FLO Cycling – The Ultimate Guide to Buying Race Wheels – PART 2

 

As we mentioned in PART 1 of this series, purchasing race wheels can be a daunting experience.  There are many variables to consider and it’s often hard to separate marketing and what really matters to you.  Questions like which wheels are the fastest, how much money to spend and what depth wheels to buy are great questions.  They are also questions you should have answers to before spending your hard-earned dollars.  

 

 
I’ll use the knowledge I’ve gained since starting FLO Cycling to continue this unbiased guide to purchasing race wheels.  Let’s review what we covered in PART 1 and discuss what PART 2 will expand upon.  
 
PART 1
  • What Makes a Quality Bicycle Wheel – The Components
  • Wheel Building
  •  

     

    PART 2
  • Design
  • Selecting the Correct Rim Depth
  • Aerodynamics vs. Weight
  • Price
  • What it all Means – How Does FLO Compare
  •  

     

    Design

     

    In my experience there are typically two types of wheels that a wheel company can bring to market.  Those are as follows:
    • Open Mold Wheel
    • Proprietary Design Wheel
    Open Mold Wheels
    As the name suggests, open mold wheels are not based on a proprietary design.  Wheel factories have a catalogue of products that you can buy off the shelf, brand, and then sell.  These wheels are most often based on older shapes/technologies such as the “V-Notch” or “Hybrid Toroidal.” There are many reasons a wheel company chooses this type of wheel.  Here are a few:
    • It is much cheaper than designing your own wheels.  No engineering time.
    • Since the product is already approved for production, you can sell the products almost immediately.
    • Most of the time molds are not required, but if they are, the molds are cheaper.  Buying a duplicate of an already engineered mold is much cheaper than buying a mold and the engineering time to get it right.
    The Bottom Line:  If the rims and components are of high quality (see PART 1), then you can get a really good wheel.  It simply won’t have the most advanced aerodynamics on the market.  
     
    A Note of Caution:  Many companies who sell open mold wheels want you to believe they have a proprietary design that is the fastest.  These companies often run the existing shapes through a wind tunnel or CFD test to make it look like the product was designed using these tools.  Just remember taking a picture of wheel in a wind tunnel or in CFD modeling doesn’t mean it was designed using the technologies.  We wrote a blog article about that very topic here.
     
    Proprietary Design Wheels 
    Companies selling proprietary design wheels have spent considerable time and money designing and refining a rim shape or shape(s) (typically a wide toroidal design) to gain the best aerodynamic advantage possible.  These companies often use computational fluid dynamics software (CFD) or wind tunnels to complete this task.  Once the optimal shapes are found, the company then creates custom molds to produce those shapes.  Here are some of the cons of selling proprietary design wheels:
    • Engineering and design work is very expensive.
    • Proprietary molds are more expensive than open molds.
    • The product testing/sampling phase can be long which postpones the date a company can start selling the product and making money.

     

    Even though the cons can be quite daunting, companies selling proprietary design”wheels feel that superior aerodynamics and a unique product are more important.  

     

     
    The Bottom Line:  Proprietary design wheels are likely the fastest option available, but the additional design cost means you’ll most likely pay more.
     
    What we did at FLO:  At FLO we decided to sell proprietary design wheels to keep the cost down.  
     
      
    Selecting the Correct Rim Depth
    There are many available depths to choose from when purchasing race wheels for your bicycle.  They range in depth from approximately 20mm all the way up to a full disc wheel.  Deciding what depth will best suit your needs is not an easy thing to do.  We could discuss this topic to death, but I’m going to try and generalize things to keep them simple.  These generalizations will be the perfect recipe for 99% of the people reading this guide.  

    The Four Depth Ranges
    There seems to be an endless list of wheel depths for customers to purchase.  In general, I think those depths can be divided into four groups that have their unique purpose or characteristics.  Here are those groups:

    20mm – 50mm Deep
    Overview:  Typically race wheels in this category have a greater emphasis on weight than aerodynamics.  Watch the mountain stages the next time the Tour de France is on and you’ll notice that most riders are using very shallow wheels.  Although historically these wheels have given aerodynamic performance, the newest shapes on the market are showing some very impressive drag numbers.

    When to Select this Depth:  If your races consist of primarily climbing and weight is more important than aerodynamics, select this wheel.  It’s also a good front wheel choice for lighter athletes (male and female) who have a hard time handling a bike in strong cross winds.  Chrissie Wellington used a 46mm front wheel to win many of her Ironman World Championships.  
     
    50mm – 70mm Deep
    Overview:  Wheels in this depth range often offer an excellent mix of being aerodynamic and light weight.  They are commonly used by road cyclist and triathletes alike.  The newest designs are more aerodynamic than their deeper ancestors.  

    When to Select this Depth:  If you are a road cyclist competing in stage races, this wheel is perfect for just about everything you can throw at it.  It’s great for crits, light enough for climbing and long stages, and still aerodynamic enough for TTs.  Triathletes commonly use wheels in this depth range for front wheels.  When selected as a front wheel, wheels in this depth range offer the perfect blend of aerodynamics and cross wind stability.  The FLO 60 (our 60mm wheel) is by far our most popular front wheel.


