The Best Mountain Bike Tires - Side-by-side tests
What is the ideal tire combination for aggressive trail/enduro type mountain biking? We put 11 different tires through a series of side-by-side tests on various soil types and terrain. Running through a gauntlet of tests, we rated each contender on cornering, pedal traction, braking traction, rolling resistance, longevity, and ease of installation. All of our award winners turned out to be sets of tires that came from the same manufacturer; although we feel these make great combinations, we encourage you to read each review to better understand the specific pros and cons of every individual tire. Every rider is different. Every trail is different. Keep reading to check out the full review below to see how each combo performed.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Front Tire
Maxxis Minion DHF 3C/EXO
Best Overall Rear Tire
Maxxis Aggressor 2.3 EXO
Best Bang for the Buck for Your Front Tire
Specialized Butcher Grid
Best Bang for the Buck for Your Rear Tire
Specialized Slaughter Grid
Top Pick Award for Tokyo Drifting-Front
Schwalbe Hans Dampf 2.35 TrailStar EVO
Top Pick Award for Slicing and Dicing Corners-Rear
Schwalbe Rock Razor 2.35 PaceStar EVO
Analysis and Test Results
When you buy a complete bike, tires are spec'd from one manufacturer. Otherwise, riders are free to mix and match tires from different manufacturers when dialing in their bike. Tires are sold individually, so unless you're devoted to a particular brand for some reason, there are a ton of choices available. There's much to be considered when choosing a new set of tires for your bike. Many seasoned mountain bikers have a stack of tires to draw from depending on the terrain, soil type, and weather they plan to encounter on any given day. Like well-socialized dogs at a summer BBQ, lots of different tires can play well with one another. So feel free to put a Schwalbe in front and a Specialized on the back. We lose a little bit of freedom everyday so don't put limitations on your tires choice.
Tires that rail in Moab might flail in Whistler. Spring mud soon transitions to summer sand. As the days grow shorter, wet leaves scatter the singletrack and before long a dusting of snow graces the trails. Living in the mountains of Lake Tahoe, most of us can hardly manage to swap out the tires on our car before the first snowstorm hits as we find ourselves fishtailing up the pass in search of fresh tracks. Same goes for the warmer months, when a kind police officer is often the one to remind us that studded snow tires are no longer necessary on a car with a inflatable paddle board on the roof.
With that in mind, we set out to review the single best tire combination for enduro mountain biking. Aside from being "so hot right now," like Owen Wilson's character Hansel in Zoolander, enduro typifies the type of riding a huge majority of riders engage in, regardless of whether or not they actually race the format. Lots of people can appreciate the cardiovascular benefits of chugging uphill, but actual enjoyment is limited to far fewer masochists. The only real benefit of smashing uphill during an enduro race is to limit the overall time you spend on-course waiting in the cue for your chance to rocket downhill. Basically, if you can make it uphill in a timeframe that won't require a bike light, enduro is cool with that.
Whenever you make it to the top, this is where the business starts. Riders are released downhill, separated by a minute or so. Everything about this makes you want to ride faster. Faster than you probably ride normally; trying to catch the person in front of you and trying not to be caught from behind. If dust still hangs in the air, you're doing good. Push harder! The demands of enduro riding have created a category of gear all its own. Enduro specific equipment seeks to maximize efficiency on the way up AND down. From an engineering standpoint, it's pretty challenging. In the past, downhill bikes were made more capable by adding metal or rubber to make the bike stronger. Nobody really cared too much about weight. These bikes weren't made to pedal efficiently. Basically, a dirt bike without a motor was the result. On the flip side, cross-country bikes we're being slimmed down, trading chromoly for carbon with weights creeping into road bike numbers. The bikes that just co-won our enduro bike review are excellent examples of what this relativly new enduro category strives to achieve. Every bike featured in that review is one riders would be comfortable riding uphill for miles on end. They can handle all-day mountain epics of 50 miles no problem.
These bikes are also at home charging down rocky ski resort descents, flicking through corners, and tail-whipping over jumps. Five years ago, riders would have needed two different bikes to do these things. Today, one bike can offer very little compromise. Now that you're an expert in all things enduro, you're going to need some tires that share the same split-personality character traits of the bike you're riding. Mountain bike tires that are light and grippy enough to get you to the top of the hill, but strong and fast enough to possibly turn that entry-fee into more than just a hundred dollar T-shirt.
