Bike Rims Buying Guide

Bikes look pretty simple, but when you start shopping for replacement bike parts or upgrades, things can get a bit complex and confusing. There’s a ton of stuff to learn before sinking your money into bike rims, bike tires, handlebars, pedals, suspension, saddle, shifters, and everything in between. Hopefully, you’ll learn everything you need to know about road bike rims and mountain bike rims before you’re done devouring this bike rims buying guide.

Do Bike Rims Make a Difference?

Yes, they do. Upgrading to significantly lighter, stiffer rims should generally translate into better acceleration and speed. That’s why professional cross-country racers are always willing to spend a pretty penny on performance-optimized aero carbons.

But if you use these very wheels on rooty, rocky terrain in an enduro or DH race, you’ll end up with tacoed wheels. For riding on such unforgiving terrains, get wider, stronger rims. So, bike rims do make a difference.

What If You Have Two Different Wheels?

The normal thing to do when rims stop rolling nicely is to order the exact same wheels. But there isn’t much practical difference when you use different wheels. As long as the wheels are the same size and neither significantly surpasses the other quality-wise, you probably won’t notice any difference. You can even match a carbon wheel with an aluminum one to see how that changes your ride experience, if at all.

What is the Best Bike Rim for My Rig?

What determines what the best rims are for anyone is riding style and ability. If all you do is leisure road cycling, you should be OK with good and affordable aluminum alloy wheels. But if you’re training for any kind of road racing, definitely get a pair of premium carbon hoops.

Are Carbon Rims Worth It?

If carbon hoops didn’t matter at all, would the world’s best road cyclists ever sink a dollar into them? Carbon rims make a difference that may be minimal or significant depending on a couple of factors.

Wheel design and rim/tire combo determine how much of a difference you’ll feel. To experience a real difference, you want to have low-resistance tires coupled with deep-set aerodynamic carbon wheels.

If you have shallow carbon rims, you’ll notice a difference, but not much. One roadie I know said running shallow carbon wheels doesn’t make any real performance difference. He believes that the perception of better performance some riders using shallow carbon wheels report is nothing but a placebo effect.

Deep-section Carbon Wheels Certainly Make a Difference

The lightest, stiffest, carbon hoops paired up with aero tires can make you look and feel really fast.  One situation the difference becomes more evident is during climbs. That’s when you feel just how light and fast carbon hoops can be.

Some roadies have even said that upgrading to high-end carbon wheels makes a greater impact than a frame swap.

However, if the rims are too deep, deeper than 50mm, riders have noticed a performance deterioration emanating from crosswinds.

So, if you’re looking for ways to spend your money and participate in road races, sportives, or even hammerfests, consider getting aero road wheels. But you’ll end up with a lighter wallet. And every time your carbon rims hit a hole, you’ll feel a cold, worry-packed sweat stream down your face.

What Are the Different Types of Bicycle Rims?

There are three main types of bicycle rims/wheels. These are:

  • Mountain bike rims
  • Road bike rims
  • BMX rims

Let’s see what each rim type is like.

Mountain Bike Rims

mtb bike rim


Mountain bike rims have been getting wider, and there’s a couple of reasons for this unfolding development.

One reason wider MTB rims are becoming a preference is that tubeless tires are becoming popular. Now, wider trail bike rims provide the increased base stability tubeless tires need to remain in the rim instead of coming off when you load side-on load like when riding a berm.

Also, having a greater stability base allows you to run lower tire pressure. And running lower tire pressure gives you greater traction.

The third and final reason MTB wheels have been getting wider and wider is that MTB tires have been growing wider. While you can fit reasonably wide tires into narrow rims, you’ll have serious compatibility issues if the rim is too narrow while the wheel is too wide. So, rim width in mountain biking has been growing to keep up pace with the ever-growing tire width.

That said, understand that using wider rims tends to change the wheel profile a bit, making it squarer. Not that a squarer MTB tire profile is such a bad thing.

How to Buy MTB Rims

Below is a set of things to look out for when out shopping for MTB wheels.

  • Rim diameter
  • Rim width
  • Number of spokes and lacing patterns
  • rim material

MTB Rim Diameter

MTB wheels are available in three sizes namely 26″ (26ers), 27.5″, and 29″ wheels (niners). If you look at a MTB replacement tire, you’ll see a set of two numbers somewhere on the sidewall. The number looks like 26″ x2.5.” That means the tire is for 26″ rims with a width of 2.5.”

