How to Choose Mountain Bike Tires

How to Choose Mountain Bike Tires

When you've been mountain biking for a while and want to improve your performance, a tire upgrade can be a good investment. But how?

Gain traction or lower rolling resistance: As a rider, having a tire with greater traction means more fun and quicker progress. To gain rolling efficiency, you may have to sacrifice a little grip if you need speed.

Going tubeless means fewer flats:It won't end all flats, but tubeless sealant fixes some flats on the fly, and you won't have the dreaded pinch flat (no tube to pinch!). Also, you can ride with a much lower tire pressure, resulting in a less bouncy ride and a better sense of the trail. Find out more about the benefits of going tubeless.

Save some weight:Tires are only a small percentage of overall bike weight, so going lighter is sometimes more psychological than physical. As a result, lowering the mass of rotational components (wheels, tires, cranks) can pay off because you expend less energy to move them.

Mountain Bike Tire Size and Width

Once you've identified your tire diameter (29", 27.5", or 26"), you'll need to determine your width:

  • A cross-country bike tire widths will range from 1.9" to 2.25".
  • Trail and all-mountain bikes tires will measure 2.25-2.4 inches wide.
  • Downhill bikes,the tires on these bikes are typically 2.5" wide because they are designed to handle drops and rock gardens.
  • Fat-tire bikes, suitable for all-season trail riding, these tire widths range from 3.7" to 5" or more.

Consider wider tires:Despite their weight, wider tires offer better traction (a plus for sand) for a more confident ride. In addition, they accept more air volume to help absorb bumps. You can fit wider tires on your current rim or you can get wider rims to accommodate even wider tires.

Always verify clearances: Any new tire, especially a wider one, needs to have adequate clearance within the frame. 

Choosing Mountain Bike Tires by Riding Style

As no tire excels at everything, you should focus on features that are important to your riding style.

In cross-country riding, climbing efficiency is more important than traction or durability, so you should look for tires that roll well and are lightweight (look for smaller, more densely spaced lugs).

An all-around tire makes sense for trail riding. The tire should provide moderate traction, durability, and speed.

Although you have to ride to the top, the focus for all-mountain biking is on descents. If you are going to take turns at speed, you need tires that grip well and can withstand moderate impacts (look for bigger side lugs).

If you're going downhill, you're getting a lift to the top, so you need burly, tenacious tires. Tires that can handle some abuse, stick landings, and claw their way around turns are needed.

How Tire Tread Affects Performance

There are many different types of knobs or lugs on a set of knobby mountain bike tires. Understanding these and other tire features will help you choose the right tires for your riding style.

  • Big, widely spaced lugs bite into soft, muddy ground; wide channels do a good job of releasing the muck.
  • Small, closely spaced lugs offer modest grip with low rolling resistance (more speed).
  • Ramped lugs (slanting rearward): They reduce rolling resistance in the center to help you go faster.
  • Side lugs: They provide extra grip in corners because they are typically bigger.
  • Transition lugs: They increase grip as you lean into a turn; the result is a smoother transition from side lugs to center lugs.
  • Sipes: The slits in the lugs provide better grip on hard, slick surfaces.

Note: Several tire brands also categorize or describe their tires based on the terrain they are intended for.

Additional Mountain Bike Tire Features

Rubber Compounds

Rubber compounds are the subject of a lot of research and development by brands. There are three contradictory goals: good grip, long wear, and low rolling resistance. If you choose a softer compound, you will have a better grip, while a harder rubber will last longer and offer less rolling resistance.

Typically, race tires use a single compound that offers superior grip. However, these tires are usually worn out after a few rides.

Dual-compound rubber is a common design solution for non-racing tires. The tires have harder rubber in the center to help them roll faster and last longer. To provide more traction, softer rubber is used on the sides of the tire, the part of the tire most critical for cornering.

Puncture Resistance

Alluring trails often have jagged edges and thorns lying in wait. Because of this, so many riders would gladly trade a little weight for a lot of added protection.

The key to puncture protection lies in the casing, not the rubber. A 2-ply tire is one option. Reinforcements and other protective materials are another option. There are tires that provide only sidewall protection, which is particularly vulnerable, while other tires are reinforced from bead to bead.

Mountain Bike Tire Shopping Tips

Start with one set of tires:Unlike racers, you can start with a single set of new tires. Consider how and where you ride. Focus on the most challenging types of riding and terrain you plan to tackle.

Decide if you want to mix and match:Personal preference is key. Riders prefer tires with more traction up front and less rolling resistance at the back. Some riders prefer the same surefootedness everywhere. Experiment with the other approach next time.


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