The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

The Best Mountain Bike Wheels

Go ahead  break 'em. Santa Cruz dares you. If you do  they will replace the rims for free and in a hurry.
Thursday November 22, 2018
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In the market for a new set of mountain bike wheels? We're here to help. With so many different options it can be a challenge to find the right ones for your needs and budget. We researched the top mountain bike wheels on the market before purchasing seven of the best to test and compare side by side. In our first ever mountain bike wheel review we tested 4 carbon models and 3 alloy contenders head to head for an extended period on the varied trails of the Lake Tahoe area and northern California. Our team of mountain bike testers rode each of these wheelsets for hundreds of miles as if they were our own in an effort to reveal their strengths and expose their weaknesses. We took them up quad busting climbs and smashed through rock gardens with reckless abandon, swapping wheels frequently for comparison. Through it all, we scrutinized every aspect of their performance and focused on their ride quality, freehub engagement, weight, and durability. A quality set of wheels can dramatically improve your ride and we hope this detailed comparative review helps you find the right model that suits your riding style and fits your budget. Read on to find your new wheels.


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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award  Best Buy Award Best Buy Award 
Price $724.99 at Competitive Cyclist$1,548.95 at MooseJaw
Compare at 2 sellers
$1,599.00 at Competitive Cyclist$1,200 List$309.00 at Competitive Cyclist
Compare at 3 sellers
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Pros Excellent freehub engagement, 2-year no fault guarantee, Vault hubs, lightweightLifetime warranty, lightweight, 5 degree freehub engagementLifetime warranty, good ride quality, durable rims, stiffInexpensive for carbon, stiff, lifetime warrantyInexpensive, decent freehub engagement, durable, lightest alloy model
Cons Decals peel easilyoccasionally twitchy at speed, less dampened feelFreehub engagement could be better, expensive-ishfreehub engagement could be better, heavier than other carbon modelsSlightly narrower width
Bottom Line The Race Face Next R31 Carbon wheels impressed us with their performance and quality and are the winner of our Editor's Choice Award.The TR 309 S wheels are a high quality, high performance, and lightweight carbon option from Reynolds.The Reserve 30 Carbon is a quality carbon mountain bike wheelset from Santa Cruz bicycles that is backed by a lifetime warranty.The Roval Traverse Carbon wheels are a low price and high performance carbon wheelset for the industry giant, Specialized.The Stan's Flow MK3 is a quality alloy wheelset at a reasonable price, the winner of our Best Buy Award.
Rating Categories Next R31 Carbon Wheelset TR 309 S Carbon Wheelset Reserve 30 Carbon Wheelset Roval Traverse Carbon Wheelset Flow MK3 Wheelset
Ride Quality (35%)
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Specs Next R31 Carbon Wheelset TR 309 S Carbon Wheelset Reserve 30 Carbon Wheelset Roval Traverse Carbon Wheelset Flow MK3 Wheelset
Weight Per Wheelset 1,776g 1,738g 1,832g 1,866g 1,896g
Available Wheel Sizes 27.5", 29" 27.5", 29" 27.5", 29" 27.5", 29" 27.5", 29"
Available Axle Spacing Boost, non-Boost Boost, non-Boost Boost, non-Boost Boost Boost, non-Boost

Best Overall Mountain Bike Wheels


RaceFace Next R31 Carbon Wheelset


Editors' Choice Award

$724.99
(52% off)
at Competitive Cyclist
See It

3-degree freehub engagement
2-year no-fault guarantee
Lightweight
Vault hubs
Decals peel easily

Weight: 1,776g | Freehub Engagement: 3-degree

The Race Face Next R31 impressed our testers and took home the award for Best Overall Mountain Bike Wheels. These fancy carbon hoops were every tester's favorite, striking the perfect balance of on-trail performance, weight, and durability at a reasonable price (for a premium carbon wheelset). The rims have a 31mm internal rim width and an asymmetrical 4.5mm offset shape that is made to pair with Race Face's oversized Vault hubs. The oversized hubs decrease spoke length, even out spoke tension, and increase the bracing angle to make these wheels stiffer and more sturdy. They are stiff, as carbon wheels are intended to be, but they have enough flex to avoid being harsh, with a dampened feel that further enhances comfort on the trail. Testers also loved the lightning-quick 3-degree freehub engagement, the best in the test, which takes their performance to another level.

