Monday, August 3, 2015

Will Fat Tires Make Your Bicycle More Comfortable?

From the Monday Mailbox: 
I am currently riding on 23mm tires and would like to switch to a wider tire for comfort. My bike allows for 26mm or so tire clearance without fenders. Do you think that difference will be worth the switch, or should I start looking for a bike with bigger tire clearances?
To answer this question directly: Yes, in my experience a 3mm increase in tire (tyre) width will be perceptible. But! Don't assume that width alone is responsible for how comfortable - or uncomfortable - your tires feel. Comfortable tires will make your bicycle more comfortable. That need not necessarily mean fatter tires.

Now, I don't dispute the accepted wisdom that fat tires improve the cushiness of a bicycle's ride quality. But I'd like to point out that it comes with an implied and important qualifier which often seems to fall by the wayside: "all other factors being equal."

That is to say, if your bicycle is currently fitted with 23mm tires of Brand X, Model Y and you switch to 28mm tires of this very same Brand X, Model Y, your ride quality will almost certainly improve. However, if you switch to random 28mm tires, it could really go either way. Believe it or not, some wide tires are actually less comfortable than some narrow tires. Because a tire's comfort has at least as much to do with qualities pertaining to its construction - such as casing suppleness - as it does with width. Here is an anecdote to illustrate.


For the past year or so, my friend has had my Honey CX bicycle on perma-loan. At the start, he always rode it with the 35mm Continental Cyclocross Speed tires that the bike was originally fitted with - a very nice mixed terrain tire designed for speed on both paved and unpaved surfaces. Then a couple of months back he decided to switch to skinny road tires for some fast-paced paved rides. What did I think, would the switch make him sufficiently faster to bother?

To be honest, I wasn't sure. And on top of that I worried that the ultra-stiff, lightweight racing bike he was riding might feel harsh with skinny tires. But what was the harm in trying anyway? As it happened I had a spare pair of road tires, the Grand Bois Cerfs in 26mm. And so I gave him those to try out.

Honey CX with Skinny Tyres
After the switch, the biggest difference he noticed was not in speed but indeed in comfort - just not in the direction you might expect. The 26mm Cerfs felt so much more plush and pleasant to ride on than the 35mm cyclocross tires (which themselves were comfortable to begin with), he could hardly believe it. "But I thought fat tires were supposed to be more comfortable!" Apparently that is not always the case.

It reminded me that a few years back I had a similar experience when "downsizing" from 28mm Panaracer Pasellas to 23mm Michelin Krylions on the Francesco Moser I then owned. I had made the change in order to improve clearances and was prepared to swallow the inevitable loss in comfort I'd expected. To my amazement, the skinny Krylions swallowed road vibrations and bumps far better than the 5mm wider Pasellas and felt altogether lovelier - not to mention rode faster!

To be clear, this is not a post in praise of narrow tires. There are many harsh, horrible skinny tires on the market, and I am very particular about the ones I will fit on my bikes. And of course there are many plush lovely fat tires out there - including the 42mm Grand Bois Hetres I myself am partial to. All I'm saying is, that a randomly selected fat tire will not always be more comfortable than a randomly selected skinny tire.

To get back to the original question at the start of this post: This is good news if your road bike rides harshly and has limited tire clearance. You could look for a more supple, comfortable tire without necessarily having to size up. My favourites? At the moment it is a tie between Clement Strada LGGs (available in 23-25mm widths) and Grand Bois Cerfs/Madelines (23-26mm). And if you're looking for something more widely available, I have also had good experiences with anything from the Michelin Pro series (I believe the Krylions mentioned earlier are no longer produced). But ask around, try some for yourself if possible, and don't chuck that poor road bike just because it won't fit a 32mm tire! Remember: Comfortable tires will make your bicycle more comfortable.

38 comments:

  1. I think you should take advantage of one of your advertisers Bicycle Quarterly, you may have to search around a bit, but they have a lot of information on tire size verses comfort. They also have a lot of different tire choices.

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    1. Oh I've read it. Jan's thoughts on the subject don't conflict with what I've written in this post AFAIK. I'll hook up a link to some of it in the post.

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  2. I used a set of those Conti Speed CX tires as a general purpose tire on my CX bike 2 years ago and thought they were a good value for traction and durability, but like you I surprised how the ride compared to the more supple tires tires I was racing that bike on. It really was a remarkable difference.

