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ASK UNCLE DAVE

Dear Uncle Dave: My OEM tires tried to kill me.

Words Dave Tolnai
Date Jul 15, 2019

Dear Uncle Dave

I think I remember that OEM tires on new bikes, mid-range, maybe circa 2000-2010, were crap. Or maybe I just heard or read "The first thing you should do is replace the stock tires" enough times that I think I remember it. I probably never did it; tires were expensive, and I just blew all my money on a bike. Besides, mountain bikers never let being informed get in the way of sharing an opinion.

I can't forget the ride of the 1.9" Kenda Karma tubeless tire: supple and forgiving like a lawnmower rolling down stairs. But I don't think that was an OEM tire; just a shitty one. (I did love that 2.1" Karma though).

I just got a new bike that came with Minions that feel just like the Minions on my old bike, and I couldn't be happier. The Maxxis lettering is white instead of yellow, but I can't feel that. Maybe I'm just not perceptive enough.

So, did manufacturers spec tires on decent bikes that appeared to be the same model name and width as the aftermarket versions, but were actually inferior? If so, do they still?

It doesn't really matter, I suppose. When my OEM tires wear out, I'll likely put on some aftermarket ones and be just as happy.

Sincerely,

Bored and Tired


Dear Boot:

Yes. You remember correctly. Many OEM tires on mid-range bikes from 2000-2010 did suck. This was the era when some financial genius discovered that they could squeeze a few extra dollars out of us by inventing tires that looked a lot like the ones that people paid actual money for, but that lacked any of the features that allowed you to ride them down a mountain without killing yourself.

Now, I'm definitely not going to go so far as to suggest that this sort of thing no longer happens, but as I researched this piece I was surprised by how many new bikes were rolling out of the factory with seemingly usable tires already mounted. But, as you scratch your way down to the lower ends of the line-up you can still find sketchy, tire-shaped objects in place of decent rubber. This is still a topic that warrants discussion.

To get some answers, the plan was to reach out to a handful of bike manufacturers (we decided on Rocky Mountain, Kona and Santa Cruz), and, surprisingly, they all agreed to speak with us! We won't give them names and we'll keep their responses anonymous, in order to give them some level of plausible deniability. But needless to say, they know their shit.

We also reached out to Maxxis, but they didn't feel they had much to add to the conversation, so they declined to comment. I mean...they are an OEM tire manufacture that could directly comment on most of the things addressed below, but what do I know? I wouldn't really want to talk to me either.

Schwalbe Magic Mary DH Tires

Popular aftermarket tires like the Schwalbe Magic Mary come in an array of casings, compounds, and tread widths. When it comes to OEM tires, product managers say they're working with the same options as distributors, but distributors carry the models they can sell, whereas PMs often have different criteria when spec'ing bikes depending on price targets and regional considerations.

Defining the OEM tire

The first thing I needed to grapple with, is what exactly is an “OEM tire”. There were some (e-mail equivalent of) blank stares and face palms when I started sending out questions about “OEM tires”. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s consider something like a 30-60 tpi, non-reinforced casing, single compound rubber tire as the definitive “OEM tire.” Not to pick on Maxxis, but in my opinion, the wire bead, single compound, non-reinforced casing Ardent in a 2.25 width is the ultimate "OEM tire." It's got name brand recognition and looks like something that might make it all of the way down a trail. In an informal survey of NSMB bike testers, all respondents agreed that they would immediately remove this tire from any bicycle before riding it on dirt. And it comes stock on a shocking number of bicycles.

The Magic OEM tire list

So now that we know what an “OEM tire” is, where would you buy such a thing? The first two parties contacted implied that they don’t have access to any sort of secret list of junky tires only offered to manufacturers. They both stated some form of “we’re buying the same tires available to the general public.” There was also a fairly consistent disclaimer pointing out that us consumers are generally at the mercy of what a distributor might carry, or what a dealer might stock. So while we’re theoretically all shopping in the same place, in reality, manufacturers have access to a larger range of products than a regular consumer.

Except...it turns out that this was a very technical form of the truth. After I wrote the above paragraph our third company got back to me, and they told me all about how Maxxis (and others) will build several custom options into your tires if your order quantity is large enough. So, even though the full Maxxis catalogue is giant and overwhelming, if you have the dollars you can add additional elements of complexity. Or more likely, strip away some of the things that we take for granted in a tire. Which pretty much shot the premise of the remaining sections of this article that I had already written and forced me to start fresh.

