Getting A Set of Custom Mountain Bike Wheels? Here is what you need to know…

by Robb Sutton

Eventually in just about every mountain biker’s future, there is a set of custom built wheels waiting to bring your mountain bike to life. The wheels on your mountain bike have one of the biggest influences on how your bike rides and a lot of riders overlook this very important component. It is amazing how many riders will spring for the $250+ rear derailleur that has little to no influence while riding on $100 or less wheels. If you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, pay attention to the frame, suspension and wheels.

What a lot of riders also do not realize is that a custom built wheelset may be closer to their budget than they think. While there are wheels that will put you in the $1,000+ range…that is not the norm. You can be in the lower hundreds as well and ride away with a killer set of wheels that will last you over multiple bikes. As we all already know, even bike manufacturers spec out low quality wheels on their full builds so keeping a good set of wheels pays off for years to come.

The Wheel Builder

There is a certain reality in mountain biking. There is a big difference between a quality handmade wheel build and a bulk machine built mountain biking wheel. While there are cheaper, ready made wheels out there, a quality built wheelset by a reputable wheel builder will last you longer and stay rolling true for the life of the wheel. Even a wheel made with budget components benefits drastically when it is put together with the right hands. There is a science/art to wheel building. I am not sure why, but that is just the case. Those that do it well…do it really well. Those that don’t…will leave you with wheels that need to be trued all of the time.

Wheel builds are the one thing I do not do myself on my bike. For my wheel builds, I leave them in the capable hands of a select few: Chad at Red Barn Bikes, Chris at Built to Last Wheels and the late John Kovachi. I have several sets personally from Chad that have gotten beat to hell without any sign of needing a tune up. If you are going to focus on anything, get the right wheel builder and you will save yourself a ton of future headaches and you will have a stiff and reliable set to hit the trail with.

Mountain Bike Hubs

The foundation of your wheels are your hubs. They control the power transfer in the rear and have a significant impact on the stiffness of your front end. When you are choosing the right set of hubs for your mountain bike wheel build, you need to pay attention to the stats that matter as laid out below. Ideally, you will be working with a wheel builder on a set budget and they will give you some hub options in your price range.

Size

Size used to be simple with mountain bike hubs but thanks to the introduction of the 142mm rear axle…things are a little different now. Be sure to check your bike and make sure you are running the proper width rear hub. The previous industry standard was 135mm but a lot of the newer bikes are coming spec’ed with the new 142mm rear ends that increases overall stiffness.

Axles

Gone are the days of the convention QR as the only standard in mountain biking. Personally, I am glad to see it go but now we have more axles than we know what to do with. You need to make sure that you spec out the correct front and rear axle depending on your bike and suspension setup. On the front, you can have a QR, 9mm RWS (DT Swiss), 15mm TA, 20mm TA or 25mm TA (Cannondale Lefty). On the rear, you can have a QR, 10mm TA (typically older DH rigs) and 12mm (newer 142mm spacing). Hadley also has a 10mm TA that fits into conventional QR dropouts that I personally use.

Your front suspension and rear dropout design on your frame will determine which setup you need to spec in your wheel build.

Durability/Weight

Not all hubs are created equal. Some focus on weight while others on durability. As a recreational rider, you do not need the lightest hubs on the market. Any of the setups from Chris King, Hope, Industry Nine, Hadley, DT Swiss and other manufacturers that is centered around trail riding is going to most likely be ideal. Try not to get focused too much on weight and more on the other specs that fit your wheel build and have a direct relationship on riding like engagement. You do not want to end up getting a light set that ends up having issues in the future.

Spoke Count

For 99.99% of riders, 32 spoke is the way to go. There are some XC racers that run 28 spoke and there are some DH guys that run 36. For most riders and racers, the standard 32 spoke is going to be perfect. You are not going to save enough weight with 28 to make a real difference and 36 is overkill even for most DH guys these days. The quality of the person building your wheels is far more important than overall spoke count.

Engagement

Engagement is one of my most important factors in choosing a hub for mountain bikes. For those that don’t know, engagement is the amount of points that the drive engages the shell to get power to the ground. Typically, this is specified in points around a 360 degree turn of the wheel. For example, the Chris King rear hubs engage the drive 72 times in 360 degrees in comparison to a Hope hub that engages 24 times. This means that the Chris King hub will engage quicker (less degrees of pedal movement) than the Hope.

Why does this matter?

When you are in slow, technical sections of trail where you have to clutch the pedals to get moving, you get power to the ground faster. You also get it to the chainline faster when going from coasting to pedaling. By decreasing this gap, you are able to be more efficient on the trail and it can actually save you in really slow rocky/rooty situations.

As a general rule…here are how some of the brands lay out: Industry Nine – 120, Chris King – 72, Hadley – 72, Hope – 24, DT Swiss – 24

Color/Proprietary Parts

Mountain bike hubs are available in a wide variety of colors. Match them up with the bike or as an accent. When you end up adding a contrast spoke you can really change the overall look of your ride and make it unique.

Another thing to watch out for with mountain bike hubs is proprietary parts. Hubs like the ones out of Industry Nine require their straight pull aluminum spokes (minus the classic versions). If you break a spoke, you have to have spares on hand and with you to get it fixed.

