Ask RIDE: What should I look for in a climbing wheel?
What does one look for in a good climbing wheel? Which way is technology heading? What are the top brands on the market and are there any more economical up and comers?
Well Mick you certainly have a lot of questions so I will attempt to answer each on separately. Climbing wheels by definition are designed with the primary purpose of going up hills: fast. With this being said unless the wheel is going to be used solely for mountain time trials then it needs to get you to the base of each climb too. It is no use having a wheelset which is too fragile to use for lead up to the climb or climbs because then its purpose is negated. In general those looking for a climbing wheel are really wanting something which is light enough to give them a slight equipment advantage because perhaps they are not a natural climber or they want to use every gram of their climbing ability to reach the top before anyone else. Without knowing your physiological characteristics I will cover both aspects; for the non-climber needing to reduce his losses and the mountain goat who will empty their pockets at the base of a climb to give them every watt of power necessary for victory.
A “good climbing wheel” must be ‘light’. What is most suitable for you will depend on your own weight, among other things. Some shallow profile carbon wheels have a weight restriction and if you fall outside of this guideline then something a little heavier should be considered. Remember it is not just about the mass of the wheel but also how it is going to respond underneath you, if too much load is being applied to the wheels by just sitting on the bike then they will not perform as they were designed, thus reducing their advantages to which they were intended. For example Fast Forward F2’s list a limit of 80kg for their 1,050g low-profile carbon tubulars. If you are below this weight – by a considerable amount – then they are a great option for hilly terrain. There is also a range of full carbon clincher coming out which may be of interest if they are going to be used on a daily basis. Alternatively Zipp 202’s are a little bit heavier but are rated for riders up to 100kg. Many of the Zipp sponsored athletes use this wheelset for the big mountain days in Grand Tours. On the flat the aerodynamic shape of this rim is claimed – by Zipp – to be as good as wheels of 40-50mm rim heights. There is a good chance that the race route will have a significant portion of flat roads and descending so just looking at the weight on the scales is not enough to make an informed choice. For pure climbing however, you are going to want a wheel which is around the 1,000-1200g mark. The upside to a heavier option may be the increased rim height and all-round abilities. This choice should be based around the your usage of the wheel including terrain, weather, road conditions and your riding style.
There are some trends apparent in the professional ranks which are worth considering when discussing the direction of technological processes. These are the riders who help develop many of the products which we buy and their influence and experience play a vital role in what is available to consumers each season. It would appear that wheels or more specifically rims will get taller in the coming seasons. It is not that common to see the top tier professionals using a box section rim for climbing races or stages because too many kilometres have to be covered on the flat or descent to make them viable. If you can save energy on the flats before the climbs then the extra weight may be better. Depending on the type of frame ridden it might be necessary to use a slightly heavier wheel in order to remain at or above the 6.7kg UCI weight limit. So wheels will get taller while remaining at the same weight. That’s my foresight into wheel technology. More speed for the same energy expended on the flat and no loss on the climbs.
Choosing the right brand is difficult because there are so many options which will satisfy your needs. Big companies like Shimano, Zipp, Fast Forward and Fulcrum/Campagnolo are always a safe but there are a number of smaller brands which sometimes include after sales service which is impressive. Australian owned Bouwmeester have a number of wheels approved for 2011, are hand built, offer custom finish options and are well priced. I’m always of the stance that any quality product should be backed by the people who make them, in the form of warranty, repairs, crash replacement or other services. Picking the location for purchase is a good start. Talk to a trusted sales person at the bike shop and get other advice from people who actually know what they are talking about, not some friend of a friend who had a bad experience with and now endeavours to tell everyone how bad X brand is. For me crash replacement is a big bonus because wheels are expensive and crashing is an inevitable factor in road racing. Decide what is most important to you before handing over the money.
Wheels are one of the most important components on your bike and while everyone’s budgets are not endless it is worth spending a little more if the product will deliver better performance, durability or other ride quality which you deem necessary for your particular use. There will always be brands which seem to cost more than others but there is generally a reason for it; greater research and development or after sales service may be part of the reason so check what else is attached to the price tag.
I hope this helps with your decision making process and while I haven’t told you to buy X wheelset this should provide enough information for you to use when considering your needs.
Alex Malone is Technical Editor and staff writer for RIDE Cycling Review.