The Downsides of Wide Tires

Since we have published a post about “The Dangers of Narrow Tires,” it is only fair that we look at the other side of the coin. What are the disadvantages (or even dangers?) of wider tires? I can think of a few:

- Weight: A wider tire and a wider tube always will be heavier than a narrow tire. The scale above shows the difference. On the left is a Grand Bois “Hetre” 650B x 42 mm tire. It weighs 410 g. On the right, a Grand Bois “Col de la Madeleine” 700C x 23 mm tire weighs just 220 g.

If you take the difference (190 g), add the extra weight of the larger tube (37 g) and multiply by 2, you get a weight difference of 454 g, or almost exactly a pound. (You probably also will use a wider rim, but the smaller diameter of the 650B wheel actually makes for a slightly lighter wheel.)

A full pound sounds like a lot, but it is less than a waterbottle. Does adding a second water bottle make your bike noticeably slower?

What about the importance of rotating weight? Thanks to the smaller wheel diameter of a 650B wheel, the Hetre’s rotational inertia is actually the same as that of a 700C x 28 mm wheel/tire. So the difference there is negligible.

- Shimmy: Shimmy is a problem with many causes and solutions. One factor among many are wide and supple tires: They can exacerbate shimmy on some bikes.

However, there are many bikes with wide tires that do not shimmy. And some bikes with narrow and medium-width tires shimmy (see video above, the bike shimmied even without my slapping my thighs). Still, it’s harder to make a bike with wide tires that doesn’t shimmy.

- Appearance: Some bikes just look wrong with wide tires. The iconic 1980s Cinelli Supercorsa (above) would not look right with 42 mm-wide tires. Riding bikes is not just about performance, but also aesthetics, and many riders prefer the slim appearance of a classic racing bike. (Photo: speedbicycles.ch)

And if you show up to a group ride with wide tires, you’ll have many people give you their well-meaning advice: “You need narrow tires if you want to go fast.” If you’d rather fit in, a wide-tired bike may not be for you.

- Availability: Few performance bikes are designed for wide tires. The image above shows the “Performance Bike” categories from a big manufacturer. You have a choice between more than ten types of performance bikes, but all have narrow tires.

Unless you can afford a custom frame, your choices for wide-tire road bikes mostly are limited to touring, commuting and hybrid bikes with overbuilt frames that may not be ideal for spirited riding.

- Tire choice. Narrow high-performance tires are available at every good bicycle shop. They are made by numerous manufacturers. Wide high-performance tires can be harder to find.

All those disadvantages are real and worth considering. For us, the disadvantages of wider tires are outweighed by the advantages:

  • Higher speed on rough surfaces, equal speed on smooth surfaces.
  • Fewer flats because wider tires run at lower pressures.
  • Longer wear because the wear is distributed over a larger contact patch.
  • Greater safety as tracks, cracks and holes no longer pose a serious risk.
  • Greater comfort and enjoyment, especially when riding on poorly surfaced backroads.

Just putting wide “touring” tires on your bike won’t transform it into a capable “Allroad” machine. A few factors are key to a nimble, fast bike with wide tires:

  • Supple tires: Most wide tires on the market are utility tires. Their sidewalls are not supple, and they lack both speed and comfort.
  • 650B wheels: Reducing the wheel size retains the nimble handling of a good racing bike. With very wide 700C tires, a bike becomes too stable to offer the sensations of a good performance bike.
  • Needle-bearing headset: It acts like a steering damper and greatly reduces the risk that your bike will suffer from shimmy.
  • Performance frame: The frame and its flex characteristics affect how the bike feels. To get the performance and feel of a racing bike, you need a frame with similar flex characteristics, and not a hybrid or touring bike.
  • Optimized geometry: Wide tires affect a bike’s steering. The geometry should be adjusted to get a surefooted, yet nimble bike.

You can obtain many of the advantages of wide tires simply by putting the widest tires that fit on your existing bike. My old Alex Singer was designed for 25 mm-wide tires, but I managed to fit 32 mm tires with adequate clearances. (I had to replace the fenders with a wider model.)

32 mm is a good compromise, but not as wide as I would like. My new bike with its 42 mm-wide tires (above) has shown me that the advantages of wide tires are best enjoyed with a new bike designed specifically for the tires you want to use. I now regret not having made the switch sooner.

What are your thoughts about tire width? Which tires do you ride now, and which tires will your next bike use?

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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72 Responses to The Downsides of Wide Tires

  1. Since I am spending a year overseas, my current bike is a folding tourer (a Bike Friday New World Tourist), set up primarily for long day rides. I’m using 40-406 Schwalbe Marathons on it, but I’m thinking of changing to a more supple tire for better performance. If anyone has experience with the Schwalbe Marathon Supremes, especially in 42-406, I’d be interested in hearing about them; I’d be especially interested in how they compare with 50-406 Big Apples. On my 700C bike, I use 35 mm Panaracer Paselas, after reading your test in BQ, where they did fairly well against much more expensive tires. I am thinking seriously of buying a Boulder Bicycle All Road 650B bike sometime soon, in which case I would use Hêtres.

