For a long time, wheels with 32 spokes have been the industry standard. In the past, however, 36 spokes were the norm.
This post compares the two options and outlines which one is better suited for touring, commuting, and mountain biking.
What Are The Advantages Of Wheels With 36 Spokes?
The advantages of 36 spokes are:
More Strength (potentially)
If two wheels have the same build quality and rely on identical materials for the rim, the hub, and the spokes, then the wheel with more spokes will be measurably stronger.
A True Wheel
The four extra spokes ensure that the wheel will remain true a.k.a. straight for longer.
Losing a spoke on a 36-spokes wheel isn’t as detrimental as it is to wheels with 32 or fewer spokes.
This is one of the main reasons why wheels with 36 spokes are a common choice for touring bicycles.
The extra spokes provide insurance that if something goes bad in the middle of nowhere, it would still be possible to get home or to the nearest service station by pedaling.
Lower Spoke Tension
Wheels with 36 spokes have lower spoke tension and provide a more compliant/softer ride.
What Are The Drawbacks Of Wheels With 36 Spokes?
The shortcomings of wheels with 36 spokes are listed below:
Honestly, 36-spokes wheels do not have many shortcomings.
The biggest criticism comes from people trying to make their bikes as light as possible.
That said, wheels with 36 spokes are not necessarily heavier than models with 32 spokes.
Why? Two reasons:
1. 32H wheels rely on a sturdier and often heavier rim to compensate for the lower number of spokes. This is especially true for low-end models.
2. 36H wheels require more holes in the rims and hubs. The removed material results is small but undeniable weight savings.
A good spoke weighs about 15 grams. Therefore, if everything else is equal, a 36H wheel would be less than 60 grams heavier than its 32H brother.
Note: The term “36H” and “32H” is another way of referring to wheels with 36 and 32 spokes. The letter “H” is short for а hole. Since wheels with 32/36 spokes need 32/36 holes on the rim, the abbreviation “H” is used.
The additional spokes result in extra air resistance.
An average cyclist is highly unlikely to notice and suffer from the added drag.
36H wheels are more difficult to find as they aren’t the industry’s standard anymore. This limits the number of available, wheels, rims, and hubs.
The Rim Is Of Great Importance
The spokes are integral to a wheel’s strength, but they cannot compensate for an inferior rim.
A wheel with tough rims and fewer spokes is stronger than one with a softer rim and extra spokes.
For example, a cross-country wheel with 36 spokes will be weaker than a wheel with downhill rims and 32 spokes despite the lower number of spokes.
Why Did The Industry Switch To 32 Spokes?
The official explanation is that 36 spokes add weight while being unnecessary for regular bikes.
Wheels with fewer spokes were seen as an improvement because they are potentially lighter and more aerodynamic.
However, according to many, the main motive for the switch was monetary.
The industry began selling wheels with fewer spokes because they require less material and are cheaper to produce all while allowing the PR team to present the product as revolutionary – a common theme for the cycling ecosystem.
Are Wheels With 32 Spokes Strong Enough For Mountain Biking?
All things being equal, 36H wheels are stronger than 32H wheels.
Nonetheless, a quality wheel with 32 spokes can offer incredible strength and performance that would satisfy the needs of most mountain bikers.
A bicycle wheel is not just a collection of spokes – it’s a system of components. The rim, the lacing method, the used materials and the craftsmanship are of high importance too.
As long as the wheel of choice matches the riding style (e.g., cross-country, downhill, enduro…etc.), it will perform well.
If you’re a heavier guy (220lbs/100kg+), you could consider going with more spokes. You can put a 36H or even a 40H wheel at the back (the rear area is under more stress).
Having said that, a strong 32H wheel should perform fairly well even if you’re on the heavy side as long as you don’t do extreme drops and jumps.
Why Are Wheels With 36 Spokes So Popular Among Touring Cyclists?
Quality wheels with 36 spokes are superior to models with 32 spokes for bike touring.
