How to choose the best lightweight wheels
Before splashing out on the first set of wheels you set eyes on, it’s worth looking at the various attributes that make up the best lightweight wheels. Not only are the following factors fundamental in terms of compatibility with your bike (disc, tubeless, wheel width), they also have a direct impact on the strength, efficiency and longevity of a wheel.
Reducing the rotational mass of a wheel is a far more important upgrade than trying to lighten your frame. If you think about it, climbing wheelsets are around 350-500g lighter than the aero equivalent, so not only are you losing total mass, you get the added benefit of saving energy (and wattage) to overcome inertia.
Of course, all else being equal, a lighter wheelset will be faster, but ‘all else’ is never equal. Reducing weight will usually come at the expense of something else. That could be depth, strength, or even compatibility with tyres.
Take a moment to consider your requirement for aerodynamics. If you’re only ever riding along on the flats, then a lightweight pair of wheels will ultimately be slower than a heavier, more aerodynamic pair.
The rise of disc-brake modulation has changed the game in many ways, the most pertinent being wheelset/frame compatibility. In layman’s terms, a disc-brake wheelset won’t work with a rim-brake frame and vice versa. When choosing the best lightweight wheels for your bike, you’ll need to ensure you get the correct braking type.
With disc brakes came the requirement for stiffer axles, and the solution was 142x12mm thru-axles. Modern disc brake bikes will usually have these thru axles. Modern rim brake bikes will usually still use quick release skewers, and the best lightweight wheels tend to follow the same script, but just to be on the safe side, double-check your bike’s axles and ensure your new wheels match.
Lightweight wheels for climbing possess a far shallower profile than their deep-dished brethren, usually around 25-40mm, which is great for climbing and cross-winds but not so much for straight-line efficiency. For many, however, the sacrifice in aerodynamics is worth the gain in gravity-trumping weight. It all comes down to the type of terrain you ride - if your local training roads are mountainous or hilly then it’s wise to go with a climbing wheelset; if it’s flat or rolling, go aero.
While it’s no secret that carbon is stiffer, more responsive, and better at absorbing vibrations than aluminium, there isn’t much of a weight discrepancy between the two materials. In fact, in some instances, aluminium is lighter, and it’s certainly cheaper. If the wheels listed in this guide are a little on the steep end of your budget, then look to aluminium for some cost savings.
The best lightweight wheels are all about keeping weight to a minimum while still retaining stiffness so it’s imperative that you choose a tyre that complements its function - there’s little point in fitting chunky 30mm tyres as this defeats the purpose. It’s also worth considering the compatibility, as with the introduction of tubeless wheels and hookless beads, not all tyre manufacturers are guaranteed to be compatible.
The brands behind all of the best lightweight wheels will have a tyre compatibility chart that tells you what’s safe (and more importantly, what’s not safe) to use.