Wheel Choices Key to Riders’ Success

There’s only so much manpower you can put into pedaling to make you fast on the bike. If you want to stay, or leap, to the front of the pack, you have to start working on the controllable external factors (wouldn’t it be great if weather and wind counted?). That means simple upgrades to your ride from the smallest of components to the wheels. Check out this Versus article explaining the importance of wheel selection and succeeding on course. It might just help your next race.

Aerodynamics and rotating weight are two massive factors in success, not only in time trials, but also in everyday racing at the Tour. This could not be more obvious in the wheel choices the riders make during the Tour, nor in the amount of money the wheel manufacturers spend to highlight these two factors.

Oftentimes you cannot have both the lightest and the most aerodynamic wheelsets. The properties of these factors are contradictory. Let me explain….

To make something light, you have to remove material. To make something aerodynamic, you usually have to add material.

The most aerodynamic wheels are often the wheels with the biggest rim fairings (the material below the rim that is attached to the spokes). This added material causes the wind to flow around the wheels with less disruption, thus causing the wheels to move through the air with less resistance. These rim depths vary from 1cm to 9cm – a huge variation.

The deeper the rim, the more difficult the bike is to handle when gusts of wind hit the front wheel. The thing about aerodynamics is that the faster a rider goes, the more effect this reduced drag helps. In essence, the faster the rider goes, the more important faster wheels become. But as you add material to the rim, you also add weight and as the speeds go down or roads go up, this weight becomes a hindrance. More weight is never good, but if the weight is rotating as wheel weight does, it is even worse than static weight like a full water bottle.

And herein lies the rub! If you are a climber on a hilly stage, you may want to opt for the lightest wheels you have. These wheels are often the standard depth carbon rims with very few spokes. Not ideal for aerodynamics, but that’s OK if the selection in the race will be made on the climbs. Likewise, in a sprint stage, the riders spending time on the front and the sprinters themselves will choose a deeper section rim to get that aero advantage since they will not be accelerating much, nor will they be going up big hills.

Many times, even on hilly days, you will see some of the team riders going with deeper section rims and the reason for this is that their jobs will be to drive the pace on the flat sections of the course. So, since they do not care if they climb a little slower, they will choose the more aero set-up because they will be done once they hit the climbs. Then on days when the sprinters and GC riders don’t know how hard the climbs will be, they must play the odds on what will be the best option. On the lumpy stages without huge climbs, you will see a division of wheel types.

Everyone has his own race with his own roll that day. The wheel choices made for each and every stage is an important decision for creating the fastest set-up for the job. So when the riders pick the wheels for the day, you can bet they are looking at wind speeds, terrain changes and the job assignment for the day. Only then can they make the best wheel choice for that stage.


*Note: italicized text reprinted from versus.com


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