Close-up of a mountain bike tire

Choosing the right tires for your bike

Replacing tires on your bicycle can be intimidating if you’re not sure what to look for. They come in a lot of different sizes and there’s often a pretty big difference in prices, too. To help you choose the right tire for your bike, here’s what to think about:

  • When to replace bike tires: Tips to know when it’s time to swap your tires to prevent punctures.
  • Bike tire sizes: Find out what tire size you need for your bike.
  • Tread patterns: The best tires for bike commuter will be different than for mountain bikers.
  • Are all tires created equal?: Learn what changes the prices of tires to decide if you’d like to have those features.

When to replace bike tires

Knowing when to replace a tire is a great way to avoid being stranded on the side of the road or having to walk back to the trailhead.

What to look for

  • Minor cuts in the tire aren’t too problematic. But if you see any cuts that are deep enough to show the casing, cause bulges, or allow to you see the inner tube, it’s time to replace the tire.
  • If you’ve worn the rubber down to a point where you see any of the tire casing, you’re lucky to have made it this far! Get some brand new rubber.
  • Tires that look dry and cracked mean the rubber has lost its elasticity and is a problem waiting to happen.

Some road bike tire brands have wear indicators that show when your tires are past their prime. If there are no wear indicators on the tire, you can look at the tread, head on. If the tire looks squared off in the centre of the tread – instead of making a nice round shape – that tells you that a significant amount of tread has worn off.

On mountain bike tires, take a look at the centre lugs. Worn-down lugs are rounded and much smaller compared to a new set of tires. The lugs directly affect the tire’s ability to stop and accelerate effectively.

What’s the right tire size for my bike?

Most modern bikes will be equipped with one of four wheel sizes, and you’ll need to know what size your wheels are so you can get tires that fit. Look at the side of the tires currently on your bike to find out the size.

Tire showing the size on the side

Look at the side of your current tires to see what size you need.

1. The first number is the tire diameter. The most common options are 26in., 27.5in. and 29in. for mountain bikes, and 700 for road bikes. Start your search for a new tire with this number. Buying a tire with the incorrect diameter will make it impossible to install it on your wheel.

2. The second number is the width of the tire. This number is expressed in inches for mountain bike tires and in millimeters for road tires. Learn more about the best tire widths for your bike below.

What is the best bike tire width?

Each tire on mec.ca shows the tire width measurement under “tire size” in the tech specs. The width is the second number (e.g., 27.5 x 2.80 means a 2.8in. tire width; 700 x 32 means a 32mm width).

You have a little bit of room to play with width. While you don’t want to buy a tire that is wildly wider or narrower than the one your bike came equipped with, there’s usually a little bit of wiggle room in either direction.

Wider tires Narrower tires
Pros More comfort and grip

Resist pinch flats better because of high volume inside the tire

Lower rolling resistance

Lighter and more aerodynamic

Cons Higher rolling resistance and heavier, which slows you down Less comfortable

Not as grippy, since you need to have them at a higher pressure to prevent pinch flats

 

The tire width that’s right for you depends on the type of bike you’re riding:

Road biking tire widths

The width that seems to have won the heart of most road riders is 25mm; it offers a good balance of comfort, grip and speed. 28mm tires are also becoming more common, as they give you more comfort on rougher roads with minimal drawbacks.

Not long ago, 23mm tires were all the rage but riders who’ve switched to wider tires haven’t looked back. Whatever width you choose, make sure that your bike has enough clearance to fit the tire so it doesn’t rub on the frame.

Bike commuting tire widths

Bike commuters will benefit from a mix of comfort and performance to handle the road and changing conditions. Look for tires with widths from 32–42mm.

Mountain bike tire widths

Mountain bike tires have a large range of widths. Cross-country riders generally use narrower tires, while downhill mountain bikers tend to go for wider ones.

  • XC riders often opt for tire widths between 2in. and 2.35in.
  • Trail, all-mountain and enduro bikes benefit from added volume to increase traction and comfort. A good place to start is in the 2.25–2.4in. range.
  • Plus-sizes bikes offer more clearance to accommodate tires in the 2.6–3.0in. range. These provide amazing traction and comfort in all trail conditions.

