Until the early 80s pretty much all bikes came with 36 spoke wheels front and rear. Over the years, spoke counts decreased to the current standard of 32 spokes per wheel. These days, 28, 24, and even 16 spoke wheels are becoming common on lightweight road bikes. The ideal spoke count depends on a number of factors including the type of riding you do, how much weight you carry, and the quality of the components you use. This guide lists the pros and cons of using 32 vs 36 spoke wheels for mountain biking, bicycle touring, road biking, and commuting. We’ll cover wheel strength, weight, aerodynamics, cost, durability, reliability, and more. We’ll also talk a bit about wheel components including hubs, rims, different types of spokes, lacing patterns, and more. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best wheels for the type of cycling you do.
What’s the Difference Between 32 Spoke and 36 Spoke Bike Wheels?
Bicycle wheels are made up of 3 main components: the rim, the hub, and the spokes. The difference between 32 and 36 spoke wheels is the number of holes drilled in the hubs and rims and the number of spokes that are used to build the wheels.
32 spoke wheels use rims and hubs with 32 holes. 36 spoke wheels use rims and hubs with 36 holes. The spokes thread through the holes. 36 spoke wheels have 4 more spokes than 32 spoke wheels. The difference in the number of spokes affects the strength, weight, durability, and aerodynamics of the wheel.
The hole count is often abbreviated with the letter H. H stands for hole. For example, a hub or rim that is designed for 32 spoke wheels will be sold as 32H. It will have 32 spoke holes. A hub or rim designed for 36 spoke wheels will be sold as 36H.
If you’re buying parts to build your own wheels, you’ll want to make sure the spoke hole count on your hubs and rims matches to ensure the parts are compatible. If you want to build 36 spoke wheels, you need 36 spoke rims and hubs. You can’t build 32 spoke wheels with 36 spoke parts. You need to have a spoke in every hole to build strong, round wheels.
32 Vs 36 Spoke Wheels
These days, the difference in performance between 32 spoke and 36 spoke wheels is minimal due to improvements in materials and wheel component designs. That said, there are still cases where one spoke count is better than the other. In this section, I’ll outline the benefits and drawbacks of 32 vs 36 spoke bike wheels.
36 spoke wheels are stronger than 32 spoke wheels. A wheel with a higher spoke count is stronger than a wheel with a lower spoke count. This is assuming that the rim, hub, materials, component quality, and build quality are all equal.
Wheels with more spokes are stronger because the extra spokes can better distribute the weight of the bike and rider across the wheel. While riding, each spoke carries less weight when there are more spokes. The spokes can also be run at lower tension. Spokes under less stress are less likely to bend or break.
The extra spokes also help to distribute forces from bumps, acceleration, braking, and cornering across the wheel. If you hit a pothole with a high spoke count wheel, the force may be distributed among 7 spokes rather than 5. Each individual spoke is exposed to less stress as a result.
Because 36 spoke wheels are stronger, they are less likely to bend, flex, crack, or warp. Spokes are also less likely to break. 36 spoke wheels are more durable and reliable than 32 spoke wheels.
Wheel strength is particularly important for the rear wheel. The reason is that the rear wheel encounters more lateral force due to the weight distribution of the bike. More of the rider’s weight sits toward the rear of the bike, on the rear wheel. The front wheel doesn’t have to support as much weight so it doesn’t have to be as strong.
The rear wheel also has to deal with drive forces from the chain. These forces travel through the spokes to power the rear wheel. The front wheel doesn’t have to deal with drive forces, only braking forces.
In addition, rear wheels are not symmetrically dished on most bikes. This is because there needs to be extra space for the cogs on the drive side of the wheel. This asymmetrical design makes rear wheels weaker than symmetrical front wheels.
For these reasons, it can be beneficial to run a stronger 36 spoke wheel in the rear.
The number of spokes isn’t the only factor that determines wheel strength. The wheel size, build quality, the materials the components are made of, and component quality also play a big role in overall wheel strength. For example, smaller diameter wheels are stronger than larger diameter wheels. A 26” wheel is structurally stronger than a 29” wheel. Double-wall and triple-wall rims are stronger than single-wall rims. Stainless steel spokes are stronger than carbon-steel spokes. Larger diameter hubs make for stronger wheels than smaller diameter hubs. Build quality is also crucial. A 32 spoke wheel that was built by a professional wheel builder with a high-end hub, rim, and spokes will be stronger than a low-end factory-built 36-spoke wheel. The spoke lacing pattern also plays a big role in wheel strength. The more times the spokes cross, the stronger the wheel will be.
Winner: 36 spoke wheels are stronger than 32 spoke wheels. The extra spokes help to distribute the weight of the rider and the forces generated from cycling across the wheel.
32 spoke wheels are slightly lighter than 36 spoke wheels. This is because there are 4 fewer spokes per wheel. On average, a steel spoke weighs 15 grams. In theory, a 32 spoke wheel should weigh 60 grams less than a 36 spoke wheel (15 grams per spoke x 4 spokes= 60 grams per wheel.) The maximum weight savings of using 32 spoke wheels instead of 36 spoke wheels is around 120 grams (60 grams per wheel).
This lighter weight is really the main selling point of lower spoke count wheels. Many riders choose wheels with fewer spokes in an attempt to reduce the weight of their bike.
This does make sense. The wheels are the best place to remove weight from your bike. Lighter wheels spin up faster and more easily because they have less rotating mass. It’s easier to accelerate and climb with a lighter bike because you’re moving less mass around. Lighter wheels make your bike faster and more efficient.
In reality, the weight savings of 32 spoke wheels is pretty insignificant. Sometimes there is no weight savings at all. There are a few reasons for this.
First, 32 spoke wheels often use thicker and heavier rims and spokes than 36 spoke wheels. This is necessary to compensate for the weakness caused by the lower spoke count. This is common on lower-end bikes and vintage bikes. Second, 36 spoke wheels have more spoke holes in the rims and hubs. When the holes are drilled, some material is removed. This saves a small amount of weight.
The weight difference between 32 and 36 spoke wheels is a bit less than 60 grams per wheel. This weight difference is also assuming all of the components are the same. Different rims, hubs, and spokes have different weights.
