“Cheap rubber is not necessarily good rubber” was the advice I gave to a friend recently looking to buy new tyres for her hybrid; I suspect the same applies to spotty adolescents nervously buying condoms in the chemist too.
When you think about it, you can spend hours and hours mooching around bike shops, trying to figure out which bike is best for you: mountain bike, road bike, hybrid, BMX, cruiser, cyclocross, tourer, folder, singlespeed, fixie or hack…. And, there are probably some more. Then, you’ll probably spend as much time trying to settle on the colour of said bike and you’ll try on every helmet and pair of gloves in the shop but, and be honest, just how much attention do you pay to the tyres? I’ll wager it’s perhaps not as much as it could / should be.
Now, there is a lot of talk about how you shouldn’t ride a mountain bike on the road and you shouldn’t ride a road bike on the trails and you shouldn’t ride a Brompton at all; whilst I agree that Bromptons (in fact all folding bikes) should be banned for all eternity, I must say I conform more to the idea that you can ride whatever you like, wherever you like.
I ride a Merida Matts mountain bike from the 1990s with a rigid steel fork on the road… In fact, I ride it on road, off road and everything in between. Also, I ride a cyclocross bike with a rigid carbon fork (which is essentially a road bike with clearance for mud) off road so, it’s really not an exact science; very basically, the various types of bike will give you very different riding positions so it’s more about finding one that works for you.
The thing that really matters is the 2 small contact patches connecting you to whatever surface you happen to be rolling over and this is where the science really does make a difference; so, here are some basics to help you out:
- Tarmac – The smoother and thinner the tyre, the smoother it’ll ride on the smooth surface; the same is true with tyre pressures, the higher the pressure, the smoother it’ll roll. Beware, however, that the narrower and higher pressure the tyre gets, the less it’ll deform over lumps and bumps so the ride will be less comfortable but much more efficient.
- Mud – If you want to get down and dirty, it’s quite the opposite; you want something wide and knobbly to grab hold of whatever it can in the squishy stuff. Equally, a lower pressure will help the tyre to deform under load and assist with the grabbiong onto stuff, giving you more traction than you thought was even possible.
- Gravel – Now, I hate to break this to you but nothing, nothing actually grips on gravel surfaces but there are some semi-slick / semi-knobbly type tyres that help move some of the gravel out of the way and grip the hardpack underneath. Choosing something with a smooth central section and knobbly ‘shoulders’ run at a mid range pressure and spending some time working on your riding style will give you the confidence you need to safely navigate the loose stuff. There’s absolutely no shame in slowing down; it’s much more fun than face surfing!
- Snow – Again, very little will provide much in the way of real grip here but a good quality knobbly tyre suited to deep, wet mud will work great on fresh, soft snow. There are also specialist snow tyres with metal studs that will bite into hard packed ice but these are very expensive and not for the average cyclist, in my humble opinion.
- Sand – Now, I can’t say I’ve ever actually ridden on sand but, as I understand it, the only way to go is with the widest, lowest pressure tyre you can lay your hands on. Surly and Salsa are now building ‘fat bikes’ specifically for this klind of riding; very cool indeed but again, very specialist kit.
So, what do I ride? Well, on my go-everywhere-do-everything Merida, I run 26 x 2.00″ Schwalbe Kojak slicks at 70 – 80psi which give me an incredibly comfortable, stable, predictable ride.
I love my Kojaks so much, I had a custom wheel built for my BOB Yak and bought a 16 x 1.25″ version which has significantly reduced the rolling resistance over the awful knobbly tyre that came with it as stock.
What I simply can’t explain with science (or anything else) is the awesome grip level these tyres give in all conditions. I’ve ridden them on really hot days when they seem to almost stick to the road, freezing cold, icy days when they seem to… well, they almost stick to the road and, because I live in Manchester, I’ve ridden them in just about every type of rain there is from the annoying fine stuff that makes the roads greasy right through to full on monsoon rain and, you’ve guessed it, they just stick to the road! I suspect it’s the larger than average contact patch but they’re as predictable in cold and wet conditions as they are in hot and dry ones.
With Schwalbe’s excellent Raceguard puncture protection, they’re also bombproof and mine have reflective tyre labels so they give me the much needed side on visibility I need for commuting in the dark without a full on reflective sidewall – very cool indeed.
With a little skill and an awful lot of courage, they’re also great on gravel paths and they’ll even handle hardpack dirt without any problems. They suck like a $2 whore in any kind of mud, though. You have been warned.