Bike Tires and You: A Crash Course
There is one part of your bike that can make your riding awesome or just ruin it. It’s your tires. Getting the right set for your riding style is probably the easiest and the quickest way to improve your ride. This guide will help walk you through the basics of selecting bike tires.
What Kinds of Tires are Made?
There are more kinds of tires than there are kinds of bikes! This is because many people like to personalize a particular style of bike frame with the tires that work best for the riding that they do.
Everyone knows that there are two basic types of bikes out there today. These two styles of riding are very different. Each style needs a particular type of tire.
- Road Bike Tires – In general, road bikes are ridden at high speeds, on smooth pavement or asphalt. These tires are quite narrow. They will have smoother centers than any other kind of tires. Some few, called slicks, are completely smooth or have minimal tread. Professional quality road bike tires will also be very lightweight, and very expensive!
- Mountain Biking Tires – These are tires that are often heavily grooved for great traction on natural, unpaved surfaces. Some are made with lots of knobs instead of grooves, for better control in deep mud. They are wider than any road bike tires. They are tough, able to withstand hits from rocks or sticks. They are not very speedy. They are often fairly heavy due to their width and material heavy construction.
Other Types of Tires
- ‘Fat Bike’ Tires – These big tires are used on specially designed mountain bikes affectionately called fat bikes. These are huge tires, looking more like something for a motorcycle! They are very heavy, but let you cruise through heavy mud, snow, sand and nearly anything else you’ve a mind to ride on.
- Cruiser Bike Tires – Basically, these plump tires are for giving you a cushy ride. They often have a smooth center with ridges at the edges of the tire. Most are 26 or 24 inches in diameter. Some of them can be nearly as wide as a fat bike tire! If in doubt, a cruiser tire will often have white sidewalls and very little tread.
- Snow Tires – There are tires made for nearly every situation or weather type, even snow! Studded tires let you ride safely on ice. Other people choose to use low-pressure wide tires for winter rides. Those fatter tires act like snowshoes.
- BMX Tires – These come in a number of styles. Some are smooth, while others are knobby. It just depends on the style of riding they are made to do. You’ll be able to recognize them because they are all 20 or 24 inches in diameter.
- Commuter Tires – These are designed for those of us who want more a versatile tire. They have features of both road tires and mountain biking tires, letting them be used nearly anywhere. They are also often lined with Kevlar to prevent flats.
Knowing how to choose bike tires also means knowing a little about rubber. There are three types of tire rubber. Each has its pluses and minuses.
The first type is soft rubber. It is slightly sticky and helps keep a tire on the pavement at speed. It is often used on road tires. It also wears out quickly.
The second type is hard rubber. This is a substance that is far more durable than soft rubber. Tires made of this stuff won’t stick to the road, but they will stand up to abuse better. This stuff is used in most mountain bike tires.
Dual-compound tires use both soft and hard rubber. Many times a dual-compound tire will use hard rubber for the sidewalls and between the tread. Softer rubber will be used to make up the tread and the parts that will touch the ground. Upside is a tire that will handle well nearly everywhere. Downside is that these tires are more expensive.
All About Road Bike Tires
A road bike tire is designed to be swift and safe while riding on smooth surfaces. These are tires that are optimized for a low resistance to give the rider a boost in his or her performance. Different road bike tire sizes are available in many styles, to best suit the bike and you, the rider.
A person who is competing in a race might opt for the lightest, smoothest tire that they can find, for example. They will also seek a tire that is quite narrow. A tire size of 700mm x 22mm is a standard racing size. The downside is that these thin, smooth tires must be ran at a very high pressure. They are not very comfortable to ride!
Someone who is more interested in comfort might consider a tire that is wider. Touring or commuter riders often opt for a tire that is 25mm to 35mm wide on their bikes. Just remember that the wider the tire, the lower the pressure can be. This makes the ride smoother.
Tread styles are optimized for different surfaces. A bike that will be ridden on pavement will often be fitted with a soft rubber smooth tire, or slick. A bike that will see gravel trails or rougher pavement will often have dual-compound rubber tires with decent tread.
If you are interested in using a particular tire width or tread design, be sure that your frame can accept it. Road bikes can have tight clearance around their wheels. Not every tire will fit every bike!
Road bikes can also have non-standard tire sizes. Older road bikes, particularly American brands, often use tires that are 27 inches in diameter instead of 700mm. Some older French and Italian bikes have oddball sizes as well. Luckily, these older tire sizes are still sold. You can simply convert them to modern rims too.
All About Mountain Bike Tires!
A mountain bike’s tires need to be able to stand up to some harsh conditions. Understanding mountain bike tire sizes means understanding a few things about the different types of mountain bikes.
I don’t mean just which ones are best for downhill riding or for cross-country. I’m talking about their wheel sizes. It used to be that every mountain bike had the same size rims. This is no longer true.
- Traditional Mountain Bike – These bikes have a wheel size of 24 or 26 inches. They are often general use mountain bikes, not designed to do any particular style of riding extremely well. Many people love to convert these bikes to urban riding machines or even rural touring rides.
- The 29 Inch-er – A popular size for modern mountain biking, the 29er has 29 inch wheels. These big tires allow the rider a smooth ride over most terrains. Unfortunately, these are big bikes. Shorter individuals cannot always safely ride them!
- The 650b Tire – These are another popular size of bike. Not everyone can ride a bike as tall as a 29er, after all! These tires are 27.5 inches in diameter, with a wheel nearly the same size as a traditional road bike. They offer most of the same benefits as the bigger 29ers, but are easier for a shorter person to handle.
Width of the Tire
When it comes to mountain biking, picking the right bike tire sizes also means getting the width right. How wide you want your tires often comes down to what kind of riding you want to be doing! Nearly every sport or style has a preferred width.
A wider tire is far more stable. It will let you ‘float’ over debris and gooey mud. A thinner tire is far more maneuverable and a little faster. But thinner tires don’t offer nearly as much control or stability. In general, cross-country riders use a tire with a width between 1.8 inches and 2.4 inches. Downhill riders and all-mountain riders will use a tire that is 2.1 inches to 2.4 inches wide.
About the Front and the Back
Unlike road bikes, most mountain bike tire sets are made with a front tire and a back tire design. This means that each tire has been designed to do something specifically well.
A front tire design will have more directional knobs with a lower profile. This means that the tire will handle slightly better while cornering. It also helps increase speed. Front tires designed for muddy riding might have longer knobs, to grip the mud without sinking in.
Back tires will generally feature more horizontal grooves and knobs. These are designed to help you get the most push from each pedal stroke. Some rear tires might be slightly narrower. This is to help prevent mud from clogging up the wheel when it starts to build up on a ride.
Knowing how to choose bike tires can save you a lot of money and time. There are few things worse than spending hard-earned cash on something, only to find out you won’t be able to use it!