    I have a big hill near my house that I have to ride all the time and use to do rough comparison testing on all sorts of bike efficiency questions. If I roll off from the mailbox at the top and look at my computer as I pass the sign at the Concrete plant a few hundred yards down the hill I can sometimes get an indication of what might or might not make a difference. The difference in rolldown between those Conti's and the 31mm Hutchinson race tires, though barely enough to measure, was consistent and would certainly make a real difference over a longer distance. But even if they were the same, efficiency-wise, I would have been willing to spend the extra on the race tires just because they felt SO much better(even if I was paying retail for my tires instead of picking them up off the floor used at the bike shop or stealing them from the back of un-locked Subaru's at the races).

    I still have a couple of nice old bikes that wont take anything bigger than a 28(and I use those Clement Strada's one one of them and really like them) but the bikes I like to spend all day on are all on 33-42 tires now. I can't believe I'm scheming to build an ""Enduro Allroad" bike with 26" 50s now but that's where this old Dude is headed. The Dude that used to think any tire wider than a 21 at 120psi was a sign of weakness. Sigh...

    Spindizzy

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    1. I feel the same about tires now, Spindizzy.

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  3. Rode quite a bit on Vittoria 19mm tyres in the 80s and yes felt every bump. The tubs we raced on back then had a feel tyres couldn't come anywhere close to.

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  4. One thing seems to be passed out: tire-pressure.

    L.

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  5. I agree with the previous poster. tire pressure makes a huge difference. All other things being equal, 35 mm tires are going to be way harsher at say 90 psi than 23 mm tires at the same pressure. 90 psi on a 2" tire is basically going to be like riding on rails. My friend had a similar experience of feeling more comfortable on narrower tires until he realized he was probably over inflating his wider ones.

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    1. Tire pressure, of course. Though I assume (perhaps wrongly!) that if things had progressed to the point of wanting to purchase wider tires or a new bike, that aspect of things had already been experimented with.

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    2. good point. I think finding the right pressure can be pretty tricky though when you're trying to balance rolling resistance, comfort, and handling. I do remember reading a study where they found that the fastest rolling tire pressure was just under the point where you feel a steady road buzz. I think a lot of people run higher than that since it often feels faster when you're bouncing around a bit, but all the bumps are actually slowing you down. You do make an excellent point about tire construction in the article which undeniably has a huge impact on rolling resistance/handling/ride quality as well.

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    3. There is a survey from Bicycle Quarterly (spring 2014, Issue n°47): it’s about how tires work and what makes them fast.
      There is an interesting assertion: “higher pressures create a placebo effect that feels identical to riding faster”, so I ‘ve lowered my pressure.
      Maybe it’s the same effect with bicycle: some are comfortable for eyes only.

      L.

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    4. Here in the land of time trials (with racers going out of their way to fit tubulars allowing for 200psi!), it's been extremely difficult to convince local cyclists to ease up on the tire pressure. My friends and I used to battle over this (one has actually tried to "top up my tires" to 100psi when I wasn't looking!), and no amount of BQ references would convince them... until finally an article came out in some racing mag and finally they were willing to give it a try. Funny how that works.

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    5. When I got my go-fast bike a few years ago, I usually pumped the tires up to 120 psi, because that's what it said on the side of the tire. It took me a while to figure out that the higher pressure also translated to a harsh ride. Then, after reading Bicycle Quarterly's thorough research, I became a convert to lower tire pressure. The other day I lent my bike to a friend, who promptly aired up the tires to 120, and he managed to blow the rear tire off the rim. In a way I've come full circle. When I first started riding many years ago, I often neglected tire pressure, much to my detriment. Hitting a pothole with under inflated tires leads to bent rims and broken spokes.

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    6. Heh. I've seen the tire off the rim thing a few times, resulting from tires being inflated to the specified max. I suspect the gauges on most pumps are not 100% accurate. For that reason alone, I say better to underinflate than over.

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    7. It's my firm belief that no blow outs are caused by too much pressure as such. It's more a case of the tube being misplaced under the bead of the tyre, the tyre not being seated evenly around the whole circumference of the rim, or the rim tape being misaligned or damaged. And if you do intend to crank up your clinchers over 100, make sure you're not using butyl rim strips.

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  6. Running Clement Strada LGG 25mm on vintage Miss Mercian and so impressed how fast and cushy they perform. They're very fast and really make the bike a contemporary performer. Running Compass Chinook Pass 28mm on Seven fast road and impressed how well they cushion and corner while being as fast or faster than the Clement Strada LGG 25mm they replaced. Thanks! Jim Duncan