Another thing that emerged is a suggestion that there is a lot of back-and-forth between the tire manufacturers and the bike companies, and it's not all that unusual for bike companies to be the ones pushing for new features. EXO+ was mentioned as an example, when a few bike companies wanted something a little bit burlier than EXO, but not quite at Double Down. And I guess once it's on the secret list, you may as well offer it to us regular joes.

The process

So if you’re a product manager, and you have a near infinite number of tires to choose from, how exactly do you go about doing that? This was harder to pin down, because there is so much variety in the available tires, terrain, and how people ride, not to mention in the goals of the bike companies selling us these things. Nobody was able to give me a definitive process, or cascading hierarchy of tire attributes which they use to build a spec. So I made one myself, based on what I gleaned from reading tire specs for hundreds of bicycles.

The Uncle Dave Hierarchy of OEM Tire Spec Needs

This is most definitely not scientific, and most probably a teensy bit insulting to all of the product managers out there, but certain patterns emerge when looking at the features of OEM tire specs, and this is my interpretation of their order of importance when specifying.

#1 - Brand - If you're a product manager, this is the most important thing you could do for spec'ing tires on any given day. Throw a big, fat, recognizable logo on the side of your tire and you can probably head to the pub early.

#2 - Tubeless Ready - I'm told this is a fairly cheap option, and almost every tire spec'd on a bike you would think of riding has a "TR" somewhere in the description.

#3 - Dual Compound - I think this must sound sexy to product managers. Not just one, but two compounds. The copy writes itself.

#4 - Tread and Width - You'd think this would come earlier, but it doesn't. On a cheap bike, it's fairly likely that you might end up with a dual compound, tubeless ready, 2.2 inch tire with a tread you've never seen available in a store. Moving up to a 2.5 DHF seems like it might cost some serious dollars.

#5 - EXO Casing - This usually goes hand-in-hand with the above. If you're going to move into a tire that people have heard of, might as well splurge for a decent casing.

#6 - Folding Bead - And the above probably comes with a folding bead as well.

#7 - Triple Compound - If you think people are impressed by two compounds, what's going to happen when you give them three?

#8 - Fancier Casings - This is some doctorate level tire spec'ing, when you get into anything above an EXO casing. Double Down? Silkworm? You're talking dentist spec now.

And that's that. Next step is figuring out what amount of travel to spec on your Reverb.

The price difference

Somewhere between need #3 and need #5, you transition from "OEM tire" into "tire one might purchase in a store." One thing I really wanted to understand is what the actual price difference is when you make this transition. I didn’t expect any of the companies to divulge their tire costs, but I did ask them to speculate on what the difference to the final cost of the bike would be, depending on what tire is spec’d. There was a remarkable amount of agreement.

The suggestion was that between the crappiest of crappy and an actual "aftermarket quality" spec, the end difference to the cost of the bike would only be between $100CAD and $150CAD. Which is fairly remarkable, if you ask me. Can you imagine what this spread would be in the auto industry, moving from "oem spec" to "high performance tire"?

But on the other hand...this is sort of shocking, but also makes sense, in a way. You can buy a really nice set of tires for 200 CAD, so it would be strange if the gap was any larger than it is. I mean...you have to assume that the tires that come on your new bike are worth less to the value of your bike than the full retail cost you would pay for those same tires...so if a set of really nice tires only contributes...say...$170 towards the final cost of your decently specc'd bicycle...and the gap between that and a really crappy set of tires is something less than $150...well...that suggests that those crappy tires that we hate so much are costing bike companies a shockingly small amount of money.

And this leads to a dilemma for me. I've spent years cursing bike companies for saving 30-40 bucks on the retail price of a bike by spec'ing crappy tires. Now that I know it might actually be more like 100 bucks, I have both:

a) A better understanding of why they are trying to save that money.

b) An enhanced disgust that they think it's okay to so thoroughly cheap out on something so important.

