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Thinking about some new mountain bike wheels? We researched dozens of wheelsets before purchasing nine of the most compelling to put through our rigorous testing and comparison process. Wheels have a dramatic effect on ride quality and upgrading the stock wheels on your bike can dramatically improve the overall performance and handling. With so many options on the market today, deciding on a new set of wheels can be overwhelming. Our testers rode a selection of six carbon and three alloy wheelsets, finding ugly lines, brutal climbs, and big hits to put them to the test. Over dirt, sandstone, granite, and gravel, we found berms, jumps, rock gardens, and technical lines to parse out the differences so you can find what might best fit your riding style and budget.
The Race Face Next R31 impressed our testers and took home the award as our favorite 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 as stiff as carbon wheels should be, but they have enough compliance to avoid being overly harsh, with a dampened feel that further enhances comfort on the trail. Testers also loved the relatively quick 3-degree freehub engagement, which never felt like it was lagging behind.
Our biggest gripe with the Next R31 wheels is far from a deal-breaker. The rims' sticker decals 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.
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 who doesn't want to shell out the cash for a carbon set.
One of the best no-nonsense alloy wheelsets we've tested, the Hunt Trail Wide MTB delivers on performance, weight, and value. These sensibly priced wheels perform far beyond what their price might suggest. Starting with the rims, Hunt gives us the 30mm internal width and pinch flat resistance we desire from their H-lock bead system. The rims have laser-etched graphics over a work-hardened and shot-peened surface providing durability and great looks. The rims are laced with 28 triple-butted spokes that keep the weight down and give them a spry, energetic feel. The hubs are full of features, including a forged front hub and oversized 7000 series axles and Torque Caps if so desired. All of the options are available with their hubs, 142, boost, or super-boost spacing, HG, MicroSpline or Sram Xd freehubs, and 6-bolt or Centerlock rotor mounts. Engagement comes at 5 degrees thanks to a "RapidEngage" freehub that uses 3 sets of 2 pawls paired to a 36-tooth drive ring. The exterior of the freehub bodies are coated with a proprietary H_CERAMIK reinforced coating that prevents cassette damage. The wheels arrive with tubeless tape and valves installed and weigh in at just 1869 grams.
The freehub engagement on these wheels is 5 degrees and while that isn't super impressive, it's beyond respectable at this price point and we didn't feel that it had a huge impact on their performance. The wheels could also feel a little flexy under load but that can also be interpreted as comfort and we were pleased with the balance of performance and compliance. Our minor concerns about these wheels didn't feel significant given their price and how durable they proved to be. If you're looking for a meaningful upgrade to your wheels without breaking the bank, Hunt offers a great place to start.
The Zipp 3Zero Moto wheels are the first real mountain bike wheelset from Zipp and they propose a new way forward. The moto-inspired single-wall carbon rim features ankle compliance to increase traction and deflect direct hits. These wheels tap into a different aspect of the carbon performance advantage and give the bike a unique calm and composed feel that we've never quite experienced before. The rim's ability to flex laterally results in impressive cornering traction and the muting of feedback over rough and chunky terrain. The ZM2 hubs do not disappoint with 2.7 degrees of engagement and a refined feel but they get overshadowed by the rim technology. Zipp is also so confident in the durability of their wheels, they offer a lifetime warranty that reads, "if it happens while riding, it's covered." Those looking for a snappy, lightweight set of carbon wheels might want to keep looking but if downhill performance, traction, and comfort are your guiding metrics, these wheels feel unrivaled.
We think it's a little disappointing that these wheels aren't offered with a Shimano MicroSpline freehub body. We've also come to expect that carbon wheels are going to feel light and snappy, and while this is less prevalent on these wheels, the performance advantage provided by their compliance was undeniable. Sometimes a bit lethargic feeling on the climbs and slower to accelerate, we certainly didn't always appreciate the extra weight. What these wheels lacked in zippiness, they more than made up for in control and traction.
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 lifelong mountain biker with years of bicycle industry experience and a knack for the ugly line. 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's raced nearly every discipline of the sport, worked extensively in the bike industry, and moonlights as a mountain bike coach. 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 nine models to test and compare side-by-side. Our selection of all-mountain/trail wheelsets includes six carbon and three 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.
Analysis and Test Results
Over several months, our professional mountain bike testers pedaled their hearts out, putting each of these wheelsets through their paces to find the best wheels for every rider. 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 Hunt Trail Wide V2 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 Raceface Next R31 wheels. These were not the most expensive wheels we tested but had the performance metrics that impressed us the most.
It is important to note that some wheelsets are sold as pairs while other manufacturers and online retailers sell their wheels as singles, either front or rear. For the latter, the price of a complete wheelset will be significantly higher, double or slightly more, than the price of a single wheel.
There's more to our assessment of value than features and MSRP. More and more companies are starting to add lifetime warranties and we find incredible value in that. The Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon Wheelset, the Zipp 3Zero Moto, and the Raceface Next R31 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, ensuring that you will get many years of use out of them. The Enve AM30 wheels come with a five-year warranty against defects and "incident protection" which is really a waning discount that applies to the purchase of new wheels should yours become damaged. Stan's and Hunt offer similar crash replacement discounts in addition to a standard warranty against defects in materials or workmanship. While we appreciate warranties of all capacities, the reality of incident protection or crash replacement policies is likely hundreds of dollars out of pocket should you smash a rim, and that affects how we feel about value. In general, we feel that the durability of carbon wheelsets now surpasses that of alloy and contributes to a better value in some of the higher-priced models, especially those with lifetime warranties.
