Monday, December 16, 2019

Tire, Tires, Tired

The more miles I ride, the more I'm convinced that there are few things that make a bigger difference in a bike than tires.

In so many of the discussions I've had with other bike geeks, and in the majority of articles I've read in the bike magazines and blogs over the years, the discussions often focus on the quality of the frame or the frame material. Think how many arguments have been waged over Steel vs. Aluminum vs. Titanium vs. Carbon. Even in the "old" days when nearly everyone rode steel, riders still debated Reynolds vs. Columbus (or Vitus, or Tange, etc.).

Now, I'm not going to throw all that out the window and say the frame isn't important. Obviously a good frame is the backbone of any good bike. Hell, the way I (and many others) see it, you can change/replace pretty much any part on a bike except the frame, and most people would still say it's the same bike. Replace the frame (and move all the old components to the new frame) and it's a different bike. But these days, I think that any comparison that doesn't take tires into account is incomplete. Take a bike that seems to have a lackluster ride - one that feels heavy, slow, or "dull" - and swap the tires and sometimes it can transform the bike for the better.

Readers who are anywhere near my age probably remember when the big trend in tires was narrow 19 - 20mm clinchers (probably pumped up to 120psi!). Starting in the late '80s, many racing bikes  would strain to fit a tire any bigger than 23mm. The thinking at the time (based on lab tests using tires run on mechanical rotating drums) was that hard and narrow was faster. Of course, that meant a lot of folks were riding criterium bikes with rock-hard tires that could chatter one's fillings loose. More recent studies that take into account the bike and the rider on actual road surfaces seem to dispute those old results to the point that today the trend seems to be going the other way. Bikes are being made to accommodate larger tires, and the belief is that using that extra air cushion to smooth the ride wears a rider out less, and might actually be faster. I know that I am definitely going larger in my tire choices - and am glad that many of my bikes will fit them.

Part of what got me thinking about this was my commuting to and from work - and my non-retrogrouchy pack mule of a commuting bike. That thing has an aluminum frame with massive, oversized tubing and wildly manipulated tube profiles (swaged, oval, or even hexagonal). It's not pretty (in fact, to my vintage-bike aesthetic, it's an abomination!). Anyhow, besides the fact that I can ride it in the rain, snow, or salty slush without caring, it can also fit 35mm tires with fenders. A frame like that could potentially have a pretty punishing ride - but the large tires help that a lot.

Here's another thing - it isn't enough that the tires be large-volume. The kind of casing, tread, and weight also make a difference. Jan Heine has written about this a lot in his Bicycle Quarterly magazine and on his blog. Now, one might take what he says with a grain of salt because he also markets and sells his own line of tires (Rene Herse - formerly Compass). But in my experience, the claims hold true and the tires live up to the billing. As I understand it, the tires came about because of the testing they had done with the magazine - not the other way around.

Anyhow, it's not just about size or width. For a given tire size, light and supple tires will usually outperform those with stiff casings, thick tread, and "flat protection" belts. Part of that is borne out by conventional bikie wisdom: reducing weight from rims and tires makes a bigger performance difference than reducing weight from the frame or other components. But the "suppleness" of the tire casings has a noticeable effect on a bike's ride. It's a big part of why vintage sew-up tires with silk casings feel so good and fast.

So, back to the ugly pack mule. When I first got that bike, it came equipped with 35mm Schwalbe Marathon tires: a very popular tire among many tourists and commuters. They are known for their durability and flat resistance. Honestly, I think the tires must be made for streets that are paved with broken glass, roofing nails, and thumbtacks - and overkill for my needs or tastes. The major downside was that the bike felt sluggish and slow. The ride was pretty miserable, to be honest. One of the first things I did with that bike was take off those tires and replace them with a pair of Continental Contact Speed tires (sometimes labeled "Sport Contact"). The size/width was the same, but the Continentals were noticeably lighter. The casings were thinner and more flexible, the tread thinner, but still with some flat protection built in. The bike was completely changed. It was more comfortable and the handling was almost "lively." It's possible they are potentially more"fragile" than the Marathons from a puncture-resistance angle, but I've never suffered a flat in the time I've been using them, going on two years.

