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.
Sunday March 3, 2019
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Great wheels can make a huge difference in your mountain biking life. But how can you find the right ones for your own situation? You could pick them out of a catalog that offers a picture, a short list of specs and a sales pitch that you hope is accurate. Or maybe there are remarks by somebody who bought these wheels — no telling where or how they ride.

You could rely on that for a significant cash outlay, or you could learn what a group of expert riders recommend after extensive testing on all kinds of trails and head-to-head comparisons. That's what you get at OutdoorGearLab. We checked out the leading brands for 2019, then bought and tested four carbon and three aluminum wheelsets. Our team of testers put hundreds of miles on each wheelset. We smashed them through rock gardens and ripped them through corners. We swapped wheels frequently for the sake of accurately comparing and contrasting strengths and weaknesses. After long, tough testing we're here to tell you what you want to know.


Top 7 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 7
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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award  Best Buy Award Best Buy Award 
Price $1,500 List$1,549 List$1,599.00 at Competitive Cyclist$1,200 List$278.09 at Amazon
Compare at 4 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

$1,500 List
List Price
See It

96
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Ride Quality - 35% 10
  • Freehub Engagement - 20% 10
  • Weight - 25% 9
  • Durability - 20% 9
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 no big deal. 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 all. These wheels impressed on every level, including durability, plus they are backed with a two-year no-fault guarantee.

Read review: Race Face Next R31

Best Bang for the Buck


Stan's No Tubes Flow MK3 Wheelset


Best Buy Award

$278.09
(59% off)
at Amazon
See It

78
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Ride Quality - 35% 8
  • Freehub Engagement - 20% 8
  • Weight - 25% 7
  • Durability - 20% 8
Affordable
Lightest alloy model
Decent freehub engagement
Slightly narrower width

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

The hands down best alloy wheelset we tested was Flow MK3 from Stans No Tubes, a company well-known for their innovative tubeless tire products. This reasonably priced model checks all the boxes and has the best price-to-performance ratio, earning them our Best Buy award. Not only are these wheels affordable, they are also the lightest alloy model we tested. 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 a respectable 10-degree freehub engagement. If you want to upgrade the wheels on your bike without breaking the bank, this is an excellent 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 both the best of the tested alloy models, but noticeably more sluggish than the highest performance models.

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

83
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Ride Quality - 35% 9
  • Freehub Engagement - 20% 8
  • Weight - 25% 7
  • Durability - 20% 9
Inexpensive for carbon
Lifetime warranty
Stiff
Heaviest carbon model
Freehub engagement could be better

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

A lot of people were surprised when Specialized recently introduced the Roval Traverse Carbon wheelset. It had been nearly unheard of for a quality carbon wheelset to retail for less than a couple thousand dollars, not to mention with a lifetime warranty. Specialized's new Traverse Carbon are among the new breed of less expansive carbon hoops. They have the stiffness you want 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 tested alloy models.

The 10-degree freehub engagement is relatively good, 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

Top Pick for Lightweight


Reynolds TR 309 S Carbon Wheelset


Reynolds TR 309
Top Pick Award

$1,549 List
List Price
See It

89
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Ride Quality - 35% 8
  • Freehub Engagement - 20% 9
  • Weight - 25% 10
  • Durability - 20% 9
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 declined recently and the Reynolds TR 309 S is a fine example of this happy development. It's a high quality, durable and lightweight wheelset at a relatively reasonable price. They do cost quite a bit, but it's still less than carbon wheels cost until recently. The TR 309 S wheels at only 1,738g for the pair are the lightest wheels we tested. They feel light and nimble, accelerate quickly and are a pleasure to ride uphill. Even though they're light doesn't mean they are flimsy — they are as stiff as you would expect from carbon wheels. They were incredibly durable, taking in stride everything we and the trail could dish. They're also backed with a legitimate lifetime warranty.

The light weight of the TR 309 S wheels is impressive, although they felt 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, they were stiff, with precise handling, impressively lightweight and with a fast 5-degree freehub engagement that further enhanced performance. If you aim to lighten up your ride without giving up performance or durability, the TR 309 S is a solid option.

