THE BEST WIDER ROAD BIKE TIRE AND WHEEL SIZES
How wide should the tires be on your road wheels? Here are my recommendations for the best bike tire and wheel sizes to improve speed, comfort and handling.
One of the biggest shifts in road cycling in recent years has been the move to wider tires. By spending less than $100/£70/€90 on a pair of 25mm wide or wider tires, many cyclists have been led to believe their comfort, speed and handling will immediately improve over what they experience on the 23mm wide tires that most of us have used for years.
Unfortunately, merely shifting to wider tires is a simplistic, incomplete or, depending on your set-up, partially or completely wrong way to improve your ride performance. It’s not surprising that all of us busy and budget conscious road cycling enthusiasts would be attracted to a quick and cheap solution to better riding. But unfortunately, it’s not that easy (or quick or cheap).
In this post, I’ll try to give you a more complete explanation of how wider tires and/or wider wheels can give you some or all of the better comfort, speed and/or handling you are looking for or make no difference or make things worse.
I’ll also try to do a few things that I haven’t seen in a lot of other articles that have addressed this topic. First, using published tests and analysis where available, I’ll quantify the benefits and drawbacks that previously have only been claimed. For example, exactly how much is rolling resistance reduced using wider tires and how much will it reduce your time over different distances?
Second, I’ll attempt to look at what the interrelated effects are of using a wider tire or wheel rather than looking at them in isolation. For example, what effect does using a wider tire on a stock size wheel have on your handling? Or, with the wheelset you bought to improve your speed, how wide a tire should you go with?
Finally, I’ll make all of this relevant to you, my fellow road cycling enthusiasts rather than than to cyclists in general or to triathletes, commuters, recreational, or gravel riders who do different speeds, distances, road surfaces and courses.
At the end of all of this, I’ll lay out my recommendations for the best combinations of bike tire and wheel sizes for road cycling enthusiasts based on your comfort, speed and/or handling priorities.
In a previous post I’ve reviewed the best road bike tires which covered standard and wider sized tires used by enthusiasts today. After completing this post, I’ve written a review of wide alloy wheels that can bring you some of the ‘wider’ performance benefits on a reasonable budget, or at least a smaller one than what you might spend to get the full performance benefits of wide all-around carbon wheels that I previously reviewed here or aero wheels, reviewed here.
FIRST, SOME BASIC EXPLANATIONS OF WHEEL AND TIRE WIDTH
Most new road bikes with rim brakes today come with wheels that are designated 15C or are 15mm wide between the tire bead hooks that run along the inside of each rim. These bikes are also generally specified with tires that are 23C or 23mm wide on their outside before inflation. It may seem odd to call out the inside width of the wheel’s rim and the outside width of an uninflated tire but it will become clearer why later.
If you look at the bikes Bike Radar selected for their 2016 bike of the year awards, you’ll see that 3 out of the 4 rim brake bikes that were picked as the best in their price ranges are sold with 15C stock wheels while 2 come with 23C tires and the other 2 with 25C ones. If you look at the 11 rim brake bikes that made up their £2,000 to £2,750 or US$2800 to $3800 category where many road cycling enthusiasts shop, 8 of those 11 bikes are equipped with 15C wheels and 8 with 25C tires.
As is the case with most new bikes, none of these wheels or tires are high performance or terribly comfortable, no matter their size. Unfortunately, you don’t have the choice to switch them out for another set without an extra charge or for most, take delivery of the bike without any wheels and get the price reduced.
You’ll also see the same size 15C wheel rim widths on many rim brake alloy wheels that are sold as upgrades to the stock wheels. This includes popular alloy upgrades including those I have recommended such as the Shimano Dura-Ace C24, Campagnolo Zonda and Fulcrum Racing 3 and also those in the popular Mavic Ksyrium line. This will change for model year 2017 whees as all of these will come in 17C version.
Most popular carbon wheels have been sold in much wider rim widths for several years.
You’ll often see these widths referred to as 622x15C or just 15C on the wheel spec sheets and as 700x23C or just 23C on the tire boxes rather than or in addition to the mm sizes they refer to. The first number is the rim or tire diameter which is the same for nearly all road bike wheels and the second one is the inside rim and outside tire widths, which vary. The C designation is one set out by a cycling group called ETRTO (for European Tyre and Rim Technical Organization) that has worked with manufacturers to standardize around sizes.
