The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How We Tested Mountain Bike Tires

Saturday September 21, 2019

Over the course of several months, we put hundreds of miles of trail time on the tires in our test selection. Sometimes we rode lifts and bombed downhill at ski resorts until our forearms seared with lactic acid burn. Other times, we threw our bikes in the truck and shuttled to the top of dirt roads and charged back down the singletrack. Most of the time though, instead of burning fuel, we chose to burn the excess calories from too many post ride beers and earn our turns the old-fashioned way.

For consistency, all of the tires were tested on a wheelset with a 30mm internal rim width. During testing, we used both the Race Face Arc 30 and DT Swiss E1900 Spline 30 as our test wheelsets. Although not the widest rims available, we feel this size offers many of the performance benefits of wide rims without being so wide (35-40mm) that only a very small percentage of early-adopters can relate. For the uninitiated, you might be skeptical and think wide rims are just another way for the mountain bike industry to soak you for another thousand bucks and make your current wheelset obsolete, but they have their advantages.

Tread pattern dictates which direction the tire rolls most effectively and the direction of rotation is typically printed on the sidewall.  It's not always easy to find.  Those with poor spatial reasoning skills (pictured above) may benefit from having the bike nearby and right-side-up to help visualize how everything fits together.
Tread pattern dictates which direction the tire rolls most effectively and the direction of rotation is typically printed on the sidewall. It's not always easy to find. Those with poor spatial reasoning skills (pictured above) may benefit from having the bike nearby and right-side-up to help visualize how everything fits together.

The majority of our testing involved simply riding the tires as we normally would while going out of our way to take note of each model's performance characteristics. On each ride, we strove to find the full spectrum of trail conditions, firm, loose, loose over hard, slab rock, chunky rock, and everything else you can think of.

Cornering Tests


To test cornering, we cornered, a lot. We found corners of all types and conditions and leaned our bikes into them to determine each tire's cornering capabilities. Is this tire drifty, edgy, does it have a smooth or abrupt transition? If so, then why? These were some of the many things we were thinking about as we rode each tire. We even did some controlled cornering testing with a figure 8 in a flat hard-packed parking lot. This controlled cornering testing really allowed us to zero in on specific cornering attributes and push the tires to their limits.

Testing the cornering traction of tires while out on a trail ride.
Testing the cornering traction of tires while out on a trail ride.

Traction Tests


While we were out riding we pedaled, and quite a bit. Our normal test loops were basically our standard local trail rides, and those involve a fair bit of climbing. This gave us the opportunity to focus on each tire's pedal traction. This included climbing traction on all types of conditions and trail types, but also general non-braking traction as the tire rolled over various surfaces. Does this tire grip or slip, and why?

Testing pedaling traction on a smooth packed surface.
Testing pedaling traction on a smooth packed surface.

When you're riding you use your brakes quite a bit, so a tire's braking traction is an important performance characteristic that we paid close attention to. As with cornering and pedaling traction, we tested the braking traction by using the tires as we would during typical everyday riding. We laid on the brakes hard, soft, and sometimes at the last minute on every trail surface and condition imaginable. We paid close attention to each tire's traction while braking on the different surfaces and conditions and examined which designs worked better and why.

Controlling your speed is critical  some tires provide better braking traction than others.
Controlling your speed is critical, some tires provide better braking traction than others.

Rolling Resistance Tests


Rolling resistance varies between different models of tires for a number of reasons. Tread height, layout, spacing, the softness of the rubber, many factors play into how quickly or slowly a tire rolls. Rolling resistance is more noticeable on firm surfaces and less of a concern in loose conditions. In the context of trail riding, it is also typically more relevant for rear tires where more of your weight and pedaling input is applied. To test this we simply went on feel while riding. Faster rolling tires actually feel noticeably faster, while slower rolling tires often have a sluggish or draggy feeling.

To test the longevity of each tire we used and abused it as if it were our own. After each ride and at the end of our test period we inspected each tire's tread and sidewalls for wear. Some tires are less durable than others and this is readily apparent by observing the rate at which they wear after use. By looking at the side knobs of a tire you can observe how quickly and evenly they wear. Some tire's knobs show little signs of wear after 100 miles of riding, while others have chunks of rubber missing or are hanging by a thread. Sidewalls are the other major durability consideration, with manufacturers using different casings and protective layers. Again, general trail riding is the perfect test for a sidewall's durability as we regularly scraped our against rocks and rimmed out more than a few times on each tire during testing. Observing the condition of the sidewalls after these common mishaps gave us insight as to how each stands up over time and use.

The side knobs showing some wear from doing all the work in the corners.
The side knobs showing some wear from doing all the work in the corners.

Ease of Installation


To test the installation of the tires we installed them all ourselves. Each model is slightly different in regard to how easy they are to install yourself and this simple test was performed in our home workshops. We took note of how easy it was to put the tire on the rim and then seat the bead. For the most part, all of the tires we tested to could be installed without the use of a tire lever, and their beads could be seated using only a floor pump or our trusty ToPeak Joe Blow Blaster. A couple of stubborn tires required the use of out home compressor, and one especially pesky tire even made us take a trip to the bike shop to use their high powered shop compressor. We realize our results may differ from what you experience at home or in the field. The same tire may be easier or more difficult to install on a different wheel.

Throughout the testing period, we kept detailed notes on each tire. When testing wrapped up we compiled our notes and rated each tire's performance on the criteria listed above. We present our findings here in the form of this detailed comparative review. We hope the information presented here helps you find the right tires for where and how you ride.