THE BEST ROAD BIKE TIRES
Which road bike tires should I get? It seems like a pretty easy question. Many of us in the market for new gear put a lot of time and energy in figuring out the right bike, wheelset, components or power meter to get next. But tires? That should be a tap-in, a lay-up, a no-brainer, right?
Actually, it’s not. In addition to what tire to get, what width, what tube and what pressure are all questions I’m hearing. And, they are good questions. Questions that can lead to measurable, manageable and meaningful time, watt, handling and comfort differences depending on how you answer them.
In fact, road bike tires have been the #1 vote getter ahead of 20 other categories of products when I’ve polled In The Know Cycling readers about what you’d like to see reviewed next.
Until the last couple of years, I’ll admit to never giving tires too much thought. I used the same model and width of tires I’d always used, pumped them up hard and off I went. But, there’s a fair amount about road bike tires that has changed following the changes made in the design of the wheels those tires go on.
Fortunately, there’s also been a good deal of independent testing and experience being exchanged about tires recently as well. For this review, I’ve analyzed that knowledge and added my own analysis to try to guide you to the right answers and recommendations to the key questions about road bike tires.
If you don’t want to get into the details, here’s my bottom line. For the best combination of minimum rolling resistance, maximum aerodynamic performance, maximum puncture resistance and confident handling, order a pair of Continental Grand Prix 4000S II clincher tires online at Competitive Cyclist, eBay Cycling, Amazon, Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, Chain Reaction Cycles in the 23C/23mm size and pump them up to between 85 psi/5.8 bar to 95 psi/6.5 bar (lighter riders, softer ride) and 105 psi/7.2 bar to 115 psi/8 bar (heavier riders, firmer ride) and use a light butyl inner tube. Don’t use a 25C/25mm size Conti tire unless you have wheels that are 27mm or wider at the brake track and don’t buy them in a physical store where they will cost you at least 1/3rd more.
The Michelin Power Competition is a worthy alternative to the Continental Grand Prix 4000S II. It has marginally less rolling resistance than the Conti for riders running their tire pressures at 90 psi and higher but also marginally less puncture resistance than the Conti. Mounted and inflated on a 17C wheel, it sizes to essentially the same width as the Conti. While usually more expensive than the Conti, the Michelin tires are available at the best prices from Competitive Cyclist, eBay Cycling, Amazon, Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles and Chain Reaction Cycles.
If you prefer tubeless tires, check out my review of the The Best Tubeless Bike Tires.
If you want to know how I reached that conclusion and all the details behind it, please read on.
And if you want to know what combination of tire and wheel sizes working together will improve your comfort, speed and handling, read this post.
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For this review, I’ve evaluated racing and training or everyday road clincher tires from the 3 major road tire companies and another 5 significant suppliers. I’ll tell you what matters (and what doesn’t) when considering tires and which tires I recommend for the road cycling enthusiast. Click here to see how I define that term and if you generally fit that description.
Contents – The Best Road Bike Tires
I have not reviewed tubular or tubeless tires in this post. My recommendation is that you buy clincher tires (and wheelsets of course) if you are a road cycling enthusiast. Quite simply, clinchers are the easiest to deal with both before and during a ride and they perform as well or better than the best tubular or tubeless tires on the road when considering the criteria that matter to most cycling enthusiasts.
Tubular wheelsets require you to glue up your tires and can leave you stranded on the road if you have a flat and aren’t carrying an extra tubular or aren’t handy with tape, glue or patches. Yes, if you are a top-level amateur racing criteriums or a pro racer with sponsors and want the ultimate lowest weight wheels available, or you grew up in the age before carbon clinchers became a viable alternative and have built up a comfort level with them, you might go with tubular wheels and tires and spend the days required to glue them on your rims (see a pro mechanic do it here) and carry the supplies to service them on the road. You can also pay your shop to do it. Most road cycling enthusiasts aren’t serious or nostalgic enough to put up with the extra work of tubulars and don’t want the extra hassle if they puncture out on the road.
Here’s a video that address the clincher vs. tubular question directly and another here that shows that clinchers outperform tubulars in time trials, hills and sprints mountains on aerodynamic mid-depth wheels like those reviewed here.
Tubeless wheelsets and tires provide a kind of insurance against pinch flats, the kind of flats you get when an under-inflated clincher tire bottoms out, pinching the tube against itself near the rim. Pinch flats can be largely eliminated in clincher tires by a) properly inflating your tires and b) riding on the road and staying clear of potholes, things most road cycling enthusiasts do pretty religiously.
When you run over something with tubeless tires that create more of a gash than a pinch flat or pin-prick puncture, tubeless tires lose air just like any clincher tire would. To repair a tubeless tire for the road, you need to insert a tube to get your tire back in business. Because getting them to seal without a tube is a key to keeping them inflated, prying off the tire to make way for a new tube and putting it back on, even with a tube in it, is more work with a tubeless tire than a clincher.
