A fresh set of mountain bike wheels will improve the way your bike reacts to different terrain and obstacles based on such factors as weight, stiffness and rim width. These variables continually shift depending on the mountain bike discipline — which means you’ll typically find a huge disparity in terms of weight and dimensions across the spectrum, there’s no one-wheel-fits-all scenario here.
Which wheelset is best for you is largely based around your physique and type of riding you prefer. As a rule, heavier riders should stay away from lightweight carbon hoops and rather opt for something a little beefier with a higher spoke count for added strength. Lighter riders can get away with using something a little more feathery but even cross-country mountain biking has started to get more technical over the past few years, and wheel choice has become more important than ever before.
From the hubs and spokes to the rim itself, wheels take a significant amount of abuse out on the trail and you should always consider choosing reliability over weight saving — after all, a wheelset is a longterm investment and should never be a cost-cutting exercise.
We’ve broken down the various mountain bike disciplines into three distinct wheel categories: cross-country, trail/enduro and downhill and selected the best options available in each class based on price and performance.
BEST MOUNTAIN BIKE WHEELS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Before splurging on a new set of mountain bike wheels it’s worth looking into the anatomy of the wheel and dissecting the various components that make the wheel spin, to gain an understanding of how things work.
Back in the early days of mountain biking, the industry standard was the 26-inch wheel. And while the smaller size made for nimble handling - particularly on technical switchbacks and tighter terrain - the trade-off was less straight-line speed, compliance and traction. The birth of the 29er or 29-inch wheel heralded a new dawn for all forms of mountain biking, the larger circumference improving such attributes as rolling speed, grip and overall compliance thanks to the large-volume tyres. The 29er has remained the staple choice among cross-country and marathon riders, and has even made its way into the world of downhill and enduro racing. But not everybody is sold on the larger-is-better concept — enter the 27.5-inch or 650b wheel which represents a happy medium between both extremes, combining the grip and roll of the 29er with the weight advantage of the 26er.
Mountain bike wheels are manufactured from either carbon fibre or aluminium, both of which have their own pros and cons. Carbon wheels are stiff, light, strong and also absorb trail buzz to a certain extent but they’re expensive. Aluminium on the other hand is a lot cheaper and, while it also delivers a fairly decent amount of stiffness and performance, they are prone to flex and dents but can be trued and repaired — carbon not so much.
Rim width has become a hotly debated topic over the years in all forms of cycling, owing to the lower rolling resistance and better grip offered by fitting larger-volume tyres. The important factor to note here is internal rim width which dictates what tyres you can safely use — as a rule of thumb, the wider the rim, the greater the tyre volume and contact patch with the trail. Rim widths differ vastly between cross-country, downhill and enduro wheels with profiles ranging from 23mm to 35mm.
Not only has the introduction of tubeless tyres reduced the prevalence of pinch flats and punctures, it’s also improved compliance, traction and speed on the trail. Most wheels are tubeless compatible and come standard with pre-fitted rim tape and valves. While adding tyre sealant will fill small holes caused by thorns, sticks and sharp rocks — you may need to carry a tyre plug and CO2 canister to fix larger holes.
In a nutshell, spokes connect the hub to the rim and give the wheel its strength and shape. Spoke counts can vary between the front and rear wheel but the latter often employs more spokes for added strength and stiffness. Lacing patterns also vary and have different properties — some wheels are laced with two-cross straight-pull spokes for weight reduction (cross-country) while others employ three-cross-lacing patterns for better strength and torque efficacy (downhill/enduro). Spokes are made from either steel or aluminium and sometimes even carbon fibre.
Hubs and axles
Constructed from aluminium or carbon composite, the hub sits at the very centre of the wheel. While the front hub is simple in function, the rear is more complex in design, featuring a freehub body onto which the cassette attaches. It also houses the intricate spring-loaded ratchet-and-pawl mechanism which enables the wheel to spin when freewheeling and engage the transmission when pedalling. Bigger pawls will deal better with more torque (downhill/enduro) while on the opposite end finer pawls will result in a faster engagement and better power delivery (cross-country).
The need to continually improve front- and rear-end stiffness has led to the introduction of thicker, more stable thru-axles that bolt directly into the fork and drop-outs. Most newer bikes offer wider ‘Boost’ axle spacing, which use a 110x15mm front axle with a 148x12mm rear thru-axle for added levels of stiffness.
Scroll down to see BikePerfect's roundup of the best mountain bike wheels available to buy for 2020.
THE BEST XC (CROSS COUNTRY) MOUNTAIN BIKE WHEELS
1. Bontrager Kovee XXX TLR 29
Bulletproof in construction, lightweight in application — the Kovee XXX is all about performance and speed
Weight: 1290g | Material: Carbon | Rim width (internal): 29mm | Spoke count: 24 | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er) | Hubs: DT Swiss 240 | Boost spacing: Yes
The Kovee XXX TLR 29er wheelset represents the lightest and most stiffest offering in Bontrager’s cross-country range and is raced exclusively by Anton Cooper, Emily Batty and Jolanda Neff on the UCI MTB World Cup circuit.
