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I cycle to work three times a week over a distance of 13 miles in both directions. I do approximately 20mph most of the way there and back and I am looking for ways to speed up the commute.

Having read around the material online, it seems a decent set of wheels give the best performance increase per pound spent.

So the question is what wheelset should I invest in?

You can get models that claim to be Aero that range from a hundred pounds up to the low thousands. What would you recommend for a commuter?

A related but more searching question: would I even notice the difference at my level of performance?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Over a 40-minute ride, you may not notice much.

One older reference compares a then-standard 32-spoke 27" wheel to an aero rim with 28 bladed spokes, a high-end hub and an extra-lightweight tire. The estimated improvement over a one-hour time trial at 23mph was 44 seconds - an impressive improvement for racing, but not particularly meaningful for a commute. A more recent comparison by Rolf to the aerodynamic Mavic Ksyrium claims that their $2500 TT85 full-carbon disc wheelset saves 1 minute, 49 seconds over 40km.

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4  
This. Your commute time is 39 minutes, and to shave even 5 minutes off that would require going nearly 3mph faster. That's going to come from stronger legs, higher endurance, and perhaps from choosing routes with fewer traffic lights. Not $1,500 wheels. Not to mention, any expensive wheels will simply become an easy target for theft, and be much more likely to get damaged. Neither of those are qualities you're looking for when you're commuting. –  Stephen Touset Jul 10 '11 at 4:10

You're asking two questions here:

  1. As answered above, aero wheels aren't likely to improve your speed enough to be worth the investment, unless you also use the bike for club racing, triathlons, or the like.

  2. Good wheels come in 2 categories:

    • Aero: An aero wheel's main benefit is in improving the shape of the foil around your bike. Good aero wheels save approximate 30 seconds to one minute off of a ride, if you are above 22mph. Examples include Zipp 404/808/1080 series wheels. The Xentis Squad 5.8 carbon clincher wheels are among the lightest, strongest, and most aero wheels, with the additional benefit that the braking surface is designed for a standard rubber brake pad, so no buying special carbon rubber compound or cork pads.

    • Light: If your purpose is to get your speed up, depending on the conditions of your commute, you may be better served to do a light weight climbing oriented wheel. The reason that wheels are considered your best upgrade to just about any bike, is because losing a pound at the rim of your wheel has a similar effect to losing a much greater weight at the core of the bike. Put a weight on the end of a pole, and try to pick it up. Then drop the pole, and go pick it up directly. It will be much heavier at the end of a lever, and the longer the lever, the heavier it gets. Your wheels are weight that must be moved at the end of a 190mm lever, and maintained at speed there. At the least, a lighter wheel will make your bike feel and respond faster, and more nimbly. Even if you don't gain significant speed, in this way there are other benefits. Here also I recommend the Xentis Squad 2.5. A low profile carbon climbing wheel, light strong and fast. May or may not be available in the US, however.

    • There is a trade off for the everyday user between height of the sidewall for aero effect, and the side wind profile for handling and stability.

    • Finally, good wheels aren't cheap, and you should be prepared to spend in some cases as much as the bike cost originally. They are an upgrade that can and will outlast several bikes. My current wheels have been on 4 different road bikes, so don't consider them an add-on to the value of the bike. And don't get rid of the original wheels, you may need them when it's time to upgrade the other half of the bike.

Just my 2 cents.

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Aren't wheels a consumable item? Or can braking surfaces be replaced? –  Mac Jul 10 '11 at 8:09
    
Wheels that are improperly cared for can be consumables. But when you're talking about wheels that are equal in cost to a decent bicycle, no. It becomes cost effective to repair, rather than replace a wheel set. A Zipp Firecrest 808 Carbon Clincher set in our area sells for about 11500 dirhams, depending on Euro exchange rates. I can buy a replacement rim, and have it installed for about 2500. Also, although I'm getting close to needing to replace the rear rim on my wheels, I've yet to have to do so. If the wheels were 500, and the rim was 200, plus 450 labor, that would be a consumable wheel. –  zenbike Jul 10 '11 at 8:22
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It turns out that the math for the total effect of lighter wheels vs lighter frame components shows that is actually a quite minuscule effect. Aerodynamic effects are significantly larger. It's also worth remembering that a gram off the rider is the same as a gram off the bike, but probably cheaper. –  lantius Jul 11 '11 at 15:16
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@Lantius: I ddon't understand the math at the link you posted well enough to comment. But useful aero effects are limited to speeds typically above 22 mph. That means in the case described above that the aero benefit would be smaller than a weight benefit. I wasn't intending to say that weight on the frame is unimportant. Just that the wheel weight would likely be more important in this case. Please feel free to explain the math in smalle bites, if it invalidates that in some way. –  zenbike Jul 11 '11 at 18:27
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People, please shut it down or take it to chat. –  Neil Fein Jul 12 '11 at 1:51

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