If you do ride your road bike on gravel or dirt paths as well as on the road or don’t periodically check and set your tire pressure to the right level then learning the often messy technique of mounting a tubeless tire and filling it with sealant (or having a shop do it for you) on tubeless ready wheels is the situation where these tires perform best.
For most road cycling enthusiasts who ride on paved roads with tires at the right pressure, tubeless is unnecessary extra work with little to no benefit.
As Ben Delaney of BikeRadar recently reported, industry representatives that promote road tubeless admit that only 5 to 10% of cyclists using 700c road sized wheelsets (vs. mountain bike sized ones) use tubeless tires today, over a decade after they were first introduced by a collaboration of Hutchinson and Shimano, then two powerhouses in the wheel business.
Here’s another video that looks at the trade-offs between clinchers and tubeless tires.
Let’s get real for a minute. A good pair of clincher tires are generally under $100, £70, €100, AU$120 give or take. Inner tubes will run another $20, £15, €20, AU$25. They are a small fraction of the cost of your bike. How different can they really be? And how much does any difference make?
I’ll lay the answers out in the context of the four categories of selection criteria I use to come up with my recommendations between one product and another in all my In The Know Cycling reviews. For tires, the key criteria within each category would be as follows:
Performance: rolling resistance, aerodynamics, puncture resistance, handling
Design: tire width, inflation level, thread count, compound, puncture belt, weight, tread pattern, graphics, color
Quality: tire wear rate
Cost: purchase price
Let’s start with rolling resistance, probably the most important criteria for a road cycling enthusiast in picking a tire. There are three independent sources of rolling resistance tests that I’ve studied
- Tom Anhalt, mechanical engineer and occasional Blather ‘bout Bikes blogger has tested about 50 tires including clinchers, tubulars and tubeless tires over the last several years. You can see his results here.
- Bicycle Rolling Resistance, an aptly named site dedicated to the topic has tested 15 leading road tires to date and also tests mountain bike tires
- The German magazine Tour Int. published a test of 9 road tires in April 2014
I should also mention the work of Al Morrison, a forum member of Bike Tech Review who did a lot of the initial independently conducted and published rolling resistance testing starting in 2006. Unfortunately, his last published tests are now five years old so I’ve not included them.
I’ll share the detailed and comparative results I’ve compiled from these tests later in this post. But in brief, they clearly show there can be 5-10 watts of difference in the energy you need to put out to roll tires from different competitors intended for the same purpose (racing or training), of the same size standard (e.g. 23C or 25C), and inflated to the same pressure.
Further, there is another 5-8 watts of difference that is available from using high performing/more fragile latex vs. standard/more durable butyl tubes.
Finally, these tests show as much as 20 watts difference between what is considered the best training tire and the most durable all-season road tire.
To put it simply, 10 watts of difference translates to a little more than 30 seconds over a 25 miles or 40 kilometers. This is almost half the time savings you get going from a low profile alloy wheel to a deeper section carbon one. So by picking the right tires, most of which cost the same, with the best rolling resistance and at the right size for your wheels you can save (or lose) a massive amount of time at very little expense, especially when compared to what you spend on other ways to help you ride faster.
You can see the relative benefit of better rolling resistance in this chart I prepared for my post How To Ride Faster On Your Bike: 10 Better Ways – Gear and Kit.
The aerodynamics of the tire-wheel combination is just as important as rolling resistance in making your tire decision. While there’s less independently published data on tire aerodynamics than there is on rolling resistance, it’s pretty clear that the width and shape of the wheel-tire combination drives aero performance. A wider tire will be less aerodynamic – more surface into the wind – though have less rolling resistance if inflated to the same level as a narrower tire. A tire that is much wider (or narrower) than the rim will also be less aerodynamic because it breaks up the intended air flow across the rim and the tire.
The chart below shows just how much difference in drag (or aerodynamic resistance) there can be using different tires, all top training ones, on a FLO 30 wheel. The rim on this wheel is a 30mm deep, 24mm wide (at the brake track) alloy hoop with one of the most aerodynamically shaped profiles (a toroid) available on wheel rims today.
When the wheel is at an angle of more than about 7.5 degrees to the wind, the drag differences become significant, translating to about 10 watts between the most and least aerodynamic of the wheel-tire combinations at 10 degrees. (Note: 50 grams of drag translates to 6.5 watts.) At that same angle there’s just a couple watts difference between two of the more popular tires (the Continental and Michelin ones) but that increases to about 5 watts of difference at 15 degrees. Roadies ride within that 15 degree range most of the time according to people who track and design around these things. (Indeed there are such people!)
Interestingly, the tires in this wind tunnel test that performed best had inflated widths closest to the width of the wheel at the brake track. I haven’t seen enough other data to know whether this is a coincidence or consistent with other testing but it certainly supports the theory and criteria that some wheel builders use in designing their wheels and in recommending tires to go with them.