The point of compromise

This is where things got interesting again. As I flipped through spec sheets, I was surprised by the level of consistency in tire spec between manufacturers (and I’m talking about more than just the 3 manufacturers that we reached out to here). Almost without fail, anything above $4000 was coming with decent tires, and the spec didn't change all that much when you went up from there. Anything less than $2500 was coming with something relatively abysmal. In the space between, there was room for a bit of compromise. A $3200 bike is just as likely to come with something terrible as it is something rideable.

This mid-point feels like the toughest challenge for a product manager. At $4000, there’s enough money to throw around to allow for most parts to be reasonable. At the lower end of the scale, there is less expectation that the bike will need to perform at a high level, and compromise is expected. 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.

One product manager suggested that his goal is to maximize the harder to replace parts (frame, suspension, dropper), with compromise on the more easily replaceable stuff (tires, grips, seats). Reading between the lines, there's an implication that there isn't much credit given by consumers for a more expensive tire spec. We've already accepted that the stock tires might be junk.

This strategy does make a lot of sense. Looking at the numbers from the previous section, you can understand how difficult it would be to justify adding $100 onto the price of a bike when there’s a good chance that whatever you spec won't be the right tire for most people, so why not save a few bucks and let the consumer figure it out? I can totally understand this school of thought.

But then again, I find it somewhat shocking that we can spend thousands of dollars on a bike that comes equipped with tires that aren't suitable for purpose. And I think we'll need to talk about this in a bit more detail at some point in the near future.

Sorry,

Uncle Dave

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Comments

peterk
+2 Velocipedestrian grambo
peterk  - July 15, 2019, 7:54 a.m.

I figure you would find something similar when looking at the jump in price between bike builds with straight gauge vs butted spokes, basic rims vs Stans/DT, NX vs GX, resin-pad only rotors vs standard rotors, etc... where the low cost option is pretty much being given away.

Reply

IslandLife
0 ZigaK Saša Stojanovic
IslandLife  - July 15, 2019, 9:14 a.m.

I'd say the lower cost bikes also are typically first timer or entry level bikes (typically).  With these bikes, a rider probably 1. doesn't know much about the myriad of tire options (casings, durometers, constructions, widths etc) and 2. probably won't actually benefit much or push the tire hard enough to benefit much from an upgraded tire... say from that standard 2.3 dual compound EXO to a 2.4 or 2.5 3C EXO+ or DD.  Give them 6 months to a year (those dual compounds last!) to wear out those tires, gain some skill, speed and knowledge, and then they can upgrade.  Also, I'd say the lower price point is pretty cut throat, lots of great options... but if a manufacturer bumps the bike price by $100 to $150 over the next competitor and then that new consumer that has no idea why.. they will move on.

Bikes at higher price points I would think are typically being shopped by a more seasoned rider that knows their tires.  But even here... those seasoned riders also typically have become very serious about the tire they ride (and are dicks about it), the casing, the durometer, the widths etc... and I'd say typically most riders are still switching tires out at the shop and/or selling them and buying the tires they actually want.

I'm fine with lower cost bikes speccing the tires they do for the reasons I've mentioned.  But I'd like to see higher end bikes offer choices?  Maybe even sell them without tires and you use your own or pick them out in the shop... like pedals.

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nouseforaname
0 Andrew Major Saša Stojanovic
Nouseforaname  - July 15, 2019, 9:30 a.m.

Meh. Cheap bikes should have cheap tires. 

If you're buying a bike at pretty much any price (but certainly at a price where 'tires matter') and the shop won't work with you on a deal to install your choice of tires at the point of purchase - you're shopping at the wrong store.

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martyz
0
Marty Zaleski  - July 15, 2019, 9:47 a.m.

The 2013 Santa Cruz Blur TR we picked up for the lady came stock with Maxxis Crossmark pinners. It might as well have come with road slicks. I called a friend who was working for SCB at the time; his diplomatic response was along the lines of "our old product manager made a few weird calls". They've dramatically improved since. The Hightower I picked up three years ago came stock with nice Minions, which I'd guess ought to make 9 out of 10 riders pretty happy. Worked for me.

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Timer
+2 Andrew Major grambo
Timer  - July 15, 2019, 10:22 a.m.

Two additional observations:

Even worse than crappy Oem tires are technically good tires which are the wrong choice for the bike they come on. Think light XC tires on trailbikes or EXO tires on DH bikes. Then we are paying for premium rubber but still have to replace it on purchase.