    • Steve Park says:

      Re Bryan O
      I’m thrilled with my 650b Boulder All Road – great for rough stuff and hilly rides. I also ride a 700c Boulder Brevet that serves as more of a traditional road bike. Both are great and highly recommended.
      Check out the Boulder Bicycles Flickr group for pictures and comments: http://www.flickr.com/groups/1668005@N22/

    • GuitarSlinger says:

      Thats all I use on my Moulton and have nary a complaint . Comfortable , good performance , great wear and excellent traction . Can’t say a negative word about them

    • John Speare says:

      Brian – I like the Intense MK2 BMX tires for 406 wheels. I’ve used them on 559 wheels too. They’re a good value, relatively supple compared to other 406 options, but thick enough to prevent most flats, and with a fairly neutral tread. And you can get them nice and fat.

      http://www.intensetires.com/imk-20100.html

  2. msrw says:

    “And if you show up to a group ride with wide tires, you’ll have many people give you their well-meaning advice: ‘You need narrow tires if you want to go fast.’”

    In my experience, there can be an element of truth to this advice in some circumstances. Riding with the A group in many cycling clubs can be similar to racing, with constant accelerations at full gas, everyone attacking each other etc. In that riding scenario, better acceleration seems to trump rolling resitance, and a set of light racing wheels with light racing tires (i.e., narrow) allow one to go faster with less effort. Of course, if one is sufficiently fit, a wide-tired rando bike is more than adequate for aggressive group riding–one simply gets a slightly better workout (smile).

    Where the wider tires (and a corresponding compatible frame geometry) seem to really shine in aggressive group rides is in mountain descents–rando bikes with wider tires, in my experience, are dramatically faster in descending. I’m able to leave the entire peleton behind when I’m going down a mountain on my rando bike. I don’t find this to be true when I’m riding a road racing bike with 700×23 tires, shorter wheelbase, tighter geometry etc. At least part of this seems to be related to the lower tire rolling resistance of wider tires–when we’re all aerotucked and shooting down a straight descent, I always seem to out-coast even the heaviest riders.

    • If the rotational inertia was so important, most sprinters would use the smallest wheels allowed. (The wheel radius factors into the inertia as a square, whereas weight does not.) Many sprinters have experimented with smaller wheels – witness Guiseppe Saronni’s 650C Colnago – but the difference must be too small to make up for the handling disadvantages of the smaller wheels.

      If you use 650B or 26″ wheels with your wide tires, then your rotational inertia is roughly the same as that of a racing bike. You still have the higher weight (a little less than a water bottle), though.

      For descending, the rolling resistance doesn’t matter. In a straight line, it’s all about aerodynamics. In curves, good geometry and more rubber on the road allow you to descend faster.

      • “If the rotational inertia was so important, most sprinters would use the smallest wheels allowed.”

        Maybe. You still have to get to the end of the race in a position to sprint to the end. Those other factors could overwhelm the effect of rotational inertia.

      • As somebody who raced for years, getting to the end of the race was easy, but when the real sprinters accelerated, I could only try and hold their wheel. (As a result, I mostly entered races with significant hills that weeded out the sprinters before the finish.) If smaller wheels gave you a clear advantage in a sprint, you’d do anything to use them.

  3. Wayne Sulak says:

    One problem with wide tires that I have not seen mentioned directly is compatibility with other riders. More avoiding peer pressure the point here is the ability to help another rider in distress. Before converting a tandem to 650B I considered the times I had helped a rider traveling with us with a tube or tire. We were able to save the ride for single riders and by extension ourselves by providing a tube or our spare tire. Now that we ride a 650B tandem this is no longer possible. In the end I decided to let them worry about their own tubes and tires. If you are riding 650B you should be prepared to be self supported at all rides and rallies. Like a lot of tandems we did this previously when running 700C wheels but some riders do not take that approach. This does increase the weight penalty because there are always three (or more) tubes and tires rather than just two.

    Wayne

    • You do make a good point about compatibility with fellow riders. It’s something we think about on tours and Flèche rides, where we know we’ll stay together. There, we carry one spare tire for the group, and a limited number of tubes. Of course, it helps if the entire group is on the same wheel size. For us, we are getting there with our 650B wheels.

      For other riders, I always carry a glueless patch kit. That allows me to help riders in distress, no matter their wheel size. It also allows me to limit the amount of tubes I carry. For spare tires, I rarely carry one, but when I do, it’s the lightest, smallest I can find. In the very unlikely event that I use it, I don’t worry about optimal handling, but only about getting home.

      Finally, in a pinch, you can insert a 650B tube into a 700C wheel, maybe even the other way if the tube is new and not yet stretched. It’s definitely possible to use a narrow (but not superlight) tube in a wider tire.

  4. Bubba says:

    “What are your thoughts about tire width? Which tires do you ride now, and which tires will your next bike use?”

