Ken Avery from Vittoria Talks Mountain Bike Tires [Podcast]

Ken Avery is the Vice President of product and marketing for Vittoria, the world’s leading producer of bicycle tires (?). As an industry insider for many years, Ken has a wealth of knowledge on everything from mountain bike product design to marketing.

In this episode, we talk about how mountain bike tire design and technology evolved over the years, the tradeoff between tire weight and traction, and how preferences for lower tire pressures have influenced tire design. Ken goes over the basics of tire construction and talks about current demand for various widths and diameters. We also discuss tire inserts, sealant, and get the inside story about Ken’s involvement in the introduction of the original Maxxis Minion.

So how did you get your start in the bike industry?

I grew up skateboarding and I always liked individual sports and things like that. And I played regular sports, too, but it was the kind of thing where I always was drawn to that type of a thing where there weren’t rules, you could do it however you wanted and kind of a self-expression thing.

A buddy of mine who I used to skate with, he grew really tall, really fast when we were kids, and his knees were really weak, and his doctor told him to ride a bike. And that was right around when mountain biking was starting to pop, in the early… it was literally 1990 when this happened. I’m 42 years old, but I still act like I’m 20, I guess.

So anyway, he got a mountain bike, this new mountain bike thing, and I was like, that’s pretty cool. You can cover a lot of ground on that thing. And we lived in suburban Eastern Connecticut, almost by Rhode Island, kind of. There were just a ton of fire roads everywhere and trails and stuff. And so I used to ride an old Schwinn 10 speed around and explore these trails, and then finally saved up and ended up getting a mountain bike. And then I was totally hooked and grew up racing through my teens, did okay.

The super short version is, I bumped into Kathy Sessler, who actually runs the Syndicate team now. And she was at the Mount Snow World Cup. Mount Snow, Vermont was sort of our East Coast big mountain bike race at the time. And so I got a flat tire during practice. She gave me an inner tube. I was totally starstruck that a pro would give some kid an inner tube. And literally, was so floored and went out to a bike shop, bought an inner tube, came back after the race and gave it to her.

And she thought that that was funny, because she was a pro who rides for a tire company. And anyway, we just kept in contact and I would send her drawings from study hall, of tires that I was thinking about. And literally when I was in high school. She would fax them, fax machines were a thing, because it was the ’90s. And she would fax them to Maxxis. Maxxis was Cheng Shin Tire and Maxxis had been making bike tires for a couple years at this point, but they were still very new.

And then they started sending me tires to test, and by that point, I had gotten a UCI license and had gotten an upgrade and all that stuff, and was doing okay racing. And then just kept on giving them feedback. And when I got out of college, Russell Webb, at the time was their marketing guy and running the bike division and he gave me a job right out of college and we started designing tires with all the athletes.

Wow, that’s super cool. Sounds like you were a hustler from an early age.

You know what it is, man? I think what it comes down to is that I just love bikes and I love the scene and I’m always so grateful to still be a part of it. And it all started with an inner tube. I could have just been like, “Thanks, for the tube, see you later,” you know what I mean? But for whatever reason, I was so psyched that I was still able to ride that day. Not to sound weird or whatever, but it changed my life from that moment in a way, you know what I mean? So that was my deal.

Yeah, that’s definitely one of the cooler stories I’ve heard about how somebody has gotten into the industry.

Thanks, man.

So you’ve been around a while. Not as long as some other folks, but how has mountain bike tire design and technology evolved over the years?

Man, that could be a podcast in and of itself, I feel like. Yeah, it used to be that, first of all tubeless, just to start with that. But everything used to have an inner tube and a lot of things were wire bead and compounds were nowhere near what they are now. And everything was your 70 or 80 durometer compound and rim brakes were the thing.

So you had to design around all those parameters and people didn’t really know what really worked on a mountain bike tire, because it was like the Wild West at the time. You look at a tire say like the Panaracer Smoke which was the first, I think it was the first real aggressive mountain bike tire, where you looked at that and you said that thing’s badass and whatever.

And even that, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense on the front, because it’s a big paddle. So it’s funny, things have really gotten very specific per category, as well as just with materials. So obviously folding beads came in, sidewall protection came in, tubeless ready came in, compounds, really directional treads, it used to almost look like it was the sole of a hiking boot or something. You look at a specialized Ground Control from the ’80s, ’90s, early ’90s era and it almost looks like a hiking boot or something in a way. It doesn’t scream like, oh, that’s going to roll fast and hook up. You know what I mean?

And the reason I mention that, I don’t say that to speak poorly of that tire. The reason I mentioned that was because that thing was the bomb back then. That was one of the better tires on the market, and looking at it now, you’re like, oh, wow, it looks so simple.

A lot has evolved, a lot has come from motorsport, and then just over time, what has worked and what hasn’t, so you learn along the way.

Yeah, that’s interesting. And yeah, you hint at it too, the bikes have evolved. And so that’s made the tires evolve with it. Taking brakes, for example, now you have way more stopping power. And so the tire is going to need to react differently to that than it would have in the rim brake days, I guess.

Oh, yeah, just the sheer power that you have from a disc brake now, but also your riding is different, right? So you brake later, because you can rely on that power of a disc brake. So that puts an awful lot of stress on that tire, and in a really short amount of time, and then you’re also in a time period where we’re trying to use softer compounds. So how do you make that grippy or softer tire last longer?

These are the conundrums that you try to solve and design around as a product guy in the bike biz these days.

Yeah, that’s really interesting. Obviously, a lot of different competing factors and things that you’re trying to optimize for. I want to ask you, what’s going on with tire widths right now? Seems like that’s the question every year, but obviously a lot of new options are coming and now some of them are going. Do you think things have settled down a little bit? Or even if they haven’t, where are we right now?

