The Best Upgrade for Your Bike: A New Set of Wheels

After writing a week or two back that now is a great time to buy a new bike, due primarily to a glut of inventory on the supply chain, I got the question, what sorts of things, other than bikes, people should consider investing in now. This, I think, is a great question, because not everyone wants or needs a new bike, or can afford a bike, even if it’s on sale.

So what else could you or should you consider spending your money on right now?

In my other work, I do a fair amount of research in the wheel space, understanding what’s out there, what’s good about it, why it costs what it costs, etc. What I can tell you is that, right now, there are a ton of excess wheelsets in the supply chain, everything from cheap pre-built wheels to hubs and rims waiting to be made into a custom set. If you’ve already got a bike, or bikes, you love, then the biggest bang for buck upgrade you can make is a new wheelset. Most stock bikes come with wheels that are chosen for their ability to keep the total price of the bike down, not for performance.

The prices for carbon wheels have come down quite a bit in recent seasons, and simultaneously there is new technology in the market that might convince you to take a second look at carbon fiber.

The Shimano C46 is a good example of a budget friendly carbon fiber disc wheel from a reputable and reliable source.

One of the projects I’ve been working on involves rims made with a new thermoplastic called FusionFiberTM. A few different companies are using FusionFiber in their own wheel programs now, and those are pretty cool, because they are more compliant than traditional carbon wheels, and the rims take much less energy to produce and are also recyclable, which shrinks their carbon footprint further. (Full Disclosure: I’ve been working with Chris King on their FusionFiber wheels), but Evil also has some for sale, and CSS Composites, the company that makes FusionFiber, has an in-house wheel program, too.

Simultaneously, traditional carbon fiber rims have come down in price. The technologies that produce them are well-established, and companies like ENVE, Zipp and some others are in the market now with budget-friendly versions of their top-end wheels. Our sponsor, Shimano, has a carbon wheelset at 105 level that is just over $1000, which makes you wonder, “Why would I buy a high-end alloy wheelset?”

Well, you’d do that, because really good alloy wheels live under the $1000 price point now, so they’re still budget friendlier AND in most cases those wheels will be more durable for larger riders or those who are particularly rough on their stuff. There’s a case to be made that a well-made alloy wheel produces better ride characteristics than many old-school carbon wheels, just due to superior compliance. This is particularly true for all-road and off-road riding. Yes, they’ll be heavier, but when you think too much about weight, you forget all the other stuff that makes a wheel great.

Of course, there are a slew of wheel companies who are buying open mold rims from Asia and offering carbon fiber disc wheels with budget hubs for crazy prices. I’m not high on those for a few reasons. First, I don’t know anything about the rim quality. Second, the hub makes the wheel. A cheap hub is probably not going to roll very well or last very long, and that’s not what I’m about. When I invest in equipment, I expect it to last, and I would never recommend any product to you that wasn’t built for the long haul.

I expect to have a wheelset ten years, so I’m willing to invest in proven products. Also, a cheap wheelset won’t have a lot of room for discount, because they’re already cheap. The current state of inventory on planet bike means you can get really, really good stuff, investment grade stuff, for much less than you’ll be able to next season, when everyone has blown out their inventory and corrected their projections.

If I had money to spend, and didn’t want or need a bike, I’d be wheel shopping right now. In fact, I am.

Join the conversation
  1. Balky says

    I can definitely attest to this though my recent wheel upgrade was closer to the bottom of the range than the wheels discussed here but that was in large part because the upgrade was for a much loved 26″ mountain bike with QR and the wheels I got were pretty much the best I could find for a bike of that vintage. Absolutely no complaints though. It’s a very modest set of Novatec hubs laced to a pair of aluminium WTB rims (well below the $1k mentioned above) but the bike feels almost new again. They even threw in a nice new set of Maxxis tyres.

    It’s a satisfying but easy upgrade to do yourself too – bolt on some new disc rotors, put in some new brake pads, degrease the chain and cassette while they’re off. Everything’s fresh again and you’re ready to roll.

    I got 15 years out of the last, very similar set so I’ll see if I get another 15 out of these.

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