Our biggest gripe with the Next R31 wheels is pretty minor. The logo sticker decals on the rims began to scratch and peel after only a couple rides resulting in a less than perfect appearance. That's all. These wheels impressed on every level, including their durability, plus they are backed with a 2-year no-fault guarantee just in case.

Read review: Race Face Next R31

Best Bang for the Buck


Stan's No Tubes Flow MK3 Wheelset


Best Buy Award

$309.00
(54% off)
at Competitive Cyclist
See It

Affordable
Lightest alloy model
Decent freehub engagement
Slightly narrower width

Weight: 1,896g | Freehub Engagement: 10-degree

Stan's No Tubes is known for their innovative tubeless tire products and their Flow MK3 wheels are hands down the best alloy wheelset we tested. This reasonably priced model checks all the boxes and has the best price to performance ratio in the test earning them our Best Buy Award. Not only are these wheels affordable, but they are also the lightest alloy model we tested, less than 100g heavier than a couple of the significantly more expensive carbon options. These wheels feel light and lively for alloy, yet stiff and sturdy when the going gets rough. The Stan's Neo hubs roll fast and smooth and have a respectable 10-degree freehub engagement. If you're looking to upgrade the stock wheels on your bike, and not break the bank doing it, we think this is a good place to start.

The Flow MK3 wheels are the narrowest model we tested with an internal rim width of 29mm. While this is only 1mm narrower than most of the other wheels in the test, testers noticed a very slight difference in tire profile and support. Not a deal breaker, but notable nonetheless. The 10-degree freehub engagement is also the best of the alloy models we tested but is noticeably more sluggish than the highest performance models we tested.

Read review: Stan's No Tubes Flow MK3

Best Bang for the Buck Carbon


Roval Traverse Carbon Wheelset


Roval Traverse Carbon
Best Buy Award

$1,200 List
List Price
See It

Inexpensive for carbon
Lifetime warranty
Stiff
Heaviest carbon model
Freehub engagement could be better

Weight: 1,866g | Freehub Engagement: 10-degree

Specialized surprised a lot of people when they recently introduced the Roval Traverse Carbon wheelset. Until just recently, it was pretty much unheard of for a quality carbon wheelset to retail for only $1,200, not to mention with a lifetime warranty. Sure, $1,200 bucks is still a lot to spend on a pair of mountain bike wheels, but the Traverse Carbon are one of the best deals we've ever seen from a major brand like Specialized. They have the stiffness you want from a carbon wheel, yet they still remain quite comfortable on the trail. The DT 350 hubs roll fast with decent 10-degree freehub engagement and have a history of reliability. They are the heaviest carbon model we tested, but they're still lighter than any of the alloy models.

While we feel that 10-degree freehub engagement is relatively good, the Traverse Carbon were outperformed by more expensive models with faster engagement. Beyond that, there wasn't much we didn't like about these affordable and durable carbon hoops. If you've always wanted carbon wheels but didn't think you could afford them here's a quality carbon option at a very reasonable price backed with a confidence-inspiring lifetime warranty.

Read review: Roval Traverse Carbon

Top Pick for Lightweight


Reynolds TR 309 S Carbon Wheelset


Reynolds TR 309
Top Pick Award

$1,548.95
at MooseJaw
See It

5-degree freehub engagement
Lifetime warranty
Lightweight
Less dampened feel
Occasionally twitchy at speed

Weight: 1,738g | Freehub Engagement: 5-degree

The price of carbon wheels has steadily been coming down in recent years and the Reynolds TR 309 S is a fine example of a high quality, durable, and lightweight option at a reasonable price. Yes, they do still cost over $1,500, but that's a lot less than carbon wheels cost until just recently. The TR 309 S wheels are the lightest model we tested at only 1,738g for the pair. They feel light and nimble, accelerate quickly, and are a pleasure to ride uphill. Just because they're light doesn't make them flimsy, in fact, they are just as stiff as you'd expect a set of carbon wheels to be. Testers also found them to be incredibly durable, taking everything we and the trail could dish out in stride. They're also backed with a legitimate lifetime warranty just in case.

