Best Mountain Bike Wheels
Best Overall Mountain Bike Wheels
RaceFace Next R31 Carbon Wheelset
Weight: 1,776g (29-inch) | 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 R31 rims have a 31mm internal rim width and an asymmetrical 4.5mm spoke offset made to pair with Race Face's stout 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 should be, but they have enough compliance 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, which helps take their performance to another level.
Our biggest gripe with the Next R31 wheels is far from a deal-breaker. The logo sticker decals on the rims began to scratch and peel after only a couple of rides resulting in a less than perfect appearance. That's pretty much it. These wheels impressed on every level, including durability, plus they come with a two-year no-fault guarantee.
Read review: Race Face Next R31
Best Overall Alloy Mountain Bike Wheels
Industry Nine Enduro S Hydra
Weight: 1,895g (29-inch) | Freehub Engagement: 0.52-degrees
Our testers were beyond impressed with the performance of the Industry Nine Enduro S Hydra wheels. These are easily the best alloy wheels we've ever tested and they gave the more expensive carbon competition a run for their money. These wheels are lightweight (for alloy) with a nicely balanced ride quality that is an excellent blend of stiffness and compliance. The quality of craftsmanship is apparent in the finely machined hubs and rims, and the engineering is ground-breaking in the new Hydra hubs. The freehub engagement is the real highlight, and Industry Nine has managed to give these wheels an astounding 690 engagement points, or 0.52-degrees. This engagement is far superior to any other design we've tested and gives them a super quick, lively, and high-performance feel.
While our testers would probably give up their carbon wheels for the Enduro S Hydra wheels, they can't quite compete with carbon in terms of weight. Sure, they are the lightest alloy wheels in this test, but they are still a little portly compared to the carbon competition. They also aren't cheap, in fact, they are the most expensive alloy model we've tested. That said, we'd still recommend these wheels to anyone seeking a major performance upgrade and doesn't want to shell out the cash for a carbon model.
Read review: Industry Nine Enduro S Hydra
Best Bang for the Buck Carbon
Roval Traverse Carbon Wheelset
Weight: 1,866g (29-inch) | Freehub Engagement: 10-degree
Specialized surprised a lot of people when they introduced the Roval Traverse Carbon wheelset. It was nearly unheard of for a quality carbon wheelset to retail at this price, not to mention with a lifetime warranty. Specialized's new Traverse Carbon are one of many of the new breed of less expansive carbon hoops helping to bring premium performance to the masses. They have the stiffness you want and expect from a carbon wheel, yet 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 still lighter than any of the alloy models we tried.
The 10-degree freehub engagement is okay, although the Traverse Carbon wheels were outperformed by more expensive models with faster engagement. Despite 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, Specialized now offers a quality carbon option at a very reasonable price, backed with a confidence-inspiring lifetime warranty.
Read review: Roval Traverse Carbon
Best Bang for the Buck Alloy
Stan's No Tubes Flow MK3 Wheelset
Weight: 1,896g (29-inch) | Freehub Engagement: 10-degree
One of the best alloy wheelsets we tested was the Flow MK3 from Stans No Tubes, a company well-known for its innovative tubeless tire products. This reasonably priced model checks all the boxes and has the best price-to-performance ratio of the alloy wheels we tested. Not only are these wheels affordable, but they are also lightweight for an alloy model. They were 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 decent 10-degree freehub engagement. If you want to upgrade your wheels without breaking the bank, this is an affordable place to start.
The Flow MK3 wheels are the narrowest model we tested with an internal rim width of 29mm. Although they are only 1mm narrower than most of the other tested wheels, a very slight difference in tire profile and support was noticed. Not a deal breaker, but notable. Also, the 10-degree freehub engagement is noticeably more sluggish than the highest performance models. These concerns are relatively minor, as we feel these wheels are excellent for the price.
Read review: Stan's No Tubes Flow MK3
Best for Traction
Ibis S35 Logo Carbon Boost
Weight: 1,744g (29-inch) | Freehub Engagement: 10-degree
The Ibis S35 Logo Carbon wheels are based on Ibis' new S35 carbon rim. This wide rim has a wide 35mm internal rim width and a shallow asymmetrical rim profile. Testers were thoroughly impressed by the high level of traction these wheels provided thanks to the increased air volume and large contact patch the wider rims create. These wheels are also among the lightest in the test with a stiff but well-damped ride quality. These wheels are some of the most comfortable we've ridden thanks to the compliant rim design and the lower tire pressures you can run. They are also a relatively good value for a carbon model, plus the rims are backed with a 7-year no-fault warranty.
While we loved the traction and balanced ride feel of the S35 Carbon wheels, we were less impressed by the 10-degree engagement of the Ibis Logo hub. We've grown accustomed to faster-engaging freehubs, and it gives these wheels a somewhat lethargic feel at times. Otherwise, we found little not to like about this lightweight, comfortable, and high-traction carbon wheelset.