    I am running 650Bx38 and 650Bx42 on three 650B bikes and enjoy that a great deal on mixed terrain rides, brevets on varying quality pavement, and any ride where I’ll carry a reasonable load. I have skinny 650B tires that I could run on any of these bikes (650x32B), but I feel no particular need to do so.

    On my 700c bikes, I’ve grown disenchanted with one road bike that has clearance for nothing wider than a 700x25c tire, and vastly prefer my other road bike which takes a 700x28c (without fenders). I’d like more clearance, so my next bike will be designed around 700x32c tires with fenders. I have very high hopes for that set up.

  5. I’m a cheapo so no custom bikes here. But I stopped using 28 mm wide tires on the road bike and upped them to 32 mm because that is all that could fit. Everything else is roughly 35 mm … often Paselas.

    On the Bike Friday travel bike, I go with 40+ mm wide tires. I have lots of good experience touring with Marathon Racers. If I use the bike for more spirited rides again, I’ll look into Scorchers or Greenspeeeds new 20 x 1.75″ offering. Sorry Brian … I have no experience with the Supremes.

  6. Bob says:

    Currently using 700 x 25 (28 on the back) due to frame clearance limitations. I do like what I have read about the 650B 42 Hetre tires (and the rest of the bike and components that you mention as necessary). I haven’t made up my mind yet about the expense involved, as it seems like other factors need to be considered, such as whether any of your riding will be on dirt/gravel. Off topic, but any reason why you don’t have any rubber hoods on your Rene Herse brake levers (Mafac levers, I think) ?

    • Lack of hoods: I wondered whether the thin hoods on modern brake levers really did anything to absorb shocks. The Mafac levers are nicely shaped, and Ernest Csuka always used them without hoods. I tried it and found no difference to a bike with rubber hoods. The hoods are hard to find, they tend to deteriorate, and they add significant weight. If I change my mind, they are easy to retrofit.

      • Bubba says:

        Funny that in an article where Jan argues that an extra pound is not significant, he also defends that brake lever hoods add significant weight. I guess the guiding principle still is: “add weight ONLY where it will help, and nowhere else”

        Regarding that, I wonder if you’ve ever considered not running handlebar tape? On a bike with the right flex characteristics in tires and fork, it is not needed for extra shock absorption. It seems that you’re running some kind of layered arrangement to get the diameter of your bars up, like sizing a tennis racquet handle. If there was a handlebar that had exactly the right diameter for your hands, would you still run bar tape? If yes, would it be just for looks? Maybe scratch-prevention.

      • You make a good point. I am sure if I added brake lever hoods, my bike wouldn’t have been any slower in PBP or the Raid Pyrénéen.

        Handlebar tape can serve two purposes: 1. It makes the bars less slippery and less cold. 2. Padded tape conforms to your hand and reduces pressure points. (Padded tape cannot absorb shocks, as we found when we tested the effectiveness of suspension.)

        For short rides (30 hours), I prefer some cushioning. So I use cork tape underneath the cloth tape. I prefer the cloth tape mostly for aesthetic and tactile reasons.

  7. WFSTEKL says:

    My introduction to higher volume tires began when I rode my first D2R2. Using larger volume tires for that event is a necessity. My current frame is a made-to-measure Zanconato road machine. It uses standard Campagnolo racing sidepulls, however the frame was designed to maximize tire clearance. The rear brake bridge is at the maximum height and the fork uses the longest legs possible for the brakeset. The chainstays are also long to accommodate large volume tires. I am able to stuff Grand Bois Cypress shod wheels in the dropouts with no bother. The machine performs and feels fabulous. I think perfection could be entertained if a 30-32c tub was available. At the moment, I only know of tubs available up to 27c without going to cyclocross models. Maybe if we raise a stink, we can get FMB, Vittoria, Conti et. al. to sew up some fatties.

  8. ladyfleur says:

    Another disadvantage: a larger spare tire requires more space in your pack or in your pocket. I don’t know why, but that’s what I thought of immediately when I saw your first photo.

    • Your spare tire doesn’t need to be wide – it only serves as a last resort. I carry a 21 mm folding Veloflex tire on my 700C bike and a Grand Bois Cypres on my 650B, if I carry one at all. (Wider tires are less likely to suffer from cuts that require a new tire.)

