Dave interviews Aaron Chamberlain from Maxxis
Ask Uncle Dave: Talking Tires with Maxxis
Over here at Uncle Dave Headquarters, we consider the entire “Ask Uncle Dave” venture to be a learning experience. Probably not for you, but for me, at least. Mistakes get made, and theories are formed and discarded. Eventually, we get to a place where we realize we know even less than we thought we did, and a handful of people are mildly entertained. The OEM tire article is one such experience.
Over the course of a few weeks, I reached out to Maxxis a few times and asked a number of questions. I didn’t get answers to these questions, and it was eventually suggested that there probably wouldn’t be any coming. So I moved forward with the article as it was, and mentioned (snarkily) that we had reached out to Maxxis but they had chosen not to participate. Which was a shame, really, as they would have added a lot to the conversation. And, as it turns out, they felt the same way, too! It really was just a function of me asking the wrong people.
So, as promised, we’re re-visiting the OEM tire discussion, perhaps a bit sooner than we had intended. Aaron Chamberlain from Maxxis was nice enough to take some time to answer some of the burning questions I had about tires and tire specs. Aaron is the Assistant Marketing Manager, overseeing marketing for the bicycle and powersport divisions of Maxxis. He’s been at Maxxis for 7 years, and around the industry for a few more than that, and seems to be remarkably honest and open with his opinions on tires. His favourite tire combo is:
Trail/Enduro/Downhill – Assegai Front, DHR II Rear or Dual DHR II
Hardtail – DHR II Front, Ardent Race Rear
Which is, of course, a list of tires and not “a favourite”. But it makes me sort of happy that even a long term Maxxis employee struggles to figure out his single favourite tire combo.
To start things off, I'd like to understand a bit better how the process works for how Maxxis works with bike companies. I got some perspective from the bicycle product managers, but how does this play out for you? Is there much in the way of recommendation based on the use of the bike, or do most product managers know exactly what they want? As well, what "custom" options are available to bike manufacturers? You spoke a bit about logo colour in the comments of the other articles, but what are some other common features that a bike company might ask you to customize?
Aaron Chamberlain - First off, we have a team at our Taiwan HQ that handles most of the OE relationships. Since our manufacturing is there and most bikes are manufactured there as well, it just makes sense. Our US sales team is still very involved in the process, particularly with the US and Canadian boutique brands, and the smaller, new brands. I didn’t have to consult them for any answers here.
Generally speaking, the PMs at the bike companies know their bikes inside and out so they have a really good idea of what they’re looking for in terms of tire performance. If it’s a new relationship and the brand isn’t familiar with our product line, we help steer them in the right direction. We’ll send over a variety of tread patterns, casing, and compound options for them to put through the paces. Most MTB PMs are also shredders so they’ll know right away if the tire fits for the bike’s intended purpose. While we rely heavily on input from our pro athletes and testers, we get tons of feedback from brands as well. We use that feedback to modify everything from tread design to compound. When we are working on a new tread pattern, PMs are among the first to ride the samples. This lets us get value feedback on the tread and also helps the brands decide if it’s a tire they want to spec on future models. In turn, that info helps us plan our production.
As for custom options, we can go pretty deep if the orders are large enough to make it feasible for our factory. Most often customization comes down to a particular compound. Say for instance, a brand wants 3C MaxxGrip on a light trail/XC tire or 3C MaxxSpeed on something burlier, if the numbers make sense for us, we can do that. We offer so many permutations of our treads in our catalog that customization is probably more common on the lower end of the price spectrum, though. Our top tier tires have all our best tech in them already so there’s not really much a brand could request to add. At the lower end of the price spectrum, a brand might want a Minion because of how recognizable the tread pattern is, but they’re also trying to hit a certain price point. That’s where we can start removing features to reduce the price. Wire bread instead of folding bead. 27 TPI casing instead of 60 or 120 TPI. Single compound as opposed to dual or triple. That sort of thing.
In some cases we would open up an entirely new mold for a brand. A recent example – albeit outside of MTB – is the Cannondale Treadwell which is their new commuter bike.
Cannondale really liked the look of our dirt track tire from our moto division and thought it would look cool on a city bike. Since this is a high-volume seller for Cannondale, we created a bicycle version of the tire called the DTR-1. It’s not something we offered previously.
This all makes a lot of sense and is how I imagined things working. I think, for the purposes of this article, I'm more focused on the lower end of the spectrum. I'll blow a bit of smoke here...I don't think any mountain biker would question the performance of a full-featured Maxxis tire...I think what is less clear is what happens when you strip some of those features out, or move to a tread/width that isn't winning DH World Cups or EWS events. I picked on a 27 TPI, wire bead, single compound, non-reinforced casing Ardent 2.25 in my article. I'd like to use that tire as an example from a trail/all mountain perspective.
