Tire Tips From the Pros

Get a grip on one of the most important parts on your mountain bike

What are the best kind of tires to use on your mountain bike? We called on some top people in the mountain bike world and got their opinions.

Brian Lopes is a four-time World Champion and is widely recognized as one of the greatest mountain bike riders in history.
Photo: Bryson Martin, Jr.

Brian Lopes

Advice from a four-time world champion

Tire choice can be a complicated topic if you are someone who is really looking for that perfect setup. Not only is the tread pattern important for the terrain you are riding, but the rubber compound, sidewall construction, tire width and rim width you are mounting the tire to all come into play. Then there is the subject of what your ultimate goal is—to roll faster, better corner grip, traction under braking, flat protection, etc. The decision can get very tricky if you are, say, an enduro racer trying to find that perfect tire setup for all the stages you will be racing.

On the other hand, if you are not a serious racer/rider and just want a decent tire that can do most everything, and you’re not concerned with weight, rolling resistance or performance in certain conditions, the choice can actually be pretty easy.

Soft rubber will usually grip better in most conditions, but it rolls slower, wears quicker and is often a bit heavier. Hard rubber usually does the opposite. If it’s wet or muddy, I’m usually going with a soft compound, but if it’s dry, I’m usually going with a medium compound or sometimes a dual compound with softer rubber on the side knobs for more grip in corners and medium rubber in the middle for faster rolling and longer wear life.

Tread patterns are often personal preference, depending on the type of rider you are and, of course, the terrain as well. Knobs that are taller and spread out more tend to shed mud and penetrate soft conditions better but roll slower. Low knobs that are close together tend to roll faster and do better in hard-pack conditions. The back side of the center knob is where all your braking traction is coming from, so if you are riding steep terrain, this could be an important factor in your choice. Having a front tire that will provide the most cornering grip, which usually means having a good supportive side knob, is definitely important, as front-end grip is more important than rear-tire grip. Of course, you want both tires to get ultimate traction, but sometimes we sacrifice some rear-tire grip for better rolling resistance and speed.

Todd Britton manages Breakway Bicycles in Grand Haven, Michigan, and is the founder of Azusa Bicycles.

Chris Cocalis Of Pivot

Pivot’s CEO, knows about bikes and what tires to run

In the desert Southwest, we are faced with exceedingly dry conditions with loose granite over hardpack and sharp rocks (sometimes it’s like riding on ball bearings). For this terrain, we generally prefer tires that have a stickier compound and construction that can hold up well to high-speed impacts with sharp rocks. We also realize that we have to spec tires that not only work well in the Southwest but in a wide variety of conditions that include mud, roots, moss etc. Fortunately, we work closely with Maxxis tires, which offers a wide variety of tread patterns and rubber compounds for a wide variety of riding conditions. Here’s what we run:

XC: Ardent Race Tires, with their 3C compound and EXO protection, roll fast and provide great grip. For an even faster tire (but with slightly less grip), our World Cup racers generally run Maxxis Aspens because they are ultra-lightweight and fast rolling while still maintaining high durability.

Trail: The New Maxxis Dissector, with its 3C Max Terra compound and EXO protection, is our choice in the trail category. It combines great cornering and great traction in a fast-rolling design that keeps the weight in check.

Enduro/all-mountain: The Maxxis Minion DHF and DHR II is possibly the most popular tire combination in mountain biking today. It’s available in a variety of compounds and construction types. We prefer the 3C Max Terra compound in either the EXO or EXO+ construction, depending on the level of puncture protection needed versus the weight of the tire. We generally pick EXO+ construction for eMTBs and for bikes like our Firebird that are going to be ridden in more aggressive terrain.   

Downhill: Just as in the Enduro category, the Minion DHF and DHR II in DH casing are popular choices, but the Assegai takes the cake for maximum traction in dry conditions. It’s a bit heavier, but we’ve never ridden a tire that provides better cornering grip in dry conditions.

Tire-pressures tips: It’s important to check tire pressure every time you ride. There are few things that can make as much of a performance difference as having your tire pressure dialed. If you are running the right type of tires for where you ride, then a good general approach is that a 180- to 200-pound rider would run between 25 and 28 psi in the rear and as low as 21 psi in the front on a trail bike. For riders in the 115-pound or lighter range, tire pressures should be in the 17psi range for the front and 18–20 psi in the rear. If you are in between, adjust the range accordingly.   

Tire-pressure gauges: It’s rare that the gauges on floor pumps are accurate. Get a good digital or mechanical gauge from a trusted company like Topeak, Accu-Gauge or SKS. For mountain biking, get a gauge that has a Presta head and reads lower pressures accurately. With a mechanical gauge, it doesn’t make sense to get a gauge that reads up to 200 psi when you need to accurately read tire pressures from 0–30 psi.

Be prepared: Flats happen. It’s good to carry what you need. Pivot offers a tube strap to easily mount a spare tube, levers and other tools to the frame. We also have our Pivot Dock system that fits any bike with water-bottle cage mounts. One of our most popular tools is the Ninja CO2 that includes two 16-gram CO2 canisters and the inflator.

A former world champion in mountain bike trials, Hans Rey is our sport’s unofficial world ambassador, riding mountain bikes all over the planet.
Photo: Samuel Confortola

Choosing The Right Tires For Your Rides

Tips from Hans Rey, world traveler extraordinaire

The right tire setup depends on quite a few factors: riding style, terrain, your goals and expectations from your tires: Do you want to be fast, do you want your bike to be as light as possible, do you want to have the best performance, do you want it to be puncture safe and durable, do you want high performance, etc.? And the list goes on).

