Everything You Need to Know About Bicycle Wheels. Pros and Cons of each.
Road Bike Wheels in a nutshell
This may sound silly, but I want to clarify. When we talk about wheels, we are talking about those round things minus the tubes and tires. At a bare minimum, Bicycle rims are a rim, spokes, hub, and tire. All the other parts are dependent on the wheel type. There are disc or rim brakes, clinchers, tubeless, or tubular. So buckle, boys. We're going deep.
Rim Brakes vs. Disc Brakes
Are disc brakes better than rim brakes?
This will be a heated topic, but I'm just going to come out and say it. I think disc brakes are better here, and I will tell you why. First and foremost, I think it's silly to have a wearable part fixed to your rim. What I mean by this is the braking track. On rim brake bikes, the braking way is on the farthest outer part of the rim, and it's what the pads create friction with. When this surface is gone, the wheel is toast. And for carbon wheels, it's often the point of failure. On disc brakes, both the pads and the discs are serviceable parts. When your braking surface (IE, the disc) wears out, you can replace your disc. Additionally, there are tons and tons of options for hydraulic disc brakes, which provide a much better feel and consistency.
Point #2, all-weather performance. So here is how it works, on rim brakes, the braking surface is just inches from the ground. That makes it the part of the bike that gets dirtiest the fastest. Because of this, braking performance suffers in the rain and mud. On the other hand, disc brake calipers are mounted to the fork and seat stays, so they are elevated off the dirty and wet surface and stay dryer.
Point #3, pure braking force. Disc brakes, generally speaking, brake better.
The only point I can think of that makes rim brakes better is their simplicity. Generally speaking, a rim brake setup is going to be cheaper. But then again, I guess it depends on what you mean by cheap.
Why do some bikes still have rim brakes?
I would say this is down to two parts. Part one is that they're cheaper. Not just from a manufacturing standpoint but from a stocking standpoint. Sadly, most bikes in the USA are sold at Walmart, and they don't have the best people setting these up. The second reason is people are Luddites. They don't like anything new.
How long do Rim Brakes Last?
I recently made a trip through Central America. I visited many significant climbs in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras. My brake pads lasted about two months per set, averaging 100-200 miles a week. Now when I was living in Florida, which is very flat, and I did minimal braking, I really mean, if I rode 40 miles, I probably hit the brakes very lightly only a handful of times. My brakes in Florida would last more than a year. It was nuts.
That being said, I still never replaced any of my rim brakes on my disc brake bikes. Not a single time. I had a 2017 crux that I rode many gravel rides, and I never changed the brakes. It was great.
Do they use Disc Brakes in the Tour de France?
Yes, absolutely a ton of them. But there are still tons of people that use rim brakes.
Can you convert a rim bike brake to disc brakes?
For like $4, you can click the image below and see this cool disc brake caliper universal mount. You absolutely can convert a rim bike to disc brakes, but you have to use one of these adaptors, as far as I know.
Mechanical vs. Hydraulic Disc Brakes
It's all about actuation. Mechanical disc brakes use a cable to actuate the pad clamping. Hydraulic uses mineral oil, tubing, and a reservoir to transmit the clamping force. I think hydraulic brakes are much crisper, but you will 100% require extra tools to set up and maintain hydraulic disc brakes. Sometimes brake fluid can be nasty stuff, so you have to be careful.
Bicycle Rim Width and Depth
So now, let's talk about the dimensions of the rims. When I talk about width, I'm talking basically about the footprint. Your bicycle rim width will define how wide of a tire you can put on your bike. Additionally, rim width will interact with tire size to create different "measured sizes" of the same tire. So if you took a 25mm tire and put it on an old school 23mm wide rim, that tire will actually be skinnier than if you put it on a rim meant for 25mm+. Basically, the mounting points of the tire on a wider rim give it additional stretch.
Road bike Alloy and Carbon Rims will generally be from 23-28mm. This is a new development for 32mm tires these days. Wide tires are super in style, and on the new Cannondale supersix, you can fit 32mm with no problem.
Generally speaking, when it comes to rim depth, you'll get from around 20mm to 80mm on most modern bikes. In my opinion, 80mm is too deep for the front, but plenty of crazy people still like it. If I were in love with the 80mm deep section rim, I would put one on the rear and a 50mm on the front.
I run 50mm carbon rims because I see a very little drawback to them.
Are 50mm Carbon Rims good for climbing?
Absolutely. 50mm carbon rims are super light. Obviously, you could save a few grams by going shallower, but I think you'd really have to be crushing a super crazy 30+% grade to really notice it. For me, as long as I can spin, I'll be fine.
Will a 50mm rim be blown around a lot by the wind?
Okay, I've ridden in a lot of conditions. I mean, really, really, really a lot. There was only one time I really felt like my 50mm rims got blown around, and that was riding a descent in Medellin, Colombia, in the rain during a storm doing 50 miles an hour. The truth is, 90% of the routes and settings I'm in, 50mm rims do just fine in the wind.
Bladed vs. Round spokes
Unless we're talking about wild fancy carbon fiber cast wheels, the chances are you'll have one of two types of spokes on your bike. When we talk about bladed spokes, we're talking about spokes that are flat and bladed so as to cut through the air with a smaller frontal profile. Round spokes are just that, round.
Are bladed spokes stronger than round spokes?
Generally speaking, yes, bladed spokes are stronger since there is an additional forging process, but they may be more brittle.
Straight Pull vs. J-Bend Spokes
I run straight-pull spokes. Straight pull means that the butt at the end where it mounts into your hub is straight rather than curved.
Are Straight Pull Spokes stiffer than J-Bend?
Yes, they are; that is the point. The point of straight pull spokes is to keep the load either in compression or tension. J-Bend inherently has more flex, but the thing is, sometimes you want more flex in your wheel. Some wheels are designed to have flex. More flex can be better if you're looking for comfort.
Clinchers vs. Tubeless vs. Tubulars
Let's start some fun.
What are clinchers? Clinchers are a way to describe a bicycle tire that mounts to a hooked interior part of the bicycle rim and are meant to be used with an inner tube.
What are Tubeless tires? Tires are more or less like clinchers, but the mounting surface is different, and they require a different stem and sealant. Tubeless tires allow you to run lower PSI. Tubeless tires don't require an inner tube, but here's the cool thing, if you get a flat on a bike ride, you can just throw a tube in, and the problem is solved! How great is that?
What are Tubulars? Tubulars are, generally speaking, lighter bicycle tires. Tubulars require that the rider glue the tires to the rim. They offer a much more supple ride. Tubulars are a combination of tire and tube sewn together.