Smaller wheels get up to speed quicker than bigger wheels and offer greater grip. But they struggle a little when rolling over roots and rocks. Larger wheels, on the other hand, accelerate slower but roll faster over time. Additionally, bigger wheels have an easier time navigating rooty or rocky trails.

In the end, you want to choose a rim size that matches your riding style, height, and preference. Taller people tend to like 29″ rims better than smaller ones. And shorter riders would find 26″ rims more comfortable.

If you’re into dirt jumping, you want to use really small wheels as opposed to someone in a cross-country race.

Many dirt jumpers like using 24″ wheels (that’s for kids, huh?) while many cross-country riders tend to favor 27.5 wheels. And many downhill racers prefer 29″ wheels because they’re fast and stable at speed because they have greater trail. And greater trail brings better steering and turning at speed.

Can you Use Road Bike Wheels on an MTB Frame?

Road wheels are designed for road bike frames, not MTB frames, and vice versa. However, you can run road bike wheels on a mountain bike frame. As long as the MTB rim diameter works for the road tire width and there’s enough frame clearance, you definitely can.

In almost every case, it should be possible to run a 700c road bike wheel on most 29″ MTB frames. That’s because 700c road rims are the same as 29″ rims diameter-wise.

However, some MTB rims might be too wide for certain road slicks. But wider tires are becoming more common in road biking. That means it might be easier to use wheels across bike types without issues going forward.

Can You Fit Knobby MTB Tires on a Road Bike?

In most cases, you can’t mostly because of frame clearance issues. The traditional road bike frame typically lacks enough fork arch clearance, chainstay clearance, and brake clearance for accommodating any kind of knobby tires. Plus, there’s always the issue of hub/wheel compatibility.

But why do you really want to fit MTB tires on a road bike? If your goal is to be able to use your road rig on-road and off-road, I have a suggestion for you. Instead of trying to shoe-horn a wide trail tire onto a road bike frame, use a cyclocross bike or gravel road bike instead. Many gravel bikes tend to have enough clearance for fitting in wider wheels, as wide as 700c x35mm.

MTB Wheel Width

Different MTB disciplines work best with narrower, lighter rims while others work best with wider, stronger rims. For example, cross-country MTB, marathon, and trail riding generally tend to prefer narrower, lighter rims. That’s because lighter, narrower rims fit equally narrower tires, and narrower tires grapple with less rolling resistance.

Most trail bike and X-cross bike rims these days come 23mm wide. That doesn’t mean that the tires are the same width as the rims. Typically, a range of tires will fit on a specific wheel width. The most common tire width for 23mm rims is 2.1 inches or slightly narrower.

For more taxing disciplines such as enduro and rougher all-mountain riding on rocky terrains, wider rims in the 28mm neighborhood suffice. With such rims, you fit in wider tires in the 2.25″-2.4″ range.

As for extreme, gravity-oriented mountain biking disciplines such as DH and freeride, you need really wide rims. You need super-strong, wide rims that retain their shape when you land them from elevated positions. For DH, freeride, freestyle, and similar styles, 36mm-40mm rims paired with 2.5″-2.7″ downhill tires are more common.

Number of Spokes and Spoke Lacing Patterns

Spokes are steel or aluminum rods that attach the rim to the wheel hub through the hub flange. Most MTB have J-bend spokes, but others have straight-pull spokes. J-Bend spokes got that name from the way they bend around the end of the hub.

The other end of these spokes threads into tiny, headed cylinders with threading. These cylindrical components are called spoke nipples.

spoke nipples

As for straight-pull spokes, they only work with the wheels they’re designed for. Unlike J-Bend options, these ones don’t have an end bend. One huge advantage of using straight-pull options is that they let you tighten them to pretty high spoke tensions. And they can be hard to find because of their limited popularity.

Each of these spokes can be butted, aero/bladed, or straight-gauge. If a spoke’s profile varies lengthwise, it’s a butted spoke.

You can choose single-butted, double-butted, or triple-butted spokes. It all depends on how much strength relative to the weight each butted spoke type offers.

But if a spoke has a uniform lengthwise profile, it’s a straight-gauge spoke. As for aero spokes, these feature mostly a flat profile designed to boost your bike’s aerodynamic profile.