  9. Willem says:

    My oldest sporting bike is a not very spectacular 1970′s UK road bike with 27 inch wheels. At the time I also used it for loaded touring, using 35 mm tyres. In more recent years it has donned 32 mm tyres since anything wider is no longer available in 27 inch. After a spell with a Thorn childback tandem when the kids were younger, I had a custom loaded tourer built, with drop bar, Rohloff hub etc, and 26 inch wheels. For loaded touring (which is what I like most) I think this is the ideal wheel size. On rough trips, I use the now sadly discontinued Schwalbe Marathon Extreme (50 mm nominal size, 47 mm in reality). On faster rides in less extreme conditions my favourite is the 26×1.75 Pasela TG. It is usually robust enough, fast, comfortable, and it has sufficient tread for trails. I have just received the Compas 26×1.75, but it is too cold now to test it properly and see how much better it is than the Pasela (and how much more fragile, if at all). If I had a choice, I would prefer a slightly wider tyre for loaded touring, for better comfort, and better grip on trails. But even as it is, the Pasela is very good. If I could only use one touring tyre, it would be the 50 mm (45 mm in reality) Schwalbe Big Apple. For freezing cold weather I also have the new and superb Conti Topcontact Winter II.
    I have recently bought a second hand cyclo cross bike to replace my old road bike that was getting to be too uncomfortable for my old bones. I fitted 35 mm non TG Pasela’s. It is clearly faster than the loaded tourer, and more comfortable than the old road bike (but not as comfy as the 26×1.75 tyres and the nicer frame of the loaded tourer). The cyclo cross bike is a nice intermediate bike. It is almost a road bike, but thanks to the wider tyres it has a much wider range extending well into forest trails. I bought it to have lighter more responsive bike for day rides. If I continue to like this, I will consider a proper light 650B custom bike with clearance for Hetres.

    • Mike says:

      I did the exact same thing. I own a 26″ LHT for touring and just built a SOMA Double Cross for all other road work, both paved and gravel. I run Jack Brown’s on the SOMA and Big Apples on the Trucker. Talked to Jan this morning about the Compass 26ers. I may try these as a faster alternative to the BA’s.

  10. Mark Slavonia says:

    Jan – One small disadvantage of wider tires that I’m sure you’ve noticed is that they can make wheel removal more difficult when used on a narrow rim. The quick release of some brakes may not allow the brake shoes to spread far enough apart to allow for the inflated tire to pass through. The rider may have to deflate the tire before removing or attaching a wheel.

    This disadvantage can be minimized by choosing a wider rim or a more accommodating brakeset, but those hardware changes increase the costs of trying wider tires.

  11. cept says:

    Perhaps I am in the minority here; I like 700c. I see no reason to switch to 650b. Best fat 700c tires currently available: Vittoria Randonneur Hypers and Grand Bois Cypres. Preferred rim: Velocity A23. I use Velo-Plugs and Michelin Airstop tubes. CX-Ray spokes. My setup is reasonably light/lively/supple/comfortable and I can handle most roads and paths.

    • Steve Park says:

      Also add the Challenge Grifo XS to great fat 700c tires. Normally I enjoy GB Cypres, but this winter I have a set of Grifo’s on for better traction on sanded/salted roads – they are perfect in that regard, but I am surprised by much I like these low-profile cyclocross tires for fast road riding because they don’t slow me down a bit and they float over bad pavement.

      No matter what the size, a good supple casing (Grifos are 260 tpi) is what makes a tire work well for me.

  12. Matthew J says:

    My problem is the Grand Bois tires are sell well made.

    Originally I thought Cerf Green Label were the max I could fit on my Kellogg 30th Anniversary. When I got the bike I realized Cypres would fit easily. Going on a year of riding the Cerfs are still in such nice condition it would seem real wasteful to switch to Cerfs.

    I do have Hetres on my 650B. Very difficult to consider anything else after riding on Hetres.

  13. Nukatpiat says:

    I have been converted to using bigger tires. Moving from 22s to 35s definitely hasn’t slowed me down any. But, if preserving nimbleness requires downsizing the wheel, why not use 26″ (559mm) wheels instead of 650B(584mm)? They are only 25 mm smaller and it seems like so many more rims and parts would be compatible that it would be worthwhile.

    And for large frames (60 cm plus) does it still make sense to use the smaller wheel sizes? I have frames built around 27″ (630mm) and Raleigh 28″ (635mm) roadster rims and they seem appropriate to the overall bicycle, but I wonder if the excess stability you mention is hurting their handling.

  14. John Hawrylak says:

    I agree with your conclusions on wide tires, they weigh more, but are more comfortable and safer, while not having an inherent rolling resistance penalty. The weight difference of 1# (total, 2 tires) equates to approx 1/12 mph speed decrease (R Schwinn comment on G Terry interview), which may or may not be significant, (a 1 minute difference over a 2 hour period per 30 miles traveled at a 15 mph speed). I still use the 27×1-1/4 Paslea’s and find them comfortable and safer due to the width.

    You stated on suppleness, “Supple tires: Most wide tires on the market are utility tires. Their sidewalls are not supple, and they lack both speed and comfort” So what makes for a “supple” tires, other than price, the covering used on the sidewall, and the TPI of the tire casing?

    John Hawrylak
    Woodstown NJ

    • Supple tires mostly are based on the tire’s construction. TPI (threads per inch) play a role, but at least as important is how the casing layers are oriented. Basically, the closer to a radial tire you get, the more supple it is. And then, of course, you have the amount of rubber on the sidewalls. Grand Bois made a few prototype “gumwall” tires, and they were heavy and sluggish compared to the “skinwall” ones that they finally produced.

      • Tom in Portland says:

        The Michelin X radial automotive tires demonstrated the radial ply suppleness in the late 1960′s. I clearly recall how strangely they appeared to be under inflated despite my tire gauge reading 30psi. Of course I may have been distracted by the customer’s mini skirt attire. But that is an attire story for another day.