I’ll get into the other criteria in a moment. But, as rolling resistance and aerodynamics are, from my research, the most important criteria and make the most difference when choosing between road bike tires, I’ve reached a straightforward conclusion about how to select a tire if you are a roadie who puts a premium on going fast. It goes like this:
Pick the clincher tire with the lowest rolling resistance in a size whose inflated width is as close to the brake track width of the rims you are riding.
As far as the other two performance criteria go – puncture resistance and handling – it’s hard to discern or quantify a difference. I’m sure there is and I’ve seen data but it’s not really something that I think is strong enough to swing me toward or against one tire or another.
For the most part, training tires have puncture belts and race tires have either light ones or none at all. Those with a puncture belt generally resist puncture about the same or within a few percent of each other. Those race tires with a light belt or none at all are worse and not something I would recommend unless you have a neutral service vehicle following you. Frankly, whether or not you puncture is usually going to be more about what you roll over and what type of inner tube you have than whether one tire has 5% more puncture resistance than another.
Handling is another highly subjective measurement. Tour magazine, which does a lot of their testing on custom designed lab fixtures and is one of the most scientifically focused and analytically driven gear testers I know, resorted to hiring a stunt rider to test out different road bike tires and give them grip grades. The grades were based on how fast the rider could hit a turn on watered pavement before losing contact with the road and how well the tire provided feedback to the rider that he was about to lay it down if he didn’t slow up.
Really. That was the test. Remind me not to sign up for that job.
Even with this, most of the road bike tires tested got the best rating of 1 (on a 5 point scale) and the worst got a 3 because it lost contact only a couple of kph slower than some of the better performing ones. Perhaps counting and sizing the bruises acquired after each crash would have been a more differentiated measure.
Grip and handling are also clearly a function of road surface, moisture, tire inflation and speed. You can make decisions about all of these in real or near real-time that will have a lot more to say about your handling on a given day than the relative design differences between tires.
As with most gear, suppliers design tires in an attempt to deliver the performance they want. Of course, what matters is the performance that results and not the design, unless the performance is not comparably favorable, at which point some suppliers resort to promoting their design.
Of the design criteria – tire width, inflation level, thread count, compound, puncture belt, weight, tread pattern, graphics, color – I would argue the first four lead to noticeable differences in tire performance and the last three don’t.
Tires, like wheels, are given an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) size designation like 700 x 23C. The first number represents the rim diameter the tire is intended to fit and the second number is the tire width, both in millimeters. The C stands for clincher, T for tubular and TL for tubeless.
Many suppliers and consumers translate these ISO sizes directly when defining tire width. So a 23C tire is assumed to be 23mm wide. You’ll see many boxes marked as 23mm rather than 23C. Unfortunately, a 23C or 23mm marked tire is almost never 23mm when mounted and inflated on a rim. It can measure 0.5mm less to as much as 1.5mm more depending on what width rim you put on and, to a lesser degree, what pressure you inflate it to.
The same goes for other size tires with the variation being even bigger for wider tires.
HED puts the following proviso on the web site page describing their Belgium rims, one of the wheels that started the wide revolution: Our wide rims increase clincher tire volume, causing actual inflated sizes to be larger-than-advertised on the tire. Inflated sizes will be 1-2mm wider on our 23mm C2 rims, and 2-4mm wider on 25mm Plus rims.
Further, among the competitive brands, one tire supplier’s 23C or 23mm marked tire is usually quite different in size than another marked the same way. And within brands, the variances aren’t consistent – a 23C that measures 23.5mm doesn’t mean that its 25C will be 25.5mm wide. One major tire makers sells a popular model of its 23C that measures considerably less than 23mm and a 25C far more than 25mm.
It’s enough to create quite a headache and make the decision on what size tire to buy hard.
Many of us roadies have gone to wider tires in the last couple of years because we’ve heard or read it will improve our rolling resistance and make the ride more comfortable and the handling better. Smaller tire patch, larger volume of air in the tire, etc. Sounds good right?
The reality is that going from a 23C to 25C tire from the same brand will improve your rolling resistance by a couple watts only if inflated to the same tire pressure. But, most people will run the wider tire at a lower pressure to further improve comfort, essentially negating the rolling resistance benefit of the wider tire and making them less aerodynamic.
By discouraging you to ride 25C tires and tubeless ones in most situations, I may sound to some of you like a reactionary. The hype isn’t supported by the results in these cases.
Some riders have asked me if they can put the popular 25mm width tires on their conventionally sized 15mm inside width, 19mm outside width stock or alloy upgrade wheels. Not if you want to go faster or improve handling I say. A wider tire on any wheel is less aerodynamic than a narrower one and one that is much wider than the rim width will do more of its turning on its sidewall than base rubber, making it squishier in and out of turns. Bad idea!