The trend today is toward road cycling wheel rims that are 17C or wider and tires that are 25C or wider. Starting mid-year 2015 and continuing in the 2016 model year Fulcrum, Campagnolo and Mavic have begun selling some 17mm wide upgrade rim brake wheels. By model year 2017, this transition should be complete.
Most new road bikes that have disc brakes come with 17C stock wheels and 25C tires. As this “road disc bike” category is only a few years old, bike companies have made their frames wide enough to fit and deliver the benefits of these and even wider wheels and tires.
Whereas 15C wheel rims typically have an outside width of 19-21mm wide across their brake tracks, 17C rims typically run 21-23mm outside widths. The widest alloy road rim brake and disc brake wheels run 19.5-21mm inside and 24-25mm outside.
The drawing below shows these rim width ranges and also the rim profile that often, though not always, accompany these widths.
About 10 years ago ETRTO recommended tire widths that would, in their view, safely fit each internal rim width or size (13C, 15C, 17C, 19C, etc.). The concern was that a tire too wide for a rim could result in unsafe handling or a failure in the tire sidewall or rim. On the other hand, a tire too narrow for a rim might disengage from the rim and cause a blowout. While some companies, shops and riders still use the chart derived from these recommended combinations as if it were a sacred tablet (or perhaps a lawyer’s commandment), I hesitate to reproduce it here.
Why? It doesn’t account well for the range of tire pressures, tire materials, tire bead designs, rim wall thicknesses, rim hook designs, riding speeds and probably a half dozen other factors including aero performance, rolling resistance, tubeless tires and modern designs of both rims and tires.
Many of the leading wheel design companies recommend tire widths narrower than the ETRTO ones to maximize aero performance. These rim/tire width combinations run safely. Mavic, on the other hand, seems to actively promote the width of the tires it sells with it wheels as adhering to the ETRTO recommendations at the expense of their aero performance.
WHY RIDE WIDER WHEELS AND TIRES
With that as background, what changes when you move to rims wider than 15C and tires wider than 23C? It’s really three things – comfort, speed and handling – to varying degrees and not always in a good way depending on what combination of tire width, rim width and rim profile you choose.
Let’s take them one at a time and then together.
With a wider rim or a wider tire or both, you don’t need to pressure your tires as high as with a narrower one to support your weight. All things being equal (temperature, outside pressure, humidity, rim and bead design, tire model, just to name a few), you need the same amount of air to hold your weight up in the larger volume of the space created by the wider rim and/or tire as you do with narrower ones. And we all know that riding at a lower pressure makes the ride more comfortable because the tires deflect more at lower pressures to absorb bumps and uneven road surfaces. So if you have a wider rim and/or tire, you can ride more comfortably by lowering your tire pressure.
For years, ‘real’ roadies and racers used to blow up 20C and 23C wide tires to 110 to 120psi for what we foolishly thought and felt would make us go faster (less tire surface touching the road, more aero shape), our tailbones and soft tissue be damned. Now it’s not uncommon for road cyclists to ride tube/tire combinations at 80 to 100psi (and tubeless or tubular ones even lower), all with wider rims and tires. If you are doing a century, sportive, gran fondo or just riding irregular pavement on your long training or fun rides, lower pressure tires can make the ride a whole lot more enjoyable.
Why not just lower your pressures on whatever combination of rim and tire width you are running now to get more comfort? You can do that to a degree (maybe 5-10psi), until the point where the tire loses the shape you need to handle well and you are more prone to getting a ‘pinch flat’ from squeezing your tube between the rim and tire bead (Type 1) while cornering. Too low tire pressure can also cause the tube to pinch flat when you hit something straight on (Type 2) and there’s not enough air to prevent the tube from folding on itself.
No matter what width tire you are running, the key here is to find the right pressure to inflate your tire. For that I suggest you start with a table provided by your tire company and a little trial and error of your own. Tire companies vary quite a bit in what they recommend or even how specific they are willing to get as you can see in the examples for Zipp tires and Michelin ones on the left and right, respectively, below. (Can’t even find one from Continental, maker of my recommended Grand Prix 4000S ii.)
