How to Choose a Bike Tire


How to Choose a Bike Tire

Are you a daily commuter who wants grippy, flat-resistant tires? The dirt enthusiast who lives for gnarly singletrack? Or an occasional cyclist just looking for a comfortable ride? Each of you will want a different type of bike tire. Beyond the obvious — a tire that is suited to the rim size — you have a range of options. Here's how to narrow them down quickly.

Step 1: Find Your Size

First things first: How do you know what size tires you're currently running? Easy—check the tire sidewall. For road tires, you'll probably see a number pairing such as 700x23. The first number (700) is a size which roughly corresponds to the diameter of the tire in millimeters. The second number (23) denotes the actual tire width in millimeters. For mountain bike tires, you'll see a number pairing that looks like 26x2.0. This is the actual bead-to-bead diameter (26 inches) by the width (2 inches).

You don't have to buy the exact width that you currently have. You might want different sizing for improved stability, grip or other factors that impact the perfect ride. But you generally shouldn't veer too far from what you have, since this can create performance or durability issues.

Road touring and racing: Most road tires today are the 700 size (sometimes called 700C). A couple of exceptions include the occasional 650 size (used on front wheels for faster acceleration and/or for smaller riders to decrease stand-over clearance) and the 27" size used on older bikes. Check the wheel rims for sizing — if you can't find the circumference, bring it to a bike shop to have a sales rep confirm what tire size you need, because it's difficult to accurately measure circumference without special tools. Most racers and others devoted to velocity run 700 tires in widths ranging from 18 to 23 millimeters — the narrrowest options. Those who live for epic tours are more likely to be riding tires in widths ranging from 25 to 28 millimeters for a bit more stability and comfort.

Mountain biking: Most mountain bikes sport a 26" tire diameter. A cross-country or all-mountain bike will have tires in the 1.8" to 2.4" width range. But freeride and downhill bikes, which are meant to withstand the abuse of drops, rock gardens and more, are equipped with tires ranging from 2.5" to 3.0" in width.

29ers: These are the newest darlings of the mountain bike world. 29er bikes run a wider, knobbier variation of the 700 tires used for cyclocross, but otherwise look like your typical mountain bike tire. Those who are converts to this new technology say that the larger diameter rolls more easily over technical trail sections and through mud and sand. Cornering and climbing traction are also said to be better due to the fact that "big wheels" offer more contact with the trail. Early studies seem to support the claims, but none have been published for peer review within the industry.

Other uses: Cyclocross tires have small knobbies but are designed in a narrow-width 700 size to fit the geometry of cyclocross racing frames. BMX tires usually come in a 20" diameter.

Step 2: What Surfaces Do You Ride?

If you ride on asphalt or other hard, even surfaces, slicks are your best bet. The smooth surface of these tires offers maximum velocity for minimum effort, but they still offer enough grip in most conditions.

If you ride on a combination of surfaces, including concrete, asphalt, smooth singletrack and/or the occasional stretch of gravel, either cyclocross tires (for road-specific rims) or semi-slicks (for either road or mountain bike rims) are optimal solutions.

Dirt riders definitely need a mountain bike tire for traction in variable conditions. If you expect to ride primarily on one type of terrain, choose a tire designed for that surface. This can vary depending on your part of the country. For example:

  • Relatively smooth Moab slickrock does not require an aggressive tread pattern.
  • Muddy, rooty Pacific Northwest trails demand a tire that's not only more aggressive, but one that has wider-spaced knobbies to shed mud.
  • Wider-spaced knobbies usually offer the most versatility.

Unsure? Ask your local bike shop pro or peruse tire manufacturer websites to find tires designed for your favorite riding terrain.

Step 3: Choose a Tread

Tread is an important issue for any tire, but especially for knobby mountain-bike tires, where small differences in the tread pattern can result in a significantly different ride. More tread typically means more grip—but also more rolling resistance. So you'll need to balance your need for speed with your desire for grip.

No matter what type of rider you are, sharp tread edges are a must. When they're worn down to the point where you're getting lots of flats, your bike is handling poorly and/or the tread appears rounded or uneven, replace your tires to guarantee more fun and more safety. When you see the casing threads below the rubber, you've waited too long.

Slick Tire

Slicks: Designed for city/commuter, touring and mountain bikes, slicks look almost like road tires, but with a wider diameter. The tires appear almost smooth, with a barely perceptible tread pattern. Slicks are designed for smooth surfaces like slickrock, asphalt and groomed singletrack. V-shaped grooves on some improve cornering on rain-soaked roads.

