When you buy a bicycle, it typically comes with wheels. Unless you’re buying a super-expensive racing bike, or a custom build where you spec out all the gear, the wheels you get with the bike are OEM wheels. They’re typically pretty average wheels, even for relatively pricey bikes. Even if you’re something of a duffer like me, wheels can make a big difference in ride quality.
If I were to draw an analogy to PC tech, buying a good set of wheels for your bike is like upgrading a hard drive to an SSD in an older PC. Adding an SSD to an older PC suddenly makes it seem like a whole new animal. The same holds true for bike wheels.
I discovered this almost by accident, back when I rode a Felt Z5. Although the Felt rode like a dream compared to my old aluminum Giant, the wheels seemed a little clunky. So when I dinged one rim, I decided to replace both wheels with a set of Shimano Ultegra WH-6700 wheels. These particular wheels cost about $400, but made a noticeable difference in how the Z5 rode and handled. The bike just seemed quicker.
Several years passed, and I found myself riding a 2014 Trek Domane 5.2. The 5.2 weighs around 18 pounds with its standard Bontrager Race alloy wheels. These wheels retail for about $500 a pair, but probably cost Trek much less (Trek owns Bontrager, after all). The ride was decidedly “meh” as well. I wanted a more forgiving ride, as my back had been feeling pretty fragile, so plunked down about $1,100 for a pair of Shimano Dura Ace 9000 carbon clincher wheels. These wheels have since dropped in price — you can now find them for well under $1,000.
The C24s composite construction means they’re mostly carbon fiber, but include alloy brake surfaces. While adding a little weight, metal braking surfaces tend to be more effective than purely carbon fiber wheels, particularly in wet weather. Shimano builds the hubs using bog-standard cup-and-cone bearings, rather than being sealed, which means you’ll need to have to grease them periodically, or have your bike shop do it for you. These wheels aren’t particularly sexy to look at; at a 21mm external width, they’re not really aero wheels. The hubs look pretty skinny and unassuming.
They sure do ride pretty, though.
The combination of lightweight carbon fiber frame and carbon fiber wheels yields a ride where my back hurts much less after long rides. The wheels and frame soak up much of the road vibration, and the decoupled seat post, a feature of many Trek road bikes, contributes to the smoothness of it all. The bike also seems to handle more precisely, but that could just be my imagination.
I have another Trek Domane, a 4.3 Disc I use for winter rides. Despite being supposedly softer, I found the ride of the 4.3 noticeably rougher than the Domane 5.2. Of course, the 4.3 cost less, which meant it came with a pretty basic disc wheelset. I replaced that with a set of Bontrager Affinity Pro TLR wheels, built with DT Swiss hubs. These wheels set me back about $800, but the difference in overall ride quality and handling seemed larger than the wheel swap on my daily road bike. The ride still isn’t as forgiving as the Domane 5.2, but these wheels just love to roll.
Of course, tires make a difference, too. During Northern California winters, I use Continental Grand Prix 4Season tires on both bikes — 25mm on the 5.2 and 28mm on the 4.3 Disc. The Domane 5.2 gets a tire swap in spring, to Continental 4000s, which yields better handling.
So if you have a bike you love, but the ride isn’t quite what you want, consider a wheel swap. It’s almost like getting a whole new bike, but usually will cost less.