Tech Tips

Choosing mountain bike tires for XC, enduro and downhill

Chainging bike tire
Choosing tires appropriate for the riding conditions not only helps with grip and handling, but can also prevent untimely punctures. Photo: Mike McQuaide

Nothing beats the feeling of riding a set of new tires on your mountain bike! They usually handle a little differently to what you're used to, so the fun part is finding out how far you can push your new rubber. Maybe they corner better, or even accelerate faster than your previous tires - either way they're good to ride!

But when you bought your new tires, what was actually involved in choosing them? Did you take some advice from a friend, or did you do the research yourself? Tire choice can be a little confusing, so we've tried to simplify the process for you.

Given the sheer size of the MTB world, we have narrowed our advice down to three major MTB disciplines, Cross Country, Enduro and finally Downhill. The reason for these choices is that the tire options are worlds apart, making it easier for you to understand the concept of how to choose your next set of tires!



Explore further: For more detail on tires check out "Get a Grip! Top 5 Mountain Bike Tires"



Starting with the lightweight world of off road riding, cross country trails can demand a huge range of different tires. Most riding or racing enthusiasts will have two or three sets of tires, with different tread patterns based solely on where they usually ride.

Cross country (XC) trails are extremely diverse, from their surface to their camber and even to the obstacles on the trails. These parameters all demand different (or better suited) tires. The best thing you can do for XC mountain bike riding, is fit a set of tires that would best handle the wide array of terrain you'll be riding.


Tread Choice

Try to find a tire that offers a moderately detailed tread pattern with minimal spacing between tread blocks. This will offer you the best grip when riding most surfaces on the trail. Be careful though, you do not want to choose a tire that has extremely detailed tread with hardly any spacing between tread blocks. Tires like this are prone to clogging up with mud, and really struggle to shed this mud. 

If you're after a fast rolling tire with excellent cornering capabilities, look for one that has a lower tread height in the centre, but with very pronounced edge blocks on the left and right edges of your tyres.


Tread Width

Tires come in different widths for any given bike. Finding a tire of a suitable width will make your riding far more enjoyable. Cross Country range in width from around 1.9" through to 2.4" wide. If you're after a 'do it all' tire width, settle somewhere in the middle with a tire of 2.1" to 2.2" wide. The tread width is your footprint with the ground, so choose it carefully.


DID YOU KNOW? Wheel size and therefore tire size is also a variable. Cross country bikes are becoming more commonly shod with 29" diameter wheels and tires, enduro 27.5" and downhill the old standard 26". Read our wheel tech article to find out more.



Mountain bike tires
Bike shop in Pokhara
Photo: Vital MTB

The kind of tire that you can shred down the trails, and then still ride back up to the top... Enduro tires are a slightly different breed than cross country. With a far more aggressive riding style, and more extreme terrain, enduro tires need to stand up to the punishment. But at the same time they need to be suitable for riding while pedaling, (as opposed to downhill tyres), under extreme power, as the rider sprints out of a corner and then slams on the brakes as he rails the next berm.


Tread Choice

Choosing a very blocky tread, with larger spacing between tread blocks will really allow this tire to bite into the ground. Rubber compound also comes into play, especially with enduro tires. Choose a rubber compound that is slightly harder than a cross country model to withstand the aggressive nature of enduro riding.


Tread Width

Rider preference always plays a role in choosing tire width, but once again you can opt for a 'middle of the range' width of around 2.3" in width. This again will offer a more versatile ride, and will also let you play around with pressures a bit more (an entirely separate topic). Keep in mind though, that a narrow tire tends to cut into the ground more, especially in soft surfaces such as sand. A wider tire will float over softer surfaces better, preventing you from being pulled off-course and losing momentum and direction.



Bike tire dirty dan

Point bike downhill, release brakes, pray. This may be the public opinion of downhill but there's a lot more to it. Downhill tracks are surprisingly technical and very diverse in the terrain they offer. But most downhill tires can offer you what you need. Something that has an extremely aggressive tread pattern, sheds mud well and can maintain its grip. Run, after run, after run...



Tread Choice

Most downhill bikes come equipped with a big blocky tread pattern. The tires are usually of a slightly harder compound and will also have reinforced casings to prevent distortion through rough abuse. Choosing a tread pattern that is quite tall (height of tread blocks) and well spaced out will give you the bite you need to hammer it into any corner in any weather conditions. The reason you can opt for such an aggressive tread pattern is because rolling resistance while you pedal is no longer a concern. Grip at high speeds is now your primary concern!


Tread Width

Downhill tires used to span out to a whopping 3" wide in the early 90's. It was like watching a tractor roll past at breakneck speeds. But trails have become more technical, and manoeuvrability and acceleration play a part in your final timed run down the mountain. Given the nature of downhill riding, you can opt for a slightly wider tyre up to 2.5".

If you want a faster rolling tyre, you could go down towards a 2.2" tyre, but that would be very specific to the trail you intend riding.

There you have it, three styles and about 300 different tyres to choose from! We didn't say this would be easy, but have fun and never shy away from trying something new. 



Gopr2706Author: Joey Esterhuyzen
Joey has been racing bikes since he was a kid. He never grew old because of this, and still pops up on the race cards now and again near the pointy end... Joey loves nothing more than a solo road ride in the hills, or a fast and flowing MTB trail session... "Who says you can't whip an XC hardtail?!"

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