How to pick the right tire setup for your trail bike

by Robb Sutton

Picking tires for xc racers and dh rigs is easy. Find the lightest or biggest tires for your ride and taylor them to the conditions you are riding in at the time. Other than that…ride it like you stole it. For recreational riders on trail bikes in the 130mm – 150mm travel range, life is not as easy. You want the grip of the heavy set from the DH rigs but you also want the low rolling resistance of the XC weight weenie tires.

So what are you supposed to run that will give you the best of both worlds?

The answer is a little bit easier than you would think, but you need to take into consideration what is actually happening with your bike while on the trail to make an informed decision that works.

How your bike works on the trail

When you ride a trail bike, you take it everywhere. From long climbs to long descents and pedaling rollers, the modern day trail bike is touted as the do-it-all option for riders looking to get out on the weekends. It has cemented itself as a great one bike option or the bike you grab when you just want to have a day of fun on the trail. Whether it is a 120mm travel 29er or a 150mm travel AM monster, the bike is not meant to be on the podium of an XC race or do big drops…it just works really well in almost all conditions.

When you ride your trail bike, there are certain fundamental things that are happening that allow it to do everything. The geometry is relaxed enough to give you stability on the downhills, but the bike is also efficient and light enough to sustain all day climbing. So how to we optimize both characteristics with your tire choice as it can be the #1 part that speeds you up or slows you down?

The Front Tire On A Trail Bike

The front tire on your trail bike is your main source of grip and braking. When you go blasting into a turn or have to brake hard for obstacles, the front tire is what keeps your bike upright and brings you to a stop. The front tire is also the source of most “oh shit” saves in conjunction with the front suspension fork, so increased volume is always a goal as that increases the bikes ability to pull you out of hairy situations. The front tire’s cornering grip is also essential in preventing front end washouts that leave you performing a huge yard sale on the trail.

On the flip side of that equation, the front tire has very little to do with climbing other than weight on your bike. For this purpose, when we think of front tire choices, we think of the DH side of the equation.

How much grip and volume can we get on the front without attaching an overweight boat anchor to the front end of our bikes?

Luckily, the tire industry has caught up with the latest trends in biking and has released large volume, grip filled, lighter weight tires that are perfect for this application. These tires (while heavier than their narrower counterparts) provide the balance between volume, grip and weight that we really look for in a front tire for a trail bike. With widths typically in the 2.3 to 2.4 range, these tires will transform your bike into a DH monster without carrying around a DH tire.

Bike198 Recommendations

Recommendations are the same for 26″ and 29er

The Rear Tire on a Trail Bike

The rear tire of your trail bike is what puts the power to the ground. The chainline is direct attached to the rear wheel that drives your bike forward, so the more tread and weight you have…the harder you are going to have to work to propel the bike in the forward direction.

Under braking, the rear tire is typically used as a momentum scrubber that often times locks up and skids. This makes some tread a good thing, but going overboard with a grippier tire does not pay the dividends like on the front. Also, your “oh shit” moments are greater aided by the stiffness and rear weight bias on the rear suspension. While the increased volume on the front saves you weight weight shifts forward, the rear is more stable and capable of handling big hits with ease.

When you take these into consideration, the rear tire lends itself towards a lighter, narrower and faster rolling setup to optimize efficiency. Depending on trail conditions, you might even want a really light, mid volume tire with a really low tread pattern (think hardpack trail conditions) so you really maximize the amount of power that is coming from your legs that reaches the ground. If the trail is rockier and more technical, look for a tire with increased sidewall protection to prevent flats. If you followed the same setup as your front tire, that efficiency could be lost. Tires for the rear typically range from 2.1 to 2.25 (2.35 sometimes depending on manufacturer) widths.

Bike198 Rear Tire Recommendations

Recommendations are the same for 26″ and 29er

The Overall Tire Setup

So what have we done here? We analyzed exactly how each end of the bike functions and optimized the tire selection to match that purpose. By doing this, we are able to increase efficiency while not losing the overall grip we are ultimately wanting out of a trail bike. Overall weight was also kept at a minimum without much sacrifice.

There are too many times we have seen 150mm trail bike setups with very small tires up front on big forks in an attempt to save weight when…in reality…the savings are trumped by the lack of grip. With the latest tire designs and technology, we are now able to bring that grip back without the weight issues due to how the front tire actually interacts with the bike and effects your ride.

Which tires are you using on your setup?

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