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Best mountain bike wheels in 2021 | Trail, all-mountain and enduro wheels tested

Our pick of the best trail-tested wheelsets and what to know before you buy

Best mountain bike wheels

Finding the best mountain bike wheelset for trail, all-mountain or enduro riding can be a tricky job because wheels are arguably one of the best upgrades you can make to your mountain bike.

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Wheel weight, rim width and stiffness can all affect how your bike handles – for better and, sometimes, for worse.

A new wheelset can also be the most expensive upgrade you’ll make. Therefore, choosing the right option for your budget and riding style is key.

We’ve spent hours rigorously testing a whole host of different wheelsets from a range of manufacturers, with a focus on 650b/27.5in and 29er wheels (we’ve got a separate guide to mountain bike wheel sizes) to find out which perform the best, while also being fantastic value for money.

If you’re on the hunt for a new set of hoops for trail, all-mountain or enduro riding, this list of our top picks, as rated and reviewed by the BikeRadar team, will guide your purchase.

Otherwise, if you want to know more about choosing the perfect set of wheels for your bike and budget, read the full buyer’s guide at the end of this article, covering riding style, axle standards, material, rim width and more.

And if you’re also looking for a set of tyres, once you’re done here, head to our guide on the best mountain bike tyres.

Best trail, all-mountain and enduro mountain bike wheelsets, as rated by our expert testers

  • DT Swiss E 1900 Spline 30: £345
  • Hunt Enduro Wide V2: £399
  • Mavic Deemax Pro Sam Hill: £900
  • Nukeproof Horizon: £350 plus £40 for SRAM XD driver
  • Nukeproof Horizon V2: £400
  • Sector 9i: £1,100
  • Zipp 3ZERO MOTO: £1,645
  • DT Swiss EX 1501 Spline One 30: £850
  • DT Swiss EXC 1200 Spline 29: £1,900
  • DT Swiss M1900 Spline: £380
  • ENVE MTB Foundation AM30: £1,850
  • Formula Linea 3: £780
  • Halo Vortex MTC Enduro: £500
  • Hope Fortus 30: £460
  • Hunt Enduro Wide: £359
  • Santa Cruz Reserve 30 I9 Hydra: £1,899
  • Shimano MT620: £360
  • Syncros Revelstoke 1.0: £1,299

DT Swiss E 1900 Spline 30

5.0 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike wheels
The DT Swiss E 1900 Spline 30 scored five stars!
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro riding
  • Both the hub and rim are reliable
  • Exceptional comfort over rough terrain
  • Not the lightest, but light for the price

As a popular OEM (original equipment manufacturer – the parts specced on off-the-shelf bikes) choice, thanks to its performance and price, the E 1900 has proven to be a tough, reliable and comfortable set of wheels.

The hubs are centerlock but the wheels are supplied with adaptors should you want or need to run six-bolt disc rotors.

The freehub has 24 points of engagement, which can create feelings of pedal-input lag under very specific circumstances. However, most of the time, out on the trail, this proved to not be a problem.

They come pre-taped for tubeless-ready compatibility and the rim beds are 29.8mm wide.

The E 1900 wheelset was very comfortable and didn’t squirm or flex, creating no strange quirks or noises when pushed hard.

Hunt Enduro Wide V2

5.0 out of 5 star rating
Hunt Enduro Wide V2 mountain bike wheelset
The Hunt Enduro Wide V2 wheelset is heavier than some but still snappy.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited to enduro riding
  • Feels better than a lot of other wheels
  • Good build quality
  • Not the lightest

Smooth yet accurate, snappy yet forgiving, we were consistently impressed by this wheelset.

The front wheel has a wider rim bed and lower spoke count (28) than the rear (32). At the front, there’s a calmness that helps you hold a line over roots and rock gardens. The result is more speed, comfort and control. At the back, the fast pick-up of Hunt’s own alloy hub proved reliable throughout testing.

Built from stronger 6069-T6 aluminium, the Enduro Wides are heavier than some, as you’d expect for their intended purpose, but only by a small margin.

The rear wheel can come with any flavour of freehub, as well as Boost or Super Boost hub spacing.

Hunt will sell you the wheels with Schwalbe or Maxxis tyres pre-installed, but tyres are easy to fit and blow up with just a track pump.

In addition to a three-year warranty, Hunt offers a 35 per cent crash-replacement scheme.

