When it comes to racing tires are one of, if not the most important part of any rider’s set-up. Matching tires to conditions can make or break a race weekend.
Don’t have the right tires for mud? It doesn’t how much you train if you slide out of every corner. Mud tires in dry conditions? You’ll be wasting watts and, somehow, still sliding.
And, of course, no tire is going to go fast if you can’t keep air in it. Walking is slower than riding, especially when you’re pushing a bike.
To find out more about the art of choosing the right race tire, we turned to two Canadians who have a long list of race wins to their names: elite national champion Jenn Jackson and two-time under-23 national champion and BC Bike Race winner Laurie Arseneault. Both represent Canada at World Cups around the world with Canyon MTB Racing. Jackson also spends her winters and rest days wrenching at a bike shop in Kamloops, B.C. After seeing courses across North America and Europe, both know a thing or two about matching your tread to the trails perfectly.
Canadian MTB: What course factors do you conder when choosing a tire combo when you arrive at a new World Cup venue?
Laurie Arseneault: It always depends on the course conditions, like if there are more roots, loose rocks, or bumpy sections. After looking at the track the first day, we choose based on that.
A wet course really impacts our tire choice. For myself, I don’t really question it when it’s raining, I always go with a more aggressive tire for more grips #GripIsYourFriend. In that case, I’ll choose the Rocket Ron.
Jenn Jackson: Primarily the nature of the track surface: moisture content, hardness/looseness of the ground. Secondarily would be what is on the track itself: roots, rocks, wood bridges, etc. How their characteristics change, in terms of sharpness and grippiness in dry or wet conditions, is important too.
For example if the track conditions are firm and dry, I’d run Thunder Burts. It has super low rolling resistance and high contact area for traction over any roots or rocks on course. If there were some loamy or loose areas with gradient (climbs/descents), I’d probably move to a Ralph/Ray intermediate tread combo to get a bit more bite when the ground pushes away or moves. If the climbs are firm but descents getting loose, take an intermediate up front for confidence and then the Burt in the rear for speed.
Thunder Burt's low cente knobs (and weight) make it fast while solid side lugs still connect in corners
Racing Ray is a front-specific tire with tight center treads for rolling speed, but solid intermediary and side lugs for more cornering grip
Racing Ralph, Ray's partner in crime, rolls fast and quiet, but with plenty of edges for traction when putting down watts
Rocket Ron adds more traction with a taller, sturdier tread and enough spacing between knobs to shed mud in wet conditions
If the moisture content is high, sometimes mud is sticky and other times it just makes the course wet. If it’s sticky mud, the openness of the tread becomes very important for clearing so the tire doesn’t pack up. Tire pressure becomes even more important to make sure the tire conforms and gives enough grip rather than deflecting. Speeds are also usually lower when it gets wet, so there’s less risk of harsh fast hits and pinch flats. A softer tire compound and freshness can also make an enormous difference in how tacky it feels on wet roots and rocks.
What about tire casing and rubber compounds? Do you switch those up at all between venues? Or between racing and training?
JJ: If there’s a lot of sharps and harsh edges on the course (usually rocky features, or even smaller ones embedded in the ground), I might run a lower TPI casing. Our tanwall tires have a higher thread count, so are lighter and more supple. But that also comes with the tradeoff of being slightly more prone to tears.
Most World Cup courses are fairly well groomed, so 90 per cent of the time we will run the light version in the grippiest compound available. In Kamloops where I train, however, there’s a lot of rocks and rubble, the ground is hard and abrasive, and the speeds are quite high. So I’m far better off going with the lower TPI casing and harder more durable tread compound.
How is choosing a race tire different than selecting a tire for training?
LA: We always choose what we feel will go the fastest or will be the more efficient, which is not that important during training.
JJ: Racing is about performance for 90minutes – what tire is going to help me get to the finish the fastest. Training is about consistency – what tire is going to help me show up every day and enjoy the ride.
What is your all-time favourite tire combination?
LA: On a daily basis I really like to ride the Racing Ray on the front and the Racing Ralph on the rear. It’s my go-to setup. But I also realllyyyy love the Thunder Burt when it’s dry.
JJ: I just want to run Thunder Burts all the time, but still working on that dream.