Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Choosing the Right Road Tire

Part of a series I'm calling Tires 101 with lots of great info to consider when looking for new tires.


You'd be amazed at how many of these topics are inspired by my daily conversations with customers and clients (and even further amazed by how many of those common conversations I never get around to writing about...)

This is actually a frequent conversation I have. There are so many tire choices out there that it is hard to sort through the marketing spin and quasi-technical data to the stuff that really matters. So, for the sake of this post and to simplify things; I'm going focus on traditional clincher tires (maybe we'll discuss tubulars and tubeless at a later date...) and break the road bike tire market into 3 segments:

-Racing/High Performance/Light Weight

-Training/Medium Puncture Resistance/Better Tread Life

-High Puncture Resistance & Tread Life

These are basically the three categories that I will use when talking with clients and ask them to prioritize for me when I'm helping them select tires. Hopefully, with the help of the info in this article, the waters will be less muddy for you and the choices will become clearer. I'll include examples of the tires in each category to help sort them out as well. There will likely be some terms that some of you may not be familiar with, so I'll try to italicize them and include a definition. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to post a comment.

This category of tire is my personal favorite and the ones I ride most of the time because they are fast, corner exceptionally, and more comfortable due to their softer casings (the woven fabric body of the tire under the rubber). Commonly, those casings have a higher thread count (just like nice bed sheets!) of higher quality materials than their lower-cost counterparts. The more supple casing contributes to the more comfy ride and better cornering performance due to greater deflection (the amount the tire deforms under pressure).

The rubber compounds used on the higher performance tires are typically a softer, stickier compound which also contributes to their superior adhesion in corners. Take a hard, fast corner on a nice set of tires and you will be sold for sure. These tires are also typically the lightest tires available, lending a quickness to their performance which is often noticeable versus tires in other categories because there is less weight at the periphery of the wheel to accelerate.

The downside to these tires is life and puncture resistance. The softer rubber wears faster than the harder compounds used on lower-performance/lower-priced tires. Many people will get as little as 1200-1500 miles from a set; although I see them go 2000+ for lighter riders or on front wheels. Rear tires wear faster due to higher weight load and stress from cornering/acceleration.

(Which reminds me;
Bonus Tip: DON'T ROTATE YOUR TIRES. Wear out the back, move the front to the back and put a new one on the front. This keeps the tire in the best condition with the best puncture resistance on the front - where a flat is hardest to control and most catastrophic.)

Many companies now build in some light weight puncture protection to their high performance tires (like Continental's Vectran Breaker), but these are not as functional as the measures used in other tires. These tires also suffer more from cuts through the casing than their stiffer counterparts.

So, while these tires are an absolute blast to ride - if you need to make them last a long time or you ride in areas which are particularly puncture prone (note the alliteration...) then you might consider keeping these on a separate set of sunny-day go-fast wheels or simply mounting them up before big rides.

Examples: Continental Gran Prix 4000s (my personal favorite), Vredestein Fortezza TriComp, Vittoria Open Corsa Series, Michelin Pro 3, Bontrager Race X Lite, Specialized's new S-Works Turbo

This category is a great choice for most of us. Good, practical tires. These balance acceptable performance with reasonable weight (although heavier than the high performance variety by about 20-40 grams per tire); use harder rubber compounds; and employ a lower thread-count, stiffer, more puncture resistant casing. Better puncture and cut resistance, higher tread life, and reasonable comfort and cornering make these a good option for every-day riding, training, winter riding, or fast commuting (especially if you are one to squeeze in a workout on the way home...). Typically these will cost less - although sometimes just a few bucks less - than the higher performance tires. Total cost of ownership is usually significantly less though due to longer life and fewer flats.

The downside: Marginally stiffer, less-comfy ride and slightly lower cornering performance due to their stiffer casing. These are usually slightly "slower" tires (or think of them as less efficient) because of their greater weight. These are not bomb-proof tires; as they still only employ a lighter-weight puncture resistance method; so care must still be exercised.