Mavic Deemax Pro Sam Hill

4.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike wheels
The Deemax Pro features a slightly narrower-than-most 28mm internal width.
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro or all-mountain riding, but can be used for trail riding, too
  • Fantastic at smoothing out trail chatter
  • Real UST tubeless means no rim tape
  • A bit weighty for the price and narrower than most rims on the market

Although we tested the limited-edition Sam Hill Deemax Pro, these wheels are identical to the normal Deemax Pro, except for the graphics. They’ve got a 28mm internal rim width and have Mavic’s UST tubeless rim with a solid rim bed.

This means they’ve got Mavic’s own spoke nipples that thread into the rim externally (rather than in the rim bed). Spokes are custom Mavic ones, too, and six are included with the wheels.

We found the 28mm internal width to be a good compromise for most tyre widths, especially if you’re planning on using 2.4in or 2.5in tyres.

The wheels were exceptionally comfortable during the testing period and impressed us. The freehub also engaged quickly and was quiet when freewheeling.

Nukeproof Horizon

4.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike wheels
Nukeproof’s Horizon wheels come in both 27.5in and 29in variants.
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro or all-mountain riding
  • Great value, exceptional ride quality, tough
  • Quick freehub engagement
  • SRAM’s XD driver costs extra and some tubeless tyres were hard to inflate

The 42-point engagement hubs – that have been redesigned since the first iteration to fix issues we highlighted – engage plenty quick enough and create a loud buzzing sound when you’re freewheeling.

The Nukeproof-branded WTB rims have a 29mm internal width and resisted dents well. They didn’t need truing during our test period. They also proved to be comfortable wheels on the trail and we experienced less hand pain compared to Hunt’s Enduro Wide wheels that were tested at the same time.

Although they aren’t the lightest on the market, their performance to value ratio is top-notch, making it tricky to tell the difference between the Horizon wheels and a set that cost double the cash.

Nukeproof Horizon V2

4.5 out of 5 star rating
Nukeproof Horizon V2 mountain bike wheelset
These Nukeproofs are a burly set of all-mountain wheels.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited to all-mountain riding
  • Decent rear hub
  • Well-thought-out construction
  • There are lighter wheels

The Nukeproof Horizon V2 wheels have a slightly damped feel that takes the edge off square-edged hits and gives plenty of grip over matted roots.

Nukeproof claims the rim material has the hardness of a 7-series alloy but the ductility of a 6-series, to balance strength, stiffness and weight. We found the ride feel to be on a par with most of the alloy wheels here.

While both rim profiles are the same, the rear is built with thicker sidewalls to boost its strength. The wheels are laced with 32 J-bend spokes. Nukeproof’s Horizon V2 hub has heftily-sealed bearings and a satisfying buzz. We were impressed by the freehub’s quick pick-up, too.

The brand offers plenty of spec options for the hubs and all three freehub options. Its tubeless valves, which channel air past tyre inserts and have a valve-core tool in the cap, are a nice touch. Fitting and seating tyres is a cinch. For the price, these are a solid option.

Sector 9i

4.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike wheels
They track precisely enough that we could easily pinpoint, and stick to, the same lines every time.
Steve Behr / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro or all-mountain riding
  • Impressively stiff and light but tough enough to withstand abuse
  • Enough compliance to take the edge off really rough terrain

Weighing 1,690g for the pair (29in), they’re some of the lightest enduro wheels out there and have survived plenty of rock and root impacts out on the trail.

They track the ground well and don’t create a disconnect between the trail and rider but remain compliant enough to not cause discomfort on rough descents.

If you like the graphics and can afford them, the Sector 9i wheels are well worth considering.

Zipp 3ZERO MOTO

4.5 out of 5 star rating
Zipp 3ZERO MOTO mountain bike wheelset
They’re fancy but proved to be one of our favourites.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for trail riding
  • Excellent control and comfort
  • Fast pickup and easy hub maintenance
  • No Shimano Microspline option

The Zipp 3ZERO MOTO wheels are a great-riding set of carbon wheels with a comfortable yet accurate feel. This might be down to the Motos’ single-wall rim, which pivots laterally around the spoke bed for improved traction, impact protection and comfort.

The hub is one of the best, and it’s easy to access the well-sealed bearings. The hub’s 2.7-degree engagement angle is among the quickest and, on our hardtail, pick-up of pedal inputs was exceptional.