At 1290 grams, the Kovee XXX is a ridiculously light wheelset but this has done little to affect its stiffness and strength — cross-country racing has after all become more technical and wheelsets need to comply with the demanding rock gardens, jumps and drop-offs that festoon modern courses.
To combat these tricky features, the XXX hoops have been built using Trek’s very own OCLV carbon fibre and laced to DT Swiss 240 hubs, while a generous 29mm inner rim width ensures riders can run lower pressures for better traction and comfort.
2. Stan’s NoTubes Crest CB7
Light, pliant and incredibly stiff, the Crest CB7s are backed by a lifetime crash replacement guarantee
Weight: 1452g | Material: Carbon | Rim width (internal): 23mm | Spoke count: 28 | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er) | Hubs: Neo with Durasync | Boost spacing: Yes
Stan’s NoTubes Crest CB7 is the company’s new flagship lightweight carbon rim. Available as a 29er option only, the CB7s are threaded to Neo hubs with Sapim Force spokes and brass Securelock nipples that supply stiff and flex-free performance.
The hubs feature a Durasync six-pawl freehub with 10-degree engagement, and triple freehub bearings to better distribute axle load and torque delivery. Compared to other wheelsets in the segment, the CB7s utilise a 23mm internal rim width, not bad by modern standards but notably shy of the 30mm width offered by Bontrager’s Kovee XXX wheels.
Like all of the company’s wheelsets, the Crest CB7 is available in multiple configurations to fit practically every axle and cassette type, and backed by a 5-year warranty and lifetime crash replacement guarantee.
3. Scope 02
A versatile cross-country wheel that doubles up for use as a gravel and cyclo-cross option too
Weight: 1380g | Material: Carbon | Rim width (internal): 25mm | Spoke count: 24 (front), 28 (rear) | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er) | Hubs: Scope | Boost spacing: Yes
According to Eindhoven-based company Scope Cycling, every wheelset it manufactures is developed as a complete system as opposed to randomly stitching various components together.
To save weight, Scope has used what it calls ‘Local Reinforcement Technology’ (LRT) which strengthens the rim at the spoke holes instead of the entire spoke hole section resulting in 10% reduction in weight with no compromise on durability and resilience.
With a 25mm internal profile and hookless bead, the Scope O2 wheelset represents a happy medium in terms of rim width, fostering better traction and pliancy through the introduction of lower tyre pressures. The hub flanges have also been widened for improved stiffness and an even tension spread around the nipples.
The kicker here is the O2’s versatility as an off-road wheelset — it can be used in applications ranging from gravel grinding and cyclo-cross to cross-country and marathon stage racing.
THE BEST TRAIL/ENDURO MOUNTAIN BIKE WHEELS
1. Industry Nine Enduro 310C
The best-of-the-best as far as carbon enduro hoops go
Weight: 1740g (29er) | Material: Carbon | Rim width (internal): 31mm | Spoke count: 24 or 32 | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er or 650b) | Hubs: Hydra | Boost spacing: Yes
Available in both 650b and 29-inch guises, the 310 wheelset can be purchased as a complete build or customised using various components and colourful anodised spokes. It all looks very impressive.
The carbon hoops, manufactured with the support of Reynolds Cycling, employ a hookless system for impact resistance, a 31mm internal rim width and a limited lifetime warranty for peace of mind. The rim is designed to accommodate 2.3- to 2.8-inch tyres
Depending on your weight and riding style, the Industry Nine Enduro wheels are available in 27.5-inch or 29er iterations and with 24 or 32 spoke designs. A big drawcard with these particular wheels is the Hydra freehub — offering 690 points of engagement, power delivery is immediate.
2. Crank Brothers Synthesis E11
An enduro/trail-specific wheelset designed to obliterate any trail with reassuring cornering speed and grip
Weight: 1825g (29er) | Material: Carbon | Rim width (internal): 31.5mm front, 29.5mm rear | Spoke count: 28 (front), 32 (rear) | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er or 650b) | Hubs: Synthesis 11 (Industry Nine Hydra Hub) | Boost spacing: Yes
Crank Brothers have dubbed the Synthesis E11 wheels as ‘mountain biking's first tuned carbon wheel system for enduro riding and racing’ — a bold claim but both wheels have been tuned with different spoke counts, tensions and rim widths to deal with the varying loads encountered at each corner.
Like most of the players in this segment the wheels feature a shallow carbon rim with reinforced rim walls and spoke eyelets for the high-impact demands of enduro-style riding.
The front end is notably compliant and grippy allowing you dig it in to a corner with assurance while the thinner and stiffer rear wheel delivers immediate power transfer thanks to the Synthesis 11 hub with Industry Nine Hydra internals.
The rims are designed to partner best with 2.4 inch to 2.6 inch tyres for added levels of compliance and grip but at $2399/£1923 some may find the sticker price hard to swallow.
