Are the tires on your road bike looking a bit tired? Maybe you’ve have a few flats or you’re just looking to try something new?
This article was last updated October 2017.
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Tires are the cheapest upgrade you can make to your ride, and they’ll make a surprising difference. A good set of tires can literally make you faster and more comfortable, and help you corner better, too.
There are so many different types of tires 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 tire?
The ultimate bike tire would be super light, impenetrable and insanely fast. Unfortunately that tire hasn’t been invented yet, and in most cases you can have two of these attributes.
Your main type of riding should dictate your tire choice. For example, if you are headed out on gravel backroads or doing rough-surface inner-city commuting, you should consider a tire 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 tires can be a great choice.
When buying tires in a shop or online, most models will spell out where they sit in the weight / puncture protection / rolling resistance triangle.
Types of tires
Tires for road bikes are come in three styles: clincher, tubular and tubeless.
Clinchers are the most common type of tires on road bikes. They feature the familiar set up of an outer tire 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 tire, replace the punctured tube, reinstall the tire, and then inflate with a pump or air cartridge.
There are two types of clincher tires — folding and non-folding. The bead (the part that holds onto the rim) in folding tires is made from a stiff durable fabric like Kevlar that doesn’t stretch but can — as the name suggests — be folded. Non-folding tires instead feature a steel wire bead that does not bend.
Folding tires are more expensive but also lighter and faster. Plus, they typically have better grip.
Tubulars are what pro riders use. These high-performance tires 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 tire to interface with. Instead, there is just a smooth, curved bed.
Many pro riders swear by tubular tires 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 a sharp-edged obstacle, and if the tire 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 tire 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 tire — which obviously means riding with said spare tire. You can (carefully) ride home on a spare tire 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 tire to roll off the rim and cause a crash.
Tubeless tires have been a mainstay in the mountain biking world for some time. They have now come to road cycling.
As the name implies, tubeless tires don’t need an inner tube. Instead the tire and rim fit together to create a seal in conjunction with a special valve stem, and a viscous liquid sealant within the tire. Most wheels also require special strips for an airtight seal. As the fit between the wheel and tire must be airtight, only certain wheels are compatible with tubeless tires.
The advantage of tubeless set ups 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 tire pressure without the fear of a pinch flat. The liquid sealant inside the tire will also quickly patch small punctures, meaning the tire continues to hold air.
Tubeless tires aren’t perfect, however. Their casings are usually thicker and heavier that comparably priced clincher tires, and they're far more difficult to fit, sometimes requiring an air compressor or special flash pump to properly seat the tire bead. Large tears in the tire can also require a tube to fix, which can be messy out on the road with all the sealant inside the tire
Tire 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 tire 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 tires 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 minimizing a tire’s rolling resistance lies in reducing the energy lost to casing deformation, not minimizing the contact patch. Wide tires 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 tire 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 percent lower rolling resistance on average than the same 23mm tire.
More important to most of us, wider tires (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 tires 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. Tire width is really only limited by what your frame and brakes can handle.
Anatomy of a tire
- Bead: This is what holds a clincher or tubeless tire onto the wheel rim. When mounted to the wheel, air pressure inside the tire 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 tire. While the vast majority use nylon fabric, higher-end tires 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 threads per inch (TPI) value. Tires that are made with thick thread will have a low TPI and greater rolling resistance, but will be more resistant to punctures. Meanwhile tires 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 tires 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 tires will have a sub tread layer to fend off punctures. Cheaper tires 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 tires 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 tires 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.
How often should I replace my tires?
When to replace your tires isn't set in stone and varies from tire to tire. Some have wear indicators, usually a dot or groove in the middle of the tread that will wear away over the life of the tire. In most cases these indicators offer a pretty good sign of how much life remains in your tires, but they’re not perfect.
For tires 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 tire, 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 tires.
The best road bike tires
Best all around tire: Continental Grand Prix 4 Season
With puncture resistant road tires there a fine line between a tire 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 standard clincher tire for racing: Michelin Power Competition
BikeRadar recently conducted lab testing of 10 of the best performance clinchers currently on the market. In a field that included heavier hitters like Specialized’s S-Works Turbo Cotton, Continental's Grand Prix 4000SII, and Vittoria’s Competition Corsa, the Micheline was the fastest standard clincher on test and second overall, only ousted by the Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless.
As is the case with many fast rolling tires, they're also fast wearing and prone to punctures, however, this is not the case when it comes to the Power Competition. The casing isn't paper thin and we found the durability and puncture resistance to be among the best for a tire in the category.
Best road tubeless tire: Schwalbe Pro One tubeless
Following our recent performance tire lab testing, Schwalbe’s Pro One Tubeless proved to be the fastest according to ever test we ran.
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 tire 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 tire 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 Gravel specific tires: Maxxis Rambler EXO TR
There is no doubt that gravel and adventure riding has exploded in the past couple of years and we’re seeing a glut of new drop bar bikes and the gear designed to leave the paved roads.
Maxxis’ Rambler EXO TR are a file tread gravel specific tire which are cushy, comfortable, grippy and of course tubeless ready. The tight kobs down the center of the tire do offer a bit of resistance when compared to a slick, but balance the rolling resistance to grip equation nicely.
Speaking of grip, even with the closely spaced middle tread they remain surprisingly planted when wet and offer good braking traction too.
Best puncture-proof tire: Continental Gatorskin Hardshell
Continental's Gatorskin is one of our favourite training tires. 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 tires around at 273g, but the roll surprising well in spite of that puncture protection and beefy tread.
To stay current, this article has been updated since it was first published and so some comments below may be out of date.