Defining the modern cross-country mountain bike tire is not as easy as it once was. Today’s XC bikes are no longer limited to lightweight hardtail whippets designed to blaze uphill, then simply survive going down. Used to be, the best cross-country tires were three things: light, fast, and light. But with even those wispy hardtails getting longer, lower, and slacker, their tires must now be fast and light, but also durable and grippy. It’s a lot to ask for, but that’s exactly what Mtbr did, as we put seven top XC mountain bike tires to the test.
Selection criteria for this crop was fairly straight forward. All tires had to be 29er of course, and width was limited to 2.25 (except the Hutchinson Toro and Specialized Fast Trak, only because we were only sent wider models). We called in models from most (but certainly not all) of the major players. To kick things off, below you’ll find brief descriptions of each tire, along with basic beta such as weight (claimed and actual), width, TPI, compound, and price. Next week we’ll start posting individual mountain bike tire reviews.
How We Measured Mountain Bike Tires
Tire performance and profile can vary wildly depending upon rim width and shape. To ensure consistency of measurement and an equal playing field during testing, Mtbr partnered with Stan’s NoTubes, who provided us with test wheelsets for each tire category. This allowed us to match test tires to the appropriate rim width. For cross-country, Mtbr used Stan’s ZTR Crest S1 aluminum wheels, which have a 23mm internal rim width. We also partnered with Park Tool, and are using their DS-1 electronic scale DC-1 Digital Caliper to determine weight and width respectively.
Once unpacked, each tire was mounted tubeless, then inflated to 40 psi. The tire was then allowed to sit for 30 minutes to account for stretch, before being deflated to 30 psi to measure width. All widths were taken at the widest point of the tire. To learn more about how we chose our initial group of test tires check out the Mtbr Tire Buying Guide Introduction.
Now, without further ado, here are the seven combatants in round No. 1 of the XC tire shootout. Read the descriptions, then scroll through the image gallery to get an up close look at each tire.
Among the French tire maker’s most versatile offerings, the Toro has tall evenly spaced knobs designed to deliver neutral handling. Up top the center knobs are slightly shorter for better mud clearing, while side knobs get a little more height to better hang on in drifty corners. Hutchinson’s Hardskin bead-to-bead reinforcement promises less chance of cuts as well as longer durability.
Kenda Saber Pro
With its minimalist tread profile and 120 tpi casing, Kenda’s go-to XC race rubber is designed for fast, dry singletrack. All Saber Pro models are tubeless ready and come in two different casings, TR for race and the more endurance oriented KSCT. (We opted for the later since this is not just a race day test.) Compound is R3C, Kenda´s fastest rubber that’s used exclusively for its high-end tires. This compound is claimed to offer significantly lower rolling resistance and increased wet weather traction. The Saber Pro also has a high-volume to better absorb trail obstacles. The low uniform tread profile reduces rolling resistance, while slightly larger edge knobs are hooked to improve cornering traction.
Weight: 611g (claimed) / 624g (actual)
Width: 2.20 (claimed) / 2.24 (actual)
Compound: R3C and KSCT
More info: bicycle.kendatire.com
Mtbr review: reviews.mtbr.com/kenda-saber-pro-review
Billed as Maxxis’ most versatile cross-country tread pattern, the Ikon is designed to work on just about any trail condition outside apocalyptic mud. This race ready tire has a high-volume casing and fast rolling tread layout where a well-defined and closely spaced center helps keep speed high, while taller, more widely spaced side knobs dig in during hard cornering. Construction is triple compound with EXO protection.
Weight: 640g (claimed) / 640g (actual)
Width: 2.20 (claimed) / 2.16 (actual)
Compound: Triple compound, EXO protection
More info: www.maxxis.com
Mtbr review: reviews.mtbr.com/maxxis-ikon-review
Schwalbe Racing Ralph
As its name clearly implies, this is a racing tire through and through. The tread pattern is familiar in this class of rubber – more tightly spaced center knobs to increase speed, but taller, wider spaced side lugs to offer more bite when cornering. New in 2017 was Schwalbe’s Addix compound, which is actually a series of four compounds specifically developed for the various riding disciplines: Speed = XC race; Speedgrip = XC/AM/trail; Soft = enduro/downhill; Ultra Soft = gravity. Of the four, Speed is the only one that’s completely new, while the other three are replacements for existing compounds. Schwalbe expects the Speedgrip to be the most popular, which is in part why we choose it for this test. It’s aimed at general riding in mixed terrain and conditions, and offers similar rolling resistance to its predecessor (aka PaceStar), but with a claimed 62% increase in durability and 35% bump in grip. To quickly identify the compounds, Schwalbe is using a colored stripe on the tread, which wears off in a few rides. (Note the blue line on these test tires). It matches the sidewall markings that denote which compound is used.
Weight: 630g (claimed) / 670g (actual)
Width: 2.25 (claimed) / 2.11 (actual)
Compound: Addix Speedgrip
More info: www.schwalbetires.com
Mtbr review: reviews.mtbr.com/schwalbe-racing-ralph-addix-review
Specialized Fast Trak
Using finite element analysis, Specialized claims its Fast Trak XC tire’s consistent shoulder block layout improves cornering traction while overall block spacing is on the wider side, which aims to improve mud/debris clearing. Specialized’s Gripton compound is said to give the tire a livelier feel, while also enhancing grip in wet and dry conditions. The comparatively low 60 tpi makes for a tougher, more cut resistant casing at the expense of weight and suppleness.
Weight: 700g (claimed) / 679g (actual)
Width: 2.30 (claimed) / 2.16 (actual)
More info: www.specialized.com
Mtbr review: reviews.mtbr.com/specialized-fast-trak-review
This fast, dry conditions XC tire has a low profile, densely spaced knob configuration with a defined center ridge tread for low rolling resistance, plus multiple braking and climbing edges and capable side knobs. The sidewall is measurably softer than the rest of the tire, which is designed to enhance grip and cornering traction. Mtbr tested the TNT version, which features four compounds (4C) layered together in way that’s intended to increase overall tire versatility. This includes G+Isotech, Vittoria’s unique Graphene compound that’s claimed to increase speed, and improve grip, durability, and wear resistance.
Weight: 710g (claimed) / 744g (actual)
Width: 2.25 (claimed) / 2.22 (actual)
Compound: TNT, 4C, G+Isotech
More info: www.vittoria.com
Mtbr review: reviews.mtbr.com/vittoria-mezcal-review
Vee Crown Gem
Designed with input from former gravity pro Mike King, the Crown Gem is billed as an all-purpose tire that’s at home racing XC or rallying rowdy singletrack. Taller side knobs improve cornering control, while an aggressive and fast center knob pattern help maintain speed and traction. The Crown Gem also boasts what Vee calls it Synthesis sidewall, where a specially woven lightweight layer gives additional puncture and cut protection. It’s a design adapted from Vee’s road line, and is lighter than their standard MTB casing. The tires also employ dual compound construction where harder 56 A rubber is used on the center tread to increase durability, but softer 48 A mix is applied on the sides for more cornering grip.
Weight: 730g (claimed) / 726g (actual)
Width: 2.20 (claimed) / 2.28 (actual)
Compound: Dual Control, Synthesis Sidewall
More info: www.veetireco.com
Mtbr review: reviews.mtbr.com/vee-crown-gem-review