Yeah, I think within mountain bike, things are definitely starting to streamline a bit. You look at things like in say the gravel segment or emerging segments between mountain bike and gravel, you’re seeing a lot of larger gravel sizes now, which is almost starting to flirt with a cross country size in many ways.

And you’re starting to go from, you’re measuring from the ‘c’ size. Is that a 48c or a 47c? Is it a 2.0 yet? When you get to that 50 mark, people start calling it the inch size.

It sounds like it’s going the same direction the mountain bike tires did for a while, right? Where it’s just like let’s go wider, wider., until we reach the point where that’s too wide. Is that what’s happening in gravel?

Dude, 100%. Yeah, man, I have this theory that in the bike biz, somebody will acknowledge a trend, right? And then they’ll say, oh, well, I want to do more of that and more and more and more and more, because they think more is better. And sometimes it works to a point and then they say whoa, whoa, whoa, that was too far, they back off and they correct it.

And I think we saw that with 3.0 tires and stuff like that. And then they backed off and then they have come back down to somewhere between a 2.4, 2.6 kind of a sweet spot for a lot of trail bikes. And the funniest part about this being someone almost from the old school anyway, is that, dude, it all still starts with the two. You know what I mean? 2.1, 2.8. How many tenths of an inch can you really slice and dice this thing and have this whole revolution within an industry?

It’s hilarious to me, but if you put a top racer on one or the other, yeah, sure, races are won and lost in thousandths of a second, I get that. But as far as fun factor and just going out and whatever, what I always say is ride what’s fun. I have a super crazy XC Hardtail. I have an Enduro bike, and they’re both fun for different reasons, and they’re way different. I don’t think you’re going to have one universal solution.

I also do think, getting back to what you said a second ago about the gravel scene emulating mountain biking, it’s 100% that. If you go to a gravel race, you’ll see people riding cyclocross tubulars, you’ll see people riding fat bikes. Literally, it’s crazy. No, for real, if you go down to the Mid South event, we’ve gone to that event the last few years, it used to be called Land Run. And that literally, you’ll see people on 2.0 hardtails, you’ll see people running a traditional 38c gravel tire. You’ll see a lot of that, of course. But it’s like whatever is fun.

From what should people ride, yeah, sure, top of the bell curve for mountain bike right now, like I said, it’s going to be anywhere between that 2.35 really, say 2.6. And that might sound like a lot to some people, but you’re really talking about not a lot of width difference there. And so depending on the tire tread and design and setup and your wheels and all that stuff, it’s not vastly different in the grand scheme of things. But there are advantages.

Yeah, I was going to say, it’s hard these days to, you look at somebody’s bike from a distance and people like to play the guessing game. Oh, what are those, two, fours? Two, six? And you can’t tell because it does have a lot to do with the rest of your setup, your rim width and all that kind of stuff.

Yeah. And that’s really been another big curve ball lately, the last few years anyway, because ETRTO was actually changing. For people listening, ETRTO is basically a standardization within the industry that ensures that tires and rims fit properly together. And so within that, there are established design parameters where you’ll basically say this width of a tire should go on this width of a rim, and it’s within a range.

And so with all that said, if you put a 2.25 tire on a 30mm internal rim, it’s probably going to measure more like a 2.35 or maybe even a 2.4, depending on the tolerances. And then what people do is then they go online and then they’ll share their experiences, positive or otherwise. And some people get a little upset about it, but at the end of the day, it’s like dude, you put a tire on a wider rim, it’s going to get wider.

Right. It’s just math. It’s just physics. Well, how important is tire weight to consumers right now? Do you see more riders that are willing to trade a little bit of extra weight for better traction?

Yeah, traction and durability. I think that’s absolutely something we’re seeing. A long time ago, it used to be how light can you make this? And then people started realizing that, well, if you’re going to pinch flat the thing in two seconds, it doesn’t really matter how light it is, because again, it’s not going to be super fun, right? It comes back to just what’s fun, right?

So there’s been a movement I’ve seen in the industry, across really all categories, where even World Cup XC guys, they’re running larger volume tires, so you have a bigger air cushion. But also, then people are more willing to run tire liners or sidewall protection type tires or things of this nature. And it’s all in the name of durability, and then also traction, because you can run them to slightly lower air pressure, so you have a better footprint.

Whereas before, if you ran them at a lower air pressure, you were definitely going to pinch flat. Now with a liner, especially with a liner, and especially with the newer casings, you can get away with a little lower pressure, a little better traction, especially if you’re running a little bigger air volume.

Yeah, and it’s interesting you mention in that statement, even cross country pro athletes, they’re the ones, if anybody is trying to save weight, it’s them. And even they are seeing that it’s okay to have a little extra weight as long as you get these additional benefits.

Yeah, the worst thing you can do is be one of those guys and train for years, you fly around the world for some race. If you look, the Olympics, something like that situation, and you get a flat because you wanted to save like 30 grams. It all comes down to that sometimes. So, yeah, there’s definitely a movement to do that.

And the reason I bring up cross country is because as you say, that is the spot where you think that they would be the most crazy. Downhillers, forever have just been about grip and durability, grip and durability. Don’t get a flat, make sure the tire hooks up. Probably in the reverse order. Make sure the tire hooks up first, and then make sure you don’t get a flat. That’s kind of how it works.

Yeah, that’s fascinating. So what are you seeing in terms of demand for 29er versus 27.5 diameters?

So, yeah, there’s definitely been a movement for 29ers, obviously, across all categories. Really, last year, you saw, a lot of 29er downhill bikes and things like that. And I use that as an example because 29er is the same as 700c, which is a road size, which is the predominant road size. And then that came over to cross country, and then it made its way through all the other categories, finally, into that downhill scene.