Spoke Lace Patterns

mtb spoke pattern

The spoke lace pattern refers to how often a spoke crosses a neighboring spoke before reaching the rim. There are various spoke lacing patterns to choose from, and each lacing style somewhat affects ride quality.

Most MTBs have either two-cross or three-cross lace patterns. In a three-cross spoke pattern, each spoke crosses over three others between the hub and the rim.

A two-cross lace pattern has each spoke intersecting two others.  The two-lacing cross is typically found in premium hoops. Two-cross lacing styles are usually seen on straight-pull spokes. Typically, these straight-pull spokes are fewer in number ranging between 24 and 28 spokes.

Most mountain bikes have either 2-cross or 3-cross patterns. Why? It’s mostly because 2 or 3-cross lacing amounts to enough strength for counteracting rotational forces from disc brakes.

But do spokes make a difference? Yes, spoke length profile and spoke pattern affect the overall ride character of a given wheel. These rods may look simple, but there’s a ton of science behind how they function. The complexity of all the spoke science involved is outside the scope of this resource.

Rim Material

The vast majority of MTB wheels are crafted out of aluminum alloy. Whether you’re a beginner MTBer, an intermediate rider, or a more advanced rider, you should be able to find good aluminum wheels.

Carbon MTB rims can also be had, and they offer certain performance-related advantages. They can make going uphill noticeably efficient. But you’ll pay a fortune for carbon trail wheels.

Types of MTB Rims

  • Clincher MTB rims
  • Tubeless-compatible MTB rims
  • Tube-ready MTB rims
  • UST (Universal Standard Tubeless) rims

Clincher MTB Rims

Clincher rims used to be the standard before tubeless wheels showed up. Unlike UST or tubeless rims, clincher mountain bike rims don’t have a bead-hooking feature. The shape of this rim is different than the others. An air-filled rubber tube sits inside the tire, pressing against the bead and wheel. You don’t need a sealant at all.

With clincher-type rims, be ready to deal with pinch flats all the time. Fortunately, fixing a flat is easy and quick for most riders. Not surprisingly, more and more MTBers have shifted to

Universal Standard Tubeless/UST MTB Rims (Sealant Not Needed)

In 1999, Mavic, Hutchinson, and Michelin joined hands and developed the UST rim/tire system. Mavic’s vast technical expertise designed a rim shape that worked perfectly with the tires Michelin and Hutchinson made.

These rims provided a bead hook that had specific dimensions. And instead of having round lips like regular rims, Mavic’s wheels had square bead lips. The UST engineering standard closely controls the width, diameter, and height of the rims’ bead hook.

The tires featured airtight casings and beads that easily hooked onto the square-shaped Mavic rims. The tired/rim lock work similar to tubeless motorcycle and car tires. And they’re the heaviest of the three MTB wheel types.

Fast-forward to today — Mavic is the only cycle brand that still makes UST rims. However, many bike tire manufacturers make UST-compatible tires. The trouble with the UST standard is that it’s not been evolving in tandem with the widening MTB wheel. Small wonder few MTBers use UST rims.

By the way, UST rims don’t need a sealant to hold the air in. That’s because UST tires feature an impermeable rubber layer that’s able to restrain pumped-in air without sealant.

Tubeless-ready MTB Wheels (Sealant Needed)

Unlike with UST rims, tire/rim compatibility varies across brands with tubeless-ready and tubeless-compatible rims. No engineering standard governs rim/tire dimensions and shapes. Be sure to confirm compatibility before purchasing these rims and tires.

Tubeless-ready MTB wheels are the most common rim type in MTB. Like UST rims, tubeless-ready wheels have bead locks. However, rim profile or rim cross-sections vary between brands.

Wheel makers tape spoke beds to seal them up because tubeless-ready tires lack the sealed casing that UST tires boast. For that reason, you need a sealant to create an airtight seal. And because tubeless-ready tires lack the impermeable rubber layer of UST tires, they tend to be lighter. And that’s good.

Tubeless-compatible MTB Rims

Like tubeless-ready rims, tubeless-compatible rims feature a bead hook. But there’s one difference tubeless-ready vs. tubeless-compatible rims. The difference is that tubeless-compatible wheels don’t need you to use tape to seal up the rim bed. Aside from that distinction, tubeless-ready and tubeless-compatible rims are pretty much the same. That’s why many manufacturers and riders use these two terms interchangeably.