In reality, these still break into two categories. For example: Continental's Gran Prix 4-Season and Ultra GatorSkin would fall into this broad category. But, the 4-Season is a lighter-weight, more supple, higher-performance tire than the GatorSkin; if only slightly (but noticeably). So, my examples will break down loosely in order of performance-to-puncture resistance. Please don't split hairs here though - this ranking is not meant to be authoritative; merely suggestive (and subjective): Continental Gran Prix 4-Season, Bontrager Race X Lite AC, Michelin Krylion Carbon (all favorites), Specialized Armadillo Elite, Continental GatorSkin, Bontrager HardCase and many others.

The definitive tire in this category for years has been the Specialized Armadillo with it's distinctive brick-red sidewalls. Perhaps the color was chosen to make it recognizable; although it seems to reflect the ride quality as well... O.K., that was a cheap-shot; I admit. But, I contend that if you ride the Armadillo versus any of the other tires mentioned so far (on the same bike, wheels, and road) you'll notice what I mean. In fact, grab the tire at a store and grab any of the other tires mentioned and squeeze the tire - you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. The Armadillo is ridiculously stiff! It does not deflect much under pressure, does not conform well to a changing road surface, and its stiff casing (and dual-radius profile) are a noticeable handicap to good cornering.

But, enough of the downsides...:) If you are looking for the best puncture resistance available coupled with superior tread life and do not care about ride quality, cornering performance, or weight - these (and their counterparts from other brands) are the best road tires money can buy. I have seen these tires last 3000+ miles under an average-weight rider. I have known them to go 5000+ for lighter riders.

Ideal for commuting, touring, or people who just plain hate flats and will accept any solution. Pair these tires with a thicker, puncture resistant tube and you have a pretty tough combination. Granted, it will feel like you're riding nearly solid-rubber tires (because you are...); but it will take a pretty significant event to cause a flat. Not flat-proof; but about as close as you can get.

Here is also where I will interject that I am not a fan of "slime" tubes. I have had to re-build my personal floor pump twice after the one-way valve was blown apart while trying to inflate slime tubes where the sealant had completely sealed the inner tube's valve (because it treats it as a leak). Pump innards are more expensive than tubes. Use the heavy-duty tubes; dump the slime.

Tires in this category: the previously mentioned definitive Specialized Armadillo, and under the right conditions the also previous Bontrager Race Lite Hardcase and Continental GatorSkin. Continental's Contact series would qualify as would their TouringPlus. Although watch the tire width and your frame clearance with those last two as they're generally wider tires and won't fit most road racing frames.

So, considering all of this - use the logic that I employ with customers and clients. Ask yourself first: What is most important to me and in what order? This should guide your choices. If it is puncture resistance at all costs - that is easy. If it is performance at all costs - also easy. But, if it's a mixture of characteristics; let the order of those characteristics guide you (although usually they'll point you to the middle-ground tires). But as with many things - some trial and error will be necessary to find what you like best. And, remember - no pneumatic tire is puncture proof.

Questions or thoughts: leave a comment.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I've had really good luck with the Grand Prix 4000s in terms of punctures. I am a 1 to 3 times a week rider on PCH where I see glass shards occasionally and I probably only get a puncture flat 1 to 3 times per year. The tires also last quite a long time in my opinion.

    I've also ridden the Armadillos. No punctures but very heavy. Your legs will feel tired quicker, however, the fatigue is something that creeps up on you. It's not immediately noticeable.

  2. Great site matt!

    I've had an ongoing battle over my bike soul between Michelin and continental for years now!

    Pro race 2 were great but the 3's weren't in the same league in terms of wear and grip. I've just gone back to conti's (Gp4000S) and will never go back. Fantastic tyre! In every department


  3. I use the Continental GP 4000s as my durable tyre, used a set all last winter, 6 months of winter almost, and had only 2 punctures (as they were coming to the end of their wear).

    This season I put on a set of Schwalbe Ultremos (very comfy, grippy and quick compared to conti's IMO), but 600km later the rear tyre is in ruins, what gives. Back to Conti's for training for me.

  4. Eggie-

    Having not tried the Schwalbe Ultremo; I can't say for certain - but often, a tire that is grippy is the result of a softer rubber compound. Softer rubber is grippy, comfy, and corners well; but wears faster.

    Somehow, Continental seems to have found a nice balance between all these factors with the Black Chili compound that they're using on the 4000s. Can you find lighter, "grippyer", smoother riding tires? Yes. Will they last as long? Probably not.

    But again, that's why you have to ask yourself: What characteristics are most important to me?



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