So that said though, I’m 5’9, Joe average. I ride at 29er. But I do like the pop and the feel of a 27.5. And I have a lot of friends who used to ride 27.5, and especially people who are not tall enough to handle a 29er bike or just kind of that big wagon wheel gyroscopic effect of a bigger wheel, where all that weight is further away from your hub.

It really depends on what you’re doing, and what you’re trying to accomplish. But I do think that we have seen more of a push into 29ers across really all categories. I don’t think that that’s terribly, that’s not cutting edge news or anything, but at the same time, where you’re going to see obviously 27.5s I think still are people who want to run a little bit extra tire volume.

So, obviously that whole thing about, if you run a roughly a 2.6 to a 2.8 [inch tire], 27.5 is roughly the same as a 2.35 29er, in terms of outer circumference. So from frame clearance as well as bottom bracket height on your bike, they’re interchangeable around that size.

I think a lot of mountain bikers obviously are hearing the 29ers are I guess more popular at the moment, definitely more new bikes that are coming out seem to be 29ers. But then I think they’re also wondering is this just a marketing push or is this for real? Can you speak to that? Do you see that demand? We sell three times as many 29er as 275? Or is it 50/50? Where are we at right now?

I definitely think that there was two years ago, three years ago, there was obviously a huge spike in 27.5. And certain brands full on stopped making 29ers and they all they went all 27.5 for a season or two, and then they’re back doing 29er stuff now. But it’s definitely noticeable accelerating on a 27.5 versus 29er, it’s like shifting a gear on your bike. It’s going to accelerate faster.

But when you hit big bumps and things like that, or just in terms of rolling, once it’s up to speed, the 29er does seem to roll a little better. I’ve had a lot of experiences with both, and my personal take on it is that I’m not terribly surprised to see those who can ride a 29er do so. But at the same time, my wife, she loves riding or 27.5 bike with a 2.6-inch tire on it and just smacking stuff.

And again, it comes back to what’s fun. I do think there will be a place for 27.5 in the market. But I do think that, it’s not even I think, it’s a fact, 29er is definitely across all categories now. All my Enduro buddies, every single one of them has basically switched back to 29er. That’s what I’m seeing anyway. I don’t know if that answered your question.

Yeah. I think so. I think speaking to what people think is fun, it sounds like there will always be people that think that one is more fun or better suited for them than the other. I guess people, they really want to know too, are these tires going to be available? And it sounds like you’re saying they will because there’s demand for it.

Yeah. Especially with, we support the kids’ racing leagues around the country, there’s a number of them. NICA, in New England, it’s called NEHSCA. My daughter is 11 and she rides all the time. And she’s not quite on a 27.5 wheel yet, but she will be, before she rides 29er. As new riders are coming up and we’ve seen immense growth in the youth market, in racing or otherwise, just participation wise.

And so obviously, as you’re growing, you’ll hit a 27.5 before you hit a 29er. I think that’s notable.

Yeah. Interesting. So walk us through a really simple explanation of the anatomy of a mountain bike tire. What are the key parts and how do they all work together?

Some people actually even call it a carcass, but the casing is really the framework that you build everything off of. And for the vast majority of mountain bike tires, that casing is going to be made out of nylon cloth. And it’s going to be measured in what’s called TPI, which is threads per inch.

So if you look really up close on a mountain bike casing, you’ll actually see threads. And TPI is just that, the more threads you can fit within an inch on a single layer, the thinner the threads are, which means that they’re more flexible. And so that’s why on the road market you’ll see, Vittoria makes cotton road tires for our pro level competition tires on the course a lot.

And the reason that we make those out of cotton instead of nylon for that level of racing, it’s simply because they’re super supple. So when you hit a crack in the road [they flex and] they have less rolling resistance. So the same is true on a mountain bike tire, you’ll see tires from a department store and they have very low TPI. So very thick, thick threads within that nylon casing.

Typically, on a race mountain bike tire, you’re going to see something like 120 TPI is a very common thread count. And that’s pretty much what we use through anything that’s a tubeless ready […] tire. So that’s the first thing that they build off of.

Then there’s a big roller machine, it looks like a pasta maker almost. And they squish this material through it with rubber, and the rubber gets basically squished into the material. And that is the casing material. It’s called a topping colander. So once that’s done, you can make it black, you can make it tan wall, you can do all sorts of crazy things with that.

But a major important piece of the casing is then going to be the bead. So that bead used to just be steel wire. Now, it’s aramid, which is commercially known as Kevlar, but basically, the casing material gets wrapped around that, and that’s essentially what fits into the hook of your rim.

The difference though, is that for a tubeless ready bead, it’s a different shape. So if you’re talking about a traditional hook rim, not this whole hookless thing, we’re not going to get into that, but basically a regular hooked rim where you look at your rim and there’s a little lip on it.

If you were to look at that, if you could cut your rim and look at the end of it in cross section, there’s going to be a square corner in there. And so tubeless ready beads have a much sharper bead shape that’s much more square, rather than that traditional teardrop shape that you would just get if you wrapped a piece of material around a wire. And that’s made to really lock in and hold the pressure and also create an airtight seal.

So for that reason, beads have really become something that have really, I should say evolved over the last 10 years especially. And then there’s a bit of the bead called the chafer. And the chafer basically is what pads that and creates that positive seal. So on a higher quality tire, you’ll see a very defined line right above the bead on the tire. And it’s basically made to do that, to create that really positive seal for tubeless use as well as protection, so that your rim doesn’t cut into the tire.

So that’s casing 101 in a nutshell. Does that make sense?

