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How to Upgrade Your Wheels

By Bruce Lin

When it comes to improving bike performance, wheels should always be your first consideration. Experienced riders and competitive racers all know this. A good, high-quality wheelset can make even entry-level bikes significantly lighter and faster, helping them punch far above their weight class. If you can only upgrade one part of your bike, make it your wheels. 

Zipp wheels rim depth bike aerodynamicsZipp Firecrest wheels are a popular carbon upgrade option.

The majority of bikes on the market come with entry- or mid-level aluminum wheels. These wheels allow manufacturers to keep costs down, but sacrifice performance. They are heavier, less stiff, and rarely aerodynamic. By reducing weight, increasing stiffness, improving tire support, and boosting aerodynamics, aftermarket carbon fiber or high-end aluminum wheels vastly improve your ride. This guide explains how these traits affect a bike's performance. Hopefully, a greater understanding of these fundamentals will help you make an educated decision when it's time to upgrade your bike's wheels.

The Pro's Closet offers aftermarket wheels at every price point, many with the features described in this guide. If you're interested in discussing a specific set of wheels in detail, don't hesitate to contact our expert Ride Guides

Contents

Clincher vs. tubular vs. tubeless

There are three types of wheels available: clincher, tubular, and tubeless. If you're looking at wheels, they will be listed as one of these types. Each type of wheel is compatible with a specific type of tire. When purchasing an aftermarket wheelset, this is your first decision. Wheels at The Pro's Closet can be filtered based on the tire they are designed to use — clincher, tubular, or tubeless.  

IMPORTANT NOTE: Tubular wheels cannot be used with clincher tires or tubeless tires.

Clincher Tubular Tubeless bike tire explanation

Clincher

Clincher wheels are the most common type of wheel/tire on road bikes. They use inflated rubber or latex inner tubes to support the tire. Clincher wheels and tires are less common on cyclocross bikes and mountain bikes, but some older models may still be equipped with them .

For novice mechanics, clincher wheels and tires are easy to change, repair, and maintain. Most recreational riders won’t need anything more complicated than a clincher setup.

Clinchers don't sacrifice much performance relative to a comparable tubeless wheel. However, if you cannot run tubeless tires, you'll be more prone to flat tires, especially on mixed surfaces like gravel or mountain bike trails.

Also, serious road and cyclocross racers might consider tubular wheels, as we'll explain below.

Tubular

Tubular wheels are most often used for competitive road and cyclocross racing.

The casing and tread of tubular tires are sewn or molded around an inner tube. The tire is then glued to a tubular rim, which lacks the rim walls needed to hold the bead of a clincher tire. Some racers prefer tubular wheels and tires because they are lighter, more supple, and can have lower rolling resistance.

Tubulars are very popular among competitive cyclocross racers because they allow much lower tire pressures for maximum comfort and traction, while also being more resistant to pinch flats than clinchers.

For nearly everyone, tubulars are not ideal for training or recreational riding because they are hard to repair if you puncture. Gluing tires in your workshop isn’t too difficult, but it can be an intimidating, messy task for novice mechanics. Many riders save their tubulars for race day and ride a set of clincher or tubeless wheels day-to-day.

Tubeless

Tubeless wheels are standard equipment on most modern mountain bikes and gravel bikes. Tubeless wheels are also gaining popularity in road cycling and cyclocross as an alternative to clinchers or tubulars.

Tubeless tires are similar to clinchers but rely on an airtight seal between the bead and rim and tubeless sealant inside the tire to hold pressure. Riders can often run less air pressure in tubeless setups compared to clincher setups, improving traction and comfort. Tubeless sealant helps fix small punctures by filling holes if you strike a sharp rock or ride through thorns. This makes tubeless ideal for off-road riding where debris and aggressive riding can cause flats. In an emergency situation, a tubeless tire can also be used with a standard inner tube.

Tubeless wheels and tire systems require a little technical knowledge to install and maintain, but it's doable for most mechanics. For an in-depth explanation of what tubeless is, and how to install and maintain a tubeless system, see our Beginner’s Guide to Tubeless.

