How to Choose Mountain Bike Tires for Maximum Grip

An important feature to look for in mountain bike tires is sufficient grip. You need to follow some vital guidelines when choosing the perfect mountain bike tire because not all tires suit all terrains. Some provide better grip on a rocky road, while others perform their best on sandy tracks. So it really is important to choose the correct mountain bike tires for maximum grip on your preferred tracks.

To choose mountain bike tires for maximum grip, buy hard tires with a uniform tire tread pattern for gripping roads, medium wide and tall mountain bike tires with oversized knobs for sandy trails, and softer puncture-resistant mountain bike tires with side knobs, and that are siped, for gripping rocks.

Mountain bike tires for maximum grip on roads should be hard and have a uniform tread pattern. 
A mountain bike tire with a patterned tread is better for maintaining a good grip on regular roads. Image Source: LocalBikeShop.

Types of Mountain Bike Tire Grip

The grip quality of every mountain bike tire depends on three main attributes, namely the tire tread pattern, hysteresis grip, and molecular adhesion. All three aspects contribute to the overall grip potential. Combining the ideal tread pattern with the suitable hysteresis grip or tire softness makes or breaks the tire. We will discuss the details of how these compounds work.

For a mountain bike tire to provide the best grip, it needs a wide tire tread pattern with high profile knobs, side knobs, exceptional hysteresis grip, and good molecular adhesion.

Tire Tread Pattern

According to this article from the Journal of Applied Sciences, the tread pattern and knob distribution on a mountain bike tire are fundamental for ensuring excellent grip, but the arrangement of those ridges and grooves on the tire will also determine which type of road the tire is best suited for. 

The knobs on mountain bike tires are there to provide better grip and a smoother ride. Knobs help you maneuver across intersections and brake swiftly.

Beginners or those keen on level dirt trails can benefit from tight and short knobs. They don't have a tough grip but provide low rolling resistance. As a result, you will pull off quickly on a smooth and straight road. If you are a beginner rider then our article that provides helpful information about what mountain bike you should buy and our article about mountain bike sizes will be handy resources to check out.  

Rocky trails need tires with a deeper, more pronounced tread pattern that has larger knobs that are more widely dispersed across the tire surface. They help the rider maneuver through sandy trails or safely ride on smooth surfaces like large rocks. This tread pattern often has side knobs that enable the rider to make tight turns around jagged corners with ease. Tires with this type of tread pattern are less pliable, more resistant, and heavier. Experienced mountain bikers who tackle rougher trails should pick this tread pattern because it provides a much better grip and a safer ride. 

The safety of your ride can also be affected by the pedals on your bike as explained in our article about the benefits of clipless pedals. On a similar note, you might be interested in browsing through our complete guide to mountain bike pedal thread sizes. This guide will certainly give you a lot of useful information.

Mountain bike grips that have a tread pattern like this are ideal for maximum grip around tight corners and jagged edges.
A deep and well-distributed tire tread helps the rider navigate rough terrain. Image Source: Amazon.

You might also find interest in our guide to mountain bike tire pressures. Be sure to check that out too before you go out on your next ride.

Hysteresis Grip

The hysteresis grip activates when the tread pattern fails to provide a good grip. For example, when riding over solid bumps, your tire will come into contact with an obstacle like a small rock. The tire doesn't have the force to push away the rock, so it bends. The tire flexes so that it curves around the rock. But the tire doesn't stay flexed. The hysteresis grip is a result of the distortion and rebound energy of the tire. Once the tire flexes, it immediately returns to its initial form. The faster the tire rebounds into its original shape, the better the hysteresis grip.

Rubber is not indefinitely flexible. The amount of flex when going over uneven terrain depends on its density. Softer rubber yields more around rocks. The lead rubber engineer, Wolf Vorm Walde, describes this action in this interview for Singletracks as a cup and ball method.

The hysteresis grip of a tire allows for the tire to bend and flex over hard objects on a trail and then return to its original shape and form.
The tire rolls over the stone thanks to a good hysteresis grip. Image source Bike Rumor.