The reasons are as follows:
1. Touring Bikes Are Heavy By Default
To outsiders, a touring bike may look like a regular road bike with drop bars, but the machine is built differently.
Strength, durability and comfort are the highest priorities. In consequence, touring frames are much stronger, thicker, and therefore heavier than road models.
The same applies to the wheels – they have to be extremely sturdy and reliable. The only way to achieve this goal is to keep the number of spokes high. 36 is a good choice, but some touring cyclists go even higher.
In the case of touring bikes, the weight penalty that comes with extra spokes is inconsequential because the entire bike is heavy and loaded with tons of gear anyway.
Therefore, it’s not worth it to sacrifice the wheels’ strength and integrity by relying on fewer spokes to save some grams.
2. Touring Takes You Away From Civilization
Touring bicycles are designed for long distances. You can easily find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no bike shop nearby.
For that reason, it’s of utmost importance to have sturdy components, especially when it comes to the basics which include the wheels.
Since 36H wheels are less likely to go out of true and disintegrate upon losing a spoke, they are a better choice for touring cycling as long as the overall quality of the entire wheel is high.
3. Touring Bikes Don’t Care About Being “Aero”
A loaded touring bike may be many things but aerodynamic isn’t one of them.
The geometry of the frame puts the rider in a more upright position and therefore creates drag. The tires are wide, and the huge panniers and bags strapped to the rear and front rack act like parachutes grabbing the wind.
Therefore, the “aero losses” resulting from a few extra spokes are beyond minuscule in the big picture.
Once again, the rider has nothing to gain and everything to lose from relying on a wheel with fewer spokes.
4. Off-road Riding
You may be able to stick to paved roads if you plan your itinerary carefully, but sooner or later, you will find yourself in a situation when you have to pass through a rough section.
In that case, a stronger wheel is your friend, especially if you’re carrying tons of gear with you.
Can I Use a Wheel With 32 Spokes For Touring?
36H wheels are superior for touring, but 32H models can work too if you aren’t overweight and don’t carry a fridge with you.
Alternatively, you could run a 36H wheel at the back and a 32H at the front.
What’s Best For Commuting – 32 or 36 Spokes?
Both are fine as long as the quality is good. The upside of 32H models is that they’re more easily obtainable. Meanwhile, 36H versions are harder to find but offer peace of mind.
In most cases, however, a wheel with 32 or even 28 spokes is plenty strong to handle the needs of a bike commuter because the cargo is lighter in comparison to a touring set-up.
Furthermore, if you’re commuting in a city, you can easily avoid off-road terrain that may stress the wheels unnecessarily.
The Size Of The Wheel Matters Too
The smaller the wheel, the stronger it is. Consequently, a greater number of spokes is more beneficial to larger wheels.
A 26-inch wheel needs fewer spokes than a 29-inch/700c wheel to acquire great strength.
The hubs are important too. A narrow 130mm road hub is stressed a lot more on the drive side than a 142mm boost hub or a standard 135mm MTB hub.
Wider Tire = Stronger Wheel?
Wider tires offer greater cushioning and reduce the stress on the rim and the rest of the wheel.
Also, they allow you to run wide, tough rims.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the strongest lacing method for wheels with 32 and 36 spokes?
The 3-cross (3x) is considered the standard and the strongest method for lacing 32H and 36H wheels.
The main benefit of 3x lacing is that there is less stress on the wheel during braking since the spokes attach to the hub tangentially.
- If the spokes, rims, hubs, and craftsmanship of two wheels are on the same level, then the one with more spokes (36 in this case) will be stronger.
- If the rim is of low quality, then no amount of spokes can make up for it.
- 36H wheels are a good choice for touring because they minimize the likelihood of suffering a catastrophic failure in the middle of nowhere.
- If you are heavy (220lbs/100kg+), you could consider running a wheel with 36+ spokes at the back.
- A quality wheel with 32 spokes is plenty strong for most mountain bikers and commuters.
- Larger wheels (700c) benefit more from having extra spokes as they are inherently weaker than smaller wheels.