Semi-Slick Tire

Semi-slicks: Somewhere between knobbies and slicks, these tires are designed with a smooth center, for minimal rolling resistance and faster acceleration, and aggressive treads on the side to help with cornering.

Inverted tread

Inverted tread: Tires designed with an inverted tread have less rolling resistance than those with any type of regular tread, but offer more grip—and rolling resistance—than slicks. Use these tires if you suspect you might venture off asphalt or ride on roads with lots of ruts and potholes.

Knobby tire

Knobbies: Different knobby tread styles are designed for specific trail situations.

  • Smaller knobs are faster and suitable for smooth singletrack.
  • Taller knobs offer more grip in technical terrain like roots and rocks.
  • Wider tires with sturdy paddle-like knobs are best for soft trail conditions.
  • Knobs that are wider at the base will corner better on hardpack.
  • Tires with tall, widely spaced knobs offer versatility in loose and hardpacked conditions.
  • Tires designed for mud have widely-spaced knobbies so that mud sheds from the tire. Otherwise you'll essentially be running slicks when mud get packed between the knobs!

Knobby tire

When you're shopping for mountain-bike tires, ask the bike shop if the tires you're perusing have front- or rear-wheel specific treads. Front-specific tires are designed for front-end traction when cornering. Rear-specific tires are designed for optimal power transmission and rear wheel control. Remember to mount these tires with the tread facing the proper direction. This is something you can surmise by checking the drive-side sidewall for an arrow that points in the correct rotation direction.

Things aren't as complicated with road tires. If you want front- or rear-specific treads, you'll usually find them sold as sets. And because road tires grip the irregularities in pavement, you won't see as many tread variations as you will with mountain-bike tires.

Step 4: Get the Right Valve

Always make sure to get the correct type of valve—Presta or Schrader—for your wheel.

tire valve

Presta valves are narrower and have built-in valve caps that you loosen to pump up the tire and tighten afterwards. Prestas are more typically seen on higher-end bikes, especially those designed for road riding. Do not use a Presta tube in a Schrader-size hole in your rim, as it will shift too much and possibly sever the valve.

Presta valves

Schrader valves are wider than Prestas, with a valve like those on car tires. These are most commonly found on inexpensive and mid-range bikes. Schraders won't even fit in a Presta-size hole. If your wheel has a Schrader-size hole, it is possible to get an adapter so that you can safely run Presta valves.

Other Tire Considerations

Soft or Hard Rubber?

Most tires use primarily one type of rubber. At one end of this spectrum is soft, sticky rubber. These are your grippier choices. At the other end is hard rubber, which is more durable. Most riders determine what type of tire to buy based on budget (how often can I afford to replace tires?) and performance (how much control do I need on my favorite trail or road?).

Performance riders might want to consider dual-compound rubber tires. These feature a softer rubber on the outside that contacts the ground, and a harder rubber between the tread and the casing. The result? More grip and better cornering in almost any terrain, from mud to rock gardens and hardpack. Not everyone needs these; they're intended for those who demand performance at speed.

Thread Count Casing (TPI)

Thread counts have the most impact in road uses, where tire pressure is higher. According to bike tech Mike from REI's Seattle store "A higher thread count casing makes (the tire) more supple and more resistant to punctures and makes it a little lighter."

Thread counts for a road clincher start at 60 tpi (threads per inch) and go to 160 tpi for higher-performance clinchers, or 320 tpi for tubular tires used in racing. Some other tires have thread counts as low as 20 tpi. Check bike tire company sites or specifications at online stores to learn the thread counts for different tires. Or ask at your local REI or other bike shop.

Foldable Tires

These tires often have an aramid-fiber bead (such as Kevlar®) instead of a wire bead. This makes them light and foldable for easy transport and storage. Foldable tires are available for both mountain bike and road riding. The downside is that they are usually more expensive.

Tubular Tires

The pros of tubeless? Depending on your weight and the terrain, you can run lower tire pressures—down to 20 psi depending on the terrain and your weight—for better traction without encountering pinch flats. Plus, the ride tends to be smoother. The cons? You can't use tire levers to ease the install process, and many suggest that you still carry a tube because fixing a flat on a tubeless can be considerably more complicated than on a conventional tire. Also, you need to have tire rims designed for this technology unless you invest in a system that converts traditional tires and tubes to tubeless. More tubeless tires are available for mountain biking than road riding. But be prepared for a pinch to your wallet, as these usually cost $50 or more apiece.