Road Bike Rims

road bike rim

These are performance-oriented rims. With them, having a lower wheel light, strength, and stiffness matter a lot. They have a streamlined wheel design that pulls in the same direction as every other aero-optimized feature.

These guys see reduced rotational weight, which means you’ll expend less pedaling energy overall. Also, the entire road rim design aims to give you better hill-climbing capabilities, improved bike handling, and quicker acceleration.

How to Choose Road Bike Rims

  • Road rim design, material, and weight
  • Road rim diameter, depth, and rim depth
  • Road wheel Spokes

Rim Design, Material, and Weight

If you race, you already understand why having an aerodynamic rim design matters. For racing events, you need the lightest, stiffest, most streamlined wheels you can afford. And no road racing wheels trump carbon options in those considerations.

Pro cyclists who compete in bicycle time-trialing, cyclocross, the Tour de France, and whatnot take these factors seriously. These pros prefer high-end, super-stiff, deep-section wheels that handle like a dream while rolling incredibly fast.

More recreational riders can use aluminum road bicycle wheels. But while being lightweight matters to everyone, it matters less to beginners and casual riders.

Rim Diameter and Width

700c road rims are the most common wheel on adult road bikes. But if you’re a lady, a smaller rider, are buying for a junior, or compete in serious races such as time trials or triathlons, you want 650c wheels. 650c road wheels are like 26ers on MTBs.

Many companies these days use the ISO wheel sizing standard, though, so be sure to learn how this sizing system works. A wheel size 650c typically converts to ISO size 571.

Usually, road rims are really narrow compared to MTB ones. And higher-performance wheels have narrower wheels compared to touring or commuter bikes. As for gravel road bikes and cyclocross bikes, these have even wider rims than tour and commuter bikes.

If an option is marked 700c x 23mm or just 622-23, it means it’s a 700c wheel/29″ wheel with a 23mm width. By the way, 700cx23mm is the most common road wheel.

As mentioned above, high-performance bicycles usually have deep rims. But these rims shouldn’t excessively deep. If the rims are too deep, they will start gnawing away at your performance when riding in windy conditions.

Road Bicycle Spoke and Lacing Patterns

Three lacing patterns dominate road bike wheels:

  • Radial patterns
  • One-cross
  • Two-one patterns

Radial lacing features relatively short spokes, and none of them crosses any other. This design saves a little weight and is thought to offers some aero advantage.

Radial spoke patterns are rare on mountain bikes, though. Because all the thrashing trail MTB would throw at the hub would kill it fast with such a design.

radial road rim

In one-cross patterns, each spoke intersects only one other spoke. Two-one lacing patterns are usually found on deep-section rimmed road race bikes. With 2-1 lacing, the drive side has 2 times as many spokes as the non-drive side. And in most cases, the drive-side spokes have the 3-cross pattern while the non-drive side features a radial pattern.

Types of Road Bike Rims

  • Traditional Road Bike Rims (usually aluminum alloy rims)
  • Aero Road bike rims( Usually high-end carbon fiber rims)
  • Clincher rims
  • Tubular road rims
  • Tubeless-compatible/tubeless-ready road rims

Traditional/regular road bicycle wheels have box-section rims. They feature a square or rectangular profile compared to a more triangular profile of aero wheels. I’ve covered how rim design influences overall performance, so no need to repeat that here.

Tubular road bike wheels and tubeless-ready/tubeless-compatible options work similarly to MTB tubeless tires. Again, no need for repetition.

Tubeless wheels have traditionally been associated with mountain biking rather than road cycling, though. However, the tubeless-wheel trend has been building up in road biking.

But while tubeless setups shave off a little wheel weight in MTB, tubeless road bike wheels tend to actually be heavier than clincher-style road wheels.

Clincher Road Bicycle Rims

These ones aren’t designed to let you hook a tire onto them. You need a fitting inner tube and a valve to hold air in after pumping. Remember to carry your CO2 because clincher road rims usually have Prester-type valves.

Tubular Road Bike Rims

Tubular rims can be tricky to set up. And getting used to them can take a while. But they offer amazing ride quality. The tire and inner tube come stitched together, and they have a round shape. These tires are stuck onto the outer side of the rim using tape or glue.

One big problem with tubular wheels is that if you have a flat deep, fixing it can be problematic. Many roadies bring an already-glued on replacement tire just in case.