I took some photos of combinations of tires and rims of different sizes so you can see how much of a width gap you can get between the two if you just pick a tire size based on the current trend or the size on the box and without trying to align it to your known brake track width. In all of these, the tires are inflated to 100 psi or a tad under 7 bar.
First, here’s an off-season set-up of my stock Mavic Ksyrium stock wheels with a 23C Continental all-season tire. Rolling resistance and aerodynamics isn’t important during training period and I’m not going fast or cornering hard so the excess tire width compared to the rim width or “overhang” isn’t an issue.
Next consider set-up #2, the currently popular 25C or 25mm size Continental Grand Prix 4000S II on that same stock Mavic Ksyrium wheel whose size is common with most stock and many low profile alloy upgrade wheels from Shimano, Mavic, Campagnolo, Fulcrum, Giant, and DT Swiss. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of people with entry-level or first step-up wheels end up when they hear wider is faster and more comfortable. If you want to go fast, the overhang on this combination is an aerodynamic nightmare and handling will also be sloppy, especially if you’ve also lowered the pressure to 80 or 90 psi to make your ride more comfortable.
I rode this set-up #3 below for many years. The 23C Mavic Pro4 Service Course on this rim was actually the closest to 23mm (a touch under) and provided the least overhang for this wheel. I didn’t have any knowledge of this ahead of time, nor that this tire’s rolling resistance is one of the worst among competitive training tires. The rim’s aerodynamics is also amongst the worst, even for stock wheels. I did like that the tire came with a red side wall to match my bike. Such was the state of my tire decision-making at the time.
I’ve been demoing the HED Belgium wheelset with a PowerTap G3 hub below #4. This wheel’s width represents the first generation of wider wheels common in many all-around and climbing wheels I’ve reviewed (click here for the links to those and other wheelset reviews). Note that the same 23C Conti 4 Seasons tire that measured 24mm on the narrower Ksyrium wheel in #1 runs 2mm wider on this wider HED rim. So, even with the 23C on this wide rim, it still has a couple of millimeters of overhang, negatively affecting my aerodynamics.
But what about the really wide rims, the ones that are 25mm to 27mm wide and represent the latest carbon wheel technology? Certainly those should take 25C tires, right? Well let’s have a look.
In #5, you see a 23C Conti Grand Prix 4000S II measuring nearly 26mm on the front wheel of the new ENVE SES 4.5. The tire is actually 1.3mm narrower than the rim’s 27mm brake track. I’ve ridden this set-up at 90, 95 and 100psi and it is fast, comfortable and handles well at all those pressures, perhaps most comfortable at 90 and faster and firmer handling at 100psi underneath my 68kg/150lb excuse for a cyclist.
Lastly, in #6 below you see the 25C version of the Conti Grand Prix 4000S II on the same rim as in the set-up above measuring 26.7mm wide, within a few tenths of the rim’s width. This tire, with its top rated rolling resistance and its near identical mounted width, offers the best combination of rolling resistance and aerodynamics. I’m actually running this 25C tire on the front wheel or “4” (for 48mm tall) of the SES 4.5 now and a 23C tire on the rear wheel or “5” (56mm tall) which is taller and narrower than the front wheel. The “5” rear wheel is 24.7mm at the brake track and the 23C Conti measures a near identical 24.5mm wide.
To underline the point that good alignment between wheel and tire width is key to reducing aerodynamic drag, let me provide you some further detail on the earlier chart that showed the aerodynamics of four different tires on the FLO 30 wheels. The measured widths of the tires used on the 24mm wide FLO 30 rim for this test, in order of most aerodynamic to least were 24.2mm (Continental 23C), 23.0mm (Bontrager 22C), 23.3mm (Michelin 23C), and 21.5mm (Vittoria 22C).
The tire with the biggest rim-tire gap of 2.5mm had 10 watts more drag at a common 10 degree angle to the wind. This is a smaller width gap than each of the first four examples above and only 1/3rd the gap of the 25C Conti Grand Prix 4000S II on the traditional stock or alloy upgrade wheel so many major wheel makers sell.
I don’t know about you, but it seems a bit crazy to me to buy a new set of wheels like most of those that sell for over $1000, £700, €900, A$1100 (and some for less) that are designed with improved aerodynamics in mind and then put tires on them that promptly defeat some of the aero benefits you just spent good money on.
Tire width is something you should really get right. If you want more comfort, go ahead and get a wider tire but know that you are affecting your aero performance and potentially your handling. You can just as easily reduce the pressure a few psi in tires that are sized right for your rims to make the ride a bit softer for an easy day and then pump them back up when you will be riding more aggressively.
A bit later in this post, I’ll give you a chart of what popular tires of different sizes and from different brands actually measure out when inflated and mounted and where you can find actual rim widths of most of the models for major brands.
Let’s move on to other design criteria.
