Road Bike Wheel Buying Guide

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Road Bike Wheel Buying Guide

Upgrading the wheels on a road bike is an easy way to boost its performance, offering a good return on investment. Buying lighter and more aerodynamic wheels could significantly improve a road bike's speed, while sourcing wheels with good quality hubs, rims and a standard 3-cross lacing pattern will give the bicycle durability for many years to come.

Wheels are the hardest-working part of a bike, so when looking to buy them on eBay it is important to buy wisely and match the wheels to the bike's function. Road riding benefits from lightweight wheels with good aerodynamics, although these attributes both come at a price. Also, if the bike has to carry shopping and children as well as a rider, it is a good idea to take the wheel's load-bearing capabilities into account.

Wheel Sizing

The first step in finding the right wheels - a pair is called a 'wheelset' - is finding out the bike's wheel rim size. Check the existing tyres for embossed figures indicating the wheel size of the bike. If there are no wheels or tyres on the bike, then some quick research on the model will help inform your eBay purchase.

Rim Size

Most road bikes have a rim size of 622mm, which is also known as 700c. Occasionally, smaller road bike wheels are 571mm, also called 650c, while older bikes come in a variety of sizes.

Tyre Width

Most modern road bikes are fitted with 700x23 size wheels, where the '23' refers to how many millimetres wide the tyres are. Sometimes tyres are 21mm, but wider tyres mean better shock absorption and comfort. Wider tyres will also be more comfortable on rougher roads, while narrower tyres offer a faster ride on smooth roads.

Structure of the Road Bike Wheel

Bicycle wheels are designed to fit the bike's frame and its forks via dropouts. The wheel is a complex structure made up of several parts that work together as a dynamic whole.


This is the centre of the wheel and the part that the wheels spin on. The hub is made up of an axle, ball bearings and a shell, to which spokes can be attached.


Attached to the dropouts out on the bicycle's fork, the axle on road bikes is commonly attached via a quick-release lever that passes through a hollow axle. Modern bikes have standardised axle spacing of 100mm, while road bikes have a 130mm wide hub on the rear wheel.


Steel or ceramic ball bearings allow the wheel parts to rotate around the axle. Modern wheels usually feature pre-assembled 'cartridge' bearings which are neither serviceable nor adjustable, the entire cartridge being replaced when it fails.


Brakes are either rim or hub-mounted. Rim-brake wheels feature tougher heavier rim sides to withstand the wear of rim brakes, but they lack any provision for hub-mounted brakes.

There are three main type of hub braking system, the advantage of these brakes over rim brakes consisting partly in saving weight at the rim and in taking advantage of the slower turn speed of the wheel at its centre compared with its edge.

Disc Brake

Comprising a circular plate that is attached to the hub. The plate is squeezed between brake pads fixed to one side of the wheel forks.

Drum Brake

Contained within the hub shell, this brake consists of two shoes that expand into the inside of the hub shell.

Coaster Brake

A type of drum brake that is contained within the hub shell, coaster brakes work by the rider pedalling backwards.


Besides possibly carrying the braking mechanism, rear wheel hubs will also hold the gears. There are several ways of attaching the gears to the rear hub, including:

Free Hub

Very common on modern bicycles, this is a practical and neat cassette that contains sprockets and a lock ring to hold the cogs in place.

Flip-flop hub

For more specialised road-riding, this allows the wheel to be removed and reversed to change which whether the wheel is fixed or free. This is a good option for those looking to start riding with a fixed bike as it easy to switch between the two until you're comfortable riding fixed.


The rim's shape has a bearing on how the wheel feels to the rider. A stiffer and deeper rim makes the rider feel more in contact with the road. Stiffness creates more speed, and on smooth roads should not be too uncomfortable. Very deep rims are usually about 90mm, although this can create more resistance in cross-winds. For riding in strong crosswinds it is better to have shallower rims of about 28mm.

The rim width also has a bearing on comfort, with wider rims of about 23mm offering greater comfort because they spread the tyre sides, which lets more air into the tyre. However, narrower tyres are lighter weight and more aerodynamic.

