Getting the best mountain bike wheels can totally transform your ride. Upgrading your bike's existing wheelset will add speed and improve the feel
Getting the best mountain bike wheels can totally transform your ride. Upgrading your bike’s existing wheelset will add speed and improve the feel.
Wheels have to take more of a hammering than ever. This partly explains the bias towards durability, strength and downhill aptitude in many new wheels; factors that have slightly overshadowed traditional concerns of saving weight and maximum efficiency at all costs.
This attitude of reliability trumping every shiny new parts weight is a bit of a theme in recent MTB ‘fashion’ overall. Nobody wants to ruin a great ride with a mechanical, so we largely subscribe to the idea here at mbr too, but also reckon wheels are actually one area where you can have your cake and eat it too.
After-market wheels can massively improve rolling speed, handling, and acceleration. They can also benefit grip, tracking and comfort, which helps you rider faster and safer in the toughest terrain. On top of this, and flying in the face of this new-school attitude for robustness, the best wheels can also achieve these significant performance gains with zero trade offs in terms of reliability and lifespan if you choose wisely. With wheelsets better than ever, the choices are plentiful, and nowadays you only need to spend top dollar for ultimate (rather than good) performance too.
Best mountain bike wheels
- Sun Ringle Duroc – Under £600 choice
- Hunt Wheels TrailWide
- DT Swiss M1900 Spline
- Halo Vapour 35
- Crank Brothers Synthesis E – Over £600 choice
- DT Swiss XM1501 Spline One 30
- Zipp 3Zero Moto
- Enve MTB Foundation
‘Buy Now’ links
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Sun Ringle Duroc wheelset
Has all the bases covered
Price: £539.98 | Weight: F 928g, R 1025g | Tubeless ready
Pro: Livelier than its weight would suggest
Pro: Everything in the box you’ll need
Con: Nothing at this price
Con: They are hard to find in stock
This is a first test of Sun Ringlé’s new Düroc trail/all mountain wheelset. It’s offered in 27.5 and 29inch with a choice of four rim widths – 30, 35, 40 and 50mm. We chose 35mm for this test, which has an internal rim measurement of 32mm. With four rim widths and all the hardware included for any configuration the Sun Ringlé Düroc has all the bases covered and is killer value for money.
Hunt Wheels TrailWide wheelset
Hard to argue with a wheelset for under £350 that rides this well
Price: £349.00 | Weight: F 810g, R 990g | Internal rim width: 30mm
Pro: Lighter and faster than most
Pro: Insane value for money
Con: Again, not a lot wrong here
Con: Direct sales only
Hunt’s alloy wheel package is an absolute bargain with a well thought out spec list, proven hubs and a performance you’ll struggle to match for that much money. Ultimately, it’s hard to argue with a lightweight, fast and tough Hunt wheelset for under £350 when it rides this well.
DT Swiss M1900 Spline wheelset
Brilliant budget trail-riding wheel from one of the leading names
Price: £335.00 | Weight: F 950g, R 1060g | Internal rim width: 30mm
Pro: Really smooth ride feel
Pro: No weird construction
Con: Not the lightest
Con: We’re nitpicking at this point
Toughness and reliability are the main selling points here, and this bombproof package does the job for a fair price. You’ll need to spend considerably more, and reach much higher up the DT range, to save weight, but lighter wheels are available for a similar price from less prestigious brands. And this, plus repairs or spoke replacement on your travels being potentially more difficult are worth thinking about.
Halo Vapour 35 wheelset
No-nonsense trail wheels from a brand with a long history in hard-riding
Pro: Rapid pick-up results in zippy response
Pro: Good stiffness
Con: Not light
Con: Relatively noisy freehub
The Vapours are solid and no-nonsense for a wallet-friendly price, and use readily-available spokes. Brands like Hunt offer lighter wheels for similar money (the DT Swiss wheels here are slightly lighter too), but the rear freehub is a highlight for this much cash, and Vapours with a standard six-pawl design can be had for £65 less, which is even better value.
Crank Brothers Synthesis E wheelset
Superb ride feel and £500 less than their top end version
Pro: A special product that does what it sets out to do
Pro: Noticeably more grip on sever terrain
Con: Still not exactly cheap
Con: Not for weight weenies
Crank Brother’s Synthesis is a special product that lives up to its billing. For £2,150, the top end version is even lighter and adds freehub engagement points for more precision in technical climbing, but you get the main advantages here with the supple front rim and its subtle ability to scrub off less speed and grip more than rivals on really sharp terrain. This translates to a sense of running less tyre pressure or a softer compound in terms of calmness, but since they still feel really rapid too, this Synthesis is one of the best carbon MTB wheelsets available.
