On-road and off-road bike tires used to be separated by a clear line. The former was formerly slim, light, and thin, whereas the latter was once hefty, thick, and knobbly. There are now those, as well as everything in between, on gravel bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids, and more.
Finding the right bike tire may be both difficult and straightforward. If you stick with the factory tires on whatever bike you have, you’ll have a good set of tires. These tires will fit and will provide adequate coverage for that bike. When you step beyond of your comfort zone, whether it’s for racing, all-weather riding, or off-road exploration, you’ll need a different pair of tires.
It can be difficult to choose among so many options available online and in bike shops all around the world. However, we’ll go over the many types of bike tires, from racing tubulars to tubeless mountain bike tires, in this article.
The workings of a bicycle tire
Before we get into the many types of bicycle tires, it’s important to understand what a bicycle tire is and how it operates. Because the tire is a bike’s primary point of contact with the ground, it has a significant impact on how the bike feels and behaves on a variety of surfaces.
Tread patterns differ significantly between bike tires and, more importantly, different riding disciplines. The rubbery surface on the outside of the bike tire that makes contact with the ground is known as the tread pattern. Tread patterns range from silky smooth to rough and knobbly, with a variety of textures in between. When we get into the many types of bike tires, we’ll talk about the varied tread patterns.
Bike tires are also classified by their diameter and width, with the diameter referring to the distance between the tire’s two outer sidewalls and the width referring to the distance between the tire’s two inner sidewalls (or overall thickness). Tire width is a big topic these days, with more manufacturers and riders than ever opting for wider tires. There was a long-held assumption – perhaps influenced by technological advancements at the time – that the wider the tire, the slower it was.
Tires are wider and faster than ever before, thanks to advancements in materials and tire technology, improving straight-line speed, aerodynamics, rolling resistance, puncture resistance, cornering, and handling all at the same time. Narrow tires are still chosen in particular situations, such as time trials and track cycling, because they are incredibly lightweight and fast. Running larger tires at lower tire pressures increases the contact patch between the tire and the ground, enhancing handling on loose or wet surfaces.
As we go over the different types of bike tires and how they affect speed and handling, keep these points in mind: tread pattern, tire width, bike handling, and puncture resistance.
But first, let’s take a look at the three main types of bicycle tires: clincher, tubular, and tubeless.
A clincher tire is a tire with a casing that surrounds the tube that holds the air within. Instead of pumping air into the tire, a clincher tire has a tube that inflates between the tire and the wheel’s rim. Clincher tires are the most popular bike tire, yet tubeless tires are quickly catching them, because they offer higher puncture resistance and improve grip and comfort.
Tire performance is determined more by the make and material than by the kind of tire, so there are plenty of lightweight and race-ready clinchers to choose from. Clinchers, on the other hand, are prone to pinch flats, which occur when the tube is trapped between the tire and the sharp edge of the rim when you hit a sharp bump in the road.
Tubeless tires are quickly becoming one of the most popular tire options for all types of bicycles, including mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, road bikes, and hybrids. As the name implies, these tires don’t have tubes and instead rely on liquid sealant and incredibly tight beads to retain air in the tire and keep it (nearly) bonded to the rim. To mount tubeless rims, you’ll need tubeless-ready rims, tire sealant, and a floor pump or air compressor. The setup process might be time-consuming if you have a challenging rim and tire combination. Some rims require the use of the best tubeless rim tape, while others feature a sealed rim bed.
Tubeless tires, on the other hand, are popular for a variety of reasons, including their excellent puncture resistance and ability to run at extremely low tire pressures. On all types of conditions, including gravel, mud, dirt, and wet pavement, the latter allows you to achieve a new level of bike control with greater corner grip.
These tires aren’t at risk of pinch flats because they don’t have a tube, and the sealant functions as a rapid and temporary seal for all but catastrophic tire punctures. You might not even notice if you run through glass or a small nail on tubeless tires since the best tubeless tire sealant will patch the hole and maintain tire pressure while you’re still riding.
There is no tube in tubular tires because they are bonded to the wheel rim. Instead, the air is trapped inside the tire, which makes it much rounder than a clincher-style tire. Tubular tires are typically lighter and faster than clincher tires, but they are extremely difficult to service and practically impossible to change on the side of the road in the event of a flat tire. Tubular tires require adhesive and precise installation, making them an unpleasant option for amateurs and at-home bike mechanics.
