Getting the best mountain bike wheels can totally transform your ride. Upgrading your bike's existing wheelset will add speed and improve the feel
The best mountain bike wheels can 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
- Hunt Wheels TrailWide – Under £600 choice
- Stan’s No Tubes Flow EX3
- Nukeproof Horizon V2
- DT Swiss M1900 Spline
- Silt All-Mountain
- Crank Brothers Synthesis E – Over £600 choice
- DT Swiss XM1501 Spline One 30
- Zipp 3Zero Moto
- Enve MTB Foundation AM30
- Mavic Deemax Pro Sam Hill
How we tested the best mountain bike wheels
As well as back-to-back testing wheels on the same terrain under controlled conditions, we managed to do some uplifts on DH tracks to accelerate ride time on these wheels. We’ve also had time on various test bikes with some of the wheels here and a chance to ride then all over the country. We used the same Maxxis tyres set up tubeless (at the same pressure) for final testing, and also swapped between wheelsets on the exact same bike with fixed suspension settings and pressures. Deliberately using a shorter-travel (120mm) bike also exaggerated feedback and compliance impressions from wheels on rougher terrrain.
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Hunt Wheels Trail Wide
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. Insane value for money.
Con: Again, not a lot wrong here. 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.
Stan’s No Tubes Flow EX3
Ideal for heavier and/or enduro riders
Price: £519.99 | Weight: F 1000g, R 1145g | Internal rim width: 29mm
Pro: Heavy duty wheels for serious enduro riding or bigger riders
Con: Perhaps overkill for smaller, lighter, smoother riders
While most wheels this weight can feel like too much to drag around on an enduro bike, that’s not the case here, making them impressive all-rounders and recommended for heavier or demanding riders after a really tough set of aluminium wheels for DH or enduro racing.
Nukeproof Horizon V2
Affordable and considerably lighter than you might think
Price: £399.98 | Weight: F 912g R 1992g | Internal rim width: 30mm
Pro: Great all round package for a reasonable price
Con: Not the most exciting ride quality
With a subtle finish and sorted looks, £400 for a sub two-kilo alloy wheelset that’s tough enough for proper all-mountain riding represents good value. The Horizon V2s don’t offer anything extraordinary in terms of performance, but they are totally non-nonsense with well thought out details, and that means they’re an excellent upgrade.
DT Swiss M1900
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. No weird construction.
Con: Not the lightest… 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.
Don’t just go by the All-Mountain tag, these are impressively light
Price: £370 | Weight: 1890g | Internal rim width: 30mm
Pro: Pretty much unmatched in terms of weight and strength at this price
Con: Not a lot at this price
Silt has sweated the details, but how do these things ride? Very well is the short answer. The AMs feel snappy and responsive and accelerate and change direction quickly. This is likely aided by a sub-1.9kg weight, which is low for a durable enduro-ready 29er wheelset, and the same as many much more expensive wheels – including loads of carbon all-mountain packages. The Silt All-Mountain wheelset is stiff enough too, so there’s no twanginess or flex smashing through beaten up gulleys or eroded berms, even considering the lower front spoke count.
Crank Brothers Synthesis E11
Superb ride feel and £500 less than their top end version
Pro: A special product that does what it sets out to do. Noticeably more grip on sever terrain.
Con: Still not exactly cheap. 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 XM 1501
Brilliant wheels for aluminium aficionados
Pro: Immediate improvement to any bike. Extremely low drag sensation.
Con: Approaching carbon price point. 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
Superior to the best alloy wheels with improved durability over most carbon
Pro: Simply amazing rims. Comes with TyreWiz sensor.
Con: Comes with TyreWiz sensor whether you want it or not. 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. Anti pinch flat design is cool.
Con: Not lighter than alloy. 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.
Mavic Deemax Pro Sam Hill
Much better comfort than most rivals
Price: £900.00 | Weight: F 960g R 1965g | Internal rim width: 28mm
Pro: UST system is easy to set up. Feel fast and responsive.
Con: Specific spokes aren’t available everywhere. Not cheap for an alloy wheelset.
The complete package is really solid and stiff when hammering berms or leaning hard, but never overly spiky or jarring on repeated rough hits. Mavic’s price is at the top end for an alloy wheelset, but the Deemax go really quickly up, down and along, so performance is almost imperceptible from the fastest, most direct carbon hoops, plus you get comfort with a noticeably ‘dull’ feel when trails really want to pummel you.
How to pick the best mountain bike wheels for your riding
Upgrading your wheels will have a bigger impact on the way your bike rides than just about any other component choice; we put four alloy and two carbon pairs to the test.
Buying a new pair of mountain bike wheels is a sizeable investment, but choose wisely and it can actually be one of, if not, the most transformative upgrades to your riding experience.
On the surface, wheels simply roll and support tyres that cushion the bike from the terrain.
Dig deeper though, and different products all transfer power variably, accelerate at a range of rates and conform to bumps uniquely. Freehub and hub designs impact durability, serviceability and rolling resistance, while every rim responds differently to impacts. There’s a lot to take in.
Carbon-fibre rims are often thought of as the ultimate wheel upgrade, but high-end extruded aluminium rims can be just as light and offer an even more forgiving ride – in fact many top enduro racers still bank on alloy rims instead of carbon.
Both materials have advantages, but the general consensus is that carbon ‘should’ produce a tougher and rounder wheel, although the flipside of this is that they can fail catastrophically, while an alloy rim may be temporarily repairable – enough to get you home. Our experience is that modern carbon rims rarely break, while alloy rims can ding or dent relatively easily which can cause tubeless tyres to leak air and lose their seal. Overall, it’s hard to draw general conclusions about either material – as ever, it comes down to the design and construction of specific products.
If you’re going to the trouble and expense of upgrading though, your new hoops better improve performance or what’s the point, right? The after- market packages here should noticeably improve rolling speed, handling, and acceleration over cheaper, stock wheels, and if you shop wisely you can have the best of both worlds, balancing fast and zingy against strength and comfort.
The popularity of longer-travel enduro bikes and faster and more technical tracks means wheels get abused more than ever. This partly explains the sector’s bias towards strength and toughness over weight saving and maximum efficiency. Weight is still a crucial factor, however, in terms of rolling speed, acceleration and less rotating mass to drag uphill and we’re frequently surprised by wheel tests downplaying this aspect.
Nowadays there is a plethora of great wheels to choose from; the set that best suits your needs will depend on the compromise between cost and performance that matters most for your riding style and terrain.
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.