What To Look For
Different types of bicycles have different sizes and types of wheels. Available wheels differ in rim diameter, rim depth, rim width, rim material, spoke count, spoke material, weight, braking capabilities, over lock-nut diameter (OLD), tire mounting, axle connection mechanism, cog type and cog capacity. These characteristics must be determined prior to choosing a bicycle wheel. Characteristics such as braking capabilities and OLD are dependent upon the bicycle, while others such as rim depth and spoke count are dependent on riding conditions and rider preferences.
Selecting the correct wheel can be overwhelming with so many options to choose from. Making a mistake can be a minor inconvenience, like getting the spoke count wrong, or at worst could mean the wheel will not work with the bike. For example, a 26-inch wheel will not work on a bike meant for 700c wheels. If a 135mm OLD wheel is selected for a bike with 120mm spacing, it will not fit correctly. Mistakes that are more of an inconvenience would include selecting deep rims for a ride in crosswind, or selecting a tubular rim if you really wanted clincher. Check with a mechanic if anything is unclear about your options.
Where To Buy
A local bike shop with wheel building services is a good place to buy a wheel. Talk to a wheel building professional about wheel use, riding style, material and weight preferences, and any other questions you might have. A hand-built wheel, to personal specifications, can be built or a pre-built wheel can be recommended. Most wheels need periodic maintenance, so purchasing through a shop can lead to maintenance package deals.
Prebuilt, high-end racing wheels can cost upward of $6,000, but expect to pay $300 to $600 for a decent set of wheels as of March 2010. Cheap replacement wheels start around $25 each but lack quality craftsmanship. Hand-built wheels can be more expensive but usually are more durable and will last longer. Most wheel companies offer factory warranties to protect against defects.
Tires are the obvious accessories to wheels. They come in even more variety than wheels meeting specific purposes and specifications. Some tires protect better against punctures, while others are designed to be light and low friction. Choose a tire specific to the selected wheel. Confirm the size of the tire matches the diameter of the rim and confirm the width of the tire will fit the bicycle frame. Confirm the mounting type matches, and the tread does not interfere with the braking system.
Take the time to seriously consider the use and future use of the selected wheel or wheel set. Is this a racing wheel set, training wheel set or temporary replacement wheel? Is lightweight more important than durability? Will you want to upgrade later? These questions are important and should be discussed with a wheel building professional.