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Wheel Depth Debate: Does Deeper Section = Faster?

Over my years of coaching in Singapore, I find that many riders are not using the correct depth of wheels.

The most common misunderstanding that most cyclists is that deeper section wheels mean faster speed. I want to dispel this myth because it is not always the case. 

Here are some of my recommendations based on my experiences in riding road, velodrome, specialist time trial and triathlons.

 

Wheels of varying depth. Photo credit: hulkbike.com

 

20-30mm

Suitable for:

  • Riders that can hold an average of less than 31km/h
  • Very light riders like juniors 
  • Criteriums that require constant acceleration, or races with a lot of climbing 

20-30mm wheels are suitable for cyclists who don’t have the power to drive a bigger wheel. If you cannot maintain an average speed* of less than 31km/h, these wheels are more than enough for you. 

Smaller section wheels are lighter in weight and can accelerate faster; hence they are good for short street races that require a lot of acceleration out of corners. One such example is the 1.7k criterium loops in CBD.

*When I am referring to average speed, I am talking about a solo ride of more than 20km, and not drafting behind a bunch.

 

30-40mm

Suitable for:

  • Riders than can average less than 33km/h
  • Riders that weigh less than 50kg 
  • Rolling hill race

The bigger the wheel, the more difficult it is to control the bike in a crosswind. A lighter rider or a rider with poor bike handling skills will have difficulty keeping control of the bike while riding.

Even a passing truck with a wind shadow can hit the cyclist and cause a destabilising effect. This could pose a danger to the rider if there are vehicles in close proximity. 

If you are spending most of your time keeping your balance rather than accelerating the bike, that means you are wasting unnecessary energy. By switching to a smaller wheel depth, more energy could be spent on powering your bike in forward motion.

 

40-50mm

Suitable for:

  • Riders that can average greater than 33km/h
  • Riders that weigh above 50kg 
  • Combination of climbing, crosswinds and flat terrains

In my view, 40-50mm wheel depth is a good combination of lightweight, good aero and acceleration properties. Most cyclists will find that their sweet spot lies within this range. 

 

A triathlete on 40 (front) and 50mm (rear) section wheels. Photo: Michael Lyons

 

60-80mm (or a mixture of them)

Suitable for:

  • Riders that can average 36km/h
  •  Riders that are heavier than 70kg
  • A flatter course with favourable wind conditions

There needs to be enough weight from the riders to anchor the bike and create stability, particularly in crosswinds. They may not be a good choice for a hilly race, say in Tour De Bintan, where there is 700 to 800m of climbing over 90km. 40-50mm wheels could be a better choice for that type of race.

It is good to note that deeper wheels take a while to accelerate, it’s going to suck the juice out of your legs!

 

Disc wheel

Suitable for:

  • Riders who have great strength endurance to hold an average of 40km/h over a 40km distance
  • Riders with advanced bike handling skills 

This is a wheel for the chosen few. You need to have advanced bike handling skills and a strong core to stabilise you. 

Personally, I sold off my disc wheel because it was taking too much strength out of my legs that weren’t going to be available for the run. So for someone who does triathlons, disc wheels may not be a good choice.

If you are a pure time trialist (in a road racing scenario where you don’t have to run after the bike leg), then a disc wheel might suit you. 

 

Conclusion

You can’t buy the speed unless you’ve got the power to drive the wheel.  

To sum up, if you are someone that doesn’t have the power to drive a deep wheel, it may negatively affect your performance by draining your strength. 

Therefore, it is crucial that you match the wheels to your physiology and riding ability to get the best out of your wheels. If not, you are just wasting your money and energy.  

 

Read more: Tire widths for roadies: The wider your tires, the faster you go

 

 

Michael Lyons

Michael Lyons

Michael is an ITU Level 2 Coach, Co-owner of TriEdge, and CEO of recovery systems. He is also a race commentator for Cycling and Triathlon races.
He has training and recovery tips & tricks from his 53 years of bike riding. He has done more than 100 Ironman races and 6000 hours of athlete coaching including the use of active compression technology.
He loves to connect and bring the endurance community together.
#bringonthegains
Michael Lyons


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