      • Michelin’s radial tires were introduced in 1946, and as you say, they revolutionized car tire design. Even today, my car’s tires appear underinflated and bulging at the bottom, but when I check, they are at the correct pressure.

      • cept says:

        What is the TPI of the Grand Bois Cypres 700c?

      • TPI (threads per inch) is a meaningless number. It’s easy to quantify, and so some companies like to use it in their ads. We tested a two Grand Bois prototype tires, identical except one had twice the TPI. Their speed was indistinguishable. What appears to matter more is how many casing layers you have, at what angles they are overlaid, what material is used for them, how thick the tread is, how hard the tread is, and whether the tread is vulcanized or glued by hand.

  15. Jeff says:

    For a racing bicycle, tire width has a direct impact on speed with regard to aerodynamics. Wide (28mm or more) will typically be slower overall even if they have lower rolling resistance.

    http://www.trainingandracingwithapowermeter.com/2010/11/aero-tires-and-wheels-skinny-vs-fat.html

    • That study is interesting. When we tested in the more controlled setting in an actual wind tunnel, the difference between a 25 mm and a 31 mm tire were too small to be statistically significant. (The study you mentioned did not do a statistical analysis to determine whether the results are just noise in the data.)

      • Tom Carstens says:

        Hi Jan,
        I also prefer wider tires for all reasons you and others have mentioned. And since I don’t race or ride with real fast riders it doesn’t matter to me; however,I am curious as to why professional races don’t use wide tires or for that matter 650B wheels. When I look at the Rene Herse Catalogues he had his racing bikes built with narrow tires also. Pro’s want to win races and if wider tires would help them do that or at least not prevent them from winning why not? One of the reasons for why I’m asking this question is that I’m not quite certain that 650B’s are as fast as narrow 700C’s. I have a 700C Boulder Bike and I know someone who has a 650B Boulder Bike with Hetre’s and he tells me he is slower going up hill than his friends on 700C bike but faster going down. What are your thoughts?

      • You raise a good point. We’ve thought about this quite a bit. After all, pros have ridden bikes with wider tires, for example, in Paris-Roubaix, and if they felt faster, they’d keep those tires for the other races.

        Note the above emphasis is on the “feel” – and wide tires do feel slower. There is a simple reason for this: On a bike, our bodies equate vibration frequency with speed. The faster we go, the quicker we hit those road irregularities, and the higher the frequency of the tire’s buzz. We all agree on that.

        However, you can increase the frequency of the tire buzz also by increasing the pressure, as you do on a narrower tire. So you trick the rider by giving them the sensations of going faster without actually going faster. (Our tests have shown conclusively that even on smooth roads, very high pressures are no faster than “normal” pressures.)

        This illusion of speed still works, even for me who should know better: A few years back, I increased my tire pressure to 100 psi for an experiment, and then forgot to let out air before our next ride. (I usually ride my tires at 75 psi.) During my next ride with Mark, I mentioned to him: “We are moving a lot faster than usual today.” Mark has a bike computer, whereas I don’t, so he looked down and was puzzled: We went at the same speed we usually went. On his bike inflated to the usual pressure, Mark didn’t feel any faster than usual, either. Only then did I remember the higher pressure of my tires. When you switch to truly wide tires, you feel sluggish unless you ride with others who can give you a more accurate idea of your speed. (And as a racer, you always feel slow, because racing always is very, very hard.)

        Beyond that, you have to think what pros give up by riding narrow tires: Not much. Most races are on very smooth roads, where wider tires wouldn’t offer any benefits in speed. Weight matters, even if it’s less than most people think. So if I were to race the Tour de France, I’d probably also pick 23 or 25 mm tires, like the pros. For a race in the U.S., on relatively rough backroads, I might pick a slightly wider tire.

        That said, tires have grown wider in the pro peloton. While the standard tire when I raced was a 21.5 mm tubular, and many racers used narrower tires, you won’t find many racers today on tires narrower than 23 mm.

    • Matthew J says:

      I would also add that winning is a secondary goal of pro bicycles, whose primary purpose is to advertise bicycles and components.

      If a manufacturer of quality wider tires paid racers to race on its tires they would (assuming the pitch rules – highly influenced by the vested sponsors – allow).

      • Harald says:

        I guess that means we need to start the Compass-Herse-Grand Bois Pro team and bring lugged steel bikes with wide tires back to the Tour de France :-)

      • It’s a tempting idea, but I’d rather put our resources into research to figure out how to make bicycles better and then develop the products needed. Sponsoring a team is advertising, and I feel that if you provide a good product, people will buy it through word-of-mouth.

    • I agree with Jan that perception of speed can confound logical assessment. I once had a job conducting engineering tests on cars for a European auto manufacturer. We were testing two identical luxury supercars. I had to remove the stock exhaust system at one point and replace it with a muffler from a local hot rod shop, which made the car much, much louder, but actually reduced the horsepower measurably. Drivers always asked to drive the “fast” loud one, which baffled the engineers. But driving it really did feel faster, even though the lap times confirmed it was not better. I can see how could happen with tires.