Winner: 32 spoke wheels are lighter than 36 spoke wheels because they contain less material (fewer spokes).
36 spoke wheels tend to stay true longer than 32 spoke wheels. The 4 extra spokes help the wheel stay round so it rolls straight and smooth. You won’t have to true your wheels as often if you run 36 spoke wheels. If you hit a large bump, your wheels are less likely to go out of true.
Even if a spoke breaks, the wheel will stay relatively true. 36 spoke wheels can deal with a broken spoke better because the spokes are under less tension. They are also placed closer together. There are extra spokes nearby to compensate for the broken spoke.
Winner: 36 spokes wheels stay true longer and don’t go out of true as easily.
36 spoke wheels are more durable than 32 spoke wheels. With more spokes, the wheel can handle harder impacts without sustaining damage. A 36 spoke wheel is less likely to go out of true, break spokes, or crack or bend after a hard hit. This is possible because 36 spoke wheels are stronger and because the spokes are run at lower tension.
This extra durability also allows the wheel to handle more weight. This is important for heavier riders. If you weigh more than around 220lbs or 100kg, you’re probably better off going with 36 spoke wheels, just to be safe. At the very least, you’ll want to run a 36 spoke wheel in the rear. The majority of your weight sits on the rear wheel.
This durability also comes in handy when bicycle touring and bikepacking. You can load up your bike with more gear without having to worry as much about causing wheel problems. With 36 spoke wheels, you can carry heavy camping gear, tools, spare parts, and multiple days worth of food and water. 36 spoke wheels can handle the weight. You can tour on 32 spoke wheels but you’re better off with 36.
The extra durability is also helpful while riding rough terrain. With 36 spoke wheels, you can ride over pothole-filled streets, jump off curbs, and ride off-road without having to worry too much about causing damage to your wheels.
Winner: 36 spoke wheels are more durable than 32 spoke wheels because they are stronger.
Spoke Tension and Ride Quality
36 spoke wheels offer a softer and smoother ride than 32 spoke wheels. The reason is that wheels with 36 spokes have lower spoke tension. This is possible because there are more spokes to distribute the load between. The spokes don’t have to be quite as tight to support the weight of the bike and rider.
Lower spoke tension allows the wheels to be somewhat compliant. They can flex a bit to help absorb bumps and vibrations. Spokes run at lower tension are also less likely to break because there is less stress on each spoke.
32 spoke wheels must run the spokes at higher tension in order to support the load. The higher spoke tension makes the ride feel harsher because the wheels are more rigid. Spokes under high tension are also easier to break.
There is a compromise when it comes to spoke tension. If the spokes are too loose, they won’t hold the rim steady. This can make the wheel weak and overly flexible. When you corner hard, a wheel can flex, causing you to lose your line. When spokes are too tight, they can pull through the rim at the spoke holes when you hit an obstacle. High-spoke tension can also make the ride feel overly harsh. Bumps can travel through the wheels and into the handlebars and pedals.
Winner: 36 spoke wheels offer a more comfortable ride than 32 spoke wheels.
36 spoke wheels are more reliable than 32 spoke wheels. Because the wheels are stronger, you’re less likely to suffer broken spokes or damaged rims. When your wheels are reliable, you’re less likely to get stranded.
One major benefit of 36 spoke wheels is that losing a spoke isn’t as big of a deal as it is with wheels with 32 or fewer spokes. If a spoke breaks while you’re riding, you can safely ride the bike home or to a bike shop, where you can repair the broken spoke. Nearby spokes can accommodate for a broken spoke. The extra spokes make the wheel strong enough for you to continue riding if one or two spokes break. This greatly improves reliability.
This is the main reason that bicycle tourists and bikepackers prefer 36 spoke wheels. If a spoke breaks while you’re riding in the middle of nowhere, you will still be able to ride to the next town to make the repair. Having more spokes provides peace of mind. You’re less likely to get stranded while riding somewhere remote.
If you were to break a couple of spokes while riding 32 spoke wheels, the wheel may not be strong enough to support your weight. The wheel could bend or give out completely and taco. When a spoke breaks on a low spoke count wheel, you shouldn’t ride the bike. Instead, replace the spoke if you have a spare or take the bike to a bike shop to have the spoke replaced.
Winner: 36 spoke wheels are more reliable than 32 spoke wheels. If one or two spokes break, you can still ride home. You’re less likely to get stranded.
These days, 32 spoke wheels are the standard. Most new mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, commuter bikes, and city bikes come with 32 spoke wheels. If your wheel gets damaged and you need a new rim, hub, or whole wheel, it will be easy to find a replacement. 32 hole components are commonly available. You can also buy a complete wheel already built.
36 spoke parts are a bit more scarce because they are no longer the industry standard. If you need a specific 36 hole rim or hub, you might have to buy it online. Your local bike shop may not stock the parts you need. If you want a complete wheel, you might have to special order it. This is rarely an issue because bike wheels last many thousands of miles.
Even though 36 spoke parts are a bit less common, most bicycle tourists and bikepackers opt for 36 spoke wheels. Particularly while traveling through remote regions or the developing world. The reason is the added strength and durability. 36 spoke wheels are less likely to fail so you are less likely to need a new rim while touring. A quality wheelset could take you around the world.
Winner: 32 hole hubs and rims are easier to find than 36 hole models because they are the standard.
Aerodynamics and Efficiency
32 spokes wheels offer better aerodynamics than 36 spoke wheels. This is the case because there are fewer spokes disturbing the air as you pass through.
This scientific study proves that lower spoke count wheels create less drag than higher spoke count wheels. The study also showed that it takes fewer watts of power to spin wheels with fewer spokes.
In this study, testing was performed on wheels with spoke counts ranging from 16-32 spokes. 36 spoke wheels were not tested. Testing was performed in a wind tunnel.
The study showed that the spoke count itself only plays a small role in the aerodynamics of the wheel. According to the study “adding 12 additional spokes leaves us a possible increase in wattage of only 1-5 watts”. That’s pretty insignificant. The aerodynamic difference between 32 and 36 spoke wheels would probably be even less significant.