Changing the inflation level from a hard 110 psi to a cushy 85 psi affects the drag by a watt or less. It has more effect on comfort and handling than on drag. While each tire manufacturer has their own recommended inflation chart, some of them seem too racing oriented to me. They’ll have you pumping your tires up to 110 psi or more. I keep coming back to the Michelin chart below that I’ve featured in several of my posts not because it is right but because it seems to me and others I’ve consulted to be a good middle ground between inflation charts of different suppliers and a good place to start. I’d suggest you vary you pressure off of what is in the chart in increments of 5psi or a half bar until you find what you feel best with.
My recommendation then is to get the combination of actual tire and rim width in sync on a tire with low rolling resistance to optimize aerodynamics, handling and rolling resistance. Once that is settled, you can modify the inflation pressure for comfort as this has been shown to have the least impact on drag.
The thread count and compound are design pieces that determine rolling resistance and how the wheel will feel, grip and handle. As I’ve written, the rolling resistance is objectively measurable while the feel, grip and handle are subjective and largely controllable by your own decisions.
Thread count along with the presence of a puncture belt will determine the puncture resistance, about the same for those wheels that have a belt.
There’s no doubt that different cyclists like the feel and ride of different tires, but it appears to be based on one’s personal experience and subjective preferences rather than based on any set of definable, common characteristics that would allow me to differentiate and recommend one tire vs. another based on feel.
Weight, which too many enthusiasts obsess about when discussing wheelsets, varies little (10-30 grams per tire) between 23C tires intended for the same purpose (racing or training) from different brands and a little more (40-50 grams per tire) when moving up a size. I’m not going to even mention the tire weight; you weight weenies already know and the rest of you shouldn’t care.
Going from a butyl to a light butyl tube cuts weight by about 30 grams per tube, again a relatively insignificant amount, but improves rolling resistance by 2-3 watts which is a more significant difference.
Tread pattern, graphics, and color are all marketing and have no effect on performance. A hard road surface is going to put a lot more of an impression on your relatively soft tire than its tire pattern will ever put on the road. The late Jobst Brandt, an innovative cycling enthusiast who never worked in the industry but whose research and publications influenced many who did was one of the first to make this point (here).
Testing has also shown that a smooth tire with no tread pattern has better rolling resistance and corners better on dry and wet roads than one with a pattern. Yet, with few exceptions like Vittoria’s ‘slick’ models, tire makers still put tread on road bike tires as many cyclists will steer clear of a treadless tire.
QUALITY AND COST
As far as quality goes, most tires intended for the same purpose (racing or training) will wear at about the same rate. Plan to get at most about 5,000 kms/3,000 miles out of a pair of training tires and 1/3 to 1/2 of that out of racing tires before you’ll want to change them. Most will have wear-marks that disappear you when its time to change them.
An all-season tire should last you a lot more miles than a training tire but will also ride stiffer and have a lot higher rolling resistance (20 watts more). They really should call them ‘off-season tires’. You wouldn’t want to ride them on the road during the season if you want to keep pace with your friends merely to get a little longer life out of your $100 investment in them. You ride them on rough or gritty roads or for commuting when durability is paramount.
Higher thread count tires or those with a light or no puncture belt will be more likely to cut than those with lower counts and belts. Again, those intended for similar purposes will have similar thread counts – training tires usually around 120 TPI or threads per inch and racing tires around 330 TPI.
The Conti GP4000S II is a notable exception with a supple casing with three 110 thread count layers, a racing fast yet training durable compound and a full-on puncture belt. This combination tests out with rolling resistance numbers as good as most any racing tire but is also a durable, long-lasting training tire if you treat them right.
I, for one, did not treat them right earlier this season when I followed a paceline mate into a pothole the size of the Grand Canyon, flatting both my tubes and cutting my new relatively new Conti’s enough to retire one to the trash bin and needing to patch the other. I’m quite confident the same damage would have happened with almost any training tire and perhaps a few all-season ones as well.
Finally, among the selection criteria for tires, purchase price is a factor that varies little for tires intended for much the same purpose. If you are a smart shopper, you can find almost every training tire in the $40-50 market price range and racing tires in the $60-80 range.
At these prices relative to what you spend on the rest of your bike gear, kit, trips and event fees, I would never let price enter into the purchase decision especially when you consider the gains in rolling resistance and aerodynamics you get from picking the right ones.
Some tires, for example Bontrager and Specialized are sold almost exclusively in local bike shops (LBS) or independent bike dealers (IBDs) with list and market prices being the same and being about what you pay for the others online. The leading bike tires in terms of volume – those from Continental, Michelin, and Vittoria – are carried in the LBS at list prices that are typically nearly 2x what you pay for them online.
ROLLING RESISTANCE TEST COMPILATION
I’ve compiled some of the results of independent tire testing done Tom Anhalt, Bicycle Rolling Resistance and Tour magazine that I linked to earlier in this post. While all their test results come from tires mounted to a wheel that runs over a spinning drum roller covered with a plate that simulates the road surface, there are small differences in how they run their tests (for example, wheel load and test temperature) and a fairly diverse set of wheels and tires they run their tests on.
