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Road Bicycle Tires

Road bicycle tires run the gamut from super-lightweight tubular racing tires to tough-wearing, puncture-resistant tires for commuters and recreational riders. Check out our article on Tire Types for a good rundown of some of the vocabulary you'll encounter in this article.

The world of bicycle components is generally ruled by the "2 out of 3" rule-a given part can meet two out of three given performance goals. For tires, those goals are usually speed, grip/road feel, and flat protection/durability. These factors are affected by various compromises between different aspects of the tire's construction. Most bicycle tires have similar construction, with the following four components:

  • Casing - The foundation of tire construction. Casing is traditionally measured in Threads Per Inch (TPI), the higher the better. Modern race tires often use advanced rubber compounds that diminish the importance of a high TPI casing, but higher numbers still tend to offer an exceptionally supple ride quality.
  • Bead - In a clincher tire, the bead is the part of the tire that "clinches" the rim and keeps the tube securely inside the tire. Beads can be made of wire or of Kevlar strands. Wire beads are cheaper but heavier; Kevlar beads are lightweight but more expensive. Kevlar beads also allow the tire to be folded into a small package; for this reason Kevlar beads are often referred to as "folding" beads and these tires as folding tires. Pretty much all mid- to high-end racing and trainign tires utilize Kevlar beads.
  • Puncture Protection ‐ In many tires, a rigid layer between the casing and the tread provides puncture protection. These layers may consist of polyester, nylon, high-tech materials like Kevlar or Vectran, extra casing layers, or just an extra layer of rubber. Tire companies often develop brand names for their puncture protection, such as RaceGuard or PRS Puncture Resistance System, but they all utilize similar methods to achieve it.
  • Tread - The rubber that meets the road. A tire's tread is the most obvious distinction between it and any other tire. Each tire brand and model uses distinctive rubber formulas and tread patterns that maximize certain qualities. The supplest tread compounds provide the best grip and least rolling resistance, but they wear out much more quickly than others. More rigid treads increase durability and puncture resistance, but they tend to have higher rolling resistance and less grip. Many manufacturers use multiple tread compounds in a single tire in an effort to maximize performance.

Racing Tires

Racing/performance tires are designed for maximum speed (low rolling resistance) and optimal handling (grip when cornering). Durability and puncture resistance are less of a concern for riders-racers and fast recreational riders-who prefer these tires. Recreational and touring riders will probably be happier with tires that place a higher emphasis on durability and flat protection, like the training and recreational tires discussed below.

Race-quality tires tend to be the flagship products of most tire manufacturers. They receive the most promotion and tend to be the most expensive. Though they tend not to be high-mileage tires, they are by no mean fragile. A good pair of performance tires should last 1,500-2,000 miles, and though their light weight makes them more susceptible to punctures, they shouldn't fail except in the event of at least a moderate hazard, such as a sharp piece of gravel or a shard of glass.

Racing tires may be clincher or tubular tires. For more information on the latter, be sure to check out our article on Tubular Tires. The best-known, tried-and-true clincher options are made by Michelin, Continental, Vittoria, and Vredestein. The Michelin Pro series, the Continental Grand Prix series, the Vittoria Open Corsa series, and the Vredestein Fortezza series have been winning over racers and riders for years, and with each new incarnation of their popular racing tires, they get better and better. These companies also all make super-lightweight tires designed for the highest possible performance on smooth, clean roads-worth a look if you're looking for performance above all else.

Training & Recreational Tires

Tires classified for training and recreation tend to be more durable than race tires. Of course, this comes with an increase in weight and rolling resistance. But nobody wants to be the person on the group ride that has everyone standing around waiting for a flat to be fixed. The tougher rubber compounds and various flat protection methods in good training tires result in a tire that will keep you rolling with minimal interruptions.

For training and everyday use, look for tires with design features that match the situations in which you'll be riding them. Riding in the rain? Try an all-season road tire with excellent grippiness. Recreational riders and commuters who ride over rough roads or lots of debris may appreciate the hardiest tires, with specialized puncture protection layers to keep stuff from getting through and poking holes in your tubes.

Hopefully, we've provided a starting point to helping you select the best tire for your road bike. As with any cycling product, there is no "best tire" we can suggest. Tire preference is determined by riding style and individual preferences. There's no better way to zero in on your perfect tire than to try a new one every couple months and see which tire best suits your needs.

Older & Unusual Road Bike Tires

Most road bikes manufactured today use size 700c tires, basically a measurement of the circumference of the tire, and tire widths of 19-25mm. This is what we refer to as a road size. Road-style bicycles have been manufactured with different wheel sizes, however. Smaller bikes geared towards women or children often have what is known as a 650c wheel size. The 650c size has also historically been very popular with triathletes, and tires of this size are often referred to as triathlon tires. 650c tires seem to be falling out of favor with triathletes and time trialists, but they are still often found on bikes sized for women or kids.

Older road bikes may utilize the 27" tire size. When Schwinn was the dominant bicycle manufacturer in America, they established 27" wheels as their standard wheel size. While bicycles with 27" wheels are not manufactured today, unless it is the most elaborate vintage bike reproduction, the size remains in use. If you bought an old Schwinn Varsity at a garage sale and are having a hard time fitting it with tires, it may have 27" wheels.

Finally, there are Continental tires. In what we imagine was an effort to differentiate their product from competitors, Continental has used their own variation to mark standard tire sizes. In the most simple terms, a size 28 Conti tire is equivilant to a 700c, and a 26 is a 650c. Widths run from from 3/4" - 1 1/4" but are equivalent to 20-25mm width tires. Continental seems to be adopting regular standardized size descriptions on their newest clincher tires. Their tubulars and tubes are often still labeled with the "Conti sizes," but we will always provide standardized size descriptions on product pages.

As always, if you have any questions, or would like some guidance finding a tire that will meet your needs, please contact us at [email protected] or 1-800-651-4050.