One interesting finding was that oval spokes can provide a bigger energy savings in wattage. According to the study “changing from 32 round to 32 oval spokes would provide a differential in wattage to spin, by as much as 10 watts”. For those who obsess over efficiency and aerodynamics. It may be worthwhile to use oval spokes rather than round.
This difference in aerodynamics really only matters to those who ride competitively. If you tour, mountain bike, commute, or just ride for fun, a few extra watts of drag doesn’t really matter. Most cyclists would never be able to notice the difference in drag between 32 and 36 spoke wheels.
The wheels themselves only account for around 10% of a bike’s total drag. Other factors play a much bigger role. For example, the ride position, handlebar type, and tires all play a bigger role in drag. You’re better off improving those other areas before worrying about a few spokes.
Winner: 32 spoke wheels are more aerodynamically efficient than 36 spoke wheels.
Hub and Rim Options
Running 32 spoke wheels gives you more hub, rim, and complete wheel options to choose from. Pretty much every mountain bike hub and rim model is available in a 32 hole version. The standard model of most internal gear hubs and dynamo hubs comes with 32 holes. If you’re trying to buy a complete pre-built wheelset, you’ll find that 32 spoke is the most common variation. There are endless options to choose from.
Some rim, hub, and wheel models aren’t even available in 36 hole versions. This is particularly common in pre-built wheelsets. Many wheel builders don’t offer a 36 hole version because demand is lower. Most riders don’t need the extra wheel strength.
If you want to run 36 spoke wheels, you may have to get your wheels custom-made. Sometimes a 36 hole version of the hub or rim you want to run simply isn’t available or is out of stock. In this case, you’ll have to settle for another model or brand. This makes buying wheels a bit more difficult.
Winner: 32 hole parts are more common than 36 hole parts. You have more wheel options available if you run 32 spoke wheels.
Lower Spoke Counts: 16, 18, 20, 24, and 28 Spoke Wheels
Lower spoke count wheels are becoming increasingly common these days. For example, most modern road bikes come with 18-20 spokes on the front wheel and 20-28 spokes on the rear wheel. Ultralight road bike wheels may use as few as 16 spokes. Modern mountain bikes and gravel bikes often come with 24 or 28 spoke wheels. Generally, higher-end bikes come with lower spoke count wheels. Lower-end and mid-range bikes all have 32 spoke wheels these days.
These lower spoke count wheels can cut a significant amount of weight. For example, a bike with a 20 spoke front wheel and 24 spoke rear wheel will have 20 fewer spokes than a bike with two 32 spoke wheels. If each spoke weighs 15 grams, you could cut 300 grams from the weight of your bike by switching to lower spoke count wheels. That’s a pretty significant amount of weight. For performance and efficiency, the wheels are the best place to reduce weight. Lighter wheels spin up faster and more easily.
Low spoke count wheels can also improve aerodynamics and efficiency. The improvement is minor. As mentioned earlier, you might only save around 5 watts of power by eliminating 10-20 spokes. For recreational riders, this is insignificant. For competitive riders, any marginal aerodynamic advantage may make a difference between losing and winning a race.
The drawbacks of running low spoke count wheels outweigh the benefits for many riders. The main drawback is that wheels with fewer spokes are weaker, assuming the quality of the components are the same. A wheel with 20 spokes can’t handle as hard of an impact force as a wheel with 32 spokes without failing.
Low spoke count wheels also can’t support as much weight. Heavy riders and those carrying a heavy load, such as bicycle tourists, are best avoiding wheels with fewer than 32 spokes.
Low spoke count wheels just aren’t as durable. Broken spokes and cracked rims are more common because the spokes must be run at higher tension and because there are fewer spokes to handle the stress.
Reliability can be an issue as well. If you’re running 18 spoke wheels and one spoke breaks, you’ll have to stop riding until you can repair the broken spoke. With a 36 spoke wheel, you could break a couple of spokes and keep on riding for the rest of the day. Lower spoke count wheels go out of true more easily as well. This adds more maintenance.
The quality of the wheel components and the build quality of the wheel are also important considerations. A 24 spoke wheel that was built by a skilled wheel builder with high-quality components can be as strong as a factory-built 32 spoke wheel made from lower-end components.
32 Vs 36 Spoke Wheels for Mountain Biking, Bicycle Touring, Commuting, Road Cycling, and Gravel Riding
Whether or not you need 36 spoke wheels depends partly on the type of cycling you do. Some types of cycling are harder on wheels than others. Sometimes you need a bit of extra wheel strength and durability. For some types of cycling, 36 spoke wheels are overkill. Sometimes lighter weight and increased efficiency are more important. In this section, I’ll talk about the best spoke count for mountain biking, bicycle touring, commuting, and road biking.
32 Vs 36 Spoke Wheels for Mountain Biking
These days, the majority of mountain bikes come with 32 spoke wheels. As long as they are well-built from quality components, 32 spoke wheels offer plenty of strength and performance for mountain biking.
When choosing mountain bike wheels, you will want to make sure that they are designed to handle the type of mountain biking you plan to do. Some types of mountain biking are more demanding on wheels than others. Trail, cross country, enduro, and downhill mountain bikes use slightly different wheels. The rim type, lacing method, materials, and build quality can vary.
For example, if you plan to ride downhill, you want to make sure the wheels are designed to handle the demands of downhill riding. Hard landing from jumps and drops puts quite a bit of stress on the wheels. They need to be strong to put up with that extra stress. Wheels that are designed for trail riding may not be able to handle the same abuse as downhill wheels. As long as the wheels are designed for the type of mountain biking that you plan to do, they will perform fine, regardless of the spoke count.
Part of the reason that you can get away with lower spoke count wheels on mountain bikes is the suspension system. Good front and rear shocks absorb most of the impact from hard hard hits as well as landing from jumps and drops.
The wide, high-volume tires also help absorb some impacts. They deform at the contact patch when you land or hit an obstacle. This reduces stress on the spokes. In most cases, 32 spoke wheels hold up just fine for mountain biking.
There are some situations where you may consider using 36 spoke wheels on a mountain bike. If you’re a heavier rider weighing more than around 220lbs or 100kg, you might benefit from the added strength of a 36 or even a 40 spoke rear wheel. You could still get away with a 32 spoke front wheel.
