When it comes to cross-country mountain biking, the tire is directly responsible for how your bike performs. While a heavy tire will slow you down and add a couple hundred extra grams to your setup, a faster tire lacking in puncture protection can derail all hopes or bagging a good result if you happen to flat. We've seen this play out ad nauseum at both the Absa Cape Epic and the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup circuit – and that's mainly because the traditional XC tire is lighter in construction than some of the burlier mountain bike tires.
While a lighter tire will improve rolling resistance at the expense of sidewall protection, the contemporary XC tire is far superior to the rubber options of yesteryear. A few years ago, the best mountain bike tires measured 26 x 2.0in, but the introduction of the 29er mountain bike (the 650b cross-country bike was a short-lived concept) has made for more capable bikes with bigger travel and relaxed geometry – attributes which have forced tire companies to re-work the best XC tire blueprint. Nowadays, widths of 2.3in and, in some cases 2.4in tires, have become de rigueur at World Cup and Olympic level heralding a new dawn for cross-country mountain bike racing.
So what XC tire should you buy? Well, we've done the hard work and tested the very best options back-to-back, so keep reading to find out which option is right for you, or if you have any queries, scroll to the bottom of this page to browse through Bike Perfect's guide on how to choose the best XC tires.
And if you're after something with some more grip and bite, you may well want to check out our guide to the best MTB trail tires.
Meet the tester
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Bike Perfect's former technical editor started out as a mountain biker — he loves cross country racing and flowing trails. He has twice ridden the Cape Epic and raced nearly every XC stage race in South Africa, finishing on the podium in a few — so he has a good understanding of what's good and what's not so good when it comes to XC tires.
Best XC tires
The Vittoria Barzo is an all-round tire that excels in the technical tracks of cross-country mountain biking and open expanses of marathon racing. I've spent thousands of miles training and racing with this tire in particular and have never been let down by a puncture or mechanical. In fact, the Vittoria Barzos were faultless when I raced the technically demanding Absa Cape Epic in 2016 and 2017.
The tread pattern is burlier than some of the other options listed here but still provides sterling straight-line speed. It's also got pretty decent clearing channels so can perform well regardless of the weather and terrain — even in muddy conditions. Grip levels are predictable so there's never any trust issues with the front wheel, and the tread pattern also makes for a great companion at the rear, although many racers prefer using the Barzo together with the Mezcal at the back.
As far as protection goes, the 120tpi nylon casing is supple but strong enough to ensure the sidewalls are well looked after, which provides the peace of mind satisfaction all mountain bikers crave. While there are lighter, perhaps somewhat livelier options available, the Vittoria Barzo is exceptional in all conditions and the clear winner in this company.
For further info, see our full Vittoria Barzo review.
Hutchinson might not be the first brand you think of when it comes to the best XC tires but the French company's Skeleton Racing Lab tire has all the makings of a super-fast racing option. Having tested these last, it was a lot easier to pick out any foibles in its arsenal, and there wasn't anything that immediately stood out. As you can see from the tread pattern (shallow centre, higher shoulder configuration), it's built for speed but still manages to deliver impressive traction on the whole.
As a result, the Skeleton thrives on hardpack trails or when things get loose and dusty, supplying a really good mix of grip, speed and pliancy with an impressive contact patch, thanks to the large 2.3-inch-wide tire footprint. Ridden in anger, you'll struggle to unsettle the tires but can, in some instances, break traction at the rear if the terrain is really loose or steep.
While some testers have gone as far as to say the sidewalls are weak, I'm yet to experience that for myself. The Hardskin sidewalls look good and have withstood the barrage of roots and rocks I've sent their way. For those looking for a viable alternative to the status quo, the Hutchison Skeleton tire is really good option.
For more, head over to our full review of the Hutchinson Skeleton Racing Lab tire.
Like the Vittoria Mezcal, the Bontrager XR2 Team Issue is a very fast tire with little in the way of rolling resistance — the tread pattern is better suited to dry conditions. Used by the Trek Factory racing cross-country team, the XR2 construction favors speed over puncture protection, which means unlike its bigger brothers — the XR2 2.3 and 2.6 — it lacks the company's 'Inner Strength' casing to stave off punctures.
Out on the trail, the Bontrager XR2 Team Issue rolls with ease and makes no bones about its modus operandi: speed. Grip is plentiful for the low-profile tread-block design but can be found wanting in very loose and choppy trail conditions. Add rain, mud and slippery roots and, again, the XR2s will struggle with adhesion.
