Could your tires be holding you back from your next win? As research develops, so does our understanding of how smart tire choices can help reduce the amount of time left on the table on race day.


If you’ve ever walked into a bike shop or browsed a tire catalog online, you’ll know that the process of choosing tires can be a bit involved — there are a lot of options out there!

For tips on how the teams of professional riders select their tires, our cycling expert and PR Director Jonathan Lee interviewed one of Specialized Racing’s head mechanics Brad Copeland in a recent special episode of the Ask a Cycling Coach. Find that episode at the bottom of this post and for a recap on some of their biggest takeaways, read on.

Making the Choice Between Tubulars and Clinchers

The bicycle wheel market mostly boils down to two categories: tubulars and clinchers. One is a bit more old school and costly, while the other is more accessible, and thereby more prevalent nowadays. If you’re a top-level road racer or maybe just a gearhead, it’s likely you’re already familiar the first option: tubulars.

For a long time, tubulars were the defacto standard for racing. After years of research and development, these tires — which are unique because they have a piece of fabric sewn into the base and glued into place with a special adhesive — have earned a good reputation among cyclists who strive to be fast. But reputations aside, they haven’t stopped clinchers, an easier-to-change and less expensive option, from commanding dominance over the market.

While clinchers don’t have the years of R&D at the highest levels of the sport as tubulars do, the last several years supports this is changing. Companies are actively trying to prove their new clinchers are faster than their tubulars, in addition to making design changes to improve their clinchers’ puncture resistance and ease of repair. Which leads us to the argument of tubeless versus not tubeless — which actually makes you faster?

The hookless bead and sealed rim design of tubeless-ready clinchers, coupled with the common usage of latex sealant for flat prevention go a long way toward reducing flats. This is certainly advantageous come race day, but the more simple design of tubeless tires has the potential to decrease rolling resistance and weight as well. The only caveat with tubeless is the lack of R&D behind them due to their relatively recent rise to prominence in the market. As it stands now, tubeless is still an emerging technology, but it’s quickly rising to maturity.

For the rest of this article, we’ll be referring to clinchers since they are a more commonly available option.

Which Tire Pressure is Best?

In most cases it is easy to find a starting point with tire pressure. On the side of most tires is a PSI range. You can safely inflate your tires within that range and expect good performance. However, knowing exactly what PSI to go with in order to get optimal performance can be tricky.

It makes sense that pumping your tires up with too much air will provide poor traction, but there’s also a tipping point where too much PSI can also increase rolling resistance. On the other hand, riding with tires that are too low on pressure may provide good traction, but the rolling resistance and stability of the tire will be poor.

The key to finding the right tire pressure is experimentation within the suggested range of the tire. There are resources that you can use where other people have experimented with many different setups, but in the end you’ll have to fine-tune your tire pressure to your riding style, equipment and terrain. With small volume tires like a typical road tire, a change of one PSI may not be perceptible, but with larger volume tires such as a mountain bike tire, even half of a PSI can make a big difference.

To dial in your correct tire pressure, pick a starting point within the suggested range and go up or down in pressure in small increments. While doing so, take note of these four things and make adjustments to strike an ideal balance:

  • Traction: Does the tire feel unstable as if it is losing contact or drifting on the surface, or does it feel planted and secure?
  • Stability: Does the tire feel laterally stable, or does it feel as if it is the tire feel disconnected from the rim or feel like it is rolling off the edge of the rim?
  • Speed: Does the tire feel like you are riding on a stable and firm surface, or does it feel like you are rolling through a soft, speed-sucking surface?
  • Comfort: Does the tire feel like it is bouncing off of every deformation in the surface or is it absorbing the small bumps and rocks without deflecting?

Using these four criteria, you should be able to find a tire pressure that provides a stable, quick and comfortable feel.

Keep in mind that in most cases you will want to run slightly more pressure in the rear tire to counter for most of your body’s weight being distributed over the rear wheel. This difference in pressure should give you a balanced feeling from front to rear.

Are Wide Tires Better Than Narrow Tires?