I find it helpful to start with the tire company’s typically conservative recommendation and experiment by dropping the pressure in 5psi increments to find the level of comfort and handling performance that feels right for the speed, roads and bike handling I’m doing.
Putting a 25mm tire on many of the 15C stock wheels that come on new bikes is kind of like putting lipstick on a pig. Many of these stock wheels aren’t terribly compliant or comfortable to start with. Putting an oversized tire on them softens the ride but doesn’t do anything to improve the speed or handling.
Of the alloy upgrade wheels I’ve recommended, the DA C24 is a very comfortable wheel with 23C rubber on it. The other three are very stiff, good for heavier riders but harsh for those in the 160lb/73kg weight range and below. But there are a good number of alloy upgrade wheels in both 15C and 17C sizes that are compliant to start with and that you don’t need to run out and put wider tires on to make them comfortable. There’s a table that compares comfort and other performance factors of alloy wheels in my post here.
The 1) tire’s rolling resistance, 2) wheel’s rim width and profile, and the 3) relationship between the rim and tire width all contribute to how much added speed you can get… or lose going with a wider tire and/or rim. Again, let me break these three down.
Improved 1) rolling resistance, or the reduction in friction between the tire and the road, is often written about as a primary benefit of wider tires. Tests by a range of independent sources I charted in my review of the best road bike tires (here) and those done by private testers hired by cycling publications show that, all else being equal, a wider tire will reduce your rolling resistance and therefore speed your ride.
But, the amount of rolling resistance reduction you get going from a 23C to a 25C to a 28C tire is only about a couple of watts combined for the front and back tires regardless of the tire, tester and test conditions.
Here’s a few of examples of the rolling resistance test results in watts for tires from the chart I mentioned above.
- Continental GP4000S II tire, butyl tube, 17C wheel, 120psi, 18 mph/29 kmph, 70-73F/21-23C, conducted by Bicycle Rolling Resistance (report)
- 23C = 25 watts; 25C = 24.4 watts; 28C = 23.2 watts or a 1.8 watt reduction
- Continental GP4000S II tire, butyl tube, 109psi, 21 mph/35 kph, wheel size and temperature undefined, conducted by Tour Int (April 2014 Issue, subscription required)
- 23C = 22 watts; 25C = 21 watts; 28C = 19 watts or a 3 watt reduction
- Schwalbe One tire, butyl tube, 109psi, 21 mph/35 kph, wheel size and temperature undefined, conducted by Tour Int (April 2014 Issue, subscription required)
- 23C = 24 watts; 25C = 25 watts; 28C = 26 watts or a 2 watt increase
- Zipp Tangente Speed tire, latex tube, 15C wheel, 120psi, 18.6 mph/30 kph, 20C, conducted by Tom Anhalt (Crr Overall Spreadsheet)
- 23C = 23 watts; 25C = 21 watts or a 2 watt reduction
- Zipp Tangente Course tire, latex tube, 15C wheel, 120psi, 18.6 mph/30 kph, 20C, conducted by Tom Anhalt (Crr Overall Spreadsheet)
- 23C = 25 watts; 25C = 24 watts or 1 watt reduction
I’m sorry, but a one or two watt rolling resistance difference spread over two tires going from a 23C to a 25C sized tire is not going to make any noticeable change in your speed or time unless you are riding a TT and care about a couple of seconds difference. What will make far more difference is picking the brand and model tire with the lowest rolling resistance. I selected some of the best to show above but the complete chart shows as much as 5 or 6 watt differences between the more popular clincher tires. That could mean 15 seconds or so over the course of a 25 mile/ 40K road race and as much as a minute or more over the length of a century or sportive ride.
These tests are run with tires of different sizes inflated to the same pressure to get that one or two watts of reduced rolling resistance. Of course, I wrote earlier about how you can lower the pressure with a wider tire to improve your comfort. And comfort is why most roadies go to wider tires in the first place. So what happens to rolling resistance when you reduce the pressure?
Mavic claims that you fully lose the rolling resistance benefit from the wider tire when you drop the pressure 20psi. Tests from Bicycle Rolling Resistance (see here) on a wide range of tires shows that you lose a couple watts over two tires when you go from 100 to 80psi.
How much should you reduce the pressure when you go to a wider tire?
