Mixed-Terrain Tire Primer

Choosing a dirt-capable tire isn’t as simple as throwing on the biggest knobby that you can find.  You can certainly go that route if you ride off-road 100% of the time, but if you want to cover pavement, dirt, and gravel on a single set of tires, you’ll need to make some compromises.

The first criteria to consider when selecting a tire for on- and off-road use is size.  And in this case, bigger is almost always better.  You don’t necessarily need a full-sized MTB tire, but you’ll definitely want something larger than a 23 mm slick.  Riding off-pavement is generally more fun (and safer) with lower air pressure, and skinny tires just don’t have the air volume necessary to run low PSI and still protect the tube and rim from rocks, etc.  The larger the tire’s cross section, the more cushion between you and terra firma.  Whatever size tire you choose, make sure there’s enough clearance at the brakes, frame, and especially the fork, so that the wheel can’t become locked by any type of object stuck to the tire.

Tire selection criteria isn’t limited to just size or volume. Different types of tread perform better on certain types of terrain. If the trails and roads you’ll be exploring are composed of very hard, sun-baked dirt, you can get by with a less aggressive tread pattern. In these types of conditions, a lightly treaded tire such as the Panaracer Pasela or Continental Contact will offer enough off-road traction, while still being efficient enough for extended paved riding. If, however, you’ll be riding on soft, loamy soil (or loose gravel), you’ll want something with a more aggressive tread. Thankfully, with cyclo-cross’s increased popularity, there’s no shortage of lightweight, road-friendly knobbies

Whichever type of tire you choose, take some time to experiment with different air pressures.  Often times a change of only 3-4 PSI is enough to turn a so-so tire into a great one.  The key to off-road comfort and control is balancing traction, efficiency, and rim/tube protection.  If you’re feeling every single pebble, you’ve definitely got too much air, and if you’re constantly bottoming out (and flatting), you need to add some air.  Once you find the sweet spot, you should be able to comfortably ride different types of terrain without making any major changes (but it’s not a bad idea to add some air for long paved sections).

Remember that there is no one ideal tire for all conditions and terrain.  Ultimately you have to make a compromise, whether it’s on-road efficiency, weight, or even cost.  Pick the attributes that are most important to you, and look for tires that can fulfill those needs.  Riding and exploring on any tire is always more fun than searching for the mythical “perfect” tire.

4 thoughts on “Mixed-Terrain Tire Primer

  1. great article! I’ve love to hear some experiences from riders on a good all -around tire… I recently switched out the TourRide tires that came stock on my Vaya for a set of 35mm Ritchey SpeedMax tires that they seem to handle pretty much anything SoCal can throw at them… I tried running around 35 front/40# rear my first trail ride and felt like I was going to pinch flat the whole trip… I raised my pressure to 60 front/70 rear and it rides really well on the pavement, a little rough on the trail so I plan to experiment a bit…

    1. Chris,

      I bet the trails in SoCal are a lot like the ones here in Colorado’s Front Range. Lots of sun-baked hard pack with sections of loose stuff on top. The softest I’ve run my Conti tires is 37 PSI (front), and like you, I thought I was headed for a pinch flat. Give 45/55 a try and see how you like it off-road. One thing I’ve noticed is that tires with stiff casings can usually be run at lower pressure than tires with flexible sidewalls. Every tire is a trade-off, and it takes some trial and error to find the right one.

  2. I really like my Pasela 35s on hardpack, gravel, and rumble strips – but was getting into a bit of trouble on a rather sandy rail trail last week. I might try the 37s when they wear out. They do slide around a little bit in the loose stuff but I just unclip a foot and corner more carefully. Wider is definitely better than the nominal 700x32s (really more like 29mm) that I used to use on dirt roads.

    In the fall, when the rain comes, I switch to Schwalbe Marathon Cross 37s for more grip and float on soft ground and mud.

    1. Adam,

      Funny you mention sandy trails. I have a regular 20-mile loop that I ride, and last weekend I decided to ride it in the opposite direction. I had a bear of a time climbing a sandy trail that I normally descend. Not only was the rear wheel not getting any traction, the front wheel was wandering all over the place. Finally unclipped and hoofed it.

Comments are closed.