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Asking the Right Questions: Buying Mountain Bike Wheels

Want to increase the all-around performance of your mountain bike the most effective way possible? Buy new wheels. More than good brakes, good suspension, or a good drivetrain, good wheels will change the way your mountain bike handles in all trail conditions. The stock wheels that your bike came with are probably pretty darned good, as wheel technology has come a long way in the last few years, but if you want to upgrade your bike to suit your riding style, wheels are the first thing to change.

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Wheels have such a significant effect on your bikes overall performance becuase there’s no time when you’re riding that you aren’t taking advantage of one of the wheels performance aspects. If you’re climbing, light wheels will make that easier. Descending? Lateral stiffness keeps your bike tracking how you’d expect. Rolling along a rock-strewn fireroad to your favorite trail section? Good bearings and tough rims will keep you rolling.

With that in mind, wheels are an expensive upgrade. If you’re going to make the leap, you want to make sure your wheels are tailored to your particular riding style, so you can reap the maximum benefit. The following questions will help you narrow down your search so you can make a more informed decision.

What kind of riding do you do?

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This is the primary starting point. It’s best to think about the kind of riding you want to do, rather than just what you’re doing right now, as you’re building the bike for that purpose. If you’re a cross country rider, it’s likely that the climb is the most important part of your ride, and where you really want the bike to shine. A light, fast-rolling wheelset will make the biggest difference here. You can expect to shave off grams of rotating weight by running narrower rims (and tires), lower spoke counts, and using lighter materials (like carbon fiber for the rims). Your hub needs to spin efficiently on good bearings, and have a freehub mechanism that engages quickly for bursts of power to get you over obstacles on the climb.

A trail or enduro rider has different requirements of their wheels. The more important the descent is to your ride, the more lateral stiffness and wheel strength matters. While you still need to pedal up long or steep hills, you can sacrifice some weight savings for better control when descending. Wider rims, higher spoke counts, and more rim material are all beneficial to helping your bike track how you’d expect through rough terrain, making your bike more responsive and faster.

A downhill, freeride, or gravity-oriented rider is the most likely to damage their wheels by smashing through places that are hard to walk through, much less pilot a bike over. When upgrading wheels for this aspect of the sport, look for wide, triangular-profiled rims offering the best strength and ground contact, and opt for higher spoke counts if possible, as these will be stiffer and stronger overall.

What’s your material of choice?

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The elephant in the room with any wheel discussion is the use of carbon fiber in rim production. Carbon is a polarizing issue. While it is an ideal material for rim production, being simultaneously stronger, stiffer and lighter than most aluminum rims, it is considerably more expensive, and not particularly environmentally friendly. Still, the ability to have a wheel strong enough for gravity-riding hits at a weight acceptable to cross country rider is tempting to many riders.

What kind of drivetrain do you have?

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The two major drivetrain manufacturers (SRAM and Shimano) use different mechanisms for securing the cassette to the rear wheel. Make sure that if you run a SRAM drivetrain, you purchase a wheelset that is compatible with the XD driver system. If your ideal wheelset isn’t compatible, you will need to head to your local LTP Sports dealer to grab a SunRace cassette.

What kind of terrain do you ride?

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The answer to this question will tell you what width of rim will be ideal for you. A wider rim tends to be laterally stiffer and increases the footprint of the tire you choose, making for better traction. A narrower rim will be lighter. If the terrain you ride is rough, and you want to push your bike to its limits, a wider rim (around 30mm internal width) will support you in that endeavor.

How rough are you on the bike?

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Believe it or not, your riding style and weight have a bearing on the wheels you choose. A heavier rider puts more force on their wheels in any given terrain. A light and laterally flexy wheelset under a heavy rider will adversely affect the bikes handling, to the point that the weight loss just isn’t worth it. If you like to throw your bike around a lot as you ride, investing in a stronger and laterally stiffer wheelset will ensure that your wheels stand up better. Another factor to consider as a larger rider is that you’re likely going to be putting out more torque than your smaller counterparts. Consider the wear that this can put on your components and invest in a wheel with a tough engagement system on the rear hub, preferably using SRAM’s XD driver, which is less prone to failing under repeated high-torque loads. If you are stuck using a cassette, SunRace produce their wide-range cassettes with three-ring carriers for their lowest 6 rings, virtually eliminating the risk of damaging a freehub body from the torque on the rings.


 

If you’re thinking about purchasing new wheels, drop by your local Live to Play Sports dealer, where they can give you further advice, tailored specifically to your bike. In the mean time, consider these product suggestions:

Cross-Country:

314097-01RISE 60 (B1) CARBON TUBELESS 27.5 XC / RACE WHEELS
Performance XC / Trail / Marathon wheelset
• B1 series features updated hubs and redesigned rims for improved performance and durability
• Unidirectional carbon tuned rim / Hookless rim design
• 26 mm outer width / 21 mm inner
• Double time ratchet mechanism features a 4 pawl design with offsetting engagement
• 24 hole Rear / 24 hole Front
• 1390 g / set
MSRP: $2864.98 (pair)

 

 

 

All Mountain:

257891-01TRSR 27.5 CARBON WHEELS
27 mm Hookless bead compression molded carbon rims are stronger and provide crisper steering response than alloy
• 6 degree freehub engagement
• Carbon torsion tube in hub center
• 28 Hole
• 1 Year no questions asked warranty on bearings
• 1690 g (Front + Rear)
MSRP: $2319.98 (pair)

 

 

 

Enduro:

252435-02SPANK OOZY TRAIL 345 27.5 WHEELS
Enduro / All-Mountain / Trail wheelset for aggressive riding
• 30.5 mm inner rim width / 22 mm rim profile / Dynamal alloy
• Oohbah reverse well profile for added rigidity and strength
• Oversized 32 hole hub with convertible end caps
• Sandvick triple butted straight pull 2.2/1.7/2.0 spokes
• 10/11 Speed Alloy freehub and internal axle (XD freehub sold separately)
• 1920 g / pr
MSRP: $999.99 (pair)

 

Freeride/DH:

252374-04SPANK SPOON 32 DH / FR / AM 27.5 WHEELS
• 32 mm inner rim width / 24 mm rim profile / Super-6 alloy
• 6-Bolt IS disc brake interface
• 32 hole hub with convertible end caps
• 10 Speed steel freehub and internal axle (XD freehub sold separately)
• 2350 g / pr
MSRP: $749.99 (pair)

 


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