Shimano makes a great wheel for a low price
Shimano R500 is an often overlooked wheelset. Officially designated as the Shimano WH-R500, this wheelset is geared to be inexpensive, while still holding up to the Shimano heritage.
The Shimano WH-R500 is compatible with 8-speed, 9-speed, and 10-speed cassettes, making it an extremely versatile wheel. It also has 20 front spokes, and 24 rear. That is enough spokes to support even a heavy rider while still maintaining the aerodynamic advantage of a lower-spoked wheel.
The Shimano R500 wheelset weighs about 1870 grams, which is heavier than both the Mavic Aksium at 1795 grams ($250), and the Easton EA50 at 1785 grams ($160).
Personally, I've never been a huge fan of Shimano Wheels. While I don't feel Shimano makes bad wheels, I've just always felt that, for the most part, companies like Mavic, Zipp and Eastonn have developed more competitive wheels for an inexpensive price.
That being said, I do like the Shimano R500 wheelset – because of the price. Let's face it, as a company with strong roots in Japanese workmanship, Shimano produces a majority of high-end bicycle parts on the market. They also stand behind their products. By producing the Shimano R500 wheelset at a price under $150 they extend that quality craftsmanship down to even the entry-level road rider.
The Shimano R500 is not included on many introductory road bikes. In my opinion, that is a pity, because they are a much better product than many of the wheels bike manufacturers currently include. Instead, the cycling industry typically uses off-brand Xero wheels or a wheel of similar quality made in house (Such as the Bontrager).
Sure, I've seen customer's ride thousands of miles on these off-the-shelf configurations. But in a lot of cases, these are heavier riders, who are entering the sport to gain physical fitness and these stock options are not durable enough to support these new customers. Ultimately these off-the-shelf low-end lines such as the entry-level Xero and the Bontrager brand wheels do not hold up as well as the Shimano R500 would in the same situation.
I should make sure I add a little caveat here. While the Shimano R500 wheels are not a bad choice for a rider under 200 pounds, At 210 pounds or more I would recommend spending the extra money for a Shimano 105-level wheel. (or something like the Mavic CXP33). The Shimano R500 will hold up to most riders, but at the heavier weights you might have to replace spokes more often. (Xero's on the other hand, specialize in giving completely out in those situations.)
Switching to a wheelset of the caliber of the Shimano R500 would greatly enhance these customer's initial experience.
Frankly, the Shimano R500 is not priced significantly more than these off-the-shelf counterparts. A quick scan at popular online bike stores has the Shimano R500 wheelset listed at $139.98. Even better are the online auctions. I've found that on eBay a used Shimano R500 wheelset is even more competitive, often selling for less than $90.
For my experience, I bought a pair of Shimano R500 wheels at the start of the criterium season the other year. My current wheelset was the Mavic Equipe. While the Equipe is not a super-expensive wheelset, I felt the $80 investment in a pair of “Crit Wheels” still made sense to help protect my $350 investment in the Mavic Equipe's. It also allowed me to set back my Equipe's as a back-up pair in the likely event of a flat (or crash).
The Shimano R500 wheelset handled very well on the race course. Sure, they were a little heavy, and I did not feel that the cassette spun quite as smoothly as my Mavic's. But in a race situation where everyone brakes for the corners and then sprints to 30 mph 5 times (or more) per lap, these wheels continually responded.
One thing I that impressed me about the Shimano R500 wheelset is how well they responded. I'm bad about over-torquing wheels. I was one of those kids that trained hard with the cheap products I had. On more than one occasion I've warped wheels while trying to sprint because they were just too cheap to hold up to the strain. The Shimano R500's held up amazingly well, and were difficult to warp.
I also rode the Shimano R500 wheelset quite a bit in the rain and early spring. Once again, I just wanted to protect my nicer wheels from the higher likelihood of crashes and road grime, and the Shimano R500 wheelset fit the bill perfectly.
The Shimano R500 wheelset also is highly reparable. By using standard, stainless steel spokes, they are able to be trued or replaced easily by any bicycle shop or home bicycle mechanic. This can be an advantage over products such as the Mavic wheels that use a bladed spoke that most hobby mechanics should leave alone, and may even need to require special ordering if they ever need replacement. Additionally it uses a deeper, 24mm rim that holds up to more abuse and resists cracking more than some of the thinner rims, such as a lot of the Easton wheels use.
One complaint that is often voiced about the Shimano R500 wheelset is that they do not seem as fast as the other bicycle wheels on the market. I would have to agree with that. As with anything Shimano (or any other company) makes, the quality of the material increases with the investment. I've always felt that the bearings did not move as smoothly as I would have liked. I eventually spent some time re-lubing them and then carefully adjusted them to be just as loose as possible, without endangering the hub.
The bottom line is that the Shimano R500 is a perfect starter or backup wheelset for the rider under 200 pounds that wants a wheel that is easily repaired. The spokes and hub parts (and freehub) are all easily attainable and generally kept in stock by most local shops.
Of course, if you have a little more money to spend, feel free to look into the Mavic Aksiums or Easton EA70s. I'm a big fan of both wheelsets and feel that while they do not offer the same ease of repair, (the Eastons can be a complete “bear” to get warranty parts for), they do offer a lighter wheelset with more advanced engineering for a faster ride.
But if we are staying on the south side of $150, the Shimano WH-R500 still remains a very practical choice.
One that I do not regret making.