Types of Enduro Mountain Bike Tires
The front tire is responsible for cornering and needs to respond appropriately to the forces translated to it in order to remain on your intended line. A wider front tire will also help you stay on course as more of the tire is in contact with obstacles and will deflect less than a narrower tire. Front tires often feature directional knobs to improve rolling resistance. A front tire does not suffer as much drag and therefore it is common to see riders elect a big knobby tire up front and a smoother looking tire for the rear. In fact, many riders simply run worn out front tires as rear tires. We feel differences in tread pattern and knob spacing make a rear specific tire a better bet, but alas, it's not the worst option and easier on the wallet. You'll wear through a rear tire faster though, so the timing is kinda funky for this approach.
A rear tire typically has horizontal knobs running across the tire. Much like the track on a snowmobile, these knobs provide traction and prevent the rear wheel from spinning under large pedaling forces such as when climbing a loose hill.
Enduro racing has helped drive innovation in all aspect of bike manufacturing. The nature of the race format requires a bike light enough to be ridden uphill for long periods of time, but strong enough to remian intact on the gnarliest descents. Enduro bikes are not your typical heavy downhill bikes with huge beefy tires. Semi-slick tires have a pared down center tread so they have little holding them back to tear down race courses at warp speeds. The small center tread is framed in by larger side knobs to maintain strong cornering performance.
Criteria for Evaluation
All the tires we tested were 27.5 inch tires. Why? Well, that's the size wheel our testers run on their personal bikes. We were focused solely on tire performance and using a bike we were intimately familiar with already helped to level the playing field. Most of the tires in this test are also available in 29-inch and 26-inch versions. It's probably fair to say that the number of 26-inch bikes toeing the line at enduro races will fall off rapidly with each passing year. At least for now, you can still find most of these tires if you run the smaller hoops.
Each manufacturer has their own proprietary name for how they choose to armor up a tire. Whether it be EXO (Maxxis) or ProTection (Continental) having a jagged rock slice open your tire spewing sealant everywhere like a busted ravioli is a sure way to a DNF. Only one tire in our test, the Michelin Wild Grip'r Advanced, didn't contain sidewall protection. With this selection, we were more intrigued by the low weight and comparatively large knobs and wanted to see if it could hold up to the rest of the bunch. Read our full review to find out. In general though, we recommend you treat your tires like a Tinder date and always opt for that extra layer of protection before taking the plunge.
Our Editors' Choice and Top Pick Award winners are two very different feeling tires. Depending on your preference, you may feel our ratings should be flip-flopped. The Top Pick Schwalbe Hans Dampf had a very even tread pattern. There were no distinct channels running longitudinally down the tire. Instead, a consistent tread pattern fills in all the spaces and gaps on the base. This creates a very even feel when the bike is tipped on edge. From center tread to side knobs, the tire rolls into corners smoothly. A rounded profile creates a drifty feel around loose corners. Instead of locking in, traction breaks slowly and evenly. It's a predictable feel once you've got the hang of it, but certainly different than what you get from the Minion.
By comparison, our Editors' Choice Maxxis Minion DHF features a more pronounced transitional zone that is all but absent on the Hans Dampf. Going from the center tread onto the side knobs, the rider may notice a "dead" zone about halfway through the lean. The feeling results from passing over the channel between the tread knobs on the crown of the tire on the way to the big side knobs. More aggressive riders may not be as affected by this as novices. An aggressive rider will pass through the transitional zone very quickly when cornering, angling and leaning the bike hard into the corner. This aggressive riding style allows the large side knobs to dig into the dirt and hold a hard line through corners. Novice or less aggressive riders are apt to hold the bike more upright through turns. In such a case, the tire is never fully engaged and the rider may feel that the tire is drifting or washing out in turns.
Whichever style you prefer, we believe these two tires represent the best in their class. For those embracing the drift, another selection could include the Continental Trail King. We liked the performance of this tire but had issues with its casing, having it warp out of shape on more than one occasion. We suspect lighter, less aggressive riders would be less likely to push this tire hard enough to deform it. We also felt the balloonish casing didn't allow us to achieve the lean angles of the Schwalbe tire as the sidewall width exceeded the width of the tread. This also made the tire more subject to damage when pushed through tight spaces.
