So you want new wheels and you’re not sure what you want? No worries – by the time you read this entire article you’ll either be twice as confused on what you want and buy the ones that look coolest, or end up with a solid understanding on how to pick the best wheel.
What are the best wheels out there?
The round ones. There aren’t that many features to take into account when choosing the best wheel, we’ll get through all of them. Riding the wheels that are right for what you do can make all the difference between getting the maximum enjoyment out the experience and getting sick and tired of it.
Wheel width is all about the tradeoff between acceleration and speed. A taller wheel will have a higher top speed, but slower acceleration than a shorter one.
A shorter wheel will reach its top speed faster than a larger one, but that top speed is going to be less than that of the larger one.
Your own body weight and aerodynamics will also determine how fast you go too, but wheels take a big part. Somewhere around 72mm is the preferred size for downhill and freeride, though downhill wheels can go up to 80mm.
Keep in mind that when you slide you lose speed, getting that speed back with big wheels is going to be harder. A road filled with turns is going to give you less room to gain back acceleration, a new popular way to deal with this is sacrificing a bit of grip and getting harder wheels; this is perfectly fine so long as the road you ride isn’t excessively chundery.
For cruising, bigger wheels are nice since they keep have more momentum just because of their size and weight, less pushing, always nice.
Contact patch is going to be directly proportional to how much grip a wheel is going to provide you with.
Other factors contribute too, like duro, core placement and formula, we’ll talk about those later. More urethane touching the ground means more grip. On addition to that, wider contact patches are much harder to flatspot and wear down slower. Since you can’t have it all in one wheel, more grip means less slip, so wheels with large contact patches are going to kill off speed faster and are a bit more resistant to going sideways.
For downhill and slalom I’d recommend something on the higher side, +55mm of contact patch to make sure you can grip through your line.
A wheel with a smaller contact patch is going to be slidier. Less grip, easier to flaspot, oval and/or cone. The trade off for this is bigger slides and less weight. But don’t worry, skinny wheels doesnt automatically mean ice, formula and duro are going to play a part on how grippy it is.
For freeride, stick to midsized wheels – somewhere between 45mm and 55mm, though you can really use what you want; if it works for you then it’s good.
For freestyle and dancing you’ll probably want something that doesn’t weight much, so a skinnier wheel is probably the way to go.
It’s important to mention that a wheel is going to be the grippiest it can be when it still has its skin, if you want cheap lightly used wheels head over to the closest downhill race to you and buy scrubbies from pros.
Scrubs are wheels without the skin, pro riders probably won’t be using them anymore since they’re not as grippy as they can be.
Cores & core placement
Cores are what keep the urethane from deforming too much under your weight as well as keep it from overheating. Perhaps you’ve heard that awful scratchy noise some wheels make when sliding – that’s sometimes the formulas fault, other times it’s that the urethane is just not well support.
A good, large core is going to support the urethane and keep it from deforming as much; this directly translates to more acceleration. Large core are also better at distributing heat, so there’s less of a chance of you cores puking – that’s when the bearings overheat the core and it melts, it’s yucky, it’s messy, and it’s no fun if you’re going fast.
Oversized cores are starting to become more and more popular and with good reason.
Core placement is also going to affect how your slide and grip characteristics. There are three possible core configurations: centerset, sideset and offset – in order of grippiest to slidiest.
Core placement will also relate to slide release – offset being the snappiest and centerset being the most gradual.
A offset core is typically preferred for downhill since it gives you the best of both worlds, grippier than an offset but easier to kick out than a centerset.
Notable to say my downhill wheels are centerset, with this I want to say it’s all preference and I’m just giving recommendations, this guide will help you get started but it’s important to find what works best for you.
Lips refer to how the wheel is cut at the sides. There are three main types: sharp, beveled and rounded – in order of grippiest to slippiest.
Few wheels offer true sharp lips, some of them would be venom cannibals, phat specterz, sugar cubes…
While a true sharp cut is going to give you the most grip, it’s also prone to chunking. Most wheel companies will give their square profile wheels a bit of a beveled lip to prevent this effect, some notable examples would be otang kegels, all seismic wheels, divine, the list goes on.