The Contact Speeds have a look that reminds me of a basketball - with a fine pebbly texture that wraps around the whole tire, including the sidewalls. In fact, Rivendell sells them on their website and calls them the "basketball tires." The profile is very "round" and they have a good ride and nice handling, too.

After nearly two years, the center is worn smooth,
but I think there's still enough rubber there to
get me to Spring. I have a brand new pair ready to
mount up when they're needed.
Another thing I like about them is that they are available (as are the Marathons) with a reflective band on the sidewalls. Much of my morning commute is in the dark, and I like the extra bit of visibility they give. I don't know for sure what they look like to the drivers, but when I go down to the dark basement to get my bike in the morning, I can sometimes see the tires reflecting back in a way that says loud and clear "BICYCLE."

As long as I'm on the topic of tires that can really improve the ride, I'll mention that I'm still a huge fan of the Panaracer Pasela tires, which are available in a large range of sizes and widths. And if I were after the best "performance" above all other considerations, it's worth noting that they are even lighter and more "supple" than the Continentals. I've used them for commuting, and they're a great "all around" tire - but I did suffer a couple of flats with them on the ride to work, and as far as I know, they don't seem to be available with the reflective sidewall. They are nice tires, though, and the price is terrific.

And then there was snow.

Riding year round does mean that I have at times had to deal with snow on the roads. A couple of years ago I picked up some studded snow tires: Schwalbe Marathon Winter. Needless to say, these are even heavier than the regular Marthons (I think weight is listed at over 900 grams!). When riding on roads with patchy snow, or with snow packed down to a slick, icy surface, they really do make a difference and I'm glad to have them. When riding up hills in those kinds of conditions without the snow tires, I'll find my back tire slipping as I try to make my way up, and I'll have to keep my weight low and on the back wheel as I climb very slowly. Cornering can be pretty scary, too. With the snow tires, I can stand up and climb with gusto, and I'll feel more secure in corners. On the other hand, when the snow melts, they are miserable. The rolling resistance and weight don't just make the bike feel slow. It's measurably slower. By my estimate, I'd say they add about a minute per mile to my commute, and at the end of the ride I feel totally spent. My morning ride (a little over 12 miles) will normally take me an average of 10 - 15 minutes longer, and the afternoon ride (just over 15 miles) will take at least 15 minutes longer. Riding with snow tires makes the bike feel like a truck -- a truck you have to pedal!

We had some snow a couple of weeks ago and I put the tires on. But after a few days, temperatures came up and the snow melted. With no more snow in the forecast, I decided it was worth taking the time to swap the tires again. If I see snow in the forecast, I can always switch them back (again) - but I just can't see keeping those winter tires on there if I don't absolutely need them. As great as they are when you need them, they are just awful when you don't.

I will say this - switching to the Continental Contact Speeds after riding a few days on the Winter tires made the bike feel like it had wings. That's a darn good feeling.


  1. I agree with much of what you wrote, except for the part about switching tires back when the weather gets warmer. I hate swapping tires. Most days, I just want to get on the bike and ride, and keeping the studded tires on through the winter means that I'm OK if the weather changes during the day (as it does so often in my area!) I've had many days where the commute to the office was on dry asphalt but the ride home was in a snowstorm, or the temp had plunged and froze all of the snowmelt on the roads. If I had swapped back to the summer times that morning, I'd be screwed for the ride home.

    So, as annoyingly slow as are the winter tires, I'll keep them on through the cold months, because I value readiness for the changing weather conditions over optimizing the tires for the day. I'm all the more grateful for warm weather in springtime, when I switch back to the Rene Herse tires, and I feel like I'm flying down the road.

    1. Oh - I agree - weather can change a lot between morning and afternoon - so I'm definitely not planning on switching back and forth on a whim. Certainly not from one day to the next - Though I will say that I've gotten to where I can swap tires in about 15 minutes, and it's easy enough to do on a Sunday evening if I see a chance of snow in the forecast any time in the upcoming week.

  2. My tire odyssey parallels yours: I went from a pair of Bontrager "Satellite Elite Hardcase" (700x38) to Continental "Speed Ride" (700x42), and what a difference the supple sidewalls made in the ride! Wider, at lower pressure, is better -- and moving from wire-bead to folding was a BIG advantage for my arthritic hands.
    PS: The Bontrager's had a Kevlar strip, the Contis don't, but both fell victim to broken bottles in bike lanes. I found Mr. Tuffy tire strips to be a lifesaver.

