Longboard Wheel Guide
Everybody loves wheels… you can never have enough. With more choice than ever before out there, and myths all over the internet, the world of wheels is a little confusing. Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve learned over the years…
Skateboard and longboard wheels are made from the petrochemical called Polyurethane. It’s an awesome material which is bouncy, grippy, and comes in all sorts of cool colours. Back in the day they used to be made from rubber, UHWMPE plastics (like sliding pucks), clay or even metal – thankfully things have moved on since then…
Urethane rebound, durometer ratings, grip and speed over different surfaces
Urethane formulas, slide and grip
Flatspots, Coning and Egging
Progressive Grip and why you need it
What wheels are best for (insert skating style here)?
The profile of a wheel (as you look at it from the front or back) affects the way a wheel rides way more than you may realise. The three things to consider are Diameter, Contact Patch and Edges.
The diameter or size of a wheel is pretty important. In conventional wisdom, larger = faster and smaller = quicker acceleration. This is because smaller wheels have less inertia to overcome to get spinning and larger wheels have a higher road speed for the same rotational speed. This makes larger wheels faster as friction losses from your bearings increase with rotational speed so there is less drag from your bearings etc at any given road speed. There is, however, more to it for us longboarders.
The main difference you will notice between bigger and smaller wheels is that you can roll much faster over rough surfaces when you are on bigger wheels, and a few mm can make all the difference. This has to do with the radius of curvature of the outside of the wheel compared to the obstacles you are trying to roll over (rough surfaces looks like thousands of little rocks to something as small as a skate wheel). The more gentle the curve the larger stuff you can handle. This sort of stuff is not a concern to shortboarders who tend to stick to perfectly smooth skate parks and paved areas etc. Wheels go up to 101mm using regular urethane, but there are issues of wheelbite with low decks and turny trucks.
The other thing that comes into play is weight. Obviously a heavier (bigger) wheel will roll better – but it will also have more inertia whilst going sideways. What this actually means is larger wheels are generally harder to break grip and harder to control whilst sliding – hence most freeride wheels are around the 70mm mark, or have huge vented cores to save weight. There’s a balanace to be struck with having enough urethane on the core to give you a long lasting wheel, and a wheel size that isn’t too sluggish sideways.
The contact patch is the width of the wheel that contacts the ground when you’re riding. The wider the contact patch the more grip and less progressive the slide, but the less likely you are to get flatspots. Narrow wheels are looser and slidier, but usually wear down faster and flatspot/egg easier as there is the same weight over a smaller area of wheel – so more pressure on the urethane.
The edges or lips of the wheel affect how it slides sideways across the road and how much grip it has. There are three kinds of edges:
- Square edgeA square or sharp edge profile wheel tends to be quite unprogressive and very grippy. They’re best for slalom and fast carving, where you need as much grip as you can get. They have so much grip becuase the square “lips” of the wheel and distort over bumps in the road surface. After a bit of carving or drifting you will “blow” the edges of your wheels out – you’ll round those square lips off. Wheel designs that rely on their lips to create grip will suddenly become much slidier at this point.
A square edged Race Wheel.
- Bevelled edgeHalfway between radiussed and square edges is a bevelled edge – where the wheel is machined at an angle to the rest of the wheel. It’s not as grippy as a square edge, but less progessive than a radiussed edge. It does, however, stay the same shape as you wear it down.
- A radiused edge is what you need for sliding and hard carving. As the wheel is shaped with a nice circular edge it travels across the road sideways much better than a square or bevelled wheel, but it also lets go a bit earlier and more progressively. This makes it easy to loose speed by drifting the board sideways or sliding at slower speeds, but not so good if you need loads of grip. A bigger radius will last longer as the wheel wears down, and will be less grippy than a smaller radius.
A double-radiused “freeride” wheel.
Most quality wheels out there have a plastic core that the bearings sit in. The core spreads the heat through the wheel and stops the bearings (which get super hot at speed) melting the Urethane. It is VERY BAD when this happens – melting (or “puking”) a wheel can be very dangerous! Exposed cores work better for heat dispensation than internal cores. Keep your bearings clean and lubed…
You don’t want this to happen…
The core also helps to maintain the cirular integrity of the wheel, which helps to prevent egging and flatspots. A wheel with a big core is more likely to stay spinning when sliding sideways, so it’ll stay round for much longer than a coreless wheel. Cored wheels are also faster on smooth surfaces, as there is less urethane to compress and rob you of your speed – but this means that large-cored soft wheels can be quite slow over rougher surfaces.
