Pro Tips on Tire Selection
Not All Tires Are Created Equally
Pump ’em up: Proper tire setup is one of the keys to a great riding experience. Bernard Kerr shows off his treads of choice to his fans. Photo by Bryson Martin Sr.
Few things can change the performance of a mountain bike as much as the right set of tires. What kind of tires should you get, and how should you set them up? We asked a few of the sport’s top riders to share some of their tips.
TIPS FROM AARON GWIN
Aaron Gwin is a five-time World Cup Series downhill champion
On the edge: How important are your tire decisions? Just ask Aaron Gwin. When you’re leaned over in a fast turn, the right tire setup is critical.
“For me, there are really only two choices when it comes to a downhill tire—a dry tire or a wet tire. I’d say that about 90 percent of my riding is done on a dry tire, so it is important to me that the tire I choose is extremely versatile and well-rounded. I never really had a dry tire that I loved, so when I signed on with Onza tires in 2016, my goal was to design my ultimate all-around dry tire. That tire is now my signature-model tire, called the Aquila, and it’s absolutely perfect for me. I ride that tire pretty much all the time. I even raced it in the pouring rain at Mont-Sainte-Anne this past year. I wouldn’t say that it is a mud tire, though, so let’s dive a little deeper.
“To me, dry tires work in almost all conditions as long as the dirt has a good base to it. For example, Mont-Sainte-Anne has a bit of gravel in the dirt, and when it’s pouring rain, the dirt actually has a good base and doesn’t get too sticky. The issue with dry tires generally comes when you have that slimy type of mud or when the dirt starts to dry from a rain and turns into a peanut butter type of mud. When that happens, I’ll switch over to a mud tire.
“Mud tires are great because they have smaller spike-style knobs that allow the tires to cut through the sticky stuff better and provide more traction. They generally clear mud a lot better than a dry tire, too, which will hold the mud between the knobs, making the wheels super heavy and pretty much eliminating any traction.
“Either of these types of tires can cross over to the other type of conditions occasionally, but it’s pretty rare for me.
For example, if a track is dry and super soft/loamy, something like the Val Di Sole track in Italy, I will occasionally run a mud/ intermediate-style tire to get more traction, especially in the front. This only really works if your tire is at least a 2.4-inch-wide size, though; any skinnier and the negatives will outweigh the positives.
“Dry tires can work in the wet sometimes, too, like my run in Mont-Sainte- Anne. Generally, it needs to be a certain type of dirt, though, something with a little more sand or gravel in the soil. It also needs to be raining pretty hard to keep things from getting sticky. Here’s a surprise tip for finding traction in the pouring rain: you may actually find that you have the most traction when you ride directly in the little stream of running water down the center of the course. The running water washes away the mud and exposes more small rocks underneath, which makes for better traction than the mud on either side of the water. Try it out. The only downfall is that it’s hard to keep your vision clear.
“The only other thing to think about is tire width. If a track is super rough or rocky, I will sometimes run a slightly wider tire to provide more cushion. If a track is smoother or has a bit of pedaling, sometimes a smaller tire, like a 2.35-inch width, can be a little faster. The Aquila tire that I run is a 2.4-inch, though, so I don’t usually change tire size anymore, as that size works the best all around for me.
“One last note is to play around with tire pressures to see what you like best. Also, remember that traction isn’t everything. You may get awesome traction with super-low pressures, but if your rims are smashing rocks constantly, you may find that your times are actually slower, even though you feel like you’ve got great grip. I generally run 28-psi front and 32-psi rear at the World Cups. I tend to run higher pressures than most riders, though, so I’d recommend dropping a little lower for most people. I also run a Flat Tire Defender foam insert in my tires, which I really like. The system makes for a much smoother ride, keeps your rims off the rocks and holds the bead of the tire tighter to the rim. “That’s all I got on tires. Hope you guys find that helpful and now have some new ideas to try on the trails!”
TIPS FROM GEOFF KABUSH
Canada’s Geoff Kabush has been one of the top cross-country racers in North America for nearly 20 years. In addition to winning something like 15 national championships in his career, Geoff also won the B.C. Bike Race last summer, one of the toughest multi-stage bike races in the world.
“Many just look at tread pattern, but air volume, rubber compound and profile are just as important when selecting a tire.