Those preferring a more "locked in" feel might also be well suited grabbing a Specialized Butcher off the shelf. At a significantly lower price, this tire performed remarkably similar to the Minion. The WTB Vigilante is also a good choice but we found its large side knobs a bit squirmy on firmer ground. If looser, soft terrain is where you spend your time, it may be worth a look.
If forced to pick one tire to ride for an entire year, knowing we'd be all over the map riding our home trails and travelling around in search of new adventures, we would choose the Editors' Choice Maxxis Aggressor hands down. We felt this tire provided the best combination of traction and rolling speed in the greatest number of conditions. While other tires may have handled specific conditions better, say the Michelin Wild Grip'r, in extremely sandy and loose terrain, the Aggressor rarely if ever left us out in the cold. The moderately low-profile center tread allowed for exceptional pedaling efficiency and low rolling resistance, all the while offering adequate bite for climbing and braking traction. The side knobs were stout enough to rail corners but no so burly that they resisted flicking the bike's rear end into corners and breaking traction when needed.
For riders with deep pockets who are only concerned with speed and carving up berms, look no further than the Schwalbe Rock Razor. The low-profile crown tread is remniscent of a Kenda Small Block 8 with consistently spaced small knobs. Sharp, deep side knobs frame the center tread and once the tire is leaned into a turn, it locks in like a giant slalom ski.
Other aggressively knobbed tires like the Michelin Wild Grip'r and the WTB Vigilante were great performers as well in loose terrain but were a bit more unnerving when things firmed up. The tall and soft side knobs of the Wild Grip'r offered little support on rock and eroded our confidence through technical rock gardens. It was however, a fan favorite in extremely sandy corners that we found in abundance at Mammoth Mountain Bike Park.
There are better choices than the Minion even if your ride firm ground almost exclusively due to the fact that the knobs are a touch aggressive and the tire feels a bit draggy on hard ground. The Hans Dampf and Trail King performed better with smaller knob that didn't give the rider a feeling of riding high of the ground. The even tread pattern of those tires also feels more predictable on firm ground as the transition across the tread is smooth the whole way through.
Rear Tire Wild Grip'r will "get 'er done." The semi-slick designs of the Schwalbe Rock Razor, WTB Trail Boss, and Specialized Slaughter simply don't have the aggressive knobs to dig for traction where there is none.
Out of the saddle climbing in this type of terrain on those tires will send your knees smashing into the stem or your teeth kissing the handlebars. Wet conditions can easily pack the center tread with mud on semi-slicks and leave you spinning a smooth wheel of slime. Of these designs though, the more spaced tread of the WTB Trail Boss shed debris with a bit more ease. But these tires are meant for going down so a concession will certainly be felt if you're trying to maximize performance on the up.
Just keep in mind we're talking about performance in enduro racing. With that being said, we'd reach for the Maxxis Aggressor day in and day out as our go to tire. With sufficient tread to get you up and down, it may not be loam-loving skin you want on your trip to Washington or BC but pretty much anywhere else, be it Jackson Hole, Colorado, Utah or the east coast, this tire makes a solid travel companion.
"Get off your brakes, ya wuss!" That's what you'll hear being shouted from behind by our lead tester should you decide to drop in ahead of him on the downhill. He'll be on your rear tire in a nanosecond with constant verbal "encouragement" reminding you to give your index fingers a break while your legs take over. With winners and losers separated by fractions of a second, braking doesn't happen much until passing beneath the arch in the finish corral. As much as racing requires a go-for-broke approach, occasionally you simply need to dump some speed to save your neck.
Knobbier tires like the Wild Grip'r and Continental Mountain King feature blunt back edges on their knobs that work hard to dig into the ground when the brakes are applied. The Michelin could feel a little squirrelly during hard braking on rock slabs though as the knobs felt too soft and unsupported. We particularly liked the 2-knob, alternating paddle tread running down the center of the WTB Vigilante. The simple, no nonsense tread design used square, horizontally siped knobs that splay to increase friction and surface area. When things get a little damp, the somewhat open tread design of the tires above sheds mud quite well to ensure a clean braking surface. The Maxxis Minion used deeper, wider slits on the center that could hardly be classified as sipes. Whatever you choose to call them, they do a good job at slowing the tire down without skipping or glancing off objects.