Read review: Reynolds TR 309 S


Nothing to see here  just seven wheelsets... Wheel testing requires switching between models frequently for comparison.
Nothing to see here, just seven wheelsets... Wheel testing requires switching between models frequently for comparison.

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 Truckee, CA home. He is an obsessive mountain biker and endurance 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 mountain biker, 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 available, our team purchased seven models to test and compare side-by-side. Our selection of all-mountain/trail wheelsets includes four carbon and three alloy models representing a large price and performance range. Once in our hands, each wheelset was weighed 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 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. Each tester 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

We found the Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon wheels in the 29" wheel size to weigh 1 832g including tubeless rim tape and valve stems.
Switching between wheelsets while testing really allowed us to feel the differences in freehub engagement. The Traverse Carbon have a respectable 10-degrees  we feel that is good for this price-point.
Carbon Vs. Aluminum. The Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon on the left  and the Stan's Flow MK3 on the right.

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.

Related: Buying Advice for Mountain Bike Wheels

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.

Ride Quality


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 the various models back to back over time, 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 light weight. Carbon also has had a reputation for being stiff to the point of harshness, giving deflection and lots of trail feedback. The newest generation of carbon wheels has worked to change that reputation with models that have a little more flex and dampening to produce a more compliant 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 They are sturdy and stiff but occasionally get deflected due to their rigidity. The Reynolds TR 309 S wheels 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 more flexy and compliant compared to carbon. They typically have a more forgiving ride but as a result can sacrifice a bit of precision. Many riders prefer the feel of alloy wheels because of their forgiveness and overall comfort…and the lower price could also have something to do with it. Alloy is usually heavier than carbon, resulting in heavier wheels overall. That means more rotational mass at the rim, which can give the wheels a more sluggish feel than carbon wheels provide. Of all the alloy wheelsets we tested, Stan's Flow MK3 was the tester favorite. These wheels felt the stiffest and the most nimble, while also 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 smooth and comfortable rides, but both felt significantly heavier and generally less refined than the Flow MK3.

Freehub Engagement


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 are higher performance because there is less lag 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; everything about your bike feels higher performance. The TR 309 S wheels were a close second with a very respectable 5-degree engagement, twice as fast, or better, 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 relatively standard, though you may sense the performance advantages of faster engagement. The Spank Oozy Trail 345 is a little slower at 12-degrees, and the DT Swiss E 1700 Spline 30 hubs 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


We weighed each pair as it would be ridden, including tubeless rim tape, tubeless valve stems and center lock adapters when applicable. Lighter is better as long as the wheels still perform as intended and don't become less durable. The lighter your wheels are, the lighter your bike is, the easier it is to climb, the faster you can accelerate. 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 at 1,738g per 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 at 1,832g. The Roval Traverse Carbon is the heaviest carbon model at 1,866g, still a respectable weight-to-price ratio .

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.

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 Stan's Flow MK3 was the lightest 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 were the second heaviest wheelset with a weight of 1,966g. Our heavyweight champion, the DT Swiss E 1700 Spline 30 weighed 2,136g.

Durability


If you're shelling out a whole bunch of cash to upgrade your wheelset, it's nice to know that it will 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 some of the early 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 price. They ride aluminum because it's more affordable. The initial price is less and repairing or replacing them is much less expensive. However, these days a new breed of carbon wheels 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.

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.

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.


Value


The most expensive (read: carbon) wheelsets were the highest rated and also the most expensive. Our Best Buy award winner, the Stan's Flow MK3, is one of the least expensive models in the test, yet its performance scores relatively well. 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 the carbon competition by $300 or more 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 if 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 backed by impressive warranties that add significant 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.

Freehub engagement are 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. Another comparison: both the DT Swiss E 1700 Spline and the Stan's Flow MK3 are alloy models, but the DT Swiss wheels retail for hundreds more and have 20-degree freehub engagement while the Stan's wheels have 10-degree engagement. The performance difference is staggering, as is the difference in price.

Our testers had no problem logging long hours on the Next R31 wheelset.
Our testers had no problem logging long hours on the Next R31 wheelset.

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 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