Mountain Bike Tire Choice: Decoded and Demystified
Tires are the last point of contact connecting the rider to the ground, and so play a vital role in the art of not only staying upright on a bicycle, but also how fast and confidently you can do that. Tires have gotten better in recent years, with new compounds, tread patterns, casings, widths and more, but this has also led to an increase in options resulting in a somewhat bewildering array of tires to choose from. Fear not! This blog post is here to decode the jargon and help you choose the right tires for you.
The first thing you want to do is figure out what kind of riding you'll be doing and how you want the tire to behave. There are so many different tires out there, there's something for pretty much anyone. For example lightweight and fast-rolling cross country tires, trail bike tires, heavy duty downhill tires, wet weather tires, dry weather tires, all condition tires. Think about where you'll be riding, the conditions you'll be riding in and whether you want something with a light casing that'll accelerate quickly, a heavy casing that's more puncture proof or something in between. Will you be riding in the wet or dry? Will there be lots of rocks and roots and well drained or will it be muddy? Once you've figured that out, you can start considering what tires might work for you - and remember, not every tire is going to work perfectly all the time, there's always some compromise
Tire Size and Width
The first thing you need to figure out is tire size - since this is locked in to the wheel size of your bike, this is the only one that's non-negotiable. Figure out your wheel size - commonly 27.5" or 29" or less commonly 24" or 26". From there you want to figure out width. Cross country type tires usually come in around 2.0" wide up to around 2.3", and trail, enduro and downhill tires usually coming in between 2.3"-2.6". A wider tire typically means more grip and better puncture protection with the trade-offs that they have more drag and larger tires can feel a little more vague on trail. A narrower tire will feel more precise and usually roll better. For typical North Shore trail riding we tend to find around 2.4-2.5" wide tends to be the sweet spot, with the option to go a little narrower or wider depending on preference and type of riding.
Some bikes run plus-size tires, which tend to be around 2.6"-3.0" wide, however this is relatively uncommon, as well as fat bike tires 3.0" and bigger, though we'll mostly stick to the more common sizes here to avoid confusion.
Tread Pattern is the next determining factor. Tread patterns can be location, weather and season-specific. Extreme conditions require extreme tires, for example a tread with wide spacing and tall knobs often works well in mud and something with a very low/slick tread pattern will work well on dry hardpack, as extreme examples. For the majority of riding most people will want something a little better rounded unless buying tires for a specific scenario ie a wet weather race.
Wide-spaced aggressive tread patterns like the Maxxis Assegai make great aggressive front tires
Many people will run the same tire front and rear, however most manufacturers offer tires that work better or are designed specifically as front or rear tires. Front tires don't need to put power down to the ground for climbing, and so don't tend to have the ramped center knobs or paddle type tread that a rear might and instead focus on on grip, with larger knobs and channels/spacing for ejecting trail debris and dirt, and large pronounced side-knobs for cornering traction.
A rear tire usually needs to transfer power to the ground while rolling well and so a tire with a paddle-type tread down the center works well for technical climbing in mixed or wet conditions. A more solid central strip works better as a dry weather tire since smoother hardpack trail simply needs a large contact patch with the ground. A rider spends less time climbing and more time descending might want a tire more like a front that focuses purely on grip because rolling resistance is not a concern.
Think about where you want to ride, what kind of conditions you'll be riding in, the sort of terrain you'll encounter, whether you'll be riding in the wet or dry or both, how much pedalling you'll be doing and whether you would rather have tires that roll fast or grip more. Most tire manufacturers websites will tell you what sort of riding they've designed their tires for.
The Maxxis Minion DHR II has ramped center knobs with a paddle type tread for climbing traction
Tire casing is an important consideration that can often be overlooked, sometimes because it's least understood. The casing is the actual construction of the tire, the layers of rubber and fabric that make up the tire itself. At it's most basic level a tire is made up of one layer of rubberized nylon folded over itself and is known as a single-ply tire. Single ply works great for road and cross country applications since it's about as light as a tire can be, however for harder riding a single-ply tire can puncture easily and doesn't offer much sidewall support; enter dual-ply tires, which are essentially double the rubber. Dual-ply is much stronger, but it's also roughly double the weight and requires a lot more effort to get moving, but offers significant benefits in puncture resistance. Downhill tires are usually dual-ply.