Read review: Ibis S35 Logo Carbon Boost
Why You Should Trust Us
Our mountain bike wheel test is led by Jeremy Benson, our Senior Mountain Bike Review Editor. Benson has been mountain biking since the early 90s and became passionate about it when he started racing cross country while attending Saint Michael's College in northern Vermont. Benson moved west after college and settled in North Lake Tahoe and now calls South Lake Tahoe, CA home. He is an obsessive mountain biker and endurance gravel racer and is notoriously tough on and critical of his gear. In addition to testing all manner of mountain bike gear, Benson is also the author of Mountain Bike Tahoe, a guidebook published by Mountaineers Books. Our former Senior Mountain Bike Editor, Pat Donahue, assisted in the wheel testing process. Pat is a life-long mountain biker with years of bicycle industry experience and is now the co-owner of a local bike shop. He is a well-rounded rider, a former downhill and enduro racer, and a self-proclaimed "wheel killer." Additional testing and input was provided by Joshua Hutchens. Hutchens has been mountain biking for more than three decades. He has worked extensively in the bike industry, including stints as a shop owner and mountain bike guide. The South Lake Tahoe, CA resident rides with finesse, and while testing has an uncanny ability to pick out even the most subtle differences between gear.
After spending hours researching the best mountain bike wheels on the market, our team purchased ten models to test and compare side-by-side. Our selection of all-mountain/trail wheelsets includes six carbon and four alloy models representing a large price and performance range. Once in our hands, each wheelset was weighed, measured, and photographed in new condition before being mounted up with matching sets of tires. The wheels were then passed between testers who used each set on their personal bikes for familiarity and consistency. Each pair was ridden hundreds of miles on the vast and varied trails of the northern Sierra and the greater Lake Tahoe area. Shuttle runs, all-day backcountry epics, races — our testers did everything on these wheels, riding them harder than if they were their own. Our testers took detailed notes on each model and when our test period ended we rated and ranked them on several performance metrics.
Related: How We Tested Mountain Bike Wheels
Analysis and Test Results
Over several months, our professional mountain bike testers pedaled their hearts out, putting each of these wheelsets through their paces. We put hundreds of miles on each pair, scrutinizing every aspect of their design and performance. We focused on each wheelset's ride quality, freehub engagement, weight, and durability. Then we compared notes and tallied scores to determine our award winners.
The most expensive (read: carbon) wheelsets were also the highest-rated. The Stan's Flow MK3, is one of the least expensive models in the test, yet it scores relatively well from a performance standpoint. Our testers were also very impressed with the Roval Traverse Carbon wheels. This lower-priced carbon model is less expensive than most of the carbon competition by a lot at MSRP, and offers a similar performance level.
There's more to our assessment of value than just the asking price: other factors like warranty are a consideration. Both the Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon and the Reynolds TR 309 S have impressive lifetime warranties. These warranties aren't limited to defects in materials and workmanship; instead, they say they will repair or replace your wheels however you manage to break them while riding. This adds an incredible amount of value to an expensive purchase; it ensures that you will get many years of use out of them. The Race Face Next R31 wheels come with a two-year no-fault guarantee. It's not lifetime, but no matter how or why you break these wheels in the first two years they will repair or replace them for free. The Roval Traverse Carbon wheels also have a lifetime warranty but it is limited to defects in materials and workmanship. So, although carbon wheels are more expensive, they are now backed by impressive warranties that add significant value.
Freehub engagement is another area where value is added to a wheelset. The Race Face Next R31 wheels come standard with excellent 3-degree freehub engagement and are reasonably affordable for carbon. The Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon wheels come with 10-degree engagement and cost more than the Race Face. Not only do they cost more, but their freehub engagement isn't nearly as high performance as the Race Face. You can upgrade the freehub of the Santa Cruz wheels to 6-degree engagement, but this adds more cost and still doesn't match the 3-degree engagement of the Race Face wheels.
Our testers identified the specific performance characteristics of each wheelset's ride quality. The differences are often subtle and differentiating between them can be challenging. By riding our test wheels back to back for comparison, we discerned the nuanced differences that give each model its distinctive ride quality.
It's no surprise that carbon wheels feel quite different from alloy models. Carbon wheels are known for their stiffness, precision, and lightweight. Carbon also has had a reputation for being stiff to the point of harshness, causing deflection and giving lots of trail feedback. The new generation of carbon wheels has worked to change that reputation with models that have a little more compliant flex and dampening engineered to produce a more balanced ride. These wheels are impressively lightweight and durable, with the stiffness and precise handling you want plus 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, producing the pinnacle of ride quality. Our other carbon contenders aren't far behind, but 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 wheels are a touch heavier and a little bit stiffer than either of the above-mentioned wheelsets. While they are sturdy and stiff, they occasionally get deflected due to their rigidity. Both the Reynolds TR 309 S and the Bontrager Line Pro 30 wheels are also fantastic, but they have a less dampened feel that results in a little more harshness and trail feedback. On the other side of the spectrum, the Ibis S35 Carbon has a well-damped and trail-smoothing feel, plus the wider rim helps to give amazing traction.