Almost by design, the semi-slick tires in this test are engineered to brake poorly. In the dry and loose conditions common to summer enduro racing, aside form beefier side knobs, there's not much tread to grab dirt and slow the descent of these tires as they blaze down a mountainside race course. The focus instead is to enhance forward progress, not impede it. So naturally, the pared-down center treads of the Trail Boss, Slaughter, and Rock Razor are about as effective as the emergency brake on your car.
Of the three tires above, the Trail Boss and Slaughter seem to brake a hair better than the Rock razor, but the width of a hair might be the only real difference in the distance it takes to come to a complete stop. Granted, the stopping power of these tires is greatly enhanced on firm ground where the low tread height allows a large contact patch with the ground.
If braking power is high on your list of priorities, running some of the tires we primarily tested as front tires on the rear wheel is a great option as well. A matched pair of the Specialized Butchers, Schwalbe Hans Dampfs, or either of the Continentals are combinations we see out on the trails all the time. If you gotten this far int he review and haven't run out to buy one yet, you could always meet braking power and fast-rolling in the middle and slap a Maxxis Aggressor on your whip and be done with it.
The winner here is not the Wild Grip'r in case you were curious. The large and soft 55A knobs produce quite a buzz as they turn over. Leaned on edge, especially on firm ground or pavement, you can practically feel each individual knob. The Continental Mountain King wasn't far behind in terms of making us feel like we had to put a little more effort behind our pedal strokes. Despite the very soft 42A tread on the Specialized Butcher, the angled knobs keep this tire from feeling exceptionally draggy. The same can be said for the the Maxxis Minion DHF.
The semi-slicks in this test garnered top honors in rolling resistance, or lack thereof. For highly skilled enduro racers that can push the pace while maintaining some semblance of control, these tires are a fast option. Our favorite among the bunch was the Rock Razor with it's alternating 4,3 low-profile center tread framed by large aggressive side knobs. This tire scoots along at a furious pace and rails corners like a carving knife. The Trail King was a nice balance with knobs large enough to give good traction for pedaling and braking but not so high-profile to keep you glancing down wondering if you've got a flat. Again, Aggressor.
We had the most issues with Continental tires in this test. The tread of our initial Trail King was about as rugged as filo dough, flaking off pieces of rubber barely double-digit miles into its lifespan. On top of that, one of our testers deformed the sidewall twice. Schwalbe tires have a reputation for wearing out quickly and although we were impressed with the longer wearing PaceStar rubber compound, there's just not much tread to begin with on this tire, save for the side knobs.
Unless you're a Benjamin' burnin' baller of a biker, you might want to keep the Rock Razor as a race day tire. For ballers on a budget, the Specialized offerings are much more affordable. You can expect about equal wear time on these tires because the tread is a super soft 42A rubber. We felt the casing to be a little sturdier than the Schwalbe tires as well. With the Rock Razor, we fiddled with tire pressures in an attempt to provide adequate protection to our rims without feeling the sidewall fold underneath us. The Specialized tires were more set and forget, pump and play.
We didn't need a shop air compressor to inflate any one of these tires. We used our beloved Joe Blow Booster floor pump to successfully set the bead on the whole lot. It proved universally helpful to ensure the tires were warm before attempting installation. Continental tires had an odd, plastic feel to them that was especially evident when cold. The foldable bead didn't quite take on the perfectly round shape once unpackaged like the rest of the tires and we had to let each tire heat up in the sun and settle before we could get it installed as air would escape through the creased bead.
Out on the trail, we had an especially difficult time placing the Specialized Slaughter onto the rim with a tube. Perhaps, we had slightly too much pressure in the tube but all the tire levers in the world weren't helping. The Specialized tires were the tightest fit of the test as each required the use of tools on the initial installation, while the WTB Vigilante and WTB Trail Boss each scored a 9 out of 10 in terms of installation. Following closely behind were the Editors' Choice winners, the Maxxis Minion and Maxxis Aggressor, along with the Schwalbe Hans Dampf, Schwalbe Rock Razor, and Michelin Wild Grip'r2, each scoring an 8 out of 10.
We hope we were able to help you choose an awesome combination of a front and rear tire to complete your snazzy rolling race machine. If you're still in awe about the many choices we've reviewed, head over to our buying advice. Our hope is that we'll be able to help you clear up any questions that you might have.
— Sean Cronin
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