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Why upgrading your wheelset will make you faster

Why upgrading your wheelset will make you faster
Campagnolo Bora WTO Wheels - as featured in Procycling magazine (Image credit: Procycling)

You might ride on a frame, but you roll along on wheels. Of all the components influencing your cycling performance, nothing is more important than the wheelset.

With the cycling industry having accepted the benefits of disc brakes, there has been a renewed focus on rim and wheel design. Without having to engineer rim structures which are both load-bearing entities and heat-friction brake surfaces, road bike wheel design is undergoing a very happy revolution.

As cycling technology progresses, the promise of marginal gains keeps us upgrading but, all things being equal, your best single-component performance upgrade, on a road bike, are its wheels.

Whether you are a novice rider, or even an experienced hand musing the possibility of gaining more speed and suffering less long-distance riding fatigue, wheels are where you get the most performance for your money.

When you are presented with the choice of a lighter frame or lighter wheels, the latter is always a superior option. The anchor reason for this is simple: rotational weight.

Any component on your road bike which turns (wheels, cranksets, chainrings and cassettes) has a rotational weight coefficient because you are actively working against its mass by expending energy to keep it in motion.

Lowering resistance and increasing comfort

You never have to overcome inertia with a bike frame, or keeping it rotating in motion, and hence it has no rotational mass to fatigue you on a longer ride.

Keeping this logic of reducing rotating mass in mind, it is logical to notice that your wheels are the largest single rotating components on any road bike. And therefore, they offer the greatest lightweight gains.  

Saving wheelset weight will make a huge difference to your sense of acceleration and overall energy efficiency and endurance while out riding. Whether you opt for a lightweight wheelset - perhaps aluminium - or transition to carbon-fibre, lowering the weight of your wheels yield the most instantly noticeable improvements in performance.

Beyond rotational mass, another aspect of road bike wheel design where you gain by upgrading to more exotic materials is ride quality. A carbon-fibre rim can be designed and constructed to have its fibres orientated in a multitude of directions.

"A wheelset upgrade allows you to access multiple performance advantages in a single purchase: better rotating efficiency, ride quality and aerodynamics."

Lance Branquinho

Unlike aluminium, the composite structure of a carbon-fibre rim allows engineers to produce wheels with an unrivalled combination of lateral stiffness and radial compliance. The result is that a carbon wheel steers with tremendous accuracy and always remains true, requiring negligible spoke tensioning to remain perfectly dished over time, compared to aluminium – which can easily be knocked out of alignment by a pothole or manhole cover strike.

Perhaps the most underappreciated advantage of upgrading your road bike wheelset is leveraging the latest trends in rim width. Road cyclists have finally realised that wider rims and squared-off tyre profiles have superior aerodynamic properties, compared to extremely narrow rims with a bulbous tyre profile.

The additional material required for shaping a wider rim has an insignificant weight penalty in relation to the rolling resistance and aerodynamic benefits wider tyre and wheel combination brings.

In summary, a wheelset upgrade allows you to access multiple performance advantages in a single purchase: better rotating efficiency, ride quality and aerodynamics. It is also worth remembering that an expertly build wheelset can last years (with only rudimentary bearing grease as a service cost), unlike most disposal components such as your drivetrain or tyres, which wear with each moment of use.