Your bike only touches the ground in places – those two tiny contact patches that your tyres make with the road surface, each about the size of a 10c coin. I’ll argue that good quality tyres are always worth spending money on because tyres have such a massive effect on how a bike rides.
Let us have a look at the attributes of a good tyre:
A good quality tyre eats up around 13 to 14 watts while you’re pushing hard on a smooth road. That may sound like a lot but when you think that you’re using around 20 times that amount to overcome aerodynamic drag you realize it’s not very much.
The difference between a really good and really bad tyre is only a handful of watts…certainly not worth overlooking or throwing away but at the same time not that consequential in the grand scheme of things.
Rolling resistance is one of the few easily measurable attributes of a tyre and is arguably the least important – the other attributes are a bit more vague and user-subjective but make a bigger difference.
Grip (especially in the wet)
German uber-geek Magazine Tour has done tyre grip tests on a wet corner using a very brave (and heavily padded) rider and the results are staggering: The range of grip-level between the best and worst tyres is amazingly different.
Grip, especially wet-weather grip, is massively better on a good tyre.
It’s tempting to throw on some cheap and nasty tyres for knocking out the winter training but I’d urge you not to. Good tyres make more of a difference in winter than in summer.
How a tyre feels can be subjective but generally speaking we all like the same things in a tyre. We want a tyre which provides feedback about its current level of grip, and gently warns us when we’re starting to ask too much of the tyre. We don’t want a tyre which provides zero feedback until it suddenly snaps and loses traction
We also want a tyre which is comfortable over coarse chip roads, removes road-buzz, and has a lively, springy feel to it.
A good tyre has more ‘feel’ and a bad tyre has less. A good tyre will feel alive, sprightly, and raring to go whereas a bad tyre will feel dead, dull and lethargic.
Most tyre manufacturers have sophisticated test equipment to measure their tyres resistance to punctures and again uber geek Tour Magazine has independent data comparing tyres using a vibrating sharp point loaded to 35kg. As with grip there are big variations between the puncture resistance of various tyres, however in the most recent test the Continental GP4000S, Schwalbe One, Mavic Yksion and Michelin Comp 4 all lasted the full 180 second test without puncturing. Other tyres lasted less than 10 seconds before allowing air to escape.
Another observation is that more experienced riders get fewer flat tyres despite often using lighter, more theoretically puncture-prone tyres. My explanation is that more experienced riders have developed a subconscious scan for glass and hazards, have better bike-handling skills to navigate around hazards, and don’t ride so far into the gutter.
Tyre lifespan is something you can measure yourself, however I’d suggest you don’t. A good tyre will last many thousands of kilometers – so-what if the expensive, nice to ride ones wear out a thousand kms before the cheap ones which feel like they’re filled with concrete? You want to enjoy riding your bike and in my view good tyres make this happen.
What makes a good tyre?
There are two major components to a tyre: The tread and the carcass.
Good quality tread is made from a high quality, sticky rubber. Some tyres use natural rubber, others use a synthetic compound called carbon-black. A more supple, bendable tread will conform to the road better. A stickier tread will give more grip but will wear out sooner.
The tyre’s carcass is made from a woven fabric. Much like bedsheets, the higher the thread-count the more expensive the fabric, and the nicer the finished product. A high thread-count fabric conforms better and is more supple which makes for a better night’s sleep and a better tyre.
Generally there is a puncture protection layer bonded between the carcass and the tread. This layer is usually made from Kevlar and acts like a Police officer’s protective vest to stop stabs of glass from a broken beer bottle from causing any damage.
Riding on gravel used to be something to be avoided but now it’s trendy and as a result many lightweight ‘race’ tyres are being used for gravel roads – something clearly outside their normal design parameters. While you may find the lightweight options work a thicker, heavier, more robust tyre will be better suited to gravel roads.
Most modern, high quality tyres come in 23mm or 25mm widths. If your bike has the clearance then I’d suggest 25mm. At Wheelworks we’ve been promoting wide-section rims and wide tyres for years and it’s great to see wide tyres becoming more accepted in the mainstream.
Wider rims and/or wider tyres will allow a lower tyre pressure which gives a smoother ride and lower (yes, lower) rolling resistance. There are no real downsides to going wider.
I’ve written entire articles devoted to tyre pressure but the short version is this: Run as low as you can.
If you’re running 25mm tyres you must run them at a lower pressure than you were running 23mm tyres, otherwise you’re wasting the wide tyre.
Keep dropping your tyre pressure in 5psi increments until you find the tyres squirm a little while riding, especially when climbing out of the saddle when all of your weight is on the front tyre. Add 5psi and that’s your optimum tyre pressure. Please try this: you’ll be amazed how low you can go.
What are my favorites?
I pay full price for my tyres so I don’t have any bias here. I try to keep up to date with new tyres but I keep coming back to these two:
- Continental GP4000sII. This is a fantastic, affordable all-around tyre with great grip, good puncture protection, fantastic ‘feel’ and good lifespan. If I could only take one pair of tyres to a deserted island training camp this would be it.
- Veloflex Corsa. These are expensive, very thin, wear out quickly, and puncture when you even look at a piece of glass…..but oooohhhh they’re smooth, supple and have fantastic grip. Plus they smell fantastic when you open the box. I save these for that special pair of wheels and that special event, not daily training.
This newsletter was originally from my Ask Tristan column in New Zealand Road Cyclist magazine where I was asked about what separates a good tyre from a bad tyre.