You may also consider using a higher spoke count wheel on the rear if you ride a hardtail mountain bike. These bikes don’t have a rear suspension system. They only have fork suspension. The rear wheel must hold up under harder impact forces. 36 spoke wheels can add a bit of extra strength.
The spoke count isn’t the only factor determining the strength of mountain bike wheels. You’ll also want to consider the quality and material of the rim. For example, carbon fiber rims are stronger than aluminum rims. You can get away with fewer spokes if you use carbon rims. That said, aluminum rims tend to be more durable than carbon fiber rims because they are less brittle. They can handle harder impact forces and rim strikes without cracking. If you’re hard on your wheels, you’ll probably be better off with aluminum rims.
The spoke material and lacing pattern also play a big role in wheel strength. Your choice of tires is also worth considering. Wide, high-volume tires can absorb quite a bit of force without bottoming out. If you ride 2”+ tires, you can get away with a lower spoke count. Your suspension travel is also important. If your suspension has short travel, it could bottom out and transmit more force into your wheels. With long travel suspension, you can use lower spoke count wheels.
32 Vs 36 Spoke Wheels for Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking
36 spoke wheels are better than 32 spoke wheels for bicycle touring and bikepacking. For these types of cycling, the wheels need to be as strong, durable, and reliable as possible. Comfort is also an important consideration.
Wheel strength is crucial for bicycle touring. The wheels need to be strong enough to support a heavy touring bike plus all of your touring gear. While bicycle touring, you’ll carry heavy racks and panniers full of camping gear, clothing, tools, spare parts, and several days’ worth of food and water. This can add anywhere from 30-100+ lbs of weight to your bike. You need strong wheels to support all of that extra weight. 36 spoke wheels provide plenty of strength to carry a heavily loaded touring bike.
32 spoke wheels may not be strong enough to carry a particularly heavy load. If you overload a bike with weak wheels, you’re more likely to suffer broken spokes and cracked or bent rims. Wheels can only handle so much weight before they start failing. For lightweight touring or bikepacking, you can get away with weaker 32 spoke wheels.
Durability and reliability are crucial for touring as well because bicycle tourists frequently travel through remote areas. While traveling long distances, you’ll often find yourself many miles away from a bike shop or even a town. You don’t want a wheel to fail on you while you’re miles away from civilization. You could get stranded.
Many bicycle tourists also travel through developing countries where quality parts can be difficult to find. Sometimes low-end or used components are all that are available. You don’t want to end up in a position where you need a new rim while you’re in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. In this case, you might have to travel to the nearest capital city to get what you need.
Road quality can be poor as well. You need strong wheels to ride on rough roads fully loaded with gear. 36 spoke wheels can handle rough roads. Broken spokes and cracked and bent rims are less common. The wheels stay true longer as well. If a spoke does break, you can usually continue riding the bike to the nearest large town.
32 spoke wheels are a bit less durable and reliable. Particularly while riding rough sections of road with a heavy load. If you hit a pothole hard, you can break spokes or crack or bend a rim. A wheel can catastrophically fail when ridden with broken spokes. Lower spoke count wheels also require a bit more frequent truing.
Comfort is another important factor to consider. Bicycle tourists regularly spend 6-8 hours per day in the saddle. The bike needs to offer a smooth ride. 36 spoke wheels tend to ride a bit softer because the spoke tension is lower. The wheels can absorb some bumps and vibrations. 32 spoke wheels can make the ride feel a bit harsher.
Touring bikes look very similar to road bikes but they are quite different. When it comes to touring bikes, weight isn’t as important as strength, durability, reliability, and comfort. Touring bikes are heavy. The bike itself usually weighs 26-33lbs (12-15kg). Touring bikes come with thick steel frames and sturdy wheels. You’ll be carrying at least 30-50 lbs worth of panniers, racks, and gear. A few extra grams worth of spokes isn’t going to make a difference one way or the other. If you wanted to cut weight, you’d be better off leaving some gear at home or losing a few pounds rather than sacrificing durability by choosing lower spoke count wheels.
Aerodynamics aren’t as much of a concern in bicycle touring either. The extra drag caused by a few extra spokes won’t be noticeable on a touring bike. Ttouring bikes aren’t aerodynamic to begin with. Large rectangular panniers stick out to the sides and create a massive amount of drag. Touring bikes tend to seat the rider in an upright riding position that increases drag. Your chest and arms cause wind resistance. Wide touring tires add drag as well. Spokes are the least of your worries.
If you want to improve your touring bike’s aerodynamics, you could choose a frame with drop bars and a more aggressive ride position. You could also use bikepacking bags instead of panniers to carry your gear. These changes can cut drag and improve efficiency significantly.
Even though 36 spoke wheels are better for touring, many touring bikes being sold today do come with 32 spoke wheels. As long as you’re careful about how much weight you carry, these lower spoke count wheels work just fine for light touring in developed areas. Another popular option is to run a 36 spoke wheel in the rear and a 32 spoke wheel in the front.
If you’re planning an expedition tour through a remote region or if you like to tour fully loaded with 100 lbs worth of gear, you’re better off with 36 spoke wheels. The extra strength greatly improves durability and reliability and brings peace of mind.
Some bicycle tourists use even higher spoke count wheels for extra strength. 40 spoke and 48 spoke wheels are available. These high-spoke count wheels are commonly used on expedition touring bikes and tandem touring bikes. They are substantially stronger than 36 spoke wheels.
32 Vs 36 Spoke Wheels for Commuting
Wheel reliability is important for bicycle commuters. You don’t want to arrive at work or school late and miss an important meeting or exam because a wheel failed you.
City riding also tends to be hard on wheels. Durability is important. Sometimes you have to ride over potholes and up and down curbs to get to your destination. You might knock your wheels against bike racks or other bikes while locking and unlocking your bike. Your hubs and rims may be exposed to motor oil, dirt, grime, road salt, and various automotive chemicals from the road. These contaminants can cause corrosion and abrasion and general wear and tear if they’re not cleaned off.
For commuting, both 32 and 36 spoke wheels work fine as long as they’re of good quality. Each spoke count has its own benefits and drawbacks for bicycle commuters.