The lightweight of the TR 309 S wheels is very impressive, but testers found them to feel a bit less dampened than their slightly heavier carbon competition. This was noticeable in high-speed chop and super rough sections of trail in the form of vibration and trail feedback through the handlebar. Otherwise, we found them to be stiff with precise handling, impressively lightweight, and with a fast 5-degree freehub engagement that further enhances their performance. If you're looking to lighten up your ride and don't want to sacrifice performance or durability, the TR 309 S has got you covered.

Read review: Reynolds TR 309 S


Analysis and Test Results


Over the course of several months, our team of professional mountain bike testers pedaled their hearts out while putting each of these wheelsets through their paces. We put hundreds of miles on each pair of wheels while scrutinizing every aspect of their design and performance. We focused primarily on each wheelset's ride quality, freehub engagement, weight, and durability, and we rated each model on those predetermined metrics. When all was said and done we compared notes and tallied scores to determine our award winners.

Testing mountain bike wheels involves a lot of time in the saddle  our testers aren't complaining...
Testing mountain bike wheels involves a lot of time in the saddle, our testers aren't complaining...

Product Specifications


In each review, we describe the general design and build of each wheelset. This is basically a regurgitation of the specifications provided by the manufacturer but is intended to provide an overview of the way each model is put together.

Ride Quality


During testing, our team of testers did their best to identify the specific performance characteristics that define each wheelset's ride quality. The differences between models are often subtle and differentiating between them can be quite challenging. Over time, and especially by riding the various models back to back, we were able to feel the nuanced differences that give each wheel a distinctive ride quality.


It comes as no surprise that carbon wheels feel quite different from alloy models. In general, carbon wheels are known for their stiffness, precision, and lightweight. Carbon also has a reputation for being stiff to the point of harshness, resulting in deflection and lots of trail feedback. The newest generation of carbon wheels has helped to change that perception with models designed to have a little more flex and dampening to give them a more compliant ride quality. These more balanced carbon wheels are impressively lightweight and durable with the stiffness and precise handling you want and just enough give and vibration absorption to enhance their comfort on the trail. Both the Race Face Next R31 and the Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon wheels have nailed this perfect middle ground resulting in what we consider to be the pinnacle of ride quality. Our other carbon contenders aren't far behind, and while we love the way they ride they can't quite match the perfection of the Race Face and Santa Cruz. The Roval Traverse Carbon are a touch heavier and a little bit stiffer than either of the above-mentioned wheelsets, they are sturdy and stiff but occasionally get deflected due to their rigidity. The Reynolds TR 309 S are also fantastic, but they have a less dampened feel that results in a little more trail feedback and occasional twitchiness at higher speeds.

Focusing hard on the trail  while also contemplating the ride quality of our Best Buy Award winner the Stan's Flow MK3.
Focusing hard on the trail, while also contemplating the ride quality of our Best Buy Award winner the Stan's Flow MK3.

Alloy wheels are generally quite a bit more flexy and compliant when compared to carbon. They typically have a more forgiving ride but may sacrifice a bit of precision as a result. Many riders prefer the feel of alloy wheels due to their forgiveness and overall comfort, and the price could also have something to do with it. Alloy is usually heavier than carbon resulting in heavier wheels overall, but also more rotational mass, weight at the rim, which can give the wheels a more sluggish feel comparatively speaking. Of all the alloy wheelsets we tested, the Stan's Flow MK3 proved to be the tester favorite. They felt the stiffest and the most nimble, yet forgiving and dampened as alloy should, plus they are the lightest weight of the aluminum contenders. Both the Spank Oozy Trail 345 and the DT Swiss E 1700 Spline 30 had very smooth and comfortable rides, but they both felt significantly heavier and generally less refined than the Flow MK3.

