Tech Talk: Front and rear MTB tire combinations

Tread pattern, volume and compound all contribute to how bike handles

How To Tech Tires
Factors like tread pattern, volume and compound all contribute to how your bike handles.

Factors like tread pattern, volume and compound all contribute to how your bike handles (click to enlarge).

Editors Note: This article is courtesy of the team at Art’s Cyclery. The original post can be found here.

Tires are a critical ingredient in your bike’s performance recipe, ranking just below suspension design and components in terms of impact. Factors like tread pattern, volume and compound all contribute to how your bike handles. Beyond these basic concerns, there’s also the interaction between the front and rear tires to consider. Handling different duties, front and rear tires usually have different tread patterns and profiles, width, and even casings.

Front tires are where most of your control comes from. Since wider tires weigh more, but also provide increased traction and forgiveness, split the difference and put a higher-volume tire on your front wheel. A bigger contact patch makes for better steering control, and the higher volume helps to absorb big hits and maintain control in critical situations. Also, the extra weight doesn’t have as much of a perceived effect as it would on the rear wheel, which is directly attached to your drive train and thus, your legs.

Testing the transition zone. Photo courtesy Art's Cyclery

Testing the transition zone is key to understanding how a tire performs (click to enlarge). Photo courtesy Art’s Cyclery

Rear tires are where the power from your muscles turns into forward momentum. For this reason you want to use a rear tire with enough tread for traction, but not enough to create excessive resistance. This is also why a narrow tire goes on the rear wheel; it’s lighter, requiring less energy to rotate. Additionally, rear tire tread designs should complement the front tire, but can be very different to achieve rear-specific goals.

Read our review on the Michelin Wild Rock’R2 all mountain tire.

Tread profile is also important. Round tread profiles tend to be more forgiving and versatile. Square profiles excel in loose dirt and tend to “carve” (until the breaking point is reached) compared to a round profile’s driftier feel. When mixing profiles, advanced riders should try a square front and round rear. Up front, once you have figured out how hard the square profile tire can be pushed, you’ll have an accurate and locked-in tire guiding you around turns. Since the rear wheel follows a wider arc than the front, it’s nature is to drift a bit more as it tries to follow the front tire around a turn, and a round profile will help maintain control during the drift.

Taller knobs dig into loose terrain, but are squirrely on hardpack. Wider knobs offer more stability. Lower knobs roll faster, but don’t provide enough grip in loose terrain.

Taller knobs dig into loose terrain, but are squirrely on hardpack. Wider knobs offer more stability. Lower knobs roll faster, but don’t provide enough grip in loose terrain (click to enlarge).

Taller knobs dig into loose terrain, but are squirrely on hardpack. Wider knobs offer more stability. Lower knobs roll faster, but don’t provide enough grip in loose terrain. Open transition zones between center and cornering tread zones (Continental Der Kaiser) offer more outright cornering grip and maintain straight line speed better, but are not as forgiving or predictable as tires utilizing transition zones with knobs (Hans Dampf).

Continue to page 2 for more tire talk plus recommendations on which combinations work best »

About the author: Arts Cyclery

This article was originally published on the Art's Cyclery Blog. Art's Cyclery is dedicated to offering free expert advice, how-to videos, and in-depth product reviews on ArtsCyclery.com to help riders make an educated decision when selecting cycling gear.


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  • Wuffles says:

    “Ranking just below suspension design and components?”

    Uh, no, tires are more important than either of those things. As literally the only part of your bike in contact with the ground, if there is one place to spend money, it’s the tires.

    • Gregg Kato says:

      Wuffles, I agree with you. However, I believe the premise of the article is “once you have purchased your bike (based on suspension design, how it rides, components, price, weight, etc…), what is the most important ingredient”.

      I think it could have been made a bit clearer in the opening paragraph.

    • Art's Cyclery says:

      Wuffles, we hear you, and will agree that tires are AS important as those things. However, a poorly designed suspension design or fork that doesn’t work smoothly will keep your tires from doing their job properly. If your tires are skipping and bouncing off the ground then even the “best” tread/compound/casing in the world won’t help much. But components? Yeah, OK, that could be a bit of a stretch.

    • Jimmy says:

      What good is a tyre that isn’t touching the ground due to poor suspension?