Tubular Tires

Pay attention to tire circumference and width when you buy your next tube. Getting the correct tube width is critically important for flat prevention and performance. When you're running wider freeride or downhill tires, you usually can get away with tubes a bit smaller than the tire width, as they'll expand a bit, but otherwise, pay close attention to matching tires to tubes. Choose a width range that matches your tire — if you have 2" tires, a tube with a width range of 1.75 to 2.125" would be perfect. And always remember to get the right type of valve: Presta or Schrader.

Tips on Tire Pressure

Every tire has a preferred pressure range, which is measured in psi (pounds per square inch). Look on the tire sidewall for the recommended pressure. In general:

  • Road tires should typically run on 100 to 140 psi.
  • Mountain bike tires should typically be 30 to 50 psi.

Lower pressures can improve traction almost as much as good tread and good technique, but inflate your tires too little and you'll have problems with pinch flats. Inflate them too much and you'll either experience less stability (the best case scenario) or blow out the tube (worst case scenario). Higher pressures result in more speed with less effort but they also offer less traction.

Higher-end tire pumps will have a psi gauge, but if you have a lower-end pump, you'll need to carry your own tire pressure gauge.

Ways to Reduce Flats

While no tire is completely puncture-proof, there are some options that greatly reduce your likelihood of getting a flat. The downside of these is that they add a bit of weight.

Puncture-resistant Tires

These tires won't feel as speedy as standard bike tires, but commuting customers have told us that they experience flats much less frequently (reportedly up to 7 times less) when using these tires. The reason? Many tires makers employ a durable belt of aramid fibers (such as the well-known Kevlar® brand) to resist punctures; others simply increase the tread thickness. These tires are marketed by a variety of proprietary names: the Serfas Flat Protection System, the Continental Safety System, the Panaracer Protex Shield and so on.

Tire Liners

Tire Liners

A tire liner is typically a thin strip of extruded-plastic that fits between the tire and the tube to reduce the chance of puncture flats from thorns, glass or other sharp objects. These add 6 oz. or more to the weight of your tires.

Thorn-resistant Tubes

These are simply thicker (and heavier) versions of conventional tubes.

Flat Sealants

Are you tired of looking for tube punctures and fussing with patch kits on the side of the road? Squeeze in a bit of flat sealant. This proprietary goo is designed to create a plug that often outlasts the tube or the tire around it.

Tires by Riding Style

Let's explore the options by each type of rider.

The Commuter

Who wants to be changing a tire on the side of the road during rush hour? Not you. If you regularly pedal to work, your primary criteria for the perfect tire are probably flat resistance and affordability.

Look for tires with a burly width and bulletproof construction to help you and your bike survive surprises such as potholes. Typical widths for commuter tires range from 28 to 35mm for 700 tires and 1" to 2" for 26" tires. Wider tires will be a bit more stable, but also slower.

Some commuter tires feature small knobbies, but they aren't really necessary unless you're taking side routes through the dirt or gravel. Keep in mind that small knobbies are quicker to wear down to the point of being unusable than their slick or inverted-tread counterparts. Smooth-rolling tread designs are speedier and tend to be more stable through turns.

Puncture-resistant tires (described above) offer a flat protection layer built in under the tread of the tire. This added layer offers increased protection against flats from debris, thorns and broken glass.

The Cross-Country Rider

Because you live for long epic rides, the weight of your tires (and every other component) is often a major consideration when outfitting or upgrading your steed. Consequently, narrower knobby tires ranging in width from 1.8" to 2.4" are usually a perfect fit for this type of riding. Racers are most likely to run tires less than 2" in width, while most other cross-country riders opt for tires in the 2" to 2.4" range for more versatility. Beyond weight and width, you'll want to look at the type of terrain you're riding. Mellow singletrack and slickrock require a much different tire than mud or rooty, technical terrain (see the tread and sizing sections of this article for more info).

The Freeride/Downhill Mountain Biker

Tires that grip on sketchy, steep chutes and rock gardens and survive hours of big drops at Whistler or other mountain-bike parks are ideal for freeriding. Look for aggressive tread patterns with tall knobbies. Softer sticky-rubber compounds will grip almost anything to help you rail corners and survive those treacherous double-blacks, but they'll wear out more quickly so prepare your budget accordingly! Most tires of this type will specifically mention "sticky rubber" or "silica" in their ads, but ask your friendly bike shop pro to be sure.