The position of the core in the wheel also makes a big difference to how the wheel grips, slides and wears.
- Centerset coresWhere the core is in the middle of the wheel as you look down on it. This has the advantage of making the wheel “flipable” should you start to cone your wheels, or want to adjust the ride characteristics – the Lush Acid Drop works on this principle. Centerset wheels also wear down slowly, as the load (your weight!) is spread evenly across the width of the wheel. However, a centerset core position is not the most efficient design for creating grip, or producing a good slide. Recently some manufacturers have tried to compensate for this by creating super wide shapes with centerset wheels, for maximum grip and a long life on rough roads.
- Backset coresWhere the core is in flush with the back of the wheel. This creates a very slidey, progresive wheel, as the inside edge of the contact patch (the bit that does all the work) is very supported. If you want a freeride wheel, we think backset is the way to go. The disadvantage is that they will cone faster.
- Sideset coresWhere the core is in between the back edge and the center. The maximum grip point of the wheel shape is usually somewhere between the inside edge and center of the wheel – so some of the grippiest wheels available are sideset. Exact core positioning to create maximum grip is a black art, and many other factors (lip thickness, inner edge profile, contact patch width etc) come into play when creating maximum grip.
Skate wheels have come a long way since the steel or clay wheels of the past. Anyone who has ridden both these and modern urethane wheels will vouch for the increased speed, better grip and overall improved ride quality of urethane wheels. This is mainly down to the ability of urethane wheels to rebound, ie return to their original shape quickly after being distorted. Modern urethane is signifcantly “higher rebound” than older urethane – you can test the rebound or a wheel by dropping it on the floor and seeing how high it bounces.
This quality is used to minimise the rolling resistance of the wheel. When you put your weight on the board, the wheels compress slightly at the leading edge as the wheel rolls on to the road, and then as the wheel roll on the back edge rebounds pushing against the road and returning the energy used to compress the wheel in to forward momentum. If your wheels were too soft they would not rebound fast enough and this energy would be lost, if they were too hard the road surface distorts slightly and tarmac rebounds very slowly, again wasting the energy. The theory is something has got to give somewhere so you might as well try to minimise the energy losses. Longboard wheels tend to be around 78-85a durometer (higher numbers = harder wheels) whereas shortboard wheels are often around 99-101a. This is because shortboards are used on very hard, smooth surfaces where harder wheels are faster.
All this is also tied in with how much grip a wheel has over different surfaces. Generally speaking, the rougher the surface, the less grip you have. On a rough surface a hard wheel will be much less grippy than a soft wheel, as the soft wheel will compress over all the tiny bumps in the road surface whereas a hard wheel won’t. However, on a really smooth surface (like a concrete skatepark), hard wheels will actually have more grip than soft wheels – but when they slide it’ll be a sudden snap and they’ll go forever, whereas soft wheels will be much more progressive.
For longboard applications, where you are on rough roads a lot of the time, a softer wheel (75a) will be grippier, with a “grabby” slide, and a harder wheel (85a) will be slidier but also can be hard to control and bring back into grip. Around the middle (80-82a) is the best balance for most longboard wheels.
Also coming into play in all of this is the Urethane Formula. Different wheel manufacturers use different formulas (chemical composition) for their urethane. What many longboarders are only just starting to understand is how much of an effect this has on the way a wheel behaves. Cult Death and Gamma Rays, for instance, are the same shape and durometer rating (80a), but the Gamma is quite a lot grippier than the Death Ray, thanks to the use of a different urethane formula. Abec11/Retro and Seismic also use different chemistry in their wheel lineups to produce similar effects. Chemical composition is usually a trade off between different wheel characteristics, for instance a high-rebound wheel is usually less progressive sideways, whereas to produce a formula that slides well often means sacrificing roll speed. How does this affect you? Try lots of different brands until you find a urethane that you like – and rememeber that you might not want the same urethane for all applications.
