In Issue #114 of Singletrack Magazine, we gave James Vincent ten pairs of high-tech tubeless trail tyres to test and review
As a mountain biker, the chances are that you fall into one of two camps – you’re either a habitual tyre swapper, changing rubber and checking pressures on an almost daily basis to suit trail conditions, or you buy a set that just works and leave them on until they fall apart (or tan walls go out of fashion again).
The problem with this second approach is that, unlike in some parts of the world that are blessed with actual seasons that hang around for more than a day, here in the UK we’re lucky if we get more than a few hours of consistent weather. And if it does last, the trails can take so long to dry out that they’ll just be coming good when it’ll start to rain again, flipping conditions on their head and rendering our tyres suboptimal. While this most definitely keeps things interesting from a riding perspective, it also asks one heck of a lot from our tyres, especially if you just want to focus on riding and having a good time, rather than faffing about with tubeless sealant and compressors on a regular basis.
And so this test was born. What we’ve got here are ten high-end trail tyres with a wide range of casings, compounds and technologies, all designed to work in the mixed conditions of UK riding. To keep things consistent we limited the test to 27.5in wheel size, 2.3in–2.4in width, tubeless-ready tyres – all ideally suited to trail bikes. Ranging in price from £35 to £70, these are tyres you’ll want to upgrade to. They are, on the whole, versatile and tough, although some will excel in the wet, and some work better in the dry. We’re not necessarily looking for the lightest or the fastest, but the best all-round tyres that you don’t have to constantly swap around for different trail conditions.
They’ve been tested to destruction in the Lake District, on a mix of steep technical climbs, wild rocky descents and fresh-cut off-piste loam, raced in the Tweed Valley and shredded for weeks in the Alps. We’ve dragged them up fire roads, slid them down wet rocky slabs, and spent more time checking pressures and squeezing side knobs than is healthy. If you rarely leave the hardpack of a fire road or trail centre then these tyres are probably overkill. But if you venture off-piste, into the more varied natural trails that the UK has to offer, or even the big mountains of Scotland and further afield, then read on.
Step Inside My Lab
Even to a self-confessed tyre geek, the array of acronyms, abbreviations and hieroglyphics on tyre sidewalls can be downright baffling: TR, TCS, TRSR, Addix, 60 vs 120TPI, 40a, 42a or 60a, Dual compound, 3C and so on.
Fortunately, it’s all pretty straightforward when broken down and there are three main factors to take into consideration when looking for a tyre – the casing, the compound, and the tread pattern.
The casing is ultimately what holds the tyre together. A tightly woven fabric wraps around the bead and overlaps under the tread. A higher thread count (TPI) makes for more densely woven casing that makes the tyre more supple, but ultimately how thick the casing is will determine how durable the tyre is overall. Most trail tyres use a single or 1.5 ply casing, downhill tyres are dual ply, and in some extreme cases (pun only mildly intended), manufacturers spec triple ply tyres for maximum protection against rock strikes. Most manufacturers also offer additional layers of sidewall protection on some models, to prevent both pinch punctures and slashes to the sidewalls from passing rocks, and these are usually strategically placed to provide maximum protection for minimal weight gain. As for tubeless compatibility, all the tyres on test claim to be tubeless ready (meaning they’re designed to work with the addition of sealant), but they went up with various degrees of difficulty. Some popped up onto the rim with ease, while others refused to play ball even after resorting to putting a tube in.
Typically measured in Shore A (a), from 0a to 90a, with 0 being the softest and 90 the hardest, most mountain bike tyres fall in the range of 40a (super-soft downhill and mud tyres) to 60a (more all-round use). A softer compound will give more grip, but will wear faster and be draggier on the climbs and tarmac, while harder compounds last longer and roll faster, but are less grippy, especially in the wet. Manufacturers are constantly striving for the holy grail of a tyre that has loads of grip, but doesn’t drag or wear too quickly. They look to achieve this by fine-tuning the balance of ingredients in the compound, or by using different compounds in different places of the tyre – you’ll commonly find a harder compound on high wear areas (the centre of the tyre) paired with a softer compound on areas where maximum grip is needed (the edges), and some manufacturers go as far as to use a triple compound construction. By using a super-firm compound at the base, and softer rubber elsewhere in the tread, they’re able to make the tyre less prone to squirming about under load, than with a softer dual compound tyre.
The Tread Pattern
Bigger, chunkier knobs are a good thing right? Wrong! Well, not always… Bigger knobs do a great job of digging down into mud and loose dirt but they can be skittish on harder surfaces as the rubber folds under itself and gives way, leading to a loss of grip just when you need it most. Likewise, smaller knobs are great on harder surfaces and roll faster on tarmac and fire roads, but clog up quicker and lose traction when things get loose. You also need to strike a balance between traction for pedalling, braking traction, and directional grip for cornering, and that’s without taking into account personal preference and riding style. Rounder tread profiles can build confidence in some riders as there is a less noticeable transition from the centre blocks to the cornering edges, while others prefer having a squarer profile with a definite transition onto the cornering edges of the tyre and really love the feeling of those edges hooking up into the ground.