We felt a noticeable (if slight) uplift in performance when using these wheels. Over off-camber roots, we could hold higher speeds with control over line choice. There’s a slightly damped feel on landings.

Each wheel has 32 bladed, J-bend spokes and five spoke lengths are used.

Getting tyres on and off is tricky and there’s no Shimano Micro Spline option, but they ride beautifully, have a lifetime warranty and accept the Quark TyreWiz gizmo for real-time pressure data.

DT Swiss EX 1501 Spline One 30

4.0 out of 5 star rating
  • £850
Best mountain bike wheels
The EX 1501 is DT Swiss’s top-end alloy wheelset for enduro riding.
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro or all-mountain riding
  • Tough and resilient rims
  • Good ride-feel and light enough to compete with carbon hoops
  • Hard to justify extra cash over DT’s own E 1900 wheels

As one of DT’s top alloy wheels designed for enduro, these are a popular option regularly specced on more expensive all-mountain and enduro bikes by a lot of manufacturers.

Because they’re a popular OEM wheelset, we’ve managed to test several sets of the EX 1501 and have always been happy with their performance.

Although the 10-degree, 36-point engagement ratchet freehub isn’t the quickest to transfer power into forward motion, the wheels are light enough for this to not be a problem.

Ride quality is good but we couldn’t notice any significant performance improvements over the five-star scoring and less expensive E 1900.

DT Swiss EXC 1200 Spline

4.0 out of 5 star rating
  • £1,900
Best mountain bike wheels
DT Swiss’s EXC 1200 wheelset is designed to be tough enough for enduro racing and weighs just over 1,700g in 29in.
Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro or all-mountain riding
  • Quick-engaging hub and feel good over rough terrain
  • Fairly expensive

With a 30mm internal rim width and 180-level hubs with the reputable Ratchet System freewheel, this is DT’s 29in enduro wheelset.

They use bladed, straight-pull spokes and weigh 1,893g when set up tubeless with rim tape and valves.

We found them to be compliant enough to not generate any unwanted hand pain on long descents and they retained crucial stiffness to give plenty of steering accuracy.

DT Swiss M1900 Spline

4.0 out of 5 star rating
DT Swiss M1900 Spline mountain bike wheelset
The DT Swiss M1900 Spline wheels make holding lines easy.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for trail riding
  • Options for lots of bikes
  • Easy to mount tyres
  • Engagement angle is high

DT Swiss wheels have an excellent reputation. These ones, built around its 370 hubs, are some of its cheapest MTB hoops. Ours had a 29.6mm internal rim width; a 25mm option is available, too.

The M1900s aren’t noticeably harsh, nor too soft, as 28-spoke alloy wheels can tend to be. As such, we were able to hold our lines easily over off-camber roots and never felt as though we were being pinged all over the place.

The freehub’s 15-degree engagement angle is wider than most, so doesn’t give the snappiest acceleration. The flipside is that on a full-sus bike there might be more leeway before pedal kickback comes into play.

Fitting tyres posed no particular issues, and they inflated easily.

With a weight limit of 120kg, heavier riders on e-MTBs may need to look at DT’s e-specific range instead. In all, the M1900s are a solid pair of wheels for the money, with plenty of hub adaptability and easy set-up.

ENVE MTB Foundation AM30

4.0 out of 5 star rating
ENVE MTB Foundation AM30 mountain bike wheelset
Enve’s carbon wheels are right-fancy.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for all-mountain riding
  • Excellent hubs
  • Very good backup and warranty
  • Don’t come taped

ENVE’s more accessibly-priced (for the US brand) Foundation hoops are still expensive but have a communicative, firm and refined ride that isn’t jarring.

They’re lightweight yet strong, hand-built in the US and UK with 28 Sapim Race double-butted spokes per wheel, and adorned with beautiful Industry Nine 1/1 hubs, which have a snappy pick-up, are easy to maintain and almost silent.

The direct, accurate feel means the A30s don’t give the smoothest ride. You also have to tape the asymmetric carbon rims yourself. We appreciated the 4mm rim walls, though, and fitting tyres is a doddle.

ENVE offers a replacement policy, even if you accidentally drive over the wheels. Shimano HG, Shimano Micro Spline and SRAM XD driver options are available.