Yeah, yeah, definitely. So then you have the rubber that’s molded on top of the casing, I guess for lack of a better word. It’s all glued together, melted together, vulcanized, yeah, that’s a good word.

Yup, it is. It sounds pretty dorky. But that’s essentially what it’s called. And so basically what happens is, for instance, if you’re making one of our 4C tires, we have a 4C machine that has four separate, they look like injectors, essentially. They’re a big nozzle. And the thing basically, the rubber gets fed into this big funnel, and it gets squirted out this end piece that goes onto a conveyor belt.

And those four different types of rubbers, those four different types of compounds are basically laid down onto a flat conveyor belt. And then what they do is they’ll actually cut a length of that, and they’ll wrap it around the casing, and then they’ll put it into the mold. This is a very simplified process right here, but it’s much more complex, but basically, essentially that’s what happens. And then it gets pressed up into the tread molds, which is obviously a negative of what the tread looks like. And a few minutes later, they open the mold and out pops the tire.

So in terms of the way the compounds work and how it’s done, there’s obviously just thousands of different compound variations out there. We use compounds that are enhanced with graphene. And we’re actually on our second generation of this. People ask me about graphene a lot within compounds.

The point of it, we’ll just start there. The point was that we wanted to, again, take away any compromise. We wanted to make something that as a performance tire lasted longer than typical performance tires. We wanted to make it grippy, but yet still roll fast, because oftentimes, if you make a tire too grippy, it’s not going to roll fast, things like this.

So we did a ton of testing. And we actually came out with our second generation of graphene last year, graphene 2.0, where we were able to actually functionalize and really pinpoint metrics that we were trying to achieve within different categories. An Enduro tire has to grip a lot better than, say, a tire that you’re going to use for city use, where city use is going to be much more about longevity or something like this. So there’s different things you’re trying to achieve here.

The cool thing about that whole process has been that Vittoria was definitely a leader in this, which is really cool. We’re seeing other companies hop on now. Oakley made clothing with graphene in it, for the heat dissipation properties and things like this, and you’ll see tennis rackets and skis and things like this.

So many companies they’ll use terminology to describe their compounds, and it’ll be a marketing term and they have to call it something, I get it. But people have asked me, dude, is this totally hype? Is this true? What do you guys…

The coolest thing is, you literally can say, you can google it. We’re not making this up. We literally tell you what’s in the compound. It’s not like we’re calling it something and then it’s implied. We call it a graphene compound because we put graphene in the compound. It’s literally that simple.

Yeah, it makes it a lot harder to compare. We run into that all the time as journalists, everybody’s got their, like you said, their marketing term for the thing that they’re doing, but it’s like if everybody’s doing something different than you can’t compare.

The default answer that we typically give is, Popular Science wrote an article about our compounds. Popular Science doesn’t care about bicycle marketing. They’re a science based publication, they wouldn’t have wrote that article if it wasn’t something notable about the science behind it. So that was a cool little milestone for us when that happened.

But yeah, so compounds really at the end of the day you want the tire to, like I said, you want it to grip and you want it to last as long as possible, given the use. So much like tread design, which we’ll get into in just a sec, but basically you’re designing a product around a specific terrain or use. So whether that terrain is pavement or dry, dusty trails, or rocks or roots or whatever, you have to take all that into account.

And so the compound is definitely a critical piece of that, as well as just the things that consumers expect when they buy something that is a premium product. If you’re buying a premium XC tire, you’re going to want that to roll fast. And so you have to make sure that that’s one of the check marks that you design into it.

And then once you have your casing and all that, and the compound you want to use, it does come back to tread design.

So fast is a funny thing. So what’s fast in one place is not fast and another and if you look at say a mud tire and you have big, spiky cleated knobs, well, that’s designed to penetrate into the ground and then clean out on the next rotation. Whereas if you have a hardpack tire, that’s a surface phenomenon, you’re never actually digging in to the terrain, you’re trying to create surface area that then has grip as a result. It’s like a basketball shoe on a basketball court.

And then there’s everything in between, if you have a mixed use tire, you have to have enough surface area for that kind of a situation but you have to have enough room to clean, but then it still has to roll fast, because oftentimes, if you have a lot of voids on a tire, it’s not going to roll as fast. Things like that.

So it gets super duper techie and what we’ve done at Vittoria, having been just a trend design dork since I was in high school, literally tried to create tread designs that have enough room to clean but on the surface of say each knob or each cleat, depending on what tire you’re talking about, we put some sort of a texture like siping to maximize the grip, given that small surface area. So, as an example, if you were to ride on a muddy trail, yeah, great, your tire is going to cut into that. But inevitably, you’re going to hit some rocks and roots or something elsewhere and then your tire is not going to dig into a rock or a root.

So you have to make sure that on top of that cleat, you have some siping, which is basically nothing more than an engineered groove. And then it can grip on that surface as well. And then it’s going to be a mixture of everything all together.

So I don’t know, it was a lot. Does that make sense so far?

Yeah, definitely. There’s obviously a lot going on and a lot of thought goes into it. I think for a lot of people, as consumers, maybe you look at a tire in the store, the first thing that pops out to you is probably the tread pattern. That’s the thing that’s most obvious, but yeah, it’s helpful to understand how the compounds play into it and also the sidewalls and the beads and everything, really, it’s a complete package.

Yeah, at the end of the day, it has to work together as one package. It all comes back to getting feedback, athlete feedbacks, critical. Having been a tester athlete years ago, and I understand, I can appreciate what these testers are going through, and they’re trying to make sure that they have a successful race or whatever. And then also trying something step by step, incremental changes, to see if we can make improvements on certain aspects.

