The amazing array of wheel diameters, tire widths, tread patterns, sidewall construction, and the debate over fat vs. skinny widths, and high vs. low tire pressure inspired me to share my own experience with bicycle tires.
I am also a motorcyclist, so my knowledge of tire performance and traction is informed by my understanding of how tires function on motorcycles. A lot of the same science carries over to bicycles.
In my own personal collection of bikes I can count 9 different rim diameters: 700B, 27″, 700c, 650c, 650b, 26″ metric, 26″ English, 26″ MTB, and 24″. From there, rim widths vary, spoke counts and lacing vary, and tire widths vary. Wheel construction also has a very important impact on ride quality. In my opinion, more spokes on the rim are better than fewer, and wider rims are better than narrower ones, at least for all non-racing applications (that is to say, most of the entire cycling population).
The research on tire width and construction relative to speed and comfort is very limited. So I give kudos to Jan Heine and his team for sounding the alarm about narrow high pressure tires and their negative effect on performance. Not to mention their negative effect on comfort, and the limiting effect they have on a cyclist’s ability to safely explore her or his surroundings. Since most cyclists don’t have hundreds to spend on tires, not to mention thousands to spend on custom built bicycles, it is important to consider real world, long-lived, and reasonably priced tire and rim options. Cyclists who use their bikes regularly for transportation figured this out long ago.
For anyone struggling to understand the bizarre nomenclature surrounding tire sizing: you are not alone. There is no consistency in size labeling (although that is improving), and even among tires that are purportedly the same size, there can be perplexing variation which can make it hard to mount the right sized tire to your rim. Sheldon Brown’s site has a sizing chart and discussion which help to explain the strangeness surrounding tire sizing nomenclature. If you are confused, join the crowds! When in doubt, always measure your effective rim diameter in order to determine the correct tire size for your bike. If you are removing a tire, it’s quite easy just to look at the size indicated on the sidewall to make sure you replace the old tire with the correctly sized new tire. If your rim doesn’t have a tire, it probably has a rim diameter stated somewhere on it, if it is a newer rim. Many vintage rims have no diameter indicated.
When I was restoring a 1929 Griffon, I needed to replace the corroded Dunlop Le Pneu tires. No diameter was indicated on the old tires, so I measured the rim diameter and ordered 700A (642 mm) tires, which had to be shipped from Australia, as they were not available anywhere else in the world that I could determine. When they arrived and I tried mounting them, I realized that I should have ordered 700B (635 mm) tires. I incorrectly measured the ERD on the 1929 Westwood rims. In retrospect, since I had the original tires, I should have measured their diameter instead. 700A and 700B sizes are not listed on Sheldon Brown’s chart because they are considered obsolete. However, I found the 700B tires on Amazon, but you may be able to find these sizes in Canada and France, in addition to Australia.
So, what are my favorite tires? And what tires will I never willingly ride again? Here is my list:
My top three preferred tires for comfort, speed, and reliability are:
Panasonic Compass Loup Loup Pass 650b 38 mm – I use these on my 1980 Meral. They are comfortable, oh so comfortable. I haven’t had a flat yet after a few thousand miles of mostly urban riding. I keep the pressures low at 46 psi rear and 42 psi front, which seems to provide the optimal compromise between comfort and handling.
Panasonic Panaracer Pasela – in all its models and sizes – used on my Terry and on many other bikes I have ridden. I have found these tires to be very long lasting, although I have gotten a few flats on the folding version I use with my Terry. Whether or not they are easy to mount really depends on your rim and whether you are using the folding vs. clincher model. I prefer the folders because they are easy to carry with me when I am touring. The 27 inch size has a different tread pattern. These tires are affordable, reasonably comfortable, and fast enough. They are a good choice for all-round riding which is why I generally use them for my restoration projects.
Compass McLure Pass 26″ tires – used on my Panasonic MC 7500 errand bike. These tires replaced the frighteningly compromised Nimbus Armadillo 26 X 1.5 tires I had been riding. The Armadillos, while never having a flat in over 6 years of use, were heavy and not very comfortable, not to mention the fact that they were splitting apart at the seams. The McLure Pass tires have made the MC7500 faster, and much more comfortable to ride. Tires really do make a difference!
My three second tier tires – good value and a decent ride:
While I could mention many, many tires in this category, my top three mid-range choices reflect my own interests as well as the particular bikes I ride. So, don’t take them to heart, too much. The Continental Gatorskins are great tires for 700c road bikes. I rode Gatorskins over many, many miles on my 1986 Centurion Ironman Expert. They were comfortable for a narrow 700c tire, and I never had a flat in all those years. The low-end Kenda tires on my 1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist were a surprise. I had expected these tires to be really horrible, and had purchased them as a placeholder until I could find “better” tires for this vintage Raleigh. In fact, the Kenda’s proved comfortable as well as bullet proof. I’ve had no flats in the eight years I have been using these tires, which show no signs of wear, and no sidewall cracks. I have mixed feelings about the Panasonic Col de la Vie tires pictured above. I tried these tires out on my 1980 Meral, and they were quite noisy, slow and ponderous. However, these tires have worked well on the older 650b bicycles I have restored, so I list them here as a decent option for a 650b rim. In this category I should mention a few other tires I have ridden: Ritchey Tom Slick 26″ tires, Panaracer Ribmo, and Vee Rubber Micro knobbies. All equally reliable and of good quality relative to price.
Tires I Won’t Buy Again:
In this category I include the Specialized Armadillo tires, noted above, which literally split apart at the seams. I also include WTB tires – namely any of their 700c touring tires, which are noisy, heavy and very uncomfortable. I also will not ride any Continental Touring tires. Continental’s offering is not really a touring tire, but instead a heavy and inflexible tire which is not even okay as a commuter tire, as there are many other nicer options out there (see Panaracer, above). However, Continental does offer other tires which I do like. I won’t buy any Schwalbe tires, no matter what the model, as I have found them to be unbelievably uncomfortable and heavy.
I do like micro knobbies as an interesting option for multi-modal cycling. I used these Thailand manufactured Vee Rubber tires on my ALAN with very positive results – they were fast on the road as well as sure-footed on gravel. While tire choice is not only highly personal, it should also be based on the type of riding you do, as well as the type of bike you are riding. If you are not happy with your current tires, it doesn’t hurt to think about other options. I have found that ride quality is significantly affected by tire choice.