If everything goes to plan, your tires are the only things touching the ground during a ride. So it’s no surprise they have a massive impact on how your bike performs on the trail. Here’s the tough part, though. With so many options, how do you find the best mountain bike tires? We’re here to help. After testing multiple tire combinations on back-to-back laps, we have your answer, and it’s a little surprising. Read on and watch the video below to see the results.
Best Mountain Bike Tires Test Setup
Here’s how it’s going to work. We are going to use the Santa Cruz Tallboy and three identical Enve AM30 wheelsets to test three different categories of popular mountain bike tires. These are crowd favorites and some of the best sellers at the shop. While we are using Maxxis tires to keep things simple, each one of these combos is a good stand-in for the category. You can find similar tire setups in your favorite brand. Here’s what’s on offer.
XC Tires — Maxxis Forekaster 2.35” (Front) & Rekon Race 2.35” (Rear) EXO
These aren’t full-on XC race tires. Frankly, I’m too scared (read: lack the skill) to ride those. The Forekaster and Rekon combo is a popular setup for a lot of the NICA racers in Utah. It still rolls fast but offers more forgiveness in terms of traction and control. It’s a go-to option for many XC marathon riders as well. These tires are less likely to puncture on rough and rocky trails, making them better for everyday riding.
Trail Tires — Maxxis Minion DHF 2.5” (Front) & Maxxis Aggressor 2.3” (Rear) EXO
+Moderate rolling resistance
Well-rounded for the widest variety of riding. This setup works well on everything from a Santa Cruz Tallboy to a Yeti SB150. It finds a good balance between rolling resistance and traction. Richie Rude made this combo famous in the Enduro World Series. It’s tough enough to handle rocks, roots, and aggressive riding, without going overboard.
Enduro Tires — Maxxis Assegai 2.5” (Front) & Maxxis Dissector 2.5” (Rear) EXO+
+Strong and durable
These tires are for when gravity does all the work for you. The Assegai is the new gold standard for enduro tires. It hooks up incredibly well in corners as well as under braking forces. The Dissector at the bike of the bike rolls quicker with its tighter packed center knobs. It features big, aggressive side knobs to keep the rear wheel glued in corners.
Best Mountain Bike Tires tests
Timed Climb – Weight and efficiency
Short and simple. We are going to climb a quarter-mile section of fairly smooth singletrack. The grade is mellow enough that traction won’t come into play. This test will give us a good indication of rolling resistance and overall weight.
Cornering Drill – Cornering traction
Here, we are purely looking at traction. A cone drill is a perfect way to feel the difference between the tires. The times will reflect how well each tire combo hooks up on loose, flat corners. Bonus – dabs add 2 seconds to the overall time.
Trail Ride Simulation – General performance
Most rides encompass a bit of up and down. That’s exactly what we are doing here. We want to simulate an everyday ride to get a basic feel for each set of tires. Our test track featured a rocky climb, a smooth climb, some dusty berms, a few flat corners, a high speed rocky straightaway and a really tough bumpy corner.
Rocky DH – Traction and puncture resistance
Here’s where things might get messy. We are going to ride a section of tail seemingly designed to puncture tires. With pointy rocks as far as the eye can see, this trail will put those tire casings to the test. The dusty corner at the bottom is just for some extra spice.
Best Mountain Bike Tires results
Alright, all the testing and timing is done. Which tires are the best? The answer might surprise you. Going by the clock, it seems there is no reason to run anything other than XC tires. It wasn’t just on the climbs either. Sure, they smoked all the other tires in the timed climb, but they surprised me by being the fastest in the cornering drill, “trail ride,” and only losing out on the rocky DH by two seconds. The clock isn’t everything though. Stress levels on the XC tires were high. I felt tense and tight going into most corners, the braking traction wasn’t there (maybe that’s why they were so damn fast) and while I didn’t have any punctures during my test, they are more likely to puncture (really slow you down). Let’s dive in.