Maxxis' EXO+ casing uses a single-ply casing with an insert to protect the sidewalls
Somewhere in between lies newer technologies such as single-ply tires with casing inserts to improve strength and durability without the weight penalty of a dual-ply tire. In the case of Maxxis, we would be looking at EXO casing as their single-ply (with a little added protection) option, EXO+ as a more reinforced casing for aggressive trail riding, Double Down (DD) which is very close to a dual-ply, and DH casing which is a true dual-ply tire.
The key here is selecting a casing that works for you - if you plan on riding easy trails with little in the way of obstacles or need something light, then a single-ply casing should work. EXO+ works well for trail riding balancing weight and puncture protection, and DD for aggressive trail/enduro riding for those that ride hard. DH casing works for those really pushing the limits of their bike, riding purely downhill or when you just really would rather not get a puncture.
Rubber compound is one of the last things to consider when choosing a tire. Rubbers come in many different compounds from soft to firm. A softer compound means better grip as it can more easily conform and stick to the ground, however this usually comes with the trade-off of more rolling resistance and a shorter service life as the tire wears faster. A firmer compound obviously will roll faster but with less grip when conditions get loose or wet.
Many tire manufacturers these days offer multiple compounds in a single tire where there's a firmer compound down the center of the tire for lower rolling resistance and as a base-compound, with softer compounds on the side-knobs of the tire and over the base compound, for better grip when cornering etc. Maxxis for example offer a 3C triple-compound with Maxxspeed as their fastest rolling compound for cross country, Maxxterra as their middle compound for trail riding and Maxxgrip as their softest compound. Each of these is comprised of three rubber compounds but arranged in a way or or with different shore hardnesses of rubber to provide faster or grippier characteristics.
Think about what, where and when you'll be riding when thinking about compound. For all out speed, a harder compound will be better, and for downhill riding a softer compound is usually best. For trail riding where you want to balance rolling resistance and grip, somewhere in the middle can work, maybe erring towards a softer compound in the winter when the trails are wet and slow anyway. Many people will also run a firmer compound on the rear for rolling resistance and a softer compound up front for grip.
Now that you've some idea of what factors to consider when looking at new tires, loop that back around to the first question - what are you looking to do with the tire? For cross country, consider a lighter casing with a less aggressive tread pattern and faster rolling compound - depending on conditions maybe a more agressive tread or softer compound would work better for wetter conditions or more technical trails. For trail riding, look at a more all-rounder tread pattern with a slightly heavier casing and softer compound. In the summer months you may choose a faster tread pattern or firmer compound, in the winter maybe something softer and more aggressive. For downhill and enduro heavier casings and more aggressive compounds are the norm, again switching things up for different seasons, riding styles and terrain.
Vittoria's Mezcal is a great option for fast-rolling cross country
Some great cross country options would be the Maxxis Ikon or Vittoria Mezcal. For trail riding here on the North Shore we like the Maxxis Minion DHR II on the rear in a casing option (EXO and EXO+ for lighter riders, DD for heavier) to suit the rider, and a Minion DHF up front. This also makes a great option for enduro riding, with maybe a heavier DD casing and softer compound. The Maxxis Assegai is also a favourite front tire for trail and enduro riding, changing up the casing and compound to suit rider and conditions, and even makes a great rear tire when conditions are really wet or for pure downhill riding. Continental's new Kryptotal FR and Kryptotal RE also make great mixed condition tires for enduro and DH riding with a couple different casing and compound options and the new Xynotal works well as a rear or for when conditions are dry and hardpack.
We advise taking a quick look at some of the major tire brand's websites to take a read about their tires. While the theory about casing, compound etc. can be applied across most brands, most of them have different names for each of their options, and some have more options than others. Familiarising yourself with each Manufacturer's nomenclature will make choosing the right tires for you significantly easier!
The last thing to do if you're not sure what the tire you're looking at is, is to check the hot patch. The hot patch is the part of the tire where the logo is, it usually will tell you the model (tread pattern) of the tire and all of the associated info such as casing, compound etc. In the case of the tire below it tell us from left to right that it's a Continental Kryptotal RE in the downhill casing, soft compound.
As always, our customer service and teams are well equipped to help you with all of your tire queries. If you need some help deciding on the right two, just head down to the shop or reach out and contact us!