3. South Industries Enduro 29
A reliable and strong, handmade carbon option at a great price
Weight: 1805g (29er) | Material: Carbon | Rim width (internal): 31mm front | Spoke count: 28 or 32 | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er) | Hubs: Hope Pro 4 | Boost spacing: Yes
South African wheel makers, South Industries, have forged a formidable name in the enduro scene for their light, strong and appreciably wide wheelsets. Handmade in Cape Town, the company believes a wheel is only as good as the sum of all of its components and offers a truly bespoke ‘handgemaak’ wheel-building service allowing riders to customise the build based on input from builders themselves.
With a 3mm thick hookless bead lip and an internal width of 31mm, the Enduro 29 rim works best with a 2.4 inch to 2.6 inch tyre. South recommends Hope Pro 4 hubs laced with two-cross Sapim Race spokes and brass Securelock nipples as the minimum build specification as it offers a balance of reliability, performance and price.
If it’s something a little more exotic or performance orientated that you’re after, the Enduro 29s can be specced using I9’s Hydra or 101 hub sets which offer higher engagement and bigger flanges for improved stiffness.
4. DT Swiss E1900 Spline
Affordable, hardy and reliable — you’ll be hard-pressed to find another alloy enduro wheel as competent
Weight: 1998g (29er) | Material: Aluminium | Rim width (internal): 30mm front | Spoke count: 28 | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er or 650b) | Hubs: DT Swiss 370 | Boost spacing: Yes
The DT Swiss E1900 Spline wheelset is an impressive upgrade for those looking to add more stiffness and precision to their riding at a price point that won’t break the bank.
Despite the aluminium construction, the E1900s offer a good meld of stiffness and response thanks to the three-cross straight-pull spokes and proven DT Swiss 370 hubs. At 1998g, they may not be the lightest option around but they’re hardy and able to accommodate riders of up to 130kg.
With a 30mm internal rim width and Boost hub spacing available across the range, the E1900 Spline wheelset is easily DT’s best-kept secret.
BEST DOWNHILL MOUNTAIN BIKE WHEELS
1. Santa Cruz Reserve DH 29er
High-end downhill wheels with the trail cred to match
Weight: 1587g | Material: Carbon | Rim width (internal): 22, 25, 27, 30, 31, 37mm (depending on size) | Spoke count: 28 | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er or 650b) | Hubs: DT350, I9 Torch or Chris King | Boost spacing: Yes
Santa Cruz’s Reserve DH 29er wheels are downhill-specific carbon hoops designed to withstand the abuse and impacts of modern downhill courses.
The company has after all forged a name in the industry for pushing the boundaries and debunking the myths associated with carbon fibre, most notably on its bicycle frames.
Available in two wheel sizes, three hub choices and several rim widths the Reserve 29er wheels are built with j-bend spokes with external secure-lock nipples for better consistency in terms of strength and durability — both front and rear wheels use a 28h spoke pattern.
Despite its downhill bent, the Reserve DH rim profile features a combination of stiffness and compliance. Add to that an asymmetric rim design and offset drilling pattern, both of which promote an even spoke tension, and the Reserve might just be the most balanced carbon downhill wheel ever made.
2. Nukeproof Horizon
The toughest wheels on the market are also one of the most affordable options
Weight: 2095g (29er) | Material: Aluminium | Rim width (internal): 29mm | Spoke count: 28 | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er or 650b) | Hubs: Nukeproof Horizon | Boost spacing: Yes
Developed in conjunction with WTB Mountain Biking Components, Nukeproof’s Horizon wheelset is a hardy and durable option for riders of the enduro and downhill disciplines.
Naturally, the Horizons are tough as nails, featuring CNC 7075 aluminium hubs (with 84 points of engagement) laced with 28 Sandvik 302t double-butted spokes and brass nipples. At 2095g, they might not be the lightest wheels around but the upshot of the added heft is resilience in spades.
The 29mm internal width allows for an array of tyre options to be fitted — Nukeproof recommends 2.8 inch rubber on 650b wheels and 2.6 inch on 29er options.
3. Hope Fortus 30
They might be a little on the heavy side but the Hope Fortus 30 wheels are a bulletproof and affordable wheel upgrade
Weight: 2435g | Material: Aluminium | Rim width (internal): 30mm | Spoke count: 32 | Tyre options: Tubeless ready, clincher (29er, 650b or 26er) | Hubs: Hope Pro 4 | Boost spacing: Yes
The Hope Fortus 30 is one of the most affordable downhill wheel options currently on the market. Like its chief adversary, the Nukeproof Horizon, it’s built from aluminium and threaded to Hope Pro 4 hubs with Sapim Race stainless steel double-butted spokes and brass nipples.
While these additions have significantly strengthened and stiffened the wheel - at both the front and rear end - they’ve also pushed up the weight to 2435g (set of 29er wheels), which is notably heavier than other wheelsets of the same price point and ilk.
As its name references, the Fortus 30 wheels have an internal rim width of 30mm ensuring the tyre is the perfect shape to give riders optimum grip in high-speed cornering situations.