What to Consider When Buying Bike Tires

Bike wheel, close up
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Buying a new tire for your bike shouldn't be too complicated. But there are lots of variables from one bicycle tire to another that don't always make the right choice obvious or easy. The bike you have and the type of riding you do have great influence over what type of tire will give you the best performance. 


Tires for standard adult bikes, including mountain bikes and hybrids, can come in 26-inch or 29-inch sizes, which is the measurement of the outside diameter of the tire. Mountain bikes also can have 27/5-inch wheels. On today's road/racing bikes, the wheels are usually sized in metric, with 650 mm or 700 mm being most common. BMX bikes usually have 20-inch wheels.

Your tire size will be stamped on the side of your current tires.


The next component of tire size is width. This is the second number of the tire's measurement. For instance, the "balloon" tires used on a beach cruiser type bike are labeled "26 x 2.125" This means the tires are 26 inches in diameter and 2.125 inches wide.

Tires on mountain bikes and hybrids can range between about 1.5 and 2 inches, but the specific size you'll want will vary depending on the type of riding you do. We'll talk about that below.

Road bike tire measurements also show diameter followed by width: 700 x 23 is common for high-speed racing tires, meaning the tire is 700 mm in diameter and a skinny 23 mm wide.

What Width Do You Want?

Here's the basic formula related to bike tire width: skinny equals fast because there is less contact with the road. But there's a tradeoff: skinny tires need higher air pressure, which results in a harder (as in bumpier) ride. They may also be more vulnerable to sidewall damage and wear out quicker.

Wider tires will make you feel more steady and maintain more contact with the road. They also provide better traction on irregular surfaces.

Tires that match the diameter of your rim — 26 or 27 inches, for example — will generally fit fine in a range of widths. Where a wider tire may cause problems is in clearing your frame or brakes.

Tread Type

The type of tread you want is tied to your normal riding surface. Completely smooth tires are best for racing or for riding on pavement; they intentionally have minimal contact with the road.

Knobby tires like you see on mountain bikes are at the other end of the spectrum. Those tires are great for wet or muddy trails, but they require more pedal power because there's more contact with the ground.

Most riders, especially those who ride mainly on pavement, will want tires with a smooth tread pattern. A little tread to hold the road is fine, but any more than that will slow down your ride and make you work harder. There are also tires with a relatively smooth center tread, for minimal rolling resistance, and knobby outer treads, for grip when cornering on gravel or dirt paths.

Here are some photos of​ different types of bike tires with the type of tread they use.

Tire Durability

Another factor to consider is the durability of the tire. If you are going to be a daily commuter or put on lots of miles on rough roads with glass, nails and other junk in your path, you definitely want to spend a few bucks more and get a tire that will last longer and be puncture-resistant.

There are a number of good tires out on the market today with features like kevlar reinforcement for extra puncture-resistance. The Ultra Gatorskins by Continental are just one example of these types of tire. I've used them on my road bike and they've worked well for me for about 2,000 miles so far.

Tire Weight

Unless you're competing at a very high level and trying to shave off a couple of grams here and there wherever possible, the weight of your tires is not important. Basically, all tires that fit your bike will be within the same general weight range, and it's not really worth worrying about. Far more important, in my opinion, are durability and performance.

Determining Your Tire Size

If you don't know what size wheels you have, you can:

  • refer to the owner's manual for your bike, if you have it.
  • visit the manufacturer's website, which usually has specs for all of its bikes.
  • measure the rims yourself: go rim-to-rim for the complete size, or else axle to rim, then double it.
  • show it to the pros at your local bike shop; they'll know just by looking at it, and they can recommend the best width for your type of riding and for your specific bike.