Why did the bicycle lose the race? Because it was too tired!
Okay, enough bad dad jokes. After back-to-back rides featuring a frustrating double puncture, I faced the inevitable. I had pushed the tires on my high mileage bike a bit too far. As a self-proclaimed tire snob, I get excited at the prospect of tire shopping. It’s been a good year for tire nerds. This past year has seen nearly every tire company offer more size options to the tire consumer. As a meticulous researcher, it takes me a bit more time to make a purchase than simply going down to the local bike shop pick out a pair of tires. Having immersed myself for a few hours in all things tires, I’m here to help you choose the right tire for your ride.
Folding tire or wire bead
To clarify, this article will focus on clincher tires. A clincher is what most people think of when they imagine a bicycle tire. It features an open casing with flange beads that fit the tire to the wheel rim. Having established that important bit of jargon, we can move on.
There are countless ways to construct a bicycle tire, but one of the major differentiations is the type of bead material. Less expensive tires use a wire bead. The slightly more costly option has a kevlar bead, and is also known as a folding tire. Many companies such as Continental, Michelin, and Vittoria offer both wire and kevlar options for the same tire model. The advantage of a wire bead is price, it will always be the less expensive option. The advantages of a folding tire are a lower weight, and greater ease of installation.
Casing material and tread compound
Bicycle tires are constructed with a cloth casing covered by a rubber tread compound. Casing on most modern tires is made of nylon, but cotton and silk can still be found on certain high end tires. Rated by their threads per inch or TPI, a higher TPI is an indicator of a lower weight as well as lower rolling resistance. These are the benchmarks of a high performance tire. This is because a higher TPI is more pliable, allowing for a more flexible casing. The trade off is a higher performance tire will be more prone to puncture.
Tread compounds begin with a base of butyl rubber. Different rubber formulas with additives such as carbon black and silicon effect wear resistance and traction. As wear resistance increases, traction decreases and vice versa. Race tires where speed is the most important factor will sacrifice longevity for increased traction. A commuter tire where high mileage is the primary concern will sacrifice a tacky grip for the sake of a longer tread life.
We are living in a golden age of tires width options. Regardless of rim diameter, widths are growing to suit the needs of nearly every rider. The days of road bikes with super skinny tires pumped up to bone rattling pressures are gone. Studies have shown that wider tires not only offer better comfort, they have lower rolling resistance. To over simplify, a wider contact patch has less of a ramp for the tire to roll onto. Effectively, a wider tire is less steep on the leading edge and therefore has a lower rolling resistance.
Selecting the right tire for your application will always be a compromise. A commuter is likely looking for a long wearing tire that will stand up to the cracks, glass, and other hazards we see daily on the road. A lightweight tire with a high TPI is going to ride beautifully, but lead to a lot of time repairing flats on the side of the road. A weekend racer will likely be willing to sacrifice puncture resistance and high mileage if it means taking the top step on the podium.
For my recent tire purchase, I went down market a little bit. I swapped out a pair of Continental Grand Prix 4000S II, for a set of Continental Grand Prix Folding. The standard Grand Prix is a bit less expensive than the 4000S II, and while not the pinnacle of performance, should last a bit longer. I chose to compromise speed for longevity, but I also sized up for better comfort on longer rides. I wish you nothing but puncture free rides, and as always, keep the rubber side down!