Oftentimes, we have product validation before we even launch the product. I know, for instance, Corsa Speed is a road tire and I know this is a mountain bike podcast, but I’ll just say really quick, on the grand tours that [tire] won every single individual time trial. And it was one of those things where I was like, wow, okay, that definitely works.

On the mountain bike side, I was standing at Interbike a week after we launched the Barzo XC treads in 2015 when it won world championships. Pauline won that race that year, just like she did this year. And unfortunately, she wasn’t on our tires this year.

But when she won her first mountain bike world championship, she was on the Barzo and it was literally weeks apart from the trade show. It was crazy. So that kind of a thing can happen. And it’s fun when it all comes together. And although at the same time, it’s not typically a huge surprise, because the process is structured such that you have this validation before it gets launched. So it’s never done until it’s launched.

So it’s the kind of thing where it’s not going to get launched unless it’s to that level anyway. And that’s the reason that since really that moment, our product line especially has been vastly different than it had been in the past.

Well, you’re talking about mud tires specifically, and then contrasting that with a hardpack tire. So, mountain bikers like to talk about owning a quiver of bikes to handle a variety of different conditions or trail types. What would a quiver of mountain bike tires look like? Could you put together two or three sets of tires to do the job? Does everybody need one set of mud tires and one hardpack? Does that even make sense?

It totally does. The first thing it’s going to be based on where you live, if you’re in Arizona, you’re not going to really need mud tires a whole lot. But in New England where I live, we have really four true seasons. And then oftentimes, you have this weird thing where it overlaps.

Quite literally yesterday, it was 60 degrees, and I was riding outside in shorts, and I know to somebody in Georgia that might seem like it’s still pretty cold. But anyway, I was like, hell yeah, it’s warm. I’m going to wear shorts today. And then dude, today it snowed. You literally have this temperature swing.

And so you have to have a quiver, as you say, as a mountain biker to make sure that you’re prepared for stuff. And it’s not realistic to think that people are going to change their tires based on the weather. You’d be changing your tires every day, especially here, but seasonally, you’ll have something to ride in the spring, something you ride most of the season, and then something you ride probably in the winter months.

And so just to map out an example of that, my setup is that I typically run a larger volume, more aggressive tire all winter that can handle some snow and things like that, and then I’ll run in the springtime, something that’s going to clean really well, because the trails are going to be a little sloppy and you have to respect all the trail work that gets done and all that stuff. Always doing a lot of work up here.

And obviously when they say that you can’t ride, you’re not supposed to ride. But all that said, inevitably you’re going to hit a mud hole somewhere or something like that. And so you want something that’s going to clean in the springtime.

And then in the summer, I usually run something that’s a touch more aggressive in front, and something that rolls a touch faster in back. And that’s usually my setup for most of the season. And so really three sets.

Not to beat the gravel examples to death, but in that product line, it’s called Terrano. We have a dry mix and a wet and we did that for cyclocross people, because cyclocross people were always asking, what do I need? What do I need? And it’s like, well, in early season through almost October, you need dries and you need mixes for three weeks, and then you need wets for November through January.

The reason I bring that up is because it was a really cool way to learn. Even after doing this for decades, I’m still learning, and it’s still the kind of thing where you say, I never really thought about it that way before. And maybe we can apply that same methodology to other segments. And that’s literally what we’ve done.

Yeah, that’s really helpful, because I think a lot of mountain bikers, we just want to ride first of all. So, yeah, we don’t always want to put a lot of thought into it. And if there’s a tire that says this is an all rounder, it’s like check. That’s good. I can use it for everything.

But like you’re saying, you can get more out of a tire if it’s suited for maybe just the season. It’s not every single ride and it’s not, oh, I’m riding this trail versus that trail today. I need to change my tires. But maybe putting a little more thought into it than just go with the all around tire.

Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s really what it comes down to. I think for a lot of people, if you broke it down into thirds, in terms of segments, you’d probably be pretty dialed. And in most places, anyway,

So how do you know when it’s time to replace a set of mountain bike tires?

So it’s a tough question, because some people like to get completely bare casing mileage out of their tire. And really what it comes down to is when you start feeling an appreciable difference when you’re riding, in the given situation that that tire is designed for.

So, a second ago, you were talking about an all ’rounder and that checks a lot of boxes for people, but oftentimes, an all ’rounder can be basically okay at everything, but not really great at anything. And so that’s why we have so many different models, so you can really pinpoint what you need.

And then when you’re pinpointing what you need, it’s based on the terrain and your riding style and all that. So you’re buying that tire for a specific use. So when you go out, and you’re using it in that specific use, and it works for you and you’re psyched for a while, eventually, it’s going to break down. It has to simply because otherwise it wouldn’t be grippy enough to give you the performance you wanted in the first place.

And despite all our efforts as designers, we still haven’t solved that one. Eventually, it will break down, so when it does and you feel it not giving you the exact same kind of performance you wanted when it was initially broken in, that’s really the time when I change. But at the same time, with 4C compounds and things like this, so 4C is a layering process that we use, where as I mentioned earlier, there’s four heads on that extruder and the base of your tread has a firmer compound than the top, performance stickier compound.

And so what happens is with that, the point of that is that the base of your tread is more stable, so it doesn’t […] have that wrinkling at the base of your knobs and all that stuff. In theory it should wear like your car tires, whereas from your tread down to your casing, imagine if you’re riding down the road in your car and your tread peeled off. It’d be pretty bad.

So my point in saying all of this is that some people will on a 4C tire get to that other layer, and then they’ll feel like where it’s not as sticky across rocks and roots or stuff like that, but yet there’s still enough tread on it to ride it. And that’s where you have to make the judgment call and say, okay, if I live in a dry terrain area, it’s not going to be as big of a deal. But if you’re riding in British Columbia or New England, you’re definitely going to notice it more when you get past that halfway mark.

