Well, if you're racing or participating in a specific type of event, tire choice is very critical and one should focus on a tire and tread pattern that is best suited for that particular event.
However, if you're just looking for the best all-around tire for all your riding and events, you'll want to focus on a tire and tread pattern that has the most versatility for the majority of riding you do.
This isn't always easy to accomplish since there are just way too many tires and tread patterns out there. There are a few more important aspects of tire choice:
For all-around purposes, weight is less of an issue but you certainly want to pay attention to it. For example, I tend to shy away from "wire-bead" versions of tires. While they are always cheaper, they are always heavier. Wire-bead tires are also nearly always less compliant in terms of suppleness and grip.
Roiling resistance is another critical factor that many ignore. I tend to stay away from any tire that has a flatter profile in the middle of the tread and/or wider separation of knobbies (tread) in the middle or sides. The flatter middle profile means more rubber on the ground, which can be beneficial for traction purposes, but is mostly a higher friction tire on smoother surfaces and, consequently, provides a higher rolling resistance, which is not good.
Tread pattern is one of the most important aspects to focus on since traction and rider safety are critical in almost all scenarios. While specific events may require a specific type of tread pattern, for example speed or traction, a tire designed for speed will not work well in mud or loose dirt conditions. Conversely, a tire designed for traction either in mud or loose dirt conditions will likely not be very fast in dry or hardpack situations.
The final key aspect is where the tire is. There are plenty of good all-purpose tires that work well in both front or rear. However, for optimum performance, a front or rear specific tire and tread pattern is advisable. Tread pattern is generally more critical in the front due to safety and the obvious benefits such as reliable steering input.
So, if you're budget strapped, and considering the same tire front and rear, my advise would be to focus on the front tire characteristics first. This will get you a good setup on the front, which is really the most important for most riding conditions.
Okay, so what tread pattern do I look for in a all-purpose tire? Well, it's very subjective but there are a few things you can do to narrow down the amount of tires out there to consider:
So, now you have a general understanding of what not to look for in a all-purpose tire. While all of the above tires are very good for the purposes they were designed for, they will not be the best choice for the typical mountain bike ride here in the Bay Area, winter or summer.
Okay, so what do I look for? To be honest, as long as you use the above criteria to weed out the wrong choices, most of the all-purpose or all-terrain tires out there have reasonably good tread patterns.
At this point, you need to go back to the weight and front or rear aspects to narrow your best choices down to price and brand, etc.
In terms of weight, I tend to narrow down all-purpose tires to something in the range of 345g to 725g. Yea, this is a wide range, but you'll find few choice at the lower end and all will be pricier than heavier tires. Lower weight also provides a more supple feel but also more propensity for pinch flats or complete destruction of the sidewall.
Once you've settled on your weight and cost threshold, you need to decide if you're going to go with different or same tires on front and rear. One option you have when going with the same tire is reversing the direction of the tires on each wheel. This often helps with rear traction issues with a set that is more oriented towards front wheel performance. That said, I've ran plenty of bikes with the same tires front and rear. I don't consider this ideal setup, but it can work well for the typical rider.
Some good recommendations for same tires in front and rear would be the Kenda El Moco, the Michelin Wild Grip'R tire, the Panaracer Soar tire, and the Continental X-King tire. All of these tires are excellent front and rear choices that will work well in most conditions and terrain.
Okay, what if you want the ideal all-purpose setup and want to maximize performance front and rear? Obviously the choices get much more in this scenario. Starting with the front, I tend to go with a tire that has the best side tread pattern for most conditions, not flat in the middle, and a very round profile. This type of tire is harder to find, but there are several out there that I've used or will use. The Maxxis Ignitor, the WTB Moto tire, the IRC Serac XC tire, again the Kenda El Moco is a good choice, and finally the Kenda Honey Badger.
For the rear tire choice, there are just way too many to choose from since the rear is not as critical in terms of safety and side load traction. For the rear, I tend to focus on a round tread profile and a fast (narrow knobby spacing) with good vertical traction characteristics. To be honest, I've rarely had a traction problem with any tire in the rear. Rear traction is very much related to rider position and pedal force control. So the key things you're looking for in the rear are speed, low rolling resistance, and wear durability. Here are a few that I feel are ideal for all-purpose rear use:
There are really many more good choices in this area. The idea is to focus on a round tread profile, closely spaced tread pattern in the middle of the tread to reduce rolling resistance and reduce punctures.
Okay, now on to the higher performance picks. If you're looking for the hperformance and cost isn't a factor, then you want to go very specific front and rear, as light as possible, and the best combination of low rolling resistance with superior traction characteristics. These are a bit harder to find and they are not typically cheap.
I currently run the Kenda Klimax Lite 1.95 on my 26'r rear. These are probably the lightest tires available for a 26'r. They are fast, 345g lite, and have excellent grip everywhere except high-speed side loading. That said, unless you're trying to beat a hotdog on a 29'r bombing down a super technical trail, they work very well.
I started with these on the front and rear but destroyed the sidewall of the front after a couple of seasons; hit a rock or root really hard and split the carcass badly. These aren't real durable due to their very thin ply sidewalls but they perform very well. The upside to that is the weight and suppleness (feel) you get. I tend to run my tires pretty highly inflated for the lower friction and speed benefits so I would imagine I'd pinch or destroy these tires more often at lower pressure. The Klimax Lite is a 1.9 tire, so not great for heavier riders, rough terrain, or deep dirt/sand.
I currently have a Tioga Red Phoenix 1.9 on the front. This tire is outstanding in all respects. Yes, narrow, but matches the Klimax perfectly and, while not as capable of super fast cornering as a wider tire, the knobbies handle side loads very well and the overall traction is superb. Sadly, can't seem to find these through my normal channels these days, but they are available out there in both 1.9 and 2.0 widths. While there aren't many tires in the 350g range, the Tioga Red Phoenix is only 475g and would work well on both the front or the rear.
Here are a few recommended tires for the high-performance rider. The key considerations are speed, weight, and side load traction. Of course, the tires I use above. Both work great front, or rear:
Now there are plenty of other options in terms of speed tread patterns, but most of them are too minimal in terms of tread to provide all-purpose traction and wear durability. And there are a couple others out there that fit the bill, but these are some I'm familiar with and can provide the best pricing on.
Many of the tires listed above are also available in 29'r and other sizes. Not all, but many.
Oh, what about tire widths? Well, as you can see, I run very narrow tires on my MTB rig. This is a personal choice and has its drawbacks. I chose 1.9 tires mostly for weight reasons. A couple of issues with narrow tires are less pinch/puncture protection and less traction in almost all cases. If you're a pretty good bike handler these issues may not impact you quite as much as the typical rider. For all-purpose tires, I suggest no more than 2.0 or 2.1 widths. Anything more is overkill and much heavier than necessary for the typical Bay Area terrain and conditions.
So, there you are. A good selection of tires based on key aspects and characteristics of all-purpose MTB tires.
Hope this helps those of you shopping for tires as we head into the winter riding season. Of course, I can provide all of these tires via my Parts Express service so please purchase through me!