Best road bike tires 2018: everything you need to know

What you need to know about the different types of road tires

Are the tires on your road bike looking a bit tired? Maybe you’ve suffered a few too many flats or you’re just looking to try something new?

Tires are the cheapest upgrade you can make to your bike and they’ll make a surprising difference. A good set of tires can help you go faster and be more comfortable in the process. They might even help you corner better too.

There are so many different tires out there that it can be a little overwhelming when it comes to picking one. So if you're confused by terms such as TPI (threads per inch), tubeless or tubular, then read on for a quick primer…

Article last updated April 2018

What should I look for in a tire?

Finding the perfect road tire depends on where you ride
Finding the perfect road tire depends on where you ride

The ultimate bike tire would be super light, totally resistant to punctures and insanely fast. Unfortunately that tire doesn't exist and so you generally have to make do with two of these three attributes.

The type of riding is ultimately what should dictate your tire choice. For example, if most of your time is spent heading out on gravel backroads or commuting on rough inner-city roads, you'll be better off with a tire that's geared towards puncture protection over speed and weight. On the other hand, if you often ride on good roads that are smooth, debris-free and dry, then some lightweight, racy tires can be a great choice.

You can find out where most tires sit in the weight / puncture protection / rolling resistance triangle by checking their packaging or the manufacturer's website.

Types of tire

Tires for road bikes come in three styles: clincher, tubular and tubeless. 

Clincher tires

Your road bike is probably rolling on clincher tires
Your road bike is probably rolling on clincher tires

Clinchers are the most common type of tires found on road bikes. They have an open casing that houses a separate inner tube and then hooks on to the wheel rim.

The main advantage of clinchers is that they make fixing a flat easy, because all you have to do to get at the punctured tube is pry off one side of the tire. This usually requires a tire lever or two but with some tires you can do it with just your thumbs.

There are two types of clinchers: folding and non-folding. The difference is in the material used to make the bead (the part that hooks onto the rim).

Folding clinchers generally use Kevlar, a durable material that — as the name suggests — allows the tires to be folded. Non-folding clinchers use a bead made from steel wire bead and can't be folded.

Folding clinchers are more expensive but they're also lighter and are easier to get on and off a rim. The fact that they fold isn't really important as far as riding is concerned but it means they take up less space when being stored or transported. 

Tubular tires

Tubular tires see the inner tube sewn directly into the tire
Tubular tires see the inner tube sewn directly into the tire

Tubulars are what most pro riders use for racing. They still rely on an inner tube but instead of the casing being open, like on a clincher, it's sewn shut around the inner tube, so that the pairing takes on a tubular form — hence the name.

The other way a tubular tire differs from a clincher is that it has to be glued (or taped using special double-sided tape) onto a rim specifically made for tubular tires.

Unlike rims designed for clinchers, tubular rims don’t have bead hooks inside the sidewalls for a tire to clinch onto. Tubulars rely on tire pressure and glue to hold them on the rim. 

Some riders still swear by tubular tires, claiming they offer a superior 'feel'. But the big, tangible, advantage to tubulars is that they can still be ridden when punctured as they won't separate from the rim, unlike clinchers, meaning a rider can continue riding until the punctured wheel can be changed — vital in races such as Paris-Roubaix.

Tubulars are also said to be more resistant to 'pinch flats', where the inner tube is pinched between the rim and tire, usually caused by hitting a sharp-edged obstacle such as a pothole. This is probably more a function of the tendency to run tubulars at higher pressures than their construction, however.

The disadvantage of tubulars — one that's felt much more keenly by regular cyclists than the pros — is that having a tire that's glued to the rim makes repairing a puncture during a ride very difficult.

Your two options are using a CO2 inflator cartridge containing sealant or tearing off the punctured tubular and replacing it with another, which obviously means riding with a spare. (Actually repairing a punctured tubular, rather than simply replacing it, means breaking out the sewing kit.)

You can — carefully — ride home on a spare tubular stretched over a rim, but you must glue this new tubular in place before your next ride. Gluing a tubular is no piece of cake either and a bad job can result in the tire rolling off the rim and a painful crash.

Tubeless tires

Tubeless tires are similar to clinchers but are designed to be run sans tube
Tubeless tires are similar to clinchers but are designed to be run sans tube

Tubeless tires have been a mainstay in the mountain biking world for some time and they've now come to road cycling, although they're a very long way from taking over.

