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Guide To Commuter Bike Wheels

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Whether you’re buying a new bike for commuting or repurposing an old one for rides to work, wheels are always an important consideration.

On many new bikes, wheels are a relatively weak point from the get-go, as are tires.

So, what should you be looking for in commuter bike wheels?

This article reveals all.

How To Choose The Right Wheels For Your Commute

Probably the most important quality you want from a commuter wheel is strength, and various elements affect that.

We’ll go over those elements and look at other wheel features that may interest you.

Carbon vs Aluminum

People buy carbon wheels for a couple of reasons, economy not usually being one of them.

At any given depth of wheel rim, carbon is lighter than aluminum.

Because carbon is lighter, it’s possible to create a deeper, more aerodynamic rim and still have a light wheel.

That gives you a potentially faster wheel, too.

Video: Carbon vs Aluminum Wheels

Carbon wheel rims are inherently stiffer when you remove spokes from the equation.

They’re stiffer laterally and radially (side-to-side, up-and-down).

Stiffness in wheels is desirable from a performance point of view, because it better transfers power from your legs into the road.

It also ensures the wheel is stable, so you can’t bend it to a degree that drastically deforms it (known as a “tacoed” wheel).

Ironically, carbon wheels are often so laterally stiff that they overcome the spokes they are built with, causing the wheel to flex at the top.

This can create “brake rub”, where the flexing wheel rubs against rim brakes under load.

To resolve brake rub, you have to widen your brake calipers.

Aluminum wheel rims are not as stiff as carbon rims, but the wheel may yet be stiffer if a sufficient number and quality of spokes are used to build it.

Thus, carbon wheels do not offer any automatic benefit in overall “strength”.

Unless you climb a lot on your commute, the weight of wheels is largely irrelevant.

That being said, lighter wheels do accelerate faster and are generally more nimble and fun to ride.

The “stock wheels” you find on cheap bikes tend to be heavy and less efficient.

Rider Weight & Comfort

If you’re a heavy rider, look for wheels with more spokes (e.g., 36 or 32 at the rear).

You might get away with fewer on a carbon wheel (e.g., 24 rear), particularly on deeper rims, but be aware that the wheels may still flex under load or with more power.

Carbon wheels that flexed and caused brake rub were not uncommon in pro cycling, so this phenomenon isn’t directly related to poor-quality wheels.

Whereas carbon wheels flex at the top because of their inherent rim stiffness, aluminum wheels will only flex or bend at the point of contact with the road or trail.

Always pay attention to any maximum rider weight provided with wheels or bikes.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to assess how comfortable a wheel will be before purchase.

Carbon wheels may flex more than aluminum wheels or vice versa, largely depending on their spoke number, pattern, type, length and width.

The physical width of the wheel rim directly affects comfort, too, because a wider rim allows you to run wider tires at lower pressures.

Lower pressures mean more comfort, as the tire soaks up vibration better on rough surfaces.

A wider tire on a smooth surface will slow you down beyond a certain point, as the lower pressure means a bigger contact patch and greater hysteresis losses.

If you’re looking for a fast commute by road, choose wheels that take 23-28mm tires.

Aside from width, wheel comfort is hugely affected by the type of tires you install.

The most comfortable tires (and many of the fastest) are supple ones, but these are often more prone to sidewall punctures.

Wheel Sizes

Different bike types require different diameters of wheel.

These are the wheels you’ll commonly find on popular bikes:

  • BMX – 20” wheels.
  • Cruiser – 26” wheels.
  • Folding bike – 16” or 20” wheels.
  • Hybrid or urban bike – 26” wheels, 27.5” (650b) wheels, 29” (700c) wheels.
  • MTB – 26” wheels, 27.5” wheels (650b), 29” wheels (29ers).
  • Road bikes – 27.5” (650b) wheels, 29” (700c) wheels.

Spokes & Hubs

The number and thickness of spokes affect the strength of the wheel and how much it is likely to flex.

Wheels deform when spokes go slack and no longer support the rim, which might happen when you hit a bump in the road, for instance.

Because shorter spokes are stronger, all else being equal, other bike specifications tell you something about potential wheel strength.

For instance, a 650b wheel is stronger than a 700c if it has spokes in the same number and gauge.

A wheel with an oversized hub flange or internal hub gears is stronger than one with regular flange and/or derailleur gears.

Wheels with butted spokes (irregular thickness) forfeit a little stiffness but are lighter and probably more comfortable as a result.

Single Wall vs Double Wall

Wheel rims are usually built with a single wall or double wall.

The latter are stronger, so this is a feature worth having.

What About Tubeless Ready Wheels?

Some new bikes are sold with “tubeless-ready” wheels, though typically they come with tubes installed.

You may have to cover the spoke holes with rim tape to make them usable as tubeless wheels.

Video: Converting Bike Tires To Tubeless

Tubeless tires can fix many small punctures automatically without you even noticing.

However, repairs can get messy if the puncture is too large for the sealant to fix.

Read more: User guide to bicycle commuter tires

It’s wise to carry a spare tube even with tubeless wheels and tires, as this simplifies the repair process.

You can also carry “anchovies” or “bacon strips” to fix bigger punctures.


So, what can you take away from this article?

Many new bikes can be immediately improved in terms of speed and/or puncture resistance by upgrading the tires alone.

Before buying a bike or commissioning an existing one for commuting duties, look at the wheels and think about whether they’ll be strong enough.

For instance, study the spoke count and build quality.

Fast commuters may wish to choose wheels that are light and aerodynamic (e.g., deep-section wheels) as well as strong.

Whatever wheels you roll with, we hope you found this article useful.

Please feel free to share or comment.

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Mark Whitley
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Mark is the founder of BikePush, a bicycle commuting website. When he's not working on BikePush, you can find him out riding.

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