Longboards are strongly associated with soft wheels for good reason. Unless you are riding on the smooth and seamless concrete of a skatepark, or grinding ledges and handrails, soft wheels will roll faster, grip better, and give you more easily controlled slides than hard wheels. This guide will focus on the wide variety of versatile soft longboard wheels so you can find a set of wheels with the size, shape, durometer, core placement, and urethane characteristics that are perfect for you!
The first decision you need to make when choosing longboard wheels is what size you want. Most longboard wheels are between 64-80mm in diameter with 70mm being the most common size. In general, larger wheels accelerate slower but have a higher top speed and will more easily roll over cracks and debris. Smaller wheels will fit on more setups and accelerate faster but have a slower top speed.
The most important thing to consider when choosing wheel size is whether they will fit on your setup without causing wheelbite. Reverse kingpin trucks are taller and will give you more wheel clearance than standard kingpin trucks. If your deck has large cut outs then you should be able fit any size wheel. However, if your board has small cut outs or none at all, you may need to add a ¼'' riser pad or more to accommodate wheels that are larger than 70mm. 65mm wheels and a ¼'' riser pad work great for turning a park deck into an all city cruiser.
The lip of a wheel refers to the outer edges of its contact patch. The shape of the wheel's lips will tell you a lot about the way it rides. Sharp or thick square lips will make the wheel more grippy, while rounded lips allow the wheel to break traction more easily and offer smoother transitions from grip to slip. For these reasons, sharp lipped wheels are generally preferred for downhill and round lipped wheels are generally preferred for freeride.
If you are using your board for carving or transportation then lip style is less important. However, if you do not plan to slide your wheels, then square lip wheels are a good option because you will be able to carve deeper and corner tighter without worrying about losing traction.
The contact patch of a wheel is the rounded surface which rolls on or makes contact with the ground. Longboard wheels have contact patches that range from of 29-70mm though most wheels fall somewhere in the middle between 38-55mm. A wider contact patch gives a wheel more grip and is generally preferred for downhill while a narrower contact patch gives the wheel less grip and is generally preferred for freeride. While sliding, a wider contact patch will slow you down quicker and give you more control, but will be harder to initiate and have a more abrupt transition from grip to slip.
Stone ground contact patches have become very popular for freeride wheels in recent years. When brand new wheels come out of their molds, they have a shiny coating on their surface which is commonly referred to as its skin or mold release. The wheel's skin is very grippy and makes the wheels very difficult to slide. It usually takes quite a few slides to break in or wear the skins off so that they slide quiet and smooth. For this reason many manufacturers now stone grind the skins off the contact patches of their round lipped freeride wheels so that they slide great right out of the package. Stone ground wheels are highly recommended for beginners who want to learn how to slide.
The durometer rating of a wheel assesses its hardness. Most longboard wheels have a durometer from 75-88a, making them very soft in comparison to typical skateboard wheels which usually have durometer ratings of 90-101a. In general, lower durometer longboard wheels have more grip but roll slower while higher durometer longboard wheels have less grip but roll faster. The most popular durometers for nearly all types of longboarding are 78a and 80a because they have a happy medium of grip, roll speed, and slide-ability.
Durometer also affects slide characteristics. Harder wheels (83-88a) will typically slide faster, slow you down less, and have a tendency to glide across the surface of the road. Softer wheels (75-80a) will typically slide slower, slow you down faster, and have a tendency to smear urethane across the surface of the road. Wheels with a soft smeary slide are often described as buttery and wear quickly but are very easy to control. Softer wheels commonly leave thick thane lines as the wheels urethane is transferred from the wheel to the road.
Durometer is a good general guide to use for narrowing down your longboard wheel choices, but not all 78a wheels preform the same. A wheel's urethane formula dictates just as much about the way the wheel performs.
Every urethane formula is different and has varying degrees of grip, durability, and slide-ability. The best way to learn the characteristics of a urethane formula is to try several types and get a feel for your own preferences. Luckily, many companies have categorized their different formulas as freeride or downhill. In general, freeride formulas will slide easier and faster while providing less grip and durability than downhill formulas.
For example, Sector 9 Slide Formula Butterball wheels are the same durometer as Sector 9 80a Race Formula. However, Race Formula wheels are great for downhill because they roll faster and have more grip, while Butterball wheels are favorites for freeride because they are easy to initiate and have fast, quiet slides. Both formulas come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
There are three categories of core placement that are common among longboard wheels: centerset, offset, and sideset. Each style will give you slightly different performance and slide characteristics.
Centerset wheels have cores that are placed directly in the center of the wheel, equidistant to the outer edge of each lip. Of the three, this core placement style gives the most amount of grip because it creates a very large inner lip. Another advantage of center set wheels is that they can be flipped inside out to promote even wear and a longer lifespan. For this reason, many freeride wheels have centerset cores paired with small contact patches and round lips.
If you want a very grippy centerset wheel with a wide contact patch, look no further than the Hawgs Biggie Hawgs wheels. These epic downhill wheels are as wide as they are tall but still manage to break out for clean pre-drifts when needed.
Sideset wheels have cores that are directly aligned with the inner lip of the wheel. This core placement style has the least amount of grip because it allows little to no inner lip. Sideset wheels allow smooth slides to be easily initiated with little required force. However, their lack of grip also makes them harder to control while sliding. A sideset core also causes the inner lip to wear much faster than the outer lip which can result in severe coning. Despite their drawbacks, sideset wheels are still very popular for freeride, and a great choice for beginners who are learning to break traction on their longboards.
Offset wheels have cores that are placed somewhere between centerset and sideset. By blending the characteristics of the previous two core placements, offset wheels give the rider the best of both worlds. Most downhill wheels and many freeride wheels are offset because they give you a more forgiving slide initiation and hookup while still providing ample grip and control in the slide.
If you're looking for extreme grip, you can flip your offset wheels inside out. This can give you the most amount of grip, but once the wheels start sliding, they can be harder to control and give a more abrupt hookup.
The size, shape, and composition of the core of a wheel also plays a large role in the way it performs.
Adding a larger diameter core will make will make a wheel roll faster, which is a great benefit for transportation, freeride, and downhill. Wider cores help support the urethane better which makes the wheel more resilient to ovaling and promotes even wear. Using a harder material in a core will also improve roll speed and help prevent deformation of the urethane during slides to promote even wear. However, these qualities can also make the wheel slide faster. Slowing down quickly is a must for downhill racing, so manufacturers must be very careful about the size and composition of the cores they use.
RAD wheels are a prime example of a wheel that has been designed from the core out with all these factors in mind. They are one of the most sought after wheels because of their strong grip, fast roll speed, and slow, even wear.
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