First off, what would you suggest is the performance envelope of that tire? And what happens as you add features to it? Which do you think are going to add the most in terms of "performance"? Which will add the most cost? What order would you prioritize these things in? Using my list from the article, these would be:
- Tubeless Ready
- Dual Compound
- Exo casing
- Folding bead
- Triple compound
- Fancier casings (EXO+, DD)
- Moving to a whole different tread/width
AC - Personally, I’m not a fan of the Ardent but it remains one of our most popular treads. Once upon a time it was one of the few legit trail tires – something that wasn’t an XC pinner or Minion. It’s kind of hard to believe but 8-10 years ago there weren’t a ton of options in that middle ground. At least from us. That said, the Ardent is still quite popular in the OE and RE markets. The Ardent’s best trait is its rolling speed, for sure. It looks fairly aggressive and is reasonably light weight, which is likely a reason it’s frequently spec’d. But when it comes to cornering and braking traction, there are better options. Personally, I would take a Rekon over the Ardent all day, every day. Part of the reason it remains popular in the RE market is its prevalence in the OE market. Casual riders will replace the stock tires with the same tread pattern once it wears out whether or not it’s the best fit for their terrain and riding style.
But, if I were a PM, and we were dead set on spec’ing the Ardent, I would add features in this order:
- Skinwall: we hadn’t talked about this one yet, but I would go for the skinwall (tan wall) version of the Ardent for the shop floor cool factor. It’s eye-catching and could be just that little extra thing to make a customer choose my bike over a competitor. Look pro, go slow, right?
- Tubeless ready: I think most riders understand the benefits of running tubeless tires at this point. If you were to opt for a TR tire from Maxxis, you’re going to get a folding bead automatically – the exception to this would be DH tires which we could theoretically do TR/wire bead versions of.
- Compound: from single to dual or dual to triple. Above all else, our rubber is what sets us apart from the competition and also what can have the greatest impact on performance.
- EXO: again, this is something that would pretty much be a requirement when moving to TR. In addition to the added cut resistance, EXO helps with air retention for tubeless applications.
Beyond that, I would switch to an entirely different tread pattern before adding any more bells and whistles to the Ardent. The Rekon would be a good direct replacement or the Forekaster if I wanted a bit more meat.
I think this speaks to exactly what I am trying to get at. This may be a tad long winded, and this may reach into areas that are more in the wheelhouse of the bike companies...but this strikes at the root of the problem for me. Take a look at these two specs:
Both of these bikes have the same model name and same basic features (27.5" wheels, 130mm travel, nominally described as an aggressive trail bike). One is $2500CAD and one is $7500CAD. One has the previously mentioned Ardent spec, and one has a Minion DHF/DHR 3C EXO combo. Of course, nobody is expecting the bike that costs 1/3 as much to perform the same as the more expensive option. But these bikes are sold with the same marketing copy and it is implied that they can be used for the same things. I'm willing to bet that the $2500 bike performs to a surprising degree, but any review would start with "after immediately replacing the tires". Off the floor, these bikes do fundamentally different things, and one of the main reasons for that is the tire spec. With a few strategic swaps, you can get the cheap spec pretty close to the performance of the $7500 bike, but at that point, it's no longer a $2500 bike. This feels disingenuous to me. If you have to fundamentally compromise the performance of the thing you are selling to a point where it is no longer the thing you are selling, it starts to feel like a deception.
Reading your response, I don't think this is a function of Maxxis over-selling the performance of this tire, I think it is a function of bike companies specifying a tire that doesn't match the sales pitch of the bicycle. And...finally a question...this has to hurt a bit, no? I mean, as I said before, you guys make (almost inarguably) some of the best tires in the world. It's not unusual for your tires to show up on the World Cup with sharpied out logos on the bikes of riders you don't sponsor. Not every tire needs to be able to go out and win a world cup, but (and perhaps I'm taking this a bit too far) it almost feels like bike companies are abusing this reputation. Maxxis is known for making very desirable tires, so by throwing a Maxxis tire on there...any Maxxis tire...the bike companies know they can get away with it.
AC - …….
Sooo....I'll take that as a "no comment" to that last one.
Backing up a bit. You mentioned the Rekon instead of an Ardent. But I'll ask you to put your hypothetical Product Manager hat back on. If you were specc'ing a mid-range (CAD$3000-4000) all mountain bike, what would be your ultimate tire spec, and why? I pick that range because there's probably enough money to pay for a decent tire, but you're still forced to grapple with costs a bit. So I'm looking for your ultimate bang-for-buck tire spec, that's going to get used on an all-around bike that is going to ride actual trails.
AC - Ha! Sorry, just putting out some bigger fires today.
I think you hit the nail on the head in your comment below and what you brought up in your original article. Ultimately, it is the bike brand that chooses the spec, but I do shed a tear every time I see an Ardent come stock on a bike that would be better suited to another pattern.