Tubular rims are mostly found on high-performance road race bikes because they’re quite light. What’s more, they offer a round profile which helps greatly when turning. 

BMX Bike Rims

bmx bike wheel regular

Unlike MTB and road bicycle hoops, BMX wheels are smaller. The ideal wheel depends on your riding style. If you race, get slimmer, lighter rims with a lower number of spokes. What if you’re more of a flatland BMXer and sometimes do stunts and street cycling?  Buy wide, sturdy rims with more spokes so that they won’t taco when you jump.

How to Pick Up the Right BMX Rim

Consider the factors below when shopping for new or replacement BMX wheels.

  • Rim Diameter and Width
  • Spoke Pattern and Number
  • Internal wall structure

Rim Diameter and Width

In terms of rim diameter, BMX (Bicycle Motor Cross) bikes live in the 18″-24″ range. That said, 20″ BMX wheels are more common than either 18″ or 24″ options. Twenty-four options are usually seen on cruiser-style BMX bicycles.

When it comes to BMX wheel width, professional racers would be best served by narrower wheels measuring about 30mm in diameter. A 30mm width also works great if you’re a small-ish rider or are looking for junior BMX replacement hoops. Slimmer rims allow you to run thinner, low rotational-weight, performance-focused tires.

But if you’re looking for choices that do reasonably well in the speed and stunts departments, get all-arounder BMX wheels. Get 32mm options along with 2″-2.3″ BMX tires.

And for street BMX riders and those who like pulling off all kinds of stunts, wider rims at around 36″ should be a good bet. Such chunky wheels let you run wider tires for greater traction, but you’ll sacrifice speed a bit.

BMX Spoke Pattern and Number

A wheel with more spokes feels more solid, the kind you need for tricks and massive jumps. Conversely, options with fewer spokes make for weight saving, which means they roll quicker. However, such wheels are likely to fold into some taco if you throw too much aggressive BMX biking at them.

Performance-oriented BMX wheels typically exist in the 28-32-rim hole range (28-32 spokes). But for any kind of monstrous riding on flat surfaces interspersed with moderate airborne maneuvers, go for the sturdiest wheels ever.

I’m talking an extremely wheel here, one with up to 48 spokes. Remember, the more the rim holes, the heavier and slower the bicycle. And if you prefer a BMX rig that offers a bit of both worlds, consider fitting in 36-spoke rims.

Internal Wall Structure

When it comes to rim wall thickness, not all BMX wheels are created equal. Some wheels are single-skin/single-walled while others are multiple-walled options with double or triple walls.

Generally, more walls translate into a stronger, more durable hoop, and vice versa. Those extra walls add up to increased structural integrity and longevity. But having additional walls of strength comes at a price…weight.

If you’re a BMX racing pro, you want to use single-walled rims. And if you’re a considerably heavy rider, grab the most solid option you can find. But if you’re seeking out all-rounder BMX wheels, get the so-called double-walled or dual-walled ones.

cute bmx rim for races
You want cute BMX wheel for racing

BMX Wheel Construction Techniques

Wheel makers use two methods when building BMX hoops. These wheel-construction techniques include:

  • Pinned BMX Rims
  • Welded BMX Rims

The welding method used on a wheelset determines its overall strength and durability. So, what are pinned BMX wheels? Pinned wheels are made by uniting two semi-circular pieces of metal together using another small piece of metal as a connector.

These are the kinds of rims usually found on low-end BMX bicycles. Well, entry-level bikes with pinned rims are OK, except when they’re not. They’ve been known to fall apart too soon in some situations. If you’ve broken your pinned guys more than once, it’s time to upgrade to welded BMX rims.

Welded BMX wheels are exactly as the name suggests…welded. The manufacturer uses modern welding technology to melt the two ends into a solid seam that defies abuse. Welded wheels are typically found on pricier BMX bicycles.

What are BMX rims made of? Most BMX wheels are created out of aluminum alloy. Race-grade carbon BMX rims are available, too.

Final Thoughts on Choosing Bike Rims

To choose the right bike rim, you need to learn how to match a bunch of selection factors to your riding style and bike type. Whether you’re a trail biker rider, a roadie, or a BMX rider, understand what to look for when buying.

Look at rim construction and design, size (width and depth), the material used, spoke number, and lacing patterns.  Of course, your budget is also a critical consideration.

At this point, I believe you know enough about rig rims and can pick up something that works for your needs.