Buying Race Wheels: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re considering paying more for a set of bicycle wheels than my brother and I did for our first car—a beautiful 11-year-old 1989 Dodge Omni. With the endless number of options and opinions to consider, deciding what wheels to buy can be a mind-numbing experience.
I’m a mechanical engineer, so naturally, before purchasing my first set of race wheels, I researched everything to death. When I received my wheels, I felt I could build the same thing for a much lower price. My twin brother Jon—also a mechanical engineer—agreed with me, and that was the beginning of FLO Cycling. That was in May of 2009.
“What wheels should I buy?” is the most common question we receive at FLO. Over the years we’ve learned a lot about carbon wheels, and this guide is the most unbiased advice I can give you on purchasing them.
Step One: Things That Are Necessary
If you were purchasing a new car, you would expect that car to be mechanically sound and to come with a good warranty. When purchasing race wheels, there are certain things you should expect. Here’s is what I think is necessary.
Quality Components And A Good Wheel Build
If your wheel has quality components and is well built, you get a good cycling wheel. It really is that simple.
If you buy a poorly designed carbon clincher rim, chances are you’ll have issues with the brake tracks melting. If your wheel has low-quality spokes, count on them breaking more often and the wheel frequently being out of true.
The best wheel companies are obsessive when selecting and designing their components because they know how crucially important they are. Quality control measures are also in place to ensure all wheels meet a well-designed spec.
When buying your wheels, insist that the following components are great.
To prevent this article from turning into a novel, I won’t go into an exhaustive list of what is considered a quality component here. If you have questions, please feel free to ask us. Even if you are thinking of buying wheels from another brand, feel free to write or call. The goal is for you to get the information you need to make the best decision you can.
Step Two: Things That Are Personal Preference
Going back to our car analogy, when buying a new car some things aren’t necessary and are merely chosen based on your personal preference. Deciding if you want a two-door convertible or a pickup truck is a good example.
When buying race wheels, ask yourself what characteristics matter to you. Do you want to optimize aerodynamic performance? Are you looking for wheels that are low weight? Or are you trying to find wheels that match your fancy pink bike?
All of these decisions are ultimately up to you, but let me give you some advice to increase the chances you’ll be happy with your purchase.
Selecting Rim Depth
You’re buying race wheels, so I’ll assume that going faster is on your priority list. Deeper wheels are typically faster, but that doesn’t always mean you should buy the deepest front wheel you can find.
The deeper your front wheel, the more challenging it is to control in windy conditions. If you have to come out of your aero bars to control a 90 mm front wheel in your next triathlon, your wheel is too deep.
In our experience, most athletes can confidently stay in the aero bars riding a front wheel that is 60 mm deep or less. For this reason, we suggest most athletes select a 60 mm front wheel. Doing so will allow you to optimize aerodynamic performance without being blown all over the road.
If you are overly sensitive to wind, then we’d suggest a front wheel that is 45 mm or less. And, if you are a very confident bike handler, feel free to look at wheels that are 80 mm or deeper.
A rear wheel cannot turn left or right like a front wheel, so it is far less affected by wind. In fact, the deeper your rear wheel gets, the more it improves your stability.
We recommend a rear wheel that is as deep as your front wheel or deeper. Some people prefer the aesthetics of matching front and rear wheels. We understand that, but if you are looking for the best aero advantage and improved stability, choose a deeper rear wheel.
In the market for race wheels? See if FLO wheels are right for you.
What Is More Important, Aerodynamics Or Weight?
Weight certainly plays a role in your overall performance, but the truth is, aerodynamics play a far more important role.
During accelerations, aerodynamics are nearly 50 times more important than weight. And, apart from climbing the Alpe d’Huez, aerodynamics out-performs weight on every course we’ve studied.
Simply put, always put aerodynamic performance ahead of weight when selecting your race wheels.
Design: Open Mold Vs. Proprietary Shapes
Open Mold Shapes
Asian wheel factories have in-house wheel shapes that you can use to start your wheel company. These shapes are typically based on older technology and have little in the way of aerodynamic design. If you use the right factory, you can get a structurally well-built rim, but expect it to fall behind in other performance categories.
Most top-end wheel companies have in-house engineering teams designing rims. They optimize all areas of wheel performance including braking performance, structural design, and aerodynamic performance.
At FLO, we designed our latest line of wheels using our 5 Step Design Process.
If you are looking for the best performing wheel you can find, choose a wheel that has a well-designed proprietary shape. Also, look for companies that are transparent about their design process and performance improvement claims.
Made In America Vs. Made In Asia
The best Asian factories are producing the vast majority of all cycling products you, your friends, and your favorite pro riders are using. When Asian factories get it right, they excel. Unfortunately, there are a large number of Asian factories that get it wrong. If you are buying wheels produced in an Asian factory, make sure the company you are buying from is using one of the top manufacturers.
Almost all American-made wheels are high-quality products. There are a few brands that have struggled over the years, but they typically go out of business rather quickly. If you are buying a wheel made in America, pick one of the top brands.
The manufacturing cost of almost all carbon fiber race wheels is about the same. I’ll say that again. Essentially all carbon fiber race wheels cost about the same amount to produce.
The biggest reason you see a difference in price from brand A to brand B is because of the sales model. Wheels purchased in a bicycle shop typically make their way to you via the Retail Sales Model.
Factory -> Wheel Brand -> Distributor -> Bike Shop -> You
Wheels purchased from a consumer direct company make their way to you via the Consumer Direct Sales Model.
Factory -> Wheel Brand -> You
Race wheels purchased from a retail shop often cost $3500 or more per set. Consumer direct brands commonly charge less than $1500 for a set of wheels.
If you are buying a $3,500 set of bicycle wheels from a retail shop, that is entirely ok. Just remember that the distributor paid roughly the same amount you would have paid if you purchased the wheels from a consumer direct company.
Make Good Decisions But Don’t Obsess
If you’ve taken any of my above advice, you’ll be well on your way to choosing a great set of race wheels. A lot of people get to this point and start to obsess over the smallest details.
This wheelset is 30 grams lighter than that one. One aero study shows wheel A is 3 grams slower than wheel B, but another study says the opposite. Crotchety old Larry from my cycling team says tubular wheels are better.
In my opinion, getting a good set of race wheels is 99% of the battle. The performance improvement you’ll see switching from stock training wheels to a good set of race wheels is considerable. The difference you’ll experience by obsessing over the fine details between top wheel brand A and B is small.
Do your homework and buy the wheels that make you happy. Then get on your bike and train. Without an engine, those new race wheels aren’t going anywhere in a hurry.
What We Do At FLO
At FLO we make great wheels. When we produce our wheels we:
- Hand select all of our components.
- Spend a crazy amount of time designing our rims shapes.
- Produce our wheels in one of the top factories in the world.
To top it all off, we sell our product via a consumer direct sales model which means you pay about one-third of the cost of our biggest competitors.
The truth is, many companies design and manufacture exceptional race wheels. In the end, you have to purchase the wheels that are the best for YOU.
P.S. Thanks to our grandparents for helping us afford that beautiful 1989 Dodge Omni.