Look at the Michelin chart above a little closer and you’ll notice that for your given weight, they recommend dropping the pressure when you go from a 23C to a 25C tire by… wait for it… about 20psi. Ugh. Well at least you get a more comfortable ride at essentially the same rolling resistance from a wider tire.
So the claim of going any faster from reduced rolling resistance on a wider tire is, at best, false hope and at worst, uniformed hype.
By improving aerodynamic performance, a wheel’s 2) rim width and profile play a part in the speed you can get for the same amount of power output.
On one hand, a wider rim does put more frontal area into the wind by making any tire you mount to it wider and thereby increasing your aero drag when going straight into the wind.
On the other hand, some companies have shaped the profile of wider rims more than those making narrower ones in a way that reduces the amount of drag caused when you aren’t going into the wind.
And because you aren’t riding directly into nature’s wind, or what’s called the atmospheric wind, most of the time and you create your own apparent wind as you speed along, the effective wind is almost always coming at you from one side or another. According to extensive field testing of road cyclists done by FLO Cycling (reported here), 80% of our riding time is spent with the effective wind coming at you from 0 to 10 degrees, 50% from 0 to 5 degrees, and only 11% of our time are we riding straight into a 0 degree effective wind.
Sptarting about 2010, HED and Zipp and other wheel makers since have demonstrated in tests of the wheels they’ve made that you can greatly reduce the drag of your wheels with a wider, deeper and U or toroid shaped rim versus those with narrower, shallower square shaped ones.
Look back at the drawing above comparing three alloy rim widths and profiles that range from the 15C, box section profile Mavic Open Pro shown on the left to to the toroid profile FLO 30 one on the right.
FLO had wind tunnel tests done to compare the Open Pro, the top, purple line in chart below against the FLO 30, the wheel represented by the red line. Headed straight into the wind, the wider, toroid shaped FLO 30 has about 70 grams less drag, the equivalent of 9 watts. At a wind direction of 10 degrees the reduction in drag improves to about 155 grams or 20 watts. Over a 25 mile or 40K distance, that drag reduction will result in a 30 to 60 second time savings. Over a century or sportive? Well you’ll have time to grab another sandwich and still finish ahead of your buddies riding the narrower wheels.
I’m not saying that you can’t put a toroid profile on a 15C, shallow rim. Let’s just say I don’t know of anyone doing it. It may be harder to make and you’ll also get less of an arc out of a narrower, shallower rim than a wider, deeper one.
Likewise, few companies have put more rounded shapes on their 17C alloy wheels. Indeed, some of the companies like Fulcrum and Campagnolo that have recently widened some of their alloy wheels from 15C to 17C haven’t changed the basic box shape profiles they’ve used on their rims for years.
It begs the question of whether the will is there or there is enough of an aero benefit going from a 15C to 17C rim even if you did add more shape to a box or V section profile. The early and anecdotal comparisons of the speed benefits of this increase are inconclusive.
For example, Bicycling’s tech editor Matt Phillips had these immediate impressions (full review here) on riding Campagnolo’s wider Shamal Ultra wheelset:
I got to ride the C17 wheels for about two and a half hours at the launch of Campagnolo’s new Potenza group. For background, I’ve ridden the previous generation Shamal Ultra extensively, including immediately previous to this trip.
To be honest, I can’t say that a 2mm rim width increase made a significant, or even noticeable difference. Perhaps if I normalized everything else and rode the two wheels back to back, I’d pick something up, but in the test conditions I was given, I did not.
Though he doesn’t write about speed comparisons specifically, Velo News’ Dan Cavallari had this alternate view (full review here) after a similar first ride on the same model at the same press event:
Yes, it’s a bit against the grain to release an aluminum race wheelset in the era of carbon everything, but Campagnolo does not offer up the Shamal Ultra race wheels as a compromise. They’re light at 1,505 grams (2-way fit version; more on that below), stiff, and feature a wider rim than previous iterations of the Shamal.
And after a 40-mile ride in the mountains of Gran Canaria, we can honestly say we really like them. To write the Shamal off as just another aluminum wheelset would be a mistake because Campy certainly made an alloy wheel that’s not just good — it is competitive with the best carbon race wheels out there.
The 3) relationship between the rim and tire width is the final consideration in determining how your speed can be affected by going wide. Frankly, it’s the question readers ask me about more often than not.
