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.
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).
Different disciplines place different requirements on tires, demanding specific features tailored to each use.
Trail/All-Mountain tires show a combination of reduced weight for climbing and acceleration, along with traction and protection against pinch flats. When choosing, err on the side of protection, width, and increased knob height/volume. Look for Reinforced sidewalls, but stop short of full DH casings. Schwalbe’s Snake Skin casing is a good example.
Cross-Country tires must be lightweight and have low rolling resistance above all. Go with single-ply sidewalls if rocks and technical terrain are not issues. Very low profile knobs cut down weight and increase rolling speed.
When choosing downhill tires, flat protection and cornering speed are your main concerns. DH tires have beefy casings for pinch flat protection and structure to run low pressure. Large volume, aggressive knobs dig in and grab through turns and provide confident bike handling and effective braking.
Use the chart below for some recommendations when looking for an effective front/rear tire combination.