  • ColinL says:

    I have used many of the tires on this list, and the Michelin Wild Race’R is not a trail / all-mountain tire. It is XC.

    Also, the Ikon rolls much faster than a Crossmark and is better in every way, except price. Ikon 2.35 front and 2.2 rear is a good combo, or 2.35 on both ends.

  • TC says:

    Are you sure about this: “Also, the extra weight doesn’t have as much of a perceived effect as it would on the rear wheel, which is directly attached to your drive train and thus, your legs.”

    I don’t think it’s true unless you are constantly in a wheelie/manual. When we move forward, we need to overcome the inertia of both wheels. Your chain connects your legs to the rear wheel, but the ground connects your rear wheel to your front wheel.

    • PRC says:

      Exactly!!!

    • Gregg Kato says:

      TC, again, I think this point could be made just a bit more clearer. The issue is that IF rider weight distribution was 50/50 (front/rear), then the weight of the front would matter as much as the rear. For general riding conditions, the rear supports most of the riders weight so therefore the weight of the rear tire factors in more than the front tire.

      You don’t have to be in a constant manual/wheelie in order for the front to be carrying less of the riders weight (and overall bike/rider weight) at any given time (minus such things as pumping, pre-loading, etc…)

      • Bret says:

        Gregg, weight distribution has absolutely no effect on how the front or rear wheels/tires change in angular momentum. Acceleration is a direct relationship with the amount of net force applied to the bike/rider. The tire’s rolling resistance matters and the weight distribution of the rider affects the net force if one tire’s rolling resistance is more than the other. But the statement TC was referring to is a common misconception that the weight of the rear tire somehow has more effect on acceleration than the front…..unless this idea of “perceived effect” is something in one’s mind that one has to overcome because of a held belief.

        • craigsj says:

          This is right, weight distribution only affects the relative contribution of rolling losses of the front and rear wheels. A rear wheel contributes a little more than its fair share to rolling losses because it carries more weight. With proper tire pressures, this effect is mitigated to some extent.

          This is one of those ignorant tropes that needs to die.

      • craigsj says:

        If you want to make things clearer, don’t talk about the tire’s weight when you are talking about acceleration and rolling resistance. The fact is that the article didn’t mention weight distribution AT ALL, it mentioned which wheel is driven. It’s not a matter of being clear, the article is flat out wrong.

    • Dave Bro says:

      Exactly. Also, the rear wheel follows a *narrower* arc than the front, not a wider one.

  • WasatchEnduro says:

    High Roller 2 Front / Slaughter Rear for all around Trail / AM fun. No more questions.

  • duder says:

    Agree with Wuffles. Components are def not at the top of the list, suspension design is up there, but tires are much more important (assuming we aren’t talking walmart bike suspension).

  • ziscwg says:

    I’d swap the Conti Mountain King for the X-king on the back. The X-King rolls better, it still has good grip. My personal “best choice” is the Hans Dampf TSC on the front and the Conti X-King 2.4 protection on the rear.

  • TJ Burmesch says:

    Schwable – Rocket Rons in the Rear, Nobby Nics up front…both 2.25 and tubeless – works well on South Mountain in Phoenix in all conditions.

  • Vanguard says:

    DHR 2 works perfectly on both front and rear.

  • simenf says:

    “Since wider tires weigh more, but also provide increased traction and forgiveness, split the difference and put a higher-volume tire on your front wheel. This is also why a narrow tire goes on the rear wheel; it’s lighter, requiring less energy to rotate.”

    This is presented as fact without any backing. It is also not correct.

    Why do you NOT want a smaller volume rear tyre?

    In general you choose tires front and rear to optimize the characteristics you want. That mostly means, as indicated in the article, that you choose a faster rolling rear (due to higher load) and a grippier front for handling. But this has very little to do with tyre volume.

    First, rolling resistance. Faster rolling does not mean smaller volume. That is a well established fact (look up Peter Nilges’ study on rolling resistance or the same topic on wikipedia). To reduce rolling resistance off road you need lower pressures and that means you need more volume to avoid pinch flats. There is no two ways about it unless you run Procore.

    Second, grip. Less pressure = more grip. More volume let’s you get away with a an even easier rolling rear tyre and still have the same level of grip.

