Monday, January 19, 2009

Race Wheels 101

Upgrading to a Time Trial specific wheelset can take minutes off a bike time. Knowing which ones to get is tricky. There are several types of wheels out there, and since they can be very expensive, knowing what type of wheel to get is very important.

There are several manufacturers of wheels, some are good, and some are excellent. Generally, a modern bicycle will come equipped with a good wheelset, but intended for everyday riding and not race specific. Most of these manufactured wheels are an excellent choice for bicycle racing, but their application in a Time Trial is not ideal. This is mainly due the rim not being deep enough to let air go smoothly around it to reduce drag. As a rule of thumb, the deeper the rim, the more aerodynamic the wheel.

The worst wheels for aerodynamics are going to be the 32 spoke training wheels, which are very strong and durable, but are not found on new bicycles anymore. These wheels are mostly used by people who specifically go out and purchase these wheels as an aftermarket item specifically for their durability. These are hands down, the best wheels for training.

Typical Mavic/Shimano 32 hole 3-cross wheelset

The typical bicycle purchase will come with a manufactured wheelset from a major wheel company. These types of wheels are designed as a unit and are excellent wheels for all-around use. The only down fall they have is that if they get broken, they cannot be repaired quickly. These wheelsets are great for training, group riding, and even racing in bicycle races. Their costs can range from $200 to $2000, depending on what kind of fancy materials they are built with. Typical wheels and their variants in this category are the Mavic Ksyrium series, the Easton EA series, the Shimano WH-R series, and the Bontrager Race series. If the bike came with wheels labeled as the same name as the bike itself, chances are one of the four companies above actually made the wheels. Even though these are great all-purpose wheels, they do not have enough rim depth to make them good for racing in a Time Trial or a Triathlon. These typically have 20-24 spokes, making them lighter and faster than the 32 spoked training wheel.

Easton EA50 wheelset

The most important thing about an aerodynamic wheel is rim depth. The deeper the rim, the more aerodynamic the wheel, and the more aerodynamic the wheel, the faster it goes. Time Trial wheels are expensive, mainly because in order to get the rim depth, they have to be made out of carbon fiber. If they were to be made out of inexpensive aluminum, they would end up being very heavy to be strong enough. 

From a general standpoint, all the carbon wheels are the same. Suitable Time Trial/Triathlon wheels can have rim depths from 50mm to 100mm. Some wheels have bigger brand names than others, and some are way more expensive than the rest. Typically, unless the race is coming down to needing a 10 second advantage over the next person, there is no need to get a wheelset that exceeds the budget set aside for them. Expect anywhere from $500 to $1400 for a WHEEL, or $1000 to $2800 for a wheelset, and price does not exactly correlate to speed (ie. a twice expensive wheel is not twice as fast). Well known manufactures of these types of wheels are HED, Zipp, Mavic, Bontrager, Shimano, Flashpoint, Easton.


Shimano WH-7850 C50 Wheelset

As mentioned before, rim depth is important for aerodynamics, but what is critical, is choosing the RIGHT rim depth. Deeper is better for aerodynamics, but if it is too deep, the wheel can become uncontrollable in cross winds. For example, a 100mm deep wheel is faster than a 50mm, but if the rider cannot control 100mm’s on a windy day, then they will end up going slower than if they had used the 50mm. This is mainly why there is such a large variation in wheel depths, even from the same company. A large manufacturer will make wheels for a variety of cycling disciplines, but generally when it comes to Time Trial, there is only a few that need to be looked at and considered.

Zipp 1080 Wheelset

The fastest wheel out there is the disc. It basically has no spokes to create drag, and the wind flows across the entire wheel without interruption. These are also the most expensive wheels to get, but they are also the fastest. For every course except ones that require a lot of climbing, this is the fastest choice of wheel. Even though it is the fastest wheel in terms of aerodynamics, it’s also the heaviest. On courses with lots of climbing, the disc wheel will definitely be adding more weight to the bike. Expect to spend anywhere from $500 to $5000 on a rear disc. The more expensive disc’s are lighter, but again, something twice as expensive is not twice as fast.

