Exotic carbon frames and complex suspension are only as good as your bike's contact patch, so get to grips with our tyre test to make the most of your machine
Whether you want the ultimate grip or the fastest rolling speed, and whether you ride in sand, rock or loam, we have the best mountain bike tyres for you.
What is a mountain bike tyre?
In a word, knobbles. Unlike road or BMX tyres, mountain bike tyres are typically covered in knobbles. They are also often made of tougher carcass and of softer compound rubber than other bicycle tyres. The combination of knobble tread pattern, carcass construction and rubber compound means there are lots of variables and hundreds of differing mountain bike tyre types.
Best mountain bike tyres in 2020
Here are the current best mountain bike tyres broken down into terrain, conditions and whether they’re best front or rear. Read below for full reviews.
- Front mixed conditions: Schwalbe Magic Mary
- Rear mixed conditions: Maxxis DHR II
- Front dry: Maxxis Assegai
- Rear dry: Schwalbe Hans Dampf II
- Front mud: WTB Verdict
- Rear mud: Continental Der Kaiser
- Best value: Kenda Hellkat
- Can’t ignore: Maxxis Minion DHF
Tyres are a vital piece of kit that connect your bike to the trails. They control everything from cornering grip to braking traction, and rolling speed to cushioning and comfort. These multiple factors can totally transform your ride experience, and can actively keep you safer on a variety of trails and help prevent crashes.
The ultimate tyre would roll incredibly fast, deliver huge traction, never puncture and be light enough to carry up climbs without overly impacting efficiency. This tyre doesn’t yet exist though, so all models pack in-built compromises, whether that’s extra weight and stiffness to improve toughness and response, or less stability and durability to increase rolling speed and acceleration.
Higher friction, better damped rubber and thicker casings contribute to slower tyres that are less optimised for everyday trail riding and longer distances. This makes them harder to drag uphill for the descents, but, on the flip side, heavier tyres increase confidence by being more stable and resistant to deflections at speed.
Modern tyres are continually improving too, so compound blends, tread patterns, and construction technologies are better than ever, allowing harder riding with less downtime. In fact, if you set up the right tyre tubeless, and you’re prepared to compromise a little on weight, it can deliver huge levels of grip and virtually eliminate cuts or punctures.
We’re looking at ten newer models here, including some of the very latest additions to the market. The line-up is deliberately skewed towards trail and enduro tyres, because these are tough enough to handle the kind of high speeds and tough terrain modern bikes and trails have made possible. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy feeling like a hero with maximum grip? Or not wasting precious ride time fixing punctures by running flimsy tyres?
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Our pick of the best mountain bike tyres
All of the following tyres are the best mountain bike tyres which scored at least 9/10 in our test. Here’s a complete list of all the tyres we’ve tested.
Schwalbe Magic Mary: BEST MIXED CONDITIONS FRONT TYRE
Schwalbe totally revamped its line up for 2018 with new Addix compounds, denoted by the coloured stripes on the tyres. The new formulae address durability concerns and tread blocks shearing off, as well as cold weather performance. Among the multiple Magic Marys, tread patterns and the single-ply Snakeskin and, thicker on the sides, Super Gravity casings remain, plus there’s now a new in-between Apex e-bike casing also suitable for ‘standard’ bikes.
The orange Addix strip denotes ‘Soft’, which replaces the old ‘Trailstar’ compound. Damping is marginally increased according to Schwalbe, but the tyres feel noticeably faster, and wear life and durability is way improved. The 2.35in Magic Mary blows up bang on size, with a very aggressive tread rocking pumped-up, reinforced edge blocks. The new 2.6in versions we’ve also tried are more spaced out and look like a tractor tyre. These are a bit of a grip monster, especially in winter in the Ultra Soft Purple version, but the very open tread blocks bobble more and are less assured and drifty on hardpack.
The new Addix compound feels confident in the steeps on wet or dry rocks and roots, even if some testers reckoned there’s a slight sense it’s a tad springier and less glued to the ground than the older Trailstar rubber.
It’s a bit of a toss up with the Maxxis Minions and High Rollers for the crown of best aggressive, mixed conditions performer. There’s a strong argument for either brand, so it ultimately comes down to personal preference.
Maxxis Minion DHR II: BEST MIXED CONDITIONS REAR TYRE
With its blocky tread slabs and pronounced shoulder channel, the Minion is a mountain bike classic and regular winner of our group test. This year, Maxxis has developed a brand new casing option called EXO+ with a toughness and weight half way between thicker Double Down models and thinner, standard EXO versions.
