If you talk to an experienced cyclist about upgrading your bike, I’m fairly certain they would tell you that one of the most important things you can do is to change the wheels. The theory being that a lighter set of wheels will transform the way your bike rides and unlock new levels of performance. So, I thought we might take a closer look to see if wheels really are the best way to invest your money when upgrading your bike.
First, let’s discuss the most quoted reason behind the thought that wheels are the best upgrade for your bike: the effective rotating weight. The theory being that the rotating mass of your wheels has an effect three times greater than the equivalent static mass, meaning that saving 50 grams from your wheelset would be like saving 150 grams from your frame.
Unfortunately though, that’s only partly true, because rotating weight has no greater or lesser effect on the power that it takes to sustain a speed, even when climbing, than the equivalent static weight. That’s not to say that it has no effect at all – It does. Saving any weight at all from your bike will enable you to climb faster.
However, the greatest benefit from lighter weight comes when accelerating and decelerating. It takes less energy to get a lighter pair of wheels up to speed than a heavier pair, making them more responsive. So, from a standing start, I will save about 0.1 seconds by the time I get to 30 kilometers an hour. And that’s about an entire bike length.
It might not sound like much but it will certainly add up over the course of a three-hour ride. And in a race, it can be the difference between winning and losing.
You wouldn’t think that kind of minimal difference would be detectable out on the road. But even swapping out an already decent set of wheels with better ones can make a difference. Your bike will feel faster, climb well, and generally handle much better, but the difference might not be coming from the reduction in weight but actually from a significant improvement in aerodynamics.
You see, the wheels generally represent about 10% to 15% of your total aerodynamic drag, although it can be as little as 0% or as much as 20%. That might not sound like all that much, but if you swap out your wheels for a really aerodynamic pair, you might be able to reduce that figure by about 25%, meaning that your total aerodynamic drag would reduce by about 2% to 3%.
And that’s not to be sniffed at. Generally, aerodynamics will have an effect that’s much greater on your speed than weight, although the exact nature of your route or course will determine that. But if you combine the right set of wheels that are both lightweight and aerodynamic, then your bike is going to be significantly faster on just about any course.
Comparing to Other Upgrades
Clearly, though, we need to put this in the context of other upgrades you can make to your bike. First of all, I’m going to discount training aids like a power meter, because although these can make a huge difference, they rely on you putting the work in over a long period of time in order to actually make those gains, and ultimately make you faster.
I’m also going to discount a bike fit, because although those are undeniably a good investment for your cycling, it’s not exactly an upgrade. What about tires though? A well-chosen tire can save a good few watts of rolling resistance. In fact, the difference between a really good tire and a garbage tire can be as much as 20 watts at 40 kilometers an hour, and that’s per wheel.
Similarly, changing parts of your bike to increase your comfort is quite a good idea. So swapping your handlebars and saddle, even your seat post if you’re suffering on the bike, could be a worthwhile investment. But while it might help you get more out of yourself on the bike, it’s not actually making the bike itself go any faster.
Gears are a common upgrade, given that they wear out anyway and regularly need replacing. But it has to be said that (from my experience) there isn’t really any performance benefit when it comes to replacing gears with more expensive ones, when done on a component by component basis. But what is undeniably a performance upgrade is maintaining what you’ve already got.
So upgrading some of your hardware and replacing parts as-and-when needed will keep your bike running smoothly and efficiently, therefore making you faster.
But despite all of this, there is one last factor to take into consideration: aesthetics. Now, many of you will feel that making decisions based on aesthetics is silly. And technically speaking, that’s true, but I’m going to respectfully disagree. To me, aesthetics do matter.
Your bike may looks good with standard wheels, but replacing them makes the bike look seriously cool. I would be proud to open my garage to a bike that looks amazing. And that’s value to me should not be underestimated, because perceptions and emotions have very real bearing on performance.
Humans are emotional, and emotions affect performance. Feeling good is a great way to go faster.
So, are wheels the most important upgrade? Well, short of keeping on top of your bike maintenance (which really isn’t an upgrade at all), then yes, I think wheels do have the biggest bearing on the performance of your bike. Tires for rolling resistance, lightweight for lower inertia, and improved aerodynamics for outright speed. However, whether or not a set of wheels that cost more than your entire bike will make your bike perform better than a new and more expensive one is a matter for debate.