Also, at lower price points, companies and customers seem to care a lot about tire wear and spec hard rubber with no grip. Especially because many cheap bikes will be ridden on tarmac a lot.

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davetolnai
0
Dave Tolnai  - July 15, 2019, 7:06 p.m.

Ya...I keep not stating my assumptions.  This was all done with “trail”/“all mountain” bikes in mind.

Reply

grambo
0 AJ Barlas Absolut-M
grambo  - July 15, 2019, 11:38 a.m.

One dumb trend with tires is using EXO casing on hard hitting enduro/all mountain bikes (160-180mm travel, slack geo, long wheelbase etc). I don't blame the bike companies, they know the total bike weight needs to be comparable to their competitors and adding an extra 200-300g for DoubleDown/SuperGravity is probably not worth it. EXO is fine on trail bikes of course, but I don't see how it makes sense on a 64-65deg HTA 29er with a 170mm Fox 36, coil shock etc.

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D_C_
+3 sansarret JVP Absolut-M
DMVancouver  - July 15, 2019, 9:44 p.m.

Not sure I agree. I think most people get on fine with EXOs, especially if your riding area has fewer jagged rocks (including quite a few of my friends who ride hard on the Shore). Heavy tires are necessary for some usage or terrain, but really neuter the versatility of a bike and are probably overkill for lots of people.

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pete@nsmb.com
0
Pete Roggeman  - July 16, 2019, 11:38 p.m.

I've been thinking about this and I agree with you that here on the shore, for loamers, EXO is plenty for most riders. I'm 200 lbs and don't have trouble with EXO casings if I run 22-26 psi front and rear and am not smashing into things like a spazzy teenager. Now that I've said that, I'm guaranteed to be changing tires on the next five rides.

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aron-burgundy
0
A.Ron Burgundy  - July 17, 2019, 9:15 a.m.

I think there are a variety of reasons you see under-gunned tires spec'd on burly bikes. One of the reasons (as mentioned) is that many riders are likely fine with EXO. This could be due to their local trails or riding style. Personally, I would argue that if you don't need DD or DH casings then chances are you probably don't need 160+mm of travel either. I'm not knocking what people choose to ride. I see people roll up to our local trail centers on 160mm bikes to ride flow trails and for them EXO is plenty.

Another reason would be the weight. Brands want their bikes to feel relatively light for their category on the shop floor and test rides. Adding 400g total to the wheels is going to make a noticeable difference and could sway a customer one way or another if they're deciding between two bikes. 

Price could also be a consideration for PMs.

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JVP
0
JVP  - July 17, 2019, 9:48 a.m.

>  I would argue that if you don't need DD or DH casings then chances are you probably don't need 160+mm of travel either.

Disagree on this. Well kinda, no one actually needs 160mm travel, just like hardtails are super fun on gnarly trails. Around where I ride (Seattle), there's lots of steep, rooty, often slimy stuff that will slap you hard, and long, slack is much preferred. These rides also tend to be 3k-5k feet of climbing with a solid few hours of pedaling. EXO is the sweet spot. No way in hell we're running DD or DH, we're already in pain. EXO+ might be a good option, stoked to try those on the front.  I'll stick with EXO MaxTerra DHR rear for pedaling efficiency that won't kill you on roots.

Rocky, fast trails in places like Cali or Zona would be a very different beast. I suspect that's where you're from.

I saw you're a Maxxis employee, so plug time: Local rippers really want a MaxxGrip 29er EXO DHF 2.5.  Once you go to MaxxGrip front, it sucks going back to Terra (or anything else on the market) on wet roots and rock faces. I've heard much grumbling about this option not being available. It's actually a reason that a few riders are still on 27.5 bikes.

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aron-burgundy
+1 JVP
A.Ron Burgundy  - July 17, 2019, 9:59 a.m.

True, true! Need is such a tricky word in the MTB world, which is why I added the "probably" qualifier ;). Our US office is just outside Atlanta, GA. The trails closest to town are rooty and moderately technical with punchy climbs. North Georgia has a variety of riding from smooth singletrack, to gnarly backcountry stuff (which is what I prefer). A shit ton of climbing no matter where you go though.

