Apart from your frame, tires are probably the most important bicycle component that creates your riding experience. In in this article you’ll learn everything there is to know on how to choose road bike tires that are right for your specific riding style.
What should you look for in a road bike tire?
We’ve looked at the most important criteria on how to choose road bike tires, to determine which are the best ones within a specific selection. For road bikes these criteria are:
- Puncture protection
- Tire bead
1. Road bike tire size
All road bikes have tires measuring 28 inch or 700C.
700 refers to the diameter in millimeters with a mounted and inflated tire. The actual rim diameter is 622 mm. However this old (French) tire standard is still used.
The “C” in 700C refers to the one of four tire widths. It’s a relic of the past and does nothing but cause a lot of confusion nowadays.
The size of your typical road bike tire has moved up over the years. You will find very few tires with a width below 20mm (usually 17 and 19), and those you can find are either used on the track or for time trials.
Standard road bike tire sizes you find today are 23, 25, and 28mm. They constitute about 80% of all road bike tires.
Using the ETRTO tire size standard
Because tire sizes can be confusing I always use the ETRTO tire size standard when I need any new bicycle tire, including road bike tires. You can find this standard written on the side of every tire out there.
ETRTO means European Tire and Rim Technical Organization. Their standard is written in the following way:
[tire width in mm] – [rim diameter in mm]
We know every road bike tire is meant for rims of 622mm. That would mean a road bike tire with a tire width of 25mm would look like this: 25-622.
What tire width should you choose for your road bike?
The gains between road bike tires just looking at their widths alone are pretty marginal, but they do exist. Wider tires are:
- More grippy
- More comfortable
- More supple (adjusting to road surface irregularities)
- Provide the ability to lower your air pressure making them less harsh (and more comfortable)
- Less aero
- Heavier and needing more power to gain momentum
- Have more rolling resistance
The biggest takeaway from this list and the biggest advantage of a 28mm width tire versus a 23mm one, is comfort. Wider tires are simply more comfortable while you lose basically nothing in terms of speed.
Unless you have an aero bike or are really adamant about having skinny tires, my suggestion would be to use a 25 or 28mm tire for summer use and allround comfort, and 28mm tires for off-season use when you need more grip and added puncture protection (which makes the tire heavier).
I don’t think any other category of cyclists is more focused on weight than road cyclists. And the willingness to pay huge sums bicycle components that offer weight advantages is sometimes astounding.
If you want to reduce weight, the effectiveness of doing so by buying the right road bike tires is the way to go. Nowhere else do you have to pay less money to lose weight on a bicycle part.
What are light road bike tires?
With such a focus on weight it’s no wonder I’ve written an article on the subject. In that article I calculated the average weight of a road bike tire be 291 grams.
A “light” tire is any tire around 200 grams, with just a couple tires below that number. But before you simply buy the lightest tire money can buy, take the following general rules into consideration:
- Light tires are less puncture resistant
- Light tires are more expensive
- You can reduce a tire’s weight by buying a slimmer width version with all pros and cons associated with it
- Lighter tires offer quicker momentum
A tire is made up of several layers of material, which offer various characteristics. All of these layers compound is referred to as the the tire casing, and encompasses such things as the sidewall, puncture protection layer, center tread etc. These layers are also sometimes called a tire ply.
There are two reasons why it’s very difficult to navigate the landscape of bicycle tire casings.
- Unlike with tire sizes there is no international standard when it comes to tire casings
- Tire casings are specific for a certain brand, so it’s difficult to compare them
- Rather than explaining in normal terms what a certain tire casing entails, tire manufacturers give them nonsensical names for marketing purposes.
That being said, there are a number of things you can look at to gauge the quality and tire characteristics of a specific road bike tire
Bicycle tire compound
The first thing you can look at is the type of compound. Even though you cannot compare compound cross-brand, a tire manufacturer only offers a specific amount of tire compounds.
When looking at road bike tires, the amount of tire compounds are very small, usually two. Most likely they have a high-quality compound for their premium lineup, and a regular compound for their more budget-oriented tires.
The difference between the two is that the more expensive compound offers characteristics of lower rolling resistance, lower weight, and increased durability. How much exactly is very hard to determine and can only be measured in a long-term review, and only to a certain extent.
Threads Per Inch (TPI)
Often times when discussing road bike tires you come across the term TPI, which is shorthand for threads per inch.
A tire compound isn’t just a piece of rubber stamped into a certain tread pattern. It’s rubber molded onto a woven canvas, made up of a certain number of threads and a certain material.
The thread count is measured as TPI and usually lies between 30 and 180. A number higher than 180 means the tire consists of multiple plies with a certain TPI count. So a 360 TPI means two plies or layers of 180 TPI.
A higher TPI means the canvas is more densely woven and less prone to punctures, not taking into account the durometer of the compound. It also means the tire is more supple and more easily adjusts to the terrain or tarmac.
