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.
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. We have also put together a guide with everything you need to know when choosing new mountain bike wheels.
Scroll down to see Bike Perfect's roundup of the best mountain bike wheels available to buy for 2020.
The best XC (cross country) mountain bike wheels
Manufactured with feedback from professional riders such as Nino Schurter, Mathias Flückiger and Kate Courtney, it's no surprise that the XRC 1200 Spline is such an impressive wheelset. The wheelset's stiffness makes handling super sharp and drives the bike forwards under hard pedalling.
Quality DT Swiss 180 hubs are superbly reliable and spin effortlessly on SINC ceramic bearings. Owing to the rim's stiffness, DT Swiss has been able to use its DT Aerolite and DT Aero Comp straight-pull spokes.
DT Swiss has two rim options for the XRC 1200 Spline, a 30mm version for those wanting better support for a chunky tyre platform or a 25mm width suited for traditional whippety racing types and the gravel curious who are interested in a crossover wheelset.
Crankbrothers has tuned its Synthesis wheelset to achieve a difference in ride quality and lateral flexibility between the front and rear by using different rim profiles and spoke counts.
The Synthesis front wheel only has 28 spokes, while the rear is laced with 32. Internal rim widths differ too: they are wider at the front than the rear. Crankbrothers believes that a front wheel should be more forgiving, as it is responsible for turning the bike and severe terrain deflections could ruin steering feedback dynamics.
Crankbrothers offers three different alloy Synthesis wheelsets, with its front/rear specific build. The brand’s Synthesis XCT is a lightweight 29-inch option, featuring a 24.5mm internal diameter rear wheel and 26.5mm internal diameter front, the total weight of which tallies 1839g.
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 five-year warranty and lifetime crash replacement guarantee.
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.
Hunt's XC Wide wheelset is aimed at cross-country riders who want to get rowdy on the downhills. As a new breed of slacker 100 to 130mm travel 'downcountry' bikes become more popular riders are beginning to look for wheels that are not only spritely on the climbs but have a wider and more robust rim profile that can handle increasingly challenging terrain.
For just £329, HUNT seems to offer an almost complete wheel package. Durable 6061 T6 alloy rims the wheels give superb support to tyres between 2.1- and 2.5in to maximise traction when climbing and in corners. The hubs have a snappy five-degree engagement and are available in boost or standard spacing. It might not be the lightest wheelset but for a bit more money HUNT sells a Race version that proves alloy isn't dead weighing in at a claimed 1517g.
The best trail/enduro mountain bike wheels
Wheel manufacturers are now understanding that despite a stiff wheel giving sharp cornering and acceleration, building compliance into a wheel allows better grip and control as the wheel can deform over rough terrain.
No manufacturer takes the concept of wheel compliance further than Zipp who have entered the mountain bike market for the first time with its 3Zero Moto wheelset. Inspired by the single wall rim designs in motocross the 3Zero features a 30mm internal width and can be purchased on their own or as a wheelset built around Zipp's ZM1 hubs with standard splined SRAM/Shimano or SRAM XD freehub.
Wheelsets come as boost only in both 27.5- or 29-inch formats. If you purchase the complete wheelset Zipp includes Tyrewiz pressure gauges to make sure you're always at the preferred psi for optimal grip.
Crankbrothers has 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 complete 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.
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.
Halo has been making bombproof wheels for decades and its Vortex wheels have been designed to survive anything that an EWS course is likely to throw up.
The rim, built from 6061 T-10 heat-treated Aluminium alloy, measures a massive 33mm internally. This gives large tyres superb support allowing low pressures for maximum grip Halo recommends tyres between 2.35- and 2.8in although we found its better to go bigger as some 2.35in tyres may struggle to give their intended cornering support on such a wide platform.
Despite being on the heavier side the Halo hubs spin quickly with little effort. A SupaDrive rear hub features 120-point pick up for instant input from the pedals to make the most of quick crank turns between corners. When freewheeling the hub generates a pleasing buzz that enhances the feeling of speed without being obnoxious. Halo's hubs come in most spacing and cassette configurations plus Halo ship the wheels factory taped and ready for a super-easy tubeless setup.
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
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.
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 2.8in rubber on 650b wheels and 2.6in on 29er options.
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.
Best mountain bike wheels: what you need to know
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.
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 uses a 110x15mm front axle with a 148x12mm rear thru-axle for added levels of stiffness.