Choosing Mountain Bike Tires: Types And Sizes

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If you’re a seasoned mountain biker, you know how tires can effect the way your mountain bike rides. When choosing mountain bike tires there’s a few things to consider. Do you get a tire with lower rolling resistance, while sacrificing grip? Are tubeless tires a better option? How about lighter tires to save a little bit of weight?

Here’s how to get the best tires based on your needs and preferences.

What to look for when choosing mountain bike tires

While shopping for mountain bike tires, look for tires that have a moderate level of traction, durability and speed. Though you have to ride to the top, the focus for all-mountain biking is on descents. You need tires that grip well when you take turns at speed and tires that can withstand moderate impacts (look for bigger side lugs).

Gain traction or lower rolling resistance

You want a tire with greater traction. This will give you more confidence while riding around corners and rough terrain. As a result you’ll progress faster as a rider, and have way more fun.

If on the other hand, you’re addicted to speed, go with a tire with less grip. This will reduce your rolling resistance greatly.

Going tubeless means fewer flats

There’s no way you’ll ever be able to completely prevent flats on your mountain bike. But there’s a way to reduce them dramatically so that they don’t leave you stranded on the trail.

Pick tires that are tubeless. Tubeless sealant fixes some flats on the fly and you’ll never have the dreaded pinch flat (no tube to pinch!).

Also, ride with a much lower tire pressure. This will provide a less bouncy ride and feel much better while trail riding.

Low tire pressure helps to increase speed on both the climbs and descents in a couple of important ways. First, it allows for more grip as the tires can flatten out and have more contact with a loose surface. Descending, this improves grip in the corners and when braking.

Save some weight

Choosing mountain bike tires that are lighter will save you a small percentage of overall bike weight.

It might not seem like much but grams add up, and lowering mass in rotational components (wheels, tires, cranks) can pay off because you expend less energy to move them.

Choosing mountain bike tires size and width

Once you’ve identified your tire diameter (29”, 27.5” or 26”), you’ll want to dial in your width:

  • A cross-country bike will have tires in the 1.9″ to 2.25″ width range.
  • Trail and all-mountain bikes will have tires in the 2.25″ to 2.4″ width range.
  • Downhill bikes, which are meant to withstand the abuse of drops and rock gardens, are typically equipped with tires up to 2.5″ wide.
  • Fat-tire bikes, which can be used for all-season trail riding, have tire widths of 3.7″ to 5″ or more.

Choose wider tires

Heavier, wider tires provide better traction, (a plus for sand), giving a more confident feel. They also accept more air volume to absorb bumps. Either go with a wider tire on a current rim or get wider rims to accommodate even wider tires.

Always verify clearances

With any new tire, especially a wider one, you need to be sure it has adequate clearance within your frame.

Choosing Mountain Bike Tires by Riding Style

Remember that no mountain bike tire excels at everything. So make sure you focus on attributes that are most important for your riding style.

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

For trail riding, an all-around tire is necessary. You need a moderate level of traction, durability and speed.

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

For downhill riding, even though you’re getting a lift to the top, you still need a burly, tenacious set of tires for gravity-fueled fun. You need tires that can handle some abuse, stick landings and claw their way around turns.

How Tire Tread Affects Performance

Yes, it’s all about the lugs. The design of the knobs—or lugs—on a set of knobby mountain bike tires varies widely.

The treads of mountain bike tires can affect performance. Rough or “knobby” treads grip dirt trails better, but create greater friction on smooth roads. Smooth tires grip smooth roads better, with less resistance, but slip on dirt trails.

By making sure you understanding how these and other tire features affect performance, you’ll know exactly how to match your tires to 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): Typically in the center, they lower rolling resistance to help you go faster.
  • Side lugs: Typically bigger, they provide extra grip in corners.
  • Transition lugs: Located between the center and side lugs, they increase grip as you lean into a turn; the result is a smoother transition from center lugs to side lugs.
  • Sipes: These slits within the lugs help them have better grip on hard, slick surfaces.

Note: Many brands also classify or describe their tires according to the intended terrain.

Additional mountain bike tire features

Choosing mountain bike tires based on certain features will give you the type of ride you prefer. There’s the type of rubber, and amount of puncture resistance to consider.

Rubber Compounds

Tire brands do a lot of research and development to create the best tires possible. The goal is to create the perfect balance which are contradictory.

Tires must have good grip. Last a long time. And have low rolling resistance. Soft compounds will give you better grip, while a harder rubber will last longer and offer you lower rolling resistance.

Race tires often use a single compound that offers superior grip. But these single compound tires are usually worn out after a few rides.

One common design solution for nonracing tires is a dual-compound rubber. They have harder rubber in the center to help the tire roll faster and last longer. On the sides of the tire, the area of the tire most critical for cornering, is a softer rubber to provide more traction.

Puncture Resistance

A lot of trails that are exciting to ride have jagged edges and thorns that will flatten any tire with ease. For this exact reason, many riders gladly trade a little added weight for a lot of added protection.

Durable rubber helps, but the key to puncture protection lies within the casing. Having a 2-ply tire is one tactic. Reinforcements made of Kevlar® and other protective materials is another. Some tires place protection in just the sidewalls, which are especially vulnerable, while other tires are beefed up from bead to bead.

Mountain Bike Tire Shopping Tips

Start with one set of tires: Racers have tires for multiple situations. You’re probably not a racer, so start with a single set of new tires.

Think about how and where you usually ride. Then focus on the most challenging types of riding and terrain you plan to tackle.

Decide if you want to mix and match: Choosing mountain bike tires comes down to personal preference. Some riders prefer a tire with more traction up front and one with less rolling resistance in back. Some riders like the same surefootedness everywhere. Try it one way now and experiment with the other approach next time.



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