That’s why higher TPI counts are found in more premium tires; e.g. the top-of-the-line road bike tires.
4. Puncture resistance
Judging from the amount of punctures I see during any of my regular rides with my club, I’d argue the level of puncture resistance should be at the forefront of anyone with the intention of buying a new set of tires.
Because there are dozens of puncture resistance technologies and brand specific names for those technologies I’ve written a dedicated article on the subject of puncture resistance.
To keep things simple and forget all the silly names brands came up with, when looking at puncture protection for road bike tires there are only a couple designs that have been invented.
Bicycle tire puncture protection types
- Breaker: an additional reinforced layer behind the center tread of the tire that serves as a barrier between the road and the tire chamber or tube.
- Belt: an additional reinforced strip made from rubber and much thicker than a breaker, running behind the center tread of the tire. It can be used in combination with a breaker for maximum puncture protection. The main difference between a belt and a breaker is that a breaker focuses on preventing a puncture with a tightly woven fabric, while a belt prevents an object from reaching the air chamber even when being penetrated with its thickness.
- Sidewall protection: A tire ply beside the tread pattern on either side of the tire to protect this more delicate area of the tire from abrasions and tears.
- Bead-to-bead protection: a tire ply running the entire width of the tire. It’s basically a breaker and sidewall protection wrapped in one.
- Chafer: a protective layer surrounding the bead of a tire, to aid in tubeless sealing.
5. Tire bead
A tire bead is the part of the tire that contacts the rim and keeps it in place. There are four types of tire beads
- Wired: a tire with a steel bead that’s so rigid the tire maintains it round shape when not mounted
- Foldable: a tire with a bead, usually kevlar, that’s supple enough for the tire to be folded
- Tubeless: a tire with a bead (and chafer) that can used for tubeless tires
- Tubular: a tire that’s glued to the rim rather than having a wire that snaps into place in the rim
The most road bike tires are foldable tires. They are the easiest to mount, and people are most familiar with them. And road bike tires are usually pretty expensive, another reason why they usually come in the foldable form, rather than the cheaper wired version.
The reason why the tubeless craze hasn’t really caught on with road bike tires is the fact they are much harder to seal. This is due to the fact the sealant has more difficulty coagulating in a high pressure environment. It’s pretty normal to run a tire pressure 3 or 4 times as high as you would with mountain bike tires.
Another issue with tubeless road bike tires is the ability to plug punctures. Because they have so much pressure the plug is pressed out again, leaving you stranded at the side of the road.
As for tubular tires, they are basically pro’s territory. Both the tires, which are tubular, as the more involved process involved to mount them is beholden to those who want maximum performance.
Why you should trust us
Johan van Seijen is an experienced roadie who’s been riding road bikes for over two decades, and finished several well-known races like the Amstel Gold Race and Liege Bastogne Liege. He’s the founder of restoration.bike and member of the TFC Weesp road cycling club.
He builds rather than buys his bicycles himself, which means his expertise extends into the realm of bike components, their durability, and lifespan. His collection includes bikes meant for gravel riding, commuting, and touring. Beyond standard road racing he’s done bikepacking trips as well.
How we picked and tested
Since we can’t possibly review every road bike tire in existence we pre-select a range of tires we feel are worthy of a more in-depth review.
Our entire selection of tires is more than 100 tires. To make it somewhat easier on ourselves, we favor brands with a strong reputation when it comes to road bike tires. They include tires from Challenge, Continental, Kenda, Maxxis, Michelin, Panaracer, Pirelli, Schwalbe, Specialized, and Vittoria.
The list of possible contenders is further drilled down to create content that’s as useful to visitors as possible. We keep our list of road bike tires up-to-date, remove tires which are no longer available, and add new road bike tires when they become available.
Furthermore we create separate product overviews to cater to different needs of road cyclists. This means those looking for tubular tires will see different tires than those looking for clincher tires. The same goes for budget road bike tires versus those with the best puncture protection; you can’t have both at the same time.
We compare road bike tires fit for our selection based on a number of criteria we feel to cover the most important aspects. Based on this comparison we’ll compile our final selection.
If products are bought for testing purposes they are bought from our own money. We were never sponsored and haven’t received any products in exchange for (favorable) reviews.
Johan van Seijen is the founder of restoration.bike. His cycling career has seen him at the starting line of classics such as the Amstel Gold Race and Liege Bastogne Liege. Realizing his racing capacity would fall short of what was needed he obtained a MS from the University of Amsterdam in engineering. His love for cycling changed into riding in an amateur capacity with his local cycling club TFC Weesp as a roadie and supporting MTB Noordwest as a mountain biker. He repairs, restores, and builds bicycles and shares his knowledge on YouTube, Facebook and this website.