This depends on what type of riding you will be doing. A wider tire is usually going to be heavier but provide a more stable and comfortable feel with increased traction while a skinnier tire is usually going to be lighter and possibly feel less stable and comfortable.

Interestingly enough, a skinnier tire isn’t always going to roll faster than a wider tire. Although there is less surface area of the tire making contact with the ground and consequently less opportunity for friction in that respect when running a skinny tire, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is less rolling resistance.

Wider tires can usually sustain lower pressures than skinny tires while still maintaining stability. The benefit to running a lower pressure with wide tires, to a certain point, is the wide and more supple tire’s ability to deform to the road surface without deflecting forward energy into another direction. This means you will have an easier time maintaining your forward momentum without getting bounced around and losing energy over every imperfection in the road surface.

Your tire’s width should also depend on the width of your rim. The recent trend of wider tires being better has a lot of people running narrow rims with wide tires. This is a bad combination. The tire is forced into more of a pointed oval shape and gives you a small contact patch with an unstable tire. If you’re going to be running a tire that is wider than 25c you are going to want specifically wide rims.

A final point of consideration to take into account with wider tires is the aerodynamic efficiency of wider tires with your rim’s profile. In some cases narrower 23c tires in the front have proven to provide better airflow over the surface of a tire and rim than running a 25c or wider tire. Chris and John Thornham of FLO Wheels recently published studies from their product development process of their new wheels and found this to be the case. While a 23c tire is the best fit on the front with their wheels, see if you can find this information on the wheels you are running. It may differ.

These gains are small and the width tends to matter more with the front tire as it is the leading edge, but if you’re in a triathlon or a TT where every second counts, it’s worth looking into.

Choosing the Right Tube

When it comes to tubes there is a surprising amount to be gained in terms of efficiency. When you inflate a tube it expands and presses against the inside of the tire. This interface between the tube and the tire is full of tension and causes friction. Since the tube and tire have to deform to the ground as they rotate, this only magnifies the friction between the tube and the tire.

Butyl Tubes

Standard tubes are made from a material called butyl. The advantages to butyl is that they are readily available at every bike shop and they fair better than other options when it comes to puncture resistance. The disadvantages to butyl tubes is their weight and relatively high friction. When running butyl tubes we usually like to go with Continental Race 28 tubes. They are light, easy to find and come covered in talcum powder to reduce friction and make installation easier.

Latex Tubes

Latex tubes can be hard to come by and they are not as puncture resistant as butyl, but they are very light and reduce friction between the tube and the tire. They also tend to lose air relatively quickly, but this shouldn’t be a problem if you check your tire pressure before each ride.
Where latex tubes really provide an advantage is in their decreased rolling resistance. The Michelin A1 Aircomp tubes will save you nearly 4 watts in terms of rolling resistance and 40 grams over standard butyl tubes.

Light Butyl Tubes

Light butyl tubes also exist, but they tend to be a bit of a strange compromise. They are nearly as light as a latex tube, they are nearly as efficient, yet just as puncture-prone. If you are going to go for a light tube, then we suggest going all the way and getting a latex tube.

Tubeless

Or you can forego tubes entirely and run a tubeless wheel, tire and latex sealant. Tire and wheel manufacturers are only recently embracing tubeless technology on the road so there is a currently small but ever-growing selection of tubeless tires to choose from. What makes tubeless so great is the puncture protection. Since there is no tube you don’t have to worry about pinch flats, and since you inject latex sealant into the tire when installing, you will almost never get a flat tire unless your tire has a large gash or hole.

From an efficiency standpoint, tubeless also eliminates friction between the tube and the tire since there is no tube. Having said that, tubeless tires have a more supportive and substantial carcass to account for the lack of support that is usually provided by the tube. Consequently any efficiency gains that come from removing a tube are more or less nullified, but this is changing. Keep in mind that tubeless tires are an emerging segment in the tire market, and as more research and development goes into tubeless tire tech, we should see substantial improvements in efficiency.

