Wide and Fast Tires

Extra_leger

Wider tires are faster – as outlined in this recent post. That isn’t the whole story, though, as many wide tires actually are quite slow. The reason for this is simple: Tire width is only one factor determining a tire’s speed. More important is how the tire is made: Is the casing supple or sturdy and stiff? Is the tread thin or thick? Are there puncture-proof layers?

tire_test

For Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve tested the performance of more than 30 tires, both in roll-down tests and with a power meter on the track. We found that in order to be fast, a tire really needs to be made like a high-performance racing tire. Only then can you enjoy the magic ride (speed and comfort) that is possible with wide tires. Here is a list of wide tires that offer truly exceptional performance:

  • Vittoria Open Corsa CX: This tire comes only up to 25 mm wide, but it’s one of the fastest tires you can buy. The downside is that it seems to get more punctures than most other tires.
  • Grand Bois (standard model): These tires were developed based on our testing, so they optimize speed and comfort. They come in a variety of widths up to 32 mm (700C) and 42 mm (650B). Especially the wider models rarely suffer from flats.
  • Grand Bois Extra Léger: We haven’t run controlled tests of the new Grand Bois Extra Léger models yet, but we have logged thousands of miles on them. Our on-the-road experience indicates that they are another big step up in comfort and speed.
  • Pacenti Pari-Moto: Available only in 650B, the Pari-Moto uses a similar casing as the standard Grand Bois tires. We haven’t tested its performance, but it should perform a little better than the standard Grand Bois tires due to its thinner tread. That thin tread also means it doesn’t last as long (~1200 miles), so it may be best used as an event tire.
  • Challenge Parigi-Roubaix: At least the older models were as fast as the standard Grand Bois tires, albeit more fragile. Recently, Challenge added a thick puncture-proof layer to the inside of the tires, which seems to have spoiled some of the superb ride, and probably affects performance as well. (The puncture-proof layer is red and easily visible on the inside of the tire.)
  • Michelin Pro Race: We tested the Pro2 Race, and we’ll assume that the following iterations like the Pro4 are as good. On real roads, this tire isn’t as fast as steel drum tests suggest, but it’s a decent choice that combines speed with puncture resistance. Available only up to 25 mm wide.
  • Continental Ultra-Gator Skin: These tires now come up to 32 mm wide. They rolled relatively fast in our tests, but their relatively harsh and buzzy ride makes them less pleasant to ride.
  • Compass 26″: These 26″ tires use the same casing as the Grand Bois tires. They have a slightly thicker tread so they last longer, but that makes them a tad slower – still leagues ahead of most 26″ slick tires due to the casing.

The complete results for all tires we have tested were published in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 11, No. 3. It’s only when you choose among tires with similar construction, that a wider tire will offer more comfort and speed, as well as fewer flats. (That was the point of the previous post.)

Conclusion: To get the best performance, choose a high-performance tire. Then run that tire in the widest width you can fit on your bike to obtain the best comfort and puncture resistance.

Conflict of Interest? Some readers will have noticed that our company, Compass Bicycles Ltd., sells some of the tires listed above. Did that influence the test results? Actually, the opposite is the case: We sell tires that tested well. As a retailer of bicycle components, we can sell any tire that is available. We carry the tires that we find to offer the best all-round performance. (For example, we don’t sell the Vittoria because we find it too fragile for the riding most people do.)

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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43 Responses to Wide and Fast Tires

  1. cbratina says:

    The Continental Ultra Gatorskin 700x23c tire was the same speed as the Michelin Pro Race 2 700x23c in the original test. The, and the Michelin Pro Race 2 700x25c was the same speed as the Grand Bois Cypres 700x32c. Since tires of similar casing are faster as they get wider. The Ultra Gatorskin 700x28c should be faster than the Cypres 700x32c, and the new Ultra Gatorskin 700x 32c should be even faster. I have found the Continental 700x25c 4000S to be a faster and more comfortable tire than the Ultra Gatorskin in that size, and expect the new 4000 II S 700x28c to be even better. So having used the Grand Bois Cypres on our tandem for years, I think there is a faster tire available now in both 28c and 32c. I have had a lot of flats on paved roads with the 700x32c Super Leger and will be switching to the 4000 II S 700x28c.
    Thanks for your fantastic work on tire testing!! You are a great service to the cycling world.

