This "a post a day" thing has been maybe just a little bit more than we envisioned when we started it seven weeks ago. I can't even believe that time span, it's crazy. Anyhow, we have a couple of options - knuckle under, dial it back, or ram the pedal to the floor and go with it. We're choosing number 3 (of course) but being a bit smart about it. As you saw when we did the countdown of our most popular posts (part 1 and part 2), we rely on these posts when we craft our responses to the inquiries we get. They allow us to give a crazy amount of detail in our answers without just crushing ourselves in the process (although "responding to emails" is still a chart topper in how I spend my time, for sure). Taking that one step further, we're going to use this chance to write a book(let). Hopefully just one. But it will be our guide to wheel buying, since that's really what it all boils down to anyway. We present chapter one here.
When you're thinking about a set of wheels, start with the tires you intend to use with them. That choice will of course be informed by the frame they'll be used with, the clearances possible, the terrain you plan to use them for, your size, the rim size, and whether you plan to use tubeless or not. Obviously there are rims that are disc specific, and your bike's brakes will limit that, but tires really are the place to start even beyond that.
You don't have to be crazy specific about the tires, but getting it down to a range really helps. For example, if you want to be able to use them with 30mm road tires and up to 40mm gravel tires, then you've defined a great, useful range. This, coincidentally, is the range I use on my cross bike, which is my everything except mountain biking bike. I have the luxury of as many wheel sets as I could possibly want, though I limit it to two, which I think is pretty darn ideal. If I wasn't lazy about changing tires, I could use one set of wheels for this and be pretty much perfect through the whole range.
As we discussed in this post about tire width versus rim width, the best rim-to-tire width relationship will depend on what type of tires you use. Road tires like a more even match between rim and tire, where knobbier tires are better off a bit wider than the tire for both traction and suspension issues. So if you want to max out road speed on a 32mm road tire, we'd recommend All Road 38s or 50s. But if you want to race cross on 33s, then the slightly narrower RCG, Cafe Racers, or GOATs would be ideal, not to mention the amazing-for-cross Easton R90SL and Stan's Grail. Narrower gravel tires, or crossover gravel/road tires, we'll steer you toward HED Belgium+, where if you go to a wider full gravel tire from there, that's when the Eroica rim comes into its own.
Tires also say a lot about your priorities. For example, if you're using Conti GP5000s or Vittoria Corsas in a wider road size, that's a tell that you're in it for the speed, so the All Road 50 or Cafe Racer will be a more forward option. A Schwalbe G-One Speed will tell us that, while you want to go fast on the road, you're not shy about jerking the bars if you see a trail inlet that looks interesting, and so depending on width that would send us more in the RCG/GOAT/All Road 38 direction - a little bit lighter and more active feeling, slightly lower sail area, etc.
Tubeless or not doesn't have all that huge of an effect on things, except in one specific case - cross. If you race cross, there are 5 rims we will recommend - Grail, R90SL, Cafe Racer, RCG,, and GOAT. These are the rims that absolutely will not burp except at such a point where your tubular glue would have come off too. Obvious caveats about using good tubeless tires, there, but you get the point. All the rest of the rims we build are capable enough in tubeless use for road or gravel, cross just has much higher and more specific demands in that score.
So that's chapter one. Start with your tires. Along with "rim or disc" it's the first question we ask and it's the best starting point for making the best wheel choice.