So which tyres should you buy? Well, it’s really a matter of how and where you ride. All the tyres on test shone in some areas and less so in others, so it’s a question of deciding which factors are most important to you and striking that balance.
Winner Of Best Winter Tyre: e*thirteen TRS Race
- Price: £71.95
- From: Silverfish
“Joining e*thirteen’s ever-expanding product line-up last year, the e*thirteen TRSr is intended to slot in between lightweight cross-country tyres and super-burly downhill tyres – in the words of Goldilocks, not too hot and not too cold, but juuuust right. Or to put it another way, a regular trail tyre for everyday use. That might be doing these tyres a slight disservice though, as they’ve performed brilliantly throughout the test and are more than ‘just right’…” Read the full review here.
Winner Of Best Summer Tyre: Michelin Wild Rock’R² Gum-X
- Price: £46
- From: Hotlines UK
“Designed with input from legendary French downhiller turned enduro racer, Fabien Barel, the Michelin Wild Rock’R² is a solidly built tyre for riding hard in dry, rocky conditions. Two versions are available – a softer Magi’X compound, and the ones we have here, with a harder Gum’X compound that weigh in at just over 1kg. With reinforced and sturdy sidewalls, the tyres are a tight fit, but once on they easily went up first time on a variety of rims (DT Swiss EX471, Spank OOZY 345 and Mavic Quest XA Pro Carbon) using just a tubeless pump and we didn’t suffer any air loss or burp the sidewalls at all during the test…” Read the full review here.
Winner Of Most Durable Tyre: Hutchinson Toro Hardskin 2×66
- Price: £54.95
- From: Windwave
“Featuring a dual ply 66tpi casing, huge volume, and massive, widely spaced, square-edged knobs, the Hutchinson Toros look like the sort of tyre a child would come up with if asked to draw a mountain bike. An absolute monster of a tyre, these are the heaviest on test at 1,150g (1,080g claimed). By comparison, the lightest tyres here (Vee Crown Gem) are a featherweight 750g, and putting the two side by side, it’s obvious where that extra weight has gone…” Read the full review here.
Winner Of Best All Round Tyre: Maxxis High Roller II EXO 3C
- Price: £64.99
- From: Maxxis UK
“A stone-cold classic of the modern era, the Maxxis High Roller II has a solid reputation as a go-to tyre for most conditions, offering a great balance of grip, control, braking, and rolling resistance. Weighing in at 906g (pretty much bang on the claimed weight of 915g), the tyres feature a 60tpi tubeless ready EXO casing and folding Kevlar bead, with three progressively softer rubber compounds making up the tread. There’s a harder 70a compound at the base, 50a in the centre for traction and braking, and a soft 42a compound on the edges for enhanced cornering grip. The aggressive and square tread is a subtle but effective revision of the old High Roller (a classic in its own right)…” Read the full review here.
Continental Der Kaiser Projekt Protection Apex
- Price: £74.95
- From: Continental UK
“The first thing we noticed about the Der Kaiser Projekts was that while some of the tyres on test just collapsed onto the floor when uninflated, the super rigid casing of the Continentals meant they looked and felt like they could be ridden without rims, spokes, or air, and maintained their shape ridiculously well. This extra support was borne out when on the bike, and they were super stable, especially on high speed downhill runs where we had absolute confidence in the tyres. Continental keep the durometer specifics of the Black Chili compound close to their Teutonic chest, but comparing it to others on test we would hazard a guess that it’s somewhere in the low to mid 40’s – it is very soft to the touch…” Read the full review here.
Kenda Honey Badger DH Pro
- Price: £40.69
- From: Moore Large
“Honey Badger don’t care. Now that I’ve said it, can we get on with the review? Ahem… There’s a nice burly feel to this tyre, weighing in at a solid (but not too hefty) 997g, just 20g over the quoted 977g. Kenda’s Light Gravity Casing has a generous 120tpi, the ubiquitous protective grid across the sidewalls to reduce the chance of slashes and punctures, and a 42a/50a compound, paired with widely spaced and chunky knobs for traction. According to a graphic on the Kenda website, the Honey Badgers are designed to work best in everything from loose dirt/sand to hard pack, and we should only expect them to start struggling in swampy mud…” Read the full review here.