As the name suggests, tubeless tires don’t use an inner tube. They're effectively clinchers except that the tire and rim seal together to become airtight and remain inflated, just like the tires on most modern cars. 

Such an airtight seal can't be achieved with any old rim and tire however, a tubeless set-up not only requires tubeless-specific tires and rims but also a special valve, viscous liquid sealant and special rim tape.

Without an inner tube, you can run lower tire pressures without the fear of a pinch flat, meaning a more comfortable ride with more grip. And if anything sharp does puncture the tire, the liquid sealant inside will quickly fill any holes so the air stays in your tire.

If the hole can't be healed by sealant alone, you still have the option of fitting an inner tube, or there are 'tire worm' repair kits.

Tubeless tires aren’t perfect, however. Their casings are usually thicker and heaver than 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. 

Tire size: what do the numbers mean?

There are plenty of numbers printed on the sidewall of a tire, but what do they all mean?
There are plenty of numbers printed on the sidewall of a tire, but what do they all mean?

If you’ve read any of the tire reviews on BikeRadar, you’ve probably come across mentions of 700x23mm or 700x25mm. What do these numbers mean?

The first number (700, or 700c, which is a throwback to an old standard) refers to diameter of the wheel with a tire mounted, which is approximately 700mm for road bikes. The second number (23/25mm) refers to the width of the tire casing once it's inflated.  

Almost all road bike tires will be 700c but you can choose the width based on your preferences. The current trend for road tire width is 25mm because it's often more comfortable and faster than the more traditional 23 or 21mm choices.

The reason a wider tire can be faster, according to tests carried out by Wheel Energy, an independent tire testing laboratory in Finland, is that it minimises a tire’s rolling resistance by reducing the energy lost to casing deformation.

Wide tires offer a wider but shorter contact patch. With all other factors — such as tire pressure and road surface — being the same, this shorter contact patch means the tire's sidewalls bulge less resulting in less rolling resistance.

Wheel Energy claims a 25mm-wide tire will have 5 percent lower rolling resistance on average than the same 23mm tire.

Wider rubber has definite advantages
Wider rubber has definite advantages

More important to most of us, wider tires (25mm and above) can also be run at lower pressures to provide a smoother ride.

While two millimetres may not seem like much, the difference in ride feel is significant, although there is a small weight penalty. Bottom line: unless you are racing a time trial, go with a 25mm or wider option. Tire width is really only limited by what your frame and brakes can handle.

Anatomy of a tire

This is a side cut of a Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons tire
This is a side cut of a Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons tire

  • Bead: This is what holds clincher and tubeless tires on the wheel rim. The air pressure inside the tire pushes the beads out, making them hook onto the rim.
  • Casing: This is cloth fabric 'woven' around the beads that creates the main body of the tire. While the vast majority use nylon fabric, higher-end tires may use cotton or silk. The casing has a major effect on ride quality because of the the threads per inch (TPI) value. Tires with a low TPI will have thicker threads, which cause greater rolling resistance but make the tire more resistant to punctures. Meanwhile tires with a high TPI use finer threads for less rolling resistance and lower weight, but will be 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 different rubber compounds and thickness depending on its intended purpose.
  • 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 at the higher end of the price range will have specially designed fabric strips.
  • Tread: This is the rubber that comes into contact with the road. It's thicker than the sidewall and sometimes features a three-dimensional pattern. 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 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?

Some tires have wear indicators, which will dissapear over the life of the tire
Some tires have wear indicators, which will dissapear over the life of the tire

There's no hard and fast rule for deciding when to replace a tire. Some have wear indicators — usually a dot or groove in 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 out 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 so deep that you can see the casing fabric underneath or you’re repeatedly suffering flats, it’s time for a new tire.

The best road bike tires

Best all-round performance tire: Continental Grand Prix 4000 S II

BikeRadar score5/5

The Continental GP4000S II is a staff favourite for good reason
The Continental GP4000S II is a staff favourite for good reason

  • $74.95 (typically discounted by half online)
  • Weight:  219g (25mm)
  • Available widths: 20, 23, 25 and 28mm

Making an all-purpose performance road tire means finding a balance between building something that's tough enough to handle real-world conditions but that doesn't makes you feel as though you're constantly riding into a headwind.

