We know, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. But there are some questions you might not want to ask your local shop or riding buddies. AASQ is our weekly series where we get to the bottom of your questions – serious or otherwise. This time we discuss the merits and pitfalls of running a mountain bike wheelset on a gravel bike! Hit the link at the bottom of the post to submit your own question.

Can you run a set of MTB Wheels for gravel riding? It’s a very good question. It may not be lighter in most instances but it will likely be a whole lot cheaper. If weight isn’t a big issue for you then you may well be looking to save a couple of bucks in the wheelset department. We speak to the experts at Enve, Mavic and 3T to learn the pros and cons of running a mountain bike wheelset on a gravel bike.

Is there any reason why an MTB Wheel wouldn’t be good for gravel riding?

….given the correct hub spacing and end caps. I’ve noticed that a lot of mountain bike wheels (not brand specific) are lighter and cheaper than their gravel counterparts. Does it all come down to a hookless vs hooked bead, maximum tire pressure, and aerodynamics? Or, is there some other reason I shouldn’t use MTB wheels for gravel? I typically run a 38mm tire, tubeless, at 40 psi.

Mavic: Besides axle compatibility, there are at least three parameters that make a gravel wheel different from an MTB wheel:

  1. Fatigue resistance: For the same hours of use, a gravel wheelset will cover more mileage than an MTB wheelset. Consequently, the number of wheel revolutions will be greater on an All Road wheel.

mavic allroad gravel wheelset

Each wheel revolution induces variation in spoke tension (increased and decreased tension for each spoke per each wheel revolution). This repetitive cycle of tension has a direct impact on the fatigue resistance of a wheelset: more cycles means more fatigue.

Consequently, the lower rim bridge (on which spokes are attached) needs to be designed to be stronger on a gravel wheel to avoid early cracks around spoke nipples, spoke failures, or the wheel becoming untrue.

mavic allroad gravel wheelset
Mavic AllRoad Pro Carbon SL wheelset has an internal rim width of 25mm

2. Spoke tension vs. tire pressure: Tire pressure has a direct impact on the initial spoke tension of a wheel: by compressing the rim, tire pressure reduces the initial spoke tension. To balance this, the initial spoke tension is higher on wheels intended to be used with a higher tire pressure.

Gravel wheels are typically used with narrower tires and higher pressures than MTB wheels. An MTB wheel used with the narrower and higher tire pressure of gravel will most likely end up being under-tensioned.

mavic allroad pro carbon wheelset wtb tires

A properly designed Gravel wheel will be built with a higher initial spoke tension to balance the higher tire pressure, obviously considering the rim material resistance limits too. Rims, spokes and hubs must be designed so they can support this extra tension, without impacting the overall lifespan of the wheel. Don’t play it wrong by increasing the tension of the spokes of your wheel, you’ll make it more fragile.

3. Impact absorption: An MTB wheel, even an XC one, must be designed to absorb huge impacts and shocks, induced by jumps, rocks, technical terrain and an aggressive riding style that comes with this environment. This is aggressive treatment that a gravel wheel is less likely to be subjected to (unless you lose your way and temper).

An MTB wheel will then be overbuilt for normal gravel riding, or at least not built to resist the same type of abuse (see parameter #1 above). To resume, besides the basic fork/frame axle compatibility (Boost, 12mm vs 15mm), there are several factors that make a proper gravel wheelset design different from an MTB one.

2021 nukeproof reactor 275c RS
The 2021 Nukeproof Reactor RS runs the Mavic Deemax Pro Sam Hill wheelset

A wheel is a complex system under tension that needs to be properly balanced considering its intended use when the wheel builder is trying to find the best ratio of performance, resistance, weight, efficiency, serviceability and cost all together.

Enve: While mountain and gravel riding both occur in the dirt, and a mountain bike wheel can certainly deliver performance that crosses over to gravel, using a mountain wheel for gravel can leave performance on the table. For this reason, ENVE has the G Series.

OPEN x ENVE UP gravel bike, limited edition Unbeaten Path carbon gravel road bike G series component collaboration
courtesy of ENVE

Given that gravel bikes are typically unsuspended, the need for vibration absorption and compliance are paramount when compared to mountain bike wheels. In addition, the distance and/or time in the saddle for a typical gravel ride or event is generally much greater than that of a mountain ride or event.

