In the famous words of Eddy Merckx “Don’t buy upgrades, ride upgrades”
Eddy couldn’t have been more right, BUT…in the billion-pound cycling industry which is now awash with tech and aero upgrades trying to get you to spend your cash, it’s difficult to ignore or begin to wonder how much quicker you can be with splashing out on some nice new componentry for your bike.
It’s a regular question that pops up across many cycling media pages or forums – how can I go faster?
The right answer is of course ensuring a healthy lifestyle with eating the right foods and following a structured training plan. This alone will reap the hugest benefits in grabbing a PR or KOM on Strava, simply improving your average speed or climbing that hill and not collapsing once you reach the top, but what if you have been doing this for some time and you are now ready to step up your game, wanting a hardware upgrade to improve your performance.
Asides from the correct answer of choosing the right healthy lifestyle, what is the best upgrade to help you go faster?
Presuming your bike wasn’t £10,000, which let’s face it that type of expenditure on a bike is something we can only dream of, on most bikes the area which manufacturers save on the most are wheels and tyres. Yes, they are functional, round (which helps) but so often are heavy, run cheaper hubs and normally come with budget or more puncture proof tyres.
While these are great in keeping you rolling with less chance of puncturing, these tyres will often be heavy and have greater levels of drag, ultimately killing your speed even more.
Most experienced cyclists will say the easiest and cheapest way to gain speed is to fit a fast rolling set of tyres. These can gain immediate improvements, anything up to 1mph or more to your average speed, through less resistance on the road and allowing you to maintain a higher rolling speed, along with less effort being put through the pedals in doing so.
Some top end brands to consider are Continental GP5000, Specialized S-Works Turbos or Vittoria Corsa G’s amongst many others. Make no mistake these are premium brands, and while these tip the scales on the more expensive choice of tyres, investing in these will reap huge benefits. This is an important area not to scrimp on.
However, changing your tyres is a bit boring though isn’t it? Its functional, yes, it’s the cheapest way to go faster, yes, but it hasn’t enhanced the look of your bike. You would be lying to yourself that as well as wanting to go faster, upgrading your wheels is as much about performance as it is about improving aesthetics.
Turning up to your club ride or hanging your bike up on the cycling rack in your local coffee stop wearing your new wheels is always a certified way of earning kudos, as you sit there sipping your coffee admiring the look of your stead, It tells people your serious about your hobby and were once a pro rider….right? Well don’t spoil it and let us buy into that dream.
The cycling marketing engine has got you in its clutches, you buy cycling magazines flicking through the pages, surfing bikes online or walk around your local bike shop in awe of all the pretty machinery hanging on the wall and now you are hooked, ready to make your next big investment…wheels.
But what wheels do you get? Ultimately your budget will define that, but you don’t have to spend a fortune on a set of wheels to improve your ride. We will look at three sets of wheels with very different budgets, all having different merits and pitfalls.
Hunt, Roval and Bontrager wheels are big industry names, all with an excellent reputation through tried and tested products, with producing wheels showing a superb level of quality, immediately enhancing the performance (and look) of your bike.
Having owned and extensively tested all three brands, running the Hunt Aerolight Discs, Roval CL50 Discs and the Bontrager Aelous XXX 6 Disc wheels, these come in at 3 different price points, so let’s see how they compare.
Hunt Aerolight Disc Wheels – £499 (at the time of writing this article)
I love the branding of Hunt, just the Hunt name and its logo projects quality in itself. Hunt have won endless industry awards and rightly so. Hunt cater across the cheaper, but still excellent quality to the more higher end carbon wheel market. These wheels are slightly aero with being 28mm deep and are aluminium. Yes aluminium…don’t believe that carbon is always king. A wise man says a good aluminium frame is better than a cheap carbon one and he would be very right, the same ethos applying to wheels, but that’s a story for another day
These wheels have been tested in all conditions, through freezing winter slogs to those much-missed summer rides, their hardest test being on the climbs of Mount Ventoux.
These fit, just, in the “up to £500 bracket” and you can see Hunt have cleverly marketed this proposition, and in my opinion are the best wheels within this price bracket.
These are light wheels, coming in at 1499 grams and roll incredibly well.
On the first ride you immediately notice the improved performance, acceleration was quick and snappy and they get up to speed quickly. The wheels, combined with Specialized S-Works Turbo tyres performed beautifully, and even with some of the hardest out of the saddle sprinting not once could I feel any flex in the wheels, adding to their superior climbing capabilities, helping you transfer every pedal stroke and power in your legs up the toughest of climbs.
The hub however I can only describe as marmite. It’s loud, so if that’s your thing you will love them as I did. It is certainly guaranteed to irritate your club riders or cycling friends but make no mistake they will know when you are coming, and with these wheels they’ll certainly help in passing them on the climbs with driving forward lighter and stiffer wheels than what your bike came with.
While these wheels hold a number of strong merits, these are not considered to be an aero wheel, despite their name. While quick to get up to speed, “maintaining” their speed becomes the wheels Achilles heel. The effort required to hold speed becomes harder compared to a deep clincher wheels (naturally as it lacks those aero properties) and taking your feet off the gas on flat or undulating rides, these wheels do deaccelerate in speed quicker than an aero wheel equivalent, requiring more of your effort to maintain it.