Typically the question goes something like “can I put a 25mm tire on my XYZ wheel?” But, I’ve also heard questions like “my budget is x. what wheel would be best with a 25mm tire?”
That second question stopped me dead in my tracks the first time I read it. When riders are choosing wheels that will cost 5 to 10 times that of the tire that they are basing their choice on, it really tells you how strongly some feel the push to get on the wide tire bandwagon that is rolling through the enthusiast peloton these days.
To the first question, I almost invariably answer that you don’t want anything wider than a 23C tire if you want to maximize speed. If, however, you put comfort ahead of speed, go ahead with the 25C tire.
There are no wheels that I’m aware of where mounting 25C tires on the rims will make you faster or equally fast compared to that of narrower sized tires of the same model on the same rims.
Despite marginally improved rolling resistance even at the same inflation pressure, the aerodynamic relationship between the tire and rim has a far greater effect and favors the narrower tire. I will try to explain why below but this drawing begins to give you a picture of what’s going on.
Simply stated, air deflecting off a tire will continue at its exit or tangent angle. If the rim is wider than the tire, some of the air will reattach to the rim and continue to flow along the rim until it detaches from the rim as it passes by. If the rim is narrower than the tire, less of the air will reattach and more of it will be become turbulent as it passes by the rim. The wider the rim is relative to the tire, the greater the amount of air that will reattach and the less the amount of turbulence. The greater the distance between the air passing by the rim and the rim itself, the greater the amount of turbulence. More turbulence creates more drag.
HED patented the relationship between the tire and rim widths including the angle of the rim where the air coming off the tire first reattaches. This allows them to design wheels to excel across the range of yaw or effective wind direction the rider will likely see for the type of riding or event he or she is doing. In the drawing shown taken from the patent application, you can see the central role of different tire widths (440’, 440”, 440”’) and its relationship to the rim angle (465) at the point where the air would reattach.
The toroid rim profile and rim length is covered by a patent that HED first developed and licensed to Zipp around 2009 that was central to the Zipps successful Firecrest line and caused other companies to move away from the box and V shaped profiles they had used for years. While many leading wheel manufacturers have adopted angled brake tracks like those you see in these drawings, Specialized is the first company to license this newer HED patent.
So, as you can see, the relationship between the tire and rim’s width, along with the rim’s profile and depth, have a great effect on your wheel’s aerodynamics. While the leading wheel designers including HED, Zipp, ENVE and Easton have their own design teams, all of these companies recommend you use tires narrower than the brake track width of their rims.
Most of the leading wheel companies designed their toroid shaped, carbon rims which have a 25mm or wider outside width around 23C tires. Of course, as my review of the best road bike tire documents, many of the best 23C tires actually measure between 24mm and 25mm wide when mounted and inflated depending on the tire model and rim size it is mounted on.
In the case of Easton’s EC90 Aero 55, they recommend an even larger tire-rim width difference. Easton’s 55mm deep Fantom wheel rim has a 19mm inside width, a 28mm outside width at the brake track and has a 29.5mm maximum width at the at top of the arc of its toroid shape. As you can see in the chart below, 21C and 22C tires generally performed better in their aero tests compared to even 23C tires and certainly compared to tires of the brand and model.
In the case of the same Zipp Tangente clincher tires used in these tests, the 21C bested the 23C version by 60 grams of drag which equates to 7.8 watts and 23 seconds savings over a 40K TT at 30mph/48kph. (The time savings will actually increase if you don’t ride that fast.)
Of course, alloy wheels aren’t as wide, deep, rounded or angled at their brake tracks as the carbon wheels made by Easton and others are. However, the findings that tires and rims work together to determine aerodynamic performance and favor tires narrower than rims are applicable to carbon or alloy wheels.
A wider tire and a wider rim together can provide better handling. The wider tire provides a wider “contact patch” than on a narrower tire. While the area of the tire patch for both tires is the same as long as your weight and the tire pressure is the same, that area spreads further across the width and less along the length of a wider tire.
