Are the tyres on your road bike looking a bit tired? Maybe you’ve have a few flats, or you’re just looking to try something new?
Tyres are the cheapest upgrade you can make to your ride, and they’ll make a surprising difference. A good set of tyres can literally make you faster and more comfortable, and help you corner better, too.
There are so many different types of tyres out there that it can be a little overwhelming. If you're confused about terms like TPI, tubeless or tubular, then read on for a quick primer.
What should I look for in a tyre?
The ultimate bike tyre would be super light, impenetrable and insanely fast. Unfortunately that tyre hasn’t been invented yet, and in most cases you can have two of these attributes.
Your main type of riding should dictate your tyre choice. For example, if you are headed out on gravel backroads or doing rough-surface inner-city commuting, you should consider a tyre that errs on the side of puncture protection over outright speed or light weight. On the other hand, if you often ride on good roads in the summer when surfaces are clear of debris, then some lightweight, racy tyres can be a great choice.
When buying tyres in a shop or online, most models will spell out where they sit in the weight / puncture protection / rolling resistance triangle.
How often should I replace my tyres?
When to replace your tyres isn't set in stone, and varies from tyre to tyre. Some have wear indicators, usually a dot or groove in the middle of the tread that will wear away over the life of the tyre. In most cases these indicators offer a pretty good sign of how much life remains in your tyres, but they’re not perfect.
For tyres that don’t have these markers, keep an eye or for gashes and cuts in the tread and sidewalls, ‘squared off' tread or a flat section in the middle of the tyre, or any odd lumps or bulging. If cuts and gashes are deep, you can see the fabric inside the casing or you’ve noticed an increase in the number of flats you’re getting, it’s time for a new set of tyres.
Types of tyres
Tyres for road bikes are come in three styles: clincher, tubular and tubeless.
Clinchers are the most common type of tyres on road bikes. They feature the familiar setup of an outer tyre casing and a separate inner tube. One main advantage to clinchers is that fixing a flat on the side of the road is relatively easy: use a lever to remove the tyre, replace the punctured tube, reinstall the tyre, and then inflate with a pump or air cartridge.
There are two types of clincher tyres – folding and non-folding. The bead (the part that holds onto the rim) in folding tyres is made from a stiff durable fabric like Kevlar that doesn’t stretch but can – as the name suggests – be folded. Non-folding tyres instead feature a steel wire bead that does not bend.
Folding tyres are more expensive but also lighter and faster. Plus, they typically have better grip.
Tubulars are what pro riders use. These high-performance tyres have the tube sewn directly into the outer casing and then glued onto a tubular wheel. Unlike rims designed for clinchers, tubular rims don’t have a ‘hooked’ rim for the tyre to interface with. Instead, there is just a smooth, curved bed.
Many pro riders swear by tubular tyres for their feel. But two big advantages to a tubular are their resistance to 'pinch flats', where the tube gets ruptured through being trapped between the rim and and a sharp-edged obstacle, and if the tyre is punctured it will stay attached to the rim, allowing racers to continue riding for a short time in a worst-case scenario. Tubular rims are usually lighter as well.
The disadvantage – one that's felt much more keenly by regular cyclists than pros – is that the tyre is bonded to the rim, making roadside repairs very difficult. Your two options are using an inflator cartridge that contains sealant, or tearing off the punctured tire and replacing it with a new tyre — which obviously means riding with said spare tyre. You can (carefully) ride home on a spare tyre stretched onto a rim, but then you need to glue this new tubular before further riding. Gluing a tubular is no piece of cake either, and incorrect installation can cause the tyre to roll off the rim and cause a crash.
Tubeless tyres have been a mainstay in the mountain biking world for some time. They have now come to road cycling.
As the name implies, tubeless tyres don’t need an inner tube. Instead the tyre and rim fit together to create a seal in conjunction with a special valve stem, and a viscous liquid sealant within the tyre. Most wheels also require special strips for an airtight seal. As the fit between the wheel and tyre must be airtight, only certain wheels are compatible with tubeless tyres.
The advantage of tubeless setups is that they're far less vulnerable to flats and offer reduced rolling resistance as there's no friction from an inner tube in play. With no tube, you can run a lower tyre pressure without the fear of a pinch flat. The liquid sealant inside the tyre will also quickly patch small punctures, meaning the tyre continues to hold air.
Tubeless tyres aren’t perfect, however. Their casings are usually thicker and heaver that comparably priced clincher tyres, and they're far more difficult to fit, sometimes requiring an air compressor or special flash pump to properly seat the tyre bead. Large tears in the tyre can also require a tube to fix, which can be messy out on the road with all the sealant inside the tyre.
Tyre size: what do the numbers mean?
If you’ve read many of our reviews here on BikeRadar, you’ve probably seen our writers lamenting a 700c x 23mm tyre or praising a 700c x 25mm model. What do these numbers mean? The first (700c) refers to wheel size, the standard across road bikes. The second number (25mm) refers to the width of the casing.
The current trend is for 25mm tyres over the older 23 or 21mm models, and for good reason: they are more comfortable and often faster, too.
