I rode about 5000Km on Mavic Ksyrium Elite Wheels and changed them for inexpensive Prime race wheels.

The difference in ride comfort is huge. The Mavic wheels provide a very harsh ride. The prime wheels are very smooth.

I use the exact same tires (Continental GP4000S II) on both wheelsets at exactly the same tire pressure (90psi). Nothing else changed on the bike.

This left me wondering as to what exactly contributes to a comfortable wheel. The Prime rim is deeper than the Mavic rim. So it should be radially stiffer and provide less comfort instead of more comfort.

My own thought is that the biggest contribution in wheel comfort is provided by the type, and maybe the number of spokes. The Prime wheels use DT Swiss Competition spokes. The thin middle section of this spoke will move radially more under load than the robust Mavic spoke, thus absorbing more vibrations. This would imply that the same rim with a higher spoke count would be less comfortable.

Would this be a correct assumption? Can somebody shed some light on this?

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    Can you compare spoke tensions? Either with a tension meter or by sound or by deflection with your hand. – Criggie May 19 '18 at 0:19
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    I can't because I sold the Mavic wheels. But I doubt that spoke tension has anything to do with it since it does not influence wheel stiffness (see The Bicycle Wheel - Jobst Brandt) – The Bartman May 19 '18 at 18:49
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    @The Bartman Could you elaborate on that a little? Imagine you severely undertensioned your wheel. The rim would be wobbling around all over the place when subjected to lateral forces, and it would not be held in a rigid circle by the spokes; it would be free to ovalise under your weight. Indeed, Crankbrothers’ well-regarded Synthesis wheelset uses different spoke tensions between front and rear wheels to help obtain different ride characteristics between them. – MaplePanda Dec 8 '20 at 19:15
  • It would be good to see pictures of the wheels in question. Neither link in the OP works. There are several factors that can make one wheel set more rigid than another. – David D Dec 8 '20 at 21:46

I see two possible explanations. One is psychological and one is physical.

The psychological one is that these are the new toy, so you want to find a reason they are good. This effect is much more powerful than most people are aware of, let alone willing to admit. It validates your decision to buy those wheels. If you want to disprove this, you can hide all the distinguishing marks on the wheels (very hard) and see if you can tell the difference.

The physical explanation is that you can find a transfer function from vibrations on the ground to vibrations on the points you touch the bike, the saddle, the handlebars, and the pedals. I suspect the saddle is the most important as you have your legs and arms to damp the vibrations from the others. The wheels only contact at the ends of the axle, so if the frame damps some frequencies we can ignore those. A more rigid wheel will transmit higher frequency vibrations to the frame, which will show up at your contact points unless the frame damps them. There is a belief in the community that rigid is good. Generally, a more rigid wheel will absorb less energy in flexing than a less rigid wheel.

The energy lost in the flex of the wheel is one part of the rolling resistance of the bicycle. There are many others. At normal riding speeds air resistance is dominant so reducing rolling resistance is not as productive as it looks. If you are a racer a tiny edge is important. As a recreational rider, I would like a comfortable ride.

All of this doesn't answer the question your are asking-how can I look at the specs of a wheel and identify the comfortable ones as opposed to the harsh ones. I would have thought most of the damping was in the tire, so there wouldn't be much difference in wheels, but I haven't tried any besides the ones my bike came with. I suspect on average you will get more comfortable wheels if you buy cheaper ones, but that is based on my thought that high end wheels are oriented for racing, so want to minimize energy lost at all costs.

  • Imagine a wheel with only one spoke made out of glass. It would be a glass dish. That wheel would have absolutely no vertical flex and would be very uncomfortable to ride. On the other side of the spectrum there is something like the Dura Ace C24. A wheel with low spoke count and a shallow carbon rim. It is generally considered as very comfortable. So ride comfort is function of the design of the wheel. I just try to find out what the contributing factors are. – The Bartman May 19 '18 at 19:22

Internal rim width difference would change the tire profile, and thus volume as well as the direction force is put on the casing, which could have a significant effect on how/how well it dampens vibration. A difference in the volume of the rim well is also going to change the air volume of the "tire" (tube) which will have an effect. Side note: tire width does not necessarily increase monotonically with rim width.

I'm on the skeptical side of a wheel being a factor; as I see it any room for vertical compliance would also be room for horizontal compliance, because the force can be distributed along only one side instead of symmetrically. So if there were vertical movement to absorb bumps, there would also be tail flop from pedaling or in turns. In practical terms just consider the magnitudes; the only thing significantly moving between the saddle shell and the road is the tire rubber, followed by the seatpost if it is round+has a lot of extension... maybe the saddle rails? If my rim was noticeably moving in any way other than around the hub I'd be alarmed, not comforted.

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