Welcome to the Tire Guide
Precious few components can make as immediately noticeable a difference as a great set of tires. However, the past few years have seen an explosion in new options for mountain bikes, which makes it daunting trying to find the right pair of tires for your needs, your terrain, and your preferences. In the Tire Guide, we'll break down the key factors you'll need to consider when deciding on your next setup, and we'll follow up with a handful of our favorites for every rider. Read on to get up to speed with this rapidly evolving, yet widely misunderstood component.
You're already no doubt aware that tires can be found in a staggering array of options for a wide range of uses. At this point, it's almost a foregone conclusion that most riders have opted for a tubeless setups, which typically offer greater puncture resistance, reduced rolling resistance, and an improved feel for the trail. Accordingly, tubes having been largely relegated to a trailside repair option.
While the demands of racing have driven the development of application specific tires, most riders are looking for an optimal blend of traction, rolling resistance, and durability. For the sake of simplicity, we'll consider these all-rounders to be Trail tires. Depending on diameter, width, and construction, expect these to range from roughly 650g to 900g, with the heavier options typically benefitting from additional protection for flat resistance. If you're unsure of where to start, start here.
Generally speaking, riders will refer to a given tire by its tread pattern, but tread pattern is only one part of the equation. Don't make the mistake of thinking that a given tread pattern will offer the same handling regardless of the rubber compound. The most popular tread designs are frequently offered in a handful of constructions, in multiple rubber compounds, and also in a range of sizes. But before we go too far, a quick word about tread design.
Unsurprisingly, for most riders in most locations, an intermediate tire will be the right choice. Look for fairly aggressive knobs, especially at the side of the tread, which is where the majority of cornering traction occurs. Although actual layouts vary widely by brand, most intermediate tires will have a moderate amount of space between the knobs in the center of the tread, largely out of a desire to balance rolling resistance with traction.
In addition to the aforementioned topics, riders will also have to make some choices regarding tire size. Thankfully, this process is fairly straightforward. For most riders in most conditions, tires in the 2.3-2.5 inch range will be the right place to start. Cross country racers, as well as smaller, lighter riders, tend to prefer tires in the 2.1-2.3 inch range, which typically offer reduced rolling resistance. Riders seeking maximum traction have learned to trust larger volume Plus tires, although what constitutes "Plus" is growing less clear by the day. Whether you consider the current crop of 2.6-2.8 inch tires to be Plus or not, the reality is that many of the latest bikes are offering tire clearance up to 2.8 inches, which will tempt plenty of riders to experiment with going bigger on their next set of tires.
Getting the most from your chosen tires also comes down to rim width, as rim width is a determining factor in the shape that a tire takes when inflated. Choose a setup with a rim that's too narrow, and your tire will feel unstable, especially in corners. Choose a setup with a rim that's too wide and you'll invite unnecessary rim and tire damage and sacrifice some of the tire’s natural compliance. You'll also need to consider frame clearance. Most modern frames will clear tires 2.4 inches wide without an issue. Going bigger can be a problem, and the likelihood of clearance issues increases with bikes that are more than a few years old.
Cross Country - Top Pick
Continental Race King
A handful of recent updates to both construction and tread design have brought the long-trusted Race King to the front of the pack among cross country race rubber. Continental added reinforcement to the tire which is aimed at combating flats, while the tread design now features a more open pattern towards the side knobs, which makes the updated Race King much more predictable in corners than its predecessor. The updated casing plays nicely with rims in the 25mm range, making these a perfect match for the latest race wheels. For cross country racing and training in everything short of truly wet conditions, this tire has more than earned its place as a benchmark in its field.
Cross Country - Honorable Mention
The unbroken centerline of the Mezcal's tread makes it obvious that this tire is built with rolling speed in mind, but it's proven to be exceedingly trustworthy on more technical racetracks as well. The tread design opens up towards the side knobs, which helps the Mezcal dig into corners, especially at higher lean angles. And the exclusive G Plus compound offers far more grip than we've come to expect from tires that roll this fast and last this long. We find that it works best on a 25mm wide rim, although it’s equally effective on rims a few millimeters narrower. It may not be as ubiquitous at the start line as some other options, but we expect to see that change as word gets out about this underrated race tire.
Trail - Top Pick
WTB Vigilante/Trail Boss
For a sweet spot between rolling speed, longevity, and traction in variable conditions, this pairing from WTB is hard to beat. The Vigilante's open tread pattern offers serious grip when it's loose and dusty, while the Trail Boss's tightly spaced knobs maintain a high degree of rolling speed. The 2.3 inch size works best on rims up to 30mm wide, although we’ve found this combo to be extremely effective on rims as narrow as 25mm. Note that both tires are available in a heavier duty casing, also known as the "Tough" version, which riders who suffer frequent flats would do well to consider. The stickier HG rubber compound is worth considering for those demanding more traction.
Trail - Honorable Mention
Vittoria Morsa (Front and Rear)
This versatile offering from Vittoria rolls surprisingly fast at either end of the bike, owing to the ramped shape of the center knobs, which are broad enough to provide a significant amount of braking traction as well. We like its profile on a 30mm wide rim, but have found that it works well on slightly narrower rims as well. The grip offered by the meaty side knobs encourage the rider to commit to corners across a broad range of conditions. Better yet, Vittoria's G Plus rubber compound is remarkably fast rolling considering the grip that it offers, and it's proven to be surprisingly durable as well.
Enduro - Top Pick
Maxxis Minion DHR II/Aggressor
The dominance of Maxxis tires in gravity disciplines is no secret, and this particular combination is widely considered the most versatile pairing in the entire Maxxis lineup. Although the DHR II was designed as a rear tire, its predictable handling and stout side knobs, especially on the wider WT version, have made it a race winner when employed as a front tire. It's a perfect match for the Aggressor tread pattern, which uses tightly spaced center knobs to preserve rolling speed. Maxxis’s Wide Trail designation indicates a tire designed for a 35mm wide rim, but we’ve had great success running these on rims 30mm wide, which is the right width for the narrower 2.3 Aggressor. For those running 35mm rims or wanting a bit more tire volume, step up to the wider 2.5 WT Aggressor. We recommend the reinforced Double Down casing for enduro race use, although riders who are light and/or very smooth will prefer the EXO version, which saves a significant ~200g per wheel.
Enduro - Honorable Mention
Schwalbe Magic Mary/Hans Dampf
Schwalbe's Magic Mary has become a go-to option for riders faced with loose and steep terrain, and the latest Addix version lends an updated rubber compound that's both softer and longer lasting than the previous options. Although this loose conditions specialist works very well as a rear tire when traction is the only concern, we prefer to pair it with the new Hans Dampf, which rolls significantly faster. Although these tires are listed at 2.35 inches wide, they measure much wider than many other tires in this size range, and we’ve found that they work best on a 30mm wide rim. Like the Magic Mary, the Hans Dampf is offered in Schwalbe's reinforced Super Gravity casing, which adds much needed flat protection for race use, and makes it equally appealing to heavier riders and those heading into extremely rocky terrain.