The wheels of a bike are among the most replaced parts by most bicycle enthusiasts, as they’re the part that takes the most abuse while riding. A wheel effects the handling, speed, weight and the bike’s overall performance. Typically, lighter wheels improve the bike’s acceleration, lower the rotational weight and give you a slight speed boost. However, if you’re into off-road and rough riding, then burly and tough wheels can be the better alternative.
That said, if you’re looking to replace your bicycle’s current wheels with new ones, there are several factors to take into account in order to make the right purchase. Factors such as wheel size, rim width, weight, hub type, spoke number, and others, should have an impact on what bike wheel is right for you. As aforementioned, if you’re into cross-country racing and riding, lighter wheels provide less rotational weight which equates to more speed. Mountain bikes, on the other hand, require wheels that have wider rims that can take the abuse.
The three most common bike wheels diameters are 26 inches, 27.5 inches and 29 inches. Again, depending on the type of riding you do, the ideal diameter will vary. 26 inch wheels were considered the standard, because they balanced stiffness, light weight and snappy acceleration with sharp handling in technical and twisty single-track terrains. Manufacturers started experimenting with 29 inch wheels sometime later, and found that 29 inch wheels held speed better and rolled easily over obstacles. However, 29 inch wheels had their own disadvantages, like having less wheel stiffness and increased weight. So in an attempt to balance things out, 27.5 inch wheels emerged as the ideal compromise.
In terms of rim width, most bike wheels are either 23mm or 28mm. 23mm rims are standard for trail and XC riding, while more technical and rough terrain riders opt for 28mm rims. However, there are people who prefer more extreme FR and DH riding, which puts the wheel through a lot of abuse, so they may end up choosing 36-40 (sometimes even wider)mm rims.
Lastly, the amount of spokes and spoke patterns can impact how the load is distributed across the wheel. The standard is 32 spokes, but most lightweight wheels feature 24 or 28. Wheels meant for more extreme riding, on the other hand, feature 36 or in the most extreme cases even 48. Spokes can either be butted or plain-gauge. Standard wheels are manufactured using j-spokes and feature a bend on one end, which is considered a weak point, so most manufacturers opt for wheels with straight-pull spokes.
Most wheels use a 3x spoke matter which is laced in a way where each spoke passes either over, or under three other spokes between the hub and the rim. Another popular pattern is the 0x or radial pattern, where spokes go from the hub to the rim without crossing other spokes.