Are the tyres 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?
Tyres are the cheapest upgrade you can make to your bike and they’ll make a surprising difference. A good set of tyres can help you go faster and be more comfortable in the process. They might even help you corner better too.
- 10 of the fastest road tires lab tested
- Strava tips: 10 of the best
- Why gravel roads made me a believer in road tubeless
There are so many different tyres 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…
What should I look for in a tyre?
The ultimate bike tyre would be super light, totally resistant to punctures and insanely fast. Unfortunately that tyre 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 tyre 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 tyre 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 tyres can be a great choice.
You can find out where most tyres sit in the weight / puncture protection / rolling resistance triangle by checking their packaging or the manufacturer's website.
Types of tyre
Tyres for road bikes come in three styles: clincher, tubular and tubeless.
Clinchers are the most common type of tyres 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 tyre. This usually requires a tyre lever or two but with some tyres 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 tyres 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 take up less space when being stored or transported.
Tubulars are what most pro riders use. 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 tyre differs from a clincher is that it has to be glued onto a rim – a rim specifically made for tubular tyres. Unlike rims designed for clinchers, tubular rims don’t have bead hooks inside the sidewalls for a tyre to clinch onto. Tubulars rely on tyre pressure and glue to hold them on the rim.
Many pro riders swear by tubular tyres, claiming they offer a superior 'feel'. But the big, tangible, advantage to tubulars is that if 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 wheelman 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 tyre, 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 tyre 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 tyre rolling off the rim and a painful crash.
Tubeless tyres have been a mainstay in the mountain biking world for some time and they've now come to road cycling.
As the name suggests, tubeless tyres don’t use an inner tube. They're effectively clinchers except that the tyre and rim seal together to become airtight and remain inflated. But such an airtight can't be achieved with any old rim and tyre, a tubeless set-up not only requires tubeless-specific tyres and rims but also a special valve, viscous liquid sealant and special rim tape.
Without an inner tube, you can run a lower tyre pressures without the fear of a pinch flat, meaning a more comfortable ride with more grip. And if anything sharp does puncture the tyre, the liquid sealant inside will quickly fill any holes so the air stays in your tyre.
Tubeless tyres aren’t perfect, however. Their casings are usually thicker and heaver than 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. And large holes or tears will be too much for the sealant to cope with, so it's worth carrying an inner tube just in case.
Tyre size: what do the numbers mean?
If you’ve read any of the tyre reviews on BikeRadar, you’ve probably come across mentions of 700c x 23mm or 700c x 25mm. What do these numbers mean? The first number (700c) refers to diameter of the wheel with a tyre mounted, which is approximately 700mm for road bikes. The second number (23 / 25mm) refers to the width of the tyre casing once its inflated.
All road bike tyres will be 700c but you can choose the width based on your preferences. The current trend for road tyre width is 25mm as it's often more comfortable and faster than the more traditional 23 or 21mm choices.
The reason a wider tyre can be faster, according to tests carried out by Wheel Energy, an independent tyre testing laboratory in Finland, is that it minimises a tyre’s rolling resistance by reducing the energy lost to casing deformation. Wide tyres offer a wider but shorter contact patch. With all other factors – such as tyre pressure and road surface – being the same, this shorter contact patch means the tyre's sidewalls bulge less resulting in less rolling resistance. Wheel Energy claims a 25mm-wide tyre will have 5 percent lower rolling resistance on average than the same 23mm tyre.
More important to most of us, wider tyres (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. Tyre width is really only limited by what your frame and brakes can handle.
Anatomy of a tyre
- Bead: This is what holds clincher and tubeless tyres on the wheel rim. The air pressure inside the tyre 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 tyre. While the vast majority use nylon fabric, higher-end tyres may use cotton or silk. The casing has a major effect on ride quality because of the the threads per inch (TPI) value. Tyres with a low TPI will have a thicker threads, which causes greater rolling resistance but makes the tyre more resistant to punctures. Meanwhile tyres 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 tyre will have different rubber compounds and thickness depending on its intended purpose.
- 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 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 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 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 tyres?
There's no hard and fast rule for deciding when to replace a tyre. Some have wear indicators – usually a dot or groove in 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 out 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 so deep that you can see the casing fabric underneath or you’re repeatedly suffering flats, it’s time for a new tyre.
The best road bike tyres
Best all-round tyre: Continental Grand Prix 4 Season
Making a puncture-resistant road tyre means finding a balance between building a something that's tough enough to handle broken tarmac and road debris but that doesn't makes you feel as though you're constantly riding into a headwind.
Continental's Grand Prix 4 Season strikes that balance perfectly thanks to its tear-resistant DuraSkin carcass being supple enough to feel fast and lively, and the Vectran breaker strip under the tread to keeps sharp debris at bay.
It’s light and rolls well enough for wet-weather racing and has a specific winter grip rubber compound so you don’t have to back off too much when you're cornering in the worst conditions.
Best racing clincher tyre: Michelin Power Competition
BikeRadar recently conducted lab testing of 10 of the best performance clinchers currently on the market. In a field that included heavy hitters like Specialized’s S-Works Turbo Cotton, Continental's Grand Prix 4000SII 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 tyres a're 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 tyre in the category.
Best road tubeless tyre: Schwalbe Pro One tubeless
Following our recent performance tyre 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 tyre 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 tyre on surfaces varying from harsh gravel to pristine tarmac our tester didn’t experience a single flat, even tough something had appeared to puncture the tyre as the back of his bike was covered in sealant. Even so, it’s not the most durable tyre on the market, but that’s the trade-off for rolling resistance and fantastic cornering grip.
Best Gravel specific tires: Maxxis Rambler EXO TR
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 tyre that's cushy, comfortable, grippy and, of course, tubeless ready. The tight knobs down the centre of the tyre 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.
Best puncture proof tyre: Continental Gatorskin Hardshell
Continental's Gatorskin is one of our favourite training tyres. It’s very quick and tough enough for winter riding, audax and fast commuting – so long as you're running the right tyre pressure and remove any debris embedded in the tread.
The 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 tyres around at 273g, but they 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 some comments below may be out of date — this article was last updated October 2017.