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  • Writer's pictureDeArmond Lopez for Mellow Velo

Wheels Are Kind of Important...

And why you should invest in things that separate you from the ground.

Factory-built Campagnolo Shamal carbon 13-speeed wheels.


The saying that one should "invest in things that separate you from the ground" is true for so many facets of life. When buying shoes, generally higher quality shoes are much more comfortable and last longer than low quality shoes. We tend to notice the difference in quality almost immediately, and over time this difference becomes glaringly obvious. While camping, a better sleeping pad is one of the biggest luxuries out there sleeping on the cold ground. If you have ever slept on a thin foam sleeping pad you know exactly exactly what I'm talking about. The ground has a habit of sucking the heat away from you and will turn an amazing camping site into an agonizing suffer-fest.

The point I'm trying to make, is that while investing in things that separate you from the ground, higher quality items provide immediate and noticeable benefits that lower quality goods simply can't compete with.

Masterfully-laced carbon hoops by Alex.


A common question we get from people here at the bike shop is, "What can I upgrade on my bike to make it perform better?". My answer generally revolves around upgrading tires, wheels, and then points of contact (grips, saddle, pedals). Tires are one of the simplest, and most affordable components we can upgrade that will provide immediately noticeable benefits. A good tire will help riders to retain traction or to be extra fast when desired. They also provide greater reliability and fewer flat tires over time.

However, a tire is damn near useless if paired with a worn out or low-quality wheelset.

A high-quality wheelset is potentially the most important upgrade a cyclist can make to their bike. Riders can expect nicer wheels to be lighter weight with faster drivetrain engagement, a lighter and more durable hoop made of either carbon fiber or aluminum, stronger and lighter spokes and nipples, and a simpler tubeless set up. Another benefit is that a top-tier wheelset won't go out of true as easily and will track more precisely than a cheap wheel.

We always have a nice selection of factory and house-built wheelsets in stock.


Rim material is another important thing to think about while upgrading wheels. Most high performance users will choose a carbon wheelset over aluminum because of the compliant properties inherent to carbon. A carbon wheel is typically laterally stiff and radially compliant, which allows the wheel to track and corner more precisely, no matter what the terrain. This is due in part to differences in the manufacturing processes of carbon versus aluminum hoops -- carbon can be laid up in a mold with near perfect tolerances for roundness whereas an aluminum rim must have a weld or rivet at one point to join the the rim once it is made round. This difference is quite apparent when lacing these rims by hand. Carbon rims tend to require less adjustment to the round and build up true with fewer manipulations.

Wheels with carbon rims can be significantly lighter than alloy. A benefit of having lightweight wheels is that once you start pedaling, the wheels accelerate more quickly and feel snappier than a heavy wheelset. This is an important feature that many riders search for in a wheel upgrade. Reducing the rotational weight of wheels is potentially the most noticeable weight saving upgrade a cyclist can make. There are plenty of alternative upgrades like carbon cranks, handlebars or a lighter braking system but a light wheelset will improve the ride quality of your bike more than almost any upgrade.

Nice hubs, like these DT Swiss 240's, are an amazing upgrade.


The hubs are also an important factor worth considering. Surprisingly, while cycling we spend a lot of time pedaling. That's a shocker, I know! The hub is a critical part of the drivetrain that transfers the energy of our pedal stroke into motion on our bike. Without a functional hub the bike won't be going anywhere. Hubs tend to be one of the most overlooked components on our bike, however they are arguably one of the most important.

A high quality hub offers some amazing benefits that are instantly noticeable the second you start pedaling. Well made bearings will spin more smoothly, with less friction, which translates to a more pleasant ride whether pedaling or coasting. A few of the features you should consider while looking for a new hub are: a reliable drive mechanism with rapid engagement, bearing quality, hub shell quality/material, and serviceability.

A rapidly engaging hub provides a premium ride feel that cheaper hubs simply can't compete with. Rapid engagement refers to the number of points of engagement within the rear hub, meaning how quickly the drive mechanism engages and our pedal stroke is converted into power for our drivetrains. The higher the engagement, the quicker the pawls (or other drive mechanism) engage and begin moving the rear wheel. The best hubs will turn your pedal stroke into forward motion in a seamless manner -- think the sprag clutch on an Onyx hub **create link to onyx site**. Rapid engagement is a hard concept to convey through writing, but once you start pedaling, give it five minutes and you will understand what the hype is about.

Master wheel builder Todd working away.


Another feature to look for in a hub is how easy it is to service. Over time, bearings, freehubs and pawls will wear out and need periodic servicing. Preferably, hubs should be as simple to open up and service as possible -- DT Swiss is the king of the game on this one. Cheap hubs tend to be very tricky to service and don't lend well to being rebuilt once things wear out. Chris King is another notable hub manufacturer, which although more difficult to service, will often last for multiple wheel builds on several bikes, while continually providing some of the best performance on the market.

The next time you find yourself coasting along a mellow descent, take a moment to pause and enjoy the simple magic of a bicycle wheel spinning round and round beneath you, propelling you on your merry way. It's a simple joy, but sometimes those are the best. Have a smooth ride!

Written by Alex Gibson, DeArmond Lopez, Rawson Adams, and Jonah Boudreau

Photos by DeArmond Lopez

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