I think it is hard, it’s hard for me and I’m sure others as well, because it is so gradual, it’s like every ride a little more is getting worn off, a little more and you just get used to it as it wears. It’s not like all of a sudden you’re like, whoa, what just happened to my tire? And I think too, people are used to car tires, where what is it, you put the penny in and if you [can’t] see [the top of] Abe Lincoln’s head or something, you’re okay […].

But I guess visually too, you could maybe inspect your tire and get an idea of where you’re at in terms of the wear.

Yeah, absolutely, you’ll see that siping starting to wear first because it’s at the surface. And that’s definitely something, but as you mentioned, it’s a gradual wear. And so as you ride, you’re comfortable with your bike, and it’s not really that big of a deal. But then the day comes where you throw a new set on, and you’re like, oh, my God.

You can tell that for sure.

And so that’s definitely something where it’s an immediate improvement, which is cool.

So one of the things that it seems like people are using a lot more these days and are getting excited about for some weird reason is mountain bike tire plugs. As far as I know, Vittoria doesn’t offer any of those yet. So are there solutions on the market that you would recommend that you found work really well?

You’re right. We don’t offer them yet. We definitely played around with a lot of things, we’re constantly evolving our product line, and I’ll just leave it at that. But the ones that I found to work the best, there’s the little bacon strips looking things, you can pretty much get it in almost any auto parts store, just because they’re really, really sticky gummy, and they’ll fit really well. And they’re easy to apply and they don’t really care about sealant as far as being sticky still.

So that’s been something that’s worked for me personally. But I know there’s a lot of different ones on the market. At the end of the day, we’re really trying to, and I don’t know if this is a problem we can ever truly solve, but any way we can create a tire casing that is less susceptible to that in the first place, it’s definitely something that we face.

So the way we do the chafer on the bead, the sidewall protection, all that stuff, in the event that you still do get a puncture, if you’re not running a liner or something like that, even when you’re running a liner, sometimes the rock is just so sharp, that it doesn’t even take your tire to be compressed for it to get cut sometimes. And that’s where that’s where one of these plugs is definitely valuable. I think it’s cool that people have started using [them for] mountain bike, but as of now, we don’t make one.

Speaking of that though, I guess tire plugs too are kind of addressing the problem with sealants. I don’t know, when sealant first came out, tubeless tires, there were these demonstrations of people just hacking huge holes into the tires and somehow sealant would seal it up. But that obviously doesn’t work every time and so people have had to do these tire plug solutions.

But Vittoria does have tire sealant. So what makes yours different with all the choices that are on the market? Where is there room for innovation I guess?

Yeah, no, it’s an awesome question. It’s something that actually I get asked a fair bit. So within tubeless tires really in bicycle anyway, it started in mountain bike, and then it’s obviously made its way over to road. And the reason I mention that is because there’s really two things that are going to be key metrics with this, which is basically going to be how fast can it find the hole, and then how big of a hole can it fill?

So for instance, you can make your sealant super sick, and it would clog a big hole, but it wouldn’t find the hole very fast. And likewise, you could make the thing find the hole really fast, but then it just all leaks out of the hole. So the ideal balance is somewhere in between. It’s something that our sealant seems to do pretty well at, and it’s also thin enough to use on smaller volume tires, but it’s also effective enough on bigger volume tires, which is to say you can ride it in road or mountain and use it in both and that’s been good.

But yeah, the other thing is just going to be longevity with the sealant. Because you really need to recharge your sealant about every six months or so. And the reason is because, hey, when the sealant finds the hole in your tire, it’s going to hit the air, and it’s going to evaporate a bit and cause that seal. So your tire is inherently porous.

And so over time, it’s going to leach out a bit just through your casing without you even really knowing. And so it’s definitely something that’s just good practice to top up your sealant every once in a while. Unless you’re changing your tires for the season, like we spoke about before.

But if I was going to say one thing about the Vittoria sealant, it is a good balance between finding the hole and then sealing the hole.

Yeah, that’s great. I’ve never heard it put that way. But I think as consumers we focus on, I want something that’s going to just seal the hole, but we don’t think about, we need something that’s going to get to the hole quickly. And that is a trade-off that obviously is challenging.

Yeah, just to add to that, I’ve tested everything in the market, that’s part of my job is to test everybody else’s stuff. And so often, you’ll be on a trail and somebody will be sitting on the side of the trail with a cartridge or a mini pump or something trying to pump up their tire and it’s a perfect case of the hole was too big to seal really quick and the sealant couldn’t get there fast enough.

And then eventually it sealed and they got five psi in the tire. And the guy is like, I’m good, I’m good. He keeps pumping it up. And then that little scab of sealant pops off, you got to wait again. It’s the worst thing in the world. It happens, but that’s part of sealant testing.

Yeah, definitely. So with mountain bikers preferring to run lower and lower tire pressures these days, how has that influenced tire design?

First of all, if you design it to be a touch more square, it’s going to deal with that lower pressure a bit better, because you’re already designing the contact patch to be in more contact with the ground in the first place. But the other thing it does is when you lean over, if you’re on a super round profile tire and you lean over on it, as you lean over, all that force increases. So you’re skating the tire to overcome a bigger obstacle to grab and hold on to the ground, especially if you really lean over fast and then that’s when you understeer.

So if you have a bit more of a square profile, those side knobs engage earlier in the lean, and they can grab on and then hold on as you lean, versus being surprised at the last second when you lean all the way over on a round profile. So the profiles, I would say are the biggest thing.