Freehub engagement is a performance metric that affects how we value these wheels. A faster, more responsive hub is perceived as more valuable as it allows for more responsive acceleration. The Stans Flow Mk4 wheels come standard with a 1.66-degree freehub engagement and the Industry Nine Enduro S wheels boast .52-degree engagement. This excellent performance warrants some extra dollars which is why these alloy wheelsets are scratching the surface of carbon wheelset prices. On some hubs, the freehub can be upgraded for faster engagement, the Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon wheels, for instance, come with a lackluster 10-degree engagement but can be upgraded to 6.6 degrees. The $50 ratchet upgrade will enhance performance but it eats into the value proposition of that wheelset.
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 excessive trail feedback. The new generation of carbon wheels has worked to change that reputation with models that have a little more compliance and dampening engineered to produce a more balanced ride. These wheels are generally lightweight and durable, with the efficiency and precise handling you want, plus enough give and vibration absorption to enhance their comfort on the trail. On one end of the spectrum, we felt the Enve AM30 was a little too stiff and transmitted unwanted feedback to the rider. On the other end, the Zipp 3Zeromoto produced such a muted experience that the bike felt like it had additional travel. The Raceface Next R31 and Santa Cruz Reserve Carbon 30 achieved solid middle ground producing a stiff and lightweight feeling wheel that never felt too harsh.
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 and efficiency. Some riders prefer the feel of alloy wheels because of their forgiveness and lower price point, even if they are a bit heavier. Of all the alloy wheelsets we tested, the Industry Nine Enduro S Hydra was the tester's favorite. These wheels felt stiff and nimble but also balanced and compliant. The weights of all of the alloy contenders were pretty similar but the Hydra freehub was the fastest freehub by far. The Stan's Flow MK4 also impressed our testers with a lively and responsive ride blended with a bit of forgiveness.
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 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 Stan's Flow MK4 use a slightly different strategy to achieve 1.66-degree engagement from their M-pulse hubs. While most freehub pawls are pushed outward into the hub using springs, the M-pulse hubs use magnetic pull force to engage the pawls, a system that Stan's claims reduces friction while coasting. The noise we hear when coasting is the pawls pushing against the drive ring and noise equals friction. We couldn't quantify the reduced drag from the M-pulse hubs but they do coast freely and feel efficient.
Zipp uses a dual ratchet ring and 12 pawls (4 groups of 3) to achieve 132 points of engagement or 2.7 degrees which feels solid and quick to engage. Building a faster hub requires more accurate machining and tighter tolerances, which results in increased performance but also increased cost. Is rapid engagement worth the cost? For riders that enjoy quick starts and ratcheting through technical terrain, you might find value here. A slower freehub results in more play at the pedal and a delay in power being transmitted to the ground. If you've never noticed that delay or don't mind it, you might be able to save some money on your next wheelset. Ten degrees of engagement is relatively standard but feels lackluster on an aftermarket wheelset.
We weighed each pair of wheels as they'd be ridden, including tubeless rim tape and tubeless valve stems. In general, we feel that less weight is better as long as the wheels still perform as intended and don't sacrifice durability. Weight is particularly important in a pair of wheels since they're rotating. More rotational weight at the rim can have the adverse effect of making your bike feel lethargic and slow. The lighter your wheels are, the lighter your bike feels, the easier it climbs, 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 and 15x110 front hubs.
Not surprisingly, most of the carbon models we tested weighed less than their alloy counterparts. The lightest wheelset in the test is the Bontrager Line Pro 30 at an impressive 1,713 grams, while the heaviest was the Zipp 3Zero Moto with an almost 300-gram difference. Judging by weight alone, the Zipp wheels wouldn't really be contenders. While they did ride with many of the negative characteristics we attribute to heavy wheels, they will find a fan base willing to overlook weight for their unique ride quality. The Hunt Trail Wide V2 wheelset weighed in at 1869g. and embodied much of what we enjoy in a lightweight wheelset. They spun up fast, felt nimble and responsive, and made our test bikes feel more agile.
In general, an aluminum rim is heavier than a carbon fiber rim, and it's also much less expensive, so it stands to reason that most of the alloy-rimmed wheels we tested weigh more and cost less than their carbon competition. Of all the alloy wheelsets, the Hunt Trail Wide V2 was the lightest at 1,869 grams, followed very closely by the Industry Nine Hydra Enduro S at 1,895 grams and the Stan's Flow MK4 at 1919 grams.
When shelling out your hard-earned cash to upgrade your wheels, it's nice to think they'll last a while. No set of mountain bike wheels will last forever, but most should provide you with several years of trouble-free use. Carbon wheels, once considered a risky purchase now hold a reputation for durability. Unlike alloy rims, carbon hoops can absorb impacts and deform without being permanently damaged. While the initial cost is more expensive, the long-term durability may give them a price per mile less than their alloy counterparts.
Many people will choose alloy wheels due to their affordability. The initial price is lower, and repairing or replacing them is significantly less expensive. The price of carbon wheels has steadily been getting closer to alloy for years now, so there may be a shift happening as more riders realize the benefits of carbon, especially when 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. While the wheels weren't unscathed, none of them, required more than a few turns of a spoke wrench. There were no broken spokes, dented or cracked rims, or damaged bearings.
Carbon wheels have proved themselves to be more durable than alloy, because of this, we rated the durability of each carbon model slightly higher than the alloy models, wheels with better warranties 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. Whether you prefer the durability and weight of carbon, or the value and comfort-forward feel of alloy, this review will give you a good insight into the best of both worlds. We hope the information in this comparative review will help you find the best new wheels for your mountain bike adventures!
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.