The Truth About Freewheeling Videos and Comparisons

When it comes to choosing the right hubs for your wheel build, you really need to pay attention to the stats that matter. I see a lot of riders that want to compare how long their wheel spins in a bike stand as a comparison for how good their hubs are.

The truth…the only time that ever matters is when the bike is on the stand and…I don’t know about you…but where my components matter is on the trail. Unless there is a mechanical problem with your hub, you are not going to feel any drag on the trail. Your tires and chain line have more drag than any modern day hub engagement design. Do not forgo something like better engagement (that will make a difference on the trail) in favor of a hub that freewheels longer (that does not make a difference on the trail).

Mountain Bike Rims

The second most crucial aspect of a mountain bike wheel build is the rim. The mountain bike rim controls not only your rolling weight in combination with the tire, but it also controls how the contact patch of your tire will be laid out on the trail.

Weight

The farther you get away from the hub…the more weight matters. Have you ever experienced riding on lighter tires? It feels like the bike just wants to move forward quicker right? That is why the balance between durability, width and weight has been so crucial in mountain bike rims recently. There are serious efficiency gains to be made with light rims as long as they hold up and are wide enough for the newer, lighter wide mountain bike tires. You can expect a durable, trail ready rim to weigh in at about 400g for 26″ wheels and 480g for 29ers these days. That is lighter than previous years while still keeping the same amount of durability we are used to seeing.

Also remember, the quality of your wheel builder will drastically effect the durability of the set and how it holds together.

Strength

The rim is the first line of defense after the ground hits the tire. While it may be tempting to get the lightest rim on the market to make your bike feel faster…you could be shooting yourself in the foot by getting setup with a rim that is really just meant for XC racing. On the other hand, you can over do it and end up losing efficiency by getting a heavier rim that is overkill on the durability side. The key is telling your wheel builder the exact kind of riding you do on a regular basis and finding that balance that will make the perfect wheelset for you and your riding style.

Width

Rim width has become a huge topic over recent years. The reason for this is that mountain bike tires are getting wider at the same weight they used to be in the past. When I first started riding, it was not uncommon to see everyone riding 1.8 tires. Now days…you wouldn’t even catch the biggest weight weenie XC racer on 1.8 tires. Most trail riders are on big 2.25 to 2.4 rubber to take advantage of a better ride and more grip due to larger air volume and contact patch with the trail.

Your rim width directly determines how that contact patch interacts with the ground. A narrower rim will cause the tire to bubble out more and have a more rounded appearance. This means you will not have as good of contact with the ground and less grip. It will also make your tire more prone to pinch flats as the sidewalls will be curving into the rim.

The wider your rim is…the flatter the tire will sit on the trail and the better your overall ride will be due to more cushion and better grip. Of course, wider rims generally equal more weight due to increase material, but with rims like the NoTubes.com Stans Flow (25.5mm width at 490g on 26″) and the Pacenti TL28 (23mm inner width at 390g for 26″) we are getting much wider rims at lighter weights. The Pacenti has been our personal favorite for awhile now due to this weight/width/strength ratio.

Tubeless

If you are looking to run tubeless on your mountain bike, the rim will determine what system you are using. It is actually harder to find rims that do not accept some form tubeless system these days thanks to the NoTubes.com Stans system. However, you do need to know that there are two basic types. The tape based system (NoTubes.com) and the rim bead/tire system like the Mavic UST.

The tape based systems are the goo you are used to seeing around the trail and is generally the easiest way to get into tubeless even if it is messy. A lot of non-tubeless tires will work with that system and the rim and tire weights are less than bead/tire systems like Mavic’s UST setup. It is actually more rare to see the UST setup which used to be the only option to run tubeless.

Mountain Bike Spokes

As mentioned before in the hub portion, 32 spoke is going to be the way to run for 99% of riders. When it comes to spoke selection (if you are not using a hub that has proprietary spokes like Industry Nine or some Hope hubs), the choice should be pretty simple. Most riders get away with using DT Swiss Comp spokes. While there are lighter spokes on the market from DT Swiss and other companies, the Comp spoke has become an industry standard for very good reason…it is relatively light and strong. We run Comps on all of our wheels for that reason.

If you are looking to get something else out of your spokes for a specific reason, get with your builder and discuss options with drawbacks/benefits. The other benefit to Comps is that EVERY shop has them on hand. If you ever run into an issue while you are out of town on a mountain biking trip…it can be fixed easily.

Mountain Bike Nipples

Brass or alloy: That is your decision to make in regards the nipples that adjust your spoke tension when you are using traditional spokes. Alloy nipples are slightly lighter, a little bit more expensive and come in colors. That is the reason you will see them on a lot of mountain bike wheels. Other than that…performance is about the same when the wheels are built and trued correctly.

Conclusion on Custom Mountain Bike Wheels

My mountain bike wheels are about the only component that goes from bike to bike over the years and a component that I consider to be one of the most important on the bike. When you get a really well built set of wheels, they will last you a long time with minimal maintenance. They will provide for a better riding bike due to better stiffness, weight, performance and durability and it is a change that…once you ride with a good set…you will never be able to switch back to cheaper or machine built wheels. It makes that big of a difference in the way your bike rides.

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