This new casing uses the same construction, excellent rubber blends and tread pattern as the popular EXO Minions you see everywhere, but also adds a wrap-around SilkShield puncture/cut resistant layer borrowed from its tubeless road bike tyres.
EXOs already use a densely woven extra fabric layer in the sidewall for extra piercing and abrasion resistance. This reinforcement is very flexible, however, so the tyres retain good suppleness and conformity to really track small roots and edges for more grip. EXO+is marginally stiffer but essentially keeps this advantage too, whereas tougher Double Downs use twin 120tpi plies and a butyl liner, so are much thicker. That means even more protection for enduro racing or uplifting, but DD tyres are noticeably more muscular and solid, which won’t suit less hard charging riders.
The new model should help prevent the kind of small cuts and nicks we’ve suffered in EXO tyres in rocky areas (often at the tread or tyre crown SilkShield now extends to) and the technology adds less than 100g, dependant on tyre size.
The DHR II already delivered class-leading grip and a super-planted cornering sensation. This new EXO+ model doesn’t feel any less comfortable or secure, making it a really good compromise for a minimal weight penalty. This reinforced model isn’t a full-on Alpine-ready tyre, but will likely become the new go-to UK choice for many, especially if you’re riding takes in anything sharper than pure dirt and loam where you’ll benefit from the extra protection.
WTB Verdict Wet: BEST FRONT MUD TYRE
We fitted it in July, and rode it through our variable summer conditions, learning to live with it washing out slightly on hardpack as the tall knobs folded over. As a dry tyre it was usable, if far from optimal, with that understeer compounded by its hefty weight and slow rolling. Then, it rode it straight after a downpour, and while everyone around us floundered, we were feet up, railing everything and feeling just a little bit like Danny Hart in Champery 2011. As summer has turned to winter, the WTB Verdict Wet has really come into its own. Yes, it is draggy, but nothing feels fast on flat transitions when it’s this muddy, and when you do get to a descent, the grip it generates is pure black magic. Almost every ride there is a moment where we expect to end up on the deck because we’re going too hot into a corner, but find oursevles exiting on to the next straight with the back end all out of shape and my feet still on the pedals. It’s remarkable.
Downsides? Well, aside from the aforementioned extra weight and drag, the rubber seems to ping off roots and rocks and can get quite lively if there’s no dirt to sink its teeth into. Certainly it feels like the blocks have a faster rebound than something like Maxxis’s 3C Maxx Terra Compound. Other than that, we can safely say the Verdict Wet is even happier than a pig in sh*t.
Continental Der Kaiser: BEST MUD REAR TYRE
Tread pattern is unchanged, and the rubber’s still the fabled Black Chili formula, with a ton of grip and rolling speed, considering softness. The uniform tread has continuous, wedge-shaped shoulder blocks and a faster rolling centre. ‘ProTection Apex’ construction sees extra nylon under the tread and a rubber sidewall protector to prevent pinch flats.
The brand’s redesign aims to ensure tubeless set up is as air tight as rivals, and also address how its thicker MTB casings can feel a bit stiff. For better sealing, the folding beads are thicker/flatter at the rim well interface, and also more uniform. This Kaiser inflated and sealed first time (unlike before), but the new bead is tougher to fit with bare hands, which might make a trailside repair more difficult.
A benefit of the new casing is much improved suppleness, so sidewalls and crown now conform to terrain as well as the best other brands, with a well-damped, slurpy feel that really irons out vibration.
We’ve always experienced excellent wear life with Black Chili (Conti claims it’s more dense than other sticky rubber blends) and that it wears out in a very uniform way, rather than peeling or shredding layers or knobs. This holds true, although lifespan is now marginally, rather than significantly, better than Maxxis when watching your tyres disappear during chairlift riding. Conti had plenty room to move in this department though, and we’ll take the smoother ride.
The Kaiser is pretty heavy but rolls well considering, and very resistant to cuts and damage. It’s also predictable braking, and rails corners consistently with excellent edge hold. Black Chili rubber always had good friction, but this new tyre is better again over chattery roots and rocks, since it feels like you’re running about 5psi less than previously, which helps contour terrain and edges. This makes it better in the wet too.
Maxxis Assegai: BEST DRY FRONT TYRE
When we reviewed the Maxxis Assegai in late 2018, it was only available in a heavy, double-ply, downhill casing. That’s since changed, and it’s now sold in EXO, EXO+, DD and DH versions, and either Maxx Grip, Maxx Terra or Dual compounds.