According to testing carried out by the Wheel Energy independent laboratory, the key to minimising a tyre’s rolling resistance lies in reducing the energy lost to casing deformation, not minimising the contact patch. Wide tyres offer a wider but shorter contact patch. With all other factors – such as air pressure and road surface – being the same, this shorter contact patch allows the tyre to ‘bulge’ less and see a shorter section of deflected sidewall meaning less rolling resistance. Wheel Energy claims a 25mm-wide size will have 5% lower rolling resistance on average than the the same 23mm tyre.
More important to most of us, wider tyres (25mm and above) can also be run at lower pressures, providing more suspension and thus a smoother ride. While two millimetres may not seem like much, the difference in ride feel is significant. On the down side, wide tyres carry a small weight penalty and are a little less aerodynamic than their skinny cousins. Bottom line: unless you are racing a time trial, go with a 25mm or wider option.
With the road bike sector currently undergoing something of a sea-change thanks to the advent of 'gravel' and 'adventure' bikes, which are capable of taking on various surfaces, many brands are experimenting with how wide you can actually go. Tyre width is really only limited by what your frame and brakes can handle.
Anatomy of a tyre
- Bead: This is what holds a clincher or tubeless tyre onto the wheel rim. When mounted to the wheel, air pressure inside the tyre pushes the bead, typically made from either steel wire or Kevlar, into the bead hook on the rim.
- Casing: The casing is cloth fabric woven around the beads to create the main body of the tyre. While the vast majority use nylon fabric, higher-end tyres may use cotton and silk threads. The fibres don’t interweave like they do in the shirt you're wearing right now; instead the threads are parallel and are laid on top of each other at perpendicular angles. The casing has a major effect on ride quality because of the the threads per inch (TPI) value. Tyres that are made with thick thread will have a low TPI and greater rolling resistance, but will be more resistant to punctures. Meanwhile tyres with a high TPI use finer, more delicate thread, have less rolling resistance and weigh less, but are more susceptible to punctures.
- Sidewall: Rubber is applied to the side of the casing between the tread and the bead to form the sidewall. Each tire will have varying rubber compounds and thickness depending on their riding purpose, with some higher end tyres using natural brown rubber in an effort to reduce rolling resistance. The jury is out on whether this actually makes any difference, but they sure do look cool.
- Sub-tread: Some tyres will have a sub tread layer to fend off punctures. Cheaper tyres may just have an additional layer of rubber beneath the tread, while those on the higher end of the spectrum will have specially designed fabric strips.
- Tread: This is the rubber that comes into contact with the road It's usually thicker than the sidewall and sometimes features a three dimensional pattern molded into it. Tread pattern is a hotly debated issue, with many claiming that road bike tyres have no need for tread. However, according to Finnish outfit Wheel Energy, because the texture of any road surface is so varied, some tread patterns provide a measurable mechanical adhesion to the ground. The rubber compounds used for different tyres are a closely guarded secret. Generally softer rubber compounds will offer superior traction but will wear quickly, while harder compounds will stand up to more abuse but won’t have the same grip.
The best road bike tyres
Best all-round tyre: Continental Grand Prix 4 Season
With puncture resistant road tyres there a fine line between a tyre that can take some abuse but still rolls well, and one that makes it feel like you're always riding into a headwind.
Continental's Grand Prix 4 Season toes that line perfectly with its tear-resistant DuraSkin carcass being supple enough to feel fast and lively, while the Vectran breaker strip under the tread keeps sharp debris at bay.
It’s light and rolls well enough for wet weather racing and it has a specific winter grip rubber compound so you don’t have to back off that much when cornering, even when it’s really cold and wet.
Best clincher tyre for racing: Specialized S-Works Turbo Cotton
Specialized says its S-Works Turbo Cotton produces the lowest rolling resistance of any road tyre the company has ever produced. Such bold claims are often written off as little more than marketing hype but this one is wholly believable. Not only did we find that they genuinely felt faster on the road than our usual staples, independent testing has verified that claim as well.
The combination of supple 320tpi 'polycotton' casing, 24mm width, and Specialized's 'Gripton' proprietary synthetic dual-compound rubber creates a silky smooth ride quality.
There’s not much puncture protection on tap, but if speed, grip, and ride quality are at the top of your list for a clincher tyre, look no further.
Best road tubeless tyre: Schwalbe Pro One tubeless
The Pro One impressed us with its supple fast rolling characteristics, and relatively easy mounting. Using a harder rubber compound in the middle of the tyre for improved efficiency, a softer compound is used on the shoulders for cornering grip and a very soft base layer that doesn’t contact the ground but helps lower the rolling resistance.
Riding the Pro One tyres on surfaces varying from harsh gravel to pristine tarmac our tester didn’t experience a single flat, though did suffer an apparent puncture as the back of his bike was covered in sealant. Even still, it’s not the most durable tire on the market, but that’s the tradeoff for rolling resistance and fantastic cornering grip.
Best puncture proof tyre: Continental Gatorskin Hardshell
Continental's Gatorskin is one of our favourite training tyres. It’s very quick and it’s tough enough for winter riding, audax and fast commuting – so long as you're running the right air pressure and remove any debris that becomes embedded in the tread.
The Hardshell version sees a bit more puncture protection and wear life than the standard Gatorskin with a bit more tread rubber, a wider polyester breaker strip under the tread, and a three-ply rather than two-ply polyamide casing to help prevent slashed sidewalls.
They're not the lightest tyres around at 273g, but the roll surprising well in spite of that puncture protection and beefy tread.