    • I am glad that the Ultra Gatorskin is available in wider widths now. I hadn’t considered it, because its ride is so buzzy and harsh, but I added it to the list now.

      To say that the 32 Gatorskin should be faster than the 25 mm we tested isn’t correct. We found no significant speed difference between 25 and 31 mm tires of the same type. And thus the rest of your speculation about speed isn’t supported by our tests.

      Most of all, small differences between tire models are most likely to be within the noise. When we tested the influence of tire width or tire pressure, we ran consecutive tests, so conditions remained the same. The different tire models often were tested on different days, and even though we tested a “reference tire” each test session to ensure that we could compare the results, there will be more noise when you compare data from one session with data from another session.

  2. Mr. Palomar says:

    Great post as always! If I could ask, what role do the tubes play in affecting the performance of clincher tires – i.e. Conti offers standard butyl, lightweight and ultra lightweight for their line of Ultra Gator Skin tires. Is there a discernible difference in selecting an ultra lightweight tube – are there caveats to selecting an ultra lightweight tube over a standard tube? Thanks!

    • Our testing showed no statistically significant difference between lightweight and heavier tubes. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference, but if there is, it must be small. (Of course, anything that makes your bike lighter is welcome, and I do use superlight tubes on my randonneur bike.)

  3. Arthur Reinstein says:

    Thanks Jan.
    How does the Panaracer Pasela (with and without Tour Protection) stack up against this field?

  4. Cris says:

    Everyone loves speed. A great tire, however, needs to strike a balance between speed and puncture resistance. The latter becomes more apparent in long distance rides. Time and safety is of essence. Consumer tire reviews make a strong emphasis in having this extra layer of protection. Having to stop to fix a flat when one is tired or when it’s dark out simply sucks. It kills the joy of the fastest tire out there.

    • That is where the wider tires come in. You can use a high-performance casing and no puncture-proof layers and still get fewer flats that a puncture-resistance 23 mm tire. On my Grand Bois Hetres (42 mm wide), I’ve had 2 flats in over 20,000 miles, and both were with very worn tires.

    • Frank says:

      IMO puncture resistance becomes *less* important in long distance rides. I suffered from a lot of flats with GB Hetres – I got one every two weeks until I started filling my tubes with Stan’s tubeless fluid. Most of the flats happened on my commute through town (Cologne in Germany, where there’s lots of glass on the cycle paths, which are shared with pedestrians and don’t get cleaned as often as the “real streets” for cars). My commute is just 25 minutes long. Fixing a flat may take 5 minutes, but that is a statistically sigificant percentage of the whole trip. OTOH if I go touring I may be in the saddle all day, or at least 3 hours. While touring or randonneuring I can also avoid debris much easier: Roads outside of towns generally are much cleaner than the paths in the city.

      • I am sorry that you got that many flats in the city, but knowing German bike paths, it shouldn’t surprise me. Still, to puncture Hetres, which usually are very flat-resistant, takes quite some debris! In the U.S., we are lucky that we can cycle on the roadway, where cars sweep the debris off to the side. At least for the time being, as many now want to push cyclists off the street and onto segregated bike paths.

        Out in the country, I agree that on backroads, you rarely get flats. However, in the U.S., many cyclists ride on the shoulders of busy highways, which have as much or more debris than German bike paths.

        Here is a blog post about preventing flats.

    • Conrad says:

      Fixing a flat shouldn’t kill the joy of the ride. Running out of C02 cartridges or a crummy pump or trying to patch a tube when it is wet out will. If you are properly equipped with a decent pump and spare tube it should be no big deal. I would rather ride on nice tires.

