After talking about gravel tires, it is natural to talk about the best gravel wheels to tackle the Tuscany Trail or similar routes. So let's see the features and how to choose the right wheels for our bike.
If initially cyclocross or mtb-derived wheels were used with the evolution of the gravel sector, there are more and more proposals for specific wheels, for all tastes and for all budgets. In this large amount of proposals there are valid wheels and others less valid, wheels suitable for our use and others not suitable, many standards and very different choices by manufacturers. In this article we try to clarify, examine the features, standards and useful upgrades, assuming that there is no perfect wheel for everyone, but there is the right wheel for everyone.
As we saw in the article on gravel tires, the current dimensions of gravel wheels are essentially two: 650b and 700c. These dimensions vary from the bike model and offer different qualities, a 700c wheel will be, in general, faster and less comfortable, vice versa a 650b wheel. This is mainly due to the difference in the tire section mounted. There is no better size than the other, they simply offer different strengths and weaknesses. Many bikes today can mount both sizes.
In any case, even on 700c wheels, the trend is to mount increasingly voluminous tires, so as to lower operating pressures and increase grip and comfort. For this, as we will see shortly, wheels designed to accommodate wider tires are needed.
Virtually all gravel bikes have hubs in the measure of 142×12 (standard also used in mtb) at the rear and 100×12 at the front. This allows you to use hubs designed for off-road use and very resistant. The through axle in wheels with disc brakes is essential, both to guarantee the rigidity of the assembly and to ensure correct flatness between the disc and the brake caliper.
Width of the internal channel
However, to mount bulky tires it is necessary to have the right width of the inner rim channel. In fact, if initially road or cyclocross wheels with 17-21mm internal channel were used, it was quickly realized that a rim with these dimensions is not suitable for use tires of 34-35mm and up. In fact, a “mushroom” shape of the tire is created which, once cornering, tends to fold on itself and not have the right support, thus losing precision and often grip.
Currently the gravel rims are being directed to widths of about 24-25mm, which thus allow to give a large support to the rubber shoulder and guarantee grip and driving precision. Increasing the section of the rim also further increases the overall volume of air inside the tire, thus increasing comfort for the same tire size.
Some wheels have even greater widths, which however risk distorting the profile of the tires and therefore affect their performance. Current tires are in fact optimized for this size. Unless you want to fit mtb tires with tires over 2.20 “, provided they have enough space in the frame.
Assembled wheels or integrated system
The difference between wheels assembled with various components and wheels made with components designed to work together is great. The wheels are in fact a complex system in which every single component must work in harmony with the others and in a balanced way to bring out the best in each one. It is a balance of spokes, hubs, rims and nipples and each component must be suitable for all the others.
Here we see the difference between good wheels and very good wheels. Companies that spend years designing a wheel system rather than taking parts here and there and assembling wheels get much better products, both in terms of performance and reliability.
The wheels are in fact among the most stressed components of our bicycles and, if in this system, everything is not balanced, it takes very little to make them break, ruining the ride or maybe even the trip.
In fact, a wheel system designed as a whole requires that every single component is made to work in a uniform way, whether pedaling, braking or cornering, therefore with very different stresses. Spoking is the basis for the transmission of forces to the rim and consequently to the tire and the ground, and a rim with a non-optimized spoking is more unbalanced in terms of tension, just think that a normal rear wheel has a transmission side tension of about 110 kgf and disc side of about 60 kgf, but which must work well both when braking and when pedaling. In fact, guess which side is the most frequent breakage of the spokes? The exact left. In the wheel systems conceived as a whole, in fact, we find distinct spokes for each side of the wheels, according to the task it has to perform and the forces to which it is subjected, this allows to increase reliability and performance.
Tubeless or non-tubeless?
The advantages of tubeless tires are undoubted: protection from punctures, lower inflation pressure with consequent comfort, better rolling (both on asphalt and dirt), weight savings and all this would already be enough to make you change your mind. Fortunately, most wheels at the moment can accommodate both tubeless and inner tubes. Most of these come already taped and including tubeless valves for easy and immediate conversion if desired. Unfortunately some wheels are not tubeless ready and you need to be careful when buying if you want to use this configuration, not all non-tubeless wheels are convertible, this largely depends on how the rim is built. Therefore it is always better to rely on openly tubeless ready wheels so as to be sure of being able to use both systems.
The weight of the wheels
The weight of the wheels is an important factor, even if on a gravel bike it has to go hand in hand with resistance and reliability more than on the road bike. It is therefore a question of finding the right compromise. Here the difference between assembled wheels and an integrated wheel system is relevant again, in the second case in fact the various components are also optimized in relation to weight: what is needed is there and what is not needed is removed. There are therefore rims with different profiles to increase the resistance near the nipples, optimized spokes, balancing of the rim in relation to the welding point etc.
Obviously the point of the wheel where the weight is felt most is that of the rim, so on the hubs you can go to bring more material where it is needed and to use larger ones to better optimize the load.
So remember to look for wheels that are light but that are light in the right places. 1700/1800 g aluminum gravel wheels are great and will get us to the bottom of every trip.
Carbon deserves a separate discussion, which is probably intended only as an excellent material for weight saving. In reality, in addition to weight savings, carbon wheels have other characteristics, first of all the greater rigidity compared to an aluminum wheel. The increased stiffness does not necessarily mean an improvement and indeed on a gravel bike it could even be counterproductive. Not all carbon wheels are the same and luckily many manufacturers have realized the need for other characteristics than stiffness, in fact, if used correctly, carbon helps to dampen vibrations a lot and this is undoubtedly a feature to look for in a gravel wheel. So if you want to buy carbon wheels, do it from manufacturers who know what they do and who have in mind the features necessary for a gravel wheel, such as reliability and vibration damping.
Our tip for the Tuscany Trail
We liked them because they are born as an integrated system, they are wheels optimized in every respect. They are available with Shimano 11sp body, Sram XDR and the new Campagnolo N3w standard to mount the Ekar group at 13s. The bearings are the classic cones and balls, very reliable and easy to adjust and maintain. They are tubeless ready, already taped and equipped with a tubeless valve. The mounting of the tires was quick and easy, as was the trailing, done with a simple workshop pump.
The thing we liked the most was undoubtedly the sensation of smoothness and support that the wheels give in every situation. They are not a featherweight but once assembled they do not make themselves felt and they spin smoothly. They are always precise and predictable even on rough terrain and when cornering on dirt. The particular 2: 1 spoking gives these wheels a nice feeling both when pushing on the pedals and when braking hard. In short, reliable wheels with an excellent quality / price ratio that give great pleasure once in the saddle!