Where the Rubber Meets the Off-Road: Finding a Suitable Tire

Mountain bike tires come in a multitude of sizes, tread patterns and even now in tubeless versions. Here are some key points to remember when selecting the tires that will be right for your area and your style of riding.

Where do you ride?

The type of terrain you'll be riding will determine which tires to mount on your wheels. Tire size refers to the width, or diameter (in inches), of the tire.

You can get tires ranging in sizes, but some of the more common sizes are 1.5, 1.75, 1.9, 2.0, 2.1 and 2.2.

More: 4 Tires That Help You Bike Faster

If you strictly ride your mountain bike on paved streets then a 1.5 to 1.9 is all you'll need. Consider treadless tires (slicks). They handle great, roll easier, and hold the road surprisingly well.

For off-road use, keep these points in mind:

  • Larger tires provide more cushioning and more knobs on the dirt for improved traction, but they're heavier.
  • Kevlar-bead tires are foldable and lighter, which also makes them nice for spare carry-alongs. They also mount more easily on some rims and weigh less than other tires. They have a more flexible sidewall, so are more workable in loose sand or snow where you run extremely low tire pressures for better tooth.

More: Do Age Groupers Really Need Tubular Tires?

But beware. Some brands of Kevlar tires are significantly lighter than their standard siblings, so much so that they get flats more often and wear out in weeks instead of months.

  • Using a slightly larger-sized tire on your front wheel can improve control, particularly on rolling hills and winding downhills. Run an aggressively treaded larger tire on the front and use a slightly smaller rear with a good cornering lug pattern.
  • Many tire companies produce different tread patterns for all the variety of terrain on the planet. Generally speaking, tighter tread patterns work better in harder packed soils, while treads with larger gaps or open, obtuse angles between the knobs work better in muck and loose stuff.

Tread patterns that wrap over the edge onto the sidewall will steer more surely through corners in gravel and sand.

Think 'bullet-proof'

Remember that rubber compound and casing quality are less mentioned but vital aspects of good tires. Soft tire compounds may have superior tactile footing but wear out significantly quicker. Casing quality is also important to a tire's ability to resist cuts from stones and rim pinches.

More: Tubular Tires vs. Clincher Tires

Rubber selection boils down to performance versus protection. If you're like me, you want to spend your recreation time riding the bike, not repairing flats.

That's why I think "bullet-proof." If you are a recreational rider who is not looking for a light racing setup of tires and tubes, but who wants maximum protection and durability from one set of good all-around tires, then get a pair of Continental Cross Country or Gear Blade tires, stuff them with thorn-resistant inner tubes, and hit the dusty trail.

Going tubeless

New on the trials are tubeless wheel sets. These tire function similar to your car tires in that the tire needs no tube.

More: How to Choose the Right Tire for Your Road Bike

A big advantage of tubeless wheels is that you can run lower air pressures for better traction and without a tube you eliminate the problem of pinch flats where the tube is being pinched against the rim when the tire bottoms out against a hard hit against a rock.

Lastly, mountain bike tubes come in Presta and Schrader valves, just like road tires. Make sure your pump matches your valve stems!

I recommend Presta valves: they're mechanically superior, take a smaller rim hole, and can use either type of pump fitting as long as you have an inexpensive adapter.

More: How to Select the Right Tire Pressure for Your Road Bike

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