Having personally used these tires for many years and raced them over the toughest mountain bike stage races around the world, I can vouch for their versatility and effectiveness to get you from A to B as fast as possible.
Check out our Bontrager XR2 Team Issue tire review for more.
Despite lacking the aggressive tread patterns of some of the XC tires listed here, the Maxxis Aspen EXO is easily one of the most complete tires on the market, built to deliver a balanced combination of speed and control. Lean into the first corner and the tires bite with aggression, allowing you to push harder as you begin threading each corner together, thanks to the pronounced shoulder knobs.
Coming back to the tread pattern, the Aspens cope well in loose and wet conditions, too. They can withstand trail blow after trail blow if you're more of an aggressive rider who prefers hammering over obstacles as opposed to scything through them. As a result, Maxxis has used its EXO sidewall protection to promote confidence through rocky singletrack, and it works.
The strong sidewalls also allow you to dial in lower pressures, which unlocks even more assurance. To find the right balance requires some fettling, as tire pressures are a personal choice. That said, once you strike that balance you won't be disappointed. The Maxxis Aspen EXOs are easily the most underrated tire on the market, and they shouldn't be because they're actually one of the best.
For more information, see our full Maxxis Aspen EXO tire review.
If you're looking for one of the fastest and lightest XC tires around, look no further than the Specialized S-Works Fast Trak. At 595g per tire (29 x 2.20) it's the only option on the list that dips below the 600g threshold, yet doesn't suffer from any hiccups in terms of protection. The brand's Gripton T5/T7 tread pattern and sidewall protection has made it the go-to tire for Specialized's trade teams at races such as the Absa Cape Epic — ask Jordan Sarrou, Matthew Beers, Sina Frei and Laura Stigger.
The supple casing together with the Gripton tire compound has resulted in great ride feel and trail feedback, while boosting compliancy and ride comfort, too. In terms of speed, it's up the climbs and along rolling terrain that the S-Works Fast Traks really show their mettle — an attribute of the tire that allows you to accelerate and punch up steep kickers with absolute ease.
Grip is in abundance, too, despite the somewhat narrow width and small tread blocks, Outright speed is up there with the Vittoria Mezcal and Bontrager XR2 Team Issue. While some might be put off by using a Specialized tire — especially brand loyalists — you're losing out on what is easily the best all-round xc tires on the market.
For a deeper look at this tire, head over to our full Specialized S-Works Fast Trak T5/T7 review.
As far as reliability goes, few tire brands can match Schwalbe's reputation — especially in Racing Ralph configuration. The TwinSkin Performance Line tires pictured here might not be as light as the SnakeSkin-equipped Evolution Line, but still possess the basic tire architecture and tread pattern. The Racing Ralph has, traditionally, been used as a rear tire in cross-country and marathon racing, but can be used at the front when conditions permit.
As is the common theme here, dry conditions is where it fares best, as its tread pattern and siping marks can truly deform around the terrain. For a relatively light tire complete with a low-profile tread pattern, the Racing Ralph was adept at dismissing the fast and semi-technical trails of the Minley MTB trails. Front end grip was no issue but the biggest benefit was at the rear where the tread pattern helped boost traction up climbs.
Of the tires gathered here, the Racing Ralph along with the Vittoria Barzo are probably the best in wet conditions. The Addix compound works well across the entire terrain spectrum. The only issue we've experienced in the past is that, despite the good sidewall protection, it's still prone to puncturing in rocky terrain.
For more, check out our full Schwalbe Racing Ralph Performance Line tire review.
Of the eight tires I had on test, the Pirelli Scorpion XC RC Team Editions fared the most impressively on the dry and dusty trails of Minley and my very own test track in Puttenham Common in the Surrey Hills. Pirelli has struck a superb balance when it comes to speed, grip and cushioning — the latter of which can be further dialled in, thanks to the larger-volume 2.4-inch footprint.
The tires pictured here are the Team Editions, distinguishable by the yellow coloring. They also feature the brand's reinforced ProWALL casing for added protection against flats and the like. In terms of the tread, Pirelli keeps the XC tire theme strong with a fast-rolling center-tread pattern that morphs into wider shoulder lugs. The result is exceptional straight-line speed and cornering grip. Flick it into a corner and the tire bites hard - you can feel them gripping, sometimes even hear the shoulder lugs as they fight for traction — which allows you to push harder and faster.
Despite the the supple 120tpi casing and single-compound SmartGrip rubber, the XC RCs are not particularly light, tipping the scales at 748g per tire. The upshot here is that you don't feel the added heft on the trail, no doubt a result of the impeccable grip that helps you make up time on the downs.