Molecular Adhesion

We mentioned how rubber is not entirely flexible, this is because rubber is a combination of two states, liquid and solid. Natural rubber consists of solid material flowing in liquid. Why is this important when we talk about the grip of mountain bike tires? 

The combination of these two molecular states makes the rubber viscoelastic, which means it won't bend indefinitely. But it won't be hard enough to bounce off of obstacles either. Molecular adhesion is what happens when the tire meets an obstacle. As the rider's weight transfers to the ground while riding the molecules in the rubber allow the tire to mold to the shape of the object and then go back to its original shape 

The level of molecular adhesion depends on the tire manufacturer. It's difficult to create a rubber compound that will work well over rock and dirt in wet and dry conditions. This paper from the East Tenessee State University explains how natural oils are combined with rubber compounds. This softens the tires, but they're not always the best thing to add to the rubber compound and some manufacturers add too much oil causing the tires to have soft knobs and low grip.

Different Mountain Bike Tire Materials

Most tire manufacturers are continuously striving to improve their products. The work they put into developing the perfect rubber compound has successfully produced the top three tire materials. Here's how they differ.

Mountain bike tires consist of rubber combined with other additives like carbon black, silica, and oils resulting in tires that vary in softness and resistance. T9 is the softest and T5 is the hardest rubber compound, with T7 being a good average of the two. 

This video by Bike Radar gives some really helpful tips on which tires you should be using.

T9 Rubber

As technology progresses, we're presented with mountain bike tires that have even better grip. The tire tread pattern, while important, doesn't guarantee grip because the components that make up the rubber compounds also make a difference. If there are lots of knobs, but they are soft and gummy then the tire’s grip will not be that great. 

Some manufacturers make the tire base out of soft rubber and use harder rubber for the knobs. But others, like, have taken things a bit further and created the T9 rubber compound which is relatively new. But what does T9 mean? The T stands for tread compound, and the number can go from 5 to 9. The higher the number, the better the grip. 

Here's how the grip works: If the tire is too hard and resists flexing when coming into contact with a rock, causing it to bounce, it doesn't have a good grip. If it's too soft and the knobs are easily compressed, it still has a low grip. So the sweet spot is T9—perfect grip, ideal softness, and no slipping. In the T9 rubber compound, the ingredients are so well balanced that they work well in wet and dry conditions.

The idea behind T9 is to have a tire that is soft enough to mold to the trail when passing over roots, stones, and other obstacles. Soft tires were already capable of this, but they're heavier, more prone to punctures, and make the bike a bit more sluggish. Soft tires also have high rolling resistance. T9 solves all of these issues. 

While a good grip is essential in mountain bike tires, it doesn't have to come at the cost of a bad roll. These Mountain Bike tires improve roll resistance and grip. But T9 compound is not quite perfect since it is designed to rebound slower, it might not be the best choice for a fast downhill trail.

Mountain bike tire grip is affected by the tread on the tire and the rubber compound used to manufacture the tire.
The tire compound as well as knob placement determine the control and grip of the tire. Image Source: Amazon.

T7 Rubber

The T7 compound is harder than T9, which means it has a faster rebound time. On the damping scale, 7 is a good middle-ground. It decreases the rolling resistance, making the rider move faster, especially in rocky downhill sections.

The T7 compound tires are lighter, so pedaling uphill is a bit easier. While these tires allow for faster riding, they provide a lower grip which affects the rider's balance. If you're looking for a medium grip on a moderate trail, T7 tires like these might be the ideal choice.

T5 Rubber

T5 is the hardest rubber compound. But in mountain biking, hard doesn't equate to good. Tires made with T5 have an excellent rolling resistance but very low grip. It's a lightweight tire that performs well on open dirt trails. It has a higher wear rate than the rubbers mentioned above. Enthusiastic mountain bikers that love to hit challenging trails won't benefit from this hard rubber. You will find that most XC tires, like these, are made with T5 as it has the lowest damping point and highest speed. 