The main benefit of commuting with 32 spoke wheels is that parts are easy to find. If you damage a wheel or a wheel wears out, you can go to pretty much any bike shop in your city and buy a new rim, hub, or complete wheel. 36 spoke parts are a bit less common. To get the part you want, you might have to order online or try a couple of bike shops.
The main benefit of running 36 spoke wheels for commuting is the extra strength and durability that they offer. You can hop up and down curbs, ride through puddles, carry more weight, and generally ride harder without having to worry as much about causing damage. The extra strength also brings peace of mind.
That said, 32 spoke wheels offer plenty of strength for commuting. In fact, most commuter bikes, city bikes, and hybrid bikes come with 32 spoke wheels these days. You could even get away with commuting on 28 spoke wheels if you prefer. You can use lower spoke count wheels because you’re not carrying heavy loads while commuting. Most commuters only carry a backpack or messenger bag with a laptop. You can also avoid terrain that stresses your wheels. For example, you can avoid potholes and avoid riding off curbs.
32 Vs 36 Spoke Wheels for Road Riding
Most road bikes come with 16, 20, 24, or 28 spoke wheels these days. 32 and 36 spoke wheels are rare on modern road bikes. The reason is that aerodynamics and light weight are prioritized over wheel durability and strength for road riding. Lower spoke count wheels allow road riders to maintain a higher average speed and cover more ground while burning less energy.
Road bike wheels often come with 4-8 fewer spokes than comparable mountain bike, commuter bike, or touring bike wheels. Eliminating 4-8 spokes can cut 100 grams of weight from each wheel. For some, this is a worthwhile compromise. Lighter wheels spin up faster and more easily. It also takes less energy to keep the lighter wheels rolling. This is the case because there is less mass to accelerate and move around. They have less rotating mass.
Low spoke count wheels are also more aerodynamic. The aerodynamic advantage of using 6-8 fewer spokes might save 5-10 watts of pedaling power. This improves efficiency. Particularly while riding at speeds above around 10 mph. You can ride further and faster while burning less energy.
This aerodynamic advantage is possible because there are fewer spokes disturbing the air as you ride through. Less air disturbance means less drag. This slight advantage is worth sacrificing a bit of wheel strength for some riders.
For competitive cyclists, the aerodynamic and weight advantage could mean the difference between winning and losing a race. For recreational riders, the difference won’t even be noticeable. What may be noticeable is wheel strength and durability.
Road bikers can get away with slightly weaker and less durable wheels than mountain bikes, touring bikes, and commuters. The reason is that road riding generally isn’t as hard on wheels. Road riders typically stick to smooth surfaces. There are no hard shocks and bumps for the wheels to contend with. Road riders also tend not to carry much extra weight. Road bikes are light. A lighter bike puts less stress on the wheels.
It’s important to remember that ultra-low spoke count wheels are weaker than standard road wheels. Broken spokes may be a bit more common while running 16, 20, or 24 spoke wheels. You won’t want to ride off curbs or over big potholes. You need to keep an eye on the road ahead to avoid obstacles. Chances are, you’ll have to true the wheels a bit more often as well. If you prefer a bit more durability, 28 or 32 spoke wheels offer an excellent compromise. 36 spokes wheels are overkill for most road riders. High spoke count wheels are unnecessary.
32 Vs 36 Spoke Wheels for Gravel Riding
Most gravel bikes come with 24, 28, or 32 spoke wheels. 36 spoke wheels are also an option but they are a bit less common.
For gravel riding, your wheels need to be a bit stronger and more durable than road wheels. This is necessary because gravel bikes have to endure the stress of off-road conditions. Gravel roads can be covered in deep ruts and potholes. At the same time, the wheels need to be light enough for you to accelerate quickly and maintain a reasonably high speed.
The ideal spoke count for your gravel bike wheels depends on how you ride your bike. For regular gravel riding, 32 spoke wheels are ideal. If you plan to use your gravel bike for bikepacking or adventure riding, 36 spoke wheels may be preferable. They can support the extra weight of your luggage. They also offer a bit more reliability while you’re riding through the middle of nowhere. If you plan to race your gravel bike, lower spoke count wheels may be better due to the increased efficiency.
Other Factors to Consider When Choosing Wheels
The spoke count isn’t the only factor that determines the strength, weight, durability, efficiency, and performance of the wheels. The rim, hub, spoke type, and spoke lacing pattern all play a major role. In this section, I’ll outline a few important factors to consider when choosing bike wheels.
The rim is probably the most important component of a bike wheel when it comes to strength and durability. The rim is the most likely point of failure for a wheel. Rims can bend and crack during impacts. They can warp as they wear. Extra spokes can’t compensate for a weak or low-quality rim.
A wheel with a quality rim and a low spoke count can be stronger than a wheel with a low-quality rim and a high spoke count. Rims designed for different purposes can also have different strengths by design. A trail riding mountain bike wheel with 36 spokes may be weaker than a downhill mountain bike wheel with 32 spokes.
In order to build strong, durable, and fast wheels, you’ll need quality rims. Bike rims are made from either aluminum alloy or carbon fiber. The vast majority of bikes come with aluminum rims. High-end bikes sometimes come with carbon rims.
Aluminum rims tend to be more durable than carbon fiber. They can withstand a harder impact force without cracking or bending. This is the case because aluminum is a less brittle material than carbon fiber. Aluminum rims are also a bit less stiff. They can flex more to absorb impacts and improve comfort. If an aluminum rim gets dented or scratched, it is still usable in most cases. Aluminum rims come in single and double wall varieties. For most riders, double-wall aluminum rims are the best option. They are durable, long-lasting, affordable, and relatively lightweight. The main drawback is that aluminum rims are a bit heavier, more flexible, and less aerodynamic than carbon rims, making them slightly slower and less efficient.
Carbon fiber rims are stiffer and lighter than aluminum rims. This makes them a bit faster, more responsive, and more efficient. You could cover more ground and ride at a higher average speed with carbon rims. Many riders find that carbon rims offer better ride quality as well. They maintain their line well. They also tend to stay true longer. The drawback is that carbon rims are more fragile because the material is somewhat brittle. In the event of a rim strike, a carbon rim can crack. If this happens, the rim must be replaced. They are generally not repairable. Carbon fiber rims are also much more expensive than aluminum rims. Carbon wheels cost around $1000 more than comparable aluminum wheels.