    70mm – 100mm Deep
    Overview:  For a while the craze was the deeper the better.  I remember one wheel from the company Blackwell that was 200mm deep (image below).  The newest rim shapes on the market are trending towards shorter and wider.  Some companies have even discontinued their deepest wheels because they are inferior to the newer and wider shapes.  That said, there are still some great offerings in this category that are very aerodynamic, and they make great rear wheels since they actually help stabilize you in strong winds (the complete opposite of a front wheel).  



    When to Select this Depth:  Front wheels in this category are typically the best choice for cyclists averaging 24+ mph.  You should also note that deeper front wheels are harder to handle in strong winds.  If you are not a confident bike handler and/or you average more humane speeds, this probably isn’t the front wheel for you.  As a rear wheel, many triathletes are using this depth.  That is because, as I mentioned above, deeper rear wheels actually help stabilize you in a cross wind and are very aerodynamic.  They are also easily covered by a wheel cover giving athletes plenty of versatility for different courses on race day.  The rear FLO 90 is definitely one of our most popular-selling rear wheels.


    Disc Wheels
    Overview:  A disc wheel is the fastest option you have available assuming your aren’t riding up the side of a mountain.  They offer the greatest aerodynamic advantage and if you want to get from point A to point B in the shortest time possible, a disc wheel is for you. Athletes typically do not train on disc wheels because they don’t make the best training wheels.  If you are looking to buy a wheel for both training and racing, I’d lean toward a rear wheel and a wheel cover.  It will give you more versatility.

    When to Select this Depth:  If you need to get somewhere in a hurry and don’t need to train on it, get a disc.

    Aerodynamics vs. Weight
    In just about every situation apart from riding up the Alpe d’Huez, aerodynamics are much more important.  Even on hills at slower speeds aerodynamics help.  It’s why slower athletes actually save more time over the same distance (you can read about that here).  

    At FLO we are often asked about the weight vs. aero scenario and every time I like to refer people to this article below written by Tom Anhalt.  Tom is a super smart guy and there is no need for me to explain it since he’s done such a great job.  Do yourself a favor and read it.  Be sure to take a look at the pie chart in the article to see how insignificant an additional 400g are during an acceleration.

    An Extra Note on Weight:  I think many people get caught up on weight because of the units used to measure it.  In cycling we use grams and it’s very important to remember that grams are VERY small.  Even though 100 grams sounds like a huge number (because the number 100 is big) it’s really not that much weight.  I like to use the following example when discussing weight with people.  

    Think of your water bottles and what they might weigh.

    • One empty water bottle = About 100g
    • One full Water Bottle = About 800g 

    If you carry two water bottles you are adding about 1600g to your bike.  Would you go for a ride without water?  I know I wouldn’t.  I’m not saying that weight is irrelevant.  Clearly you don’t want to be riding around on a 40lb bike, but don’t get caught up in the finer details.  Base your decision on component quality, build/ride quality or aerodynamics long before you let 200g (2 empty water bottles or 1/8th of your full water bottle weight) be the determining factor in which wheels you buy.

    Price
    Most cycling wheels are made from similar components (see the components section in PART 1 of this guide) and most reputable manufacturers (in Asia and North America) have their production cost on roughly a level playing field even though there is a range.  There are exceptions to this rule.  Some wheels are built completely from carbon fiber, spokes, rims and hubs and these wheels come with high and sometimes astronomically high price tags.  For the most part, price comes down to how the product is distributed.  There are two models and one produces a much higher price than the other.  They are as follows:

    • Manufacturer; Owner; Distributor; Retail Store; Customer
    • Manufacturer; Owner; Customer  
     
    Simply put, the more times a product changes hands, the higher the price the customer pays.  At FLO we sell it directly to our customers to ensure we keep our pricing low.  It’s not because we use cheap components or skimp on the important stuff.  If you want more info on the topic, I wrote an entire article about it here.
     
    The Bottom Line:  A higher price tag doesn’t always mean a better product.  Look at how the product is distributed to get a better understanding of why the product costs what it does.
     
    What it all Means – How Does FLO Compare?
    I’m going to be very honest here.  We make really great wheels at FLO.  We use exceptional components, excellent factories, and wheel builders, we have tweaked our proprietary rims shapes using CFD software to be very aerodynamic, and to top it all off, our prices are some of the best in the industry.  But here’s the catch: we aren’t the only ones making great wheels.  I’d be a fool to tell you that our wheels are the absolute best on the market.  There are many very reputable wheel companies who also sell great products and I don’t think that anyone of them have the best product.  I think they all have products that are great but different.  
     
    Ultimately, when buying cycling wheels, you have to determine what “different” is most important to YOU.  Figure out what matters: is it weight, rim type, depth, price, brand, customer service, spokes, or something else?  Determine what will make you the happiest customer and buy those wheels.  If you read this article and buy our competitor’s wheels and that makes you happy, I did my job.  I’d much rather have you happy with a competitor’s product than less happy with ours.  On the flip side, if you read this article and buy our wheels, I won’t mind that either
     
    I hope you have enjoyed this article and I encourage you to leave your questions and comments below.  I would love to hear them.

    All the best,

     
    Chris