When trail conditions are dry, dusty and loose, few tires grip as hard and roll as fast as the Vittoria Mezcal. With width options ranging from 2.1 to 2.35in, there really is a Mezcal for everybody. The construction, casing and tread pattern has been designed to deliver a tire that provides unflappable levels of confidence.
I tested the Vittoria Mezcal on the dusty trails of Minley in Camberley, Surrey at the Torq in your Sleep 12-hour MTB race and came away mighty impressed by the assurance and amazing levels of control it provided. The tread pattern, while low-profile and not aggressive, managed to dismiss the course with relative ease — a course that comprised loose, off-camber bends, rooty sections and appreciably steep climbs.
Find the right tire pressure and the Vittoria Mezcal will reward you with speed and control, allowing you to really dig the wheel into every corner without the fear of washing out. The only real downside to this particular application is when things get wet - the tread pattern has a propensity to clog up which negatively impacts grip and control. Overall, the Vittoria Mezcal is a superb XC tire that has never let me down. I'm also yet to puncture on them.
How to choose the best XC tires
Like many of the best mountain bike tires, there are myriad attributes that affect the way a tire performs, including rubber compound, durability, puncture protection, tread pattern, tire width and tubeless compatibility — the latter however, has become standard fare over the past few years.
As discussed earlier, cross-country tires have smaller knobs down the center and wider knobs on the shoulder. This less aggressive tread pattern bolsters rolling efficiency and speed on the trail, and allows the manufacturer to keep weight to a minimum. This however, comes at the expense of puncture protection but contemporary developments in tire compounds have improved the overall formula and the best XC tires are able to withstand a lot more abuse than before.
Most of the tires listed here incorporate a proprietary rubber formulation or compound, that dials in an extra layer of durability, grip and comfort. These attributes can be further unlocked by going wider or larger depending on the bike and wheel size you prefer — for example, a 29 x 2.35in tire is going to grip harder and roll better than a 26 x 2.20in.
Thankfully, there's an array of options available to suit your style, bike and more importantly, the kind of XC riding you prefer.
Are wider mountain bike tires better when it comes to XC riding?
This is a tricky question because it all comes down to the trail you're riding. Is the trail loose, rocky or rooty, or is it fast-rolling with little in the way of technical features? Throw some rain and mud into the picture and things get even more complicated.
As cross-country mountain biking becomes more technical, tire widths have naturally increased to cope with the demands and general lack of trail grip. Looking at 29-inch tires specifically, 2.25in — which was once considered wide — has become the entry point. Riders are now opting for widths of 2.35 to 2.40in as this setup allows you to reduce pressure and improve the tire's ability to deform over obstacles, the result of which improves adhesion and speed up and down technical trails.
That said, a narrower tire will be quicker over less technical, flowing courses where rolling speed is the order of the day. Tires with widths of 2.25in or less may also provide better grip in muddy conditions, as they're able to cut through the surface easier than a wider option can.
Is lighter better for XC tires?
Again, lighter tires have pros and cons and it all comes down to the trail you're going to ride. At the end of the day, if you're not Nino Schurter, there's no need to fit 500g tires, as there is always a trade-off and more often than not it ends in a disappointing flat.
The average weight of a good XC tire is 700g — these options have been designed to deliver the best all-round compound to stave off punctures, improve grip and prioritize rolling speed. Of course, you can pick up some really impressive options that weigh even less but we recommend erring on the side of caution — nobody enjoys walking the bike back to the car park.
What tire pressure should I use?
Many riders forget that most of your bike's grip comes from the front wheel and tire, and no matter how much weight you place over the front wheel, if you're running too much or too little tire pressure, your bike is going to misbehave.
Most tire manufacturers have a tire pressure chart online, which will give you the 'ideal' pressure based on your weight and tire size. This is a good starting point, but we advise playing around with your mountain bike tire pressures until you find the balance that works for you.
As a rule of thumb, most riders will run the front tire a little softer than the rear. This improves front-end grip but also adds some extra puncture protection at the back as the rear wheel is a lot harder to move out of the way owing to its fixed-axle positioning.
Our advice: experiment.
Are XC tires tubeless?
Tubeless mountain bike tires are now standard on all but the cheapest mountain bikes. The advantages of a tubeless setup far outweigh a tube-type tire, and even if you purchase one of the best mountain bikes for beginners, you have the option of upgrading to tubeless compatible tire.