Mountain Bike Tires 101

Pulling It All Together: Scenarios and Recommendations

Well you’ve made it this far, but maybe you’re still looking for some pointed direction as to what tire to buy. If that’s the case, then here are nine different scenarios with specific tire recommendations attached to them. And just to be clear, there are quite a few other options out there that could also work for you, and plenty of this comes down to personal preference. So consider these examples a starting point, but don’t take them as the gospel truth.

(1) You’re pretty new to the sport and don’t really have any idea where to start.

Finding the best tire really requires knowing your local trails and where you’ll be riding. If you’re unsure, your local shop can be a great resource. But if you’re dead set on taking my advice, look for a moderately knobby tire with transitional knobs, a medium-hard rubber compound, and some minimal reinforcements in the sidewalls.

WTB Trail Boss w/ TCS Light casing and Dual DNA rubber compound
Schwalbe Nobby Nic w/ Snakeskin casing and Speedgrip rubber compound
Maxxis Ardent w/ Exo casing and Dual rubber compound

(2) You want something that works well all-around, but you spend a lot of time on pavement and bike paths getting to and from the trails.

Look for a tire with relatively tightly spaced center knobs and a harder rubber compound – it’ll roll faster on pavement and other well-packed surfaces. If the dirt on your trails tends to be softer, look for something with larger, blockier side knobs. If the dirt on your trails tends to be smoother and more hardpacked, look for something with slightly smaller side knobs.

Maxxis Ikon w/ Single Ply or Exo casing, Dual or 3C MaxxSpeed rubber compound
Kenda Slant 6, Single Ply casing, DTC rubber compound
Specialized Fast Trak, 2Bliss casing

(3) You just want a good all around tire, and you mostly ride smoother, faster trails that are generally dry.

Look for something with somewhat lower, more tightly spaced knobs. Tall side knobs will likely feel squirmy in corners. A harder rubber compound will roll noticeably faster. You can probably get away with a lighter, single ply casing.

Kenda Slant 6, Single Ply casing, DTC rubber compound
Bontrager XR2
Schwalbe Rocket Ron or Nobby Nic, Snakeskin casing, Speed or SpeedGrip rubber compound

(4) You just want a good all around tire, and your trails tend to be littered with sharp rocks.

A higher volume tire (i.e. wider) can make things a bit more comfortable. A blocky tread pattern and sidewall reinforcements are a good idea to increase durability. A softer rubber compound will grip irregular surfaces better, but it’ll roll a bit slower.

WTB Vigilante, TCS Tough casing, Gravity DNA rubber compound
Maxxis Highroller II, Exo or DoubleDown casing, 3C MaxxTerra or MaxxGrip rubber compound
Vittoria Goma, TNT casing, 4C rubber compound

(5) You ride lots of soft dirt (or sand) that tends to be dry.

Look for tall-ish side knobs that will dig in on corners. If you do lots of steep climbs or you feel you need more braking traction, look for something with chunky center knobs that are a bit more spaced out. A middle of the road rubber compound will balance traction and longevity.

Maxxis DHF, Exo casing, 3C MaxxTerra rubber compound, paired with Maxxis Aggressor rear, same casing / compound.
Schwalbe Rock Razor (for the rear), Snakeskin casing, Addix Soft rubber compound
Specialized Butcher, Grid casing

(6) You ride lots of soft dirt and it’s frequently wet.

Look for a tire with spaced out knobs, which will shed mud better. Tall side knobs will help with digging in on soft corners. A softer rubber compound will help increase traction on wet rocks, and a higher tpi casing can make the tire conform and grip better (potentially at the cost of durability).

Continental Trail King, Protection Apex casing, Black Chili rubber compound
Maxxis Forekaster, Exo casing, Dual Compound
WTB Vigilante, Gravity DNA rubber compound

Noah Bodman reviews the Maxxis Minion DHF & DHRII WT for Blister Gear Review
Noah Bodman on the Maxxis Minion DHF & DHRII WT tires, Whitefish, MT.

(7) You want to save some money, so you want a tire that’ll last a long time.

Look for a tire with a hard rubber compound (60a or higher). Big blocky knobs tend to wear slower than small ones. A low tpi casing (60tpi) will generally hold up better to rocks and pointy things.

Specialized Ground Control Sport
WTB Breakout, Comp casing, DNA rubber Compound

(8) You tend to get a lot of punctures and tears in your tires.

For single-ply tires, stick with low thread count casings. If you’re not already, consider converting to tubeless and running a good sealant that’ll seal around thorns. It comes with a weight penalty, but look at some of the more substantially reinforced tires.

Most knobbier tires have an option for a heavier casing. Look at tires with Maxxis Doubledown casings, Schwalbe Supergravity casings, Specialized Grid casings. Vittoria TNT casings, or other reinforced tires.

(9) You ride a bit of everything, and you want a magical do-it-all tire that excels everywhere.

We all love unicorns, but you are just going to have to deal with a middle-of-the-road option that does “pretty okay” in most situations. Of course, “middle of the road” is somewhat subjective, but look for something with a dual (or triple) compound rubber and a single-ply casing with a reinforced sidewall.

For tread, decide what you want to prioritize: either traction, or low weight and low rolling resistance. If you said traction, look for a tire with meaty tread and substantial side knobs. If you said low weight and low rolling resistance, look for something with lower, more tightly-spaced knobs.

