Finding the Best Mountain Bike Wheels: A Buying Guide
So, you’ve got a mountain bike, and you’ve ridden it to the point that you need to replace one or even both wheels. Where you do you start? Or, maybe you’ve purchased a bike for the first time, but you don’t like the wheels that came with it and you’re looking to buy a new set of mountain bike wheels. Again, if you’ve never been through the process before, it can be challenging to determine where you should start. We’ve created a handy buying guide that will help you determine which is the best mountain bike wheelset for your specific needs.
Perhaps the most important consideration you’re going to make when buying a new set of wheels for a mountain bike is the construction material. There are two primary options on the market today:
- Carbon Fiber: Carbon fiber is super light, super strong, and usually super expensive. You’ll notice from our list that there’s only one such option included. They are not that widely available, so finding a carbon fiber wheelset that will fit your bike may be challenging. There’s also the fact that you’re going to pay a great deal for most of them, unless you go with a budget-option, which means you’ll be sacrificing quality and that’s never a good option.
- Aluminum Alloy: Most of the replacement mountain bike wheels on the market are made from aluminum alloy. They are light, durable, and look good. The vast majority are painted, but make sure that you get a wheel or wheelset that is powder coated, rather than conventionally painted. The coating will last longer and stand up better to the abuse you’ll dish out on the trail.
Size is another important consideration. Here, we’re talking about diameter, not width (which we’ll discuss below). The taller the tire, the higher your ride height will be. Not to mention the fact that your bike is designed for a specific size (or size range) of wheels and tires. Ideally, you’ll go back with the same size wheels as what came on your bike from the manufacturer. Our comparison list of the best mountain bike wheels included size options for taller bikes, medium-sized bikes, and even shorter ones. Note that most mountain bikes use either a 26, 27.5, or a 29-inch wheel and the majority can only use a single size wheel.
When shopping for tires, remember this mantra – wider is better. The wider your tire is, the more grip you’re going to get on the trail. You also get better control on rough terrain. Wider tires inflated to a lower psi can also survive better on rugged trails, although you’ll sacrifice acceleration for that durability. When it comes to rim width, you need to check the manufacturer’s specifications for the frame and fork. In most cases, you cannot put a fat tire on a slim bike, but you can often put a slimmer tire/wheel onto a fatter frame.
Related: Best MTB Handlebars
Axle Material, Type, and Size
The axle is one of the most critical components of your mountain bike wheel and tire assembly. You want it to be strong and durable, which usually means going with steel over another type of metal. However, there are several different styles of axle on the market, including solid, bolt-on types, quick release, and tube/skewer styles, and more. You need to choose a wheel with a hub/axle assembly that will work with your bike. That usually means going back with what came on it from the manufacturer. You’ll also want to make sure that you have the right size. Older bikes often have smaller axles, while newer bikes have larger, beefier ones. There’s also the fact that different hubs (of which your axles are a part) are made for different purposes and in different widths.
Tubed or Tubeless?
Most bikes today, even mountain bikes, have tubed tires. That’s remained the same for a long time. However, things are beginning to change. There are a couple of tubeless options on our list, and many others on the wider market that you might consider. Which is better for your needs? It depends.
Tubeless tires offer quite a few benefits. For instance, they’re generally lighter than tubed tires and wheels. They also have a lower rolling resistance, meaning faster acceleration and higher top speeds, and they are harder to puncture. You can also use a tubeless wheel with a tubed tire, but you cannot use a rim designed only for use with innertubes with a tubeless tire.
We’ll keep this one short – some mountain bike wheels do not come with a freewheel. If that is the case, you’ll either need to reuse your old one or buy a separate one. We don’t recommend reusing freewheels, as they suffer from wear and tear just as much as any other part of the bike, and there is no guarantee that your current one will fit the new wheel/hub, either. Make sure that you buy a mountain bike wheel that comes with a new freewheel, or that the manufacturer makes a compatible version that can be ordered on its own.
As you noticed from our list of the best mountain bike wheels, some wheels are compatible with disc brakes, but others only work with rim brakes. Know what you need and buy accordingly. Additionally, most of the wheels we covered on our list were only compatible with 6-bolt rotors, so double-check that your rotors have the appropriate number of bolts before ordering one of those. The other main rotor style is called a center lock. As a note, fewer and fewer modern bikes are being made with rim brakes, so disc compatibility is becoming better.
The cassette type your hub accepts will determine how many speeds you have. None of the wheels on our list are able to offer more than about 10 speeds, and almost all are Shimano options. With that being said, there are wheel/hub assemblies on the market that can support 11 and 12-speed cassettes. Make sure you know what you need in terms of both hub and cassette, and buy accordingly.
Finding the best mountain bike wheels can be challenging, but there are plenty of options on the market to fit your riding style, your bike requirements, and your budget.