HED Disc

Race wheels are expensive, and in my opinion, there are two ways to look at purchasing a race wheelset.
Number 1 is the wheel/wheel, and number 2 is the wheel/disc. A couple factors in the decision is budget and intended application, ie race courses.

To start off with Option #1), in my opinion, is to get the most versatile/fastest wheelset by mixing two different rim depths. As I mentioned before, a 50mm is more controllable than a 100mm, but the 100mm is FASTER. I typically recommend getting a 50-60mm front wheel and a 100mm rear wheel. The front is where rim depth affects handling the most and on the rear, there is no noticeable difference on handling regardless of rim depth, even up to a full disc. Having a 60/100 front/rear wheelset is by far the best option for a wheelset to be used on ALL courses.

Option #2), is the disc wheel. I probably use this rear wheel the most. Unless the race course is very hilly (eg. IMWI), then I strongly recommend the disc wheel as the first choice of rear wheel. For most other courses, the disc wheel is the top in aerodynamic performance and I can easily say that a traditional aero rear wheel can be skipped. The only catch is if a course like IMWI is on the calendar. In my experience, I have found the disc to be awkward to climb with because of its inertia and weight. I believe that if the climb involves a lot of standing on the pedals, this wheel will not be well suited, as it feels like I’m waving a large fan back and forth as I rock the bike from one side to the next. Most people will purchase the disc wheel as their 2nd rear wheel, but end up using it the most.

In summary, if no extremely hilly races are going to be on the calendar, or the budget allows it, go with a 60mm front with rear disc. If there are going to be hilly races in the foreseeable future, purchase a 60/100 wheelset for maximum versatility. I find no need to match rim depths of front/rear (eg. 60/60), so do not feel the pressure to purchase a coupled wheelset as such.

The last question is the inevitable "Should I buy clincher or tubular?" I will write another article about that, but generally, unless you know you want tubulars, purchase clinchers.



Manufacturer        Model                     Rim Depth

Easton

EA Series

23

Mavic

Ksyrium 

24

Mavic

Cosmic Elite

24

Bontrager

Race Series

24

Shimano

C24 Series

24

Shimano

Any Series

24

Fulcrum

Zero

26

Zipp

202

38

HED

Jet 4

40

Flashpoint

FP40

40

Zipp

303

43

Reynolds

DV 46

46

Mavic

Carbone

50

Bontrager

Aeolus

50

Shimano

C50 

50

Fulcrum

Speed

50

Campagnolo

Bora

50

HED

H3

55

Zipp

404

56

Easton

EC90 TT

56

Reynolds

Stryke

56

HED

Jet 6

60

HED

Stinger 6

60

Flashpoint

FP60

60

Flashpoint

DP80

80

Zipp

808

82

HED

Jet 9

90

HED

Stinger 9

90

Zipp

1080

108

10 comments:

TriGirl Kate O said...

Chris,
Thanks for the clarification. I always wondered about the why's and when's of using different wheels.

Javier said...

Thanks! That was informative!

Pedergraham said...

This is great. I enjoyed how you put everything in very simple terms. I'm looking forward to the tubular/clincher story now.

Anonymous said...

that really helped me!!!

Danni said...

This is great!!!! I have been looking into wheels but I was extremely confused!
Thanks!

H said...

This is definitely good info. But the clear follow-up which needs to be addressed is how to get the most bang for the buck? Zipp's seem to come with a large price premium attached to them. Others are cheaper. If we go wheel/wheel so we can use them in the widest range of conditions, then what's the manufacturer to go with for best value if we have a limited budget? The choices are overwhelming!

-Henry

jay said...

This was extremely helpful. Look forward to reading more.

Kristin said...

Thanks for the input!! Now can you tell me how the PROS do a 56 mile bike ride in 2 hours?!!! :)

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