Tubeless is quickly becoming the standard across the cycling industry. If you have the option to get a tubeless or tubeless-reading wheelset versus clincher, it's the best way to go because eventually, most bikes will be tubeless.

Carbon vs. aluminum

When upgrading your wheels, rim material is a major consideration, and the two choices are carbon fiber or aluminum.

Carbon vs aluminum bike wheel upgrade comparison

Carbon fiber is an exceptionally light, stiff, and strong material. A carbon wheel is often much lighter and stiffer than a comparable aluminum wheel. This makes carbon a popular option for high-performance wheels. Many competitive riders and racers choose carbon because the weight and stiffness improve a bike's acceleration and handling. Carbon wheels can also be formed into more high-tech aerodynamic shapes for riders seeking an advantage in road, triathlon, and time trial racing.

The most notable downside of carbon wheels is cost. Carbon wheels are often much more expensive than comparable aluminum wheels. Premium aluminum wheels and entry-level carbon wheels are generally comparable in price.

Some riders also prefer aluminum rims because they have a reputation for being more durable and robust. A strong, direct impact can cause a carbon wheel to crack, where an aluminum wheel may just be dented. In the event that wheels get damaged beyond repair, aluminum wheels are cheaper to replace.

Racers might train and ride on cheaper aluminum wheels, and save their carbon wheelset for major events.

Weight, stiffness, rim width, rim depth, and durability are other aspects that should be considered along with material and will be explored in greater detail below.

Many carbon brands make high-quality and reliable wheels. By far the two most popular, high-end, aftermarket carbon wheel manufacturers we sell are Zipp and ENVE

Weight

Wheels are the best place on a bike to shed grams because they are rotating weight. Increased rotating weight increases inertia. Wheel inertia matters in cycling because the rider has to pedal to overcome it — heavier wheels require more energy to accelerate.

Upgrading to lighter wheels makes a bike feel snappier and easier to get up to speed. This is beneficial for climbing and accelerating from a stop or out of slow corners. Most riders can immediately feel a positive difference after switching to lighter wheels and it's the thing most riders pay attention to when comparing high-end wheels.

Weight weight upgrade for bike

As stated before, carbon wheels are generally lighter than comparable aluminum wheels. This makes carbon the best option for riders who are looking for a competitive advantage to improve their climbing or acceleration. A good set of carbon wheels could shave seconds off a long climbing segment, meaning new PRs might be within reach. 

Often, the manufacturer’s claimed weight for wheels and wheelsets can differ from the actual weight on a scale. The Pro’s Closet weights each wheel and wheelset before listing and displays these weights on our website. It’s easy to use the compare tool to see which wheels are lightest.

Stiffness

Stiffer wheels help a bike feel more responsive to rider inputs like pedaling and steering. Upgrading to stiffer wheels makes a bike accelerate more immediately, steer more responsively, and hold lines through corners and bumps more precisely. Some racers prefer stiffer wheels because this feeling of precision can improve confidence and control in high-speed situations.

Carbon wheel stiffness improves mountain bike cornering

Carbon wheels are stiffer than comparable aluminum wheels. Carbon is naturally stiffer than metals like aluminum, and engineers also have the ability to manipulate the fiber's fabric orientation and layup to improve stiffness. Some high-end aluminum wheels are able to come close to carbon in terms of stiffness. For instance, brands like Mavic and Industry Nine use proprietary oversized spoke designs in their aluminum wheels to improve their overall stiffness.

It is possible for wheels to feel too stiff. Excess stiffness can reduce comfort, specifically in rough off-road terrain. Traditionally, high-end aluminum wheels have provided better ride quality because their additional flex actually helps absorb bumps.

To address that concern, newer carbon mountain bike wheels are now prioritizing ride quality along with stiffness. Carbon can be engineered to be stiff in certain directions but compliant in other directions, so newer wheels are being designed to have more vertical compliance for comfort on rough terrain while remain stiff laterally to maintain the positive steering and cornering characteristics of carbon.