“If you are looking for race speed or more grip, pay close attention to the profile of the tire. Take a look to see if the profile is more square or round, and then make a decision based on what you are looking for. A round profile is going to carry more cornering speed and momentum. A square profile will give more grip in the corners but cost some speed in the process. For cross-country racing, I use the rounder Maxxis Aspen when I want more speed or the squarer Maxxis Ikon when I’m looking for more grip.
“As the weather and surface changes, I also pay attention to the profile of a tire. When the ground is soft or muddy, I like a good square profile, like the Maxxis High Roller II. (Read MBA’s Maxxis High Roller II Tire Test) The sharp-cornering knobs really dig in and grip the soil in the corners. When the surface gets too hard, really square tires can be a little more unpredictable, and I’ll move to a rounder tire, like the Maxxis Minion DHF, which has smoother transition knobs and cornering feel.
“Rubber compounds make all the difference when you are balancing grip and rolling resistance, especially when wet roots and rocks come into play. Softer rubber equals more grip but more rolling resistance. On my trail bike, my standard setup is to run a medium compound (Maxxis Maxxterra) up front for more grip and a regular or harder compound (Maxxis MaxxSpeed) in the rear for more durability. During the wet and slippery winter, I’ll move to softer rubber front and rear. The more expensive tires have multiple rubber compounds for good reason. They combine the best of both—softer rubber on the sides for better cornering and harder rubber in the center for better rolling resistance.
“Small-volume, skinny tires are lighter but not always faster on the trail. Higher-volume tires soak up bumps, have the ability to run lower pressure with less risk and are more efficient on the trail. Pay close attention to internal rim width as well, as this can have a big effect on tire profile. These days I’m usually racing a 2.25-inch tire on a 23–24mm internal-width rim for cross-country.”
TIPS FROM CHLOE WOODRUFF
Chloe Woodruff has won U.S. national championship titles in both cross-country and short-track racing. In addition to her pro-level racing, she’s instrumental in the management of the Pivot race team.
“I often train on the same type of Maxxis tires on my Pivot cross-country bikes that I end up racing. That way I build confidence and experience on specific treads and really learn how to ride with finesse in our rugged Arizona terrain. My favorite race tires are Aspen 27.5×2.10-inch and Ikon 27.5×2.20-inch set up with Stan’s Race Sealant.
“But, on days when I’m working on skills, just riding or getting into some remote areas, I’ll always use a tire with EXO sidewall protection and go for more volume. Those are days when I’ll be riding my Pivot Mach 5.5 with a Minion DHF 27.5×2.60-inch up front and a Rekon 27.5×2.6- inch on the rear.”
TIPS FROM TODD WELLS
Todd Wells has won more than a dozen national mountain bike championships in the U.S., along with three Leadville 100 titles.
“Most cross-country guys use the same few tire types all season. They usually have a specific tread they like that is fast-rolling but has some good cornering knobs. Most times, if a rider uses two different types of tires, he will run a more aggressive tire in the front for better steering and a fast tire in the rear for better rolling resistance.
“I never had many different compound options in each tread type, but when I did, I would go for a medium/hard compound in most circumstances and usually a softer compound when it was muddy. Cross-country is all about efficiency, and you might give up some traction for a faster-rolling tire. This comes down to personal preference and riding style.
“If the race is muddy, I would run an aggressive XC tire at a lower pressure and possibly a softer compound to get better traction. I would also be betting on the lower pressure, allowing the knobs to move more and hopefully clean themselves.
“The strength of the tire is always the debate, even more than the knob pattern. In XC, you always want the lightest bike possible. If you run too light of a tire and flat, then you lose your advantage, because everything you gained by having less rotational weight you lose standing on the side of the trail fixing a flat. I would usually run the lightest tire in the front for nearly all XC races. If the course were really rough, I might use a tire with a bit of flat protection in the rear. On rougher courses, I might also run a 2.1-inch instead of a 1.95-inch or similar increase in volume. For a softer ride, I would use a psi or two less.
“XC races have tech zones nowadays, and if you’re never more than five minutes from a pit with spare wheels and a mechanic, it might be worth the risk of a lighter tire. If you’re a privateer and don’t have spare wheels in the pit, choosing a little protection at a slightly higher weight might be a better idea. It is a constant trade-off between weight, durability and traction.
