Race Wheel Considerations

Race Wheel Considerations

A version of this article was originally
published in Triathlete Magazine

After a couple years as a midpack racer, I’ve decided to buy a set of race wheels. I’m not sure where to start? Any help is appreciated. Thanks.

Dave , VA

Dear Dave,

Finding a well matched race wheel, like finding a well matched frame, should be based in how well a wheel addresses your individual needs and use. By gaining a general understanding of the most important variables in race wheel performance and how they relate to your individual situation, you can make an informed decision. So, what variables matter most?

Aerodynamics and Versatility – A wheel’s aerodynamics are determined primarily by its shape and frontal surface area and secondarily by the texture and pattern of the wheel’s surface. HED3 wheels are good examples of a design focused on maximizing aerodynamics through shape, while many Zipp models have dimpled surfaces (like a golf ball) and combine shape with texture and pattern to enhance aerodynamics.

Aero wheel rim depths range from about 35mm to 90mm. In general, the deeper the rim the more aerodynamic a wheel might be, but also the less versatile and more demanding it will be in side winds. The good news is that unless your speeds are consistently above 25 mph, the aerodynamic advantages of an 80-90mm deep rim or disk wheel over a 50-60mm rim depth are negligible. If side winds are a concern, don’t feel like you are giving up a lot of the aero advantage by choosing a race wheel with a little shallower rim depth and less cross section.

Lighter weight riders who are concerned about side winds and versatility should consider 35 to 45mm rim depth wheels, like the Zipp 303. If side winds are less of a concern, wheels with 45mm to 60mm rim depths, like the HED Stinger v5.0, Zipp 404 or Mavic Cosmic Carbone SL, are versatile performers. Pairing a moderate section wheel in the front, where the wind has the largest influence on handling, with a deeper section rear wheel can also effectively maximize aerodynamics, while minimizing the handling effects of side winds.

Weight and Durability – Wheels are rotating mass and this makes their weight more important than the static weight found in frames. This being said, weight influences acceleration most and its effects are most noticeable on courses that have a lot of change in speed (hills, for example). The benefits of losing weight are proportionate and a 115 lbs rider who loses 200 grams of wheel weight will have a larger relative gain in performance than a 200 lbs rider who loses the same amount.

Keep in mind that ultra light cycling products are usually designed to maximize performance first and foremost. Like a Thoroughbred horse, an 1100 gram race wheel set is designed to help you go as fast as possible in race/event situations and are not designed for everyday pothole dodging. Less polished riding styles and heavier rider weight can compound the demands on wheels, so think about your weight, riding style and use when determining how light a race wheel makes sense for you. I don’t recommend riding race wheels during everyday training. If you are going to ride race wheels daily, Mavic’s Cosmic Carbone SL is one of the few with rims and hubs that are reinforced enough for everyday use under most riders.

Stiffness and Compliance – The construction and design of a wheel determines its ride characteristics. In general, the deeper the rim and/or the more spoke material (number or size) it has, the stiffer and more torsionally responsive the wheel will be. Disks and wheels like the HED3 tend to be some of the stiffest options for this reason. Stiffness is good to a point, but too much can compromise comfort and compliance. Your wheels directly impact how your frame rides, so be sure to find a wheel that matches up well with the rest of your equipment. If your bike is less compliant and comfortable than you want, consider pairing it with a more forgiving wheel to help balance it out. If your bike is not as responsive and stiff as you want, consider a more rigid race wheel as it will enhance the overall stiffness of your bike. Companies like Zipp even make reinforced models for bigger riders or those looking to maximize stiffness.

Clincher versus Tubular – Discussing the merits of clincher versus tubular tires is a column unto itself. There are too many methods of wheel construction to generalize as to which type makes the most sense for you. With some brands, like Zipp, there are manufacturing differences between the full carbon tubular rim design and their aluminum clincher rim counterparts. In general, the tubular versions of these wheels are the best riding, lightest and most puncture resistant. However, with other brands, like Mavic, there is no difference in construction or materials between the tubular and clincher versions. In this case, your decision can be based more on tire characteristics than wheel construction. Asking a knowledgeable technician about potential limitations or problems they have seen on specific models can give you insight into what construction type in a given wheel model will work best for you.

Especially on a race wheel, do not shy away from tubular wheels just because they are different from what you are used to. Tubulars are less complicated than many people think, have some benefits over clinchers, and are the highest performance option.

Support and Price – The company(s) behind the product is often the most overlooked consideration in a wheel purchase. While race wheels offer great benefits to many riders, they are more technical than standard training wheels and have a greater likelihood of requiring factory service. Some manufacturers are more customer service oriented than others. Specialty shops work with manufacturers daily, and finding out what brand(s) the most selective retailers recommend and why is one way to find out which companies are best in this regard.

Like any product, new wheels bought through unauthorized retailers (often via on-line auctions) are not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. Buying from a knowledgeable authorized retailer who takes the time to help you make the best decision and who supports you after the sale if you have a problem, can pay off long after your purchase.

Good luck with the search and your season.


Originally published April 2005/Copyright © 2005

About Ian

From first time riders to Olympians, Ian has helped thousands of athletes achieve their cycling and triathlon goals. Ian develops much of the Fit Werx fitting and analysis protocols and is responsible for technology training and development. He is regarded as one of the industry leaders in bicycle fitting, cycling biomechanics and bicycle geometry and design. He is dedicated to making sure the Fit Werx differences are delivered daily and provides Fit Werx with corporate direction and is responsible for uniting our staff and initiatives.

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