It’s been a while since I wrote one of these. Part of the reason I waited so long was because I was intimidated to tackle products such as wheels, trucks, and boards without making a ton of assumptions. So much innovation is still happening in longboarding because everyone still has different ideas about what works and what’s just a load of hype, and we’re all constantly trying out new ideas and coming to new conclusions. I’m going to do my best in the following post to give as objective of an opinion as I can about wheels, but understand that we’re still learning–that the entire industry is still learning. Still, I’ve got this wall o’ wheels right in front of me and have access to riding tons of different boards and setups from people all over the city, and I’m a super-dork when it comes to longboard components and have done a lot of research, so I feel like I have a pretty good handle on a lot of this. I trust my own opinion. You can decide for yourself what you think!
Like the previous post on bushings, I’m going to talk about wheels in terms of their characteristics. I don’t want to get too specific talking about individual wheels; rather, I’d like to give you the tools to be able to look at a wheel, identify its characteristics, and make a fairly strong judgement on how it should handle before you make a purchase. The characteristics I am choosing are lip shape, durometer, size, core size, core position, contact patch width, contact finish, and urethane formula.
Lip Shape – When I speak of lip shape, I am referring to the shape of the edge of the wheel. This is going to be one of four shapes (until someone makes up something new). The shape of the lip mostly affects how easily the wheel will let go and slide sideways, so I’m going to list them in order from the stickiest wheel to the most slidey wheel.
- Acute Angled Lip – The lip on these wheels is flat across the bottom of the wheel, comes to a sharp point at the edge, and heads back toward the center at an acute angle on the side of the wheel. The only wheels I can think of off the top of my head that are currently in production using an acute angled lip are the 75mm Avila and its younger sibling, the 70mm Avalon, both made by 3DM. These wheels shine on the slalom course, from tight slalom all the way to super giant slalom. They stick turns as hard or harder than just about any wheel ever made. The thin edge of the wheel molds to the road surface more than any other type of wheel, providing the most possible traction. These wheels are not made to slide; the lip will likely chunk off in places if forced to do so. The Atobe Bonneville is also somewhat shaped this way, but the edge is a little less sharp and a little more round, which seems to keep the wheel from chunking during slides without giving up much, if any, traction.
- Square Lip – The square lipped wheel is among the most common type of wheels in production. The bottom of the wheel goes straight across, forms a 90 degree angle at the lip and goes straight up before heading back into the core. Some of the most common square lipped wheels include the Orangatang 4President and InHeat, the Abec11 Zigzag, BigZig, and Centrax, Seismic Hot Spot and Speed Vent, and Venom Cannibals. The square lip provides exceptional traction. When the wheel is carving through a turn, force is transferred toward the edge of the wheel, which flattens out slightly and forms a platform and sticks the turn. The advantage of a square lipped wheel over the acute angled lip is mainly longevity and the ability to break the wheel in so that it slides easily. With an acute angled lip wheel, if you try to slide it, it will likely just chunk off and mostly ruin the wheel; however, with the square lip, though there is usually a bit of a break-in period, the wheel can be essentially turned into a nice sticky wheel that’s capable of drifting with just a little bit of work. This is the type of wheel that 98% of downhill racers will be riding on any given day and for good reason. It’s a tough and reliable shape that you can count on to stick when you want it to and slip when you want it to.
- Beveled Lip – The beveled lipped wheel is shaped like a square lipped wheel, except that on one or both edges, the wheel forms a sharp 135 degree angle (half of the 90 degree turn) and then another angle to round off the 90 degrees before heading back into the core of the wheel. A great example of this is the Bustin Boca wheel, which has bevels on both sides. I haven’t found a lot of good information about beveled lips, but I’ll give you my best logical input on what the point is behind these wheels. First, the outer bevel basically forms a little bit softer of an angle when rolling over cracks, small curbs, and stones at an angle. This essentially just helps you keep from getting stuck on objects and helps keep the ride smooth. I have literally taken a shallow angle up against a NYC curb and rolled up the curb on some yellow Boca wheels. I was totally expecting to get stopped in my tracks, and when I made it, I had to go back and look at the curb again to see what happened. The curb was taller than the wheel! So how did this happen? Well, my best guess is that the soft angle formed by the bevel actually allowed the wheel to crab against the face of the curb (rather than run straight into it) and lift the board over. This certainly isn’t something you will do every day, but it is a prime example of an advantage that a beveled outer lip offers. Additionally, this is essentially a softer edge to have to wear down once you’re ready to start sliding your wheels. The inner bevel is a little harder to get a grasp on. My opinion is that an inner bevel tends to make the wheel a little bit grippier, in that because of the additional mass outside of the contact patch, when you are driving angular force down through a wheel in a turn, there is less of a tendency for the wheel to flex and change shape against the road. This could potentially add to wheels life and help keep the wheel from coning. I’d like to hear other opinions on this matter, as there doesn’t seem to be much discussion going on about it, yet companies are still creating wheels with beveled inner lips! My theory is that if two wheels made of the same urethane with the same size contact patch go head to head, the one with the beveled inner lip will be stickier and have greater rolling momentum.
