How to get the hoops of your dreams
Getting the best mountain bike wheels can totally transform your ride. Upgrading your bike’s existing wheelset will add speed and improve the feel.
Best mountain bike wheels 2019: a buyer’s guide
Wheels aren’t always as glamorous as other expensive upgrades like forks, shocks and controls, but it’s no secret they’re one of the most important factors to performance. We’re getting under the skin of eight different sets here, and making it extra hard for ourselves by testing some wheels we already rate highly and delving deeper. Alongside pure functionality, some big questions rear up: Is weight saving all it’s cracked up to be? What are the advantages of aluminium as a rim material? Are expensive carbon wheels worth the extra money? How important are hubs?
With the rise of enduro and ever more technical and faster tracks, plus the popularity of longer-travel mountain bikes, wheels have to take more hammer 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. So with all that in mind, which out of these eight cracking products would get our own money?
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.
mbr reviews of the best mountain bike wheels
Hunt Wheels TrailWide
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 XM1501 Spline One
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.
Crank Brothers Synthesis E11
Totally delivers on its performance claims and the front wheel especially feels pretty radical in just how well it tracks the terrain; reducing vibration, adding grip to the point it feels like you can corner faster and with more confidence. This superb ride feel doesn’t come cheap though. So if you’ve got cash to burn, the Synthesis is an innovation-driven package that really delivers.
South Industries Enduro
Hope hubs used are a known and proven quantity, but there’s nothing to stop you building these rims into a lighter or faster-engaging hub if that’s bag. And there aren’t many better carbon rims at this price and this weight to base a fancy custom wheel out of either. South Industries have designed a great riding carbon rim in South Africa that’d build into a great wheelset as well.
Our pick of the best mountain bike wheels
Best mountain bike wheels aluminium: Hunt Wheels TrailWide.
Best mountain bike wheels carbon: Crank Brothers Synthesis E11.
We hand picked some of the best wheels we’ve used for this test, so it’s hardly surprising that overall scores are mostly close to the top marks. It was very tough to nitpick these sorted products too. Several things surprised in this test and gave extra food for thought; one of the craziest being how spending almost two grand more on a set of wheels doesn’t even save you any weight. The cheapest Hunt alloy wheels are a substantial 100g lighter than the most expensive Crank Brothers carbon wheels. What happened to carbon wheels being a guaranteed way of chucking weight off your rig, eh?
Of the aluminium wheels, the 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. Hunt’s alloy wheel package on the other hand 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.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, some great carbon wheels shine in this line up, with none more special and different than Crank Brothers’ Synthesis package. It totally delivers on its performance claims and the front wheel especially feels pretty radical in just how well it tracks the terrain; reducing vibration, adding grip to the point it feels like you can corner faster and with more confidence. This superb ride feel doesn’t come cheap though. South Industries have designed a great riding carbon rim in South Africa that’d build into a great wheelset as well.
So if you’ve got cash to burn, the Synthesis is an innovation-driven package that really delivers, the DT Swiss XM1501 is a brilliant wheel for aluminium aficionados, but, ultimately, it’s hard to argue with a lightweight, fast and tough Hunt wheelset for under £350 when it rides this well.