I personally like tires with aggressive knob patterns for better traction, braking and climbing. Bigger, more aggressive tires cushion my ride (it’s a form of suspension). They also tend to be more durable and puncture-proof. I am not trying to save weight when it comes to tires; on the contrary, performance and reliability are most important. I use tubeless tires; therefore, I hardly ever have to worry about flats. The right air pressure can make a huge difference. Plus or minus 5 psi can make a very big difference, and there is a fine line between too much and too little air. Air pressure depends on many factors: the kind of tire you use (does it have a strong or two-ply sidewall?), the weight of the rider, and the width of the rim (you don’t want a tire to roll or burp). It takes some experience and testing. I highly recommend experimenting with your pressure. Most people run too much pressure and therefore lose performance and traction.

If you ride in proper mud, you need mud tires with spiky knobs. If you race XC, you want fast-rolling/lightweight tires. If you’re more of a freeride/DH rider, you want bigger, more durable and stronger tires.

There are also many different rubber compounds that can enhance performance and have an effect on the life of the tire.

Mathias Flueckiger leads Nino Schurter in the World Cup, where a tire’s weight, reliability and traction are all critical.
Photo by Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Dave Wiens

Riding the rocks

With the exception of the Slickrock trail in Moab, and I’ve only ridden there twice, I’m never riding on pure rock 100 percent of a ride. While the other fantastic trails in Moab have plenty of sandstone slickrock, there’s also a ton of dirt, too. Likewise, with Hartman Rocks here in Gunnison where I live, there is lots of amazing granite, but again, there are way more trails that are dirt and dirt with loose or smaller rocks, so I’ll never set up a bike solely for riding on pure rock surfaces. For places like Moab and Gunnison that have large expanses of rock, as well as dirt trails, here are some of my favorite setups: For my XC bikes (the Canyon Exceed and Canyon Lux), I run Maxxis Icons in either 2.2-inch or 2.35-inch widths. On my Canyon Neuron (130mm travel), I like the Maxxis Ardent 2.4 inch in the front and the Icon 2.35 inch in the back. My Canyon Spectral (27.5-inch wheels; 160mm/150mm travel) rocks the Maxxis Rekon 2.6 front and rear.

Gregg Dunham

Looking out for the endurance racers

For endurance rides, your tire choice can make or break your trip. If I’m out on a multi-day bike-packing adventure or even an ultra-endurance race, I want to pick a tire that’s right for the terrain and one that will hold up to the miles that I’m about to lay down.

When selecting tires, I look at the route and the type of trails or dirt I’ll be on—hard-packed, sandy washes, chunky and rocky, smooth fire roads, etc.—and try to pick a perfect match. I’m rarely concerned with weight, because if I’m plugging a tire or patching a sidewall, that’s going to slow me down more than the extra ounces of a burly tire. I’ve learned when it comes to the sidewall protection, go for it! Why go for a weenie tire and spend your time trying to repair it?

I’m always experimenting, but recently I’ve been going for bigger tires and lower pressure. Bigger tires allow for more volume and lower pressure. The lower pressure generally means better grip and a suppler ride.

For multi-day rides, I like to bring a selection of repair options for when the inevitable happens. I always start out by refreshing my tubeless sealant and adding a little more than is recommended. I start with around 4 to 5 ounces of Stan’s race sealant. Then, I pack a tire repair kit: dental floss, upholstery needle and a tire boot. This is for a major sidewall tear. You can actually sew the tire back together with the boot and put a tube in it. I also bring some plugs, “side of bacon,” a Dynaplug racer kit and a mini 2-ounce bottle of Stan’s. Then I bring two tubes, usually Tubolito S-Tubo MTB—these things are uberlight and strong. When I need to add more air to the tires, I always bring my mini pump and a 25-gram CO2 cartridge. I’ll also bring an extra valve stem and core, a core remover, and a Schrader-to-Presta converter for those gas stations with an air machine.

The best policy when choosing tires for bikepacking or endurance riding is not to overthink it; just go with what makes sense for the area you’ll be riding. You pay a lot of money for those tires, so you might as well get ones that are designed for the dirt you’re on.

The steep downhills at Whistler Bike Park require more traction for braking than anything else.

Todd Britton

Year Round Tire Choices

For three seasons, I think the 3.8-inch tire on my fat bike is a great size. As the snow gets deeper and softer, the 4.5-inch-or-so tire works better. But, the 3.8-inch size is what I run on my bike three seasons out of the year. I do wish that fat bike rims were a little bit narrower. The relationship between the rim size and the tire size is out of whack when you compare it to regular mountain bike wheels.

I’m not sure the diameter will get any bigger than 29-inch wheels for your average mountain bike. The 29- x 3.0-inch Trek Stache has been discontinued, unfortunately, so I guess the consumer has spoken there.

I can see lower-priced bikes with a 29×2.6-inch tire on them becoming more common. More traction and a more forgiving ride are good things!

But, the biggest thing to keep in mind is the manner in which the bikes are being ridden, where and by whom. I love the way my 26-inch dirt jumper and 27.5-inch full-suspension all-mountain bike handle for their nimbleness and flickability, and yet the 29-inch and my 27.5×3.8-inch fat bike are fast and roll over just about anything.

Dave Wiens is the executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). He won the U.S. National XC Championship in 1993 and the U.S. National Marathon Championship in 2004. He’s a two-time World Cup race winner and six-time Leadville 100 winner.
Photo: Devon Balet

Hannah Rae Finchamp

Document your setup

The most important thing when choosing tires and pressures is being willing to test out new combinations and ideas. Riding style, terrain, weather and the rider will impact the bike setup, so don’t be afraid to ride something different from the person next to you. Make sure you are always documenting what you use and how you feel so you can establish trends in your riding and setup. For me, for daily riding in the terrain that I live in, I gravitate towards a Maxxis Aspen 2.4, always sealed with Orange Seal.

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