Formula Linea 3

4.0 out of 5 star rating
  • £780
Best mountain bike wheels
At 1,870g, these are comparable in weight to some similarly intentioned carbon wheels.
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro or all-mountain riding. For XC/trail wheels from Formula check out the Linea 2 and for downhill the Linea G
  • Light enough to compete with carbon wheels
  • Feel great on the trail and have fast pickup, low-friction hubs
  • Can be noisy when ridden hard

Clever bearing placement on the hubs means their skinny looks are deceiving. They’re easy to dismantle and have 60 points of engagement. As a bonus, they spin particularly well when freewheeling.

They’re built with straight-pull spokes that don’t contact where they cross one another, which means that when ridden hard, the spokes do make a ringing noise as they flex around.

We found ride comfort to be similar to most other alloy wheels and more comfortable than a lot of carbon hoops on offer.

Halo Vortex MTC Enduro

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Halo Vortex MTC Enduro mountain bike wheelset
Halo’s Vortex wheels are strong with a firm feel.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for enduro riding
  • Strong and reliable build
  • Loads of tyre volume
  • Might be too stiff for lighter riders

The Halo Vortex MTC Enduro wheels have a firm ride. They aren’t exactly harsh but have a direct, stiff feel, which is good through corners because there’s little flex, but they won’t mask a fork that needs a service, nor be forgiving on a hardtail.

Aggressive or heavier riders may appreciate their stout nature because they feel less likely to buckle under higher loads and give confidence when pummelling through rocks.

We’d also wager they’d feel good on an e-bike. With the widest rims on test, at 33mm internal, this burly, 32-spoke alloy wheelset gives good volume and support to tyres up to 2.8in.

We found it tricky to fit tighter tyres due to the shape of the rim bed.

Despite their extra grams, the wheels feel positive when pedalling thanks to the freehub’s 120 points of engagement and fast pick-up. Its buzz is fairly loud, though, and servicing the rear bearings requires cone spanners. In all, a quality build.

Hope Fortus 30

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Hope Fortus 30 mountain bike wheelset
Hope’s alloy Fortus 30 wheels are suited to enduro or downhill riders.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for enduro riding
  • Easy to inflate
  • Lots of colour options
  • Weighty

Designed for use with chunky enduro or DH rubber, the good-value Hope Fortus 30 wheels are made from 6061-T6 aluminium and have a 29.8mm internal rim width. At 2,445g they are heavy, but the pay-off is reliability.

Hope’s Pro 4 hub has won many fans with its ease of maintenance, and the Lancashire brand’s legendary backup means spares are well-supported, so we’re confident you’ll be able to run these hubs for years. The clicky freehub has an 8.2-degree engagement angle, giving a reactive feel under power.

Built with 32 spokes, the wheels are sufficiently stiff without being harsh, providing a predictable ride feel.

The rims don’t come taped, but tape and valves are included, and getting tyres on and off is easy.

While not a mark of poor quality, we did dent the rim wall. The tyre stayed inflated with its bead locked in place, and it was a simple job to straighten the rim.

Hope offers a ton of options, including six hub colours.

Hunt Enduro Wide

4.0 out of 5 star rating
  • £359
Best mountain bike wheels
Hunt wheels come pre-taped with four spare spokes.
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro or all-mountain riding
  • Wide rim bed is well-suited to wider tyres
  • Fast-engaging freehub helps swift power transfer
  • Not as compliant as Nukeproof’s Horizon or DT Swiss’s E 1900

Even though they’re sold with four spare spokes and a spoke key, the Hunt Enduro wheels are built to last. The 36-spoke rear wheel is stiff and can handle a lot of abuse, while the 32-spoke front wheel is a little more compliant.

The freehub has 120 points of engagement and makes that satisfying buzz when you’re freewheeling. Because the rims are 33mm wide, they’re best suited to wider tyres – such as 2.8in – and can square off the profile of skinnier rubber.

We did find the wheels to be pretty stiff but this seemed to be the compromise for an exceptionally tough set of hoops.

Santa Cruz Reserve 30 I9 Hydra

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Reserve 30 I9 Hydra mountain bike wheelset
Santa Cruz will replace broken wheels under its warranty scheme.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for enduro riding
  • Classic carbon wheel feel
  • Accurate and direct
  • Firm

Santa Cruz’s Reserve 30s have an accurate feel without being as harsh as most carbon fibre wheels used to be. However, they’re a tad less comfy than some and feel less compliant than many of the alloy wheels despite having only 28 spokes.

