One of the best ways to improve your road bike’s performance is by upgrading the wheels. You might want to do it to boost comfort by taking advantage of the new wider rim and tire technology. Or, if your current wheels feel heavy, a lighter set will make every acceleration and climb much easier.
You also might want to go aero to cheat the wind for energy savings and free speed on every ride. Or maybe there’s an issue with your current wheels you’d like to fix once and for all, like spoke breakage or the wheels constantly coming out of true.
Whatever the reason, a great place to start is at a bicycle shop with a wide selection of road wheels. Since so many companies now offer wheelsets (and because they can be pricey), you can sometimes even test ride demo wheels to feel the difference before buying. And even if they don’t have loaner wheels like this, it might be possible to ride a new bike that comes equipped with the wheelset you’re thinking of buying – or wheels similar enough to get a feel for them.
When wheel shopping like this, a question that often comes up is whether to get a brand or a custom wheelset? By “brand” I mean a wheelset designed and built by a bicycle company. By custom, I mean hoops built by an experienced professional wheel builder at a bicycle shop or an independent builder.
Since this is often one of the most difficult decisions when buying a new wheelset, I’d like to help by looking at some of the key pros and cons of both approaches. If you’ve bought brand and custom wheels, please share any pros and cons from your experiences in the Comments below the Newsletter version of this article.
Because the company may be able to dedicate their entire engineering department to create the ultimate wheels, all the components (hubs, rims, spokes, nipples – sometimes even the tires), can be designed to work together, for maximum performance gain.
And because brands can focus their engineering muscle so intently, they can innovate and come out with new proprietary technology that improves ride quality and overall performance. These proprietary components are sometimes only available from that particular company.
Brands usually offer different types of wheels for whatever you’re looking for, from featherweight climbing hoops to wing-like aero models. Some wheel builders specialize in a certain type of wheel.
Many riders want wheels that are made by the same company that made all their other components so that everything matches and is complementary.
Some brand wheels have offered crash replacement policies, which let you buy insurance that replaces a broken wheel (or covers repairs).
Should you want to try a different or newer wheelset later, you can usually sell pre-owned recent-model-year brand wheels for a decent price to help finance the new hoops.
Because they can have proprietary components and designs (which can require proprietary tools, like a special spoke wrench), should you break a wheel part, you may have trouble fixing the wheel(s) if you’re not near a shop that stocks the parts, or if you don’t have the proper tool. This is why some companies that put on cross-state and similar popular road rides recommend you show up on conventional wheels – because they don’t want you to have to drop out due to a broken wheel part.
Tip: If this is a concern, you should ask about small parts availability when purchasing the wheels. And you might want to order common ones, like spokes, so you have spares on hand if you need them.
While some brands have affordable options, others can be on the expensive side since you’re paying for all the design and proprietary components making up the wheels.
You need to pay attention to brand wheels’ specifications to ensure they are fully compatible with your bicycle. Not every wheel will fit every bike.
Brand wheels can have limited warranties. Check before buying so you know what’s covered and for how long.
Looking back at brand wheels over the years is a little like looking back at cellphone technology. And like that last-generation iPhone, you may feel the need to upgrade to the brand’s latest and greatest wheelset every couple of years.
You get to discuss your needs with the wheel builder, allowing for a collaboration to choose the best components and ensure full compatibility with your bicycle.
Top wheel builders make every effort to provide perfectly true and tensioned wheels that stay that way no matter how much or how hard you ride.
Professional wheel builders have experience working with wheel components that salespeople don’t, which lets them assess riders’ wheel needs more accurately and ensure you get on a set suited to you and your riding style.
Since their success is earned customer by customer, it’s not uncommon for wheel builders to offer unlimited guarantees on their hoops. Should they come out of true or fail in any way, you simply take them back and they’re fixed – usually for free (crash damage is typically not covered).
Even with this level of service and support, you may find that the custom wheels cost about the same as a brand’s similar model.
You’ll take pride in owning handcrafted wheels that you had a hand in designing. And many wheelsmiths “sign” their wheels with nice stickers. You might even be able to watch your builder lace, true and tension your new wings.
Some wheel builders put serial numbers on their hoops and document them, too, with details like date, components, spoke tension, etc.
It’s unlikely you’ll feel the need to upgrade your custom wheels every few years the way you may with ever-changing brand wheels.
If you require heavy-duty wheels (a different type of high-performance), your only option for wheels that hold up is probably having them custom built.
A custom builder uses the best wheel components that are available. This means that you can’t get, for example, a revolutionary new system wheelset designed by supercomputers, mocked up by 3D printers, tested in a wind tunnel and refined and perfected.
You may have a brand allegiance and want a wheelset that matches the components on your bicycle.
Should you leave the area, you may lose touch with your wheel builder and not be able to take advantage of his lifetime warranty, whereas a brand wheelset can be warranted by any bicycle shop that carries it.
Since the custom wheels are made for you and your bicycle’s specifications, they may not hold as much resale value as a set of brand wheels.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.