Cycling is an incredible sport. It not only gets you out on the roads and trails with like-minded people, but it also helps you stay in shape. One of the best aspects of cycling is all the available bikes and parts you can upgrade them with.
In recent years we have seen a lot of retro bike questions. One of the most popular is, “will modern wheels fit on classic bikes?”.
In this article, we are going to discuss everything you need to know about modern wheels and retrofitting them to classic bikes.
Why would you want modern wheels on a classic bike?
Modern wheels are so much better than the wheels you used to get on classic bikes. Here are the advantages of using modern wheels over using classic wheels:
The first advantage is having different axles. Instead of using bolts, they use quick-release skewers, which make getting the wheels out much easier.
Modern wheels are lighter, wider, more aerodynamic, and much better internally than older wheels.
They are more durable
New wheels are much stronger than older wheels. When I first started cycling, I got told to carry a spoke key to true wheels on the go as they bend easily. You wouldn’t do this on new wheels as they are so strong already.
Size and shape
Modern wheels, although sharing a very similar diameter, are much wider. This means they fit modern tires much better, which can go a long way to improving handling.
Modern wheels don’t just perform better, but they look much better too. You have deeper aerodynamic profiles and much cooler designs compared to older wheelsets.
Are Modern Wheels Compatible on Old Bikes?
Modern wheels can be used on older bikes, but it is more complex than just throwing them on and them working. It would be best if you converted your bike to use them to make them work properly and efficiently.
Here are the problems you will face and the solutions to fix them:
Rear Wheel Spacing
The first problem you will come across is the rear wheel spacing. Typically on older bikes, they are spaced 126mm between the two rear stays. On modern bikes, they are 130mm. Although 4mm doesn’t sound like a huge amount of difference, it is.
You have a few options here. You can get a welder to cut and expand the frame outwards. Although the most expensive and time consuming, it’s the best way.
Secondly, you can bend the frame out using a piece of threaded rod, which is the route many go down. Finally, you can force it, which we don’t recommend.
Then we have the axle type. On classic wheels, you either have a bolted axle or a quick release. On very modern wheels, you generally have thru-axles that are 12mm or 15mm.
This isn’t generally an issue, as most older bikes are ok with wheels with the quick-release system. You are going to want to avoid a thru-axle wheelset, as these won’t work generally.
Typically most modern bike brands are going over to disc brakes now, and wheel manufacturers are following this route. Regarding classic bikes, you generally have rim brakes that don’t offer the same power as discs and are not as good in poor conditions.
When picking a set of wheels to add to a classic bike, you are going to want to ensure they are the correct braking type. You cannot use disc wheels with rim brakes, or it can end up damaging the wheels.
Another consideration you will need to think about is the wheel size. Many classic bikes use smaller wheels, such as 26”. In more modern times, we generally use 700c or 29” wheels instead.
When you come to sourcing wheels for a classic bike, you will need to ensure they are the same size or very close. The consideration is more for mountain bikes than road bikes.
Depending on the age of the current gearing on your bike, this could limit you when it comes to using modern wheels. A good example is a 5-speed cassette that won’t fit on a 7-speed freehub as they attach in different ways.
If you plan to upgrade to modern wheels, consider upgrading the gearing to at least a 7-speed cassette. This could be an added cost, but who doesn’t love more gears and better wheels on their bike?
Is it worth upgrading to newer wheels?
In our opinion, it is 100% worth upgrading to newer wheels. They offer such a better cycling experience. They are lighter, faster, stronger, and even look much better. You will also find more tire choices, and spares will be readily available.
The only drawback you will find when it comes to modern wheels on classic bikes is that they don’t always fit with the style of the bike. Also, you will find you will need to make some modifications to the bike to ensure they work.
A Final Note
When it comes to using modern wheels on a classic bike, it can be challenging to make the changeover. It is completely worth doing, and we highly recommend making the change, as there are just so many advantages to modern wheels.
We also recommend considering the upgrade to modern brakes and gearing too.
Robbie Ferri has spent years working in a bike shop, has worked with industry leading brands on product creation, has been a semi pro athlete, and is a fully qualified strength and conditioning coach. He has broken World Records, bikepacked all over the World and raced ultra distance at a top-level.