“In a marathon or longer races, I normally run a bit of flat protection both front and rear. I’m a bigger guy at 175 pounds, so if I hit a rock going 30 mph down a fire road, chances are I’m going to puncture a light tire. There is little assistance in marathon racing, so being ‘lucky’ enough to get a flat near an assistance area is rare. I normally run a faster, less aggressive tire in those races as well, because often there is less technical singletrack and more dirt road/ pavement where rolling resistance is at a premium.
“I will probably only use two or three different tread patterns from whatever tire sponsor I have for an entire season. In fact, I usually use the same one or two unless it’s super muddy. I also don’t vary my tire widths more than 0.2 inches for most of the season. My psi usually fluctuates only 3–4 pounds for most courses. The only time it changes 6–7 pounds is when it’s super muddy, or, if I’m using a light tire in a longer dirt-road type of race, I might run a higher pressure. If the tire has flat protection, it’s typically not as supple, so less pressure is required to get the same feel as with a lightweight tire.
“Most tires now are either tubeless or tubeless-ready. If I’m going all in for a race and every ounce counts, I will run a non-tubeless tire to save weight if my sponsor makes one. This is rare, though. Most times tubeless offers a little more durability, a better beadlock and not much weight penalty. I never run tubes now if I can help it; I’m all tubeless, all the time.
“I have never altered my rim width for an XC race. Most racers run the same type of wheel all season regardless of terrain. Rim widths have gotten wider over the years, and I think this has helped with not just the ride quality but flat prevention because the tire seems rounder with a wider rim.”
TIPS FROM NED OVEREND
Ned Overend won the first UCI Cross-Country World Championship, held in 1990. He also won six national titles in the U.S. in cross-country racing. He still races in the pro class at the age of 63, and he’s still competitive too. He works full-time for Specialized Bicycles, testing bikes, products and tires.
“That’s a big subject, so I will narrow it down to a recent example, the Cactus Cup XC race. The desert trail at McDowell Mountain Park is mostly a thin layer of sand over hardpack, so the turns are pretty slippery, especially at high speeds. I chose a 2.3-inch tire front and rear because the higher volume let me run lower pressures for better traction with less chance of pinch-flatting. I used our Fastrack tire because it’s a good compromise between low-rolling friction and cornering traction. We have the Renegade tread, which has less aggressive knobs, so it’s lighter and rolls faster. Some of the other pros on the team used the Renegade in back and the Fastrack in front, because they were less concerned with their rear tire drifting. Some riders make the mistake of thinking an aggressive shoulder knob will give them the traction they need in corners, but the desert trail at the Cactus Cup is an example where it’s so slippery you can’t lean the bike over enough to get on the shoulder knobs, so you need to have some aggressive transition knobs, which are between the center of the tire and the outside shoulder knobs.
“I ran 23 psi in the front and 25 psi in the back. I’m pretty light at 135 pounds. A few pounds of lower pressure would have been nice for more traction, but there were a few downhill rocky sections, and I didn’t want to puncture.”
TIPS FROM COLE PICCHIOTTINO
Cole Picchiottino is a pro-level enduro and downhill racer who helped Trek test and develop the new Trek Session 29 downhill bike.
“Both of my enduro and downhill tire setups are relatively similar to start. I have a go-to tire pressure that I show up to each race with. Most times I usually end up with my go-to tire pressure for the race, since it is what I am comfortable with, but sometimes I do change it 0.5–1.5 psi in either direction if the track calls for it. Although it’s not my number-one priority,
I do like to run a wider rim if possible because of the way it shapes the tire profile. As far as the tires themselves, I have been running the Bontrager G5 tread pattern for DH in 2.5 inch, and for enduro I run a mix between the Bontrager SE5 and SE4 tread patterns in a variety of sizes from 2.3–2.6 inches. It just depends on the tracks and how fast-rolling I need the bike to be. I like the consistent feeling of the G5 tread pattern for almost all tracks and conditions. I do run Flat Tire Defender (F.T.D.) inserts in my wheels with Stan’s sealant. Last year, when I was racing more enduro, I ran just one insert in my rear wheel at all of the E.W.S. stops I went to. This year I’ll be running F.T.D. front and rear on the DH bike at all the World Cups. I don’t only run it for the safety factor of saving my rims, I also like the damping effect it has. It makes my bike feel more solid as a whole.”
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