September 20, 2017

How Important Are Race Wheels?

Ron Saetermoe

Undoubtedly you’ve seen some really “hot” wheels at your triathlon races. If money is no object you can spend upward of $3,500 for two wheels! Insane, I know, but you’ll see plenty of them at the big races.

First, what are race wheels? Race wheels include solid rear disc wheels as well as deep rim and tri-spoke wheels. There are many different companies that manufacture them and many different varieties.

You’re also aware there are tubular and clincher wheels, aren’t’ you? Tubular tires are thought to be faster overall (but new clincher technology is close behind) but very difficult to change. Essentially tubulars include the tire (the outer part that makes contact with the road) and the tube (the part that holds the air) together as one unit and is glued to the wheel. Clinchers are tires that “clinch” the wheel and have a separate tube inside.

So should you use race wheels? As usual, it depends.

Here are some factors you should consider:

• How competitive are you? If you’re really just racing for fun and are not competitive in your age group it’s not that important. The timesavings, in the right situations, will only save you a fraction of your overall time.
• How important is the race? If it’s not your “A” race (your most important race) you probably don’t need them. Because of the cost, it probably doesn’t make sense to drop all that extra money just to look good.
• What race are you doing? Some races, particularly hilly races, will change your strategy a bit. The added aerodynamics may be offset by the additional weight of a rear disc, for example.
• What length are you racing? You’ll find race wheels at all distances of races from the shortest sprint to full Ironman races. The advantage is relative. Where they may save you 10 seconds on a 12-mile ride they may save you several minutes over the course of an Ironman.
• What about the wind? The primary thing that differentiates race wheels from regular wheels is rim depth. The problem is the greater the rim depth the more difficult it is to manage the bike in a crosswind. For this reason, they do not allow full-disc wheels at the Ironman World Championships because the side-winds are almost always a factor. Lighter riders should also be careful because they will be particularly susceptible to strong winds.
• How’s your head? Many people “think” they’re faster with race wheels, therefore they are. I agree with this, by the way. When my bike is decked out with a set of Zipps, I just “feel” faster.

If you’re concerned about maximizing your aerodynamics but you’re on a budget, it’s probably best to rent race wheels for your “A” races and take the extra dough and enter a couple more “B” races.

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