This might be the most salient point from your article:
But in this mid-range, you might sell that $3200 bike to a weekend warrior who only hits a gravel path once in a while, or you might sell to a hard charger on a budget. Both probably care about really different things.
The hard charger on a budget likely understands that corners have to be cut somewhere to hit that “budget” price point. They’ll know if the tire’s performance isn’t suited to the bike and will either swap the tires out ASAP or ride them until they wear out. The weekend warrior is in a totally different boat. If they’re only hitting the occasional gravel path or smooth bit of trail, will they even notice or benefit from a better tire? That’s really hard to say. If I was path-pounding, I’d probably want the Ardent over the Minion just for the rolling speed.
Putting the PM hat back on – and assuming we’re still talking about a trail bike here – I’d find some way to get some Minions on the bike. At a bare minimum, I’d want a TR version with EXO in a 2.40 or 2.50 width. Something that really gives the rider a taste of the bike’s capability. Now obviously, the single compound Minion isn’t going to grip as well as a 3C version in certain conditions, but it’s going to bring performance in line with the models up range. An inexperienced rider could ride a bike with crappy tires and have a bad experience with the bike overall. If they don’t know the effect good tires can have on performance, they’re probably going to think the bike just plain sucks. That’s not good for the bike brand.
We actually saw something along those lines play out a few years back when bike companies were still really focused on cutting weight. But that wasn’t good for the riders. Sure, the bikes felt lighter in the shop and seemed quicker pedaling around the parking lot, but they were having to add copious amounts of sealant to get the tires to hold air and then having durability issues on the trail. You can blame the tires for sure, but the PM who spec’d them deserves some share of that blame as well. Thankfully, we’ve largely moved past being hyper-focused on weight outside of pure XC.
For me, this is the only real argument against putting decent tires on every bike. "It's too hard to predict what people want, so there's no point on spending the money for a decent tire spec on a cheap bike because anybody who knows what they are doing will swap them out anyway." I'm not sure I totally buy it, but at least it's a valid argument. I've had quite a few arguments over the years about OEM tire spec, and I've often questioned why bike companies don't offer options on tires. Maybe not directly to the consumers, but you'd think they would be able to offer up regional tire packages, or give some kind of power to the dealers to have some say in it. Is this plausible? It feels like it would be a competitive advantage for bike companies to sell bikes with the actual components on them that people want. So, here's my big idea that probably won't work. Maxxis tire credits! Rather than buying a tire, each bike ships with a certain number of Maxxis tire credits. When the consumer lays down the cash for his bike, he goes to the handy Maxxis tire credit chart that's on the wall, and he picks out the tires he wants from the list and the dealer mounts them up. I feel like this is definitely a hundred dollar idea, at the very least.
Do you see a world where there could be more tire flexibility in mass production bikes? Would it be too difficult to forecast/warehouse?
AC - Having a regional tire package would be ideal, but I think it would be extremely tough to manage those logistics. The bike brands would have to create new part numbers for what ostensibly is the same bike. I can see that getting overwhelming quickly.
And when we’re talking about the budget end of the spectrum, it’s the whole economies of scale thing that makes it possible to hit those price points. Anything that adds complexity or time to the process is also adding cost.
I like your idea for the Maxxis tire credits, but that could be tough for a shop to manage the inventory. The shop is only going to stock a certain selection of our product, so what happens when they either don’t stock what the customer wants or they’re out of stock? And what if the shop’s distributor is out of stock? Lead times could be 90 days for the distributor. A customer might go the whole prime riding season without their preferred tire in that situation. That’s not ideal for anyone.
In the longer term I think we will see more options for customization at the higher end of the market. Brands won’t offer every option of every component, but customers will have some choice within a certain range. Maybe the rider gets to choose between 4-5 different tread patterns with a couple casing/compound options for each. We’ve seen some brands bringing their assembly operations back to North America more or less for this purpose. It allows the brands to offer more choices to their customers and also gives the brand flexibility in making running spec changes if needed.
Ya. I figured you'd burst my bubble on that.
Well...I think I've probably taken up more of your time than I should have. I've really enjoyed hearing your perspective on this, and I could probably keeps sending you questions for another couple of months or so, but in the interest of keeping it to a few thousand words, I'll wrap it up now. Unless you have any pressing messages you'd like to tell us about? Tire advice? Stock tips? Musical recommendations?
AC - Quick tire tip – inflate your new tires to max PSI and let them sit overnight. This allows the casing to stretch and you’ll get the full volume of the tire.
Musical recommendation – Check out Ex Hex for some solid 80s-style rock. I just saw them in Atlanta and they put on great show. “Rainbow Shiner” off their latest album is a favorite.
Okay. You've just started a new tradition. Everybody I talk to from now on is going to have to provide a guest Music Club recommendation. Thanks! This was great.
Uncle Dave's (Guest) Music Club
It takes a guest edition to bring some ladies who rock to the Music Club...