03 March 2015

When Does Width Matter?

The importance of tire width is one of the cycling world's long-running debates.

Because I came of age in the aftermath of the '70's Bike Boom, I was inculcated with the notion that, in the immortal words of Robert Browning, "less is more".  That meant, among other things, that a lighter bike is always a better bike.  Not surprisingly, the minimalist aesthetic ruled:  What other decade could have brought us the Huret Jubilee or SunTour Cyclone (first version) rear derailleurs--or drillium?

(The Jubilee is so minimalist that the version with drilled-out cages almost seems extreme.  Talk about "less is more"!)

So, it makes sense that I would also grow up with the idea that narrower tires would make your bike faster.  All other things being equal, they do, because less rubber on the road means less resistance.  But I've since come to learn that riding too narrow a tire for your purpose can actually slow you down if it's making you ride more cautiously--or simply wearing you out with the extra shock and vibrations it transmits.

If a very narrow tire can defeat the a cyclist's purpose in riding it, then I think it's fair to ask whether too wide a tire can do the same.  Or, more precisely, is there a point at which any additional tire width doesn't add traction, resiliency or durability?

Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that on loose, powdery snow, a tire's tread or compound makes more difference than its width.  On the other hand, on deep, heavier-packed snow, knobby mountain bike tires are a better idea.  

But what about ice?  My guess, based on limited experience, is that a wider rear tire might help with initially gaining traction, but once the bike is moving, whether you slip or fall isn't going to have much to do whether you're riding 700X23 or 26"x2.5 tires.  If anything, I think having studs or spikes on your tires will do more than anything else to help you across a glacial expanse.  

From Jonny Cycles

Hmm...It looks like someone might have actually tested my hypotheis.  I wonder what his conclusion might be.


  1. The Nokian studded tires on my Bridgestone commuter work great on ice and snow. In fact, they made my morning commute very pleasant, this morning. The studs can be a bit squirrely on dry pavement, however. And the tires are heavy and quite slow. Jan Heine at Bicycle Quarterly has done some extensive research on tire width and tire pressure. It's worth reading.

  2. MT--One of these days I'd like to try Nokians. In years past, I used to think that they'd be useful to me for only a couple of days every winter. But if we continue to have winters like the one we're having, or the one we had last year, I might spring for the Nokians.

    I have read some of Heine's research on tire width. It's indeed very interesting. Some of it flies in the face of what we were led to believe when I was younger.