How to get the hoops of your dreams.
Inviting in the best mountain bike wheels you can, and buying the right type, can totally transform your ride. Upgrading your bike’s existing wheelset will add speed and improve the feel.
Before we start let’s state one very important thing: money spent on wheels is worth twice that spent elsewhere on the bike.
Wheels are never worth skimping on. Buy the best. Even if it means cutting back on your budget for other parts of the bike. Great wheels will make a mediocre bike faster, everywhere.
When buying mountain bike wheels, put your money where your momentum is
But please, please, please invest in decent wheels. Your bike will benefit and your riding life will be better. That’s something to get excited by isn’t it?
Above: How to service your Hope freehub
Here are some recent wheel reviews. A comprehensive buyer’s guide follows below. Read on…
DT Swiss X1700 Spline TWO mountain bike wheels
A set of wheels for cross country racers – or indeed anyone who likes to thrash over the fells and forests at lightning speed on the climbs. Impressively stiff. The straightforward serviceability and maintenance will be prized by lots of enthusiast high-mileage riders. Best paired with tyres sub-2.3″ though.
- Read the full review of the DT Swiss X1700 Spline TWO wheelset
- Buy Now: DT Swiss X1700 Spline TWO wheelset from Tweeks Cycles from £509.99
E13 TRSr mountain bike wheels
Price: front £599, rear £699
These wheels are not about being the lightest on the market. They’re more about real world riding and reliability and living-with-ness. Top quality bearings and impressively sealed against the elements. Although not exactly cheap by any means, they are among the most keenly priced carbon wheelsets out there.
Stan’s No Tubes ZTR Bravo Team mountain bike wheels
Yep, we’ve given a full-on 10/10 rating for a set of wheels that cost fourteen hundred pounds. If you aren’t prepared to stretch to that figure, we can’t blame you, but the folks at Stan’s have knocked it out of the park when it comes to quality and ride feel with these wheels. An instant shot in the arm for any bike.
- Read the full review of Stan’s No Tubes ZTR Bravo Team wheels
- Buy Now: Stan’s No Tubes ZTR Bravo Team wheels at Winstanleys Bikes from £1,049.99
Mavic Crossmax SL mountain bike wheels
This is the other option. In other words, a top end aluminium wheelset instead of a budget entry-level carbon offering. The Crossmax SL wheels are ideally paired with a fast and light pilot. Simply unbelievable acceleration and a noticeable drag-free momentum that is highly addictive.
- Read the full review of the Mavic Crossmax SL wheels
- Buy Now: Mavic Crossmax SL wheels at Chain Reaction Cycles from £339.99
SRAM Rise 60 Carbon mountain bike wheels
These use the modern hookless design of rim whereby there is no bead/lip on the inside of the rim wall. This saves weight, easier to inflate tubelessly, more protected against dings. It’s also cheaper to manufacture – not that you’d know that from the price tag!
NB: Although technically discontinued, you can still find these wheel on sale if you dig around.
- Read the full review of the SRAM Rise 60 Carbon wheelset
- Buy Now: SRAM Rise 60 Carbon wheelset at Starbike from £1,391.84
Mountain bike wheels buyer’s guide
The absolute fundamental factors are wheel size (diameter) and hub type. Get either of these wrong and the wheels simply won’t fit your bike.
Mountain bike wheel size
You need to get the correct wheel size for your bike. The three wheel sizes are: 26″, 27.5″ (also known as 650B) and 29″. If in doubt, look at the tyres cited to your current wheels, it’ll say the wheel size on the sidewall somewhere.
What about Plus bikes? You’ll know if you have a Plus bike because you’ll have only bought it recently and you’ll know all about it. If you don’t know what a Plus bike is, skip this paragraph. The only common Plus bike wheel size is 27.5+. These are the same diameter as any 27.5″ wheel but the rims are significantly wider (ie. 44mm as opposed to 30mm, for example).
Hubs and axles
Not all hubs fit all frames and forks. You’ll need to get the correct hub for your fork and frame’s dropouts.
Having said that, there are many wheels that have hubs that can be converted to accept different hubs and we’d recommend getting a wheelset that offers this versatility. You never know what bike the frames might have to go in in the future.