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  7. A timely topic for me as I'm currently researching my next bike which, based on paper analysis, I think is going to be a randonneur style bike (i.e. 650b, low trail, built-for-comfort yet still lively.) I recently test rode the Soma GR reviewed by Velouria and came away with a number of questions. Did I like it? Yes. Did I fall in love? No; at least not as it was built up. It definitely had the comfort factor but it's not what I would call lively. The questions I come back to are exactly what aspects of the build contributes to or detracts from both the comfort and the liveliness. Is it wide tires with supple casings (Compass 38mm in this case) that provide most to the comfort? My gut says yes, Is the lack of liveliness due to the wider tires or is it the low trail geometry or the relatively thicker tubing in this frame? I dunno. I may still end up getting a GR because it ticks a lot of boxes for me and it is a decent bike at a good price. Bottom line is that for someone trying to get into this kind of bike it's hard to sort through all these variables and distinguish which features are most important to the overall experience. For example, to improve on the frame significantly you would probably have to step up to something like a Boulder All Road, Box Dog Pelican or Ocean Air Rambler which are all at least 3x the cost of the Soma. I have trouble committing that kind of money without knowing the benefit. On the other hand, $80 for a high quality, wider tire with supple casing like the Compass tires seems like an inexpensive way to greatly improve ride comfort.

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    1. It really is difficult to disentangle all the different factors contributing to ride quality. Wheels and tires play huge roles, but even things like handlebars, saddles and seatposts contribute - not to mention the way the rider's position is set up. There are bike shops that can set up floor models to be as similar to each other as possible, save for the framesets, and I think this is a hugely valuable and underappreciated service, saving the customer a lot of time and money in trial and error experiments.

      Good luck with the bike shopping process, and enjoy your new ride whichever it ends up being!

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  8. I have been riding on a set of Bontrager 32's for a long while now I am 200lbs and I run 65psi rear 60psi front.. on my other bike I am using 23's still as I have several sets to use up, I am running 95psi rear and 90psi front. Higher PSI does not really ride any faster, just makes the ride more bumpy/harsh.

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  9. I have yet to try a super wide tire as is the fashion these days(never enough money!), but my husband did try the wider supple tires on a few bikes. 650b x 38 and the 700x 30 grand bois cypres tires. He is a tall lanky slim cyclist. He HATED them, he felt they were too mushy, too slow, terrible performance etc etc. He was confused because these tires are being touted as the best thing ever(until the next), but failed to meet expectations, not even comfort. He also had endless flats. He switched back to some cheap narrow road tires and is so happy. He thinks that perhaps a properly designed 650b rando bike would handle differently and the wide tires would work, but not on a hack job 650b conversion, or not even road bikes designed for narrow tires.
    I have read that smaller people might find the wider tires to be too wide, too cushy, but have yet to try it myself. I bought the 23mm Panaracer Gravel Kings and they are great tires-not necessarily for gravel mind you, but I like them. I want to try the clement strada's on my other 700cc bike, but my other bikes I want to convert to 650b which is all wide, or 650cc which is all narrow.

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    1. 23mm + "gravel" kings! An interesting name.

      And wow. Your husband is only the second person I know of who does not love the GB tires. Just goes to show that at least to some extent this stuff is subjective.

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  10. My goodness, just switch out tires and find out for yourself. One thing about bikes, everyone has a different experience and different preferences. The only expert is the one doing the riding. It's simple. Comfort on a bike is keyed into so many variables and all in the context of expectations. If there's any insight to this blog, it's that one should experiment. There are three cyclists in this family and all have different thoughts about what works.

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  11. As others have already mentioned, pressure makes the biggest difference in my experience.

    Wider tires can ride just as harsh as a narrow tire if you run the pressures up above optimal.

    Thumbs up from me for the Compass Cycles line of tires. I really recommend the Barlow Pass in 700x38.

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    1. Tire pressure, yes, but the casings play an important role as well.

      Been using Compass Stampede Pass 700x32s on my road bike since they came out. They are wonderfully plush tires. Couple weeks ago I swapped them for Schwalbe Marathon Supremes 700x35s for a couple of days.

      Riding at the same and even lower pressure than I normally use with the Stampede pass, the larger Schwalbes were more harsh.

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  12. In my rollout testing, I found that (good -- Big Apple) 60mm tires at 60psi had a lower rolling resistance than (generic -- Bontrager) 30mm tires at 120psi. This was low speed, so rolling resistance, NOT wind resistance. Nobody believes this, of course, but that's what I measured with a real bike on a real road, and I was spurred to do that measurement after noticing that my 10-mile commutes got faster after switching to very-fat tires.

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    1. Oh I believe it. I love me some Big Apples (though I've found the 26" version to be much nicer than the 700C). Those and the Delta Cruisers are surprisingly fast puncture-resistant city tires.

