Which wheelset is best for you is largely based on your physique and the 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 long-term 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.
1. Wheel size
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 tires. The 29er has become the staple choice among cross-country and marathon riders and has now made its way into the world of downhill and enduro racing too. 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.
2. Rim material
Mountain bike wheels are manufactured from either carbon fiber or aluminum, 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. Aluminum 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.
3. Rim width
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 . The important factor to note here is internal rim width which dictates what tires you can safely use — as a rule of thumb, the wider the rim, the greater the tire 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.
4. Tire format
Not only has the introduction of to mountain bike tires has reduced the prevalence of pinch flats and punctures, but 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 tire sealant will fill small holes caused by thorns, sticks and sharp rocks — you may need to carry a tire 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 aluminum and sometimes even carbon fiber.
6. Hubs and axles
The are constructed from aluminum or carbon composite, the hub sits at the very center 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 pedaling. 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. For more good wheelset , search our product catlog.