  3. Studded tyres are fantastic for being able to commute confidently, but you're right about the sluggishness. I find I tend to cut my commute to the nearest tram stop with those and only venture further when I have my Marathon pluses back on.
    I've never had a problem with the Marathon plus tyres, but bearing in mind I often ride a 40 kilo Dutch box bike there may be reasons for this...

  4. Speaking of straining: I remember seeing one petite female cyclist at a charity ride last summer straining to pump her narrow tires up to 100+psi. As in, pushing with all her weight, heels lifting off the floor, trying desperately to inflate them rock-hard. Meanwhile, I'm riding Rat Trap Passes at 20-25 psi and practically coasting over the roads here, and I'm probably heavier than her (though not a giant by any stretch).

  5. My commute is just under 2 miles one way, so I simply bite the bullet and take the bike with studded tires in the winter (of mountainous MT). In your case it might be worth an extra set of wheels for the two different tires... or worth a second bike! My second bike is an ‘83 Stumpy with RTP’s and I love it in the shoulder season. My third bike is an old Ross Eurotour (town bike) with 38 mm Paselas and it’s perfect in the warmer months... like when it’s finally above 50.

    I guess great minds think alike!

  6. I have a commuter like yours that wears Nokian (Suomi) 35mm studded tires through the winter. I've changed many thousands of tires over the past 50 years, but I prefer to just grab a different bike when I don't expect ice, which isn't often here in Vermont. When there's snow on the road, or in the forecast, I take my Fat Chance, with wider, studded 26" tires. My commute is 18 miles each way, with around 5 miles of dirt. Interestingly, the dirt road is almost always better than the paved road, right after a snow. Thisis largely because they don't salt dirt roads, so the snow packs down, rather tha getting thick and greasy.

    I have inexpensive but decent riding 28mm tires with reflective sidewalls on my warm weather commuter, and I like the visibility they provide, as I often find myself riding at night. In spite of their bad reputation, I have been riding Paselas for many years and I totally agreee with you about them. I suspect some much more expensive brands have the same casing as Paselas, with different tread (totally unimportant), label, and price tag.

    Nothing could beat the ride of those fat Clement Campionato del Mondo Seta sewups of the 1970s, the seta meaning silk, of course.

  7. There's tires and then there is tires...
    I primarily ride old 3 speeds. Tires range from some old high pressure (90psi) which you DON'T want to pump to max or they WILL blow off the rims, to what ever was cheapest at the local hardware store, currently Bell? or Cheng Shin. On my "Sunday" bike, a 1971 Raleigh Superbe I blew the budget on a set of Panaracer Col de la Vie tires, best ride ever, they are on the large side, but with careful fitting and making sure the wheels were dead true they work. On my old daily rider I used the Marathons, because around here the streets are extremely trashy and multiple flats a day weren't uncommon.


  8. I've been trying to educate the bike club that I ride with about proper tire pressure. They are a bunch of curmudgeons who think you need to inflate the tires to the max PSI printed on the sidewall. I'm 220 pounds and I put just 70 PSI in my 28c front tire and they think I'm nuts. This one lady in the club weighs maybe 90 pounds soaking wet and she refuses to ride with anything less than 120PSI on her front 23c tire. Makes me wonder how is it her wrists, arms and upper body can withstand the beating it receives one every ride.

    I wonder in another decade or two when I become a curmudgeon, what thing would a younger cyclist try to convince me that I'm doing wrong. :-)

  9. Your story parallels my experience. I was riding Continental Tour Rides on my commuting bike and hated the ride. Even after upgrading my wheels because the OE ones had a bad habit of snapping spokes the bike was still lethargic. My next improvement was to put all those parts on a alloy CX frame. When that didn't do much to fire my love for my commuter I switched to 32mm Continental Gator Skins and the improvement in ride was massive. The bike because spritely! If finished off that build by converting the bike from a flat bar to a drop bar which was pretty much the icing on the cake. Eventually I sold that frame and built up a steel 650b commuter/gravel bike. I'm running even lighter / more supple 42mm wide Soma Gran Randonneur tires on that bike and its ride is positively sublime. Good wheels and fat supple tires are truly a game changer for ride comfort and fun.