But then the other thing is, there’s been with all this evolution, especially in the last five years or so, you’re seeing a lot of tires in the market where the sidewalls will just rip off. And so it’s really made designers address that and make sure that you either put more support outside of that side tread, or what we’ve done, like I said with the 4C before, with the layering of the compounds, so that you have a firmer base compound which is much more stable.

But then also, we’ve done some things where I use what’s called, I call it progressive sipe width. And the idea is that a bigger sipe flexes more than a smaller sipe. So for instance, if you look at the side knob of our Martello, you’ll see that on the inside effective edge of that side knob, the edge that does all the work on your side knob, the inside edge, there’s a big sipe first and then the sipes get progressively smaller.

So when that knob compresses like an accordion, it’s really gummy on that inside edge, but it’s really much more… So instead of flopping over, it literally compresses and it’s something that gives you a much more controlled feel. Much more progressive feel, but it also lengthens the useful life of your tire. Because the wear characteristics are going to be very different at that point. But it still gives you all the performance benefits.

So that’s one way as an example of how tires designs, I should say, have evolved rather, with lower air pressure use in mind, because before, it wasn’t even a thing. It was like an even tread depth, and it was a rounder profile and that was kind of it.

It seems like one of the solutions or things that people have done to compensate for air pressures is these new tire inserts and Vittoria it seems like was a fairly early mover in this category. So what are the advantages of running tire inserts in your mind? We’ve been told that there are a lot of [advantages], but what’s the primary to you?

From a feel and performance standpoint, there’s still an air pocket. It’s tunable air pocket between the liner and the underside of your tread there. So your tire can still move around and conform to the terrain, which is critical for traction. If you had a very rigid tire casing, your traction would be horrible, because the tire couldn’t then conform to the terrain.

So that’s part of the reason that there’s air in tires is for cushion, but it’s also for that traction. So anyway, all that said, liners allow you to have a tunable air pocket. So you still maintain that traction. But when you bottom it out, it feels like a volume spacer in your fork or something where there’s none of that harsh twang when you smack your rim. It’s literally like a thump.

And people have a breakthrough the first time I feel like they ride liners, because they go through this mental thing where they’re like, I don’t want to add weight. I don’t want to pay the money for it. All that stuff. And then they try it and they’re like, oh my God, how did I run without this? Particularly in the back wheel.

I run one on every single bike I have. And not because I work for Vittoria because honestly, I’ll say this, I said it earlier but on the XC crowd, you’d think that there would be crazy weight conscious and they wouldn’t use it. All of the top XC World Cup guys are using liners whether they tell you or not.

And the thing about it is, it matters more the lighter your bike is. […] On an XC bike, your tires and your wheels are lighter and skinnier. And so you have less to actually take that impact. So it’s actually more critical in that scenario to run a liner.

I think a liner typically came in and they were like a downhiller, Enduro guy thing. And they absolutely still are. But at the same time, I think it’s actually most critical in XC, especially because XC courses have gotten pretty gnarly lately too.

Yeah, for sure.

The top ones, racing downhill in the ’90s, a lot of the XC courses now are harder than the downhill courses were back then.

So what sets the Vittoria Air-Liner apart from the other tire inserts that are on the market? They’re all different. I think people are curious to know what kind of design decisions went into and why they are the way that they are.

So the Vittoria Air-Liner is unique for a couple of reasons. So first of all, we have four different sizes and the sizes are actually widths. Small, medium, large, extra large, which handles basically from an XC tire all the way up to almost a fat bike, really a large plus size tire and beyond. And so they come in a length.

And what you do is you wrap it around your wheel, you cut it, you zip tie it, you put our decal around it to make sure that that seam stays aligned. And so basically, first of all with that step, some people are like, is that cheesy to do that? But honestly, that step allows you to, first of all, make sure that it fits super tight on whatever rim you have. But second of all, it allows you to tune how it interacts with the bead of your tire.

So for instance, if you’re running, because rim widths are all over the place right now. So if you’re running a traditional XC wheel, you might have a 23 internal. That’s really these days really narrow, but two years ago, that was pretty normal for XC widths. Or you might have a 35 internal or anything in between for most bikes. So, if we were making it just like a hoop, it would fit different on different rims, so we wanted to make sure that you the rider could then really make it damn tight on your wheel.

The other thing is, is that for shops and stuff like that, because we want to make sure that shops are able to then service these things too, they don’t have a kajillion SKUs, they have four SKUs, which is a good thing. But the big reason why ours is different is that you have full compatibility with any valve on the market.

So there’s sort of a groove on the top and a groove on the bottom. And the groove on the bottom allows you to run any valve you already have in your wheel. You don’t have to run our special valve, you don’t have to try to find the valve hole while you’re installing the thing and it’s a big pain. It’s not like that.

And then the groove on the top, it gives you more volume for that tunable air pocket. But the cool thing is on either side of that groove, the edge of the groove comes to a point. And so when you compress that, that point then gets wider as you compress more material, so it compresses progressively. So basically, it’s not just a wham, I can really feel it, that’s where it engaged and whatever. It actually feels very much more progressive because of that, which is great. It feels much more intuitive that way and it works through the suspension.

I typically, one little thing that I typically do is if you’re on the edge tire size wise, I usually size down one. So if you’re running say a 2.35 tire, you could run a medium and it would definitely fit in there. Or you could run a small, which is more for an XC tire. I personally like how that feels better because it gives you a bit more air pocket and the air pocket itself is going to ramp up as it gets compressed. And then by the time it hits the liner, it feels a bit more intuitive. You still have the protection, it’s a little lighter.

So if you’re going to err one side or the other, I would just always go one size smaller, if you’re on the edge.

