Eddy Merckx, considered by many to be the best bike racer of all time, is famously credited with having said “To get better, don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades”. Eddy probably didn’t really ever say that but it makes for a good story. While it’s true that the best way to be better at climbing hills and going fast on your bike is to ride a lot, there is something to be said for buying yourself some speed!
People ask me all the time “what’s the best upgrade for my bike? Should I go for Dura Ace components? Get a carbon handlebar?” My answer is always the same-If You want an immediate and dramatic change in bike performance? Get better wheels!
Why get better wheels? There are some very simple and compelling reasons. First though, let’s consider what we mean by better performance. Generally speaking, we are usually looking for either a weight advantage, an aerodynamic advantage, or, if your budget allows for it, both. Other considerations that receive less attention though are whether or not the wheels add comfort to the ride and/or lateral stiffness for improved handling.
The weight of a wheel can dramatically impact the performance of your bike. A lightweight wheel, particularly if the rim is light, accelerates faster and requires less energy when climbing hills. Consider that rotating mass feels twice as heavy as the same mass when static. So, for example, if you reduce the weight of your wheel/rim by a half a pound it’s like making your bike one pound lighter! The trick is to make a wheel that is lighter weight but does not compromise on torsional stiffness. Back in the old days before advanced wheel designs came along, a light weight wheel would often be unsuitable for riders over a certain weigh because the wheels were just too flimsy. Modern wheel systems use highly engineered spoking schemes and light, yet stiff, carbon fiber rims to create superb ride characteristics.
When you are riding your bike as much as 90% of your effort is used to overcome air drag. Athletes use all sorts of tricks to try and reduce this! The most effective way to overcome that drag is to have a low position on your bike. Meaning that the smaller you can make your “shape” to the wind, the less drag you will have. The second most effective way to make yourself more “slippery” is with an aerodynamic helmet. Third on the list is wheels! Again, back in the old days, making an aerodynamic shape for a rim usually meant making a really heavy rim. On a flat-ish course, the aerodynamic benefit would outweigh (no pun intended) the weight penalty. Naturally, on any course that has hills, the rider would suffer! Once again it’s carbon fiber to the rescue. The unique thing about carbon fiber is that you can make almost any shape out of it and that shape can be very aerodynamic, and very light. Aerodynamic wheels come in a variety of profiles that balances out aero/weight considerations depending on how the wheels will be used. For example, a triathlete riding on a relatively flat course might choose a wheel with a very deep rim that is on the heavier side but offers tremendous aerodynamic benefit. A road racer might choose a lower profile rim that offers a lighter weight for hillier courses.
Torsional stiffness and comfort
Often overlooked but very important in the overall scheme are vertical compliance and torsional rigidity. As mentioned before, making a wheel really light is not that hard to do but in doing so you might make the wheel unusable by anyone over 140 pounds. Similarly, making a wheel that is extremely rigid is pretty easy but riding it will rattle your teeth right out of your head! Wheel designers and builders always weigh all these considerations when designing a wheel system. Every wheelset is a compromise of weight, aerodynamics, compliance, torsional stiffness, and, of course, price.
Is it possible to get a wheel set that is really light, really aerodynamic, and handles like a dream? Absolutely! Just be prepared to pay the piper. As I like to say, speed is just a question of money-How fast do you want to go?