      • Given a choice, I’d prefer not to have a flat. If a cyclist has never experienced the joys of riding a supple tire, they might well rate tires by their flat resistance. But like you, I’d rather fix a flat than ride tires that feel like the wheels are stuck in molasses. Fortunately, with wider tires, you don’t have to make that choice – a Grand Bois Hetre (42 mm) is extremely puncture-resistant because it runs at such low pressures, yet it rolls as well and is even more comfortable than a great racing tire.

  5. Would you consider running a test focused on puncture-resistance? Perhaps vs. comfort and performance? To some of us who live in urban environments where goathead thorns are rife, this is an important parameter of tire selection.

    • Punctures are such random occurrences that testing puncture resistence on the road is next to impossible. You need a large sample size, and if you get a flat every three months or so, and always under different conditions and on different roads, then you’ll never get statistically significant results.

      In my experience, once you go to tires wider than 35 mm, punctures stop being an issue. When you run tires at 50 psi or lower, they simply roll over debris that would get hammered into tires running at higher pressures.

      • marmotte27 says:

        In the last ten years of riding I had so few flats that I.don’t really remember their number, 3 maybe 4? I’ ‘ve always had tires (performance or not ) with little or no puncture resistance. It depends entirely on your terrain of riding, not on the tire you run. You can chose it for performance, if you ride on country roads with a little city riding n clean areas.

  6. dvenable says:

    What have you learned about side wall cuts? I tried standard Grand Bois, and was pleased with them until the rear tire exploded on the road. It had a 7mm cut in the side that let the tube bubble out. I tried to boot it, but that seems to be too big a cut to boot. I was so unnerved by the explosion that I got tougher tires, and the Grand Bois hang in the basement.

    • I haven’t suffered any sidewall cuts on Grand Bois tires in more than 40,000 miles of hard riding, but it can happen. Way back, I had two sidewall cuts on Rolly-Poly tires, which should have tougher sidewalls than the Grand Bois. It appears to be just bad luck… you boot the tire to get home, then replace it and move on.

      Regarding using a boot as a temporary fix for sidewall cut, one of those blowouts happened 150 miles from home, and the tire was sliced almost in half. I tried the dollar bill method I read about in Bicycling magazine, and it lasted ten miles. Then I used a Clif Bar wrapper, and it got me home without further problems. The boot bulged out of the huge cut a little bit, so I took it easy in corners, but it held for 7 hours of riding through the night.

      • Noel says:

        I had terrible luck with Grand Bois Cypres. Short tread life and very fragile sidewalls. They certainly rolled well, but I had several sidewall cuts, bubbles, and attendant explosions, so I gave up on them completely.

        The 650b Hetres and Extra Legers, though, are the best clinchers I have used in 30+ years of cycling. They roll incredibly well, hardly ever puncture (I average one flat during their very long lifespans, always something like a staple or wire from a truck tire – things that no pneumatic tire can resist) and are wonderfully comfortable. As far as I am concerned, if your bicycle does not fit them then you need a different bicycle!

      • I think luck has a lot to do with it. When Panaracer Paselas first came out in wider widths, I was visiting Grant Petersen. I rode one of his bikes, and after 3 miles had a huge blowout…

        The tread rubber on the Cypres and Hetres is the same, so they should wear at similar rates. (The wider Hetres will last a bit longer, since you spread the wear over a larger surface.)

        In the end, I am glad the Hetres work so well for you.

    • Conrad says:

      So far my 32mm Grand Bois and Panaracer Paselas have held out fairly well. For me, it is about 50/50 whether these tires get retired from a large enough cut to bulge the tire or wearing the tread down to the casing. I use 32mm Challenge tires for cyclocross racing and unfortunately the sidewalls are fragile and I usually ruin 1 or 2 tires in a season. I am okay with that- the fastest tires are always going to have supple but fragile sidewalls.
      Sidewall cuts are often just bad luck though- I have seen plenty of stiff burly tires destroyed by a sharp rock or big piece of glass. The pressure at which you run the tires has a lot to do with it too. The lower pressure (wider!) tire will always resist punctures and sidewall tears better than a comparable narrower tire. This is probably why the Vittoria Corsa has durability issues.

