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.
Put your money where your momentum is
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.
Best 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.
Just to keep things interesting, Shimano have just introduced another freehub standard. It’s only for their new XTR M9100 series and future 12-speed drivetrains. As such, it’s not something that most people need to think about yet. But there’s no harm in knowing about its existence.
The key point that it reinforces is that it’s a very good idea to get a wheelset that is adaptable, for both different types of freehub as well as for different thru axles and so on.
Freehub engagement pick-up speed
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.
mbr reviews of the best mountain bike wheels
Halo Vortex mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “What do we want from a wheelset? Mainly we want them to stay true, deal with frequent tyre changes without being a pain, hold air, not dent easily and not get rumbly bearings too soon. These Vortex have done that. And while I would’t say that they are light, they aren’t heavy either. At four hundred quid they are also a total bargain.”
Stan’s No Tubes Arch MK3 mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “The wettest six months of the year, mistimed landings, rocky gulleys and more cases than a PPI clerk have all failed to leave a mark on them. If you’re after a solid, no-fuss wheelset but don’t want to smash the plastic, then these are a very decent option.”
Newmen Evolution SL A30 mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “The Newmens are arguably not quite as incredibly snappy in acceleration as some DT Swiss wheels, but are significantly lighter and still have one of the toughest, ding-proof rims I’ve tried. 30mm is the sweet spot for most 2.4/2.5in wider enduro tyres too, making these a superb quality lightweight package for a very fair price.”
DT Swiss X1700 Spline TWO mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “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.”
E13 TRSr mountain bike wheels
Price: front £599, rear £699
mbr review: “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
mbr review: “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.”
Mavic Crossmax SL mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “This is the other option to carbon. 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.”
Mavic XA Pro Carbon mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “Whilst some carbon wheels can be flexy, others can actually be too stiff leading to a harsh ride. The XA Pro Carbon from wheel wizards Mavic are an impressive blend of speed, stiffness and control. The lack of drag in the rear hub is also really noticeable.”
FSA Afterburner Wider mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “A very reasonable wheelset from FSA that combines a 27mm internal width rim that’s suitable for the majority of riders. Comes supplied with tubeless tape pre-installed as well as valves so you’re good to go splashing the sealant about as soon as you get ’em.”
Sun Ringlé Düroc mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “At the moment these wheels can be hard to track down but if you ask your local bike shop they’ll be able to order some in. They are worth the wait. A pretty much perfect combination of price, performance and compatibility.”
Hope Tech Enduro mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “They may not win any weight weenie prizes but the Enduro wheels from Hope are lovely to look and buzzing to listen to. They also offer arguably the best weather sealed hubs of any wheels here. Seriously good value for money and available in all the flavours you can think of.”
Ibis 942 mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “Whilst the price tag is very high (although not unique in the rarefied world of carbon wheels) there’s no denying that these are extremely high quality items. Available in narrower 35mm external width rim if these 40mm ones won’t suit your preferred tyre widths.”
Mavic Crossmax Elite mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “The Mavic Crossmax Elite is a wheel that you can certainly put your trust in. Dogged reliability and a comfortable, forgiving ride makes it a set of wheels suitable for a wide range of riders. Furthermore, Mavic’s creation of the full wheel ‘system’ should be applauded; strap on a cassette and some rotors and you’re ready to go!”
DT Swiss XRC 1200 mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “It’s the flex in the XRC 1200s that makes them feel so good. Grip also plays a big part, and it’s the flex in the XRC 1200 wheelset that allows the wheels to track the terrain better when the bike is lent over. It’s also what stops the DT wheels feeling too snappy and jarring like some carbon hoops. The build quality is first rate though and the ride quality is second to none.”
Crank Brothers Iodine 3 mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “There’s a lively feel to the ride that really comes through on fast and rocky trails and encourages you to load the bike into everything going and come out with more speed. The Brothers have done well with their third incarnation of the Iodine 3, producing a reasonably lightweight wheel that’s reliable and strong.”
Bontrager Line Pro 30 TLR Boost mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “Are they too good to be true? In a word, no. Ride quality is good, the stiffness makes sense, they’re pretty light, they look cool and have so far proved to be solid and durable, and that’s before you consider the price. The only things stopping these getting full marks are the difficulties suffered when fitting tight tyres.”
Sixth Element SE34.28RACE mountain bike wheels
mbr review: “If you’re looking to save weight with black magic these aren’t the wheels for you. However, if you’re after a set of sensibly wide wheels that will add a dose of zip and accuracy into your ride, and take a beating in the process, then there’s much to recommend these.”
Our pick of the best mountain bike wheels
Best mountain bike wheels for trail riders: Mavic Crossmax Elite.
Best mountain bike wheels for enduro racers: Crank Brother Iodine 3.
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? Probably not.