Industry Nine’s incredible Hydra freehub has no lag. The instant reaction to pedal inputs on our test hardtail made these some of the snappiest-feeling wheels around.

Unfortunately, we cracked the rear rim while ragging it down a particularly rocky track, writing it off. We’ve destroyed carbon rims from a number of other brands in the past, and this is the only Reserve wheel we’ve damaged since they started appearing on test bikes a few years ago, so we don’t feel there’s a reliability issue.

Under Santa Cruz’s lifetime warranty, the brand will replace a broken wheel for free.

Shimano MT620

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Shimano MT620 mountain bike wheelset
Shimano’s M620 level wheels are a cheap and cheerful option.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for trail riding
  • Easy tyre mounting and inflation
  • Great value for money
  • Hard-riders may find them a bit soft

Sitting between Deore and SLX level, the alloy MT620s are great value.

They are a touch softer than some when you’re really pushing them hard into corners, or where super-precise lines are needed. This gives a comfortable feel and means you don’t get knocked off-line easily. If you’re a hard-charger, you may want a higher spoke count than 24, but the build is good for the money.

Shimano’s cup-and-cone bearing system allows easy access to the hub bearings, but you’ll need cone spanners and some patience to get them ‘just so’.

The wheels come with a Micro Spline freehub for Shimano 12-speed cassettes. No XD driver is available.

We measured the asymmetric rim at 29.3mm.

Fitting tyres is easy, and the freehub engages reliably.

There are better wheels out there, but not for this price.

Syncros Revelstoke 1.0

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Syncros Revelstoke 1.0 mountain bike wheelset
Syncros’ deep section carbon hoops look the business.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for trail riding
  • Good trail manners
  • Quick pickup and lightweight
  • Tricky getting tyres on

These lightweight wheels have a hookless carbon rim with an internal width of 30.9mm, so there’s plenty of support for 2.5-2.6in rubber.

The rim profile makes it a bit of a challenge fitting, inflating and seating tyres. However, once up and running they proved reliable performers, and with a very quick freehub pick-up, they feel reactive on the trail.

At 36mm, they are also noticeably deep, giving these hoops an aggressive appearance.

We expected to be battered around by the deep rims, but they feel good on the trail with plenty of width and a fairly low spoke count (28).

While not the smoothest, they have a similar firm-yet-muted feel.

They’re fairly low-priced for carbon hoops. The hubs come ready for Center Lock rotors. Wheelsets ship with an XD driver, although Shimano HG and Micro Spline freehubs are also available.


Also consider…

The following mountain bike wheelsets scored fewer than four stars in our reviews, but are still worth considering.

Crankbrothers Synthesis Enduro Alloy

3.5 out of 5 star rating
Crankbrothers Synthesis Enduro Alloy mountain bike wheelset
Crank Brothers’ Synthesis wheels were one of the first to differentiate in feel between front and rear hoops.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for enduro riding
  • Good at holding a line
  • Easy to live with
  • Would be good with a quicker free hub

The Crankbrothers Synthesis wheels have a wide 31.3mm front rim with 28 spokes, designed to provide a bit more flex to aid comfort and line choice. The back wheel is built to be stiffer, with a 29.1mm rim and 32 spokes, for optimal tracking and acceleration.

Despite the extra ‘give’, the front wheel never felt vague, and the broad rim gives more volume and support to wider tyres. It’s hard to say whether the rear wheel is stiffer than others, but it doesn’t give a harsh or pingy ride.

Freehub engagement isn’t the quickest, so there’s some lag when putting the power down.

The Enduro Alloys are comfy on fast, rocky tracks, and track off-camber lines and rough corners well.

Crankbrothers’ theory that a softer front wheel aids grip and comfort isn’t unique, and while any difference in feel is marginal, these wheels do ride well, so maybe the idea has legs.

Overall, pricing is good, weight is average and they’re easy to live with.

Hope Fortus 26 Pro 4

3.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike wheels
As the name suggests, these use a relatively narrow 26mm internal-width alloy rim.
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro riding
  • Backed up by Hope’s legendary customer service
  • Great hub with snappy engagement laced to strong rims
  • Let down by narrow 26mm internal rim width if you prefer tyres wider than 2.4in
  • Read the full Hope Fortus 26 Pro 4 wheelset review

Hunt All-Mountain Carbon H_Impact

3.5 out of 5 star rating
  • £789
Best mountain bike wheels
After three months of testing, we’ve had no issues.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

Mavic Crossmax XL S

3.5 out of 5 star rating
Mavic Crossmax XL S mountain bike wheelset
The alloy Mavic Crossmax wheels have an accurate feel.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • Best suited for trail riding
  • Stiff, accurate feel
  • Decent backup
  • Laggy freehub

While these Mavics are expensive for alloy rims, they’re also lightweight and plenty stiff enough for aggressive riders who want an accurate wheel they can trust.