The Best Mountain Bike Tires for Grip

There isn't one universal tire that suits every mountain bike rider because each person enjoys a different type of trail and riding experience. For a tire to perform its best, it has to be appropriate for the type of trail being ridden on. To get the ideal grip, you must first define which terrain you will tackle regularly.

Hard mountain bike tires are ideal for gripping roads, medium dual-compound rubber tires with elevated knobs perform best on sandy trails, while rocky rides require soft tires with knobs that are spread out, and sipes.

While the grip of your mountain bike tires is very important, it is also important to consider how well you can grip onto the pedals which are essentially what help you to propel your mountain bike in a forward motion. Our article about how to choose mountain bike pedals for grip maximization explains this in greater detail. 

The knobs on these mountain bike tires are spread out allowing for maximized grip on rocky terrain.
The large evenly distributed knobs on these mountain bike tires ensure a good grip on gravel roads. Image Source: Amazon.

Mountain Bike Tires for Maximum Grip on Road

When it comes to gripping the road, the tire tread pattern doesn't play a huge role, because the surface it’s crossing is significantly harder than the tire. A specific tread pattern won't guarantee better grip so low knobs and a straight uniform pattern will work well.

To grip roads better, you need to pay attention to the material of the tire. Most road tires are single component, contributing to faster wear. Try to look for dual component tires where the base is one type of rubber, usually harder, and the tread pattern is a softer rubber. A hard rubber compound works best as a base since softer rubber will stick to the road, which increases the rolling resistance. 

If you ride through muddy areas regularly, look for spread-out, low-profile knobs, as they will disperse mud faster. Tall knobs grip the mud. You also need a tire with lower TPI or threads per inch. These tires are heavier, but they are less likely to go flat and are puncture-resistant.

Mountain Bike Tires for Gripping Sandy Trails

Sandy trails require tires with tall, hard knobs that will slice through the sand and provide a more aggressive ride with stability. Medium soft and dual-compound rubber are what you should be looking for. 

These tires have harder rubber in the center, helping you move faster through the sand and softer sides that provide more traction. Maximum traction is a must, as sand is one of the most complex surfaces to traverse. Of course, we're not talking about riding through a desert but occasionally hitting some sandy trails. 

Puncture resistance is also essential, as well as choosing a solid casing as these tires have. A double casing or two layers of protection will ensure a higher puncture resistance. Sand is unpredictable and you can easily get a flat, maximum protection is a good idea.

Mountain Bike Tires for Rocky Rides

Hitting rocky trails is an exhilarating challenge, and good tires make all the difference. Choose a soft rubber with a well-spaced tire tread pattern to grip rocks. You will face many hard, slick surfaces, so you need the excellent grip that side knobs can provide.

You also need maximum puncture resistance because the jagged edges of rocks are the most common cause of flats. Dual compound rubber is well suited to this type of terrain–when it comes to the rubber type for rocky trails, the softer the better. Soft rubber sticks to rock so you won't slip even when you're going around sharp corners.

Another tire feature you need to look for is tire sipes. The sipes are small cuttings on the knobs that improve traction and help you move forward faster on slippery surfaces. The sipes bite onto the rock and make rolling over it easier.

And if you’re riding through rocky and mountainous terrain in winter chances are you’ll need to know how to choose mountain bike grip heaters so have a look at our comprehensive guide. 

Mountain Bike Tire Types Matched to the Terrain

Terrain Tyre from Amazon Price
Sandy Terrain Hycline Bike Tire,26"x2.125" ~$25
Even Paths Continental Contact Plus Bike Tire - City/Trekking ~$40-$80
Rocky Terrain Schwinn Bike Tire Black with Carbon Steel Bead ~$25

No matter what type of tire you choose, you're bound to run into a flat at some point in time. When you do, be sure to reference our step-by-step guide on how to change a mountain bike tire. You'll be glad you had it bookmarked!

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