  7. tom says:

    I purchased GB from compass in 32 and loved the feel; speed; and comfort…BUT they were puncture flat machines. Regardless of surface or pressure these tires could find the smallest piece of glass and funk my ride. I have never had more flats in 10 months of riding. Sometimes weekly on 100 miles. I was so torn taking these off my bike and still have them hanging in my garage and think about another go. They do ride wonderfully.

    • It all depends where and how you ride. I am surprised you had that many flats, but if you ride in goathead country, or on the shoulders of busy highways, you will have more flats. Have you tried tire wipers? When I raced on expensive tubulars, I was able to reduce my flat frequency to almost zero by using these. Here is a blog post about tire wipers (often also called tire savers).

      • cbratina says:

        Regarding Grand Bois Cypres and flats, we have tandem cycle toured (total weight 360 lbs) with several sets of both Continental Ultra Gatorskin and Four Seasons 700x28c at 110-120 psi and Grand Bois Cypres 700x32c tires at 105/110 psi, and have not seen any significant difference in the number of flats. This included mostly paved roads in the US, Canada, and Europe, along with some stone bike paths and towpaths. The 32c Cypres was SUBSTANTIALLY more comfortable, but I would recommend even wider tires for continental Europe.

      • I agree that for touring, the widest tires you can fit on your bike are the best choice. In 1991, I toured with full camping gear on 25 mm tires – oh, the follies of youth! I rode along the Baltic Coast of the former East Germany. Many roads were miles of cobblestones, and in retrospect, I cannot help but think how much more enjoyable that trip would have been on 42 mm Hetres! (Apart from the fact that my C-Record high-flange hub flange broke after five days of shaking and vibrating.)

      • tom says:

        Jan; thanks and I may give the wipers a try (I was initially turned off by reported noise from wipers). All this talk of tires has me missing those GB’s. Everything else feels like a garden hose on wheels. BTW I ride all over Portland..commute on spring water trail..dirt in forest park ..country roads 20 miles out ..and hwy 30 (dirty 30 is famous in these parts for flats)

  8. Brian says:

    Have you had the opportunity to try the new wider Challenge tire, the Strada Bianca? One wide tire I’ve had good luck with in the past has been the Schwalbe Kojak in 700x35c. It’s a slick tire that’s fairly supple and quite durable.

  9. Ned Williams says:

    At some point in the future I plan to try out either the Compass 26, or one of the Grand Bois tires. In the meantime, until my current tires wear out, I have been using either Continental Grand Prix 4000 (25) or Gatorskin tires (25 & 28). While the Grand Prix does tend to have a slightly harsher ride, I have been extremely fortunate regarding a lack of flats and the wear of the tire has been magnificent. The only two times I’ve had flats (5000+ miles) on the same set of the 4000′s has been times where I was forced to ride on shoulders of busy roads. In both cases, the puncture was due to a fine piece of wire. The tires have sustained several cuts, none deep enough to cause concern. I’ve relied on Continental for more than 15 years. It’s hard to consider moving to another brand.

    • As long as you ride on small roads in the main lane of traffic, flat tires are extremely rare, because passing vehicles sweep the road clear of debris. On highways, this debris accumulates on the shoulder… and there are few tires that will not be overwhelmed by the insiduous wires that are spread over the road when steel-belted truck tires disintegrate.

  10. Alex Turner says:

    Over the last year I’ve been cycling on 23mm, 28mm, 35mm, and 40mm tires. My preference is for the fat ones. I’ve learned something about my choice from this article. One the one hand things are looking good for me. On the other my stock excuse for slower speeds no longer holds up so well.

  11. Peter says:

    I know your concerns against rotational inertia. However, if one has a 700c bicycle which can fit 37 or even 42 mm wide tires, one might wonder whether one should give up the advantages of the bigger air volume. Fortunately performance tires with 32 mm width are available now, but is there no justification for higher widths for 700c? While there are no such performance tires, I am quite satisfied with the Vittoria Voyager Hyper, whose test results on the steel drum seem promising according to German magazines, and which is more lightweight and more subtle than the Marathon-like models (and in Europe it even comes at a very affordable price).