It’s been almost two years since we first rode it now, and our favourite model has become the Maxx Terra, EXO+ version here that uses a reinforced, single-ply, construction, and slightly harder rubber compound. Being a bit lighter, and using a different tread block blend, accelerates the DH tyre’s super-slow rolling speed, yet still provides incredible grip.
The Assegai fills in some blanks on its grip channel with extra toothy knobs, so there’s less dead space than most Maxxis patterns. The tread isn’t as open as some, so in very sticky clay and mud it doesn’t clear like a dedicated mud tyre, but that’s about the limit of the Assegai’s negatives in terms of grip. Everywhere else – whether loose soil or hardpack, dust or grease – traction is class-leading.
Jutting out at sharp angles, the tall edge blocks are very aggressive, and heavily siped like the central tread. They dig in and don’t let go, and there’s an extremely consistent feel all the way onto the side knobs, which means grip is really easy to judge, to the extent we’re struggling to think of a single occasion in hundreds of rides where the tyre has let us down unexpectedly.
The Assegai lays down a lot of rubber for good comfort, yet balances support with suppleness and trail feedback, so you can always feel the ground at all lean angles. It’s super stable under braking, and also under the hardest loads if you really weight the front tyre charging into broken up corners or rutted berms.
The Assegai’s pure grip is beyond doubt then, but even in the lighter casings it rolls slower than most equivalent weight tyres. This lends calmness and is fantastic on the front end, but unless you’re really charging downhill all the time and want ultimate control, a faster rolling rear might be preferable. This is the grippiest, most controlled tyre on the market though, so we’ve upped the score to a maximum 10 now more casing options exist.
Schwalbe Hans Dampf II: BEST DRY REAR TYRE
Schwalbe redesigned the Hans Dampf a few years ago and massively improved its performance. The tread is now 50 per cent bigger than on the shoulders, and there’s a much more open tread pattern for better mud clearing and bite on looser surfaces. The tyre is available in a ton of configurations, with the Orange-striped Addix Soft a favourite that strikes a good balance between pace and sheer grip.
In fact, one big benefit of Schwalbe’s latest Addix rubber formulas is rapid rolling speed and an energetic, zingy, sensation, so you don’t ever feel like you’re dragging your bike around all day with the brakes on. Newer generation Schwalbes don’t shed random edge blocks either, if you happen to brake a lot while (very reasonably) trying to slow down. Addix blends are now so durable, in fact, that they last longer than most other rival equivalents.
Another bonus of the new edge blocks being chunkier, and donning outer reinforcing struts – like the Magic Mary – is being much better at resisting squirm and folding. So the Hans feels more stable under load at high lean angles. This means it’s no longer prone to sudden grip loss with small edge blocks buckling, but still doesn’t quite pack the punch of flatter-topped tyres when cutting into loose turns or holding wet cambers. And with a very rounded profile, it displays a more consistent grip, than transitioning from slip to grip.
One negative is that the lighter Snakeskin casing is a little springier and less planted than equivalent weight tyres, but the better-damped Super Gravity casing rolls as fast as many lighter tyres and offers more protection if racing or riding rocky terrain, so isn’t a bad compromise in this regard.
This massively improved Hans Dampf makes a great combo with a Magic Mary up front for tons of angular grip, combined with good climbing and braking traction, as well as a pace that defies its tread pattern. Go for the Blue ‘Speedgrip’ compound if you want an even faster rolling rear tyre with acceptable trade-off in terms of security and wet weather grip.
Kenda Hellkat: BEST VALUE TYRE
The widely spaced, blocky tread has softer durometer shoulders and a firmer rolling strip, although both zones still feel pretty squidgy to touch. The tread is more of an open, motocross-style affair with pretty aggressive edge knobs and a mostly uninterrupted shoulder channel.
The 120tpi construction uses proprietary, reinforced ‘K-Armour’ layers under the sides and crown to resist cuts and punctures and stiffen the casing, but these are thinner than on the gravity model to save weight. This trail version also omits a 20mm tall Apex layer around the bead that further helps resists burping and pinch flats. Considering all the grip on offer it’s a really light tyre at just over 850g, and we’ve had zero issues with punctures or damage during testing, even thrashing around on a long travel e-bike.