For more info, check out my complete guide to carbon fiber vs aluminum rims.
The size of the wheel plays a major role in its strength, stiffness, and durability. Wheels that are smaller in diameter are structurally stronger and more durable than wheels that are larger in diameter.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the spokes are shorter on smaller wheels so they can’t flex as easily. As a result, you’re less likely to break spokes on a smaller wheel. Second, the rim itself is stronger because it is smaller with the same thickness. It can’t flex as much as a larger rim.
For these reasons, you can get away with a lower spoke count on a smaller wheel. For example, a 26” wheel may only need 32 spokes to achieve the same strength as a 29” wheel with 36 spokes. A 16” or 20” folding bike wheel may only need 28 spokes to achieve the same strength as a larger 700c wheel with 32 spokes.
For more info on various wheel sizes, check out my guides:
The hub diameter, width, symmetry, and quality all play a role in the strength of the wheel.
A hub that is larger in diameter can help create a stronger wheel. If you use a large hub, you can get away with a lower spoke count. The reason is that larger hubs mean you use shorter spokes. There is less distance from the hub to the rim. Shorter spokes make the wheel stronger because the shorter spokes can’t bend as easily.
This is why most internal gear hubs and dynamo hubs are drilled for 32 spokes. They tend to be larger in diameter than standard hubs. They don’t need as many spokes as a result.
Hub width is important as well. Wider hubs spread the spoke flanges further apart. The flanges are the parts of the hub where the spokes attach. The wider flanges change the angle that the spokes run in relation to the hub. This increases wheel strength by allowing the spokes to cross more times when the hub is laced.
Generally speaking, the more times the spokes cross, the stronger the wheel. When spokes cross, they can share the load with their neighboring spokes. Crossing spokes brace one another and prevent flexing.
This is one reason that hub spacing has increased over the years. A wider 135mm hub can create a stronger wheel than a more narrow 130mm hub.
Hub symmetry is also important. Most rear hubs are asymmetrical. The spokes are different lengths on the drive side and nondrive side of the hub. They also run at different angles. It is necessary to position the spokes further toward the center of the wheel on the drive side to make room for the cassette cogs.
The drawback to this design is that spoke tension isn’t even. Some spokes are under more stress than others. A symmetrical wheel is much stronger because the spokes run at the same angle on each side and are all under the same tension. Most single speed and fixed gear bikes have symmetrical wheels. Front wheels are almost always symmetrical.
The hub can make a wheel with a lower spoke count as strong as a wheel with a higher spoke count. For example, Rohloff sells their Speedhub 14 speed internal gear hub in 32 and 36 spoke options. They claim that their hub creates a wheel that is as strong as a 48 spoke tandem wheel. This is possible because the hub flanges have a much larger diameter than a standard hub. The flanges are also symmetrical.
Hub quality is also worth considering. Almost all modern hubs have aluminum flanges that the spokes attach to. Higher-end hubs may have forged flanges. These are slightly stronger. Flange failures are rare but do happen.
Good quality hubs have thick flanges with flared holes. These provide support for the spoke elbows. If the flanges are too narrow, you may have to use washers to hold the spoke head against the flange. This is less than ideal.
The hubs can also affect your bike’s efficiency. Quality hubs use good bearings that roll smoothly and easily. Quality hubs are also sealed better from the elements. Hubs that are well-sealed from bad weather and debris also hold up better. They are less likely to get contaminated or corrode. The bearings also last longer and roll smoother. This makes the wheel more durable and reliable.
Spokes are made from a number of different materials. In this section, I’ll outline stainless steel, carbon steel, carbon fiber, aluminum alloy, and polycarbonate spokes.
Stainless Steel Spokes
The most common material, by far, is stainless steel. For most riders, stainless steel spokes are the best choice. They are strong and will not rust. Stainless steel spokes make for durable, reliable, and long-lasting wheels.
Carbon Steel Spokes
Cheap wheels are sometimes made with chrome-plated or zinc-plated carbon steel spokes. These spokes are not as strong as stainless steel. They can also rust. Rusted spokes are more likely to break. This makes for a weaker and less reliable wheel. Avoid these if possible.
Titanium spokes are also available. These offer excellent strength and durability. They are also resistant to corrosion.
There are two main drawbacks to titanium spokes. First, wheels built with titanium spokes are not significantly lighter than wheels built with stainless steel spokes. This is the case because titanium spokes are usually paired with stronger but heavier brass spoke nipples rather than aluminum nipples. You can cut a bit of weight by using titanium spoke nipples as well. Titanium spokes are also much more expensive than stainless steel spokes. For most riders, they aren’t worth the additional cost. They are kind of a luxury component.
Carbon Fiber Spokes
Carbon fiber spokes are another option. The main benefit to carbon fiber spokes is their light weight. They are lighter than both steel and titanium. They are also strong and stiff. This allows you to get away with using fewer spokes, saving more weight. A 32 carbon spoke wheel may be significantly stronger than a 36 steel spoke wheel.
The problem with carbon fiber spokes is that they need to be significantly thicker than stainless steel spokes in order to achieve sufficient strength. This is necessary because carbon fiber is less dense than steel. The extra thickness increases drag, which makes the bike less aerodynamic. This slows you down. Carbon fiber spokes are also brittle. They can break more easily if they’re bent or if they are struck. Some riders also find that carbon spokes reduce ride quality because they make the wheels overly stiff.
Aluminum Alloy and Polycarbonate Spokes
Aluminum alloy and polycarbonate (plastic) spokes are also available. These materials have the same problems as carbon fiber. In order to make them strong enough, they have to be made extremely thick. These increases drag. They are also less durable than stainless steel. These spoke materials are generally not recommended.
Spoke Shapes and Sizes
Spokes come in a range of shapes and sizes. In this section, we’ll talk about spoke thickness (gauge), butting, and spoke shape.
Spokes come in a range of thicknesses. The diameter of a spoke is usually measured the same as wire gauges. It can also be measured in millimeters. The most common spoke thickness is 14 gauge (2mm). Most stainless steel spokes range from 1.6-2.3 mm in diameter.