All this lends to the need for a purpose built wheel. For us that means striking the best balance possible between light weight, ride quality, and durability whether it be a G Series or M Series (mountain) wheel.

enve m-series carbon mtb wheel

So yes, a mountain bike wheel can be used for gravel riding, and yes there are more than a few manufacturers who have simply repurposed old XC wheels to be gravel wheels, but at the end of the day, the requirements of a mountain bike wheel are greater than those of a gravel wheel so if you choose to ride a mountain wheel for gravel, you’re likely riding a wheel that is overly stiff, and heavier than necessary.

how to choose the right tire width rim width combination
Check out how to match your tire width to rim profile in our tech feature here!

Another matter of discussion is tire volume to rim width. Modern XC racers are using higher volume tires in the 2.25″ to 2.4” (57mm to 61mm) range. Gravel riders are using 38mm-50mm tires with 40mm being the most common size. As such, if an old XC wheel is being repurposed for gravel, it may be really light, but it won’t deliver an ideal ride experience.

enve-mountain-fork-rigid-carbon-mtb-post-mount-brake-180mm-29er-3-inch-tires

Some of the latest ultra-light XC wheels are at or nearing 30mm of internal rim width which is a bit much for gravel. Gravel wheels are stepping up into the realm of 25mm internals, which support the 40mm-50mm tires well.

3T: Assuming spacing and axle diameters are correct, you can do this. Hooked vs hookless depends on several factors, with tire pressure being the key.

3T Discus 45-40 LTD aero gravel wheels, world's widest aero wheel, 40mm wide 29mm internal carbon tubeless aerodynamic gravel bike wheels
The 3T Discus 45-50 LTD Aero Gravel wheel on the Exploro RaceMax

So, if you are running low pressure gravel tires, you can do so without hooks (although you may encounter more pinch flats). As you note, aerodynamically most mountain bike wheels are terrible, but so are most gravel wheels.

3T Discus 45-40 LTD aero gravel wheels, world's widest aero wheel, 40mm wide 29mm internal carbon tubeless aerodynamic gravel bike wheels

Even the wheels that potentially are aero really don’t perform well when you put that 38mm tire on. A wheel designed for a 28mm road tire is not that fast with a 38mm knobby tire. We did a lot of tunnel testing on wheels with knobby tires and found just that, which in the end led to the Discus 45|40 wheelset.

Thank you very much to Jake Pantone from Enve, Max Brunand and Michel Lethenet from Mavic and Gerard Vroomen from 3T for contributing to this week’s Ask A Stupid Question.

Got a question of your own? Click here to use the AASQ form to submit questions on any cycling-related topic of your choice, and we’ll get the experts to answer them for you!

29 COMMENTS

  1. I think Mavic makes good stuff, but their response here is really bad. Someone in their Marketing department needs to realize this won’t drive sales other than driving people to buy other brands.

    Most XC riding is basically Gravel riding. They are the same thing. Mavic should have just highlighted the more aero profile and perhaps better width match…although I’m not sure if Mavic are still needlessly thin and sticking to old standards as they previously have.

    • That’s Mavic’s problem. They understand the wheel way better than many brands and people are just not getting it or don’t want to try to understand how engineering works.
      From an engineering stand point, all their 3 comments are 100% valid and their responses are the only one accurate and making sense. Enve and 3T are vague at best.

      They don’t tell you you can’t do it, they explain you why their wheels are engineered differently depending on your practice.

      • Mavin explanations are theoretically correct if they designed their wheels like that. In reality, especially the fatigue resistance, I doubt they do.

        If true, Mavin should state what their internal fatigue limit requirements are in revolutions, at a fixed load, between their XC set and Gravel set (even as a percentage against each other so you don’t give out actual data)
        They won’t , because no wheel manufacturer would assume someone would log more miles on a gravel bike than a XC bike.

        As for tire pressure and spoke tension…
        What is the spec tension for an aluminum rim XC wheel vs a gravel one. Say a Allroad SL vs Crossmax SL S 29 (not apples to apples since the gravel is an aero spoked wheel.

        Again, I think Mavin makes good wheels, but if we listened to them, we’d be on super narrow rims and possible using dangerously unstable systems with compression spokes

  2. I’ve run an xtr wheelset on my Devinci Hatchet for three years with no issue. They get a good 50/50 mix of asphalt and XC trails.

  3. Bullsh*t argument:
    “This repetitive cycle of tension has a direct impact on the fatigue resistance of a wheelset: more cycles means more fatigue.”

