A sign of a true roadie is at least one spare set of wheels. Whether it's carbon and aluminum, training and racing, or aero and climbing, the second set provides that extra edge.
Whether it’s a disc or rim brake 700c wheelset, the second, possibly third, set gives you something you don’t already have. If you’ve got deep dish aero, those are race wheels, and a box-section set is for training, a lightweight moderate depth wheelset for climbing. The best wheelset is tuned for the needs of the day.
There are three kinds of rims. Clinchers in tubed or tubeless wheelsets, and tubulars. Most modern clinchers are “tubeless ready,” meaning you can go either way, but some are tubed only. Tubulars, which take sew-up tires, are stronger and lighter, so they have fans who partake in track, cyclocross, and/or love climbing.
If you’re looking to improve performance of any road bike, carbon road bike wheels are the place to start. In most cases, the wheels are lighter than aluminum, are shaped to minimize wind resistance, and are usually built with not only bladed spokes, but also the lowest possible spoke count. The bigs have their house brands—Bontrager wheels (Trek), Cadex (Giant), HollowGram (Cannondale), Roval (Specialized)—as do component giants Campagnolo (Fulcrum), Shimano, and SRAM (Zipp). There are many boutique wheel builders with excellent product, too.
Thanks to carbon, aluminum-rimmed wheels are usually relegated to “training” status. Which is a pity, both for the history, and the advantages of aluminum. Aluminum rims usually have a shallow depth, are quite strong, and, if you’re into rim-braking, always have consistent, predictable stopping power.
Aluminum road bike rims used to be a thing. A builder would pair them with the specified hub, decide on spoke count, lacing pattern, and spokes; the resulting set would be purpose-built. DT Swiss spokes laced into the hubs of your choice and secured to Mavic rims was often the ticket. Then Mavic got into the business of wheels, and by controlling everything, could build lighter, stronger wheels. Which is largely what’s available.
The Indianapolis company probably did more to put aero wheelsets on the map than any other. Zipp’s discs, tri-spokes, and later deep-dish carbon-fiber wheels changed racing for the faster. Thanks to Fabian Cancellara taking a chance on them, Zipp proved in 2009 that carbon wheels could handle the stones of Paris-Roubaix and crush the competition. They’re still expanding wheel limits today.
ENVE, with their rims and pre-built wheels, are pushing aerodynamic, carbon-fiber wheels farther, faster, more comfortably, and with excellent stopping power. One intriguing thing they do is pair two different rim depths together to maximize benefits. For many hoop afficionados, the competition for best road wheelset comes down to a head-to-head between ENVE and Zipp.