Despite having just 24 spokes per wheel, they’re well-built with a snappy, direct feel. Through rock gardens, they feel a little less composed than some, but we were still able to hold our lines with confidence, and they feel great tearing around berms.

The Crossmax XLs feature Mavic’s UST rim bed system, which means if you snap a spoke you need their specific spokes and nipples – two spare sets are supplied per wheel.

Mavic also gives you a special tool to access the hub bearings.

Freehub engagement is slower than most here, making them feel a bit sluggish when you want to power out of corners. For the money, it should be better.

It can be a bit tricky to get tyres on the rim, but inflation is easy.

The wheels have a rating of 150kg for bike and rider.

Newmen EVOLUTION SL A.30

3.5 out of 5 star rating
  • £638
Best mountain bike wheels
Unlike most alloy rims, these use a hookless bead.
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro riding
  • Impressively tough rims withstood plenty of abuse
  • Hubs look well designed and built to last
  • Wheelset is light compared to other alloy offerings
  • The hubs were draggy, and hard pedalling caused the spokes to make noise
  • Read the full Newmen EVOLUTION SL A.30 wheelset review

Spank Tuned 350 Vibrocore 28h

3.5 out of 5 star rating

£620

Best mountain bike wheels
Spank’s Tuned 350 Vibrocore 28h wheels have tough rims for enduro duties.
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media
  • Best-suited to enduro riding
  • Tough rims took a lot of abuse without sustaining any damage
  • Their unique selling point – Vibrocore – didn’t improve the ride, instead making the wheels less comfortable
  • Heavier than we’d have liked
  • Read the full Spank Tuned 350 Vibrocore 28h wheelset review

Mountain bike wheels buyer’s guide

What type of riding are you doing?

The first thing you should consider when buying a new set of wheels is what sort of rider you are. If you’re a cross-country racer looking for all-out speed then a wheel’s weight is going to be your primary concern over its strength.

Trail and all-mountain riders will want to balance strength and weight, looking for the perfect compromise for their individual riding styles.

Gravity-focused riders, enduro or downhill, should look at prioritising strength over weight, although generally speaking the more you spend the lighter and stronger wheels should be.

Also consider how hard you ride. If you’re a heavier or more aggressive rider, you should shy away from lightweight wheels and look for a sturdy set with a higher spoke count – most likely 32 spokes laced in the three-cross pattern.

If you’re a lightweight rider or if you use a lot of finesse on the trail, you can probably get away with running a lighter-weight wheelset or one with fewer spokes.

Axle standards

Best mountain bike wheels
This rear hub has interchangeable end caps for quick release, 12×142 thru-axles and Boost 12×148 thru-axles.
SRAM

Over the past five years, axles have transitioned from decades-old quick-releases to thru-axles, which offer a stiffer, more secure interface. There are several MTB axle standards to be aware of.

The 100x15mm front and 142x12mm rear thru-axles were common a few years ago, but the desire to increase wheel stiffness has led manufacturers to move to the wider ‘Boost’ axle spacing, which uses a 110x15mm front axle with a 148x12mm rear thru-axle.

If you’re buying a high-end mountain bike, these days, nearly all of them will feature Boost axle spacing.

More recently, ‘Super Boost’ spacing, found on a growing number of bikes, is becoming more common. This standard increases the axle width further, in theory, to improve stiffness once more.

What is Boost and Super Boost hub spacing?

Hub spacing refers to the distance between the two ends of the hub’s axle or the gap between the inside of the dropouts on your frame or fork.

Bikes and hubs with standard Boost spacing measure 148mm wide. This means the hub flanges are further apart compared to a standard 142mm axle hub.

Wider hub flanges cause the wheel’s spokes to be braced from a wider angle, too. This increase in angle leads to stronger wheels.

Super Boost hubs are 157mm wide, and just like normal Boost spacing the increase in width is seen with wider-still hub flanges improving strength further.