On fast or technical tracks, the slow-rebounding Hellkat is comfortable, damped and glued to the ground, making it feel seriously assured. It never does anything strange or upsetting, and this trail version appears to share similar massive grip levels with the softer, tougher DH version that would work well as a Lakes or Scotland bomber. In corners and off-camber, the soft knobs have enough base stiffness to bite without flexing or chattering and feel more continuously ‘locked on’ than ‘drift-then-catch’. Overall traction turning and braking is huge on all surfaces, wet or dry.
The Hellkat is seriously impressive in gnarly terrain, works on smoother hardpack better than it should and is really comfortable on bumpy surfaces like degraded trail centres or small embedded rocks. It’s tough and light, and being £15 cheaper than rival high-end models with equivalent performance, Kenda is properly back in the game with this one.
Maxxis Minion DHF: CAN’T IGNORE
The classic ‘L’ shaped lugs and long rectangular, ramped centre knobs remain, but the tread pattern is pumped up to suit the bigger casing. The Minion has always been a fast favourite in loose and dry terrain, but in the wet, didn’t bite as hard as more splayed out treads in softer dirt. With increased air volume, this 2.5 can be run a few psi lower, upping comfort and conformity, and laying down more rubber, so grip levels have really ramped up. The WT weight is marginally higher, but there’s little evidence the tyres don’t roll just as fast off-road.
With the Maxx Terra Minion slapped on the front wheel, continuous predictable grip is almost never ending right up to properly wet conditions. Maxxis’ sticky rubber feels trustworthy to lean, even on rocks and roots, but its wear life and durability isn’t class leading. The tyres do scrub off out at a steady, uniform rate though, rather than falling to pieces.
If you’re willing to sacrifice rolling speed, a sister Minion DHR tyre adds deeper centre lugs, and dramatically increases braking traction on the rear. It also works fantastically on the front in mixed conditions since DHR blocks are spaced a bit wider and really bite in and clear mud better too. Both models are refined performers and arguably class leading, so armed with the wider Minions, you’ll need to blame something else if you can’t hog your mates back wheel.
How to spot the best mountain bike tyres
Rubber hardness is measured by a durometer on the shore scale. Higher numbers signify firmer compounds: 60a is harder and longer lasting than 50a rubber. The secret ingredients and rubber chemistry tyre brands use are something of a mystery and can also make a huge difference to grip, rebound damping and rolling speed.
Widely-spaced treads bite better in looser surfaces and clear mud more effectively, but can also increase rolling resistance. Sipes and cuts help braking and the way the tyre deforms to obstacles. A more pronounced channel between shoulder and centre knobs can deliver better off-camber bite and a sensation of ‘railing’ turns, but some riders prefer a more continuous, rounded feel than the on/off grip generated by such a tread gap.
Different tyres require specific air pressures. A rough rule of thumb is: the thicker the casing, the lower the air pressure you can get away with. For maximum comfort and grip, aim for the minimum pressure that keeps the casing from twisting too much and still prevents rim strikes under impacts. Experiment with lower pressures if you often run over 30psi.
Casing thickness and precise ply lay-up has a big impact on ride quality and affects conformity, rolling speed and durability. Harder charging riders might have to accept the extra weight of meatier casings to prevent punctures and stop sidewalls folding under cornering forces. Heavier tyres accelerate more slower, but feel more planted and stable once momentum takes hold. Tubeless is always the way to go – inner tubes feel dead and lifeless, and cause more issues in our experience.
Using wider tyres up front for extra grip and comfort makes good sense. Arms get more cushioning and comfort, and, like skis, narrower rears can help initiate faster turning. Tyre width is directly relative to air volume, and larger volumes provide more isolation, damping and control, up to a point. Wider tyres add weight for climbing and acceleration, but rolling speed between different widths should be so close off-road, it’s not such an issue.
Wider, more aggressive tyres need lots of support to keep tread blocks stable and use more casing material and rubber, which all adds weight. Bigger, heavier tyres can stabilise the bike by being harder to deflect at speed and larger air volumes offer more isolation from the ground too – especially useful to smooth out rougher terrain on shorter travel rigs.
Front specific best mountain bike tyres
Using wider tyres up front for extra grip and comfort makes a lot of sense. Hands get extra cushioning, and slightly narrower rear tyres can also help initiate faster turning. Tyre width is directly relative to air volume, though, and a larger air volume provides more isolation, damping and control.
Rear specific best mountain bike tyres
With a faster rolling, lower profile centre strip and pronounced edge blocks for leant-over grip, semi-slick tyres can be a great UK option. This is why we’ve largely resigned full-on XC tyres to history for trail riding. The extra bonus of the slip-to-grip attitude of semi slicks makes them a real hoot in greasier conditions.