Best mountain bike wheels in 2020 | Trail, all-mountain and enduro wheels tested
Best mountain bike wheels in 2020 | Trail, all-mountain and enduro wheels tested
Our pick of the best trail-tested wheelsets and what to know before you buy
❚The products mentioned in this article are selected or reviewed independently by our journalists. When you buy through links on our site we may earn an affiliate commission, but this never influences our opinion.
The Deemax Pro features a slightly narrower-than-most 28mm internal width.Georgina Hinton
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’s Horizon wheels come in both 27.5in and 29in variants.Georgina Hinton
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.
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 skinner rubber.
We did find the wheels to be pretty stiff but this seemed to be the compromise for an exceptionally tough set of hoops.
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.
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 thru-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?
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.
These tough rims have an internal width of 30mm.Georgina Hinton
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?
Tubeless setup has become much easier with the introduction of products like the Airshot.David Caudery
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.
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.
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.
Alex started racing downhill at the tender age of 11, later going on to compete internationally representing the UK. At 19, he moved to the Alps to pursue a career as a bike bum clocking up moon-mileage riding the famous tracks in and around Morzine, France. In that time, he broke more bikes than he can remember. Alex then moved back to the UK when he landed a job working for Mountain Biking UK as their Features Editor — BikeRadar's sister title — as their features editor. Since working for MBUK, Alex's focus has moved to towards bike tech and he now wants to find out what bikes and components represent the best value for money regardless of discipline. Alex's current fleet includes his trusty commuter bike, a 2017 Marin Gestalt 3, his long term Orange Stage 6 RS enduro bike, a used and abused 2015 GT Sanction Pro, a Scott Voltage YZ dirt jump bike and a Deluxe Pro 2 BMX.