While Tom Anhalt has been at this the longest of this group and has tested a fuller range of tires for both road cycling enthusiasts and triathletes, I was able to compile the results from all three testers run on many of the same brands and models of tires, at more or less the same air pressure (120psi for Anhalt and BRR, 109psi for Tour) and speed (30kph/18.6mph for Anhalt, 29kph/18mph for BRR, 35kph/21mph for Tour).
Anhalt uses the benchmark Mavic Open Pro 15C wheel as his testing wheel. This is a traditional race and stock width wheel, one with a 15mm inner rim width and a 19.4 mm outer width. Most of his tests are on 23C tires with latex tubes.
BRR does most of its road tire tests with 25C tires with butyl tubes on a more modern width 17C wheel for their tests. Rim widths for these wheels are typically 17mm inner and 23mm outer. Tour’s article didn’t say what size wheel they used.
Each has run tests with enough of the size tires and tubes that the other normally runs so that I can reasonably correlate these results.
Do you know what size your wheels are? Most stock and alloy upgrade wheels are 15C, the latter running 15mm inner and typically 20 or 21mm outer. The widest road wheels today run 19-20mm inner and 25-28mm outer widths. These are not very common.
Note also that Anhalt runs his tests with tires inflated at one pressure but at 3 different speeds, BRR runs tests at 3 different pressures but at the same speed, and Tour ran their lab tests at one pressure and speed. So while I’ve only included the results at the closest speed and pressures, I was able to study the tests run at different speeds and pressures and saw enough correlations to convince myself that their test results for different tires under varying speed and pressure conditions line up relatively where they should.
Pressure changes within the 80psi to 120psi range that road cyclists might set them make relatively minor differences (a couple watts) in rolling resistance compared to speed differences from 30kph/18.6mph to 50kph/31mph (6-10 watts). You can click the earlier links to the tests if you want to dig into the results under these different conditions.
‘Taint a perfect comparison but it’s about as good as it gets in the cycling world where most tests are run inside companies or by hired labs and results are usually unpublished.
The test results I’ve compiled tell a clear story… well at least after you look at them for a while. Even with the variability in testing protocols that I’ve described, the relative performance of different tires and brands is consistent between testers and even the absolute numbers are within a few watts in most cases.
So huge chapeau to Tom Anhalt, BRR and Tour for doing and sharing these tests.
Here’s the compilation chart. Below it I’ll tell you what I’ve concluded from analyzing the data.
First, an explanation of the chart. Tires are listed alphabetically by brand down the left. Within each brand the racing tires are listed first followed by the training ones. They are then listed in order of their ISO size: 23C, 25C, etc. Tom Anhalt’s results are in red numbers shaded in pink (in honor of the Giro going on as I write this), BRR’s are in blue and Tour’s are in green. The current list price (MSRP) and market price are numbers I’ve added. I’ll provide you links to the best places to buy these tires later in the post.
Here’s how to read this chart. The tires with the least rolling resistance are the ones with the lowest watt readings in the Rolling Resistance column. The tires with the gold stars and the number 1 marked next to their brand names had the least rolling resistance of all those tested. The Purpose column shows they are race tires and the Inner Tube column shows they were tested with a latex tube.
The fastest pure race tires according to these tests are the Specialized Turbo Cotton 24C and Zipp Tangente Speed 25C, both of which have an Actual Width about 24.5 mm give or take a couple of tenths of a mm (on Tom Anhalt’s 19.4mm outside width Mavic Open Pro) and regardless that the number entered in the ISO Size column suggests they are different widths.
But don’t choose one of these two yet. There’s more to reveal that I’ll walk you through in the remainder of this post that will hopefully lead you to the best decision on what tire to get.
For example, note the rolling resistance of the best training tires or those that can confidently be used for both racing and training. These are marked with the silver stars with the number 2 inside. The first brand and model of these is the Continental Grand Prix 4000S (now called S II – only difference is that the II come in colors) in 23C, 25C, and 28C. They are only a few watts behind the pure race tires.
The two other fastest training tires are the Specialized S-Works Turbo 24C, an actual 1 mm wider than the Continental GP 4000S 23C and the Zipp Tangente Course 25C, just a few tenths of a mm wider than the 23C Conti.
Note that while there’s only a 3 or 4 watt difference between the lowest rolling resistance racing and training tires at a 30kph speed, that difference grows about a watt with every additional 10kph increase in speed.
Another take-away is that a butyl tube adds between 3 and 5 watts of rolling resistance over a latex one at 30kph and 5-8 watts difference at the higher speeds racers ride. You can see this in the yellow oval marked with the number 3 inside. This was seen in tests run on three different sets of tires of tires by two of the testers.
Add these up and you can see that if you are racing a crit or time trial at 40kph/25mph, we’re starting to talk about some serious differences in rolling resistance alone by riding on a race tire with a latex tube vs. a training tire with a butyl one.