Expect to buy tires in the 2.5" to 3" range for maximum hucking performance.

The Road Explorer

Road racing and touring are entirely different worlds, so the demands on your tires are different. Road warriors should choose skinnier tires for a more nimble ride or a wider tire for more stability. If you're carrying a load, you will want a somewhat wider tire than you would otherwise run.

If you're a racer, look for the lightest, speediest tire possible with great grip for cornering ability in your next criterium.

Those of you who are touring cyclists will still want something relatively speedy, so that you're not still spinning down country roads after dark. But comfort and flat-proofing are also major considerations. Typical widths for touring are 32 or 35 millimeters on a 700 tire.

Tire FAQs

Q: How do I know what size tire to buy?

A: This is your foremost tire-shopping consideration.

  • Determine the size of your rim: You don't want a tire that's significantly wider or narrower than your rim. Some manufacturers offer information about recommended tire widths for their rims on their Web sites or marketing brochures. Checking with the folks at your local REI or other bike shop is another way to get accurate information about optimal tire widths for your rim.
  • Consider your typical riding terrain: Would you benefit from the increased stability of a wider tire?
  • Look at your riding style: Are you a climber who wants a narrower tire or are you a bigger rider who plans on long touring expeditions requiring a wider tire?

Q: What is the most versatile type of tire for commuting?

A: Tires with a slick or inverted tread will speed you across asphalt. Those with small knobs might slow you down a bit but give more traction if you hit some gravel or dirt along the way. A medium-width tire (28mm to 32mm or 1.5" to 1.75") offers the best mix of speed and comfort, neither slowing you down nor leaving you exhausted because of road shock (i.e., the impact on your body from rolling over the road).

Q: Can I use the same mountain bike tire in dry and muddy conditions?

A: You can, but performance won't be optimal in either condition. If you're new to the sport and/or have a limited budget, opt for an all-purpose tire or buy a tire that best corresponds to your typical terrain.

Q: Do I have to buy new tubes with my new tires?

A: Almost always. A tube will conform to the tire surrounding it. According to bike tech Mike at the REI Seattle store, "Even though this tube may have been a 1.5" to 2", if it's been in a 2" tire for 6 months, 8 months or 2 years, it's not gonna go back and fit in a 1.5" again. If you know that ahead of time, you can save a lot of time, because if you try to stuff that tire back in there, that's nearly impossible."

Q: What can I do to avoid flats?

A: Here are several tips from the REI bike techs:

  • Always run the pressure recommended on the sidewall of your tire.
  • Use puncture-resistance tires.
  • Add a tire liner between your tire and tube.
  • Consider tires with a high thread-count casing (measured as threads per inch, or tpi)
  • Always carry a flat repair kit or sealant for those times when all your precautions don't help.

Tire Glossary

Bead: The edge of the tire that holds the tire onto the rim. Wire beads cost less but aramid beads such as Kevlar® offer flexibility that allows the tires to be foldable and offer weight savings of up to 50 grams per tire.

Clincher tires: A tire where the bead "clinches" the rim, held in place by air pressure. Roughly 95% of bike tires are this type.

Kevlar: An aramid synthetic fiber material used for durability and flexibility in tire beads and flat protection panels.

Pinch flats: Flats caused when the tube is pinched between the rim and a sharp or hard object. Inflating your tires to their suggested pressure almost alleviates this problem.

Psi: Pounds per square inch, a measurement of tire pressure.

Rolling resistance: Friction created when tires roll. Rubber compounds, tread patterns and tire pressure all impact rolling resistance, with softer rubber, lower tread and higher pressure all creating less.

Tire pressure gauge: Gauge that shows tire pressure in psi measurements, used to determine proper tire inflation.

Tpi: Threads per square inch, a measurement of tire thread counts. Higher-thread-count tires (120 to 160 tpi) tend to be more puncture-resistant, lighter and expensive, whereas lower thread counts (20 to 30 tpi) equate to lower prices, a bit more bulk and a bit less durability.

Tubular tires: Also known as sew-ups, these tires are used primarily for racing. Tubes are sewn inside the tire, which is then glued onto a tubular-specific rim.

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