Guide to XC Tires:

When to choose light and fast versus on the wider and knobbier?


Oh, the dilemma- lighting up your rolling resistance and rotational weight to make the climbs faster versus going for something with a little more bit for spicier terrain. You want traction but you also want light. Let's put in a quick sentence or two introducing you here to set the stage for why people should trust your guide. Something along the lines of, "As a pro XC racer for X number of years, I've tested a lot of different tire setups in a myriad of conditions and put together this fast and easy guide to considering what tires to use for cross-country style riding. 

Cross-country style riding is often done on 100-120mm mountain bikes and XC tires are often chosen to be faster rolling and lightweight. The trade-off is you will have less traction than more aggressive tread tire meant for trickier conditions. There are a few options to consider when choosing your tire setup, so read on to help find your tire match

Choose Your XC Tires



Tire Width

First, let’s talk about tire width.  Your rim width and wheel manufacturer will give you guidelines for what tire width is appropriate for your rims.  Most cross-country tires and rims are for the 2.2-2.4 inch tire range.  A wider rim also gives you more volume and more room to play with lowering your tire pressure.  If you’re curious about what tire pressure to run, here’s a guide I wrote to picking the correct tire pressure for the conditions.


When to go lighter & narrower: 2.2" range?

  • Flow trails
  • Lots of dirt road or double track
  • When to run this in a race scenario? When it’s not technical or easy to get a wheel change

When to go bigger & burlier: 2.3-2.4" width

AKA "down-country"

  • Loose and steep with bigger rocks (marbles to baby heads)
  • Lots of rocks
  • Wet and rooty
  • Opting for more durability


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A Word about Tire Casings

First, consider the type of terrain you are riding.  Is it sharp and rocky? How does the terrain change over the season (does it get looser with bigger rocks?). If you are riding a lot of “flow” style trails meaning trails that are high speed but not super rocky or technical, lower profile “semi-slick” tires are fun.  Another thing to note is that sometimes “semi-slick” tires (like the Reckon Race) are not ideal in wet conditions. I learned that the hard way last year at the most technical XC race in BC- the Nimby Fifty where it poured rain.  I won by only a few seconds and hemorrhaged time on the descents from the wrong tire choice.  In dry conditions like my pre-ride?  They would have been fine.   If you want an in-depth view about tire casing and tread, here is a guide I wrote to demystify the world of tires.


What I like to run

I generally use 2.35 tires for my XC set-up. A favorite combo is the Maxxis Ardent Race 2.35 up front and the Ikon 2.35 in the rear. I’ve also been experimenting and enjoying the new Aspen 2.4 up front.  I also will run the Forekaster 2.35 in the rear when things are wet or particularly loose or blown out on the trail.  I usually do not race the Forekaster because of the rolling resistance penalty.  Wider doesn’t mean you always pay a price for rolling resistance.

Even though I race XC, my style is more like an XC racer with “trail bike” flare and style.  I can mostly (give credit) to moving to BC.  I also specialize in self-supported endurance events.

Here is what I personally consider when it comes to choosing my tire set-up:

I choose 2.3-2.4 tires based on the following (especially as it pertains to racing).  I prefer wider tires because you get better traction and the higher volume means you can run less pressure to grip technical sections better. I typically run the Stans Crest CB7 wheels.

  • My riding style is more trail/enduro but on an XC bike. I also choose to run trail brakes and 180 rotors on my bike which is not really considered a light XC set-up to a lot of people, but I like the control and can gain time on the descents.
  • I do not get to pre-ride a course since my events are so long. I don’t get a preview of the dirt, so I go with what will be best for all-around riding.
  • I do not have support for quick wheel or tire changes like in a lap XC race (and my races typically are not short lap format) If you flat and need a change, you won’t lose much time.  If I do have a flat (and that is very rare), I’ll have to run the same tire for up to 99 miles. Yes, the last time I flatted in a race was a few years about and it was mile 3 of a 100 miler.
  • I go for comfort because I’ll be in the saddle for so long or for many days in a row.
  • I choose on the burlier end of light because of my style of riding. I enjoy to take the A-lines, go hard on the descents, and I don’t want to worry that I’m undergunned.
  • I also choose to run on the burlier side of light because I think you should be very used to the tires you run. The tires you train with should be the tires you race with.  I like to ride the black and double black trails in BC daily as part of my training rides.  As a result, some of the lighter or faster tires are not as ideal.

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Which Tires are Right for You?

There are endless combinations and brands of tires.  There also is no absolute right tire combination.  Everyone has different preferences for ride style.  It’s important to figure out what you like, try to understand why, and maybe even have a few different combinations in your mind for different trail conditions or different times of year.


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