Upgrading the components on your bike can significantly improve its feel, performance and appearance. Wheels are often one of the first upgrades that a rider makes, so we look at why upgrade wheels could benefit your mountain bike, and what you should look out for.
Why upgrade your MTB wheels?
Upgrading your mountain bike wheels has a number of advantages, we've picked out just a few...
The optimal mountain bike wheel size is a significant debate in itself, but there is a definite trend towards the larger wheel sizes, namely to the 650b standard. We take a greater look at this in our Mountain Bike Wheels Buying Guide, but if you are currently running 26 inch wheels on your mountain bike, an upgrade to 650b or 29er could hold significant benefits. You should note however that upgrading your wheelsize requires more than just a change of wheels, you will need a larger frame and fork to accommodate the change.
With the increased trend to larger wheels has come an increased demand for lighter weight materials. Larger wheels have the benefit of rolling over objects with greater ease, but they also have the significant disadvantage that it increases rotational mass. Therefore every time the wheel rotates, it has to rotate a larger mass, requiring greater effort.
Improvements in technology have facilitated this reduction in weight; carbon fibre, stronger and lighter alloys and titanium have all allowed weight reduction in wheel sets. By upgrading your wheels you can significantly lower the weight, and therefore lower the required effort to get up to speed!
Improved hub technology
The quality of your hubs has a significant effect on the weight, rotational resistance and rigidity of your wheels. An upgrade hub is likely to have better bearings, that could potentially be cartridge bearings; these are likely to last longer and be more easily replaced when they have had their day.
However, mountain bike hubs are also changing in design. Traditional 135mm x 10mm quick release axles are being replaced by bigger, stiffer and stronger 142 x 12mm bolt-through axles. This change has dramatically changed the feel, strength and durability of hub sets. Note: Before upgrading your axle design you should ensure that your frame and forks have the correct drop-outs to accommodate them.
One of the biggest changes in mountain bike wheels in recent years is the advent of more affordable and lighter weight tubeless packages. It is possible to run tubeless tyres on non-tubeless specific rims using a conversion kit; however, upgrading to a set of tubeless rims means that you can drop a significant amount of weight and sometimes run lighter weight non-tubeless specific tyres. Similar to the reductions in weight due to new rim materials, switching to tubeless can significantly reduce rotational weight.
Upgrading your mountain bike wheels may also be due to changes in your riding style or discipline. For example, making the shift from cross country riding to aggressive all mountain riding may mean that you need more robust rims and a higher spoke count, to cope with the increased stress that is placed on your wheel set. Choose wheels that are capable of dealing with the kind of riding you aim to be doing.
New technology and the "trickle-down" effect
The good news is that no matter what your budget, you can benefit from upgrading your mountain bike wheels. This can be attributed to the "trickle-down" effect. This refers to the fact that when new technology is brought to the higher end of the market, it is never that long before we see its influence impacting on lower price point products as well.
Therefore when we saw new materials, better bearings and tubeless technology coming into the high end wheels, it was only a few years before we saw them on the lower ladder rungs too. The result is that even if you are just replacing a set of old worn out wheels for some new ones at a similar price point, the newer version is still likely to be an upgrade on the old.
Matching equipment to your ability level
Mountain biking is a sport that rewards those who practise, those that are adventurous and those that want to learn. As your ability improves you will find that you get a lot more from your riding if you are using an improved level of equipment as well.
So reward yourself, as you make the next step up the levels in terms of performance, upgrade your components as well and you will feel the benefits multiply.