Alloy wheels are generally more flexy and compliant compared to carbon. They traditionally have had a more forgiving ride, but as a result, sacrificed some precision. Many riders prefer the feel of alloy wheels because of their forgiveness and overall comfort…and the lower price is also appealing. Alloy is usually heavier than carbon, resulting in heavier wheels overall. With more rotational mass at the rim, it can give these wheels a more sluggish feel than carbon provides. Of all the alloy wheelsets we tested, the Industry Nine Enduro S Hydra was the tester favorite. These wheels felt the stiffest and the most nimble, while also having a balanced and forgiving feel. Plus they are the lightest weight of the aluminum contenders, and they have the best freehub engagement in the test by far. The Stan's MK3 also impressed our testers with its lively and responsive ride and a good blend of stiffness and compliance. The Spank Oozy Trail 345 had a smooth and comfortable ride, but felt significantly heavier and generally less refined than the top-rated alloy models.
Freehubs are designed in a variety of ways, but they all allow the hub to spin freely when coasting and to grab, or engage, when the pedals are turning. All the freehubs in this test have some lag between engagement points, which creates a dead spot in the pedal stroke before everything reengages. The distance between engagement points is calculated in degrees; freehubs with fewer degrees feel higher performance because there is less lag in the drivetrain system.
Industry Nine has been a market leader in freehub engagement and they recently raised the bar when they introduced their Hydra hubs. The Hydra hubs on the Enduro S wheels have the fastest engagement we've ever used with just 0.52-degrees between engagement points. It is truly next level, and they can be purchased and configured on a huge range of aftermarket wheelsets. The Race Face Next R31 wheels have a very impressive 3-degree engagement, and there is little lag when you press on your pedals; everything about your bike feels higher performance. Bontrager also came out swinging with the Line Pro 30 wheels, boasting an impressive 3.3-degrees on their Rapid Drive 108 freehub system. The TR 309 S wheels weren't too far behind with a very respectable 5-degree engagement, twice as fast, or better, than the rest of our test field. The Roval Traverse Carbon, Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon, Ibis 35 Carbon Logo, and the Stan's Flow MK3 all have 10-degree engagement. Ten degrees is relatively standard, though you may sense the performance advantages of faster engagement. The Spank Oozy Trail 345 is a little slower at 12-degrees.
We weighed each pair as it would be ridden, including tubeless rim tape, tubeless valve stems, and center-lock adapters when applicable. We feel that lighter is better as long as the wheels still perform as intended and don't become less durable. Weight is especially important in a pair of wheels since more rotational weight at the rim can have the adverse effect of making your bike feel sluggish. The lighter your wheels are, the lighter your bike is, the easier it is to climb, and the faster you can accelerate. All other things being equal, lighter is better, although it often comes at a price. All of the wheels we tested were 29 inches in diameter with standard Boost 148 spacing.
Not surprisingly, all of the carbon models we tested weigh less than their alloy counterparts. The lightest wheelset in the test is theBontrager LIne Pro 30 at an impressive 1,713g. They were followed closely by the Reynolds TR 309 S at 1,738g per pair. Ibis also impressed us with the lightweight S35 Carbon Logo wheels at just 1,744g. This is just 32g lighter than the Race Face Next R31 at 1,776g, and 94g less than the Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon at 1,832g. The Roval Traverse Carbon is the heaviest carbon model at 1,866g, still a respectable weight-to-price ratio.
Aluminum is heavier than carbon fiber and 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 Industry Nine Enduro S Hydra was the lightest at 1,895g, followed very closely by the Stan's Flow MK3 at 1,896g. In fact, they are only 30g heavier than the Roval Traverse Carbon wheels that cost significantly more. The Spank Oozy Trail 345 was the heaviest wheelset with a weight of 1,966g.
If you're shelling out your hard-earned cash to upgrade your wheels, it's nice to know that it will last. No set of mountain bike wheels will last forever, but most should provide you with several years of trouble-free use. Carbon wheels have traditionally been considered by many to be a risky purchase. Not only are they expensive, but some of the earlier versions were prone to catastrophic failure and often were not backed by a great warranty. Many riders don't consider the performance benefits of carbon to be worth the asking price. Many people ride aluminum because it's more affordable. The initial price is lower and repairing or replacing them is much less expensive. These days, however, the price of carbon wheels has come down out of the stratosphere and the new breed offers new rim designs and next-level durability, plus many are backed with impressive warranties.
To test each wheelset's durability each of our testers rode them in their own 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. 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 — one tester took 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 have damaged any wheel. Other than that incident, all the wheels made it out of our test period with no broken spokes, dents, cracks or damaged bearings.
Not only do carbon wheels feel more durable than the alloy, but these days they come with far better warranties in case of damage or premature failure. A couple of our testers had been carbon wheel skeptics, but this testing experience changed their minds. For this reason, we rated each of the carbon models in the test slightly higher than the alloy models, and the wheels with longer warranty periods also fared better.
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 this well-researched comparative review helps you find the best wheels to suit your riding style, needs, and budget.
— Jeremy Benson, Pat Donahue, Joshua Hutchens