The dreaded flatspot happens when you slide a wheel sideways, it stops spinning and one area of it starts to wear down faster than the rest of the wheel. You know when you’ve got one because you’ll come out of a slide and your board will make a noise like a motorbike. If the wheel is a softer duro (>88a or so), the flatspot will be much less pronounced – so the wheel will become egg shaped. Flatspots and egged wheels slow you down, cause crazy leg-detroying vibrations at speed, and can chuck you off if they get too bad! You can avoid them by not holding your board fully sideways in a slide (powerslides and laybacks are notorious for flatspots), and rotating and swapping your wheels over sometimes helps. If you do start to flatspot or egg a wheel, it is usually possible to slide the flatspot out by doing lots of fast coleman slides, making sure that you wind the board around rather than holding it sideways to keep the wheels moving and promote even wear.
This one isn’t round anymore…
Coning wheels happens once you really get into the sliding and carving thing. The inside of the wheel wears down as you put much more pressure on it when pushing the wheel sideways. Most people find that they will put more pressure on certain wheels – for instance your front heelside wheel usually takes a lot of abuse. Once you start to cone your wheels, try swapping them round your deck to keep them all wearing evenly. A good slide or drifting session is usually enough to get a bit of a cone on, so always have a skate tool handy for a quick wheel switch.
Used to be 72mm…
This is where the wheels hit the deck. It can be very bad as the wheel can stop, throwing you off the nose. Wheel wells and cutouts help a fair bit, but you can also solve it by switching to smaller wheels, putting risers on or tightening your trucks.
A wheel is progessive if it looses grip gradually. A non-progressive wheel will grip for ages, then let go into a slide suddenly. Progressive wheels tend to be more predictable over a variety of surfaces, as they’re always sliding sideways a little bit, whereas unprogessive wheels are usually a bit grippier. The ultimate longboard wheel would grip for ages and still slide predictably. Here at Lush we put a lot on progressive, predictable wheels, and recommend that you look for this characteristic above all others when choosing your next set – you’ll be safer, learn stuff faster, and have a lot more fun.
Speedcheck into a corner – balancing on the edge of grip, a progressive wheel makes this a lot easier.
We get a LOT of emails asking us what wheels are best for sliding, gripping, carving… etc. It is very hard to lay down exect rules on what works best to who, but here are some pointers:
- Sliding and freeridingSlide/freeride wheels need to be loose, with a predictable hook up/slide, strong, and cheap – cos like it or not, they aren’t going to last long with all that abuse. Look for narrow contact patch and width, strong core, harder duro (though there are some excellent 80a slide wheels out there), radiused edges, 65-72mm diameter, backset for a good slide or centerset for flippable wheels, and a good price! Super expensive high end urethane is wasted on slide and freeride wheels in many situations – often a good slide wheel is made from a urethane that breaks up fast, creating an ultra smooth slide.
- DownhillDownhill is all about grip and control. Look for a predictable slide, square, flexy lips for grip, wide contact patch, 70mm-80mm diamater, sideset, and a premium urethane. Downhill wheels are generally more expensive – they’re bigger and often make use of high-end advanced urethane, where the manufacturer is pushing for maximum grip AND a controlled slide – the holy grail of downhill wheels.
- SlalomYou want to know everything about wheels – talk to a slalom racer! Slalom is very demanding on wheels and many shapes are on the forefront of wheel design. Look for a small diameter (65-7mm ish) for quick acceleration, wide contact patch, sideset core and square lips for grip, and high-spec urethane.
Pretty much a regular skate wheel will do the job here – super hard duros, radiussed edges, centerset core, small diameter and narrow width, and a strong core will help prevent flatspots that are associated with harder wheels. Bigger wheels for transitions and speed, smaller, lighter lower wheels for flips and tech. There are some very advanced urethanes out there these days… try out as much as you can.
- Long Distance/CommutingThe intricities of wheel shape are less important here – all you really need is a high rebound formula, for a good roll speed. Radiussed edges will help you roll over rough surfaces, and a large diameter will create a wheel that rolls for a long time. However if you want a wheel for nipping around town, or a wheel that pumps well – smaller could be a better shout as they’ll accererate quicker. Narrower contact patches will create less friction, but you will also loose grip – bad if you want to get your long distance pump on. You want a high-spec urethane so be prepared to spend some dollar if you’re serious.
Remember – there’s not hard and fast rules for what wheel is best for what style of skating. There’s a lot going on in your wheels, so it pays to try loads of different stuff out and see what works for you. Wheels are not expensive, and they are disposable!