I had full on DH tires on my bike over the winter and when I switched to a set of EXO Rekons I shaved 635g (1.4lbs) off! It made the bike ride completely differently, but I also got reminded that EXO < DH the hard way. 

And we hear you on the DHF 29x2.5 MaxxGrip EXO, it's coming!

Tremeer023
+2 Absolut-M AM
Tremeer023  - July 15, 2019, 1:41 p.m.

Tyres are a consumable component and any serious rider is likely to want to change them after a short time to suit their particular trails and conditions.  I'm fine with companies spending the money on the harder to replace hardware instead (frame, fork, crank etc).

Reply

andy-eunson
+10 ZigaK gregster77 Tremeer023 Velocipedestrian Fahzure Saša Stojanovic AJ Barlas AM Andrew Major Timer
Andy Eunson  - July 15, 2019, 2:12 p.m.

Perhaps it’s time for high end bikes to come with no tires as with pedals now. Tires are very terrain, conditions and individual specific, like pedals. At the mid to lower end as someone stated already, many of those riders don’t know enough yet to determine what a good tire is for them. My new bike came with good tires, Bontrager SE4 2.6. I just don’t happen to like a round profile tire as much as a narrower flat top style so off the went in favour of Michelin Wild Enduro 2.4’s. 

Related to this issue is aluminum framed bikes coming with low end components. I would have gotten the aluminum version of my Remedy but those came with shitty brakes and wheels as well as lower end drivetrain and suspension bits. If you start doing custom builds on a bare frame the cost rapidly exceeds the complete carbon framed bike.

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pete@nsmb.com
+2 Velocipedestrian Andy Eunson
Pete Roggeman  - July 16, 2019, 11:36 p.m.

Several years back we reviewed a gucci-spec'd GT with an alloy frame and a ~6-7k price tag. Opinions were split about whether readers were a fan of that concept or not. Credit to GT for trying it out, but they didn't repeat it the following year, suggesting that - at least at the time - the market was not ready for alloy frames with a high end spec at a price point that would see a carbon frame with a middle/compromised spec.

It's an interesting discussion. I'm sure market research would show a difference in market opinion about this as the years have gone by. Alloy seems to be making a bit of a comeback in the mid/high end, but once you're spending 6k or more, it seems like most buyers want a carbon frame, and that 6k can become 8k pretty quick and sales may not suffer much at all in between the two. I'm just speculating - we need data - but I suspect I'm right based on the number of 6-8k bikes I see which are almost all carbon.

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andy-eunson
+1 Velocipedestrian
Andy Eunson  - July 17, 2019, 12:23 p.m.

I think that’s right and I can’t blame the manufacturers for doing what is economically correct for them. But when you have the Santacruz type where all the frames are technically high end, they wouldn’t  sell a high end build kit for the aluminum Chameleon I bought last year. The only build kits available were pretty lame. I think some of the online only sellers will do custom kits. Canyon maybe? Or maybe they don’t anymore.

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TonyJ
+4 ZigaK Velocipedestrian Tremeer023 AndrewR
TonyJ  - July 15, 2019, 9:01 p.m.

As somebody else stated, tires are a consumable, so I am sort of indifferent to that spec (I will replace with my choice, as they probably wont spec my choice anyways).

The place I have a problem with spec is shifter/derailleur. Don't give me an XT derailleur with a Deore or SLX shifter, it should be the other way round, I've broken 2 or 3 shifters in my life, but replace the derailleur once a year. 

The other spec issue is brakes/rotors. Shimano resin only rotors with XT brakes, or even SLX, that just pisses me off. Again, don't down spec brakes Deore/SLX instead of XT, to put on better tires, give me the better brakes, I am going to wear the tires out anyways, so......

My 2 cents.

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pete@nsmb.com
0
Pete Roggeman  - July 16, 2019, 11:33 p.m.

The up-spec derailleur is one of the oldest spec tricks in the book. Actually, it's by far the oldest. So it's a holdover, but I agree with you, it'll take a brave Product Manager to buck that trend, but someone can make hay if they go for it.

I've never seen an XT caliper spec'd with resin only rotors. Are you sure you've seen that? For sure it's an issue at the SLX level or below, but I'm uncertain about it where anything labeled XT is concerned. Please point it out if you know of an example because that's super egregious and maybe deserving of a little ribbing. I agree with you that brakes trump tires, though. Easier to swap tires at the shop, or wear them out and replace, for sure.