Until the 1980s most wheel rims were made from steel but modern wheel rims are almost always made from light, hard-wearing aluminium that offers good rim-braking in the rain. High-end road bikes and racers use carbon rims which are even lighter.

Clincher Rims

Most rims today are called clincher rims and are used in conjunction with clincher tyres. These tyres feature beading that interlocks with the wheel rim. The tyre contains an inner-tube that is filled with air. When buying a wheel that has spoke holes, be sure to cover them with specialised rim tape made from rubber, cloth or plastic, to protect the inner tube. The advantage of having an inner tube is that it can be accessed quickly to patch up a leak or replace it.

Tubular Rims

Designed for tyres that are glued directly to the rim, the inner tube is sewn into the tyre and cannot be patched separately. These tyres are light, have a lower road resistance than clinchers and they also wear well. However changing the tyres if a flat occurs is a much more difficult and lengthy process than with clincher tyres and for this reason many road bike users prefer conventional clinchers.


Spokes connect the rim to the hub under tension. Spokes are connected to the rim by a nipple that allows the tension in the spoke to be adjusted. They are usually made of steel, stainless steel, titanium, aluminium or carbon fibre, although the most commonly used material is stainless steel because it offers durability and stiffness as well as being easy to maintain.

Cross-section of Spoke

Most wheels feature spokes that have circular profiles. However, high performance wheels often have flat or oval spokes, sometimes called 'bladed' to reduce drag. Spokes can also be 'butted', which means that they taper towards the rim or are thinner in the middle and widen at the hub and rim, rather than being all one thickness. The advantage of a butted spoke is that it provides smoother ride.

Number of Spokes

Most road bikes have 28, 32 or 36 spokes. Fewer spokes means that the wheel is more aerodynamic, but this advantage can be wiped out by the fact that being less supported, the rim has to be stronger and heavier to bear the weight of bike and rider.

Conventional wheels have spokes that are evenly distributed across the rim as this creates durability in the wheel.

Tension of Spokes

Too little tension in the spokes means the rim can be easily bent, but too much tension can stress the spokes and lead to them breaking. When buying wheels online, it is a good idea to test the tension and adjust them. To test the tension at home without high-tech equipment, it is possible to pluck the spokes and listen to the tone they make as they vibrate. Tables are available online that list musical notes and matches those to the length and type of spoke on the wheel. The nipples can then be turned to adjust the spokes' tension.

Spoke Lacing

There are various types of lacing that creates different effects in the wheel, suiting it to different uses.

Radial lacing

Very often, front wheels which need to bear less weight are laced radially, which means that the spokes come out perpendicularly from the hub and are not positioned at an angle. This creates a light and stiff wheel.

Tangential lacing

Tangential lacing increases the amount of torque that a wheel can take. Wheels with drum or disc brakes must have tangentially laced spokes, which means that the spoke comes out of the hub at an angle.

Finding Wheels for Old Bikes

Vintage bicycles are enjoying a renaissance at the moment and many people are interested in owning an old road bicycle for its shape and style while requiring updated wheels to improve its performance. This can makes fitting wheels, which are today standardised and use metric measurements, to older bicycles more difficult than with newer bikes. Old bikes usually feature screw-on wheels rather than those attached to the bike fork using a cassette. Another factor to consider is hub width and the spacing between the dropouts on the back wheel.

Bikes from the 1970s tend to have a gap of 120mm between the dropouts on the back wheels, 1980s bikes about 126mm and modern bikes, built for cassette wheels, have spacing of 130mm.When buying wheels for an older bike online, be sure to check that they will fit the space between the bike's dropouts.

On eBay it is also possible to buyvintage bike wheels. Type 'Vintage Bike Wheels' into the search box to discover what is available.


Road bikes wheels are some of the most commonly traded bike wheel types on eBay, and as such there is a wide variety of choice online, from inexpensive workaday steel wheels to lighter, higher performance wheels made from materials such as aluminium or even titanium. Road bike wheels work hard, so eBay buyers are advised to carefully check potential buys for signs of rust, corrosion and poor maintenance and to test the wheel thoroughly after purchase and prior to putting the bike on the road.

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