Plus tires, we hardly knew ye. You seemed like such a great idea. Once riders got tired of the squish and weight of full fatties, you jumped in as a way to still get the benefits of wider rims and tubeless tires without the penalties of phat.
When Derby and then Ibis introduced lightweight wide carbon rims, Plus tires offered better handling and traction at low psi than the longtime 2.25-2.35 trail standard, which tended to bottom out or fold under aggressive riding.
For riders who preferred poppy and maneuverable 27.5-inch wheels but liked the extra rollover of 29ers, you seemed like the perfect compromise.
For bike makers wanting to offer riders a best-of-both-worlds bridge from 27.5 to 29ers, you provided the option of trying both on the same steed. For a while there, forum chatter was all about which setup on a given bike was better and why.
But as always happens, the world evolved. Big wheeled 29ers, aided by single-chainring setups, got more aggressive, nimble, and lively. Wagon wheels didn’t seem so sluggish and clunky anymore. And tire makers got clued in, keeping high volume and tall sidewalls while adding casing stiffness, more compliant knob patterns, and rounder profiles to reduce squish on wider rims.
In response, Plus tires started going minus. Aggressive riders wanted faster rolling, less squirmy rubber with a narrower footprint. From 3.0, the sweet spot went to 2.8. Then last summer, 2.6 became the new magic bullet. Bike makers such as Scott, Ibis, and Santa Cruz started offering builds with 2.6 tire compatibility — mostly for 27.5 wheels but also 29ers.
It’s an open question whether even 2.6 is the goldilocks fit, though. Now 2.4 and 2.5 tires that feature stiffer sidewalls and a broad tread fit the bill for many riders. Some bike makers seem to agree, topping out rear-triangle clearance at 2.5 on some models, think Santa Cruz Hightower and Devinci Spartan 29.
So here’s the burning question: Assuming we define it as 2.8 and above, is Plus still a thing? Most industry observers say, yes. But only in a qualified niche-targeted kind of way.
“If you really want to charge a trail, ride hard and aggressively, Plus isn’t a factor,” said Dustin Adams, president of Kamloops-based wheel maker WeAreOne Composites, which has a Plus wheel under development. “But for someone who likes lots of traction, isn’t as concerned about weight, and just wants a comfortable, confident ride, Plus still has its place.”
In winter months, when trails turn sloppy, Plus wheels mated with hardtails or even fully rigid mountain bikes can suit aggressive riders with a “klunker attitude,” added Adams. “They’re not looking to set Strava PRs, they’re just out to have fun.”
High-end wheel maker ENVE’s M640 rim, earmarked for tires from 2.7-3.2, is a hit with Plus riders, claimed marketing director Jake Pantone. “Most are intermediate weekend warrior types who are older than 40, or very novice riders but passionate about their newfound love of mountain biking,” Pantone explained. “For riders looking for added confidence and comfort at lower speeds, Plus is great.”
Indeed, big name brands are sticking by Plus as a way to attract the broadest customer base possible. Santa Cruz’s Bronson, 5010, and Chameleon all play nice with Plus, while Trek’s Stache, Remedy, and Fuel models accommodate up to 2.8 and even 3.0 tire widths in some instances.
“We’re engineering Plus into our bikes early on and making it work for as many riders and bikes as possible,” said Trek marketing manager Travis Ott.
Other applications where Plus still finds favor include bikepacking, where weight is a non-factor but traction and durability are premium; e-bikes, where the added bulk of the bike again puts traction and stability high on the list; and regional riding conditions like the Southwest, where dry, rocky terrain benefits from Plus’ traction and support. Tempe-based Pivot was an early Plus supporter with its Switchblade, and offers Plus on its Mach429 SL lightweight racer, Trail 429 all-arounder, and Shuttle e-bike.
Then there’s the intermediate or casual rider for whom Plus offers extra traction and stability. “A good example is my girlfriend — she loves the extra confidence of 2.8,” notes Julien Boulais, brand manager for Devinci, whose 27.5 Troy model fits up to 2.8 tires.
At the Downhill Zone bike shop near Seattle, owner Adam Schaeffer still gets requests for Plus bikes. But they’re mostly from riders still learning or moving on a path toward more aggressive riding. On sketchy, blown-out trails Plus retains some draw, said Schaeffer. But with the explosion in long-travel 29ers, the width and cush of Plus may be unnecessary. “Sometimes you want firmer suspension but with a softer base, where Plus can play a role,” he said. “But once speeds hit a certain level, Plus tires in general just feel vague and unresponsive.”
Many observers believe the majority of riders of all stripes will settle on 2.4 to 2.6 tires fitted to wheels with internal rim widths of 30mm or 35mm, with a lean toward the latter. The Ibis 942 and 742 (35mm internal) rims, for example, outsell their narrower 29mm cousins by 9 to 1.
At ENVE, sales of the aforementioned M640 (40mm internal) rims have dropped by over half compared to 2017, while ENVE M630 (for 2.3-2.5 tires), and M635 (2.5-2.8) have spiked.
Simultaneously, tire makers are continuing to offer enhanced sidewall, tread, and compound options in wide but non-Plus formats. Bontrager is touting a whole array of 2.6 options designed around different weights, casings and rubber types. Other tire makers have similar expanded options under development.
“Look at all of the new 2.6 tires — XR2, SE2, XR4, SE4, XR5, SE5 — from Bontrager,” said Trek’s Alex Applegate. “You get the benefits of larger volume — traction, support, lower pressure — while still maintaining snappier accelerations and a more precise on-trail feel associated with traditional tires.”
So here’s the deal, as Mtbr sees is. Tire sizes now designated as Plus may hang on. But Plus as a distinct category, and reference term, seems destined to go away. Instead, bike makers will continue to offer plenty of clearance for whatever size tire a rider wants to use.
“There really isn’t a need for a 27.5 bike to exclude Plus-sized tires, or for a 29er to run Plus wheels,” said Joe Brown, owner of Methow Cycle & Sport in Winthrop, Washington, which still does a brisk business in fat bike tires for groomed Nordic trails in winter. “Just let the customer decide which size wheel and tire they want.”
Some suspect Plus was a solution to a problem that never existed. All that needed to happen was for bikes to accommodate wide rims outfitted with appropriate tires for whatever skill level and type of riding suited the purchaser.
“We felt the magic of wide rims before Plus even existed,” said Colin Hughes, engineering manager at Ibis, whose trail bikes are 2.6 but not Plus compatible. “It took a while for the tire manufacturers to catch up is all.”
What do you think, is Plus still a thing? And if so where does it fit in the wider mountain bike world?