In any discipline of bike racing, there’s arguably no component that’s more important than tires. This is especially true in mountain biking, where the amount of variables in both trail conditions and tire design are staggering. Whether you’re riding in a desert or a rainforest, choosing the right tires will make the difference between feeling like you’re on rails, and being straight up out of control. However, while grip is key, nobody wants to feel like they’re riding around on tractor tires either. In other words, the most aggressive option isn’t always the best choice. To start, I’ll handle a quick and dirty overview of tread patterns and their intended applications.
Look for short, tightly spaced knobs, especially along the centerline of the tire. Along these lines, you’ll also find semi-slicks, which are used most often as rear tires. The goal is to minimize rolling resistance, while still providing the necessary grip. However, when used in wet conditions, tightly spaced knobs typically don’t shed mud well.
These are characterized by large knobs that are spaced farther apart than what you’ll find on a dry conditions tire. The most capable among them usually have aggressive cornering knobs. Many employ ramped center knobs to keep rolling resistance in check. Tread layouts vary widely, but versatility is the name of the game. It’s common practice to combine an intermediate front tire with a faster rolling dry tire out back.
Look for extremely tall, widely spaced, spikey knobs. Expect maximum rolling resistance. They’re sublime when used in the right conditions, but they WRECK trails. Accordingly, they’re really only appropriate for Downhill race tracks. If you show up to a casual ride on spikes, and you happen to run into one of the trail builders, be prepared for a well-deserved talking to.
Finally, many riders choose the same tire for front and rear use. If you don’t go this direction, it’s best to run a larger, more aggressive tire up front. This is a general reference, and as such, relevant factors like casing, rubber compound, siping, knob layout, and personal taste are conspicuously omitted. Please leave a comment if you’d like to add to the discussion.