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  13. Glad this was brought up. For fatter tires, I like the less bulky thickness. Schwalbe road cruiser tires are comfortable for 700 x 32c tires. Though less puncture resistant, I like the Panaracer Pasela TG tires [not the plus] in that size for shorter distances. On the other hand, I have a mixte that cannot take more than 25c tires with fenders so I tried the Paselas and it actually felt more harsh, not enough cushion between the road and tire. I then tried Schwalbe HS 420 Greenguard tires and though it is a thicker tire, actually felt better. Keep in mind this tire isn't a speed tire but it worked in this situation. When I was trying tires, I also did not fill them to the max - usually 5-10 psi under max.

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  14. Would it make a comfort difference putting the same tire width on different width rims? I was just reading a magazine article in a cycling magazine and this point was brought up, which is very interesting. According to the article a wider rim can make a tire look smaller and a thinner rim will make that same tire size look bigger.

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  15. another factor to consider is tire height. I recently went from 23's to 28's on my main ride and it's really affected the handling, I think in large part due to the taller profile. It's definitely more plush when going straight, but the maneuverability has suffered. I will be going down to 25s when I get a chance. I really wanted a larger tire because of local road conditions, and I see the advantage with the 28's, but once I get up to speed on windy descents, I wish I had a smaller tire.

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  16. Steel bicycles with curved forks and sprung saddles are more comfortable than alloy built bicycles with straight forks and modern gel saddles (IMHO). As for speed, you could put me on Chris Froome's Pinarello with the fastest tyres available to man, and I'll still only average about 11 mph - less when carrying the takeaway home on the handlebars .. :)

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  17. I have some experience with cyclo-cross tires and bikes. In general, they're not made for comfort, as they are not ridden long distances and cyclo-cross riders frequently hop on and off their bikes. So I'm not surprised that a 35mm cyclo-cross tire would be less comfortable than a narrower road tire.

    Also, as you say, one company's 28 mm won't feel the same as another company's 28mm. In fact, a company might have two or more models of tire in the same width, and each one could feel very different. When I was doing most of my riding on 23mm tires, I used to notice this phenomenon with Michelin tires, which are the ones I rode most of the time. I found, interestingly, that the lightest 23mm clincher they made at the time was more comfortable (as well as faster) than their heavier 23s and 25s, as well as what Continental was making in those sizes back then.

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  18. "Clement Strada LGGs (available in 23-25mm widths)"

    They're actually available up to 28mm.

    http://clementcycling.com/strada-lgg-road

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    1. Oh I know; I was listing sizes relevant for frames with limited roadie clearances.

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  19. Tread design does come into play as well, a cyclocross tire will have a somewhat knobby tread (on a "speed" tire it will be a bit less dramatic than a "mud" design, but it'll still going to be noticeable) which will generate more vibration on a hard surface than a really slick tire, which will affect comfort as well.
    As someone above mentioned, rim width does have an effect, though I've noticed it mostly in handling rather than comfort. Since I've been dabbling in the world of fat bikes, I've gotten to see pretty extreme changes in rim width on the same tires and it is a factor

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  20. "Because a tire's comfort has at least as much to do with qualities pertaining to its construction - such as casing suppleness - as it does with width"

    I am regularly reminded of this — the ride quality of the 42mm Schwalbe Marathon Supremes on my commuter is brutal in comparison with the 42mm Compass Babyshoe Pass Extralights on my weekend bike.

    "I have also had good experiences with anything from the Michelin Pro series (I believe the Krylions mentioned earlier are no longer produced)"

    I believe that the Krylion was replaced by the Pro 4 Endurance. I too was impressed by the ride quality of the Michelins (for a 23mm tire).

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    1. I remember, even the switch from Schwalbe Marathon+ to Schwalbe Delta Cruisers was quite an eye opener.

      "Krylion was replaced by the Pro 4 Endurance."

      Ooh. Good to know, thanks!

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  21. Maybe also worth mentioning that one manufacturer's 28 (I'm looking at you, Conti) can be no bigger than another's 25 (thank you, Michelin). I have Pro Race 3 25s on my racy bike and they're lovely and I think plusher than my wife's Conti 4 Season 28s. But neither is anywhere near as plush as the Barlow Pass 38s on my backroads bike!

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  22. I've been riding 700c Grand Bois Cypres 32 mm for two years now. I'm a big rider (6'4", 240lbs) and keep them at about 65 psi front/75 psi rear, on a steel frame, and these are the best tires I've ever used for comfort and efficiency. But then I'm not racing, nor trying to ride "fast"; so for another rider on another bike, YMMV. My other bike, a lighter, more upright steel "racing" bike with 22mm tubulars, is a whole different experience - not better or worse, just different. If not for that the two frames have different rear spacing, I'd switch wheels just to compare the ride on both. But my conclusion is that to get the optimal ride out of any given bike may well require very different tires, and a bit of experimentation.

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