- Rounded Lip – Rounded lipped curve from the contact patch up to the side. Also referred to as radiused wheels, they have the most progressive transfer from grip to slip and tend to be the most predictable when sliding. Some great slide wheels out there include the Stimulus and Durian from Orangatang, the Sidewinder from Venom, Earthwing Slide-A, Abec 11 Freeride, and loads of other wheels. Rounded lips are a somewhat classic shape and can be found all over. Like the beveled lipped wheel, rounded lips will typically roll over objects and up curbs better than a sharp-lipped wheel. They are also better for bowl and ramp riding, as they will roll over and off the coping more easily and create less hangups.
Durometer – Durometer refers to the softness of the urethane. Most wheels made for longboarding are going to have the classification of “A.” So when you see a wheel that says 78a or 90a, you will know what the “a” means. It could be a B, C, or D, but urethane this hard would typically be considered too hard for longboarding. The lower the number, the softer the wheel. I do not know of any longboard wheels that are softer than 72a. The higher number, then, the harder the wheel. Not many wheels out there are being ridden that are over 100a. I’m not sure what the Slide-A’s are, but they’re probably close to that hard.
Softer wheels will typically be more grippy. This isn’t always the case, as there are many other factors that play into grip and slip, but as a general rule, this holds true. Softer wheels also tend to ride softer, providing more cushion, and rolling over road inconsistencies more smoothly. Harder wheels, then, slide easier and are generally considered faster over super smooth surfaces. The big question is the middle ground. How soft for every day riding? How hard for a fairly smooth downhill run? This is such a subjective topic, so it’s one that I’m somewhat hesitant to chime in on, but I’ll do so anyway.
For most flat ground riding on typical (rough in some spots, smooth in some spots) surfaces, I think somewhere between 78a and 82a is ideal. Too soft, and your wheel may not have enough rebound to really be fast. Too hard, and you’ll collide into inconsistencies in the road rather roll right over them. Rebound is not the exact same thing as durometer, but they are closely related. A higher rebound urethane will be faster, as it will deform and then reform on the backside of these inconsistencies (rocks, pebbles) in the road and actually push against and away from the backside of them. This makes the wheel faster. If the wheel is too hard to ever deform, though, it is simply running into objects in your path and slowing you down.
This applies to essentially all types of riding. Rougher surfaces (like most city roads) require softer wheels to go faster, while hard and smooth surfaces (like concrete skate parks) will benefit from harder wheels that deform less.
Size – The size or diameter of the wheel primarily affects 4 things – acceleration, momentum, ability to roll over stuff, and ride height.
- Acceleration – Smaller wheels accelerate faster, whereas larger wheels accelerate slower. This is true on most levels and has mostly to do with weight. So it is possible that a smaller diameter wheel with a super wide contact patch may accelerate slower than a larger diameter wheel with a super thin contact patch.
- Momentum – Larger wheels have greater mass, and objects with greater mass carry greater momentum. This does not apply only to the diameter of the wheel but should also apply to wheels with wider contact patches/widths, as they will be greater in mass than those with less width. What this means is that while a larger wheel may be tougher to accelerate to speed, a larger wheel will hold speed while coasting longer than a smaller wheel. This is especially useful in some downhill courses when the hill starts off steep and then flattens out at some point. You will be able to hold a tuck for a longer period of time before resorting to pushing, or you may carry more speed going into the next steep section.
- Ability to roll over stuff – Children’s toes, potholes, stones, trash, and small curbs stand much less of a match for large diameter wheels than those with a small diameter. However large the object is, assuming it is smaller than half the size of the wheel, if a large wheel rolls over this object, it will, to a lesser extent, smash straight into the object and instead roll over it (if you’re lucky).
- Ride height – A larger diameter wheel will ride higher than a smaller wheel, all other things being equal. The difference is often very little, but a quarter of an inch will be a noticeable difference for most people. This makes a difference in how the board sticks to the road vs. slides, and it also makes a difference to the pusher, though it is totally up for debate how ride height affects performance.
- accelerate faster, due to decreased mass.
- slide smoother and lose traction earlier, due to a thinner patch of urethane between the core and the road. The ‘thane flexes less and generally will scrub across the road rather than chatter.
- decelerate faster, due to less mass and, in turn, inertia.
- accelerate slower, due to increased mass (all other things being equal).
- hold speed longer, due to increased mass/intertia
- feel smoother over rough pavement. More ‘thane means the wheel can flex more over bumps, cracks, stones, toes, etc.
- have more grip, because there is more urethane flexing and grabbing at the road.