But, if you are a road cycling enthusiast that doesn’t race but still wants to go faster, I don’t suggest you start using a racing tire and latex tube. Racing tires typically wear 2 or 3x more quickly than training ones and don’t have as good a puncture belt or next to none at all.
Latex tubes are also less durable than butyl ones on the road, need to be topped off with air every day and don’t store well in varying temperatures. These issues make them less practical, harder to find and probably suitable only for racers. Don’t expect to leave one in your saddle bag for months and have it ready to rock and roll when you need it. A better option is to go with a so-called ‘light’ or thinner butyl inner tube for fast riding and a heavy butyl one for training. The light butyl tube will probably save you about a couple watts over a heavy one at enthusiast level speeds.
Next, let’s look at the effect of wider tires on rolling resistance. This is marked on the chart with the number 4 over a one-sided ladder. Both BRR and Tour tested the Conti Grand Prix 4000S in 23C, 25C and 28C sizes and found essentially 1 watt less resistance as you went up in size. Interestingly, Tour also looked at the same progression of sizes in the Schwalbe One clincher tires and found 1 watt more resistance as you went up in size. And recall, this is maintaining the same pressure in each tire, while most people put on a wider tire in part so they can reduce the pressure and increase the comfort without concern for pinch flats.
This really pulls back the curtain on the belief that wider tires roll faster. They don’t really roll much faster (and some roll slower) even at the same pressure. When you reduce the pressure to get a more comfortable ride, they have essentially the same rolling resistance as BRR’s resulted showed here when testing the three Conti sizes at 80, 100 and 120psi.
Yes a 25C tire at 80psi will be more comfortable than a 23C at 100psi but if you put it on any rim that isn’t about 26mm or wider at the brake track, you’ll probably be taking a 3-5 watt aerodynamic hit depending on your speed and how much rubber overhangs your rim.
Let’s look next at the relative performance of the leading models of training tires. These tests establish that the Conti GP4000S, Specialized S-Works Turbo and Zipp Tangente Course have the least rolling resistance (silver stars with number 2 inside). But how much is the difference over the other major brands?
Here are the results with the comparative brands noted on the chart as 5* in black (Anhalt tests) and 6_ in blue (BRR tests).
- Conti GP4000S 23C, Specialized S-Works Turbo 24C and Tangente Course 25C – 24 watts
- Zipp Tangente Course 23C – 25 watts
- Vittoria Rubino Pro II 23C, Vittoria Rubino Pro Slick 23C – 27 watts
- Specialized Roubaix Pro 23/25C, Michelin Pro4 Comp 23C – 29 watts
- Michelin Pro4 Service Course 23C – 30 watts
- Conti GP4000S 28C – 23 watts
- Conti GP4000S 25C – 24 watts
- Conti GP4000S 23C – 25 watts
- Schwalbe One 25C – 25 watts
- Vittoria Rubino Pro II 25C – 26 watts
- Michelin Pro4 Service Course 25C – 30 watts
Since, there are differences in the testing conditions between the Tom Anhalt and BRR, look at the relative results within Anhalt’s and BRR’s group of tested tires rather than the differences between the same models of tires in the different test groups.
What I find interesting is the relative position and order of training tire models from the major brands is the same in both Anhalt’s and BRR’s tests – Continental followed by Vittoria followed by Michelin – as is the difference between them – Conti’s perform about 3 watts better than the Rubinos and about 6 or 7 watts better than the Pro4s. These wattage difference between these tires is significant.
I’m not saying these results are conclusive, but the consistent rankings and significant performance differences suggests to me which tires roll better and by how much.
It is one thing to get a tire with low rolling resistance and it’s another to get one that also has good aerodynamic properties. Wheelset engineers put a lot of effort into coming up with innovations to make their rims aerodynamic – rim shapes (toroid vs. U-shaped vs. V-shaped), leading edge treatments (Swirl Lip Generator) and spoke hole and adjustment fittings (internal vs. external) being just a few examples.
It doesn’t make sense to do that and ignore the aerodynamic effect of the rim-tire intersection and the shape the mounted tire takes on. Zipp has designed its own tires (made for them by Vittoria) and companies like FLO have both conducted and published the results of tests essentially recommending which tires are most aerodynamic for their FLO 30 wheels.
Take note of the Actual Width column (brown box with the number 7 inside) and compare to the Size (ISO) column to its left. This shows the actual size that each tire measures when mounted and inflated. There’s variance within this based on the inside width of the rim and inflation pressure. Tom Anhalt measures this to one decimal place and BRR rounds it off, and they use 15C and 17C rims respectively, but it’s a lot better guide than the size you see on the box either as something like 23C or 23mm. Tour’s numbers were all 0.5 mm wider than the ISO size which I don’t take as credible so haven’t used them.
