Mountain Bike Tires Buying Guide: Beginner’s Guide

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Upping your game off-road is probably why you are here reading this article. You understand the significance of the only component of your bike that connects you to the trail you are riding: The Tires.

So what better way to improve your effectiveness on your favorite track than to upgrade these rubber beauties?

We will be looking at some key aspects where slight changes can bring about significant boosts in performance. Namely:

  • The Size
  • The Treads
  • The significance of going Tubed or Tubeless

And a few others.

Mountain Bike Tire

But it all rests on the shoulders of another important consideration:

Riding Style: How do you Ride?

Different riding disciplines have a certain set of attributes that set them apart from each other, and mountain biking offers the most diversity among all cycling disciplines.

While you can use the same tires for all mountain biking disciplines, knowing what style you are going to be riding will bring about those small changes that will help you achieve those big boosts in both performance and riding experience.

Cross Country (XC): In this discipline, the grip and durability of your tires are narrowly trumped by the need for climbing efficiency. Thus, you should be looking for tires that are low in weight and have lower rolling resistance.

➥ Here is discussed everything about XC tires.

All-mountain: You have to take both climbing and descending into consideration. Which means lookout for tires with good grip, higher durability and factors that promote smoothness of the ride.

Trail: All round balance is the way to go as the track you ride won’t be very difficult. Look for tires with decent grip, speed and durability.

Downhill/Enduro: Strength and durability is the name of the game in this discipline. Look for tires that can withstand some abuse without making you feel any of it, meaning bigger knobs on your treads and a higher air volume.

➥ Check this article, it will help you to pick the Best mountain bike tyre for enduro riding.

We will be focusing on each factor of MTB tires in our buying guide in the perspective of these riding styles.

Mud Riding

Riding on mud with the wrong tires can be a sordid affair

Core Features of MTB Tires

1. Tire Diameter

Like wheels, MTB tires also come in three diameter size options to match: 26, 27.5 and 29 inches.

Does size matter?

It does. Though the affecting factors may be subtle, to a discerning eye and an experienced body the changes may provide certain edges, especially on competitive platforms.

Smaller, 26in wheels are more common on the mountain biking scene. The small size allows for a faster acceleration and to be more nimble. Good for tracks with heavy corners. On the flipside however, they produce a higher rolling resistance.

In the middle ground we have the 27.5in. These combine the best of both the 26in and the 29er, however not completely at their level. 27.5in tires are more like the jack of all trades, master of none.

The largest, the 29er (29in) is good at overcoming obstacles (roots and rocks) on the track, which can be many in mountain biking. These tires tend to be a bit harder to control given their size, thus some getting used to may be required.

➥ We reviewed a good number tires for different kinds of mountain biking categories. Have a look at our reviews here: 26 inches MTB tires, and 29 inches MTB tires.

Size

2. Tire Width

The width of the tire takes more precedence over tire diameter in mountain biking. The right width of your tire for the correct riding discipline may seek to improve your experience by leaps and bounds.

Let’s start with the smallest range.

Tires with a width range of 2-2.3 inches go really well on the cross country track where speed is the driving factor.

2.3-2.5 inch wide tires perform better on trails or on all-mountain situations. Stable and sturdy enough to overcome many obstacles (also puncture resistant) and also provide enough traction.

2.5-3.0 inch wide tires are great for downhill or enduro. These provide the strength required in these gravity defying tracks as well as give increased comfort for the rider with enhanced gripping power and air volume. These plus-sized tires don’t roll well however.

Anything above 3.5 inches is known as fat tires. Heavy, but comfortable, and good for all-season riding.

Note: If you are looking for wider tires, make sure your bike supports enough clearance space between the frame and tires.

Since the tire goes on to the rims, the rim width is also a point to note when choosing your tires. We have summarized that in the following table:

Internal Rim Width (mm)Tire Width (inch)
21-232.0-2.25
24-262.25-2.50
27-302.35-2.8
30-352.5-3.0
35-422.8-3.0

[Source]

Note that this is only a generalized guide to show you some of the best matches, it doesn’t mean that you have to follow it digit for digit.

3. Treads

The treads on a tire is more than just a gripping mechanism, it is quite literally its soul.

Tread type and pattern immensely impact your riding style and experience.

The characteristics of the knobs determine braking power, grip and rolling speed of your tire.

