Wheels: ‘Aero Vs Light’ – Does It *Really* Matter?

I was strolling along with Wendy, boring her to tears with stories about how I get blown about on my bike when it’s windy and wondering what it must be like for lighter guys on deep section wheels and how super light wheels feel for bigger riders. It got me thinking about the whole ‘aero Vs light’ wheel thing, and about wheels in general – time for a Brain Fart…

So, aero wheels. Zipp’s Firecrest and Enve’s ‘SES’ (Smart-Enve-System, I think) are the current hot topics on the aero front, each claiming their wheel is better for particular reasons. Zipp claim their same profile, same depth wheels to be better, yet Enve counter this with their different profile (the rear wheel is slightly narrower in design), different depth (each front wheel in their system range is 10mm shallower than the rear) concept. Then there’s MadFiber who claim the performance of their wheel continues to improve regardless of yaw angle when others are dramatically reducing. Then of course you have Lightweight, Mavic, Reynolds and countless others with their own take on the whole thing.

The thing is, there’s no single standard for testing wheels. This means each manufacturer can tart up the numbers to show what they want them to show – to make us consumers believe that their wheel is the greatest and anything else is just not worth touching. What this means is that everything that can be proven by one manufacturer can probably be disproven, or ‘improved on’, by another.

But it’s not just aero wheels. Manufacturers (and even the ones who make aero wheels and claim they’re the best thing since sliced bread) claim the ‘climbing wheel’ is the one to have – your best option as a rider being to pick their lightest, most shallow wheel option to help you climb faster. And we’re sucked into this theory by the pros riding ultra skinny, super low profile über light wheels on the mountain stages of the pro tours.

And yet there’s evidence* that an aero wheel will serve you better over a long ride such as the Etape, regardless of the amount of climbing involved, based on the benefits you get on the downhill and flat sections of that ride**.

*’evidence’ being a loose term
**and yes, I know there’s an argument that aero wheels aren’t used on mountainous stages due to descending control in case it’s windy

So who and what are we really to believe and why? And what if we buy ‘the latest and greatest’ only to be let down because we don’t like the ride of the wheels or they end up not being stiff enough?

My opinion? A set of wheels to the average Joe is not going to be the difference in winning or losing a race, doing your best time up a climb, the difference between a gold or silver time on the Etape, or suddenly make you faster than your riding buddies – there are too many other variables, and there are many other average Joes out there winning races and getting gold times on old bikes with heavy aluminium wheels to prove the point. Besides which, if you believe it is the wheels that are going to make the difference, your focus is on the wrong thing.

Sure, it’s nice to have the latest kit, the flashiest carbon wheels, the bling looking deep sections or the lightest wheels you can lay your hands on (I’m hardly one to talk any of that down!), and new or different wheels can (and usually do) transform a bike – for better or worse – but the last thing you want is to splash out on a shiny new set of hoops only to discover you don’t like the way they roll.

For me the priority should be feel. Yes feel.

Me? I like the brutal stiffness of my Lightweights – I’m still yet to find a set of wheels that light up a bike quite so well, although even I’ll confess they can be too harsh at times. My MadFibers are actually lighter than my Lightweights, but because they feel ‘softer’ they don’t seem to give the bike that same instant snap on acceleration, but with the offset of greater comfort. The MadFibers are an effortless ride too, and the quality of the hubs used on them (they use White Industries internals) help them roll beautifully. Then there’s my (1720g without tubs, cassette or skewers) Ambrosio Nemesis, which are an absolute delight to ride despite their heft. Do I notice a difference in my climbing? Not really. In fact I’m arguably stronger on them Vs my Lightweights over longer distances as they beat me up less. Finally I have a set of Mavic R-SYS for something less harsh than the Lightweights and without the depth of the MadFibers (although these usually live on Wendy’s bike now). All of these, as it happens, are also the only wheels I’ve ridden to date that I struggle to get brake rub with – a sure sign of the lateral stiffness of a wheel (and you’d be amazed at the supposed calibre of wheels that score badly on this front).

As if to prove a point, only today in I was out on my bike and clocked the fastest average speed of any ride since I’ve been here. Was it a flatter ride? No. Far from it in fact – the ratio of meters travelled to meters climbed was higher than many of the longer rides I’ve done. The wheels? My Ambrosios. The heaviest wheels I own, and only my R-SYS are less aero.

Can’t test a set of wheels? Not sure what ‘feel’ you like? I fully, heartily recommend you ignore all of the factory options and consider a decent set of hand built wheels. I don’t just mean wheels like my Ambrosios though – wheelbuilders such as Strada Wheels (or any wheelbuilder for that matter) can build you wheels using any number of deep or shallow, carbon or aluminium rims, numerous hubs from a range of companies in various colours, and all types and colours of spokes – the beauty being you can choose the exact hub, spoke and rim YOU want, rather than just getting what you’re given. Like the look of Zipp 404s but aren’t keen on the Zipp hub? Approach your local wheelbuilder, tell them what hubs and spokes you want and get them built, YOUR way, tuned to YOUR weight with YOUR choice of hub brand, hub colour and spoke type, but still with the rim you’re after. You can be damn sure they’ll feel better than a standard set of 404s too.

Still not sure? Then just pick the wheels you most like the look of, the ones that best suit your bike and the ones you can afford. Feel aside, none of the rest of it really matters.

Rich [@RichTheRoadie]