Rim width

Wider tires are becoming more popular in all disciplines of cycling and modern rims are becoming wider to pair better with these tires. Width is commonly measured as “internal rim width.” This is the distance between the rim walls that support the tire.

Upgrading to a wider internal rim width provides more support for the tire's sidewalls. This helps improve cornering by reducing a tire's tendency to roll on the rim. The wide rim also provides additional support to the tire sidewalls at lower pressures than are possible on narrow rims. This support, when paired with greater overall tire volume from wider tires, allows rider riders to run much lower tire pressures. 

Wider internal rim width wheel tire support bike

Wider rims are ideal for off-road applications like gravel and mountain biking because enhanced support and lower air pressures from wider tires work together to improve overall traction and comfort. Wider rims can improve cornering speed by helping tire side knobs bite in and preventing the tire from folding or burping air under heavy cornering loads. 

Road riders will also benefit from wider rims, but the effects are slightly less pronounced on smooth pavement and at higher tire pressures.

In road cycling, external rim width is also an important consideration. Aerodynamics are a much larger concern in road cycling because the higher speeds mean riders have to exert more energy to fight air resistance. A lot of studies has been done on road bike aerodynamics, and engineers have determined an aerodynamic rule called "The Rule of 105."

The Rule of 105 states that the rim should be at least 105% the width of the tire to enable the wheel to re-capture airflow from the tire and control or smooth it as if passes over the wheel. With modern 23mm and 25mm road tires, wider external width rims around 23mm satisfy this The Rule of 105 and will be the best for aerodynamics. 

It is possible to have a rim that is too wide for your tire. In this case, you may risk damaging your rims because your tire isn’t wide enough to adequately protect the rim walls from the road or trail surface. Or, you may square off the profile of your tires so much that it negatively affects handling and performance.

Wider rims may also be slightly heavier as they require more material than narrower rims. Choosing rim width is often a balancing act between proper tire support and desired weight.

The Pro’s Closet measures and lists the internal and external rim width of all wheels and wheelsets. The width of different wheels can be easily compared using the compare tool.

The table below provides very basic guidelines for what size tires pair well with which rim widths. It is possible to run a setup slightly outside the parameters and have it function well. If you are unsure if a particular rim width will be a good match with your preferred tires, check with the manufacturer, or contact our Ride Guides for assistance.

Internal rim width 

Ideal tire width

19mm - 23mm 

25mm - 35mm Road and Cyclocross

21mm - 25mm

37mm - 45mm Cyclocross and Gravel

23mm - 27mm MTB

2.2” - 2.4” Mountain Bike

27mm - 30mm MTB

2.3” - 2.5” Mountain Bike

30mm - 35mm MTB

2.4” - 2.8” Mountain Bike

35mm - 45mm MTB

2.6” - 3.0” Mountain Bike

To learn more about how rim width affects your ride, and what the perfect rim width is, check out our article where we asked experts from major manufacturers to explain rim width

Rim depth and aerodynamics

At high speeds, air resistance is the greatest force that riders have to overcome. This is why you see road riders draft each other in groups and pacelines, and why competitive triathletes and time trialists obsessively make their equipment and riding positions as aerodynamic as possible. Wheels contribute a great deal to a bike's overall aerodynamics.

Upgrading to more aerodynamic wheels will help you save precious energy and ride faster. Generally, this consideration is only important for road or time trial riders.

Aerodynamics is an incredibly complicated topic that needs its own in-depth scientific article. The shape of the rim, the rim surface, the tire, spoke, and direction of wind all affect how efficient a set of wheels is. To simplify, when comparing wheels made by the same brand, a deeper rim section is generally more aerodynamic than shallow rim sections.

