Which tire is right for us?
Continental Explorer UST, Kenda Nevegal UST, Maxxis Crossmark UST, Kenda Small Block 8 UST
Which tire is right for us? Let’s begin by saying that this may be the most important component decision we make when hanging parts on a new steed or freshening up the old warhorse, and it’s often overlooked. You get all caught up in the sparkle of the new frame or wheelset, and bam, just like that, you’ve got the wrong tire for the bike or your conditions. We’d like to help you avoid that scenario.
We recently had the opportunity to try out four sets of great tires. We mounted them up at various times on our old test mule, the venerable Turner Flux. We’ll say we gave them some good hard miles, but we won’t say we wore any of them out. What we did find was that each tire has its own place on the trail. The four tires we tested were already proven favorites based on our sales figures, but we wanted to get a grip on the subtle characteristics of each. All four test tires are 26” x 2.1” according to the manufacturers and are UST approved.
The Continental Explorer UST was the first tire on the trail. It is a great all conditions tire. In our experience, all conditions sometimes means “Jack of all trades, master of none.” This is not entirely true with the Explorer. The Continental Explorer UST is in fact a very good tire. It handles roots and rocks with equal confidence. In wet conditions the small hexagonal knobs seem to grind their way down into the muck and find something to provide traction for the rider. The knobs are wider at their base and narrow towards the tread surface. This shape, and the ample void space, self-cleans in all but the stickiest conditions. The Explorer can be used as a front or rear tire, but it may be best suited as a front tire where it definitely excels. The specs from Continental state that the Explorer tallies 650 grams on the scale, but our test tires weighed roughly 700 grams each. In our experience, the 330 tpi casing proved to be quite durable. We selected the Continental Explorer UST for some of our cross country demo bikes. One strange characteristic of the Explorer is the vibration created on roads by the openly spaced knobs. It is not fast, nor is it a comfortable tire on paved bike paths.
The Kenda Nevegal UST has enough of a reputation to have earned a spot in the tire hall of fame. It has been voted as a favorite time after time in magazines and websites. The Nevegal earns this praise by providing excellent handling and ride qualities. Designed by John Tomac as an all conditions tire, the Nevegal feels big as a 2.1” tire, floating over rocks with the top of the class. It is a great tire for loose and rocky conditions or to challenge wet roots. The UST version has a stiffer sidewall that inspires confidence on technical terrain. The side by side center knobs simulate paddles as the tire grips rock edges and roots. Its ramped knobs also roll smoothly considering the void space on the tread design. It isn’t a hardpack tire per spec, but it isn’t bad in those conditions either. The official specs from Kenda place the Nevegal at 770 grams, but ours weighed 880 grams. That said, they’re a bit heavy. It’s as good on the front of the bike as it is on the back. They would be a perfect choice for wilderness rides, or marathon races on really tough trails. No matter what you encounter, the Kenda Nevegal can handle it.
We got turned on to the Maxxis Crossmark UST by its tread design. We’ve ridden some good tires from Maxxis before, so it was no surprise that we found a niche fairly quickly for the Crossmark. It is marketed as an all conditions / hardpack tire. One of the fundamental elements of the tread design is the nearly continuous center ridge. This makes the Crossmark ideal for hardpack trails, paved bike paths and forest roads. The lack of void space makes it roll easily and smoothly. The tread opens with ramped intermediate blocks. The shoulder blocks are an alternation of square and round shapes. They are tightly packed, and we felt like the lack of void space on the shoulder hampered the tire in loose conditions and off camber corners. Maxxis claimed weight of 690 grams was spot on with our readings.
On a side note, the Crossmark lends itself well to “tuning.” The Crossmark seemed to be just about, but not quite perfect for the old Flux test mule. That bike spends a good portion of its ride time on paved paths ridden on the way to the local singletrack, hence the need for a very special tire. The Crossmark has the speed and easy rolling characteristics for the commute to the trails. However, it didn’t really inspire confidence on fast, gravel laden corners on the trails. We experimented with removing the round shoulder knobs with a handy pair of end snips. Like the proverbial magic potion, our experiment made these feel like new tires. What we ended up with was a fast, easy rolling tire that railed through loose corners. It may be the perfect tire for riding from home to the trail and back.
The newest tire that we tested was the Kenda Small Block 8 UST, yet another design by John Tomac. Its tread design is quite simply a variation on the fabulous Nevegal. What they did was shrink the knobs on the Nevegal and place more of them across the tire carcass. Kenda markets the Small Block 8 as a tire for hardpack trail conditions. We couldn’t agree more. On rocks and firm trails, the Small Block 8 rails corners and adheres to the trail under power. The short knobs don’t easily deform, so the tire doesn’t ever feel squishy. The closely packed, ramped knobs roll easily to make this a fast tire, more so than the Nevegal. It works well even in dusty conditions. This tire becomes a heavy beast in sticky clay, as the lack of void space between the knobs prohibits any self-cleaning of the tire. Well, they told us it was for hardpack, right? Kenda claims the weight of the Small Block 8 UST to be 805 grams, but our test tires tipped our scales at 725 grams. This tire excels on groomed, dry trails, but is also at home in technical, rocky terrain. It becomes less effective when the rains come and loosen the trails.
We tested four sets of tires paired front and rear. All were run following manufacturer suggested rotation and pressure. We were able to feel the differences between each type of tire and put our spin on the description of each. While there was no perfect tire for everything, there may be a great tire for each of us for the conditions we ride in. If we were on our way to Moab, we’d most likely run the Kenda Small Block 8 UST. It’s a fast, super grippy hardpack tire. The short knobs would hold their shape on the gnarliest banked turns and g-outs the slickrock could provide. We like the Kenda Nevegal UST tires on our Ventana single speed because they have the beef when we’re out of the saddle. Our hardtail Ventana El Toro is hell on rear tires and the Nevegal always holds up to the challenge. They are a bit heavy, but the traction is always accessible and is necessary because we climb out of the saddle quite a bit and need to be glued to the trail to get over the climbs. When winter comes we’ll probably get the old test mule reshod with the Continental Explorer UST tires. They are always good when the trail gets loose or sloppy. The void space cleans out well, so should we ride in the mud, the Explorers will help dig us out. The Maxxis Crossmark UST tires are going to stay on the Flux for now, as they have proven themselves to be just right for our trail conditions, and for commuting to the them. They were good before, but a little bit sketchy in some corners. With the removal of the round shoulder knobs, they are very good.
So we’re back to our question -- which tire is best? We can’t say, as every rider has different needs at different times in different terrain. What we do know is that tires can make a huge difference on ride quality, as proper tire selection can have a huge influence on our experience out on the trail. As such, it’s an important decision not to overlook.