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Choosing Bike Tires for Commuting: What to Know

May 30, 2017
Choosing Bike Tires for Commuting: What to Know

Many of us commute daily with thoughts of work, weather and family life shuffling around in our minds, but rarely do we think about the tires that are helping get us to our destination. And while it's not a common thought, it certainly should be as choosing the right tires for commuting can improve comfort, safety, speed and overall riding experience - not to mention reduce the chance of a dreaded flat. We've previously covered what to know when buying a commuter bike, and so now it's time to cover which tires are the best for commuting and why.

Tires for commuting basics

fullpage commuter tyres what to know commuting urban

Tires suitable for commuting can fall under multiple names and often depend on your bike of choice and the terrain you cover on your journey. Generally speaking, tires for commuting need to provide good grip, comfort and durability to handle the ever-changing urban environment and variety of terrain you'll be faced with. Great tires for commuting could be road, touring, cyclocross and/or urban tires, and so to help differentiate the three, we've briefly described each below.

Typically, touring tires are exceptional commuter tires built for enormous distances on varying terrain and provide superior puncture resistance.

If you’re on a road bike, you’re likely limited by frame clearance. In this case, you should look at training road tires with puncture resistance. The 'training' aspect of these tires means they’ve been designed for all-weather use and durability in mind. Go for the widest your frame can fit comfortably.

And if neither seems like the right fit for your bike, then urban bike tires or cyclocross tires may be what you’re after. Urban tires, designed for tarmac and bike path use, are typically a little lighter and more affordable when compared to touring tires. Cyclocross tires are a good option for those that ride on gravel and dirt paths to get to work as they feature toned down versions of tread patterns found on mountain bikes.

Tire types

fullpage commuter tyres what to know tyre types clincher tubular tubeless

The are three main tire types you'll encounter - tubular, tubeless and clincher - all with slightly different compositions and features. Clincher tires are the ones we are most familiar with and the tire type that most commuters will use as almost every new bike is equipped with them. Clincher tires require a tube, which sits in between the wheel rim and the tire to inflate and hold air. In the event of a puncture, this inner tube can easily be replaced or patched as long as you have the right equipment and know how. Clincher tires are held in place via a steel (aka: wire) or kevler fiber bead (aka: folding) on their side, which hooks underneath the ridges of a wheel rim to hold the tire in place.

The other tyre type you are likely to encounter is tubeless, which is growing in popularity after being used on mountain and cyclocross bikes for a long period of time. There is literally no tube with tubeless tires, instead, it is just a tire that hooks onto the wheel as a normal clincher would, but with much tighter tolerances to create a firmer, airtight seal. The sealant is then added into the tire to plug small holes and splits if they occur, reducing the chance of flats. Tubeless tires can be run at lower pressures, improving traction, comfort and control. In order to use tubeless tires, you'll need compatible wheels.

The final tire type, tubular, is popular with professional road riders due to the performance benefits they provide but are not a practical tire choice for commuting.

Anatomy of a tire

fullpage commuter tyres what to know anatomy of a tyre

To know what to look for when purchasing tires for commuting, it will be helpful if you have a good understanding of the elements that a tire is made of.

  • Bead: For clincher and tubeless tires, the bead holds the tire onto the rim and is typically made from either wire or kevlar, wire featuring on inexpensive tires, kevlar featuring on more premium options.

  • Casing: The casing is the foundation of the tire, connecting the beads to one another and providing enough resistance from stretch to keep the air in while conforming to the ground surface. The casing is made from either nylon, cotton or silk and measured in 'threads per inch' or 'TPI'. Tires with a lower TPI count (e.g: 60 TPI) provide good puncture protection but poor rolling resistance, conversely, tires with high TPI counts (120 TPI +) provide a more supple ride with good rolling resistance but often with reduced puncture protection. The suppleness of a tire heavily influences it's ride quality and grip.

  • Sidewall: This is literally the side of the tire and is part of the casing that isn't intended to touch the ground, as a consequence this part of the tire is the thinnest. Important details such as the wheel and tire size, and recommended tire pressure will be found on the sidewall.

Puncture protection

fullpage commuter tyres what to know puncture

In order to improve their resistance to punctures, many tires will add a 'sub-tread' layer or 'puncture proof belt'. Some tires will simply feature more rubber, increasing the thickness of the tread, while others will use specific materials to enhance their resilience. Some sturdier tires designed for winter training and commuting will feature puncture protection in the sidewall too – if you want to avoid flats at all costs, seek tires with such a feature. Typically, the more puncture protection a tire offers, the slower and heavier it is.

Keeping your tires at the correct pressure, checking for embedded objects and cleaning your bike regularly are all things you can do to reduce your risk of punctures.

