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Road Gear

What I learned about road wheels in 2020

Road wheels have undergone significant evolutions in the last several years, and 2020 showed off plainly where we're headed. Here's what I learned.

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We often say that changing your road wheels can change the entire ride characteristics of your bike. That’s true, yet reviewing wheels can be difficult because so many of the differences between brands is subtle. Basically, every wheel has gotten more aero, lighter, stronger, and generally better, in 2020.

That’s not to say there aren’t important differences between road wheels. I tested quite a lot of them in 2020, and I learned a lot about what separates a good wheel from a great one. (There are very few truly bad road wheels; more on that in a moment.)

Related:

Climbing vs Aero road wheels

Which wheels are better for a hill climb? Photo: Brad Kaminski

Much of my wheel testing this year came in the form of examining how different wheel depths can affect your efficiency. Are climbing wheels really better for climbing? Or do aero road wheels give you more of an edge, even going uphill?

As it turns out, most of us should be riding aero wheels most of the time. But climbing road wheels are still important in very specific circumstances.

Lennard Zinn took a deep dive into this very concept and explains why, even if you love the climbs, you should probably consider deeper rims than your traditional climbing wheel depth. The short answer is, according to Zinn, “Any time you are going faster than 15 kph (9.3mph), aerodynamic drag is the biggest resistive force you have to overcome. And since you will be out on a given course longer than faster riders and will encounter larger yaw angles, resulting in a larger sailing effect on your front wheel, you stand to benefit even more from aero wheels than a pro would.”

To test the theory, editorial director Ben Delaney and I took a few sets of wheels to Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado as part of the VeloNews Project 14er. Which wheels were faster up this average 5% grade climb? Check out the video here to find out.

Dan didn’t look at data – he just paid attention to how the various wheels felt going up and down Lookout. Photo: Hannah DeWitt

Spoiler: aero road wheels were faster up the Lookout climb, but there’s certainly more to consider than just slapping aero wheels on your bike and calling it fast. For starters, you’ll need to consider the moment of inertia and understand that, while aero wheels are faster once they’re up to speed, they do take more effort to actually get them going in the first place. That’s why climbing wheels aren’t going to just go away anytime soon; in certain situations, climbing road wheels are indeed faster.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, we haven’t even started talking about rim and tire combinations. We know by now that just about all road wheels have gotten wider in recent years, for a variety of reasons including the ability to run wider tires and lower tire pressures — which in turn lowers rolling resistance.

To ensure that riders get the fastest combination of wheel and tire, some manufacturers are turning to wheel systems in order to control the parameters by which the two components work together. This isn’t exactly a new concept; Mavic has touted such systems for years, but now companies such as Cadex and Enve are taking the concept to market because engineers can tailor not only the speed factors fo the wheel and rim combination, but also the safety factors. This has become increasingly important with the growth of hookless rims and tubeless road wheel systems.

Have no fear!

There have been a few developments in road wheels that rightfully make riders a bit nervous. It’s hard to embrace new tech when the worry of said tech failing at just the right moment is always floating in the back of our minds (usually on high-speed descents, right?).

Fortunately for you, I’ve stuck my neck out there to bravely and selflessly test it all, hurling myself down those high-speed descents on those new tech bits so you don’t have to. One might say heroically. But I’m modest, so…

Ahem. Okay, I got carried away. But I did indeed test some of those new bits of tech, and I can tell you that you have little to worry about. Let’s start with the most controversial one: road tubeless.

What’s this? Tubeless road tires from ENVE?

While my colleague Ben Delaney still expresses reservations about road tubeless, I have had incredible success with it. I have had no flats this season on tubeless tires, but have had numerous flats with tubes. That’s anecdotal evidence of course, but when it comes down to what I’ll purchase for myself, it’s pretty darn good anecdotal evidence.

With the increase in interest in road tubeless, it was important to embrace another new technology: hookless rims. Like tubeless tires, hookless rims have been common on the mountain bike side for a very long time. But road of course presents different parameters — most notably, lower volume and higher pressures.

Lennard Zinn addresses the specific advantages and drawbacks to hookless rims in this Tech FAQ. The system works on mountain bikes — and even automobiles — for several reasons that don’t necessarily translate to road use.

That said — and again, this is anecdotal evidence — I have ridden hookless rims on the road enough to have few reservations about them. Much of that has to do with the trend of lower tire pressures on the road. ETRTO standards dictate that a hook must be present on rims that accommodate tires inflated over 80 psi. But with wider rims and tubeless systems, I rarely ride with more than 75 psi in my road tires.