Rim depth aerodynamics bikeThis is a very basic explanation, but the key to good aerodynamics is to minimize air separation over the surface of a wheel, keeping airflow attached longer. The easiest way to do this is to make a wheel deeper. By doing this you effectively make the hole inside of the rim smaller. The wheel then slips through the air more smoothly. Most triathlon and time trial riders, who prioritize aerodynamics above all else, generally use the deepest wheels possible. Some opt for solid "disc" rear wheels for better aerodynamics.

If you are riding at slower speeds, aerodynamics are inconsequential. Most experts estimate that the breaking point for aerodynamics is around 15kph (9.3mph). At speeds below that, wind resistance is present but not very significant. 

Plus, the additional heft of deeper rims might outweigh aerodynamic benefits. Experts also say that climbs with gradients steeper than 4.5 percent favor lighter equipment versus aerodynamic gains achieved with deep rims. 

Deep rims also get buffeted around in windy conditions. If you're not a confident bike-handler, the squirrely feeling of an 80mm aero rim might negate any potential advantages.

Choosing rim depth is often a balancing act between aerodynamics and weight. Riders who ride steep and slow climbs will appreciate lighter wheels. But at a certain speed, and as climbs become more gradual and faster, aerodynamics will begin to play a larger role. As a general rule, the faster you’re going to ride, the deeper you want your rims.

Also, keep the rim width in mind. Most aero-focused wheels will be the ideal width to satisfy The Rule of 105. As stated above in the Rim width section, The Rule of 105 states that the rim should be at least 105% the width of the tire to enable the wheel to re-capture airflow from the tire and control or smooth it as if passes over the wheel. Most modern aero wheels are designed to be most aerodynamically efficient when paired with 23-25mm road tires. 

Durability

If you buy expensive wheels, you want them to last. Durability concerns are a potential downside of carbon wheels. This is more of a concern for mountain bikers who are hard on equipment and ride gnarly or technical trails. In extreme cases, rim strikes can generate enough force to crack a carbon rim. Most carbon failures occur due to hard rim strikes or debris hitting the wheel. 

Damage from rim strikes and debris occurs in cyclocross and gravel riding too, but it's slightly less common due to the nature of the terrain. It's even rarer to damage carbon wheels while road cycling.

Riders who are most concerned with durability often prefer aluminum wheels. Impacts may dent aluminum rims, but in many cases, they are still usable, despite the damage. If an aluminum wheel is totaled, it is also cheaper to replace.

In recent years, carbon technology and construction have improved. Modern carbon wheels are more durable than ever. Many amateurs and recreational riders will have no issues with carbon wheel durability. Read our article Carbon Fiber 101 to learn more about carbon durability and repair.

The advent of tire inserts has also made carbon wheels a more viable option. Foam tire inserts protect wheels from damage due to rim strikes and can be a valuable addition to a carbon wheelset. 

Plus, a number of wheel brands, such as Santa Cruz Reserve, are offering no-questions-asked lifetime warranties on new carbon wheels.

When in doubt, only purchase wheels that you can afford to replace. Plenty of mountain bikers treat their wheels as disposable commodities, making aluminum a more financially realistic choice.

Finally, if your bike has rim brakes, carbon wheels may be less appealing because wet and dirty conditions can reduce stopping power. You'll also wear through expensive brake pads more quickly. If you must ride them, consider saving carbon rims for race days and special events.  

Hubs and engagement

When shopping for wheels, people often fixate on picking the right the rim, making the hubs a secondary concern. 

High-end hubs often weigh less and use higher quality bearings. However, it’s hard to say if the average road rider notices the difference in rolling resistance or weight when comparing a mid-level hub to a high-end hub.

Hub engagement, on the other hand, is very noticeable and can be an important factor for mountain bikers. Engagement is essentially how many “clicks” you hear when the rear wheel is freewheeling. Your bike's cassette is mounted to the hub on a freehub, which houses a ratcheting mechanism that allows the hub and wheel to continue spinning freely when you’re not pedaling.

