(The Gear Loop) - The advent of advanced frame designs and lightweight materials has undeniably ushered in a new era of road cycling, where riders can now ride faster for longer with less effort.
Naturally, this has a downside, as prices of some of the most advanced road machines now rival what many families spend on a new car, while manufacturers are attempting to extract as much profit as possible by scrimping on the extras, like brakes, gearing and, more importantly, wheels.
Dov Tate, founder of Parcours, a leading manufacturer of high-performance wheel sets, says that a new pair of hoops can completely transform a ride. "Wheels are usually the first place a bike brand will look at cutting costs, so the standard wheels that come with you bike will often be a lower spec than you might expect. A well-designed performance wheel set, combined with the right tyre choice, can completely transform both the ride feel and performance of your bike. Not to mention the all-important style points at the coffee stop".
So, you might have the best frame possible, but if you haven’t got a set of light, fast, strong and reliable wheels, it can dampen the experience. Thankfully, upgrading your rims and hubs is a simple and relatively pain-free task.
Although selecting the right ones for you might be a little tricker, which is why we’ve picked some of the best out there.
We’ve attempted to cater to a variety of budgets, although a good set of wheels generally doesn’t come cheap, and have focussed on standard 700c road wheels, with options for both disc and rim brakes. Gravel and MTB wheels are usually a different size, so we will deal with the separately.
If you need a little more guidance, head to the bottom of the page for some additional information on what to look out for when buying new wheels for your road bike.
The best road bike wheels
Campagnolo Shamal C21 Disc Carbon
- Keenly priced
- Fast and stable
- Not the lightest
- Basic (ish) bearings
With a two-way fit, Campagnolo guarantees compatibility with both clincher and tubeless tyres, while the 21mm internal diameter means it plays nicely with 25, 28 and 30mm tyres - although Campagnolo says it can handle larger gravel tyres, too.
The carbon rim construction guarantees excellent stiffness and additional lightness, with an overall weight of 1,585g. Certainly not the lightest, but fantastic at this price.
A profile differential at the front and rear has also been thrown in to increase responsiveness, while maintaining a predicate and stable ride. Here, you’ll find a 40mm profile at the rear and 35mm at the front.
Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon TL
- Wide and fast
- Well built
- Properly aero
- They are expensive
- Graphics are now more subdued
Zipp has long been a name associated with the professional peloton and elite level triathletes, as the wheels offer a true premium feel both in terms of aerodynamic properties and the way they roll, thanks to the fantastic German-engineered ZR1 DB hubs.
The rim is now slightly more bulbous in design than its predecessor, with a 30mm outside width, a 25mm internal width and a 40mm rim depth, giving it plenty of stability without any flex when putting the power down.
What’s more, the latest iteration has also been on a diet and thanks to a 300g weight reduction, a set now tips the scales at just 1,355g.
Prime RR-50 V3 Carbon Clincher Disc
- Great price
- Versatile wheels
- Customisable design
- Relatively heavy
- Easy to mess up decals when changing tyres
If you’re on a tight budget, it’s difficult to beat the value of these 50mm deep carbon rims, and they make for the perfect foray into the world of deep-dish carbon road wheels.
That said, they are also tough cookies and will happily withstand a bit of bike-packing or light gravel riding without too many complaints.
It is fair to say they are slightly heavier than the competition, and the RD020 Center Lock, CNC machined 7075 alloy hubs aren’t going to be as speedy or free-rolling, but they are a good deal cheaper, without compromising performance too much.
Specialized Roval Alpinist CLX II
- Fantastically light
- Adored by pro riders
- They cost more than most bikes
Specialized-owned Roval recently announced its updated Rapide CLX II and Alpinist CLX II tubeless wheels, which have built on the fearsome pedigree of its predecessor with a lighter overall weight and fresh tubeless design.
The result is a wheel set that has been proven to shave time off professional rider’s stage times, while keeping riders safe with rigorous crash testing that goes beyond all of today’s general certification.
The Alpinist CLX II is the lightest clincher wheel Roval has ever produced and is designed for those who like to climb - neatly blending speed, performance and comfort.
- Super tough design
- Solid aero credentials
- Built to last
- Only available in disc
- Ceramic bearings cost a lot more
Developed in conjunction with Nottingham Trent University, the Strade is the culmination of years of aerodynamic research. "Using the data generated from the collaboration, we were able to develop a wheel set that combines straight-line speed with stable handling, and we did this fully in-house, too," says the team.
Better still, the wheel is aerodynamically optimised around a chunky 28mm tyre (as is the fashion these days) and uses differential front and rear rim profiles for added speed and stability.
But the built-in toughness means it isn’t just a whimsical TT product, but one that is built for "club rides, light gravel, racing or bike-packing odysseys," according to the marque.
What to look for in road bikes wheels
You need to ensure that the wheel is suitable for the brake type you use. If your bike has disc brakes, ensure the wheel set is disc brake compatible. Similarly with rim brakes.
A lot of the rim brake wheel sets on the market can be converted to work with disc brakes, should you upgrade your set-up in the future, but it is less likely that you’ll be able to revert a disc brake wheel back to work with rim brakes.
Also, if you’re opting for carbon rim brakes wheels, you’ll likely have to upgrade your brake pads to suit, as standard pads are designed to work with steel or alloy rims and won’t perform to their best when biting down on a carbon surface.
Let’s face it, fantastically deep carbon rims look amazing, but they aren’t suited to all riders, all weather forecasts and all road surfaces. Generally, the deeper the rim, the more aerodynamically efficient it is, which is why you’ll see time trial (TT) riders with a disc fully encasing the wheels.
These might be fast but they make handling the bike very tricky and any sort of side wind can easily see a rider careering towards the nearest bush.
The shallowest rims, typically 25mm in depth, usually have the best weight advantage and are adored by climbers, but boast little to no aero advantage on the fast flats. Anything between 35mm and 65mm in depth will have varying degrees of aero, comfort and performance in adverse conditions.
Hubs, bearings and dimensions
Premium wheel sets often turn towards carbon ceramic bearings inside the hubs, rather than steel, for improved rolling performance. These are superior but will cost a lot more and usually don’t last as long as their steel counterparts.
You’ll also find terms like cartridge or loose ball bearings thrown around. The former is a sealed unit and is generally more robust, while replacing worn parts required replacing the entire bearing unit, which can be costly. The latter is the cheaper option but are generally easier to maintain.
Hub material will also vary depending on the price and manufacturers often turn towards space age metals and lightweight composites in pursuit of lightness.
Dimensions of the rim itself should also be a factor to consider, as wider rim widths are becoming commonplace with modern bikes but won’t necessarily fit between the chainstays of older models.
All wheel sets will come with an internal rim width measurement, and anything under 19mm is considered narrow while anything over 22mm can be considered wide.