Examples that Prioritize Grip:
Front Tire: Maxxis DHF, Exo casing, 3C MaxxTerra rubber compound
Rear Tire: Maxxis DHRII, Exo casing (or DoubleDown if you have issues with flats), 3C MaxxTerra rubber compound

Examples that Grip but Roll a Little Faster:
Front Tire: Schwalbe Hans Dampf, Snakeskin casing, Addix Soft rubber compound
Rear Tire: Schwalbe RockRazor, Snakeskin casing (or Supergravity casing if you have issues with flats), Addix Soft rubber compound

Example that Sacrifices a bit of Grip for Faster Rolling:
Front and Rear: Specialized Ground Control, 2Bliss casing

Examples that Prioritize Fast Rolling over Grip:
Front Tire: Maxxis Ardent Race, Single Ply casing, 3C MaxxSpeed rubber compound
Rear Tire: Maxxis Ikon, Single Ply or Exo casing, Dual rubber compound

10 comments on “Mountain Bike Tires 101”

  1. Noah, great review.

    Any comment on the Maxxis Rekon 2.8? I know you are not a plus bike fan in general. But I love my Pivot Switchblade setup plus, and am still debating the best tires for all around riding in Park City (almost always dry trails, mostly smooth dirt riding with some decent downhill trails). I blew out my stock Rekon in the back after about 10 rides, ripped through the sidewall. Now I have a DHRII 2.8 (it was all the shop had at the time) in the back and stock Rekon in the front. It sort of feels mismatched with the meaty tire in the rear.

    Get a DHF upfront? Switch back to Rekons front and back as a good all-arounder for PC? What would Noah do (WWND)?

    • Hey Dan,

      I’ve spent a bit of time on the 2.8 Rekon, but probably not enough to make a super confident assessment. But given the tires that you have, personally, I’d just switch them – put the Rekon on the rear and the DHRII on the front. That way you’ll get the meaty traction up where you want it, and the slightly looser feeling Rekon in the back where a bit of skittering about isn’t a big deal. Then, if you slice up the Rekon again (which seems somewhat likely – those things are a little too thin I think), then you could get a DHF to put up front and stick the DHRII back on the rear.

      I suppose that involves lots of swapping tires around, but that’s not too big of a deal.

  2. Great article! Love when you guys get into the details even if some of them are fundamental. From company to company there seem to be a dizzying array of terminology and special tech that each offers and often times, reviews and comparisons really don’t answer the question. FWIW, I’m one of those guys that had to buy about a dozen different tires and went through the trouble of swapping them out after about 6 rides on each. I ride a Niner SIR9 so its nothing downhill worthy or bad ass but its what I’ve got and does what I need it to do. I followed the hype for a while and even tried a DHF 2.5 up front. Awesome going downhill and it looked cool but pretty much everywhere else it was a lot of work. My favorite combo turned out to be a High Roller 2 up front and an Ikon 2.35 rear. Been loving that pair for the last 2 yrs and have yet to find a strong enough reason to change it. Compromise? Yes. But I’ve got one bike to do it all and these tires seem to get 90% of it done. Keep up the great work!!

  3. Thanks for this great overview on mtn bike tires. Very helpful as it is so confusing. Keep up the awesome mtn bike related reviews!

  4. Really amazing article!!!

    Have you ridden the vittoria morsa?
    I would appreciate it if you could share your experience.

    How does it compare to aggressor?

  5. Hey Noah ,

    Thanks for the informative reviews. I like them a lot. Proper rider opinion is so useful – there’s a lot of gear out there!
    Tyres especially so this o e is much appreciated.
    I’m a Maxxis DHRII fan too. (And a Mojo Geometron owner. Very long slack and low, used as a UK trail bike).
    Do I remember right that in an early review you made some recommendations about trimming the width of the wider DHRII center knobs to open up the channel?
    I can’t find that article of yours in a search, frustratingly
    Any chance you could link to it please?
    And what tool to use? Plain sidecutters perhaps.

    MAYBE I dreamed it ‘;~}.

    Thanks lots.

      • Hey Neil,

        Personally, I don’t spend much time cutting tires, but that’s mostly a laziness thing. I’m with Kevin though – trimming a bit off the center knobs of the DHRII would increase cornering grip a bit, and would still probably preserve most of the DHRII’s fantastic braking abilities. I’ve run an uncut DHRII in the front on a few occasions and I like it, although I like the DHF better for the front (because it corners a bit harder). Also consider a Bontrager G5 – they run a little bigger than the Maxxis tires, but the tread pattern isn’t too different than what you’d get with a cut DHRII.

  6. Hi Noah,
    great to know, thanks for the reply.
    as well as being hard work, cutting is risky too, it would be just like me to get it wrong ‘;~}, it WAS great to read about Kevins experiments though. Helps in understanding treads.
    That G5 sounds like it would make one great alpine uplift tyre
    Thats one good write up from Kevin:
    Shame Trek don’t do a trail-bike weight version. Even the 2.35 seems a bit of a “man-up weight” for “pedal up” sessions.
    My next non mud front’ll likely be your recommended DHF in WT on a DT471 or even a 35 internal rim. Maxxgrip maybe even.

    I do like the Mavic Claw though (on a 34 internal rim), maybe you’ll get to try one of those.
    Gwin’s signature Onza Aquila certainly looks an interesting project, not least inasmuch as he lined up the centre and sideknobs.
    Maybe he can ride like that on pretty much any tire though ‘;~}

  7. MM,
    I see that for “Enduro” there is the Bontrager SE5 Team Issue though.
    It’s based on the G5 apparently.
    shame they made it of harder rubber (if it was going on the front) might make an OK rear for trail bike use I guess.

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