Everything you wanted to know about tires, and then some

By Sarah Hansing

Shred sister Julie Kanagy at Ft. Ord in Monterey County. Photo by Bruce Dorman.

Shred sister Julie Kanagy at Ft. Ord in Monterey County. Photo by Bruce Dorman.

Ok everyone. We really need to talk about something. Now, many of you already know this and some of you may be really uncomfortable about what I’m going to say …

But when a tire tread and a trail love each other VERY much, and the tire pressure and conditions are right, the tire puts its tread into the dirt …
… and traction is created!

Which is to say:

With the right tires on your bike (the right pressure in conjunction with the right tread pattern) you’ll have a much better chance of staying upright, and a lot more fun railing into those berms. It’s just a simple “right tools for the right job” and all.

If you go into any bike shop, the employees there – given the opportunity – will wax poetic WAY beyond what you want to know about different tires, material compounds, tread patterns, width, tire pressure, and the appropriate tire combinations for the front and back wheels of your mountain bike.

This insight is invaluable (not that I’m biased about how crucial shop employee knowledge is to the cycling world, or anything) but it isn’t an absolute. It isn’t all tread and dirt here. Your style of riding affects the tire you should choose, also. In fact there are such a multitude of variables, that choosing what’s right for you can be overwhelming to the point of decision-paralysis.

It doesn’t have to be, though.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about the secret world of mountain bike tires:

Check your current tires; look particularly at the center tread. A lot of us get a false sense of security when we take a quick gander and see the side knobs still standing proud and tall, but the fact is that most of the riding we do and the traction we count on, comes from that middle section of tire. If it looks worn down, replace it. You’ll be blown away at what a huge difference in your ride new tires will make!

Bigger is not always better (heh). Seriously, though. A 2.4 x 29 tire does not necessarily mean more traction, and super deep knobs do not necessarily mean more grip on the trail.

And finally, the big one: Tire Pressure. For the love of dirt, PLEASE stop over-inflating your tires. The maximum tire pressure stamped on the sidewall of the tire is not a challenge, it’s a warning. If you exceed that max psi, you can (and likely will) blow your tire right off of the rim. There seems to be a school of thought that believes that rocking the highest tire pressure will make you roll superfast on the trails. But it’s hard to ride fast when your overinflated tire is constantly bouncing off of the ground and every root, rock, and pebble it encounters.

The right tire pressure is usually a happy medium between the minimum and maximum psi recommendations. For most people, somewhere around 30psi does the trick pretty well; using that as a general base, play around with the pressure until you find what works best for you.

Not all tires are created equal, and not all dirt is the same. But when you find the right combination … it’s a match made in heaven.

Yup – the right tire with the right conditions at the right tire pressure = dirty, sticky, sweet, glorious, trail magic. Happy riding, ya’ll!


​Fat Tire Tuesday columnist Sarah Hansing has been slinging wrenches as a pro bike mechanic for 15 years (with the exception of a one year stint working for Trek Bicycles in Wisconsin.) Epicenter Cycling scooped her up as their lead mechanic and the shop’s crew plans to ​keep her forever. Sarah loves riding singlet​rack, wrenching on bikes, and hanging out with her jerk-face but adorable cat Harlan. (Who is a jerk.)