The wider contact patch on a properly shaped and supported tire is what gives you better handling when road surface, moisture, tire inflation and speed are all the same. While handling seems like a highly subjective property, Tour Int magazine – the highly analytical German cycling review publication – actually ran tests using a stunt rider to test and establish tire grip grades. While the wider contact patch better handling claim makes sense and tracks with many enthusiasts experience including my own, I await quantitative evidence of how much better the handling is going from a 23C to 25C tire.
Continental use the handy (and frequently seen) chart below to show contact patch differences though, as discussed above, their headline conclusion about rolling resistance is technically correct but insignificantly small (and doesn’t warrant one, let alone two exclamation points) to the average roadie.
Now if you reduce your tire pressure on the wider tire to get more comfort, you’ll get a still wider contact patch than on the wider tire inflated to the same level as the narrower one. So you’ll increase both the width and area of the contact patch relative to the narrower, more inflated tire you used to ride. This is part of what improves handling.
The other part of the improved handling comes from a wider rim. The wider rim sets the foundation for the wider tire to better keep its shape as you can see in the drawing on the left.
The problem comes when riders, having read about all the benefits of wider tires, mount a pair of them on the 15C wide alloy stock wheels that came with most of our new bikes or the upgrade alloy wheels sold by most of the leading wheel makers for the last 3-5 years. A 25C tire on a 15C wheel can feel squishy, even more so if you’ve reduced the air pressure to get more comfort. This squishy feel is a symptom of the tire losing its shape and its tendency to fold back on itself. This is the opposite of the improved handling you are looking for by going to a wider tire.
In the worst circumstances, a tire that’s too wide for its rim can experience a Type 1 pinch flat when you are cornering at speed as shown an earlier drawing or the tire bead can pull away from the rim hook, also resulting in a flat. Not good, to say the least.
PERFORMANCE FROM DIFFERENT TIRE-WHEEL WIDTH COMBINATIONS
So what combination of bike tire and wheel sizes are best for you, my fellow road cycling enthusiast?
The tire-rim width chart in the ETRTO standards manual says a 15C rim can safely use tires from 23C all the way up to 32C or mm in width. If you look closely, it also says that you should use nothing narrower than a 28C tire on a 19C rim and a 35C tire on a 21C rim. ENVE, Bontrager, and Easton make 19C road rim brake clinchers and HED and Zipp both make 21C ones and none of them are recommending tires that wide on their wheels.
The ETRTO standards say nothing about the speed, road surface, tire type or tire pressure conditions you are riding under. A mountain biker bouncing along on knobby tires inflated to 40-50psi on a dirt trail going at half the speed of a roadie leaning into a fast corner on a smooth road with tires pumped up to 80-100 psi are experiencing very different situations. And it hasn’t been updated as road wheels have gone through a couple generations of major change.
In my humble opinion, the chart is a guide that needs to be updated or tossed when considering the real world that road cycling enthusiasts live in today.
Instead, here’s my take on what mix of comfort, speed and handling you can expect with different tire-rim combinations.
A 23C tire on a 15C wheel – this is the likely stock or alloy upgrade wheel and tire combination you have as a baseline on bikes made before 2016. You know how this rides. This is still a perfectly good width combination in my view. What follows are your options.
A 25C tire on a 15C wheel – somewhat improved comfort over a 23C tire but worsened speed and handling for reasons described above. Better to reduce pressure 5psi or so on 23C tire for better comfort without losing handling performance. Neither combination is going to be an aero star.
A 25C tire on a 17C wheel – better comfort but no better speed or handling than a 23C tire on a 15C wheel. 23C tire on 17C wheel at right pressure will get you somewhat improved comfort with improved aero if the rim has at least a rounded nose rather than box or V profile, is >35-40mm, and you are riding at 18mph/29kph or faster.
A 25C tire on 19C or wider wheel – best comfort, improved speed and handling over options above. A nice set-up for long endurance rides at a good average speed (18mph/29kph or higher) especially on deeper (>35-40mm) and preferably rounded profile wheels. But, most alloy wheels aren’t going to be that deep or have a rounded rim profiles where the spokes join the rim.
A 23C tire on a 19C or narrower wheel – best speed. If you’ve chosen this set-up, crits, road races or TTs and triathlons are probably your passion, deeper aero wheels are probably your preferred hoops and comfort is further down your list of what matters though there are plenty of wheelsets in this width that will be plenty comfortable to start without the need of a wider tire.
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