I needed new tires for my commuter bike. After five months of commuting through downtown Seattle, my old tires had in a glass and debris collection displayed in a rubber matrix. Now, I’ve really liked my old tires:

  • They were 32s, wider and comfier and better at handling the extra weight of commuting than 25s or 23s.
  • They had reflective sidewalls, which I liked for winter riding.
  • They resisted punctures magnificently, including one time I ran over a huge chunk of glass, saw it sticking out of my tire, stopped and pulled it out, and kept riding–and never got a flat.

Because I wanted my tires on Sunday, to ride on Monday, I went to my local bike shop, where I know all the guys well already. They were moderately busy, but made time to slap some new tires on my bike.

At first I said I wanted the same tires I already had, for the reasons previously mentioned. We chatted a bit more, and I mentioned my desire to lighten my commuter bike up a bit (without compromising its inherent commuter-y-ness). When I mentioned this, they said, “Are you sure you want the same old tires? We have these other tires you should consider.” They suggested a 32 tire that had a Kevlar bead rather than a steel one, and thinner sidewalls, which make the tires lighter. I decided, what the heck, why not try the new ones? As long as I don’t get more flats, it won’t hurt.

Then, as the put the tires on, I received a veritable dissertation-level discussion of the various factors to consider in tire selection. The factors, apparently, include (but are not limited to):

  • Bead material – Kevlar (lighter, used in high-end tires for bikes wanting to go faster) vs steel (heavier, commonly used on more everyday tires)
  • Sidewall thickness – Thinner (faster but potentially more flats) vs thicker (slower but fewer flats)
  • Width – Thinner vs thicker (there is a huge discussion going on in cycling circles, where in recent history skinny tires have ruled, but wider tires are gaining traction [so to speak–har, har, har])
  • Tire pressure – Very high (common among high-end road bikes; makes sidewalls stiffer which results in faster rolling, but a bumpier ride) vs slightly lower (too low = pinch flats; but with the “right” tire [ie, the ones they were selling me, naturally!], lower pressure plus softer sidewalls can result in an equally fast but much more comfortable ride)

Now, I’m no hipster on a singlespeed, even though I did have a road bike with disc brakes before they were cool. I’m no randonneur in love with my steel bike that includes bespoke metal fenders, integrated dynamo-driven lights, and front and rear rack for full touring or 500-km self-supported rides (on which I would use handmade in the USA panniers, of course).

I love my super-cool bike tech, including the di2 electronic shifting components I bought off a friend for my fast bike. I like carbon fiber and the lightest weight.

But I also like data, and there’s some evidence that slightly fatter tires with lower pressure can, in fact, be both more comfortable and at least equally as fast as skinny, high-pressure tires. Now, the caveat from my bike shop guys was that, for my fast road bike, I’d do well to stay with the 23s or 25s I’m already running; it’s really in the wider tires that changes have occurred lately.

I’m commuting on these new miracle tires starting on Monday; we will see if I notice the difference.

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