Tubulars were a popular choice among racers searching for a small advantage. They’re usually light, fast, and grippy in the corners, making them excellent for anything from a criterium to a 40-kilometer time trial. Tubulars are also more puncture-resistant against pinch flats, because there is no tube between the tire and the rim to get squeezed. Tubeless tires are increasingly routinely preferred over tubular tires in racing situations, because to recent advancements in tubeless technology.
Mountain bike tires
Mountain bike tires are wider than conventional bike tires and have knobbly treads that range from’slightly bumpy’ to ‘oh my gosh, those tires are gigantic.’ They are designed for off-road riding. Tire widths are commonly measured in inches rather than millimeters, starting at 1.8 inches and rising up to 5 inches.
The fundamental range of mountain bike tires is as follows, in order of width: cross-country tires (2.4in), trail/enduro tires (2.4in), enduro/downhill tires (>2.5in), plus tires (3in), and fat bike tires (3.7-5in). Cross-country mountain bikes are the thinnest because they favor speed and weight above grip and durability. Downhill mountain bikes are the thickest.
Tubeless tires are more puncture-resistant than clinchers, so most of the best mountain bike tires are tubeless. Mountain bike tires have larger treads than road bike and gravel bike tires, allowing them to maintain grip over rough, slick, and changeable surfaces. Mountain bike tires are intended to handle everything from rocks and roots to mud and sand found on a regular mountain bike trail. Mountain bike tires are slow on tarmac because of their deep treads and wide widths, which are not designed for straight-line speed.
Mountain bike tires are also built with thicker and more robust materials than road cycle tires, which makes them heavier but also more puncture resistant. Finally, mountain bike tires frequently have various designs for the front and rear tires, with more or less tread on the front or rear tire depending on the type of mountain bike. For example, a front tire with a directional tread and a rear tire with a blocky tread for improved traction when accelerating and braking in a straight line.
The best gravel bike tires are in the middle of the road and mountain bike tire spectrum. Gravel is all about exploration, so you’ll want a tire that can handle rough and uneven roads while also being fast and comfortable for extended days in the saddle. As a result, gravel tires borrow from both the on-road and off-road worlds, with a dizzying array of treads, widths, and shapes.
Gravel tires range in width from 28 to 50mm (yes, that’s a big range), and there will most likely be 20 new gravel tires on the market by the time this article is published. They come in a variety of types, from road-like slicks to mountain bike-style tires, and many gravel riders change their tires many times a year.
The tread design on some of the most popular gravel tires is multi-faceted, with a near-slick center and knobbly sides. This means that the tire is quick in a straight line (because to the smooth central tread), but also gripping in tight turns (knobbly sidewalls). Gravel tires are virtually always tubeless, making them puncture-resistant and allowing for low-pressure riding.
Road bike tires
The tires on a road bike are made to go fast. They’re narrow and smooth, with minimal contact patches, and they run at high pressures. The smooth tread is the fastest of all bike tire treads on smooth tarmac in a straight line. Road bike tires are substantially narrower than off-road bike tires, ranging from 18-23mm tire width for racing to 25-28mm tire width for training.
From a distance, road bike tires appear to have no tread; nevertheless, closer inspection reveals microscopic grooves and indentations around the tire that boost traction in bends and in wet conditions. Road bike tires are not as puncture-resistant as larger and thicker bike tires because they are lightweight and performance-oriented.
How to choose
The most important aspect of picking bike tires is deciding what bike you want to ride and where you want to ride it. Choose a road bike with a road tire if you’re riding on the road. Riding in the sand? A gravel bike with a gravel tire is the best option. What about mountain biking? You already know the answer.
Once you’ve decided where you want to bike, you’ll need to select if you’ll need a clincher, tubular, or tubeless tire. Tubulars are better for road and cyclocross racing, while clinchers are better for daily training and easy maintenance. Tubeless tires have become quite popular due to their versatility, comfort, and puncture resistance, as well as their race-ready attributes.
Tubeless tires are the finest all-around solution for most riders. Tubular tires are only worthwhile for on-road racing, whereas clinchers are the most straightforward and cost-effective alternative for everyday riding.