    Hey Mavic, look up SN curves! Yes, more cycle means more fatigue, but as you said yourselves:

    “[mtb wheels…] must be designed to absorb huge impacts and shocks”

    The point being: On SN curves the number of cycles is logarithmic, but the stresses are not. So unless the gravel wheel is exposed to at least ten, hundred or thousand times the cycles (ie. rides ten, hundred or thousand times faster (or longer) than a mtb), the biggest factor for fatigue between mtb and gravel is the stress, not the cycles.

    • Enve: “no worries, they are a.little different but it should work” Mavic: “no the world will end in a ball of fire”.

  4. “Obviously one CANNOT use mtb wheels for gravel, since mtb wheels have 110×15/148x12mm hubs and gravel wheels have 100×12/142x12mm hubs. It like comparing apples to oranges, if a couple of either fruit cost $2.5k.

    Any wheels that don’t conform to these “standards” (which Moses himself brought down from Sinai) are obviously more than 3 seasons old…..THAT in itself makes such wheels completely unridable, and thus immaterial to the original discussion.

    In short, don’t buy a set of our wheels….buy TWO SETS of them.”

  5. I missed the most obvious aspect: Everything below 2.2 is not really a MTB tire.
    And in most gravel bikes the frame will not have the clearance, right?

  6. From that set of answers I’m getting that MTB wheels are too strong / too fragile / too flexy / lighter / heavier / overbuilt / too stiff and have the wrong kind of durability to be used on a gravel bike. Thanks for your collected contributions manufacturers.

  7. What a bunch of contradictory bullsh*t.

    Honestly I think the technical reasons Mavic list are factually correct, but they are totally out of touch with what riders actually want, and how their products are used. I’ve always rooted for Mavic, but this response is a perfect analogy for their failing business and waning popularity.

    Look at the new bike market- WTB tubeless rims have become ubiquitous on all types of gravel and mountain bikes, and their popular ST and KOM lines don’t distinguish between riding discipline. They simply produce a range of rim widths, (same basic profile) and users/bike manufacturers are free to choose the width that best matches the tire and riding intentions.

    I’ll take Mavic seriously when we start seeing their wheels commonly available on new gravel bikes. I won’t hold my breath.

    The reality is that older 12×142 XC wheels make fantastic gravel wheels. (Setting aside aerodynamics- that will be a discussion for 2025 when we see aero sections designed for 45-50mm tires become common.)

    Think about it- Most ‘dated’ XC wheels were designed for high-speed endurance riding on smooth, hardpack XC race courses. They were often paired with high pressure 29er tires in the 1.95-2.1” range, and mounted to stiff race frames, with suspension that spent 50% of the time in lockout mode.

    I’m not genius, but that sounds a lot like the sort of conditions a wheel might experience while riding gravel. Of course, XC racing has become somewhat more technical of late, and rim/tire spec have moved forwards, but that doesn’t change the fact that the used market is absolutely saturated with high end 12-142mm wheels that are a perfect match for gravel.

    I’m sure this is not news to wheel manufactures either, who are eager to cash in on the biggest riding trend of the decade. It makes perfect sense that they would downplay the utility of their biggest competition. (The used market)

  8. Mavic – what a load of BS. You need different hubs (cause eg. DT “definitely” uses some other version of 350/240 for gravel), different spokes (I guess there’s also a CX Ray gravel ed.)… Clearly they just want You to buy another wheelset and that’s all.

    Enve – better, but still a bit of a miss – XC wheels heavier and more stiff? Yeah, right. Also, old XC WS with 30mm internal – it sounds like a super new one, old ones were around 21-23mm, which is perfect for gravel.

    3T – most valuable response.

    I’m currently using my old XC hoops (DT 350, Pillar PSR 2016, Crest MK2 29) for my gravel bike, also Merida sold their Silex 9000 with Fulcrum Red Passion 29 wheels.

  9. It would help if more hub makers made 12mm end caps available for the front hubs on their old MTB wheels. On many forks, the mating surface for the axle ends is too small for 15mm TA hubs to fit even with the internal 12mm adapter installed.

    • Built several wheels with shimano XT hubs – best bang per buck out there. I machined/dremelled down the diameter of the front axle ends to make them compatible with 12 mm forks. Then just use an axle insert and away you go. These hubs are very stiff and work well for this purpose. Will probably not work for other designs.

      • That’s why I went with DT hubs – plethora of end caps and freehubs to choose from, easily swappable and the nearly indestructible ratchet mechanism just make those hubs last long years.