Hub pawl degrees points of engagement mountain bike

Hub manufacturers typically employ a set of spring-loaded pawls for hub engagement. These pawls are little arms that pass over ridges that are machined inside the hub. As the hub spins forward the ridges pass smoothly over the backside of the pawls. These are the clicks you hear when freewheeling. When you pedal, the pawls spring up and bite the ridges to transfer you pedaling power.

Some hubs have more clicks than others. This is referred to as “points of engagement” (POE). This can also be referred to as degrees of engagement, which describes how far you have to rotate your crank arms in degrees (through a full revolution of 360 degrees) before the pawls engage and drive the hub forward.

For off-road riders, faster engagement makes a difference on slow and technical features that require balance and quick, short pedal strokes. The immediate engagement can be the difference between cleaning a section and getting off to walk. Quick engagement can help in racing. You can sneak in pedal strokes while riding through choppy sections or get on the power just a split-second sooner when exiting a corner.

Industry nine wheel and hub engagement upgradeOne of the most popular hubs comes from Industry Nine. (Read our detailed review of Industry Nine Torch hubs.) Its new Hydra hub has an impressive 690 points of engagement. They are also popular because of the color options that allow riders to personalize their bikes. There is a multitude of other high-engagement hub options that provide competitive levels of engagement and similar good looks.

 

What do you look for in wheels? Are you a carbon or aluminum fan? Do you have an ideal wheel for you bike or style of riding? Let us know in the comments!

 


11 comments


  • I am looking to upgrade wheels. I ride a felt IA 16 with Shimano 105. I am 53 yrs old so not that fast but looking to improve. No idea what I am looking for

    Emily Chang on

  • I’m currently looking for an upgrade to an aluminium wheel set. I’m 216 lbs dry and carry 11+lbs in total gear. I already run Cushcore. Not sure what to get?

    AEL III on

  • You are awesome, all information that I need in one site, thank you for this hard job.

    Chris on

  • Weight of wheels matters, but rotating weight does not matter. Check out the video from GCN and SWIS SIDE https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QDnUkUaQfk

    Midhun George on

  • I’ll add that although I use ENVE’s for road, I prefer alloy for gravel. They have better damping properties for the rough surfaces encountered on typical gravel roads.

    John Williamson on

  • What a great article thank you so very much! I see a lot of work went into it and I greatly appreciated it. I have always owned nothing but ZIPP wheels/rims and they have never let me down. Thank you.

    SCOTT TIMOTHY PARKHURST on

  • Hi Rene,
    If you don’t want to get dropped by your friends that’s going to come down to you, the engine, more than the wheels!

    That being said, upgrading wheels will increase your performance the most, so if you’re on the edge of getting dropped, they can make the difference. High-quality alloy wheels are a great choice if you want something you’ll never have to think about. But I’m a big advocate for carbon wheels on road bikes because all the stiffness, weight, and aero advantages can’t be matched by alloy. If it’s within your budget, I’d always go carbon. If you’re riding a disc brake bike, it’s pretty much as low maintenance as aluminum. If you have a rim brake bike, it will require a bit more care because you’ll want to watch out for wet and dirty conditions and brake track wear. 

    Bruce Lin on

  • Hi,

    I am teetering between high end aluminum wheels and carbon. What would be your recommendation for a weekend warrior who just wants to go out and have fun but not be left behind when cycling with friends?

    Rene on

  • What changes do you need to make to the fram when converting to electric

    Deborah Currington on

  • Hey Josh,

    I haven’t used FLO wheels before, but I am a big fan of Zipp and Reynolds for Carbon road wheels. I use both on my personal bikes and if it’s within your budget, it’s hard to go wrong with either of those options.

    Bruce

    Bruce Lin on

  • Hi I’ve been riding road bikes for almost 2 years now. I upgraded in September from my beginner diamond back century sport to an Orbea Orca. I am immensely satisfied with the upgrade in performance. I just finished my second century ride and shaved an hour and a half off my time. I’m looking to increase my performance and have been told wheels are the first place to start. Have heard good things about Flo and Zipp wheels. Looking for any suggestions. Thanks!

    Josh Clark on


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