How to choose the right wheelset for the task at hand (Part 1)

We get a lot of emails from customers asking for our recommendation on which wheelset to buy, or whether a particular wheelset is the best choice for them. As always, the answer is a mildly aggravating "it depends." Riding style, terrain, rider strengths and weeknesses, objectives, weight (yours and the wheels') and a bunch of other factors all contribute towards choosing a suitable wheelset. So over the next few entries here on the blog, I'll try to catalog all of those conditions and help you make a decision, or at least provide you with a framework for decision-making.

First off, notice that I said "a suitable wheelset" and not "the best wheelset." For most jobs (and riders), there are more than one wheelset that will do the trick admirably. So don't get too hung up on getting it precisely right. 

Secondly, many of the conditions on which wheelset selection depends vary by season, and even by day. So while some of you may be looking at the question of "which wheels should I buy?" others will regard this framework as "which wheels should I use today?" I personally believe pretty strongly in the concept of a wheel portfolio, or having a number of different wheelsets on hand so that you can optimize your bike around the day's objectives. I don't advocate the portfolio because I sell wheels - rather, it's the other way around. Building a wheel portfolio is expensive, and one of the reasons we launched November is to put the quiver of wheelsets within reach of more riders. Judging from the number of customers who have bought multiple wheelsets from us, the concept is catching on.

So where do we start in choosing a wheelset? I think the first step is a self-assessment. You're good at some things on the bike and you suck at others. (Sorry, but you do.) Before you start turning over different depths and compositions and spoke counts in your head, you need to choose a wheel philosophy first. Do you want your wheelset to accentuate what you're already good at, or do you want wheels to help you shore up where you're weak? Obviously a nice pair of wheels will do a little of both but you have the opportunity to execute some strategic improvement here so it's worth thinking about.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Let's call them Racer D and Racer M. Racer D is a diesel, a rider with a highly trained functional threshold power who can hold an uncomfortably warm pace for a long long time. He races to take advantage of that attribute, initiating breaks or taking long turns on the front to set up teammates' counterattacks to previous moves. He races a lot on RFSW 50s because the depth affords him an aero advantage, and the weight is low enough to help keep him off the front even when the road tilts up. But at about 6'0" and 160 lbs, Racer D is not a pure climber. For big mountain stage races next year he's looking at the RFSW 38s - giving up some depth in exchange for the lighter weight to help haul his bloated rouler's carcass up the hills of Killington. He'll also like the 38s for technical crits that have him gunning it out of corners. Acceleration isn't his strongest suit, and the lighter weight of shallower wheels will help him spin up quickly.

By contrast, Racer M is better adept at races with velocity changes. Squarely in the fast-twitch set, jumping and ramping up speed comes easy to him, but holding that speed is his achilles' heel. The benefits of light wheels that spin up easy are lost on Racer M. He'd rather race on something that makes it a little easier to hang onto that 30mph burst longer than the 500M at which he typically crumples. Next season will see him on a RFSC 85/58 combo most races. But when pressed into hilly events he'll sacrifice aero for lightweight in a bid for survival.

So before you even start your search, figure out what kind of racer you are and if you want your wheels to help you extend that advantage, or to narrow the gap where you are not as strong. It will help to look at your local racing calendar to do this. The perfect wheelset for your attributes on flat courses doesn't do you a lot of good if you live in the mountains. Choose not just the wheelset that makes you the racer you want to be, but also the one that gives you the greatest chance of success on the terrain you'll be on. 

I'm going to see if I can get Dave to write Part 2 of this series, and talk about how rider size and weight should influence wheel choices. Then in Part 3 I'll rank the top 3 wheelsets for a bunch of different event types, from crits to TTs to group rides and gran fondos. It will be a meaningless ranking as it's based on average rider sizes and riding styles, and is sure to prompt much protestation and scorn. 

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1 comment

Very interested in Part III…


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