How to choose the right road bike tyres
As the only point of contact between your bike and the road, tyres can make a huge difference to ride feel. Lighter, suppler rubber can lower your rolling resistance and help you go faster, while if you’re looking for better grip there are tyres that use stickier compounds specifically designed to corner predictably on slippery surfaces. The weight of your tyres must also be considered: a lightweight tyre accelerates more easily and takes a few grams off your system weight – but a very thin carcass might compromise puncture resistance.
So it’s important to decide what you most want yours tyres to do. Unfortunately, the tyre hasn’t yet been invented that combines lightweight, low rolling resistance, ultimate grip, total puncture resistance and lasts forever, so the best thing to do is to have a look at the various options so that you can make an informed decision.
What size do I need?
Standard road bike tyres are called ‘700C’. The 700 part refers to the approximate diameter of the tyre from outside to outside in millimetres. Then follows another number that tells you the width of the tyre, also in millimetres. For example, the Michelin Lithion 2 is a 700C tyre that’s 25mm wide – a common width for a road tyre – and so is a 700x25C tyre.
You’ll also notice the Michelin tyre is specified ETRTO 25-622. That’s another way of telling you it’s for a standard road bike rim. The diameter of a standard road bike rim measuring between the bottoms of the rim walls (the ‘bead seat’) is 622mm, which will also be the diameter of the tyre from bead to bead, and the ‘25’ again refers to the width in millimetres.
The other, smaller size for road bike wheels is 650c or 571mm in diameter – such as the B’Twin Triban Protect 650x25.
Look out for
Wider tyres with a larger air volume can be more comfortable, especially on rougher roads and with heavier riders. Go for 25mm rather than 23mm for more comfort and better resistance to pinch punctures caused by hitting the edge of a pothole, but check that your frame has enough clearance for tyres 28mm and above, and if your rim is an older, narrower type (roughly pre 2016), stick with 25mm or below.
Clincher, tubeless or tubular?
Clincher tyres are still the most popular type of road bike set-up. These have a bead that hooks into the inside of the rim wall and are inflated via a traditional inner tube (make sure the size of your tube matches the size of your tyre).
Tubeless tyres are becoming more popular. As the name suggests, they don’t need an inner tube and use sealant to stay airtight. The tubeless-ready Hutchinson Fusion 5 needs a tubeless ready rim if you want a true tubeless set-up, but it can also be used on a standard clincher rim with an inner tube – or even on a tubeless ready rim with an inner tube, so there’s a lot of versatility built-in. Tubeless tyres can be run softer for improved comfort over clinchers with less risk of pinch flats. The sealant also seals small cuts that would puncture a clincher.
Tubular tyres used to be called ‘sew-ups’ because an inner tube is literally sewn inside the tyre. Tubulars are taped or glued onto a tubular rim. This time the rim must be a tubeless rim – you can’t fit tubular tyres to a clincher or tubeless ready rim. Still the most popular type of tyre in professional racing, ‘tubs’ are not so practical for the amateur rider who is unlikely to have a team car with spare wheels on the roof behind them. A tub like the Vittoria Strada, however, has more puncture resistance and better durability than super-light racing tubs – no need to radio for that team car.
Look out for
Start with clincher tyres, which are the most straightforward to fit and remove, making roadside punctures relatively faff free once you know what you’re doing. If you’re a mountain biker already familiar with tubeless tyres then you’ll also be familiar with their advantages and will probably bypass clinchers in favour of these.
Foldable or wire bead?
Some tyres come folded up and packaged while others are come as they are. The folded type uses a flexible bead usually made from Kevlar while the other type uses a steel bead. The ‘flex bead’ type are usually lighter – Kevlar weighs quite a bit less than steel – and are more expensive, generally with better performance. Sizing is the same.
Look out for
Kevlar beads can be harder to get over the rim wall with your thumbs, so if you’re just starting out with your cycling and want to build up to doing your own maintenance and fixing your own punctures, a steel bead is a good place to start, and cheaper too.
Do I need a tread pattern?
A tread pattern can be useful at low speeds if you’re on mud or leaf mulch by the side of the road, but on tarmac – even wet tarmac – it’s the compound that keeps you rubber side down. The Continental Gatorskin is formulated to supply great traction in all weather conditions – at the expense of a little outright speed, whereas in a faster summer tyre like the Michelin Power Road the mixture of rubber and chemical additives that makes up the compound will be designed more for low rolling resistance than sticky grip. Both, however, have minimal tread patterns.
Look out for
We’re talking about road bikes on mostly smooth surfaces on this page, but if you’re riding on gravel or towpaths, you’ll definitely need knobblier tyres. Some tyres, like the B’Twin Gravel Tyre have a tread pattern in the centre and raised knobs on the shoulders for cornering on loose surfaces.
Most brands have their own proprietary puncture resistance features. Continental, for example, uses what it calls a PolyXBreaker puncture protection insert in the Gatorskin while the Hutchinson Epsilon has a reinforced carcass. Often the thicker the tread and the heavier the tyre, the better the puncture resistance, but weight and rolling resistance will suffer.
Look out for
If getting home without stopping and fixing a puncture is more important than impressing your Strava followers with your average speed, go for a heavier tyre with puncture resistance features.
Your tyre choice really depends on how fast you want to go versus what level of grip and puncture protection you’re looking for, but whichever way you’re leaning there’s a tyre for you. And remember you don’t have to stick with the same tyres all year round!