With front wheels it’s not so tricky. Almost everyone these days is running a fork with a 15 x 100mm bolt-thru hub. Only DH forks have 20mm bolt-thru axles and only entry level or old bikes still sport quick-release axles.
Rear hubs can be trickier. A common rear hub size is 142 x 12mm bolt-thru. Some hardtails or entry-level bikes will still sport 135 x 9mm quick release hubs.
Above: What is Boost?
And nowadays we have Boost axles on some new bikes. Boost hubs are wider than regular hubs. Front Boost hubs are 15 x 110mm. Rear Boost hubs are 12 x 148mm. No a massive amount of millimetres but more than enough to mean that Boost wheels won’t fit non-frames and forks.
Freehubs on mountain bike wheels
The freehub is that splined bit of the hub where your rear cassette slides on to. This never used to be much a factor. The only choice you had was a steel freehub body (heavier but more durable) or an aluminium freehub body (lighter but more prone to cassettes ‘eating’ into the splines and getting stuck fast).
These days we have SRAM and their 11 and 12 speed systems which require a specific freehub (XD Driver Body) on the rear hub. If you want to run SRAM 11/12 speed drivetrain then you’ll need a rear hub that has an XD Drive Body.
All Shimano – and all SRAM 10 speed – cassettes fit on to the standard Shimano-style splined freehub body. Simple.
Handily, there are also some wheels that can run be run with a Shimano-stlye freehub or a SRAM XD Drive Body. You just choose the type of freehub you want at time of purchase and/or order an additional freehub in the design you require.
You may notice certain wheels being marketed as having quick pick-up or boasting high amounts of points of engagement. The idea of these rear hubs is that there’s less ‘dead time’ in your initial pedal stroke. There are fewer degrees of slack. When you push on the pedal, the freehub engages instantly.
Now we not of a firm opinion that this is hugely important or a massively must-have feature, but some riders once-accustomed to quick-engaging hubs do end up loving them. If your terrain is quite stop-starty or nadgery or trials-like then you may benefit from a quick-engaging rear hub.
Disc rotor mount design
Most commonly this is the traditional 6-bolt design. But there are some brands – Shimano and DT Swiss for example – who use the splined Centerlock design (pictured above).
It’s not the end of the world if the wheelset you desire has a rotor mount design that won’t take your existing brake rotors (you can always buy new rotors or indeed sometimes rotor mount converters) but it is something to keep an eye out for because you’ll need to budget for buying new rotors (or rotor converters) too.
Before we delve into things like axles, freehubs, spokes and nipples, let’s talk about rim width. This is something that you may not have really considered or factored in before but it is a crucial aspect of any wheel you’re contemplating.
Basically, the modern trend is towards wider rims. Rims with internal wall widths of 30mm or more. Why are we all going wider? Because tyres are getting more volume and fatter tyres behave and perform better on wider rims. Putting a 2.5″ tyre on an old-fashioned rim with an internal width of 19mm will lead to a squirrelly and folding-balloon feeling. Not nice. Or, indeed, very safe.
Sure narrow rims are obviously lighter but modern mountain biking is more about fun and control than racing against the clock in lycra. If you are a cross country racehead then feel free to stick to you narrow rims and small volume tyres. That’s your thang.
Before the rest of you go ordering the widest rim wheels you can find you’ll need to evaluate whether your frame’s rear stays have the clearance to accept wide stance tyres. If you currently struggle with clearance when using 2.35″ tyres, you should avoid ultra wide rims.
If your frame has a decent amount of clearance at the back then no problem. We’d recommend an internal rim width of at least 30mm. These will support modern 2.3″-2.6″ tyres just fine. Yes we did just say 2.6″ tyres. It’s the new tyre volume standard that’s about to kick off for 2018 stuff.
Get ready for tubeless mountain bike wheels
Even if you don’t wish to run a tubeless system just yet, you’d be totally daft not to get wheels that are tubeless-ready. Tubeless-ready wheels can still be run with inner tubes just like always but they can also be easily run without inner tubes, as ‘tubeless’.
Tubeless essentially means you replace the inner tube with some liquid sealant and a rim valve. The sealant stops the air coming out. The valve acts like an inner tube valve ie. it’s where you attach your pump for inflation.
Tubeless-ready wheels have rim designs that don’t allow air to leak out (of the nipple holes). Some tubeless-ready rim beds are physically sealed up with a welded in strip of metal. Other designs use rigid plastic rim inserts. Other designs use special rim tape to stop air leaking through.
