The great wheel debate

Carbon wheels are generally lighter and stiffer than their alloy counterparts, but come at a significantly higher cost.


Q: Hi there! I’m looking to upgrade the wheelset on my 2022 Santa Cruz Hightower and am debating whether carbon wheels are worth the price. Should I spend the money on a carbon wheelset? Or, would I be better off saving some money with a quality alloy wheelset?
Luke Johnson
Bellingham, Washington

A: When contemplating upgrading the wheelset on your Santa Cruz Hightower, the age-old debate between carbon and alloy wheels is bound to arise. Modern carbon wheels are wonders of engineering and offer several advantages. They’re generally (but not always) lighter than alloy wheels, which can result in more nimble handling and quicker acceleration while on the trail. Additionally, the rigidity in carbon wheels helps to ensure better power transfer, providing a snappier response during climbs or sprints, and is usually one of the first things we notice when on a carbon wheelset.


Carbon rims wheels are the best choice for competitive cross country racing where weight makes a massive difference in speed and performance.


Another aspect is that, unlike aluminum, carbon doesn’t dent, which is a double-edged sword. Minor impacts and wheel strikes that might dent an alloy wheel can leave carbon unscathed and rolling without an issue. However, large impacts that may only dent an alloy wheel can cause a failure on a carbon wheel, necessitating a costly replacement or dealing with the warranty process. This leads to the main issue for most riders—carbon wheels are expensive. Though most companies sell carbon wheelsets with some sort of replacement or repair warranty, getting over that first hurdle of acquiring the wheels can be costly. You would be hard-pressed to find a quality set of carbon wheels for under $1,300, which can be prohibitive for some riders.


This carbon rim would have likely dented if it was aluminum.

In contrast, alloy wheels have been the trusted workhorse for mountain bike riders for many years. Check out our aluminum wheel shootout for some great examples. Though they might not boast the weight savings of carbon, modern alloy wheelsets have come a long way in terms of performance and hard-hitting durability. They’re often a more budget-friendly option and offer a bit more of a wide variety without necessarily compromising on performance and quality. Their durability, especially on rough and technical trails, is commendable.

While aluminum might dent upon a hard impact, most minor dents can be repaired, ensuring the wheel remains serviceable. If the dent is beyond repair, you aren’t stuck with an exorbitant bill to get it replaced. Performance-wise, alloy wheels are generally more compliant and have more noticeable flex compared to carbon wheels, though this is something that a good number of riders prefer over the stiffness of carbon.


Another advantage to aluminum is sustaninability. Hunt’s new Sustain Phase One Trail Wide 29 wheels are made with 75% recycled alloy.


The final decision boils down to what you value most. If you’re pursuing peak performance, weight savings and are prepared for a substantial investment, carbon wheels might fit the bill. However, a high-quality alloy wheelset is a stellar choice if you prioritize durability, cost-effectiveness and the peace of mind that comes with quick repairability or dent removal. Remember, the right wheelset for you is based entirely on your riding style, the type of trails and terrain you frequently ride, and, ultimately, your budget.

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