When is the right tyre the wrong tyre?

Pick a tyre, any tyre!
Pick a tyre, any tyre…

The tyre debate comes up all too often on forums, on the trail, in the pub, in magazine letters pages etc. “What tyres do people recommend for mud/trail centres/down-hill, XC?” Delete as appropriate…

It’s the source of frustration for forum administrators (“This discussion has been moved to the tyre debate thread – along with ALL the other tyre questions.”) and I am sure magazine editors get way more letters and requests than we ever see printed.

Is it the most often posed question among the MTB community? Its certainly “up there” but may have been replaced in recent years by the wheel size debate or now the Enduro vs trail bike dilemma.

The sheer selection of tyres available to us is huge. Maxxis, Continental, Bontrager and Specialized are the main culprits for this choice but there are a handful of others such as On-One that throw a low-priced-spanner into the works every now and again to make us think even more.

When selecting a tyre we are mostly thinking about the tread pattern. Maxxis alone have over 20 variations of mountain bike tyre treads for dirt, mud, downhill, street, hardpack, XC etc. Pick one tyre and you then have the choice of width – often 2 or 3 sizes. Then you have the choice of the compound and whether or not the tyre is foldable. For example – let’s say you have decided, based on some advice you want a Maxxis Minion DHF tyre – for 26” wheels there are currently a further 8 options to choose from!

While you are looking at which tyre you should choose, the compound could be a more important decision that many don’t even consider. If they do, they probably make the decision on the price or weight savings rather than understanding the grip properties. Leading tyre specialist Maxxis say,

“by changing the amounts of various components of the rubber formula, engineers can make two identical looking tires perform completely differently.”

What? Yes, it’s a science and its confusing, oh and don’t forget the width – this will also affect the handling.

So what can you do?

  • Ask your friends: You’re new to this so ask others who have more experience than you do.
  • Read some reviews:  A quick internet search will provide the answer to your “what is the best mud tyre” question.
  • Use the manufacturers tyre selection guide: Of course, why didn’t I do that to start with?

Easy wasn’t it.  Well, not really…

  • What if your friends have learnt to deal with sliding rear ends that might catch you out? What if they like sliding rear ends?
  • What if that mud tyre review was only tested in one part of the country? Mud can be very different!
  • What if your friends or the reviewer has a different riding style to you or is much more experienced? Many tyres only actually “work” if you ride them correctly, leaning into corners and riding faster is the only way some tyres will grip.  
  • You might have the perfect choice of tyre for you visit to a French bike park, but if you don’t ride the tyre like it was designed to be ridden then it could be altogether the wrong tyre!
Are you getting tyred?
Are you getting tyred?

Once you have what you think is the right tyre for the job, you have to make sure that you have the tyre pressure optimised as this can have an impact on the results.

  • What?
  • How do I know what the best tyre pressure is?
  • Can 5 psi make that much difference?

Magazine reviews will tell you that this year’s 29er Ground Control from Specialized is different to last years model, and handles a whole lot different to the 27.5” version.

Pick which reviews you believe as carefully as you pick your tyres.

You want to go tubeless you say? Oh please no, the options change again!

Once you have made a decision, you need to decide if you want a different tread on the rear to the one on the front. Going to ride down some big hills and you might even decide on different width or compound tyres front and rear.  Do you need to change these tyres if you are riding your local cross country trail today and visiting BikePark Wales next week?

Yes, actually you do – in an ideal world.  

The fact is that the many many MANY tyres available on the market all have a purpose and your ideal tyre choice depends on the conditions, the terrain and the type of riding you want to do.

You see where this is going?

Asking the question “What is the best tyre for….?” will get you a variety of answers from a variety of different people. Some will give the text-book answer or the manufacturer’s line, some riders will tell you to stick with what you have and learn to ride it, others will give you a recommendation that works for them.

What should you actually do?

Tyres aren’t the most expensive component for your bike and there are often many deals to be had, especially if you join a club that can offer discounts or has a local bike shop affiliation.

Ask at your local bike store – they will be able to tell you what local riders are riding, what their best-sellers are and if they stock Specialized, you should be able to take advantage of the Specialized Satisfaction Guarantee.

So you have to do all of the above. But most of all just suck it and see. Tyres aren’t the most expensive item and if you make a mistake, sell them on. Second hand tyres sell reasonably well, because the tyre you don’t get on with will be another’s favoured variety. Maybe you could buy a part worn or second hand set off someone in the same boat as you.

Most of us will make a compromise and use an all rounder (Maxxis High Roller, Specialized Ground Control, Bontrager XR4 or a Continental Trail King) and get used to how it handles in various conditions. Some will stick with the manufacturer’s fitted choice and do a like for like replacement when it wears out. Others will change tyres depending on the conditions or which trail centre they are visiting. Whatever you do just make sure you don’t spend too long worrying about it and just ride your bike.

Now, leave a comment below with your tyre suggestions.

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