Thicker spokes offer more wheel strength and rigidity than thinner spokes. They’re less likely to bend or break. Thicker spokes can also make the wheel track better through hard turns. The wheel stays straight and doesn’t flex.
The drawback is that thicker spokes are heavier and create more air resistance than thinner spokes. Using thinner spokes with a bit of give can improve the bike’s ride quality. The spokes can flex a bit and absorb some shocks and vibrations. There are compromises to make when selecting your spoke thickness.
Straight Gauge and Butted Spokes
Spokes can be straight gauge or butted. Straight gauge spokes have the same thickness throughout their entire length.
Butted spokes have a varying thickness. Butting is done to save weight. Butting can also improve spoke strength. Spokes can be single butted, double butted, or triple butted.
Single butted spokes are thicker near the hub then taper down near the threads. This design is fairly uncommon. Single butted spokes can work well in heavy-duty wheels. For example, maybe you want to pair an extra thick spoke with rims with normal-sized spoke holes.
Double-butted spokes are thicker at both ends and thinner in the middle. For example, a common size measures 2mm on either end and 1.8mm in the middle section. These spokes are just as strong as straight gauge spokes at the thick ends. This is important because the end sections are where the majority of the stress is applied.
The thinner middle section can also help to improve wheel strength. The thin middle of the spoke can stretch slightly during a hard impact. This allows adjacent spokes to take on some of the stress. This can help to prevent rims from cracking around the spoke holes. It cal also prevent spokes from pulling out of the rims.
Triple butted spokes are kind of a combination of single and double-butted spokes. They are thickest at the head, thinnest in the middle, then somewhere in between at the threaded end. For example, a common size measures 2.3mm at the head, 1.8mm in the middle, then 2mm at the threads.
This design offers all of the benefits of both single-butted and double-butted spokes. This is the strongest and most durable spoke design because the wider heads fit in the flanges without being able to wiggle around. This helps to resist breakage caused by spoke fatigue. The flanges need to be the width that they are so the thicker threads can pass through.
If you want to reduce the drag caused by your spokes, aerodynamically shaped spokes are available. These come in two designs: elliptical and bladed.
Elliptical spokes are similar to double-butted spokes. The difference is that the thin middle section is formed into an elliptical shape rather than round. The ellipse might measure 1.8mm by 1.2mm. This improves aerodynamics by allowing the spoke to more easily cut through the wind. The part of the spoke facing into the wind is thinner so it creates less air resistance. Elliptical spokes have been shown to reduce drag by as much as 10 watts.
As an added benefit, elliptical spokes make it easier for wheel builders to avoid twist in the spokes because they can easily see when a spoke is twisted due to the elliptical shape. This makes the wheel stronger.
Bladed spokes have a more extreme aero shape than elliptical spokes. They are flattened in the center. These offer even better aerodynamics than elliptical spokes.
The drawback is that bladed spokes usually don’t fit through the flanges in standard hubs. They are too wide. To solve this issue, wheelbuilders slot the spoke holes with a file. This can weaken the flanges and will void your warranty in most cases. It is also incredibly tedious and time-consuming. Factory-made slotted hubs exist but they are pretty rare and expensive.
Spoke Lacing Patterns
The strongest and most common spoke lacing pattern for 32 and 36 spoke wheels is called the three-cross (3x). With a three-cross pattern, every spoke intersects three other spokes between the rim and hub. This is possible because the angle of the spokes relative to the hub is tangential. In other words, the spokes sit at an angle rather than running straight from the hub to the rim.
The benefit of the three-cross pattern is that it reduces stress on the spokes caused by forces from pedaling and braking. In general, the more times the spokes cross, the stronger the wheel will be. This is because overlapping spokes can brace one another and absorb some of the load of adjacent spokes. Spokes that do not overlap are much weaker. The drawback is that the spokes must be longer. This increases weight and drag.
Two-cross (2x) is another common lacing pattern. It is mostly used on 24 and 28 spoke wheels. With this pattern, every spoke crosses two other spokes. Wheels laced with this pattern are lighter than three-cross because the spokes are shorter. They run a bit more directly between the hub and rim. The 2x lacing pattern is a bit weaker than the 3x lacing pattern.
A number of other spoke lacing patterns exist including radial, two-to-one, and Mavic Isopulse. Some riders also lace interesting patterns into their spokes for novelty. For more in-depth info on spoke lacing, check out this great guide.
The tires you use also play a role in your wheel’s resilience. Wide, high-volume tires offer a good amount of shock absorption. Wide tires are soft because they’re run at lower air pressures. When you hit a bump, the tire can deform and absorb much of the impact. This greatly reduces stress on your rim and spokes. You can get away with fewer spokes if you run wide tires.
Running wide tires also allows you to run wider rims. Wider rims are stronger than more narrow rims. They increase wheel strength by reducing wheel flex. The extra material makes for a stiffer wheel.
When you run narrow road tires, more force is transmitted into the spokes when you hit a bump. This is because narrow tires are firmer. They need to be run at higher air pressure to avoid rim strikes and pinch flats. You need a stronger wheel that can hold up to the additional stress if you run narrow tires.
The valve type your wheels use can also play a role in wheel strength. The two types of valves commonly used on bicycles are Presta valves and Schrader valves.
Rims drilled for Presta valves are stronger than rims drilled for Schrader valves. The reason is that Presta valve holes are 2mm smaller in diameter than Schrader valve holes (Schrader valves measure 8mm in diameter and Presta valves measure 6mm in diameter). Less material is removed from the rim when the holes are drilled. The rims remain stronger as a result.
The valve type really only matters if you’re using skinny road rims. If you’re using wider mountain bike rims, the strength difference is minimal.
For more info, check out my guide to Presta Vs Schrader valves.
Why Did the Cycling Industry Switch From 36 Spoke Wheels to 32 Spoke Wheels?
The switch from 36 to 32 spoke wheels was simply for profit. 32 spoke wheels are easier and cheaper to make because they require fewer materials and less labor to manufacture.
