There's nothing quite like a good pair of shoes. Bicycle wheels work in a similar way; having a good wheelset can make your bike look better, ride more comfortably, last longer and roll faster. Upgrading your wheelset is a great way to increase the value of your bike, but it's important to understand what makes for a good wheelset and what benefits you can expect with upgrading. With the right set of wheels, you'll be ready to attack your next race.
One of the most important qualities of a set of wheels is the way the road feels to the rider. The feel of the road depends on the materials used in wheel construction, the number of spokes, the thickness of the rim and tire and the wheel size. A wheel designed for a touring bike or mountain bike will be stiffer, since it's more resistant to flex. A wheel designed for a casual road bike, however, will have a bit more flex and be more comfortable on varied terrain.
More expensive rims usually hold their true and remain functional for thousands of miles. Since rim brakes are dependent on the straightness of the rim, your ability to brake could be hindered by a poor-quality wheelset that loses true. A durable wheel is also less likely to break while you're riding, so your safety greatly improves with a higher-quality wheelset. Durable wheels can stand up to the occasional abuse of potholes and curbs without as big a risk for deformation and spoke breakage.
Speed and Acceleration
When you're pedaling at full speed on an open flat, your wheel weight doesn't make a lot of difference. However, because of the properties of inertia, accelerating and climbing hills can be made a lot more difficult by a heavy wheelset. Higher-quality wheels use stronger materials, which means your rims and hubs can be made with less material for a lighter weight. This reduction in the weight of your wheels results in a bike that feels faster and more responsive and is quicker to accelerate.
An important part of any good wheelset is the tire. The tire is your contact with the ground, and the properties of the tire determine a lot of how the bike feels. A good tire is lighter weight by the same properties that make wheels lighter; a higher quality rubber can be made thinner without sacrificing durability, which improves the acceleration of the bike. A better tire will also last longer before the tread wears down and it needs to be replaced.
Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.