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.
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.