      I would have thought cycling racing teams would use quantitative assessments, but my experience in other racing fields tells me that superstition, tradition, and marketing all play as big a role in decision making in racing as does engineering. It does pose the question whether racing develops along an evolutionary path, i.e. competition drives innovation and perfection of design, and if that is true, how widely can these be applied to other domains of cycling?

      • msrw says:

        Gentlemen,

        Given that pro circuit racing teams all use speedometers, power meters, pulse meters, have trainers with advanced degrees in sports physiology, do externsive equipment testing AND many ride wider tires in the spring classics races (so aren’t unfamiliar with wide tires), do you actually consider it likely that they’d be subject to the delusion of perceived rather than actual speed re wide vrs narrow tires?

      • We’d like to think that racing teams spent a huge amount of time and money on optimizing their equipment, but that isn’t really true. Remember how a few years ago, all the buzz was about ceramic bearings, which reduced the bearing resistance by half? Ceramic bearings were considered “the new EPO,” and said to offer huge performance advantages. Racers spent their own money to get these bearings for their bikes, trading them like illegal drugs. Well, it’s easy to show that standard bearings have close to zero resistance, so the advantage obtained with better bearings is too small to make a difference. (0 : 2 = 0)

        Even the teams that have considerable means at their disposal use them to fine-tune an existing formula, rather than to do basic research. Bicycle Quarterly spent as much time in the wind tunnel as Lance Armstrong (same wind tunnel, by the way). We used our wind tunnel time for basic research. We looked at fenders, bag placement, fairings, jackets, handlebar position and tire width, and were able to make some general discoveries. Contrasting with this, Armstrong’s team looked at very specific details, like his hand position on the aero bars. When you have limited resources, it makes sense to optimize what you know works, rather than do basic research.

        As a racer, what you need is a 3% advantage through optimizing, while minimizing the risk of making things worse. If you spend your funds doing basic research, you have a 10% chance of gaining a huge advantage (until everybody copies you), but a 90% chance of finding nothing useful and ending up where you started. I’d pick the 3% advantage any day.

        Beyond that, it is very clear that for pro racers, wider tires wouldn’t provide a significant advantage in all but a handful of races. They race on very smooth roads, and our testing shows that on smooth roads, narrow tires are about as fast as wider ones. So if pro racers cling to the mistaken belief that narrower tires are faster, it doesn’t hurt them.

  16. Kenetic Sam says:

    My experience riding 26 inch tires at 40-60 psi on roads over the last few years indicates that low pressures don’t provide much flat resistance. Riding the new Compass tires for the last few months confirms this for me, (although the road feel is excellent!). The pasela-esque tread seems to really pick up debris. As you’ve mentioned elsewhere, I also wonder if the flat-resistance of the Hetres is due to its tread design. Was its tread design copied from old French tires? Any old-timey tire tread designers left in France? It would be very interesting to experiment to see how tread design affects puncture rates, although I don’t know how to do that without manufacturing the same tire with different treads. Sounds expensive to me.

    I can imagine a tread design with microscopic “fingers” that eject debris as the tire rebounds from the “flattening” part of the rotation. Perhaps this is what the V-lined tread of the Hetres does; as you run over/pick up debris, it gets ejected before it can puncture. Technical trials for tire tread design?

    • We still haven’t figured out what makes the Hetre tires so flat-resistant. Last summer, I used shaved Hetres in France, and didn’t have a single flat during the 3000+ km I rode there (PBP, Raid Pyrénéen, touring, commuting). Of course, those tires had no tread at all. That said, 3000 km isn’t enough distance to say anything – in Seattle, I have had only a single flat on my Grand Bois Cypres in probably twice that distance.

      Generally, it appears that lower pressure allows the tire to roll over debris without “hammering” it into the rubber, so you pick up less things that may puncture your tire.

      • Steve Park says:

        @Jan

        Is there any chance that Compass might offer a shaved version of the Hetre or something similar?

      • Shaving tires is a time-consuming and thus expensive process. Making a new mold with less or no tread, is even more expensive. You easily would double the price of the current Hetre, while reducing its lifespan signficantly. If there is a market for an “event” tire at that price, I’d rather put the effort into making a true hand-made tire with a cotton casing.

        In the mean time, just ride your Hetres. As the tread wears down a bit over time, they get faster and corner even better than they did when new.

  17. mechBgon says:

    The closest I come to the type of riding under discussion is a self-supported 95-mile event held at midnight in summer, with a mix of pavement, smooth gravel roads, washboarded gravel roads, and a bit of rocky doubletrack. The first two years, I used my XC bike with the stellar Continental RaceKing Supersonic 2.2″, a German-made 55mm tire that is only 465 grams and incredibly supple. The third year, I used the 330-gram Schwalbe Furious Fred in the 2.0″ width, also very supple and with less tread.

