Bicycle tires are often an underrated component. Not surprisingly so, but if you think about (especially with a road bike), there’s only about an inch or so of rubber that keeps you grounded. That inch of rubber is expected to give you grip, puncture protection, comfort – all this and more, at car-like speeds. That’s why it’s important to have top-notch rubber on your bike at all times.
ANATOMY OF A ROAD BIKE TIRE
A road bike tire is more complex and intricate than most people would think. Tires consist of multiple different layers – each has its own function. The differences in how tires are constructed determine ride quality and the price range of the tire as the more features it has, the more complex it is to manufacture. Here are some features to look out for:
BEADS – The beads are the parts of the tire that clinch (reason why these tires are called clinchers) the rim when the tire is inflated to keep the tire in place. At lower price points, tires come with wire beads made of steel. As you spend more, tires feature flexible beads made of synthetic materials, such as Kevlar. Tires with flexible beads are called “folding tires” because the beads allow the tire to be folded. Besides saving weight, foldable beads usually make tires a bit easier to install and remove, too. If you want the best, get folding tires because they’re lighter, which makes your bike easier to ride. If you want a good tire at a sweet price, you can usually get top tire models for less by simply buying the version with wire beads.
CASING – The casing is the fabric that forms the basic structure of the tire. The material, the number of threads per inch (TPI), and the design affect how a tire feels and handles.
TPI (Threads Per Inch) defines the number of threads contained in one inch of the tire casing. The lower the number of TPI, the larger the gauge cords in the casing. Thus, the more durable the tire becomes. The higher the TPI, the more lightweight the tire becomes and the more supple the ride of the tire. Race road tires usually offer a higher TPI, 100-130.
As a general rule, the higher the thread count, the more flexible and supple a tire will feel, which improves ride quality, handling, and control. It also increases manufacturing costs. If you’re looking for protection from flat tires, some tires have reinforced casing designed to help prevent punctures.
SUB-TREAD – Not all tires have sub-treads. They’re a common feature on tires designed with additional puncture protection. For example, an additional Kevlar or nylon layer will be placed in the tire beneath the tread to stop sharp objects from being able to puncture the tube.
Tires equipped with protective sub-treads will be labeled as such.
If you suffer lots of flats due to the roads or conditions you ride in, getting tires with protective sub treads makes a lot of sense. Ditto if you only puncture occasionally, but hate dealing with flats. The only drawback is a little additional weight, which racers and fast riders might not want.
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. The sidewall provides the entire tire with rigidity and lateral support, especially during cornering. Road tire sidewalls are usually their weakest points as there isn’t much chance of contact there – they’re thinner here in order to save weight.
TREAD – The tread is the rubber that meets the road or trail. On road tires, more tread usually means increased wear along with additional weight, so it’s a tradeoff whether you require top ride quality or durability. Road tread varies in hardness, too, with harder rubbers wearing longer while softer compounds grip better in corners. These are fine distinctions widely debated among riders. You’ll even find tires with dual-compound tread designed for good wear and top traction. There are tread patterns specifically designed for wet roads, as well.
TYPES OF TIRES
CLINCHERS – Clinchers are by far the most common type of tires on road bikes these days. You’re probably riding a bike with clinchers too.
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 – all you have to do to get to the punctured tube is pry off one side of the tire. This usually requires a tire lever or two but with some loose-fitting 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. Folding clinchers generally use Kevlar at the bead – more expensive but they’re also lighter and are easier to get on and off a rim. Wired or non-folding tires have a steel cabled bead that is heavy and, as the name suggests, are unfoldable and hard to get on and off the tire.
TUBELESS – Tubeless tires have been popular amongst mountain bikers for some time and they’ve recently 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.
A tubeless set-up not only requires tubeless-specific tires and rims but also a special valve, viscous liquid sealant and special rim tape.
TUBULARS – Tubulars are super rare to see out on the roads these days – they’re usually only sported on race bikes belonging to the pros. They 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.
Rather than using the bead of the tire (tubular don’t have beads) – tubulars are glued (or taped using special double-sided tape) onto a rim specifically made for tubular tires. Even the rims don’t have bead hooks inside the sidewalls for a tire to clinch onto. Tubulars rely on tire pressure and glue/tape to hold them onto the rim. Most pros swear by tubulars simply because of the savings in weight and the supple ride quality.
Read our BICYCLE TIRE BUYERS GUIDE to know more on how to choose the right tire for your bike
WHAT’S WITH THE NUMBERS?
If you’ve noticed the sidewall of your bike tires, you’ve probably come across mentions of 700x25c or 700x32c. What do these numbers mean?
The first number 700c which basically means 700mm, refers to the diameter of the wheel with a tire mounted, which is approximately 700mm for road bikes. The second number (23/25c) refers to the width of the tire casing once it’s inflated. All road bike tires will be 700c but you can choose the width based on your preferences.
A wider size means that the contact patch between the road and the tire increases. Hence the rolling friction should increase by slight amounts.
Thinner tires mean smaller contact area with the road surface. Hence rolling friction/resistance is reduced. At the same time, the smaller contact surface between the road and the tires mean that every small bump, pothole or bad patch of road can be felt by the rider in the form of road buzz.
The current trend for road tire width is 25mm/25c because it’s often more comfortable and faster than the more traditional 23 or 21mm choices.
WHEN DO I REPLACE MY TIRES?
There’s no hard and fast rule on when to change tires – most road tires have wear indicators built into the tread to help you gauge when it’s time for one to go. This is a fairly good indicator of when you need to swap tires but it’s not that simple. What we mean is that sometimes your tire may actually need swapping before it has reached that wear indicator.
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. Keep in mind that tires also have a life, beyond which you could see cracking or “drying up” of the tire. This can also happen if the bike hasn’t been ridden for a while.
DID YOU KNOW?
- In the Paris-Roubaix, riders are known to have used tires as thick as 30mm. That said, on smooth surfaces, these tires seem inferior to the narrow tires.
- recent studies have shown that when the two are compared on an overall basis, the wider tires gain an edge over the thinner tires.
- The explanation they had for this was as follows – Each tire is flattened over a load. When the prototypes of the two tires were inflated to the same level, the wider tires deformed over their width and to a lesser extent along their length.
- The thinner tires, on the other hand, being slimmer, flattened to a larger extent along their length. As a result, the wider tires were more “round” than their slimmer counterparts, thereby aiding in the rotation action, making movement easier.
TOP 3 ROAD TIRES 2020
1. CONTINENTAL GRAND PRIX 5000
2. MICHELIN POWER ENDURANCE
3. SCHWALBE ONE
Tires are important, a good pair can cost you a bit but they’re absolutely worth it. Safety, comfort, efficiency, and traction are just a handful of the factors to consider when upgrading tires.
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WHAT I LOVE ABOUT CYCLING
I’m an avid mountain biker and I like riding fast and flowy singletrack. As I keep riding, I continuously work on honing my riding skills. I like to ride whenever possible, especially with friends. I also like to influence folk into getting to ride more often.
Working on bicycles has also been a keen interest of mine for quite some time.
DISCIPLINE: Mountain biking and Road biking
CURRENT BIKE: Merida One Twenty 9.600 & Specialized Allez Elite DSW
DREAM BIKE: Santa Cruz 5010