Freehub Engagement


Not all hubs are created equal and this is especially true regarding the freehub engagement of the various models in this test. Freehubs are designed in a variety of ways, but all of them allow the hub to spin freely when coasting and to grab, or engage, when the pedals are turning. All of the freehub systems in this test have some amount of lag between engagement points which results in a dead spot in the pedal stroke before everything reengages. The distance between engagement points is calculated in degrees and freehubs with fewer degrees are generally considered to be higher performance because there is less lag and slack in the drivetrain system.


The Race Face Next R31 wheels have a very impressive 3-degree engagement, the best in the test. There is almost no lag when you press on your pedals and everything about your bike feels higher performance when you ride these wheels as a result. The TR 309 S wheels came in a close second with a very respectable 5-degree engagement. It's not quite as fast as the Race Face wheels, but it is twice as fast, or more, than the rest of the field. The Roval Traverse Carbon, Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon, and the Stan's Flow MK3 all have 10-degree engagement. Ten degrees is respectable and relatively standard, though if you experience the performance advantages of faster engagement you may notice the difference. The Spank Oozy Trail 345 is a little slower at 12-degrees, and the DT Swiss E 1700 Spline 30 come in dead last with a pretty miserable 20-degree engagement.

The 5-degree engagement of the Reynolds TR 309 S wheels is among the best in the test and helps make these lightweight hoops feel high performance.
The 5-degree engagement of the Reynolds TR 309 S wheels is among the best in the test and helps make these lightweight hoops feel high performance.

Weight


To determine the weight of all the wheels in this test we weighed each pair as it would be ridden. Wheels are the sum of all of their parts, so this weight includes the tubeless rim tape, tubeless valve stems, and center lock adapters when applicable. As with most things in the sport of cycling, lighter is generally considered better as long as the wheels still perform as intended and don't become less durable as a result. The lighter your wheels are, the lighter your bike is, the easier it is to climb, the faster you can accelerate, you get the idea. All other things being equal, lighter is better, although it often comes at a price.


Not surprisingly, all of the carbon models we tested weight less than their alloy counterparts. The lightest wheelset in the test is the Reynolds TR 309 S with a weight of 1,738g for the pair. This is just 38g lighter than the Race Face Next R31 at 1,776g, and 94g less than the Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon which weigh 1,832g. The Roval Traverse Carbon is the heaviest carbon model, with a still very respectable weight to price ratio at 1,866g.

Lighter wheels make lighter bikes. The Reynolds TR 309 S are the lightest wheels we tested.
Lighter wheels make lighter bikes. The Reynolds TR 309 S are the lightest wheels we tested.

Carbon is lighter than aluminum, it's also much less expensive, so it stands to reason that all of the alloy models we tested weigh more and cost less than their carbon competition. Of all the alloy wheelsets, the Stan's Flow MK3 was the lightest at 1,896g. In fact, they are only 30g heavier than the Roval Traverse Carbon wheels which cost more than $500 more. The Spank Oozy Trail 345 were the second heaviest wheelset with a weight of 1,966g. Our heavyweight champion, the DT Swiss E 1700 Spline 30 weighed in at 2,136g.

Durability


It's no secret that mountain bike parts, and especially a nice set of wheels, aren't cheap. If you're shelling out a whole bunch of cash to upgrade your wheelset it's nice to know that it's going to last. No set of wheels will last forever, but most should provide you with several years of trouble-free use. Carbon wheels have been considered by some to be a risky purchase, not only are they expensive but the early versions were somewhat prone to catastrophic failure and they often weren't backed by a great warranty. Many riders don't consider the performance benefits of carbon to be worth the price and choose to ride aluminum because its more affordable and repairing or replacing alloy rims is much less expensive. These days, however, a new breed of carbon wheels is taking over with new rim designs and next level durability, plus many of them are backed with very impressive warranties.