The tire treads can be split into three sections, each with their unique purpose affecting your riding experience (quite the engineering marvel!):

  • Center Zone: The hardest worked section of any tire. Riding down a fairly straight path activates this center section of the tire. Also responsible for the braking power of the tires
  • Transition Zone: The center zone is sandwiched between the transition zones. Determines the smoothness of your ‘transition’ while cornering. Lower knobs in this zone will allow your bike to drift on corners.
  • Side Zone: Or cornering zone, helps with how sharply you want to corner. Provides traction and stability to your corners.

The size and amount of knob play a huge part in determining most of the factors involving treads. Naturally you’d think larger and pointier knobs would provide more grip, and you’d be right. But the engineering behind the design goes much deeper than that.

To make things easier however, tread patterns are grouped into three distinct categories depending on your riding style:

  1. Maximum Grip: The large well-spaced knobs on these tires provide maximum traction. Often marketed as ‘loose’ or ‘wet’ conditioned tires, these can be more usually seen in aggressive enduro or DH tracks.
  2. Low Rolling Resistance: Speed is the primary agenda for these tread patterns. The semi-slick or tiny knobbed versions can be well utilized for cross country (XC) bikes.
  3. All Rounders: A balanced workaround of the previous two.

treads

4. Tubed vs Tubeless

While tubed tires or clinchers may be a classic setup, they are prone to issues like pinch flats (the inner tube getting pinched in between two opposing forces and tearing) or punctures after sharp impacts on rocks or thorns on the track.

Though clinchers can be easily replaced and set up back again if needed, it is really a hassle that no one wants to regularly take, especially in a riding environment where the chances of getting a flat is so high.

A viable alternative, and very quickly getting popularity, is the tubeless tire.

Thanks to the absence of tubes, these tires are highly puncture resistant. On top of that they can run with lower pressure making riding on rough surfaces (almost all MTB tracks) very smooth and enjoyable.

On the downside, however, these tires are very difficult to set up. You can see yourself fiddling with them for a while as frustration levels build up. We do suggest you take help from a partner or anyone nearby in such situations.

Other considerations

Pressure

An often overlooked feature, the pressure your tire can handle will play a huge part in your riding performance.

A lower pressure will enable your tires to grip the surface better while a higher pressure will provide much needed stiffness on certain types of rides.

The range of pressures that a tire can handle is often marked on the tires themselves. We highly recommend that you do not go below or beyond this range.

Rubber Compound

The material, or the type of rubber, the tire is created with also impacts its performance.

It is measured as how hard or soft the tire is, with advantages and disadvantages for both.

  • Harder or firmer rubbers are stiffer and provide lower grip. But they are very durable and last a long time. (Good for XC)
  • Softer tire compounds provide great grip and braking power, but they wear down much quickly. (Good for trail or enduro)

Engineers are testing out combinations of multiple tire compounds to get the best out of both worlds. And as such, are much more expensive.

TPI

Or Threads Per Inch, determines the flexibility and puncture resistance of the tire.

A low TPI count of under 60 will make the tire have more rubber, making it stiffer and tougher. Good for aggressive riding (DH or enduro).

Tires with TPI counts of over 60 (high) will be more flexible and better suited to trail riding.

TPI

Price

“You get what you pay for”, a common adage for many cycling products. It is no different for tires.

You can net yourself a decent MTB tire for anything in between $50-100.

We recommend you not skimp on the price, especially for such an important cycling component like the tire.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1) What happens If you put too much air in your MTB tires?

Ans.: Mountain bikes are constantly running over rough, loose terrain. If you pump more air into your tires, they will become bouncy, making for a very jolty and unstable ride.

Tires usually come with their recommended pressure ranges. But for information’s sake, it is best to keep your MTB tires around the 30psi mark. Around 50psi if you are planning on riding on a road.

Q2) Is the 26 inch MTB tire dead?

Ans.: Not quite. New models of 26 inches have been off the market for quite a while now, by being completely overshadowed by the 27.5in, and currently the 29ers.

However, that doesn’t mean that 26er are completely gone or useless. Many hardcore enduro and DH riders still prefer the 26in wheel for its great dexterity and superior handling on tighter and corner-heavy tracks.

Final Words

With so many factors to look out for just to get yourself a new set of tires may seem evidently unnecessary. But let us bring to your attention what you are gaining: The knowledge to attain a fine-tuned performance and a fun cycling experience catered to your specific needs on your MTB.

Isn’t that what cycling is all about?

My name is Dion Lewis. I’ve been cycling since my childhood. When I was in high school, I started racing in our local competitions. In my college life, I took a part-time job in a bicycle shop and I learned how to repair and maintain bicycles professionally. Though I love racing, mountain biking is another thing I do frequently. My friends, neighbors, and colleagues treat me as an avid rider and take my suggestions while they plan for a new bike or bike gear.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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