Schwalbe Hans Dampf Super Gravity
- Price: £64.99
- From: Schwalbe UK
“Fun fact for all you tyre geeks: “Hans Dampf” loosely translates (from German) to Handy Man. The top of the Schwalbe range has recently seen a major update in the form of four new Addix compounds (Speed, Speedgrip, Soft, and Ultrasoft). These replace the previous Pacestar, Trailstar, and Vertstar compounds, and claim to be grippier, faster rolling, and more durable depending on your chosen compound. The Addix Soft compound we have on test is designated with a new red stripe running through the tread, and while Schwalbe is playing its cards close to the chest and haven’t released any information regarding specific compound ratings, after a good squidge of the knobs we reckon this is somewhere between 40a – 45a…” Read the full review here.
Specialized Butcher GRID 2Bliss Ready
- Price: £40
- From: Specialized
“Oft overlooked as they’re just from a bike manufacturer, not a specialist tyre manufacturer, Specialized’s ever improving range of mountain bike tyres is to be ignored at your peril. Yes, Jared Graves may have got a lot of press coverage for the number of punctures he’s got during this seasons rounds of the Enduro World Series, but he doesn’t have to run the tyres, so he must see something in them. Measuring up rather narrow for a 2.3in (even when borrowing an old Maxxis ruler), the Specialized Butcher has a folding bead and the tyres on test feature their tougher Grid casing, which is designed to improve cut resistance and increase sidewall stiffness…” Read the full review.
Vee Tire Co. Crown Gem
- Price: £41.49
- From: Upgrade Bikes
“Although its parent company, Vee Rubber Group, has been around since 1977, Vee Tire Co. only came into existence in 2013, making it a relative newcomer on the scene. In that time, Vee has built up a huge range of fat and plus size tyres and this is reflected in the design of the Crown Gems. Even though it’s listed at 2.35in, it’s comfortably the largest volume casing on test, yet with smaller knobs across the tread pattern it also manages to be the lightest on test by at least 200g, weighing in at just 768g…” Read the full review here.
WTB Vigilante TCS Tough High Grip
- Price: £41.49
- From: Hotlines UK
“Billed as WTB’s premier enduro tyre for big mountains and mixed conditions, the Vigilante is available in two casings (Light and Tough) and two compounds (Fast Rolling and High Grip). All versions feature the Tubeless Compatible System; a UST-licensed bead system designed to ideally hook up with WTB’s own TCS rims to provide seamless tubeless compatibility. However, the tyres are also designed to seal tubeless with other tubeless compatible rims on the market…” Read the full review here.
As we suspected before starting this test, there was no one tyre that stood head and shoulders above the rest. There were tyres that excelled in softer loamier conditions, tyres that flew up the climbs, and those that were indestructible on sharp rock. However, every tyre was compromised in some small way, and, therefore, finding the right tyre for you is a question of striking that balance between the riding characteristics you find important. Likewise, the terrain you spend most of your time on has a huge part to play – if your local trails are predominantly steep and rocky, with less emphasis on the climbs, then you’re naturally going to favour a tougher tyre that’s more resistant to pinches and cuts. Conversely, if your trails are more undulating you’ll be after something with less heft or with a lower profile tread so you can focus on maintaining speed. This goes some way to explain why you often find cliques of riders in an area all rocking the same tyre – once someone lands on a winning combination, word soon spreads and it can be hard to branch out and try something new.
However, don’t be completely swayed by what your riding buddies say. One huge factor that revealed itself through our testing, was how different riders prefer different shaped tyres – even for tackling the same terrain. Now this might sound obvious, but bear with us… some riders responded better to a tyre with a rounder profile – the more gradual transition to the cornering knobs helps to build confidence and gives a more consistent grip on a range of terrain. On the other hand, some riders prefer a much squarer tyre with a definite transition to the cornering edges. This type of tyre rewards a more aggressive riding style, but it can be harder to get the most out of them and it can be unnerving if you aren’t used to it (and we’re not even going to start on how different rim widths can affect tyre profiles).
There’s no getting away from it, we’ve had a lot of punctures in this test, but, interestingly, they weren’t restricted to the lighter tyres. A few of the flats were due to a combination of rider error and bad luck, but some were most definitely down to the tyres.
Whether it’s because they encouraged us to hang things out a bit more and hit the trails that much harder, or if there was something else at play, one thing was clear – punctures suck, and those few hundred grams you’ve saved by fitting featherweight rubber are worth nothing when you’re at the side of the trail getting reacquainted with a tubeless repair kit. We’re not suggesting that you all rush out and fit downhill tyres, but at the same time don’t overlook those burlier tyres in the ranges. As manufacturers find new ways to make tyres more durable without adding excess weight, you might be pleasantly surprised by the additional grip and control available.
Finally, one thing we can totally recommend, and that’s clubbing together with handful of your mates, and buying a few different tyres between you. Hand the tyres out and ride them for a few weeks, then pass them on to the next person – it doesn’t take as long as you think to swap tyres out, and by comparing notes against your fellow riders, you’ll gain so much more knowledge, get a great insight into why some tyres behave the way they do, and hopefully discover a tyre combo that works for you.