Before purchasing a new wheelset, make sure it uses the same axle type and width as your frame.

You might also want to consider looking for a hub that can be changed to a different axle size should you change your frame but want to keep your wheels at a later date.

Carbon or alloy rims?

Best mountain bike wheels
Zipp’s first MTB wheelset brings an unusual approach to carbon wheels.
Dan Hearn/SRAM

Increasingly, high-end wheelsets are built around carbon fibre rims. Compared to aluminium, carbon rims can be as stiff or stiffer at a lower weight. That’s not to say you should completely write off aluminium rims, though.

If you’re not concerned with ultimate weight savings or ultimate stiffness, but are looking to upgrade to a higher performance wheelset with an affordable price, then there are many quality aluminium wheelsets to choose from.

Aluminium rims are more likely to be dented or dinged in an impact before they crack or fail entirely. Carbon rims, however, are less likely to show signs of damage until they fail completely.

Rim width

Best mountain bike wheels
These tough rims have an internal width of 30mm.
Georgina Hinton / Immediate Media

Rim width has increased for both road and mountain bikes. The critical dimension to keep in mind is the internal width.

This distance determines the shape of your tyres. For a given tyre, a wider rim will increase tyre volume and give the tyre a flatter, squared-off profile. A narrower rim will decrease tyre volume and give the tyre a rounder profile.

Wider rims can also increase tyre stability, which can make your bike feel more predictable through corners. At the same time, tyres are designed with specific rim widths in mind. Going too wide can cause the knobs on the sides of a tyre to sit too high, resulting in less grip through turns.

Pairing rim and tyre width is a key consideration – especially with so many tyre widths to choose from. Here are some rough guidelines to get you started:

  • 2–2.25in tyres = 23–25mm rim widths
  • 2.25–2.4in tyres  = 25–30mm rim widths
  • 2.4–2.6in tyres = 30–35mm rim widths
  • 2.6–3in tyres = 35–40mm rim widths

If you have a favourite tyre width and tread pattern, keep in mind which rim width you want to pair it with when buying a new wheelset.

Tubeless or tubes?

Best mountain bike wheels
Tubeless setup has become much easier with the introduction of products such as the Airshot.
David Caudery / Immediate Media

The debate over whether to run inner tubes or to rely on a tyre containing only sealant boils down to personal preference.

Inner tubes are affordable and easy to replace without much fuss (or mess), but they’re also prone to punctures and generally require the rider to run higher pressures.

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Tubeless systems are lighter and have the added benefit of being able to self-seal some small punctures. Tubeless tyres are more expensive and if you do get a flat, you’ll have to deal with a bit of a mess.

Equally, if you rip the tyre’s carcass beyond repair you’ll need to dispose of your tyre or use an inner tube anyway.

However you choose to roll, nearly all modern mountain bike wheelsets are tubeless-compatible.

Engagement speed

Best mountain bike wheels
Freehubs usually engage using small spring-loaded pawls that push into a groove to ‘grip’.
David Rome / Immediate Media

One often overlooked wheel feature is how fast the freehub engages.

This speed is actually a measure of the distance your crank travels before the pawls inside the freehub engage the teeth of the drive ring to propel you forward. It is most often discussed in terms of ‘points of engagement’ or ‘degrees of engagement’. More points will result in fewer degrees and a faster freehub.

You can figure out the degrees of engagement by dividing the points of engagement by 360. For example, a hub with 36 points of engagement will have 10 degrees of free play. Another hub with 120 points of engagement will have three degrees of movement until it engages.

The differences in engagement speed is noticeable on the trail. In general, a faster freehub is better for pedalling. A hub with a high number of points of engagement will allow you to get back up to speed quickly after coasting with less lag.

It can make it easier to ‘ratchet’ up technical climbs – a technique where the rider takes a half or quarter pedal stroke in situations where there might not be enough time, or pedal clearance, for a complete stroke.

Engagement can also be a matter of diminishing returns once you reach a certain point. Additionally, the tighter tolerances of fast-engaging freehubs can require more maintenance because they’re less tolerant of contamination. They also tend to be louder and can have more drag, although this isn’t always the case.

Hub and wheel manufacturer DT Swiss recently speculated that a higher number of engagement points on a mountain bike hub can actually increase pedal kickback (depending on the bike’s suspension kinematics). It suggested a hub with 36 points of engagement, and therefore 10 degrees of free play, is the best compromise.