    I’m using about 50psi, which is higher than optimal for cornering traction in gravel and floating over the worst parts, but seems like the best compromise when the road sections are factored in. My other option would be a road-sport bike that would max out with 32mm Paselas, and I’m fairly sure I’d be faster overall on the fatter tires (and my XC bike is lighter than my road bike, too). The deep washboarded gravel demands float.

    It really is surprising how much power can be lost to tires. At the moment, I commute on studded Nokian 26 x 2s as a matter of safety, and lower the pressure to 25/30psi when conditions demand it. From how much harder it is to ride a given speed, you’d think the tires ought to be getting hot to the touch!

  18. Karl Amadeus says:

    For me, the biggest downside of the 650B tire format is the availability of good lightweight tires, at least in here in Austria. I ride 650B on my porteur and on my tallbike so performance is not really an issue, but these are the bikes I ride most of the time and I know how much better ANY bike feels with a nice set of tires.

    Now i use the Schwalbe HS 159 584-37 which is a great tire for its price, I never have any flats and they last forever, but it’s harsh and heavy. I plan to switch to the wider 584-44 model of the same tire mostly to increase comfort. I wonder if the negative effects of thick sidewalls are less an issue with wider tires?

  19. Garth says:

    Nice conversation, Jan.

    63 cm Heron Wayfarer, a stiff touring frame. I was using 700 x 37 (30) Vittoria Randonneur w/the stiff protective belt. On a fluke I bought cream-colored Schwalbe Delta 700 x 35 (30) tires . What surprised me was that these “cheap” unbelted tires are noticeably more comfortable than the belted Vittorias. I run these at relatively low pressure – 40-45 psi in the front and 50psi in the rear (I’m pretty light @ 135 lbs). I do have to be conscientious so as to avoid pinch flats. For this reason, I would like to try even wider tires, such as 35 or 38 (actual size). The best candidate seems to be the non-TourGuard Paselas. What I’m curious to find out is how they compare to the thinner yet more flexible Cypres…

  20. Steve Park says:

    Wider racing rims (Hed, Zipp, etc) are gaining popularity too. Moving from a 19mm wide rime to a 23mm rim allows the same 23mm tire to have a wider profile and run at lower pressures. It’s like having the benefits of a wider tire without having a wider tire.

  21. Looking through your past rolling resistance tests, I noticed that the difference in rolling resistance between the Veloflex 700×23 and Vittoria Corsa Evo CX 700×25 tires and the Grand Bois Cypres or Hetres was about the same difference as between the Cypres and the worst performing Rivendell Ruffy Tuffys (about a second in both cases). It would seem from these tests that the narrower tires are in fact faster on smooth roads than the wider tires. Whether that is an effect of width, casing construction, or something else, I don’t know.

    At the time, your review of the Corsa Evo CX’s was extremely positive and mentioned in particular how comfortable they were – you kept thinking they were going flat because they were dampening vibration so well. I wonder if your thoughts have changed over the years after more experience with wider tires.

    I myself use the GB Cypres tires and love their versatility and comfort.

    • We didn’t test the Veloflex, but the hand-made Challenge Triathlon. (Current Challenge tires no longer are hand-glued, but vulcanized, which seems to have robbed them of their performance advantage.) The advantage of those tires (and of the Vittoria Open CX Corsa) is not due to their narrow width, but because they use a more supple casing than even the Grand Bois tires. (They also use much thinner tread – a well-worn Grand Bois also will be faster than a new one.)

      Our tire tests confirmed what other found: Wider tires, at least to a point, roll faster at “normal” speeds. We tested three identical Michelin Pro2 Race tires, in 21, 23 and 25 mm (actual) widths, and the narrowest was the slowest, and the widest the fastest.

      The ultimate tire would be a tire with the materials used in the old, pre-vulcanized Challenge tires, but in significantly wider width.

  22. WFSTEKL says:

    Jan,
    How about making a nice cotton Grand Bois tubular in 30c or 32c width? Wouldn’t that hit the sweet spot between performance, comfort and control?

    • From my experience, the advantages of tubulars are most pronounced at narrower width, simply because narrow clinchers ride so poorly (and thus have poor traction as well). For wider tires, the downsides of tubulars (having to glue them on, carry spares, hard to patch) don’t outweigh the small improvement in comfort. You might as well get a slightly wider clincher…

  23. KT says:

    Jan, 30 hours is a short ride?

    • Not for me! In my comment on the handlebar tape, I wrote that “for rides up to 30 hours,” I don’t need cushioned bar tape… Anything that doesn’t have me home for dinner definitely is a long ride.

      • KT says:

        Ha, yes, must’ve been a typo. I saw this [above] and wanted to make sure your name wasn’t Clark Kent:

        “For short rides (30 hours), I prefer some cushioning.”

  24. DJ says:

    KT: I read that too and thought the same thing.