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TonyJ
0
TonyJ  - July 19, 2019, 7:48 p.m.

I've only seen an XT/resin once on a bike that a friend got, it was a while back. I can't be sure it was the correct spec part or not, I just remember thinking that it was total BS. The SLX is a super common one for sure.

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velocipedestrian
0
Velocipedestrian  - July 16, 2019, 11:36 p.m.

All of this, but especially the shifter / derailleur issue.

Do people still look at the derailleur as a mark of the quality of the bike? I guess they must if the PMs are still doing it. 

I'm super happy with my XTR shifter / SLX derailleur combo, and won't cry when I munt it on a rock.

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Verbl_Kint
0
Kent Saga  - July 25, 2019, 11:55 p.m.

People can see derailleurs.  They hardly see the small fonts on a shifter hidden underneath a brake lever.  For most buyers, the brands they see matters very much to them as it seems to translate to value for money.

And btw, there are very few experienced riders that I know of which actually know that shifters, and not derailleurs, make the shifting feel more crisp.

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velocipedestrian
0
Velocipedestrian  - July 26, 2019, 2:18 p.m.

I understand the reasoning, it's still an ugly tactic. Particularly when a build is named XT for example, but features mostly SLX and Deore parts.

There was a company (Haro, maybe?) that had a go in the early 2000's who tried marketing full group builds, it probably only lasted a model year or two.

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kenwood72
0
kenwood72  - July 16, 2019, 2:57 p.m.

SO my question is whether or not the yellow verse white Maxxis labe tires are any different if they are the same designations.  I was under the impression the white OEM Maxxis tires are somehow different or inferior for the same tire.  Is that possible?

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TonyJ
0
TonyJ  - July 16, 2019, 4:57 p.m.

Kenwood,

The white and yellow sidewall tires are still exactly what they say on the sidewall. So if the spec list is the same, the tires are the same.

Maxxis uses the different colours so they can tell where tires are going/coming from. It helps them control the grey market sale of OEM tires, which they sell for a lot less $ than aftermarket tires. OEM tires still appear on the grey market, but the manufacturer can figure out the source and control it better in the future.

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Timer
0
Timer  - July 17, 2019, 12:19 a.m.

I'm pretty sure thats  illegal under some countries' anti trust laws. Which might explain why components are so inexpensive at CRC and at the German mail order shops.

Reply

aron-burgundy
+1 DMVancouver
A.Ron Burgundy  - July 17, 2019, 8:22 a.m.

Aaron here from Maxxis. @TonyJ is correct on the first part. If the tech on the sidewall matches between two given tires then the tires are the same apart from the color of our logo (hot patch).

The reason we have the two options (white and yellow) though is at the request of bike brands. Our bright yellow doesn't always mesh well with certain paint schemes so manufacturers asked for a white hot patch. 

In the most general terms, white hot patches are OE tires, yellow hot patches are RE (replacement equipment) tires, as in what you would buy from your shop. Some brands (Yeti, Santa Cruz) do opt for the yellow hot patch on their stock bikes though.

We have other methods for tracking grey market issues.

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TonyJ
0
TonyJ  - July 19, 2019, 7:50 p.m.

Thanks for the correction Mr Burgundy, didn't know the colour thing, but that makes total sense.

Reply

Roschtatoschta
0
Roschtatoschta  - Aug. 10, 2019, 2:18 a.m.

Interesting read. I have some insight into how the OEM tire business works on the car side and there you can usually assume that the OEM tires which came with your car are equally good or better than what you can buy on the replacement market. In some areas (handling, comfort) they will be far superior than their replacement counterpart because OE tires are optimized for the particular vehicle, in some other areas (wet braking for example) they might perform slightly worse because the vehicle manufacturer is willing to sacrifice “B” or “C” performances to be better in the “A” performances. In mountain biking we see this a little bit with e.g. the mentioned EXO+ casings, but I would guess in general the bike manufacturers are way less demanding on the tire suppliers than the vehicle industry. Oh yeah, the car industry also very often wants the lowest price possible, but when you are talking about orders of hundred thousands or even millions of tires price setting works differently than for the couple of tires you need for MTBS. ;)

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