However don’t get too hung up on this minor point though, as these are being compared against its aero counterparts, but looking at like for like i.e. the wheels that came with your bike, these are quite simply a fantastic set of wheels, not only improving the look of your ride, but bringing a healthy improvement to how your bike will perform, noticeably on climbs. These wheels offer a very worthy upgrade.
Marks out of 10? 7/10
Roval CL50 Disc Wheels – £1298 (at the time of writing this article)
Roval wheels are owned by Specialized, one of the biggest and most well-established cycling brands. You are assured to get high end quality with Specialized bikes, and this level of quality continues throughout their own Roval wheel brand.
These are 50mm deep clinchers, running DT Swiss hubs and come in at 1515 grams. An impressive weight and amongst one of the lightest wheels amongst other 50mm clincher brands.
The wheels are faultless in their quality, light, DT Swiss hubs, and through their subtle styling with the Roval lettering blending into the wheel, don’t scream quick, but quick these are.
Aesthetically these bring a stunning look to any bike, but these significantly enhance its performance. From the off, maintaining speed becomes sublime, while the hub isn’t noisy, it offers a very light click, but the DT Swiss hubs again proving while they are the best in the industry with keeping the wheels rolling with ease.
These have been used in all conditions, from summer days to wet and windy ones, and only in the most extreme days with strong gusts of wind can you find yourself wrestling the front wheel slightly, but this is not a direct criticism of the Rovals as the same will be found on all 50mm deep clinchers.
If you want a set of 50mm clinchers, offering a high end carbon finish with industry leading hubs and performance that will really raise your cycling game, at a touch over the £1000 mark no other brand can match them.
Marks out of 10? 9/10
Bontrager Aelous XXX 6 Disc Wheels – £1999 (at the time of writing this article)
On the other end of the scale are the Bontrager wheels, Trek’s in-house brand wheels. Don’t think you have to have a Trek bike to run these, these are premium wheels which can be dressed on any bike you wish.
While these are more on the extreme side of carbon clinchers due to their cost, there are many top brands which offer deeper rimmed wheels at a much more affordable price. Brands such as Hunt again offer a Carbon 30mm and 50mm equivalent, Prime (Wiggles own in house brand) and Mavic amongst many others.
The Bontrager’s are 60mm deep and are considered to be on the maximum end of the depth scale before you start to delve into the world of more Time Trial specific wheels, and on a standard road bike are as deep as you would want to go.
First impressions on these wheels when unboxing them is how stunning they look, with the bold Bontrager branding wrapped around the wheel and with the red XXX, these scream quality. You could quite happily hang them on a wall and just admire them, but that would be a bit silly? With their deeper wheel depth these still came in at a very healthy weight of 1575 grams, only 60 grams heavier than the Rovals.
Wrapped in Specialized S-Works Cotton Turbos (different to the usual S-Work tyres with the yellow band around the edge of the tyre) giving that more premium look these were taken on their first test ride, matched to a Specialized Venge Pro (I can hear cyclists crying already with putting on Trek wheels onto a Specialized, its controversial to say the least and it has already caused mush criticism amongst cycling friends).
If you want speed, this is it. While the Rovals are quick, these are another level. Peering down and seeing these wheels spinning, they look stunning. The rear hub comes with a 36 star point ratchet hub, enabling the wheel to engage quickly, aiding faster acceleration.
You immediately notice their ability to get up to silly speeds, but not only this, how well these wheels roll and maintain that speed. You can feel that extra 10mm of depth over the Rovals offering that ability to go quicker, but the effort required in wattage and pedal strokes to keep that speed compared to the Rovals is definitely noticeable.
Many people overlook the quality of hubs, and this is one of, if not the most important part of a wheel as it defines their performance. The Bontragers, like the Rovals use DT Swiss hubs, one of the best hubs in the industry and for good reason, they are buttery smooth.
Unlike the Hunts these are quiet, even quiet compared to the Rovals, so quiet in fact all you can hear is the whooshy sound the aero wheels make as they cut through the air.
These are further fitted with bladed spokes, adding to their aero capabilities, and while these are marginal gains these all add up to some remarkable differences in performance.
These haven’t been tested in such extreme places like Mount Ventoux, but I wouldn’t hesitate in taking these on the most arduous of climbs. A deep wheel on tough climbs, sounds odd but bear with me? Gone are the days where deep section wheels are slower in climbing, these are stiff, fast rolling, light and show little to no resistance in rolling. These have been used on local undulating routes with the odd tougher hill thrown in for good measure and not once did these wheels ever hold my performance back, only my legs couldn’t match the performance these wheels require.
On the first test ride, it was extreme weather, averaging 20mph+ headwinds and gusts of up to 35mph, slightly mad I hear you say taking out 60mm deep wheels with weather conditions like that, but with or without clinchers these are testing conditions for any rider. The Bontragers coped remarkably well, while wrestling the front wheel at times, I was blown (excuse the pun) away at how quick these wheels still managed to maintain speed, one of my highest average speeds on a regular circuit despite the challenging weather conditions.
While you could argue if the extra cost justifies the marginal gains over the Rovals, and that is something that comes down to personal opinion and budget, these are a product operating at the top of their game.
Marks out of 10? 10/10
Column by Cycling Advice