  25. HillDancer says:

    I have one of those bikes with fat tires that doesn’t shimmy. I’m curious about this statement “…it’s harder to make a bike with wide tires that doesn’t shimmy.”; is it possible one reason is due to commonly mounting wide tires on narrow rims? According to accepted wisdom, a 32mm tire is ok for a 20mm rim, and I see 23mm rims marketed for 42mm tires. My Hetre 42mm nominal width (47mm mounted & worn @ 50psi, acutal) tires are mounted on 35mm width rims, it is very stable at high speed without a hint of shimmy; side winds, pedling, nothing will start the wiggle. I’m told un-even spoke tension can be a contributing factor, and wonder if a squirming light-bulb shaped tire, could set up a similar conditon? I’m aware of frame tubing, loose headsets, weight distribution, death grip, etc. as factors.

    • That could indeed be a factor. In one test, we changed a 31 mm wide tire on a 23 mm rim against a 23 mm tire on an 18 mm rim, and the shimmy was much diminished, so even with proportional rims, wider tires are more likely to shimmy. That said, we often run wide tires on relatively narrow rims. Where did you find 35 mm-wide 650B rims?

  26. HillDancer says:

    Velocity P35, disc brake rim.

  27. Harald says:

    Are you planning on doing any further tire tests in the future? I’d be interested to see some of the newer models from the big manufacturers tested in real world settings. I bought a Conti GP 4000S in 25-622 last year (they don’t come any bigger) and they made a really noticeable difference compared to the Michelin Krylions I ran before. In tests by German road bike magazines they get very good ratings and in roadie forums they are well-loved. I’ve never ridden any of the BQ-approved tires, but it would be interesting to see a side-by-side comparison with more current tires.

    • Alex says:

      I could have written this post! except for the part about the Krylions. I also use the Conti GP 4000S in 25-622: excellent tire, if you have to make do with your existing road bike on brevets as i do. It’s also actually almost 25mm wide, a rare occurence with tire labeling these days. Haven’t had a flat in two years of brevets in Germany. If they made it in 28-622 or even 30-622 it could be the best fast-but-not-fat-road tire out there. At PBP i also used a Schwalbe Ultremo (XR?) 28-622, built for Gerrit Gastra and his idworx Road Marathon bike, but it’s not much wider than the Conti. Schwalbe has been playing catch-up to Conti for years in the road bike tests, and now more often for MTB tires.

      • The Conti and Schwalbe tires appear to have good flat prevention, but all the ones I have tried rode rather harshly. For an event like PBP, I suggest you try some more supple tires that also offer better performance. I know that Grand Bois tires are hard to find in Germany, so I suggest you get a set of Vittoria Open CX Corsas. They come in a (true) 25 mm width, and you will be amazed at the comfort and speed they offer. Nothing transforms your bike like a set of great tires.

  28. Garth says:

    I have a 1972 BMW /5 motorcycle. These bikes were infamous for sometimes-deadly high speed wobble (shimmy). Duane Ausherman has an incredibly interesting website that explains how he, as a BMW dealer in the early ’70′s came to understand and deal with the problem.

    The root of the problem was the machining for the triple clamps was inconsistant, causing the fork tubes to not be parallel and to bind.

    But, there were other contributing factors, many relating to directly to this bicycle conversation. Some of these include: geometry, bent frames, tire pressure, weight on handle bars, weight extending past rear wheel, and so on.

    Incredibly interesting stuff…

  29. KT says:

    Do you run your Hetres at 75 psi as well? I stop at 60, and more like 50 on gravel…

  30. Marc says:

    Many interesting thoughts. I miss aerodynamic resistance in your discussion. to me the major drawback of wider tires.
    When driving over 20 km/h you will realize significant aerodynamic drawbacks with wider tires. you will get tired earlier and could have gone further in the same time with more narrow tires.
    Professional riders therefore try to avoid larger tires than 25mm. (exept Paris Roubaix)

    • We tried to quantify the aerodynamic disadvantage of wider tires when we tested various equipment choices in the wind tunnel. At 20 and 25 mph, he difference between a 25 mm and a 31 mm tire with similar tread profile was too small to measure. While this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference, it clearly is small compared to many other factors (stem height, clothing, etc.) that were easy to measure.

      We tested with the rider on board. Studies without the rider pedaling may have less noise, but they also don’t produce meaningful results, because the pedaling rider affects the airflow around the bike and its wheels.

  31. Todd says:

    I ride a 60 cm Ebisu. It came with 35 wide pasellas and felt to me like the “gyroscope” was off. Sluggish. I dumped them and mounted the old favorite Continental 25′s, burned them up and went to some Rolly Polly 27′s. After they were done I went to a 28 wide Bontrager that was stiff, but felt pretty good at less than 90 psi. I kept reading all the stuff out there about wider tires and last fall I hesitantly mounted some 32 wide Gatorskins. The ride was instantly perfect. I called my friends. Took me 2 years to find the right tire for that bike. I’m an ex racer from the early 80′s and we rode Clemente tubulars on steel bikes. Those of you from the same era can testify the responsive ride that combination offered. Remember how they sounded? Remember how they felt? Well those days are gone and now I’m just writing this to encourage readers to experiment with different tire widths and go wider than you think.

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