Wheels are the first port of call if you are looking to upgrade your bike to either make it lighter or to handle better for a better riding experience. A new pair of wheels can transform the ride feel of your bike. Wheels are made of three key component parts; the rim, spokes and hub. Our guide will talk you through the various wheel types, and which wheel is best for your bike.
Picking the right mountain bike wheels can be tricky, but don’t let that put you off because the right set of wheels can make a bike feel completely different! The best MTB wheels range from lightweight (1300g) race models to super strong downhill options, ready to take a beating. Generally speaking, mountain bike wheels for all-round use should weigh in the region of 1700-2000g for the pair.
With the majority of riders now using disc brakes, rims tend not to have machined braking surfaces, and the hubs have one of two disc-mounting systems. Six-bolt is the most common standard, while some Shimano hubs use their CentreLock system. Check which is on your bike already if you’re upgrading, but you can easily swap rotors around if your heart is set on a particular mountain bike wheelset.
Most hubs use cartridge bearings, and once you’ve located the bearing number, they’re easy to replace when they wear out. Shimano hubs use a cup and cone system with loose bearings – they can last for ages, but need a bit more TLC.
Before taking the plunge and spending on a set of wheels, make sure that the axles will match your frame and fork. Forks will usually be 9mm quick-release (QR), 15mm or 20mm bolt-through. Rear wheels generally need either standard 135mm spacing and QR axles or 142x12 bolt-through. Some downhill frames may have 150mm rear spacing. Fortunately, most wheels can accommodate a range of axle standards.
Rims come in different widths, with narrower rims (17-20mm) more commonly found on lightweight cross-country wheels, and wider (20mm-plus) found on trail, enduro and downhill wheels. Wider rims will support wider tyres, giving them a better profile, but at the cost of increased weight. If you run tyres larger than 2.2 inches, we’d recommend looking at the wider rim widths.
Rims come in either tubeless or non-tubeless designs. Non-tubeless rims can usually be converted to run without inner tubes. Mavic’s UST system is the original tubeless system, but many companies such as Bontrager and Shimano make tubeless-ready rims.
MTB wheels are either made of aluminium or carbon. Most rims are aluminium, and generally cost less, but carbon rims, while expensive, are both stiff and light – both great attributes! Remember also to check your wheel size - wheels are available in 26”, 27.5” (650b) or 29” - make sure you get the size compatible with your frame.
Road bike wheels are available for every budget. When choosing a new set of wheels first you need to look at disc or non-disc, depending on your bike, but designs are similar for both and there are three main options: traditional alloy road wheels, light wheels (designed for climbing) and deeper aero-profiled wheels (designed for speed).
Lightweight road bike wheels will make climbing hills easier, and the best road wheels needn't cost the earth. Wheels like Fulcrum's Racing 3 weigh just over 1500g a pair and have smooth ceramic bearings in the hubs, plus a light alloy rim and aero-bladed spokes.
If you’re looking for the best road bike wheels then you should remember that having a light rim means less rotating weight (far more noticeable than weight anywhere else on wheel), which will have a positive effect when the road starts to steepen. This is one of the advantages of disc wheels, as they don’t need an aluminium braking surface there is less weight around the rim.
The popular wheels for racing are aerodynamic, with deep carbon-fibre rims. These have been designed in a wind tunnel to offer an aerodynamic advantage when riding at speed. If you are not riding disc brakes, then you will require special brake pads. If there is an aluminium braking surface you will need a different type of pad as these surfaces are designed to be sacrificial so that when the pad pushes on the rim, both the rim and the pad will wear, so eventually they’ll both wear out.
If the brake surface is carbon you will need special carbon specific pads. With a carbon-fibre rim only the pad is sacrificial, so a carbon pad needs to be much softer. Carbon-fibre wheels do cost significantly more than alloy wheels, but should last longer providing they are well maintained and cared for.
A wheel like Mavic's Cosmic Carbone 40c uses a 40mm deep carbon-fibre rim. It’s been designed in the wind tunnel to cut through the air and features a special highly heat resistant brake surface for consistent braking performance.
A good pair of aerodynamic road wheels will offer serious performance benefits when riding because the aerodynamic shape will mean less effort is required to maintain higher speeds for longer. All but the very best aero wheels (and most expensive) will weigh more than the lightest all-alloy climbing wheels, but for all-round use and not just in the hills, the benefits outweigh the few extra grams.
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