bike tires

How to choose bike tires

Having the right tires on your bike lets you ride faster, corner harder and adds confidence for tackling different types of terrain. Choose tires that match the type of surface where you do most of your riding.

Road Slicks and Semi-slicks

Smooth, with no tread, these tires have very little rolling resistance and are designed to go fast on smooth road pavement. They are somewhat prone to punctures, so if you ride with slicks, bring a repair kit with you. Semi-slicks are smooth in the middle with a subtle tread on the edges, they offer low rolling resistance, but give you some traction when cornering and riding in wet conditions. They suit road riding and commuting in the sprint and fall or cycle-touring on paved roads.

Tubular tires

These are glued onto the rim, and are predominately used for elite racing. They offer light weight, less rolling resistance, better road feel and they are less prone to puncturing. You can run them at lower pressure for more traction. The limitation is that they are compatible only with tubular wheels, not more standard clincher wheels (the type of tire that needs tire levers to pop it on off the rim).

Mountain bike and touring tires

Mountain bike tires with treaded knobs that stick out from the tire and are designed to bite into loose terrain. Some have what’s called inverted tread, a flat surface where the tread bulges in toward the rim. This design offers traction on loose surfaces without sacrificing too much rolling resistance, so they’re good for touring on mixed terrain or recreational riding over paved routes or hardpacked trails.

Tips for selecting mountain bike and touring tires:

  • Smooth singletrack: use smaller knobs for speed
  • Rooty, rocky terrain: go for taller knobs that provide grip
  • Soft trails: wide tires with sturdy paddle-like knobs
  • Hardpack: knobs that are wider at the base to help you corner
  • Loose terrain or hardpack: tall, widely spaced knobs offer versatility
  • Mud: widely-spaced knob shed mud as you ride
  • Variable surfaces: inverted tread, or a distinct tread pattern

If you ride in areas with lots of tough thorns, glass or other sharp material that could cause flats, you might look for puncture-resistant tires. A belt of Kevlar or similar material protects the tube, so you’ll have fewer flat tires, but the trade-off is a slight increase in weight and rolling resistance.

Winter tires are often studded with steel or aluminum studs that have carbide pins to dig into snow and ice. They are great for riding on unplowed streets and snow-covered bike routes, but like snow tires on a car, you probably don’t want to run them all year long.

Folding vs. wire bead

For longer tours and trips when you plan to bring spares, you’ll probably want folding tires. These use Kevlar or a similar material to form the edge of the sidewall instead of a wire bead. This makes them lighter than standard tires and they pack up much smaller for travel. They are however, a little more expensive than wire bead options, which incorporate a hoop of stiff wire into the sidewalls.

Tubeless Tires

Air sealed to compatible rims using liquid sealant, they are popular with mountain bikers, cyclocross racers and some road riders. They give you lightness, low rolling resistance, good ride feel and they’re not prone to puncturing. You can also run them at lower pressure to add traction. The big advantage is that they will self-seal in case of puncture. But they must be used with tubeless-ready clincher wheels and the setup can be messy (literally).

front and rear tires

Road bikes, commuter and touring bikes generally use the same tire on the front and rear. Mountain bikers tend to switch it up with a front tire designed for cornering, and a rear tire that gives you power transmission and solid braking.

Bike tire sizes

Check the sidewall of your current tire to find its size. Road bikes use a metric sizing standard, most other bikes use an imperial standard.

If you see a number like 700 x 23, it means 700 is the diameter in millimeters and 23 is the width in millimeters. Most  road bike racers use 700 tires in a width from 18 to 25mm.

If you spot a number like 26 x 2.0, it means 26 is the bead-to-bead diameter in inches and 2.0 is the width in inches. Commuter and touring bikes will often use a 1.8 to 2.4-inch width and aggressive downhill mountain bikers will use 2.5 to 3.0-inch width. If you opt to use a wider tire than what’s currently on your bike, check that your fork provides enough clearance.