Grip

fullpage commuter tyres what to know tread pattern

There are a number of factors that influence grip, and perhaps surprisingly to some, the tread pattern isn't one of them. Tread patterns can help shed water and when off road can provide additional grip, but on smooth tarmac, they actually lead to less contact with the road and less grip as a result. A smooth tire at the correct pressure and with the right rubber compound will provide the best grip on tarmac, and if you cross some trails along the way, then a tyre with a light tread pattern should be more than enough. You'll commonly see commuter tires with a subtle tread pattern for light trail riding and rough roads but thicker and more pronounced tread patterns are best left to mountain bikes as they create a substantial drag on smooth surfaces.

That then leads to the question, what is the correct pressure? Each tire will differ but the less pressure in your tire, the larger the contact patch with the ground, which increases the tire's grip. The downside of running too low a tiyre pressure is the increased chance of pinch flats. So there is a balance to be reached. The sidewall of the tire should provide a range of pressures specific to the tire so always remain within those tolerances.

Tyre compounds will also play a role in grip. Softer tire compounds provide better grip over harder compounds but will wear more quickly. Many more premium tires for commuting will comprise of 'dual' tread that features a harder compound along the middle to aid durability and speed, and then a softer compound on the sides to aid grip. Again, there's a balance that must be reached between a soft enough compound to provide ample grip and a hard enough compound to wear appropriately and ward off sharp objects.

Tire width

fullpage commuter tyres what to know profile

If you are purchasing a complete bike than tire width is not likely to be a key consideration as the correct tires will be installed already, however, with regular riding, your tires will wear out and you'll need to replace them. You may also find you want to increase your speed or enhance the tire's durability, in which case knowing the correct tire width and how it influences the ride is important.

As mentioned, tires for commuting are generally wider than standard road tires but narrower than mountain bike tires. The most common road tires widths are 23c, 25c and 28c (millimeters) compared to mountain bike tires which are commonly 2.0in to 2.2in. This is because ties for commuting aim to provide better grip, comfort and durability than road bike tires but don't want to create unnecessary rolling resistance (due to more pronounced tread pattern) and carry the extra weight of mountain bike tires.

Most commuter bikes use tires in the range of 28c to 42c that provide goods levels of comfort, grip, durability and speed. Larger tires can also be run at a lower pressure, further aiding comfort and grip and enhancing rollover ability which comes in handy when clearly obstacles.

Before you go buying the largest tire available, it's important to know that the tire's width must sit within the recommended wheel rim range and not be compromised by frame clearance, brakes or any additional accessories such as fenders. Consult your place of purchase if you're unsure of the limits of your bike.

Wheel diameter

Wheel diameter is something to be aware of depending on whether you intend on commuting on a road, touring, cyclocross, mountain or another style bike.

Road, touring and urban bikes will typically feature 700c wheels. Due to their size, these wheels roll well and provide a smooth ride thanks to the increased air volume over smaller wheels.

While you’ll struggle to find variances in the size of road, touring or urban wheels, mountain bikes typically come equipped with either 29in, 27.5in or even 26in wheels.

If you are commuting on a mountain bike, a great option is to purchase a set of ‘slick’ tires to replace the typical mountain bike tires that feature a highly pronounced tread pattern and carry additional weight. These are often sold as either urban or touring tires. Of note, 29in wheels share a tire diameter with 700c tires, so your options are plentiful.

Other features

fullpage commuter tyres what to know valve types

  • Reflective sidewalls: Visibility is a key consideration when riding on poorly-lit roads so to aid safety many tires suited to commuting have reflective sidewalls. This increases the chance of other road users seeing you and giving you sufficient space as the reflection is coming from the farthest points of your bike instead of the handlebars or seatpost like traditional lights.

  • Valve types: Valves are bonded onto tubes in order to be inflated and road tires have two options; Schrader and Presta. Presta valves (aka - high pressure or 'French' valves) are most commonly found on higher-end bikes and are easy to recognize because they are significantly narrower than Schrader valves. Schrader valves are most commonly found on recreational and entry level road bikes, they are also the same valves used on car tires. As each valve is different, unique connections at the pump head are often required to pump up the corresponding tire. Schrader connections require a pin to push down the spring, whereas presta valves are opened via the lock ring. Read our How to Pump Up a Bike Tire article for more information on valve tires.

  • Mudguards and Fenders: These add-ons can make riding in inclement weather much more bearable, shielding you from the spray of water, mud, and grime. The only consideration you need to make is does the mudguard or fender impact the maximum tire size allowable? There needs to be sufficient clearance for some mudguards so it's worth checking this before purchase.

We hope this guide has been helpful and provided some valuable information. You can browse BikeExchange for urban, touring and road tires or search for your local bike shop to get further assistance.

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