No surprises here. The XC tires smoked the other two sets. It wasn’t even close. The XC tires finished the climb in 2:29.25. The trail tires came in second at 2:53.37 (+16%) and the enduro tires were dead last at 3:01.83 (+22%). Even without the clock, it was clear the XC tires rolled quicker, were much lighter, and gave the bike a sprinty feel on the climbs. They made the Tallboy feel fast and light. The Tallboy is a bit unique in that tire selection can completely change the behavior of the bike. XC tires bring out its climbing abilities while enduro tires make it feel like a good old-fashioned trail bike. Our tire selection really emphasized the Tallboy’s chameleon-like adaptability.
Trail Ride Simulation
In just over two minutes, this little piece of trail covered just about everything you’d encounter on a normal ride. It had a rocky climb, a smooth climb, some tight corners between aspens, a few blown-out, dusty switchbacks, a couple of good berms, and a fast rocky straightaway that ended in a really tough dusty corner. Again, the XC tires took the W with a time of 2:01.62. Although, this race wasn’t as wide open as the climb. The times were much tighter with the enduro tires coming in second at 2:02.12 (+0.5%) and the trail tires in third with a 2:03.54 (+1.5%).
This one surprised me quite a bit. The XC tires didn’t get destroyed. Also, the results were pretty tight. The trail and enduro tires tied at 25.83 with the XC tires not far behind at 27.66 (+7%). The clock didn’t tell the whole story here. My stress levels on the XC tires were through the roof. They rolled fast, but I pinged off rocks and bounced around the trail quite a bit. I wasn’t much slower on them, but I’m sure if I repeated that section 100 times, I’d eventually blow up catastrophically. Punctures also become an issue when riding rocky terrain. Lighter tires are going to puncture more often. Period. They will force you to take smoother lines and potentially slow down when things get really rough. The trail and enduro tires conformed to the rocks much better. I bounced around less and could actually relax and enjoy the ride.
These results surprised me the most. I could have sworn that the enduro tires would have been the fastest. The road surface was loose gravel with some weird bumps and a few off-camber sections. It was actually pretty difficult to carry any sort of momentum through these corners. Note to self – practice this drill, a lot. Somehow the XC tires won again. I’m betting it’s because they rolled and accelerated faster than the others. Don’t judge, but there was more braking between corners than I’m proud to admit. The lighter, less grippy tires got up to speed between cones faster than the heavy, grippy ones. It’s the only way I can explain it. Additionally, the XC tires still had pretty decent cornering traction. The side knobs are larger and hook up rather well. They suffer the most with braking traction (not super relevant to a cornering drill.) The XC tires came in at 9.29 seconds while the trail tires finished in 9.76 (+5%) and the enduro tires finished last at 9.91 (+7%).
Best Mountain Bike Tires Recommendations
I have a hard time saying “XC tires forever!” but I now see that a big, grippy tire doesn’t actually benefit me as much as I thought on the DH and it certainly hurts on the climbs. I think I’ll settle somewhere in the middle going forward — here’s why. I like to ride a wide variety of trails from flowy, cruisy blues to steep, wish-you-had-three-brakes, rocky descents. I want the peace of mind and confidence that a higher volume, grippier tire provides. I don’t think I’ll go all the way to the burliest tread pattern anymore, though. The penalty on the climbs and smooth stuff is too high. Even if I’m not racing to the top, the less energy I expend on the way there, the more I have for enjoying the downhill. A well-balanced tire combination should do the trick.
Here are my recommendations going forward. These are a lot lighter and faster than I’d normally run. I’m fully prepared to never ride without a plug kit and spare tube.
XC/Short-Travel Bikes (< 120mm rear travel)
Maxxis Forekaster 2.3” Front & Maxxis Rekon Race 2.3” Rear
Trail/Mid-Travel Bikes (120-140mm rear travel)
Maxxis Minion DHF Front 2.5” & Maxxis Rekon 2.4”
All-Mountain/Long-Travel Bikes (>140mm rear travel)
Maxxis Minion DHF 2.5” Front & Maxxis Aggressor 2.3” or Maxxis Dissector 2.4”
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