You can see from the six wheel-tire set-ups I prepared and measured for this review how different the same tire can size once mounted and inflated and how wrong you can get the overlap if you don’t pick it right. While I’m trying to flip the switch for you, hopefully the light bulb has gone off in your head rather than making up the shape of your tire.
Again, the size on the box is not a good indication of the tire’s actual mounted and inflated size. There is no consistency – some actual widths are wider, some narrower, and some are close to the ISO size. So it is important to know the actual width of the tires you are interested in and get one as close to the brake track width of your rim.
Some of you may not know the brake track width of your rim. If you’ve got a toroid shaped rim, the brake track is often angled and it’s narrower than the marketed rim width which is often the widest part of the rim on the toroid. Also, the rim width listed by the manufacturer may not always be exact for the same reason that the wheel weight isn’t usually right – marketing.
Fortunately, Greg Kopecky who writes for Slowtwitch has done us all a great service by measuring and publishing actual rim widths (inside and outside) as well as rim depths of most of the major wheelsets. His latest table can be found here.
I recommend you confirm your wheel’s outside width with Greg’s table and match it up with the Actual Width measurement in the chart above of the tires with relatively low rolling resistance to help you pick tires which will have the best combination of rolling resistance and aerodynamic performance for your rims.
The challenge for many of you who have stock wheels and some of the traditional design alloy upgrade wheels is that these rims are far narrower than many of the readily available popular brands of tires. The actual widths of the 23C versions of the Michelin Pro4, Vittoria Rubino and Zipp Tangente Course are the narrowest, roughly in that order but have the higher rolling resistance, roughly in the same order as the wider Conti GP4000S 23C.
You can get 20C versions of many of these tires. I haven’t seen rolling resistance test results on those but I’d expect they would run in the same order as the wider ones and run much closer to your wheel width than the 23C versions.
WHERE TO BUY ROAD BIKE TIRES
Hard to believe I’ve written 8,000 words on tires but as I hope you can see, making the right choice is not simple.
Fortunately, buying them is a lot easier. Online they cost about the same from model to model and store to store, not enough to change your decision about what tire to buy or even where to buy it if you typically prefer one store over another.
If you buy two tires and a couple of light butyl tubes to go with them, you’ll typically get close to what you need to cover the amount that qualifies for free shipping. If not, add in a new set of tire levers, some chain lube or hub grease, a jersey or something else you’ve been thinking about.
Buying them in the store, though key if you are in a pinch, will typically cost you 65% to 100% more than the online prices at the stores below, unless they are Bontrager or Specialized tires which sell principally at LBS/IBD shops.
If you like what you’ve read here and want to save yourself serious money the next time you buy some cycling gear, you can do so in a way that also supports the costs of cranking out these reviews. Simply click on and buy through the red links next to each product I’ve reviewed. These will take you to the lowest price, in-stock listings across stores that sell online and have high customer satisfaction ratings. I regularly update these links in each review by looking at over 60 stores. Some pay this site a small commission when you buy through them but I pick the best stores either way, same as when I’m buying gear myself. If you prefer, you can support the site by making a contribution here using your credit card or Paypal account or when you buy anything through these link at Amazon or eBay. There’s more on all of this at the about and support pages. Thanks.
Here are the shops with great customer satisfaction ratings that have the tires (listed in order of rolling resistance performance) in inventory at the best prices as of August 2016.
- Continental Grand Prix 4000S II – Competitive Cyclist, eBay Cycling, Amazon, Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, Chain Reaction Cycles
- Zipp Tangente Course – Competitive Cyclist, eBay Cycling
- Specialized S-Works Turbo – eBay Cycling or check here to find a local Specialized retailer
- Vittoria Rubino Pro – Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, eBay Cycling, Chain Reaction Cycles
- Michelin Pro4 Comp – eBay Cycling
- Michelin Pro4 Service Course – Wiggle, eBay Cycling, Chain Reaction Cycles
- Mavic Yksion Grip Link and Power Link – Competitive Cyclist, Chain Reaction Cycles
- Specialized Roubaix Pro – Cyclestore or check here to find a local Specialized retailer
- Bontrager R3 Road – Check here to see this tire at Trekbikes.com
- Specialized Turbo Cotton – Cyclestore or check here to find a local Specialized retailer
- Zipp Tangente Speed – Competitive Cyclist, eBay Cycling
- Continental Grand Prix 4000S II – Competitive Cyclist, eBay Cycling, Amazon, Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, Chain Reaction Cycles
- Vittoria Open Corsa CX – eBay Cycling, Chain Reaction Cycles
- Michelin Pro4 Comp Limited – eBay Cycling, Amazon
- Michelin Pro4 Comp – eBay Cycling
- Schwalbe One – eBay Cycling, Amazon, Tweeks Cycles, Chain Reaction Cycles
- Schwalbe Ultremo – eBay Cycling, Chain Reaction Cycles
- Bontrager R4 Road – Check here to see this tire at Trekbikes.com
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