  12. Josh says:

    Since there’s all this talk of wide tires here, it’s worth sharing that Continental will have 700x28c Grand Prix 4000S II tires available by the end of the month. I don’t remember how these fared in the BQ tests, but certainly lots of riders love the quality of the ride they get from these tires. Personally, I am excited to ride a paid of truly wide, truly racy tires.

    • I am glad Continental also is making its tires available in wider versions. Like Schwalbe, the Conti tires I have ridden didn’t really excite me, as they all were harsh-riding. (What is it with German tires? Being originally from Germany, I know their roads aren’t much better than ours!)

      You should try a Continental (no matter which model) and a Grand Bois or Challenge tire back-to-back… The difference in suppleness, comfort and road feel is remarkable.

      • Larry T. says:

        I share your opinion on Conti’s…NEVER liked their harsh ride. Now I need to run down to the shop to see if the set of Challenge Parigi-Roubaix’s I just got have the “improvement” you write about :-( Meanwhile, I’ll echo your thoughts on Vittoria Open Corsa CX – still my all-time favorite tire, especially when I can find ‘em in the “proper” black tread/tan sidewall version. Put a set of GB’s on a vintage bike for l’Eroica this year, hoping they’ll be a bit more durable than the Vittoria’s. The other vintage bike has Ruffy-Tuffy’s, which aren’t too bad if you lower the pressure a bit.

  13. thebvo says:

    Will the next posting be the introduction of Compass Bicycles’ new 700×42 tires???

    When you tested the marathon racer, was it the wire bead, or Kevlar? I’m not sure that the bead and the subsequent increase in weight matters, but the people at schwalbe claim that the different rubber and puncture belts make a big difference in performance (and price!!!). That tire is available up to 38mm wide, so that’s getting close, but is that the limit for a wide fast 700c tire??

    • I don’t recall which version of the Marathon Racer we tested. Like all of Schwalbe’s road tires we’ve ridden, it was very harsh and buzzy, so I cannot recommend it. It was relatively fast, though.

      As far as new products, we have a policy of not commenting on new products until they are close to being available. There are inevitable delays if you want to do things right, and once you have announced a product, there is a big incentive to rush through the development and production, since your customers are waiting.

  14. ThomasG says:

    Any plans for a distributor i Europe?
    The cost of shipping + VAT is rater steep here in Denmark.

    • We are a small company, so we cannot set up a distributor in Europe just for Compass products. Our tires are sold by M-Gineering in the Netherlands. Of course, shipping from the Netherlands to Denmark won’t be inexpensive, either. If a distributor is interested, we could work with them. In the mean time, if you order several tires, the shipping cost (Flat Rate Boxes) isn’t so prohibitive, and few customers seem to have problems with VAT.

      • Alex says:

        What about paying import duties on goods bought from Compass and shipped to – in my case – Germany? Have you rec’d any feedback on that? I’m not sure which is the greater horror: paying 30% or more in duties, or wasting over half the day going through the pre-industrial / DDR-style Berlin Zollamt ritual!

      • We try to make that process as smooth as possible with clear labeling on the commercial invoice. Depending on the value of the order, there often is no duty to pay at all.

  15. Michael says:

    Jan,
    Hetres are rated as 55-75psi in the sidewall molding.
    But sounds like you run them lower than they are rated.
    At what pressures do you run your Hetres, and what is the lowest that would be advise able?

    • The minimum pressure rating of most tires seems pretty arbitrary. If you run tires at way too low pressures, you may eventually break individual strands of the casing threads. (It doesn’t look nice, but it doesn’t seem to affect the functioning of the tires.)

      I run my Hetres at between 35 and 50 psi for the Extra Leger version, depending on the terrain. Rider/bike/luggage weight is about 190-200 pounds. See also this blog entry about tire pressure.

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