To test each wheelset's durability each one of our testers rode them in their own unique style. Some of us plow through rock gardens, some of us approach them with a little more finesse, and some of us fall somewhere in between, but all of us put a lot of miles and some serious abuse on every set of wheels in this test. We played around with tire pressures and definitely rimmed out on every rear wheel several times in the name of testing. We only damaged one wheel in the process, with one tester taking it to the Spank Oozy Trail 345 just a little too hard. He put a 5-spoke flat spot in the rear wheel but admits that the impact probably would've damaged any wheel. Other than that one incident, all of the wheels made it out of our test period relatively unscathed, with no broken spokes, dents, cracks, or damaged bearings.

Afraid carbon wheels aren't durable? You can put those fears to rest thanks to the new breed of super durable carbon wheels with excellent warranties.
Afraid carbon wheels aren't durable? You can put those fears to rest thanks to the new breed of super durable carbon wheels with excellent warranties.

We found it interesting that not only do the carbon wheels feel more durable than the alloy, but they come with far better warranties in case of damage or premature failure. A couple of our testers were carbon wheel skeptics going into this review, but their minds have been changed based on the impressive durability of the models in this test. We rated each of the carbon models in the test slightly higher than the alloy models for this reason.


Value


The chart above shows a visual representation of the price and performance of each model in this test. By hovering your cursor over the dots you can see how each wheelset compares from a value standpoint. As you can see, the most expensive, read: carbon, wheelsets were the highest rated, but also the most expensive. The alloy contenders didn't score quite as high from a performance standpoint, but they cost significantly less. You'll notice that our Best Buy Award winner, the Stan's Flow MK3 is one of the least expensive models in the test, yet still scores relatively well performance wise. Our testers were also very impressed with the Roval Traverse Carbon wheels, our Best Buy Carbon Wheelset. This lower priced carbon model is less expensive than their carbon competition by $300 or more, and offer a similar level of on-trail performance.

There's more to our assessment of value than just the asking price, however, as other factors like warranty are a consideration. Both the Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon and the Reynolds TR 309 S have very impressive lifetime warranties. These warranties aren't limited to defects in materials and workmanship, instead, they say they will repair or replace your wheels if you manage to break them while riding. This adds an incredible amount of value to an expensive purchase like this because it ensures that you will get many years of use out of them. The Race Face Next R31 wheels come with a 2-year no-fault guarantee. It's not lifetime, but no matter how or why you break your Race Face carbon wheels they will repair or replace them for free for the first two years you own them. The Roval Traverse Carbon wheels also have a lifetime warranty but it is limited to defects in materials and workmanship. So, despite the carbon wheels being more expensive, they are backed by impressive warranties that add a significant amount of value.

The price of carbon wheels is coming down from their astronomical heights  and the Roval Traverse Carbon is a $1 200 set with a limited lifetime warranty.
The price of carbon wheels is coming down from their astronomical heights, and the Roval Traverse Carbon is a $1,200 set with a limited lifetime warranty.

We also think that factors like freehub engagement are another area where value is added to a wheelset. For example, the Race Face Next R31 wheels come standard with excellent 3-degree freehub engagement and cost $1,500. The Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon wheels come with 10-degree engagement at a price of $1,599. So, not only do they cost a little more, but the freehub engagement of the Santa Cruz Reserve wheels isn't nearly as high performance as the Race Face. You can upgrade the freehub of the Santa Cruz wheels for just over $100 to get 6-degree engagement, but this adds more cost and still doesn't match the performance of the Race Face wheels. Another good example of this is the comparison of the DT Swiss E 1700 Spline and the Stan's Flow MK3 wheelsets. Both are alloy models, but the DT Swiss wheels retail for $912 and have 20-degree freehub engagement while the Stan's wheels cost $679 and have 10-degree engagement. The performance difference is staggering, as is the difference in price.

Conclusion


A quality set of wheels is one of the best performance upgrades you can make on your mountain bike. There's a lot to consider when trying to find the pair that's right for you. We hope the information in comparative review helps you find the best mountain bike wheels to suit your riding style, needs, and budget.


Jeremy Benson, Pat Donahue, Joshua Hutchens