Cycling Shootout: 4 MTB Tires
Tires have been a major headache for me this season. Early on, every time I went out I had a flat tire of some manner—often a sidewall slash from our desert Southwest rocks. I spent a lot of time whinging about the state of bike tires, and the more I talked the more I heard others complaining, too. So I decided to try and find some solutions.
Over the past six months, I've ridden almost two dozen tires in search of that subtle mix of traits that turns average rubber into your favorite ride. What I've found is that almost no tire on the market has it all: light weight, durability, great traction, low rolling resistance, and a reasonable price tag. But I've settled on a few models that score high in most of those categories and compromise well on their weaker sides. As for methodology, I (along with half a dozen other testers) have simply ridden the heck out of every tire that's come in, tossing out the ones that flat or fail or just feel bad, and continuing on the ones that hold up. I've tested entirely tubeless and mostly on 29er wheels (mix of Stan's, Specialized Roval, Easton, and Mavic), though a handful of tires have also gotten 26 time on Shimano XTR wheels.
Presenting my favorite four tires for fall, none of which have flatted for months. I know, now I'm almost certain to flat on my next ride.
Coming from a racing background, I've been a skinny tire devotee in the past (frequenting WTB Nanos and the like), but a long discourse with Jeff Jones about big tires and rolling resistance and deflection persuaded me to give the 2.4 Ardent a chance. And good thing, because this fatty, one of the widest 29er tires you can get, has become my hands-down favorite. It's as big as it says it is and weighs 800 grams, which is hefty but hardly corpulent for the girth. The mid- to wide-spaced chunky knobs grabbed best in dry to moist dirt and loam, though they tend to skitter a little in sandy and loose conditions. They make up for any slipperiness, though, in sheer size and strength, with a balloon-like round profile and sidewalls so thick they seem impervious to almost everything. I have ridden the same tire for six months in a dozen XC and endurance races, including a couple with brutal rock sections that went on for miles and miles, and not only did the Ardent shrug it all off, but the tire still has plenty of life. One note: The 26-inch 2.4 is just as good as the 29er, and the 29-inch 2.25 is also pretty good, though lacks a bit of the sidewall robustness of its bigger brother.
THE BOTTOM LINE: PIllowy when run soft yet burly enough for all conditions, this tire is my new go-to front end for anything remotely rough.
HUTCHINSON COBRA 29
This tire, which arrived in the U.S. last year, seemed strange at first: the graded tread pattern, with chunky side knobs and low-profile center, seemed to suggest speed, but the not-svelte 750-gram weight intimated otherwise. Much of that weight comes from Hutchinson's Hardskin system, which adds extra material in the sidewalls for cut resistance, and the truth is that, having spent six months riding these in very rocky terrain with nary a flat, I'm fairly convinced that the extra weight is worth the extra protection. I've tried the Cobras both as a front tire in a race set-up (with Pythons out back) and as a rear tire for a heavier configuration, and it definitely excels out back, where it's fast rolling but still plenty grippy thanks to those big side knobs. One note: the low-profile middle tread doesn't play well with mud.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The perfect rear tire for trail and all-mountain riding and endurance racing in chundery terrain. A touch lighter (while preserving the durability) would be even better.
The Waterloo, WIsconsin-based bike company hired new designers to step up their tire game about two years ago, and based on the first iterations we've ridden it was a sound investment. At 480 grams for the 2.0, the 29-1 is the company's superlight tire for speed, akin to a Maxxis Ikon or Kenda Small Block 8, and we've had it in constant rotation on our race wheels since we got a couple last January. Unlike the other tires in this review, the 29-1 is not rated for tubeless use, though we rode them as such anyway. (To clarify, the 29-1 sealed up quickly and easily on Bontrager wheels but took some finagling on Stan's and Easton designs. Once they sealed, we had no further issues.) The rubber is extremely sticky and reminds us of a climbing shoe sole, grasping to smooth and dry trails like Velcro. We've even been impressed in rougher terrain, too, especially with the 2.2 version, which tracks surprisingly well, though we'd worry about the thin sidewalls around big rocks. Also worth noting, we've been equally pleased with the new 29-4, a 2.35 all-mountain design that's tough and grippy and worth considering.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A killer race tire, the 29-1 bears a pretty close resemblance in design and performance to the Maxxis Ikon—and that's a good thing.
Long ago, we were big fans of Continental tires because their supple rubber made for a super comfortable ride. Then the company went on a weight-weenie binge, and for a few years we ripped through the lightweight casings on the sidewalls every time we rode. Those days have passed now that Continental has debuted three different weight tires in every model they make. We've stuck with the heavier ProTection Tubeless Ready and UST Tubeless varieties and, for the most part, have had no troubles. And at 670 grams, the mid-grade ProTection isn't really all that heavy either. The widely spaced knobs are surprisingly grippy for how small they are, and that low profile makes for a really fast roll. They sealed up tubeless just fine, and though we found them tough enough for even the burliest terrain, they still have that cushy, supple, sensitive feeling that we remember Contis for. Our only complaint: The claimed tire widths are majorly overestimated, so the 2.4 is more like 2.2 (and the 2.2 is a pinner).
THE BOTTOM LINE: A great all-arounder that's light enough for XC but still burly enough for the whole mountain.