DT Swiss XM1501 Spline One
Brilliant wheels for aluminium aficionados
Pro: Immediate imporvment to any bike
Pro: Extremely low drag sensation
Con: Approaching carbon price point
Con: Centerlock rotor mounts
This DT Swiss wheel package is a beautifully refined product with a ride feel that’s a cut above. It has a real zip to it, but it isn’t the cheapest and also has less well sealed bearings that appear to prioritise rolling speed over sealing, which won’t suit everyone. DT Swiss XM1501 is a brilliant wheel for aluminium aficionados.
Zipp 3Zero Moto wheelset
Superior to the best alloy wheels with improved durability over most carbon
Pro: Simply amazing rims
Pro: Comes with TyreWiz sensor
Con: Comes with TyreWiz sensor whether you want it or not
Con: That price tag
So the Zipp 3Zero Moto wheels offer a ride quality that is superior to the best alloy wheels, with improved durability over most carbon alternatives. At 1,910g for the 29er wheelset they are some of the heaviest on the market, not that you can tell when you’re riding them. In fact it is the additional cost of TyreWiz, when a £20 pressure gauge would suffice, and the slow freehub engagement that takes the shine off the otherwise standout ride quality. So probably the best option would be a custom build with your preferred hubs. In fact, that’s currently the only option if you have a 12-speed Shimano drivetrain and want to benefit from all of the advantages the 3Zero Moto rims have to offer.
Enve MTB Foundation AM30 wheelset
Enough to turn this carbon cynics into firm believers
Pro: Good balance of stiffness and comfort
Pro: Anti pinch flat design is cool
Con: Not lighter than alloy
Con: Price is still high
Enve’s AM30s are expensive and don’t bring any ‘extra’ compliance or tracking benefits to the table like Zipp 3Zero Moto or Crank Brothers Synthesis wheelsets. But, if you’re after a zesty, rapid-feeling carbon wheel that’s comfortable enough to ride all day and tough enough to handle a proper battering, this package is a sound investment. And while Enve hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel itself, it’s done enough to turn this previous cynic into a firm believer.
How to pick the best mountain bike wheels for your riding
Lighter wheels accelerate and slow down faster, change direction quicker and make climbing easier. It’s not that simple though, as wheel roundness and stiffness are factors too, plus the physics involved with rotating mass and centrifugal forces means weight closer to the outside edge makes more difference, so a heavier wheel with a proportionally lighter rim can still spin up to speed faster.
Spoke count and design
Extra spokes add strength, but also weight, and can reduce comfort in terms of bump swallowing. They’ll likely improve resistance to twisting or lateral flex, increase overall strength and durability and should ensure a wheel stays tighter and truer longer too. Any spokes chosen have to match budget constraints and can use different gauges, buttings (thicker and thinner zones to save weight) and profiles to tune ride quality. Proprietary spokes are often harder to replace and source.
Most modern rims have become wider. The extra room inside allows the sidewalls of broader, grippier and more comfortable tyres to sit naturally and inflate as manufacturers intended. Rim material, shape and depth also have a marked influence on impact strength, stiffness and compliance. Plenty new tubeless rims forego a bead hook to save weight and boost sidewall resilience, and it’s now accepted tubeless tyres mount, stay inflated and remain stable with a multitude of quirky rim profiles.
Bearings and sealing
How smoothly (and ultimately how fast) wheels spin is closely linked to bearing quality and design. UK rides often happen in wet conditions where grit and crud can get inside hubs and eat into a precious investment. Balls and bearing casing specification, rubber seals, and grease all effect lifespan, but better sealing can also add friction, which reduces rolling speed. Beware special bearing sizes and fiddly designs that are a faff to service too. Cup and cone (open) bearings are still common in Shimano hubs and spin well, but require more looking after.
Engagement or pick up
Most hub designs use a pawl system of some description whereby small metal ‘hooks’ engage into a ratchet to drive the hub, then disengage to allow the hub to freewheel. Different designs have their own levels of drag (resistance to spinning freely) while not pedalling and engagement (measured in degrees of rotation). A faster pick up means power is delivered quicker; especially useful for technical climbing where lower gears and higher torques mean responsiveness is key. Faster engagement can eat into durability and strength, since splines or ratchet teeth first need to be smaller to be closer enough together to enable it.
Especially important for carbon wheels, where a failure is more likely to be absolute rather than a ding or dent, warranty can make or break a sweet deal. The best warranties will minimise bike downtime and hassle so read any small print carefully and ask questions before you buy.