June 16, 2022 / by Danny Mavis

Need a new set of wheels but you’re confused by all the variety? All riders will at some point need and want to replace the wheels that came with the bike. Maybe this is down to advanced wear and you’re after something safer. Most riders though want a performance boost, and the stock wheels are the first to go. Road bikers look for reduced weight and better materials, whereas anyone into mountain biking will want more durability and easier climbing.

If you’re after cycle wheels for sale for your road, mountain, hybrid or mountain bike this detailed guide will help you choose.

Wheel Compatibility

man riding a bicycle
source: play.decathlon.co.uk

The obvious divide here is between road and mountain bike wheels. They’re differently sized and built, take different tyres and brakes and also differ as to the types and sizes of hubs and axles. And there’s no point in fitting road wheels to mountain bikes, or vice versa. This guide focusses on road bike wheels as there’s more variation here, but what follows is also relevant for all bike wheel types.

Road Bike Wheels

Let’s take a quick look at the parts in road bike wheels:

  • Rims – Rims play a big part in wheel durability, ride quality and stability and in bikes with rim brakes – how quickly you come to a complete stop. Road rims come in different widths, ranging from 15 to 19mm and this allows for wider tyres. Current race bikes sport thinner tyres at 23 or 25mm, but wider variants can take tyres up to 50mm wide, and these are what you’ll see on gravel and some touring bikes.

Wider tyres also mean that the bike will absorb more of the road imperfections for a comfier ride. But before swapping out the wheels check that the frame has enough clearance to fit something bigger.

cycle wheel close up
source: liveabout.com
  • Hubs – The hubs are the central part of the wheel in more ways than one. This is what the wheel turns on. Inside the hubs are bearings and the axle that allows for rotation, and the axle is what connects the bike frame to the wheel. A spline connects the cassette and drivetrain on the rear wheel hub. Most road bikes feature a freehub, or the part that allows you to coast without putting any effort into the pedals.

When speaking of axles – there are two types: quick-release and thru-axles. Thru-axles are preferred for better strength, less maintenance and better ride quality but are more expensive. If changing to new wheels get the axle in the right length and width.

  • Spokes – These are what connect the hubs to the rims. Their role is to evenly distribute the rider’s weight. Road bikes will have more spokes in the rear than the front wheel for added durability. Spokes are often made from steel wire (though high-end wheels can have carbon fibre spokes). They can be differently shaped, either for more stability and durability or for improved aerodynamics.
  • Nipples – Laugh at the name, but this is what connects the spokes to the rim. Tightening them adds more tension to the rim in what is called ‘wheel truing’. Nipples are often brass for more strength, but lighter aluminium variants are becoming more common.

Road Bike Rim Types

people riding road bicycles
source: gearpatrol.com

Depending on the depth of the rim there are several types of road bike rims. Most stock wheels are so-called shallow section wheels with a depth of 25mm. These have a good balance between overall strength and riding comfort and are suitable for most types of riding. For better aerodynamics without compromising on strength, step up to midsection wheels. Rims here are 35 to 50mm deep and benefit from slightly less weight. Deep section wheels at 65mm deep are what you’ll find on high-end racing bikes as they provide the biggest performance gains by offering the best aerodynamics. This makes them more suitable on flat roads. Disc wheels are for time trial bikes exclusively on the flats. Generally, the deeper the wheel the more aero it is, at the cost of rider comfort.

Tyre and Rim Types – Tubular, Clincher and Tubeless

Clinchers are the most common type of tyres. They fit clincher rims that come with bead seats to accommodate the inner tube once it’s inflated. Tubular tyres also have an inner tube, but this is sewn onto the tyre and then glued or taped to the rim. Tubular tyres (and rims) are lighter, have better rolling resistance (read: faster) and are preferred by racers. Lastly, there are tubeless rims and tyres. These do away with the inner tube and instead rely on an airtight seal. Rims with tubeless tyres will be slightly heavier but offer the best rolling resistance. In addition, they are less prone to punctures. As of late, big names in road bikes are fitting tubeless tyres and rims even onto entry-level bikes.

Braking – Rim vs Disc Brake Wheels

rim brake on cycle wheels close up
source: tomsbiketrip.com

The trend is to fit new bikes with disc brakes. Disc brakes fit on the hub on the wheels. There are two types of disc wheel hubs – 6-bolt and centre-lock. Wheels fitted with rim brakes are often lighter, but need stronger side walls to maximise stopping power with the pads. Generally, disc brakes have better braking power in all weather conditions, but are harder to maintain. Disc wheels and bikes with disc wheels are dearer than those with rim brake wheels. The two types are incompatible (with differences in the bike forks, hubs and axles), so get the right type of wheel for the bike.

What to Look for in a Road Bike Wheel

Materials and Weight – Aluminium or Carbon – Entry-level road bikes are fitted with heavier aluminium wheels and these come at a weight cost, typically over 2 kilos for both wheels. Carbon is stiffer and lighter, and the preferred choice for mid and high-end bikes. Combined with a lighter carbon frame the weight savings are more evident in climbs and picking up speed. As for durability, cutting-edge aluminium wheels will outlast cheaper carbon wheels, but that changes as you spend more on high-quality carbon. Of course, other factors like spoke design and materials and the quality of the hubs also plays a part here and these can also be upgraded. The more you spend the lighter and stiffer wheels get and this is what everyone wants in a new set of cycle wheels for sale.

What about Mountain Bike Wheels?

man riding a mountain bike
source: santacruzbicycles.com

The main difference between road and mountain bike wheels is size. Road wheels are generally 700 mm or 28 inches in diameter, whereas mountain bike wheels come in more flavors. Typical sizes are 24-inch wheels for smaller bikes, 26 inches for older bikes, and the new standard is either 27.5 wheels for bikes for shorter riders and 29-inch wheels on most mountain bikes sold today.

Mountain bike rims are also wider, have longer and thicker axles and beefier hubs and can accommodate bigger and wider tyres. Almost all are of the tubeless type and wheels are fitted with bigger rotors for better braking power. Since they take more beating than a road wheel, they are often heavier, sometimes with a higher spoke count to better distribute weight on uneven surfaces. Materials are the same, with aluminium wheels as the cheaper choice and standard fit on entry mountain bikes, and carbon reserved for lighter bikes higher up the price range. Opting for lighter carbon wheels will help during steep climbs, but can affect overall strength and stiffness.