For example, a bike with 32 spoke wheels require 8 fewer spokes than a bike with 36 spoke wheels. 8 fewer spoke holes need to be drilled. 8 fewer spokes need to be installed. Using fewer materials and less labor saves money.
This switch from 36 to 32 spokes might only represent a savings of a few cents per bike. On a large scale, the cost savings adds up. If a company sells millions of bikes per year, the savings is significant. Cutting out those 4 extra spokes per wheel could save millions of dollars over the course of a few years.
Through the early 80s, all bikes came with a total of 72 spokes. British bikes came with 32 spoke front wheels and 40 spoke rear wheels. Bikes from other countries came with 36 spoke front and rear wheels. The only exception was specialty lightweight racing bikes, which sometimes had 32 spoke wheels front and rear.
At some point, a marketer had the bright idea of selling production bikes with 32 spoke wheels. It was easy to convince the public that 32 spoke wheels were better because people already associated 32 spoke wheels with high-end racing bikes.
Cycling companies marketed 32 spoke wheels as an upgrade. The claim was that 32 spoke wheels are better because they are lighter and more aerodynamic.
In practice, switching from 36 spoke to 32 spokes was not an upgrade. It was a downgrade. Because the spokes sit further apart on 32 spoke wheels, thicker and heavier rims were necessary to compensate for the loss of strength. This offset any potential weight advantage. The aerodynamic advantage of 32 spoke wheels is so minor that it’s barely even measurable.
Early 32 spoke wheels were significantly weaker than 36 spoke wheels. Cycling companies got away with making this downgrade because the wheels held up well enough that most customers didn’t experience any issues. Reliability issues were common among more demanding riders.
In the years since, bicycle wheel technology has improved. Modern 32 spoke wheels are strong and durable enough for all but the heaviest of riders.
These days, lower spoke count wheels are becoming common. Many road bikes and gravel bikes come with 28 or 24 spoke wheels. Some racing bikes use 16 spoke wheels. For the average rider, 32 spoke wheels work just fine.
A Few Important Considerations to Help you Choose the Best Wheels
- Low-quality rims make weak wheels. No amount of spokes can make up for a cheap rim. Wheels, and rims, in particular, are one area you shouldn’t skimp out on. Cheap wheels are unreliable and make your bike perform poorly.
- If you have a 32 spoke and 36 spoke wheel with the same rims, hubs, spokes, and build quality, the 36 spoke wheel will be stronger than the 32 spoke wheels. It will also be slightly heavier and less aerodynamic. If everything is not equal, 36 spoke wheels are not necessarily stronger than 32 spoke wheels. For example, a more robust rim can make for a stronger wheel than adding additional spokes.
- 32 spoke wheels offer plenty of strength for most mountain bikers, commuters, road riders, gravel riders, and urban cyclists. Most riders don’t need 36 spoke wheels these days. Even bicycle tourists and bikepackers can be just fine with a quality set of 32 spoke wheels. 36 spoke wheels are overkill in most cases but they can be nice to have in some situations. For expedition bicycle travelers and those riding in remote areas, 36 spoke wheels are still recommended.
- The spoke count is not the only factor that determines the strength of the wheel. The rim, hub, tires, and spoke type and lacing pattern all play an important role in wheel strength. For example, wheels laced with a three-cross pattern are stronger than wheels laced with a two-cross pattern.
- If you weigh more than around 100kg or 220lbs, you should consider using 36 spoke wheels. At least at the rear. Alternatively, a 32 spoke count wheel at the front and a 36 spoke wheel at the rear would work well.
- Larger diameter wheels, such as 700c road wheels or 29” mountain bike wheels, benefit more from extra spokes than smaller diameter wheels, such as 26”, 650B, 16”, or 20” wheels. This is because larger diameter rims are structurally weaker than smaller diameter rims.
- For bicycle touring and bikepacking, 36 spoke wheels are the best choice. They are much more durable and reliable. You’re less likely to get stranded when you tour on 36 spoke wheels.
Final Thoughts About 32 Vs 36 Spoke Bike Wheels
When deciding between 32 and 36 spoke wheels, you’ll want to consider the type of terrain you ride, your weight, the wheel size you use, and the quality of your wheel components. If you’re a heavier rider, a bicycle tourist, bikepacker, or if you tend to be hard on your wheels, you’ll be better off going with 36 spoke wheels. For all other riders, 32 spoke wheels are the best choice.
These days, 32 spoke wheels are the standard. For most mountain bikers, commuters, and gravel riders, 32 spoke wheels are ideal. 24 and 28 spoke wheels are becoming increasingly common on road bikes, gravel bikes, and high-end bikes. These lower spoke count wheels are a good choice for riders who prefer to prioritize light weight and aerodynamics over strength. 36 spoke wheels are pretty much only found on touring bikes and tandems these days. If you need strong, durable, and reliable wheels, 36 spoke is the way to go.
Do you prefer 32 or 36 spoke wheels? Share your experience in the comments below!
More from Where The Road Forks
Sunday 31st of July 2022
What about ebikes? Would 36 spokes be better?
Saturday 7th of January 2023
I've been riding strong MTB 32 spoke wheels for about 3 years on a fast street Ebike. They are similar to the readily available Sun Rhynolite/Shimano XT wheelsets. (NLA Sun Singletrack Disc only version is what I have). They work just fine. Considering that a 36 spoke wheel would probably have to be custom built I suspect it would be cost effective to just buy another set of these, if the time ever comes. If I needed to build a wheel for say an IGH, CVT, or hub motor project I would of course go for 36 spokes on the rear. But adding a 1500W mid drive to a 26" bike that already had these wheels I've had no issues. I wouldn't hesitate to run them again. I think the strong (heavy) rims offer more strength than the extra 4 spokes. In fact I keep a spare set of these around with dirt tires for my MTB that can be put into service if ever needed. I've found that mid range MTB parts are cost effective for street Ebike use. Especially older configurations that are no longer popular.Like 26" QR wheels.
Tuesday 2nd of August 2022
Good question! I think 36 spoke wheels would be a good idea on an ebike. The higher speeds put a bit more stress on wheels. The motor and battery also add quite a bit of weight. The extra spokes make the wheels significantly stronger. If you ride your ebike off-road, I would definitely go with 36 spoke wheels.