Gravel riding tire widths

If you’re looking for the perfect tire width for your adventures on unpaved and gravel roads, 36–48mm is where it’s at. You’ll get a much smoother ride and increased traction when cornering on unpaved roads. Check your frame clearance to ensure it’s compatible with the tires you’re eyeing.

What tread pattern is best for my riding?

Different tread can give you more grip and traction, smoother and faster rides, or a mix of both.

Close-up of a slick road bike tire tread

Road bike tire treads

Slick tires mean less rolling resistance (which usually means faster). They sometimes have small channels along the edges for water to escape from under the tire and improve traction when cornering.


Close-up of a tire tread that's good for bike commuting

Commuter bike tire treads

These vary from slick to semi-slick. A semi-slick tire has a smooth middle part with small lugs along the edges to give some traction when you take shortcuts on unpaved roads. If you commuter in winter, you may want to consider tires with studs – they’re great for extra grip on ice.


Close-up of a knobby mountain bike tire tread

Mountain bike tire treads

The amount, size and position of treads varies a ton depending on the riding you do:

  • Cross-country riders on rolling, firmly packed trails with little roots and rocks can get away with smaller, tightly spaced treads. These have the lowest rolling resistance and still allow you to move effectively on the trails.
  • Trail, all-mountain and enduro riders need tires to roll efficiently and still give traction when the trails gets rowdy. The centre of the tread generally features ramped lugs that are close to each other, while the edges have large lugs that come into play when cornering at speed. It’s also common to see enduro racers with different front and back tire. The most aggressive and grippy tire is mounted on the front wheel, while the rear tire is focused on lower rolling resistance.
  • Downhill riders need tires to optimize traction. In muddy conditions, tires with big, tall lugs that have spacing between them helps shed the accumulated grit.


Expensive vs. affordable tires: what do you get?

At first glance, the difference between two tires may not be all that obvious. But once you know what to look for, you’ll see where those extra dollars go.

Cross-section of a Continental Gatorskin tire

Bike tires are made of more than just the rubber tread. They also have a fabric-like carcass layer, a bead, and can also have a puncture protection layer or even studs for winter riding.

Wire vs. folding tire beads

When talking about tire beads, you’ll hear “wire bead” and “folding bead”. A wire bead is made of steel and can’t be folded on itself without damaging the tire. These tires need to be stored completely open, are heavier than tires with a folding bead, and are usually the cheaper option.

In most tires with a folding bead, Kevlar is used in place of steel. Kevlar is extremely resistant to stretching while remaining flexible. Folding tires are much easier to transport as they can be folded on themselves and are also lighter than a wire-bead equipped tire; they’re usually the more expensive option.

Tire carcass and TPI (thread per inch)

Under the top rubber layer is the carcass, which looks a lot like a piece of fabric. The TPI count of a tire carcass influences how pliable and supple it is. Higher-end tires will have a high TPI count, which creates a smoother ride, increase traction and roll faster. A lower TPI count results in a tire that isn’t as smooth and fast, but usually comes at a lower price and can be more durable.

Not all rubber is created equal

Every manufacturer has their own secret rubber recipe to create the right balance of grip, rolling resistance and wear resistance for their intended use. Some tires even use multiple compounds in a single tire, so it can have a firm rubber in the centre and softer, grippier rubber along the edges.

Tubeless-ready tires

Tubeless-ready tires are designed to be used without a tube, which means the tire needs to hold air without blowing off the wheel. Tubeless-ready tires, especially for road bikes, require a bead that’s designed to stay in place without any stretching. This special bead is generally made of carbon fibre to ensure it stays perfectly put, which makes these more expensive.

To learn more, check out our article on tubes vs. tubeless for mountain biking.

Puncture protection

Bike commuters know how frustrating it is to get a puncture on the way to work. A layer of material designed to prevent punctures makes a difference during wet commutes where road grime gets on the shoulder. While tires with extra puncture protection helps, it’s always a good idea to know how to fix a flat tire too.