How to Choose MTB Tires: We Ask the Experts

With so many mountain bike tires on the market, it’s hard to know which to buy. We consult three leading tire experts and a legend of the sport to learn how to select the right treads and get the most out of every knob.

Chose mountain bike tires

Ken Avery, a former tire designer with Maxxis and the vice president of marketing for Vittoria offered a simple answer. “All tires solve a problem related to the terrain, conditions, or riding style. The trick is to know which tire addresses your particular problem.”

And that is a good place to start. There are different tires for specific uses and surface conditions. Some roll swiftly for racing on hardpack. Others are made to aggressively claw at soft ground.

Mountain bike tire selection

As one of the founding fathers of the sport, Tom Ritchey was the first to create tires for specific surfaces and applications. “In the early days, World Cup racing conditions were highly variable. One race would be wet and muddy, the next dry and rocky. We had to design tires for every conceivable scenario.”

Mountain bike tire pressure
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This isn’t to say the average rider should swap tires according to the weather. But climate and regional conditions often favor a certain type of tire. A tread pattern loved in the loam of British Columbia might work poorly in the loose-over-hard of the Southwest. It’s not the most imaginative way to buy a tire but ask around. What do the locals ride?

A Poor Carpenter Blames Their Tools

Many riders shop for fresh rubber because they dislike their current tires. While that is a valid reason to make a change, sometimes riders don’t know how to get the most of what they have.

How to pick a mountain bike tire

Continental’s Brett Hahn has worked in product development for more than two decades.

“A tire is a tool. You need the right one for the job, and like any tool, it can be misused,” Hahn said. “Improper inflation will always degrade performance.”

Too much air pressure and the tire can’t soak up bumps or conform to the trail. Too little and the individual lugs lack the support they need to grip the ground. Before you toss out your tires, try tweaking your inflation levels.

Hahn also mentioned how rider style and skill level play into tire performance. If a rider can’t lean into a turn far enough to engage the side knobs, the cornering traction will suffer. Avery likened the side lugs to the edges on a ski. If you don’t use them effectively a tire will feel unstable. Maybe the tires you have are great––just not for you.

One of the biggest challenges for buyers and tire designers alike is the expanding range of rim widths. Bontrager’s Frank Stacey commented on how different rim widths significantly change the shape and ride characteristics of a given tire. He said, “A tread pattern that works well on a 30mm rim may not work at all on a 40mm rim as it alters how the tread features contact the ground.”

What’s a rider to do?

Hahn suggested using your current tire as a baseline. Use it to assess the attributes you like and dislike. Which problem is your tire not solving? Maybe you need to enhance cornering traction or braking control. Avery cautioned, “Everything is a compromise. Aggressive tread features will grip well but roll slowly.” You have to balance what you gain, with what you give up.

Mountain biking

Ritchey and Avery both recommend selecting tires based on terrain and riding style but with slightly different approaches. Ritchey was the first person to create directional tires and his designs are typically front and rear specific. Avery subscribes to the idea that some tires work equally well on the leading or trailing wheel. “If it’s a good design for the conditions it should work well on either end.”

One thing is certain. The days of $30 mountain bike tires went the way of the Dodo. At $75-80 a pop, it’s worth doing your homework to see which tires suit your needs. Just be sure to spend time dialing them in.

Perhaps the best advice comes from Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee, Tom Ritchey. “A bike is only as good as the sum of its parts––which includes the tires.”

— Author Bio: Christophe Noel is a freelance journalist, photographer, and general vagabond. A seeker of stories untold, he can often be found with a map in hand, lost, in the most remote corners of the globe. The founder of Clean Drink Adventures, he believes in the power of the traveler and doing good as you go.