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.
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. 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).