytic Oxidation (PEO) brake edge of a Campagnolo wheel.
The special Plasma Electrolytic Oxidation (PEO) brake edge of a Campagnolo wheel.

Some manufacturers even developed their own rim brake edge. Think of Mavic’s Exalith brake edges, Fulcrums and Campagnolo’s Plasma Electrolytic Oxidation (PEO) Process or DT Swiss’ OXiC brake edge. These brake edges provide even better braking performance, which is particularly noticeable in wet weather.

How important is the weight of a road bike wheel?

Weight is an important factor when it comes to wheels. The advantages of carbon over aluminium are clear in this respect. Light wheels are not only nicer for a mountain ride, they are also better for someone who cycles criteriums — because lighter wheels is faster rides.

A low rim with a low weight. Perfect for the climbing cyclists.
A low rim with a low weight. Perfect for the climbing cyclists.

With light road bike wheels you can accelerate noticeably easier. But also steering is a lot more direct and precise. Again, stiff wheels always offer more advantages than less stiff wheels.

You can’t make a choice?
You can’t make a choice?

Furthermore, it goes without saying that a low rim is lighter than a high rim: less material needs to be used. A high mountain road bike wheel will never have a high rim.

So the ideal road bike doesn’t really exist, but mainly depends on the purpose for which you buy it. Especially a good combination between weight and stiffness plays an important role here. But less noticeable aspects can also play a role, such as the rim width.

What is the rim width of a road bike wheel?

The rim width of road bike wheels has become much wider in recent years. About 15 years ago, 13 mm was normal. That quickly went from 15 mm to 17 mm and now even 19 mm as a non-official standard.

On a wide rim a tyre falls nicely aerodynamically.
On a wide rim a tyre falls nicely aerodynamically.

Some brands have even wider rims now. Road bike wheels with a width of 21 mm or more can also be seen. The increasing trend towards wider wheels is also due to the fact that gravel bikes, for example, are becoming more and more popular.

What are the advantages of a wide rim?

With road bike wheels you see wider rims more and more. That may seem like a crazy development, but did you know that a good wide rim with a fitting tyre is more aerodynamic than a thin rim with the same tyre?

This aerodynamics is better because the tyre fits the wider aerodynamic rims better. A larger internal rim width makes a road bike wider. In addition to the better aerodynamics, this has a number of other advantages.

A wider rim can provide an aerodynamic advantage.
A wider rim can provide an aerodynamic advantage.

Similarly, the rolling resistance of a wider tyre is lower than that of a narrow tyre. And last but not least, a wide tyre is also more comfortable. Wide road bike tyres can be ridden with lower tyre pressure, without this being at the expense of rolling resistance.

Wide tyres don’t fit on all road bikes!

The only disadvantage of wide tyres and rims is that they don’t fit on all road bikes. Especially old road bikes without disc brakes don’t have enough space at the brakes or the frame for a 25 mm or 28 mm road bike tyre.

But even much more modern bikes with rim brakes don’t have enough room for wide road bike tyres. Especially on the rear wheel the space between tyre and seat tube or between tyre and rear brake can be too small. The widest rims can be found on road bikes with disc brakes.

Why should I choose tubeless road bike wheels?

From mountain biking, tubeless cycling (without an inner tube) has blown over. Tubeless riding has a number of major advantages, also on a road bike. First of all, your total wheel is just that little bit lighter because you no longer need an inner tube.

The tubeless rim tape is already in these DT Swiss rims.
The tubeless rim tape is already in these DT Swiss rims.

Another advantage is that you get less punctures when cycling. And does it go wrong sometime? If you have liquid latex in your tyre, small holes are automatically closed! The grains in the latex are sucked to the puncture and hide the leak. You can even continue cycling during the sealing process.

The latex can seal holes with a diameter of up to 3 mm maximum. Is the puncture bigger or did you not use latex? In that case you can just fit an inner tube, even if you first had latex in the tyre.

The rim tape provides an airtight seal.
The rim tape provides an airtight seal.

Another advantage of tubeless driving is that the rolling resistance of tubeless tyres is lower. This is due to the lack of an inner tube.

Lastly, you can ride tubeless tyres at even lower pressures than tubeless tyres. A bump will no longer cause a puncture. At the moment, tubeless riding is mainly seen on gravel bikes, for example, but it also occurs slowly in road cycling. In recent years, almost all major tyre manufacturers have introduced a tubeless version of their popular road bike tyres.

With their own UST, Mavic claims to have made the ideal combination of a road bike wheel and a road bike tyre. The two fit perfectly together.
With their own UST, Mavic claims to have made the ideal combination of a road bike wheel and a road bike tyre. The two fit perfectly together.

Not all road bike wheels can be made tubeless just like that. So be sure to check if your future road bike wheel is suitable for this. This is always mentioned in the case of bicycle wheels that are or can be made suitable for tubeless riding. Please note the following terms: Tubeless, Tubeless Ready, TLR or in the case of Mavic bicycle wheels: UST.

Rim brakes or disc brakes

The last point may be self-evident, but when buying new road bike wheels, be careful whether you want to have rim brakes or disc brakes. Of course you know what your road bike has now, but keep the future in mind.

Thanks to disc brakes, there is no need for a brake edge.
Thanks to disc brakes, there is no need for a brake edge.

Are you going to continue to cycle with rim brakes? Or does your next road bike have disc brakes? It’s a shame to buy a wheelset of maybe 2000 euros now, and then put it away in a year’s time.

You can also opt for a cheap set of wheels to buy a set of top wheels with your new racing bike with disc brakes. In short; this is especially a financial consideration that is important now that there are more and more bikes with disc brakes available.

Road Bike Wheels Buyer’s Guide – Tips from Niels, our product specialist in road bike wheels

In order to make your choice for a set of new road bike wheels a little easier, our wheel specialist listed his favourites for you.

He has looked for the ideal combination of price, weight and performance. Still in doubt? Then take a look at all our road bike wheels for rim brakes or road bike wheels for disc brakes.

Road bike wheels with rim brake

Road bike wheels with high rims (46 mm and up)

Road bike wheels with half-high rims (between 33 and 45 mm)

Road bike wheels with low rims (up to 32 mm)

Road bike wheels with disc brakes

Road bike wheels with high rims (46 mm and up)

Road bike wheels with half-high rims (between 33 and 45 mm)

Road bike wheels with low rims (up to 32 mm)

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Olle Vastbinder

Olle Vastbinder

You can find me on a bicycle almost every day. I commute each day from my house to work and back. Often on my road bike, and during the winter on an old crosser. And if that isn't enough, you can find me on my bike during most weekends too. On my trusty road bike or my mountainbike. And if you can't find me outdoors riding my bike, odds are I might be riding on Zwift

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One thought on “What are the differences between all types of road bike wheels? [Road Bike Wheels Buyer’s Guide]”

  1. This article shared a great content that is very useful and informative. I was looking for something like this. I found it quiet interesting, hopefully you will keep posting such blog. Keep sharing!

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