The GP4000 S II is not the best in any single category but it offers a fantastic combination of performance, ride quality, low weight and durability. It’s fast enough to race on and tough enough that plenty of riders use it for training too.

At full retail it’s not particularly cheap, but the Conti is routinely available at around half its RRP, making it excellent value for money.

Continental GP 4000 S II alternatives

Best racing clincher tire: Michelin Power Competition

BikeRadar score5/5

The Michelin Power Competition is an outstanding performance tire
The Michelin Power Competition is an outstanding performance tire

  • $64.99
  • Weight: 202g (25mm)
  • Available widths: 23 and 25mm

Last year BikeRadar conducted lab testing of 10 of the best performance clinchers currently on the market. In a field that included heavy hitters such as Specialized’s S-Works Turbo Cotton, Continental's Grand Prix 4000 S II and Vittoria’s Competition Corsa, the Michelin was the fastest tubed clincher on test and second overall, only beaten by the Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless.

Many fast-rolling tires are also fast wearing and prone to punctures, but 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.

Michelin Power Competition alternatives

Best road tubeless tire: Schwalbe Pro One tubeless

BikeRadar score4.5/5

Schwalbe's Pro One Tubeless tire
Schwalbe's Pro One Tubeless tire

  • $85
  • Weight: 269g (25mm)
  • Available widths: 23, 25 and 28mm

In our performance tire lab testing, Schwalbe’s Pro One Tubeless proved to be the fastest according to every test we ran.

The Pro One impressed us with its supple, fast-rolling characteristics and relatively easy mounting. There's a harder rubber compound in the middle of the tire for improved efficiency, a softer compound 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, even though something had appeared to puncture the tire because the back of his bike was covered in sealant. 

Even so, it’s not the most durable tire on the market, but that’s the trade-off for rolling resistance and fantastic cornering grip.

Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless alternatives

Best gravel specific tire: Maxxis Rambler EXO TR

BikeRadar score4.5/5

The Maxxis Rambler EXO TR is a versatile gravel and dirt tire
The Maxxis Rambler EXO TR is a versatile gravel and dirt tire

  • $49.99
  • Weight: 375g (40mm)
  • Available widths: 38 and 40mm

Gravel / adventure riding has exploded in the past couple of years and we’re seeing a glut of new drop-bar bikes and gear designed to leave the tarmac.

Maxxis’ Rambler EXO TR is a file-tread, gravel-specific tire that's cushy, comfortable, grippy and, of course, tubeless ready. The tight knobs down the centre 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, the Rambler EXO TR remains surprisingly planted when wet and offers good braking traction too.

Maxxis Rambler Exo TR alternatives

Best puncture-proof tire: Continental Gator Hardshell

BikeRadar score4.5/5

Continental's Gatorskin
Continental's Gatorskin

  • Rigid $65 / folding $70 
  • Weight: 270g (claimed for 25mm folding version)
  • Available widths: 23, 25, 28 and 32mm

Continental's Gatorskin is one of our favourite training tires. It’s very quick and tough enough for winter riding, audax and fast commuting — so long as you're running the right tire pressure and remove any debris embedded in the tread.

The Gator Hardshell version has a bit more puncture protection and slightly longer wear life than the standard Gatorskin by virtue of a bit more tread rubber, a wider polyester breaker strip under the tread and a three-ply rather than two-ply polyamide casing.

They're not the lightest tires around, but they roll surprising well in spite of that puncture protection and beefy tread.

Continental Gator Hardshell alternatives

To stay current, this article has been updated since it was first published and some comments below may be out of date — this article was last updated April 2018.

Colin Levitch

Staff Writer, Australia
Originally from Denver, Colorado, Colin now resides in Sydney, Australia. Holding a media degree, Colin is focused on the adventure sport media world. Coming from a ski background, his former European pro father convinced him to try collegiate crit racing. Although his bright socks say full roadie, he enjoys the occasional mountain bike ride, too.
  • Discipline: Road, mountain
  • Preferred Terrain: Tarmac mountain climbs into snow-covered hills
  • Current Bikes: BMC TeamMachine SLR01, Trek Top Fuel 9
  • Dream Bike: Mosaic Cycles RT-1
  • Beer of Choice: New Belgium La Folie
  • Location: Sydney, Australia

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