    Third, weight. A popular trail tyre like the Maxxis Ardent EXO/TR 29 weighs, hold on, only 5g more in 2.4″ vs 2.25″. Schwalbe Nobby Nic Pacestar Snakeskin in 2.35″ on the other end is 75g heavier than a 2.25″. Still, hardly a difference to be felt. The weight difference between big vs slightly smaller volume is getting smaller every year and the argument has pretty much lost it’s value.

    BTW, a heavier tyre does not require more energy to keep spinning, in fact, it keeps it’s momentum better. A heavier tyre requires more energy to speed up and brake.

    Are there other factors to consider? If you prefer the way your bike handles with a smaller rear tyre, that is of course a valid argument – for a very small percentage of riders who are at that level of finesse.

    So what’s the conclusion? You choose a tyre with as much volume as your riding conditions require and your frame allows, but there are no reasons to go for a smaller rear tyre for better performance. If anyone can convince me that I’m wrong, I’m all ears :-)

  • Backpacker Dan says:

    Where’s the Specialized Butcher and Purgatory combo?

    • ColinL says:

      This article was submitted by Art’s Cyclery, and they do not sell Specialized. Their list is composed of some of the many brands they do sell.

  • GEO says:

    Hans Damff front / Bontrager XR4 rear

  • Kuttermax says:

    There are so many great tires now and even more combo’s that you can put together.

    Personally I’ve been really liking:

    For XC – Ardent Race Front, Ikon 2.2 Rear

    For Trail – Ardent 2.4 Front, Ikon 2.35 Rear

  • Jhilly says:

    I’ll never put another schwalbe on my bikes again, even with SS they seem to flat if i breathe on them
    XC- Ardent Race up front, Ikon Rear
    Enduro/Trail- Vittoria Goma Fr/Rear has been incredible. Also partial To a Goma Front/HR 2

  • Farmer Ted says:

    100% agree with the AKA/ Saguaro combo for XC in hardpack conditions…have been running it for several years now in 29×2.2.

    Also agree with the Conti Mountain King in a 2.4 as a good 29er rear for all-mountain but I found the Trail kings to be tanks so I run a Forte Pisgah 2.2 in the front and it’s a great combo with the Mountain King.

    Also love the Ikon 29 x.2.2 on front and rear for XC.

  • Carl says:

    Word : Continentals are no longer viable. I was forced to quite Conti because 3 of the last 4 tires I purchased were severely out-of-round. One of them was so bad, that it visibly shakes my rear end. They wouldn’t take them back either. It’s a shame because I really liked using Conti’s…especially the Trail King 2.4′s in black chilly compound ust.

    At the advice of a friend, I went to Maxxis : Minion DHF front 2.5, and a High Rollor 2.5 rear..both UST version’s with super tacky rubber. I am ASTONISHED at the amount of grip and confidence these Maxxis tires are giving me compared to the Conti’s which I had been using for years until the drop in quality control. I don’t notice the weight of the Maxxis here in the loomy PNW [WA state.]

    So if anyone is thinking about Conti’s be aware that quality control is severely lacking at this point in time. To have had 3 bad tires our of 4 in a row and from DIFFERENT sources is ample proof that there is a major problem with quality control there in Germany. But now that I’m on Maxxis, I couldn’t care less.

  • HeavyFlow says:

    My transition Patrol came with a Magic Mary up front and a Rock Razor out back.
    This is a combination I was intrigued by, but probably would have never bought a Rock Razor because I basically ride trails 90% and bike park 10%.

    However, after two seasons (Rock Razor is now toast) I am in love. I never had an issue with rear wheel traction when climbing because I am down to 30 PSI (185lb rider) and I think the casing is supple enough to “wrap” around the terrain and the killer side knobs dig in when climbing. I think I will buy another one next spring! The upside is killer fast tire that is fairly light and fast rolling. I am even considering running them F&R for the flow trails at Highland next summer.

  • campbell says:

    my commercial supreme v2 is running maxxis minion dhf 26×2.5 on the front and maxxis high roller 2 26×2.4 rear. best combo ever.

  • your mom says:

    Dad?

  • Cruiser Jim says:

    Bought a Norco Fluid plus bike. It came with WTB Rangers so I put a 2.8 Ritchey Z Max Evolution on the front. Pretty good combination but when I was riding in Crested Butte the trails were so dry and sandy I’m not sure if anything would have provided good traction. JT

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