True sharp lips are downhill specific, though they can be used for slalom too. The others can be used to different things depending on other factors.
Round lips are popular choice for anything not downhill or slalom. It’s the most resistant shape and often the most versatile. Round lipped wheels tend to be skinnier, which translates to less weight, better for dancing or freestyle. Some folk will still take sharp lipped wheels for freeride however; it’s good to have a bit of resistance in your wheels. Round lipped wheels will eventually get a square profile once you wear them down past the rounded part, to me that’s the best part of a wheel.
Beveled wheels are the in-between, best of both worlds. A diagonal cut at the lip will provide more grip than a round lip but still less than a straight cut. They’re slightly rarer than the other two type of cuts; like said, you’ll find this in a small degree in downhill wheels, most have a really tiny beveled cut. A nice cut that few people get the chance to enjoy, depending on other factors they can be used for pretty much anything.
Durometer is a measurement of how resistant the urethane is to permanent indentation – in other words, how hard it is.
Durometer is the name of the device used to measure itself as well as what’s being measured – often referred to as shore hardness. You use a durometer to measure durometer, fascinating, I know.
You can actually easily acquire a durometer if you want to test out your wheels’ duros yourself. So how does this affect wheels?
You’ve heard the terms butter and icy to describe wheel slide, a lower duro is going to be more buttery – that’s to say, it’ll offer a bit more resistance and control – while a higher duro will be icier – less resistance, less control, less loss of speed.
Durometer is not the only thing that goes into how buttery a slide is, since that has to do with the urethane’s resistance to heat change, but it plays a big role. 72a-78a is considered soft, +82a is hard, 79a-81a is the magical in-between. This is all in longboard terms, skaters and tech sliders alike have a different definition of what’s considered soft and hard. Less than 81a is where the butter is at; 82a is already a bit icy.
This is often overlooked, since no one really measures rebound, but it’s there. Rebound is how springy your wheel is, how fast it returns to its original shape after being deformed; you can check this by simply letting them fall and watch them bounce.
If you’ve ever tried old metal or wooden wheels you’ve probably noticed they feel terrible and that’s because they have absolutely no rebound.
Urethane is way softer than wood, metal and other materials they used to make wheels with, it compresses under weight. As you ride your board, the urethane at the contact point where your wheels meet the ground is compressed, as you keep rolling and that same urethane leaves the contact point has pressure relieved and snaps back to shape – this helps keep forward momentum going, since the urethane itself is pushing the wheel forward by just rolling.
You might have tried wheels that feel like rolling on a flat tire and that’s often due to very low rebound, when you combine that with a soft duro you get the worst possible wheel for anything.
It’s often the team riders for a brand that’ll tell you about wheel rebound, so ask them.
Similar looking, very different feeling
I’ll take a moment to talk about cheat wheels. Cheat wheels are wheels that are ridiculously easy to slide on, things require almost no energy to kick out and will slide forever.
They are way skinny, most of the time around 65mm-70mm, with a 78a-82a duro, and have a magical cheat formula. There’s a lot of hate towards them for that same reason. Most of them will still be buttery at slow speeds, so they’ve become very popular for freeride.
If you’re still learning most people will tell you to stay away from cheat wheels, and you should listen to them. Cheat wheels promote bad form, they’ll slide any way you want them to. Buttery freeride wheels make a much better wheel to learn on – get comfy going fast, learn your slides, and then you can get yourself some cheat wheels.
If you play guitar you’ll know it’s harder to learn with an acoustic, but once you do you can switch to electric and it’s much easier – it’s something like that.
Learning slides with cheat wheels is like learning to play on a ukulele and then switching to an acoustic guitar. It’s not impossible by any means, it’s just harder and probably easier to do it the other way around even if it means a tougher time at the beginning.
Get help and ask, especially if you’re new. Find a few people that ride the wheels you want and ask. Get different opinions, but be aware of their riding style and experience.
Remember, color coordinating a set up is useless; buy for use not for looks. Trading and buying used are not bad ideas, for the price of a new set you can get two used. As always, don’t take this sport too seriously, be safe and have fun.