The best tubeless options we’ve found are the Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless for typical road race conditions and the Specialized Roubaix Pro 2BR are a more durable option for adverse conditions. Stans is a very popular option for latex sealant, but we’ve seen improved sealing with Orange Seal, even with sidewall gashes up to half an inch in size.

 

How do Road Surfaces and Conditions Affect Tire Choice?

Tire selection for road racing, time trials or triathlon may seem pretty straightforward, but there are plenty of options that can give you an edge come race day. Depending on the format of racing you’ll be doing, there are different guidelines for tire choice:

Criterium Racing

Traction and stability are going to be the most sought after characteristics for crit racers. The races are short with fast corners and frequently take place on urban, varied surfaces. Pushing your tires to the limits in races like this means you’ll need a tire with a soft and grippy compound and a stable carcass.

The best tires we’ve found for this are the Continental GP-4000s II and the S-Works Turbo Cotton clincher. They roll quickly, but more importantly, they feel extremely planted on the ground. Whether you are going through a turn at the absolute limit or having to turn over an uneven surface, they maintain traction and stability.

We usually prefer 25c tires on wide rims for their more stable feel in sketchy situations.

Road Racing

The increased length and usually less technical layout of a road race means that you’ll want to place a premium on rolling resistance and comfort.

Most road races take place on pavement that is more or less smooth. In these cases, our same recommendations apply, but you have plenty of choices. The Michelin Power Competition, for example, is a fast wearing but great handling and comfortable tire.

If the course has dirt or very rough sections, you will want to consider some changes. On a rough course you may want to go with a slightly wider tire, even up to a 28c. Using such a wide tire would only be necessary on considerably rough road courses, but if you value comfort this is where to find it. Remember when going to a wider tire you’ll want to make sure you don’t match a narrow rim with a very wide tire. This will most likely make your tire less stable when leaned over.

Finally, take punctures into consideration on a course like this. Hitting a hole in the road commonly causes pinch-flats, meaning that the tire gets pinched between the rim and the tire when the tire gets smashed against the rim. The result is a puncture that looks like a snake bite in the tube, hence the nickname “snakebite” for these punctures.

Going with a tubeless tire and latex sealant instead of using a tube will get rid of pinch-flats and give you increased flat protection against other punctures. The Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless is a great option for wider tires and the S-Works Turbo Road Tubeless is a go-to tire for standard width tubeless setups.

Time Trials/Triathlon

When you are racing against the clock rolling resistance and aerodynamic efficiency are your primary concerns. The Continental GP 4000s II and S-Works Turbo Cotton clincher are winners here again, but there are plenty of other options.

The Schwalbe Ultremo ZX is a very aerodynamically efficient tire while the Vittoria Corsa Speed G is a very efficient rolling tire. Finding one that strikes a balance between both of these characteristics is key. Remember, picking the right width tire to match the profile of your rim is also something to consider. In many cases, this may mean stepping down from a 25c tire to a 23c tire.

Other Products Mentioned in This Episode

There were a lot of products mentioned in this special episode with Brad Copeland. For those who listened and inquired about links, here they are:

Listen to Brad Copeland’s Full One-On-One Interview

In this special episode of the Ask a Cycling Coach, Coach Jonathan Lee and Brad Copeland discuss in detail how the pros set up their bikes to get faster.



Additional Notes

TrainerRoad’s Ask a Cycling Coach podcast is dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. It gives you the chance to get answers to your cycling and triathlon training questions from USAC certified coaches Chad Timmerman, Jonathan Lee and special guests. Learn more about other topics we covered in the latest episode with our resources below:


If you have a question that you’d like to ask Coach Chad, submit your question here. We’ll do our best to answer them on the next episode of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast.

Author’s note: The information in this post was updated on June 30th, 2016. 



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Chelsea Hejny

Chelsea Hejny is a writer who covers cycling and training topics. When she’s not interviewing cycling experts and coaches for an upcoming article, she’s helping share TrainerRoad’s latest and greatest content, like the Train Smart, Get Fast email series. Sign up for it to learn how to become a stronger cyclist.

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