  10. no… do you need a SUV to go on light offroad? no. Does it works better? yes. Would I buy a SUV to do 300m offroad when I go in my summer house? no, would I buy one if I had to go a lot on the countryside? yes

    That’s exactly the same thing and it’s quite sad to see that no-one is really getting it or praise that brands do look at things in details even when they explain you why the difference matter from an Engineering stand-point.

    • If Mavic said smth like: “compared to XC, we make our gravel rims a bit higher to make them slightly more aero, so they maintain higher speed better, also the reinforced sides cope better with higher pressures”, that would sound ok – they speak of real advantages and sure profits.

      But they went on some BS like “different hubs” etc., even though the whole world uses the same ones, just with different end caps (and only on the front one, cause the rear stays the same, ~12×142).

      Customers don’t care about some scientific fuel for nerd brains, they care about real profits. If a gravel specific rim is heavier than a XC one, give an understandable reason for that. Nobody wants to hear about tension in the spoke hole area material etc., but when You tell them that the walls are a bit thicker to sustain air pressures >50-60psi, that actually sounds way more convincing.

  11. Actually that’s an Engineering response they make compared to the 2 other brands that remain very vague. The fact they do understand why different uses have different impact on the Engineering is important VS a “let’s change the name and that would work”.
    When you engineer a structure, you model it for a specific use and you test it trying to simulate what you think is representative. What would be stupid is considering the same test for track / road / CX / DH / Gravel no?

    Did you ever measured wheels spoke tension variation with tubeless tire pressure? I did over a dozen wheels and the 2 Mavics had the lowest tension drop. In some cases some quite pricing wheels had such a tension drop that under moderate load the spokes-system balance was gone and so was the stiffness (non linear deformation / load behavior)… so yes it matters and the fact that people thinks it’s MKT BS (and I am quite a vocal person against MKT BS) ruins proper Engineering efforts.

    • “When you engineer a structure, you model it for a specific use and you test it trying to simulate what you think is representative”

      And that is the crux of the issue. What is the use case?
      Mavic’s own tire size recommendations overlap. So no consistency there.
      A 1.9-2″ XC tire will have the same general pressure range compared to a 45mm gravel tire.
      The pressure difference will vary more by rider weight and preference than whether they have a XC tire on a XC MTB vs a gravel set-up.

      Mavic’s response is textbook scientist/lab engineer. It differentiates nuance that isn’t really there when you add manufacturing and marketing constraints, not to mention how most wheels are made & used.
      We aren’t talking about Road vs DH. The question was for a XC wheel in Gravel use.

      Mavic could have simply stated that they optimize wheel design for different disciplines to provides benefits for those riders. So certain traits on a Gravel wheel may not be ideal on a XC wheel and vice versa. Ultimate life an performance can suffer. However, those customers what to use an existing XC wheel in gravel service can do so. Pressure and tire width’s need to be checked to ensure they are still within recommendations and ultimately they are giving up performance to wheel designed for that discipline.

  12. I’ve been running one of the original Stan’s Crest rims on a wheel with a dynamo hub on multiple commuter bikes for probably six or seven years now. Always with a tire in the 32-38c range, and also running 50-80psi. Not exactly within what Stan’s recommends. But that wheel now has many thousands of miles of road riding on it, which by Mavic’s standards is apparently a problem. So far so good.

  13. Funny how it’s mentioned how worse (buzz/)impact absorbtion and more weight on XC rims be the reason to go gravel specific, while the lightest alu XC rims (such as ZTR Crest and DT Swiss and DT Swiss XR331) at least 100g lighter per piece than any other alu gravel being offered on the market.

    Also they have a lower profile than most gravel specific rims, meaning they should absorb more buzz/impacts.

    Rim width wise, most light weight XC rims are in the exact same width category as most gravel rims, so that’s not an excuse either.

    The way I see it, companies introduced gravel specific rims for 2 reasons:
    – To create an a bit more aero version of XC rims. The average speed on gravel is normally higher than on XC, so aero gains are bigger. This means less compliance in bump absorbtion though and heavier climbing (in case you ride in hills/mountains).
    – Pure marketing, sell more stuff.

    Conclusion:
    Buy super light XC rims (ZTR Crest, DT XR331) for your gravel bike, if:
    – You ride in steep hills/mountains and spend most of your time climbing, that 100g weight saving per rim will make a difference uphill.
    – If you ride on rough terrain: the lower rim should absorb more and create a smoother ride.

    Buy a gravel specific rim when:
    – You live in a flat country and have smooth gravel (aero gains).
    – When your gravel rides consist more than 50% out of paved roads (aero gains and less need for bump absoption).

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