So you worked for Maxxis actually, at the time that the Minion was being developed. Tell us about your involvement in the launch of that, now iconic tread pattern. I think a lot of people are fans of that tire.

God, where to begin? Like I said earlier, I was lucky enough to be hired by Maxxis a long time ago. And I spent 10 years there. And honest to God, when I left Maxxis, we had accomplished a lot of things. I was thinking about doing my own tire brand and I knew that Vittoria had good quality control in their factory, as well as Vittoria produces tires for a lot of other companies that I’m not going to name.

I actually went there to do my own tire brand, because I wanted to take what I had learned working with all the athletes at Maxxis and bring it over here. But all that said, a lot of people who I met in this scene, I met when I was working at Maxxis obviously. And so to speak to that really quick, it was a special time, the Minion itself was the very first tire design I was involved with.

I have the original mold drawing for the Minion, and I have my contract still from that era, which details everything I went through. But with every project, you have an athlete that you deal with, and that you design tires with. I have a whole roster of athletes in Vittoria I do this with as well.

The athlete that I worked with on the Minion project was Colin Bailey. So he was a top US racer at the time. And he’s a mechanic in the industry now, and basically, Russell Webb was like, hey, you and Colin go figure out a new downhill tire. And so I was like, all right, cool.

So Colin had some initial sketches of the Minion, and it was like, we were sitting in West Virginia at a hotel I remember. I remember taking his drawing and saying it’s like upside down and backwards, almost. I remember taking it and looking through the drawing at the light and saying, if you can imagine it projected this other way, you’d have pockets for all these directions to pack dirt into and things like that.

Colin definitely had a vision. I don’t mean to speak for him at all. Total respect. But basically, it was my job as the product guy then to take an idea from an athlete and translate it into a product. And that was my involvement with the Minion. I was able to speak his language as a rider, albeit he was a better rider than me. I still had a license. I was still there.

But at the same time, I was able to speak his language and then also speak the production language and say, okay, the tread needs to do this, this, and this across these terrains. I remember his design was very moto-inspired. And it didn’t have that trademark center swoopy sipe in there that you see. And so that was something that I added that night in that hotel room. And then those L shaped knobs were actually backwards originally. And so we did that.

And then dimensionally, there was perhaps a bit too much space, we rescaled everything and basically put it all back together. I would confidently say that the first Minion mold drawing has my signature and Colin’s signature on it for that reason. I’m not trying to be like I did this in a bubble by myself. It’s not like that at all. Colin, he had the original, we need to do something that addresses this. And then I basically took his thought process and put the finishing touches on it […].

So without that, it probably would have looked a lot like just more of like a moto block tire that didn’t have all that nuance that the Minion has, like I said that curved siping, the ramping, all that other siping on the side knob and all that stuff. For what it’s worth, I use that as a platform to then do a lot of the other tires when I was at Maxxis and then everything else that I learned from and applied at Vittoria.

So, that was I believe the only tire that Colin was involved with, but I was lucky enough to go on and design dozens and dozens more from there. I’m always thankful for that time.

That’s really cool to hear that, and to understand where these tire designs come from. I’m sure you’ve played that process out many, many times since then. And some tires are more successful than others. What’s the difference then? Is luck part of it? Every time you’re working just as hard and you’re like, yeah, we’re following the same process. And we’re working with athletes, athletes may even be more talented or less talented or whatever. But still following that recipe, but some are just going to work better than others.

And some of it is art and science being put together, and some of it is being at the place at the time. And having that tire launch at a time where there aren’t competitors that have addressed that same thing. To put this in a framework just for your listeners, that was 2001.

And it’s still going strong. It still works.

It does. Yeah, and the reason is, because we put a whole lot of thought into it. And absolutely a lot of testing and I would say that that was the tire that really put Maxxis on the map. And it was the kind of thing where there was some XC tires that Steve Larson had done before that and some other things, but as far as in the gravity segment at that time, this is pre-social media. This is mostly pre e-commerce.

Bike shops were trying it out and OEMs were trying it out and it leveraged a lot of those things to get some market share for them and have them grow to what they’ve become in that way. And so full respect for Dr. Chong and everybody at the tech center there, you can’t say they don’t make a good product.

But I will say that it’s almost 20 years ago, and if you look at the bikes, legit, the bikes that we were putting that on had, downhill bikes had 70 degree head angles and six inches of travel and 680mm bars and stuff. And so it’s time to evolve. And like I said, I’ve taken a lot of those lessons and sprinkled them through tires like Martello or Mota or other tires that I’ve done for Vittoria, this new Agarra tire this past year in the trail category, it has a lot of the things that I learned along the way.

I would just say watch this space, because we have something coming that really is going to be a really obvious evolution of everything I’ve learned. I think it’s going to make a splash this summer, so stay on the lookout for that.

Cool, yeah, that’s exciting. Looking forward to that. So where are you looking for this next wave of tire performance gains? Are there parts of the system that still have room for improvement? Is it tread, is it compound, or is it just a combination of all that?

Yeah, people have really split that hair a lot recently, especially. And so now it’s really about improving quality and continually just trying to improve one aspect without sacrificing another, and that’s really the game. Like I said, it’s not hard to make something that hooks up, but it will probably be heavy and will probably roll slow. It’s not hard to make something that rolls fast, but it probably won’t have traction.

It’s really a matter of designing one element without sacrificing another element, and how that all gets applied. So it’s that evolution and just riding more and talking to people and just getting out in front of it, and then dealing with athletes who operate at a level that may be a click or two above most people, and if it’s proven there, then the weekend warriors will really be psyched.

You can learn more about some of the products we talked about at vittoria.com. And be sure to follow the Singetracks podcast.


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