Review: Shimano XT 29er Wheelset

As mentioned here on Singletracks before, wheels are one of the most important upgrades you can make on a bike. Many stock wheels are either heavy or noodly, or sadly: both.

The Shimano WH-M785-29 wheels are a stiff UST wheelset weighing in at 1800 grams, featuring 24 straight-pull spokes and Shimano’s proprietary CenterLock brake rotor mount. They retail for $799.

First, these use a cup and cone bearing system, whereas most other hubs have sealed cartridge bearings. Opinions on which is better is akin to a Ford vs. Chevy discussion. Proponents of the cup and cone point out that they can be serviced and adjusted. Naysayers will counter with the fact that they need to be serviced and adjusted. I tend to be in the cartridge bearing camp, but having said that, these hubs have given me no issues over the the last few months of riding.

Aired up and ready to rock the Tipperary Trail in Fraser, CO

Construction

The outer walls of these UST rims are completely sealed, so going tubeless is a cinch. There is no need for tape or rim strips, and the valves are included and pre-installed. The rims have a somewhat narrow 19mm internal width, and Shimano recommends 2.25in as the widest tire to run.

Moving inward, the XT’s use double butted, straight pull spokes. As expected, the hubs are also XT, with the front accepting a 15mm thru-axle and the rear using a standard QR. (There are no adapters for other axle setups.) The rear freehub has 36 points of engagement.

The wheels are black with muted-gray XT logos. While they are not quite as stealth-looking as the Easton EA70 XCT, they are still a simplistically good-looking wheel.

Mounting

With Michelin Wild Race’r tires, I can quickly mount them, pour in 80ml of sealant, pop the remainder of the bead into place, and inflate them with my floor pump. They seat and seal the first time, every time, and they stay sealed between rides. I also experimented with some regular folding tires and the results were similar. Going tubeless on these wheels is as easy as running tubes in most other wheels.

On a related note, these are the first CenterLock wheels I have ever experienced. Why aren’t all wheels made with CenterLock?! I mean really, slap the rotor on, twist the lockring, and tighten it with either a cassette socket or external bottom bracket wrench. DONE! I can’t imagine an easier to use design.

Out On The Trail

These wheels are stiff. Really stiff. I have put them through my usual abuse of angling over the slanted curbs we have here in Denver, intentionally pushing my weight into g-outs, catching some air, hitting ledges a little harder than I should, etc. On a recent ride I even misjudged the depth and width of a really nasty pothole. I got the front over with a little wheelie move, which of course brought the rear into it with 100% of my weight on it. My back still hurts, but the wheel took it in stride.

While 1,800 grams is by no means the lightest wheelset out there, and you can certainly feel it on long climbs, I don’t think that the weight has severely impacted my bike’s climbing ability. They are still a heck of a lot lighter than the 2,300 gram OEM Giant wheels my bike came with, and when the climbing gets technical, the reasonably-fast engagement of the rear freehub is also appreciated.

 

Durability

These wheels have seen numerous miles on everything from pavement to rock gardens, and aside from a few scratches in the anodized black finish, they are in perfect shape. They have no flat spots, are still true, and both front and rear hubs spin freely. The spokes have never so much as popped or twanged. No matter what I do to them, they just keep on working.

I should mention that on my test wheelset, the freehub body was defective out of the box, which I figured out with the help of a local shop mechanic. Once the issue was identified, Shimano quickly replaced the wheel. In the real world, the freehub body itself is a replaceable part, and most shops will have it in stock.

Misses

At this stage of the game, I can see not offering a 9mm QR front wheel, but the lack of a 142×12 rear is baffling. Also, the 19mm width effectively prevents running tires wide enough for true all mountain use. Other reviewers have also reported some tire squirm with 2.25″ tires, but I’ve had no issues, even at relatively low pressure.

Bottom line

For all the reasons mentioned, what we have here is a model that is effectively a heavy XC wheel, but which has precluded itself from all mountain use, despite its awesome stiffness and excellent build quality. At $800, they are a little pricey to be a spare set… so where does that align them outside of Shimano’s marketing dept?

I could see these as a wheelset for an active racer who wants to save the ultralight carbon wheels for race day. With the little extra weight, they are a good training prop, and they are also built strong enough for day-in-day-out use and abuse over hundreds of training miles (keeping in mind that the cup and cone bearings will need to be serviced periodically). However, If they would just offer a 142×12 rear option, it would really open up the possibilities.

Thanks to the folks at Shimano for sending over the XT 29er wheelset for review!

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