Bike wheels are a key part of your cycling experience. They be one of the biggest upgrades you can make. But do you want the lightest bike wheels possible? Is low mass always the right choice for you and your riding?
When you shop for bike wheels (and lots of other components) you are often confronted with a choice of strong, light, aerodynamic and price. The saying is pick 2 of these attributes that are best for you. So here we are going to go into when mass is a key consideration and when you should prioritise another feature.
The pros of lower mass are clear. Cycling wheels are often one of the components that you can lose the most weight for your new bike from the box. Especially with custom cycling wheels. A lot of bikes in the sub £2000 price bracket come with wheels that are below the quality of the rest of the bike. The rrp of these wheels varies but often its £300 or less and they mass close to 2kg.
This has several consequences. You often hear that saving a gram from your cycling wheels is equivalent to saving 2 from your frame. This isn’t mathematically correct, but the idea is correct.
Try spinning a rubber on a piece of string in a circle. Fairly easy right? Now put a bike light on the sting (or another heavier object) and try and spin it. Harder to get the rotation going? And when you stop spinning, you feel the string pulling on your hand for longer? Now imagen that the light represents the bike rim, the string is the spokes, and your hand the hub. Hopefully can see where we are going with this.
Mass in rotation has a greater effect on you bike than the static weight (the mass that isn’t not moving. Your frame, bars, etc). Because when you change your speed there is more mass resisting this change in speed (the moment of inertia). Interestingly at a constant speed the mass of your cycling wheels doesn’t matter as much. This is where this saying comes from. In reality its more like a 10% difference between rotational mass and static but that is still significant difference.
Also, more mass in rotation the gyroscopic effect is greater. This is the tendency of a spinning object to stay spinning at the same angle. Try changing the angle of the sting whilst spinning and you will feel it. This isn’t significant on a bike as you have the leverage to overcome it from your bars but it’s still worth considering.
As result of this heavy bike wheels feel sluggish to get up to speed and resist turning more than lighter cycling wheels. This is why having light cycling wheels and make a massive difference to the way your bike feels. Also, for out and out climbing bikes any gram saved will pay you huge dividends on the steep slopes so light wheels are critical.
So light bike wheels are always the answer? They feel faster and help with handling. Well yes and no. Yes, they make a big difference but remember the pick 2 attributes from earlier? Is mass the be all and end all?
For mountain bikers we would argue that its up there. Especially for xc, trail and enduro. You are constantly braking, sprinting, and gaining speed from the trail. A lighter wheelset will mean that you will feel more in control and can go faster. Also, climes are easier.
But this must be coupled with strength. Custom cycling wheels can help you do this. you can bring down the mass of the rim, and nipples without sacrificing strength or compliance. See our page on custom cycling wheels.
For road cycling this is a bit more complicated. This is because of aerodynamics. Yes, you can go off road fast enough for this to make a difference however to a lesser degree. For road aero can be more important and depends on what you want. If you like to blast the flat and survive the hills then heavier, more aero wheels will be more suited to you. If you live in hills, then light, custom cycling wheels might be best option.
Modern road cycling wheels have come a long way from when your choice on the road was either 50mm deep carbon wheels feeling like you about to be blowen into the hedge or shallow rims and being dropped by the group. Now there are options out there that combine low mass with aerodynamics. See our light racer for example.
Budget is also an important factor. If you are constrained by budget, we would advise to go down the lightweight path. Cheap aero wheels often don’t get you good return on investment. Also, if your average speed is below 20km/h you will feel the benefit from lighter wheels more than deeper aero wheels.
Custom cycling wheels can strike the perfect balance for you to get the best of low mass, high strength and aero. But the upshot is yes light wheels are great but there are other things you should consider before you purchase your new wheels.