The subject of best mountain bike tires is of huge debate. Ask any of your friends and you will absolutely get different answers. Part of the reason is that everyone is different and their comfort levels are guided by their confidence in their equipment. But the main reason is that geographically our riding areas differ, making for different tire choices.
The best mountain bike tires really need to be broken down by riding type, then geography. More aggressive technical riding will call for different tire choices than say cross country on open trails. Even the construction, dimensions and weight of the tire all play roles.
My all time favorite tires were the Onza Porcupine skinwalls which aren’t made any longer. Where I live, most of the trails are on decomposed granite. These tires hooked awesome, but also had huge side blocks for excellent cornering adhesion. The closest alternative is now the Onza Canis tire.
From there we switched to the Ritchey WCS tires. What was great about Ritchey is that they were making different sizes, and the profiles would change. These profiles would help us with different dirt types and changes in geography.
Top Pick: Schwalbe Racing Ray
My choice for the top pick of a performance tire would have to be a tire from Schwalbe. Depending on conditions, several of their tires are excellent choices. Check out the Schwalbe Racing Ray tire.
Schwalbe puts a little more into their tires. This isnt to say that other brands have some of the same features or technology, but Schwalbe was one of the first to put things together in a high-performance tire.
One of the first aspects is the sidewall. Many lightweight tires shave grams off by making the sidewall structure very thin, and with little rubber. Several of the Schwalbe models employ snakeskin molding that toughens the sidewall against tears from jagged rocks.
Each of the Schwalbe Racing tires uses a different tread profile. I like the Racing Ray version because in the desert, many of the trails can roll fast, so a smoother center makes sense. The Racing Ray has strong side blocks, so you get great cornering as well. If you have softer dirt, try out the Racing Ralph which has slightly deeper grooves and blocks in the center section for more traction.
All of the Schwalbe tires mentioned are tubeless ready. They will also work with tubes, so if you burp tires a bit, try running a tube in the rear and tubeless in the front. I also love running Orange Seal as a good all around sealant.
Most Affordable Tires: Maxxis Highroller
One of the best but yet affordable mountain bike tires is the Maxxis Highroller. This tire is one of the most popular tires ever made, on par with the Ritchey WCS series tires that were equally as popular.
The Highroller is a very adaptable tire that works in so many terrains and situations. It employs 3C MaxxTerra an intermediate triple compound rubber which has more traction than MaxxSpeed, better tread wear and less rolling resistance than MaxxGrip all from Maxxis.
Maxxis is working through most of their tires to make them tubeless compatible. They also will work with tubes as well.
The tread design of the Maxxis is fairly aggressive. It employs ramped blocks in the center to add uphill traction and good braking performance. The ramping also aids in reducing rolling resistance at speed.
Best Freeride/Downhill Tires: Kenda Hellkat Pro
Kenda Tire is a huge company and growing into other tire types such as cars and off-road trucks. All of those applications teaches engineers how to build durable tires with appropriate performance options.
A great freeride and downhill tire is the Kenda Hellkat Pro. This tubeless ready choice gives great value.
The DH/Enduro tread design is optimized for maximum performance characteristics across a wide range of conditions by balancing traction, handling and rolling speed. It has superior grip and slow rebound with super low rolling resistance because of the new dual layer tread rubber.
The Kenda also features a tough casing to resist cuts on sharp rocks. The casing is also a factor in the slow rebound aspect. Many people fail to realize that the tire is a shock absorber.
Additionally, there are synthetic reinforcement belts in key areas of the tire. The first area is the bead section. There is considerable stress on the bead area as it flexes over the rim edge all the time. Additional protective belts are also placed under the main tread area.
Best Cross Country Tires: Kenda Small Block 8
One of the best all around cross country tires I have found is the Kenda Small Block 8. I run them on my hardtail, and love the predictability of the tire, not to mention the low rolling resistance from the low profile knobs.
At first the tire seems great. You have incredible cornering traction, and the flexibility of the tire on rocks is awesome. Then you wear it down. It gets better with age and faster.
The casing runs a high thread count which allows the tire to be supple yet tough. But, this tire is really meant for fast hard pack conditions. That is where it really excels.
Best Cruising Tires: Schwalbe Big Apple
A good all around pavement tire for cruising around is the Schwalbe Big Apple. This smooth tread design is meant for the street but can be used on hard pack dirt canals and trails.
This tire is a great choice because of the flat resistant casing and reflective sidewalls. It keeps you safe in several ways, always a good thing.
The Big Apple comes in a variety of rim sizes, so there should be a choice for your bike. The tread design seems unique, but in smooth pavement tires, ring grooves help out substantially. They also will help with light trail use. It isn’t always necessary to have massive knobs to bite into the dirt. For basic dirt roads, smooth tires do just fine.
This is just a brief overview of the many great tires options available. There are several hundred tire choices from dozens of manufacturers. The reality is that the terrain that you enjoy is not exactly like the one in my own backyard.
With that, we have to experience different tires and understand if our riding style and terrain works well with the tire choice. I love running smooth tires because I like the speed offered, and 95% of the trails I ride are hard pack single track. However, I find out really quick in technical areas, where my tires are not perfect. This is the tradeoff that we have to deal with.
I think the best choice in tires is from Schwalbe. They are an excellent brand with a variety of sizes, treads designs and great rubber compounds. When you combine these factors, it is easy to find the best mountain bike tire for your bike of choice.