Rims that don’t have a bead or lip on them. Just flush, smooth, straight-up inner walls. They sound crazy – “how does the tyre stay on?!” – but they work.
It turns out tyres aren’t really held on by the bead anyway. The bead was only ever put there to reassure people way-back-in-the-day that the tyres would stay on (previous tyres had been glued on to rims).
What’s good about hookless rims? Principally, installing new tubeless tyres is much easier on hookless rims. There’s no hurrying around with tubeless inflators or pumping things up to stupid high PSI to get the beads to ‘pop’ into place. On hookless rims, tubeless tyres usually just inflate with a normal track pump.
Hookless rims aren’t common. Normal beaded rims are still the norm – and they work fine most of the time. But if you’ve had bad experiences with setting up tubelesss tyres in the past you may wish to go hookless.
Mountain bike wheel bearings
Cup-and-cone or cartridge bearings?
The vast majority of aftermarket wheels will use cartridge bearings. These aren’t technically serviceable; once they wear out – which they will sooner or later – you remove them and install new ones.
The other bearing design is cup and cone bearings. These are only really found on entry-level wheels and on all wheels from Shimano. Shimano love their cup and cones.
What’s good about cup and cone? Well, if you’re prepared to keep on top of regular monitoring and maintenance a cup and cone bearing will last for years and years. (They are also theoretically laterally stiffer but there’s so little in that it’s not worth thinking about in our opinion).
What’s good about cartridge bearings? You don’t have to keep on top of regular monitoring and maintenance! You just ride them until they go wobbly. Then you take them to your bike shop and get new ones bunged in. More money yes but in the real world most riders prefer this practicality.
Mountain bike wheel spokes
Spokes are usually J-shaped ie. have a bend at the end that locates into the hub flange. These are common and easy to find even if you’re on holiday somewhere and snap a spoke.
Some spokes are straight. These are lighter and can initially build into a very evenly tensioned wheel. But straight spokes can be difficult to re-tension further down the line (the nipples seize on the spokes and the whole thing just spins as opposed to the just the nipple tightening).
Spokes can either be plain gauge or butted. Butted spokes are recommended for most riders. They’re lighter and strong enough for most applications. Plain gauge spokes are cheaper but stronger and stiffer. These can be a good choice for heavier or more aggressive riders – especially those on large diameter 29in wheels.
The number of spokes a wheel has is also a factor. Lightweight XC wheels will generally have fewer spokes than a set of aggressive enduro wheels for example. More spokes = more weight = more stiffness. It’s a balancing act.
Mountain bike wheel nipples
Brass or alloy. Brass are heavier but they won’t seize as readily as alloy spokes do. They also won’t round-off as easily. Unfortunately it’s rare to find brass nipples of factory wheelsets.
Are carbon wheels worth the money?
We debated this is an article a few months ago.
In a nutshell: “A good alloy wheel is miles better than a bad carbon one, so our best advice is to get the best wheel you can afford — if your budget is £500 then stick with alloy, above £1,000 and carbon rules.”
Proprietary designs and spares availability on mountain bike wheels
Factory wheelsets using unique freehub designs or spokes are all well and good… until they go wrong and you can’t easily find spares for them.
It can be difficult to resist bargain deals on some proprietary-heavy wheelsets but you should try and factor in the after-sales aspect of it all. A bargain wheelset isn’t much use if you can’t use it because the freehub pawls break and you can’t find replacements.
Handbuilt versus factory mountain bike wheels
In years gone by all experienced riders ran handbuilt wheels. But that was when wheelbuilding machines weren’t very good. Now that wheelbuilding machines are significantly better and the factory wheelset ‘look’ is fashionable, is there still a place for handbuilt wheels?
In a word, yes.
A good bike shop with an experienced wheel builder will sort you out with the perfect wheels. Want to run plain gauge spokes up front but double butted in the rear? They can do that. Want to run 36 hole rim in the rear and a 28 hole rim up front? They can do that. Want to mismatch brands and run Mavic rims on Hope hubs? They can do that. Want to run a slightly wider rim up front but keep it standard at the back? They can do that.
You’ll pay a bit more money for a custom made handbuilt wheel but will you regret it? Nope.