Ask a Mechanic: The Importance of Wheel True vs Spoke Tension

Shea wants to know, “What are your thoughts on wheel true vs wheel tension?”

When it comes to maintaining wheel true vs wheel tension, you’ll hear different opinions depending on who you talk to. Of course, achieving perfect true and uniform tension is ideal, but that can be very difficult to accomplish. Most wheels will come from the manufacturer with even tension and are mostly true. That said, there will be variances because most of these wheels are built by a machine so they can be mass produced. The best way be be sure you are getting the most true and even tensioned wheel you can, is to hand build a wheel and use a tensiometer to check the tension. A good wheel builder will have even tension throughout the entire wheel, which should be true to within a millimeter.

When it comes to road wheels, most people will be more concerned with true over tension, since a wheel too far out of true will create brake rub issues that will rob performance. However, if the wheel is constantly having to be trued, and the tension gets too out of range it can cause problems. If you put too much tension into any one spoke or group of spokes, they become more susceptible to breaking. On the other end of the spectrum, with too little tension the wheel will become very flexy. Wheel true is still more important on the road but don’t forget about trying to maintain good tension. A wheel can be perfectly true laterally but if the tension is drastically different throughout the wheel it could still have a large hop and disrupt your ride.

Mountain bike wheels can be treated a little differently than a road wheel. An MTB wheel will most likely need to be trued more than once throughout its life, and the more you have to do that the more tension will be changed. Once a wheel is out of true, depending on how badly, you may never have a complete balance in tension again. However, since just about every mountain bike these days runs disc brakes, wheel true isn’t as big of an issue. As long as the wheel isn’t grossly out of true and hitting the frame it should be okay. This is where I would prefer to have a wheel with good, even tension that is a little out of true over a perfectly true wheel with uneven tension.

Be sure to check your wheels every few rides and correct small differences in true and tension before they turn into bigger problems.