Being the only part of your longboard setup to actually touch the street, your wheels are perhaps the most important, diverse and improvable item on your deck. New wheels whose specifications meet your riding style can drastically change your ability to perform downhill slides, tight turns, and even flatland tricks. The scientists, technicians and riders behind the scenes have developed many different styles of wheels to function perfectly for specific types of longboarders – the trick is to find that perfect set of wheels that works just right for you.
Most major manufacturers will produce quality and dependable wheels, almost always made of polyurethane. The real factors to pay attention to are dedicated to the size, density and shape of the wheel – although finding a color you like can also be important. Also, keep in mind that wheels are very much fit to a specific deck and truck setup. They need to be paired well with the other items in your setup and might not perform as well as before when you update your trucks, deck or risers.
The size of your wheel makes a huge difference in your speed and safety. Always marked in metric, longboard wheels are generally 60+ millimeters and will provide you with a high potential top speed as the size increases. Bigger wheels also conquer pebbles, bumps and other obstacles with greater ease. Although commonly between 65mm and 75mm, they can get as big as 85+ mm. Keep in mind that, although your potential top speed will continue to increase with the diameter of your longboard wheel, it has an inverse relationship to your rate of acceleration. Simply, a bigger wheel will go faster, but accelerate slower.
Don't forget, the perfect wheel/deck combination will never result in "wheel bite". A wheel too large can be dangerous at high speeds if it brakes on your wood when you attempt tight turns. Sometimes a thicker riser or similar adjustment can fix the problem, but always remember that riding closer to the ground is often more comfortable.
Us longboarders have a nifty system of classifying longboard wheel density. This system is a 75a-100a scale, increasing with a longboard wheel's "toughness" or durability. Most fall between a soft wheel at 70a and a hard wheel at about 100a. A softer wheel will roll over bumps and rough surfaces much easier, retaining speed, and also grips well to the street. A softer wheel creates much more traction and can give a feeling of greater control, although also makes performing downhill slides more difficult. In general, riders prefer a wheel in the mid 80a's for best all-around performance.
Shape and Style
The final factor to observe when looking for your perfect longboard wheel is its shape, or more specifically, its "lip". The two basic styles are defined as a "square-lip" and a "round-lip", based on the outside edge. If looking at your complete deck directly at the nose, a "square-lip" wheel will appear to have sharp edges and a "round-lip" wheel will have softer angles.
The sharper your longboard wheel's lip, the more traction you will feel when performing turns. These lips actually hug the street as your weight shifts to give you more street contact.
A rounder lip is sometimes preferred because it actually breaks traction with greater ease, and enables a rider to perform those important, and fun, slides that are so vital to downhill longboarding. While most riders are content with a sharp lipped and squared wheel, having a rounded edge will help you gain control of these sliding techniques.
Hit the Streets!
Now that you know what to look for, go ahead and explore the wild world of brightly colored urethane. I encourage all riders to stick with well-known brands, as I always do when speaking of any longboard component, as poor reliability can often ruin a good day. Get out there – 'aint nothing like a nice session on some brand new wheels.