Carbon spokes on road wheels have also evolved pretty significantly in 2020. Gulo Composites and Hunt Wheels both came out with carbon spokes mechanically mated to rims, which makes it possible to true the spokes. In the past, carbon spokes needed to be bonded to the rims themselves, making it difficult or impossible to true them. Carbon spokes have the potential to add strength to the overall wheel system; they of course also have the potential to add dollars to the price tag.

Good news, bad news about road wheels

With all that new technology packed into road wheels, there’s still plenty of “old” technology that works just fine and isn’t going anywhere. Inner tubes are still awesome (though even they are evolving) and a must-have in your seat pack even if you’re running tubeless tires. They’re easy, reliable, tried and true. Tubeless systems flat far less than tubed systems, but when they do go flat, you’ll still need to pull out that spare tube to get yourself rolling again.

Aerothan tube folded
Aerothan tubes are made from a Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU). Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

Specialized even doubled down on tube-and-tire wheels with the release of its updated line of Roval CLX wheels. Julian Alaphilippe nabbed a win at the Tour de France on clinchers, which may have been a first. So tubes are definitely not dead.

The bad news, if you’re a dedicated racer or an old-school devotee, is that tubulars are just about dead for everyone but the pros. Those pros like tubulars because you can keep riding when they go flat, without having to worry about the tire separating from the rim (at least not as easily as a clincher). I have heard from some wheel and tire manufacturers that the tubeless system can do the same, but I’m not yet ready to test that theory. Though to be fair, I don’t love the idea of riding a tubular tire flat either; running any tire flat in any situation is sketchy at best.

Photo: Kristen Legan | VeloNews.com

With all that said, perhaps the most important lesson I learned in 2020 about road wheels is that there aren’t many truly bad wheels out there. That’s good and bad. The good: You can nab an incredible set of wheels for half the price of what such wheels cost only a few years ago.

The bad: It has become far more difficult to determine advantages from one wheelset to another without relying solely on price. Since much of the wind tunnel data out there comes from the brands themselves, it’s hard to determine which ones are truly faster without placing an inordinate amount of faith in the honesty of said brands’ marketing teams.

That leaves us to determine a wheel’s worth based solely on price. Of course, that would be folly.  Keep in mind that price is not synonymous with value; you’ll need to factor in warranty, reliability, ease of maintenance, compatibility with the tires you want, and so on.

My road wheel preferences

After a year of testing some of the best road wheels out there, I can say with confidence that I really like 40-50mm rim depth for my style of riding. To give you context here, you should know that there’s about 15 miles of rolling, mostly flat terrain between my house and the nearest big climbs in Golden, Colorado. That means I’m a good test case for the do-everything type of wheel.

Grit 4540 wheels
Princeton Grit 4540 wheels. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

The 40-5omm rim depth is a perfect balance for my type of riding. Aero rim depths are great for the flat rolling terrain, and they’re still ideal for the 5% average grade at Lookout Mountain (the closest big climb). Even on steeper climbs, I don’t feel too bogged down by this rim depth; only when I hit the steepest pitches do I wish I had lighter climbing wheels.

I’ve also grown fond of the the sinusoidal rim shape. Princeton CarbonWorks uses this shape and some Team Ineos Grenadiers riders tested them out this past race season. These rims look a lot like Zipp’s sawtooth pattern on the 454 NSW wheels, though they are slightly different (as explained in the tech podcast).

I like this shape because I get the depth of an aero wheel, but the skittishness of deep rim sections is all but absent in crosswinds. Princeton’s Grit 4540 wheels ended up being one of my favorite road wheelsets in 2020 because they’re startlingly stable in crosswinds. The rim is also wide enough that I can run wide road tires or even mount gravel tires on them and swap them between bikes. The versatility and stability, combined with a lower price than much of its competition, makes this set a favorite.

And as I mentioned, I am a fan of tubeless road systems. Every flat I got this year on road wheels came on wheelsets outfitted with tubes. That’s not to say I didn’t get any tubeless punctures; it just means those punctures sealed up without me ever noticing. I did occasionally come out to the garage to find my tubeless tires flat on the hook, but that usually happened after mounting a new tire on a rim without riding it immediately after mounting. Most of the tubeless rims and tires I set up this year stay inflated much longer than my tubed setups, even when they’re hanging on hooks in the garage.