Why do good bike tires cost so much?
It’s a fair question. And one that every cyclist asks themselves sooner or later, but is too INSERT LABEL HERE to ask at the bike shop.
The good news is that you don’t have to ask this question because we’ve already answered it. Or maybe you did—by googling it—which is how you came across this post in the first place.
Good bicycle tires are so expensive because they’re better designed and made of higher quality materials. They also have lower rolling resistance, superior puncture protection, and wear out slower than cheaper tires do.
If you’re someone who doesn’t know much about bicycle tires, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Come on! Just how much better can one hollow rubber circle be compared to another?”
And, to an extent, you’d be right.
If rubber were the only material that bicycle tires were made of, there probably wouldn’t be much difference between them except for their diameter, width, and tread pattern.
But it isn’t. Rubber is one of the two to three hundred materials and chemicals that go into the average bike tire. The rubber itself is a composite material with additives that make it supple but durable and lightweight but strong.
What these materials are and how well they’re put together can make the difference between a tire that slows you down, punctures too easily, and dry-rots in no time—and one that rolls with little resistance, isn’t punctured by the smallest debris on the road, and lasts thousands of miles.
How Bike Tires Work
You mount them on the rim, inflate them with air, and then hop on your bike and get peddling…
Basically, bicycle tires are supple containers for air, which acts as a cushion between the ground and the rim. This air cushion protects the rim, facilitates pedaling, and makes the ride more comfortable.
We fill tires with air because it’s free, it expands and contracts easily, and it excels at the job of acting as a cushion between the rim (and the fork, and the frame, and the rider) and the ground.
If the wheels were made out of solid rubber, every bump in the road would rattle your bones. Anyone who’s ridden an electric scooter on cobblestone roads knows very well what I’m talking about. Were they made of foam, they’d eventually deform and become useless.
Behind the design and construction of every bicycle tire is a trade-off between speed and puncture protection. Lighter tires roll effortlessly and go fast, but are also highly prone to punctures. Heavier tires roll with resistance and move slowly, but have significantly better puncture protection.
Bike Tire Construction
The typical bike tire has tread and sidewalls that protect a casing, as well as a couple of beads on each side to form a seal between the ends of the tire and the edges of the rim.
The tread is the part of the tire that touches the road. It’s made out of reinforced rubber and, depending on the type of bike and the purpose of the tire, comes with various tread patterns. It’s these tread patterns that make most tires directional.
The treads and the sidewalls are meant to protect the casing, whether for a clincher, tubular, or tubeless tire, from exposure to the elements and punctures from foreign objects.
The casing, made of fabric and rubber and characterized by the number of threads per inch, gives structure and suppleness to the tire. (Note the difference between the rubber treads that meet the road and the fabric threads inside the casing.)
Structure because the tire must maintain a certain shape when inflated—despite gravitational pull, the combined weight of rider and bike, the friction from rolling on the ground, and the shocks from rolling over potholes, bumps, and debris.
Suppleness because the tire needs a certain amount of bend and flex to grip the ground and give traction to the rider… without becoming so hard that it starts to slip during cornering or breaking, or deforming so much that the rider has no road feel.
The beads, which can either be folding and made out of Kevlar or rigid and made out of wire, are what allows the tire to fit firmly against the rim. Tires with folding beads are more expensive. They’re also much lighter and easier to mount.
The Role of Tire Design
Contrary to what most cyclists think, tire treads are not just made of rubber, and bicycle tire casings have much more than fabric and rubber on the inside.
Instead, they’re made of composite materials, which manufacturers like to call “composites,” that improve the tire’s performance depending on its intended use.
Big, bulky treads give you grip and traction on rough terrain and protect the tire from punctures, but they also make the tire heavy and impractical for paved roads. Try to ride a mountain bike fitted with off-road tires on asphalt, and the treads twist and bend so much that you can’t go fast and you can’t feel the road.
Not all mountain bike tires are created equal.
Hardpack terrain calls for tires with moderate treads because the ground already provides grip. Tires made for loose gravel or those for downhill riding in the mud are a whole other story.
At the other extreme are tires for racing bikes. These tires are made of thin rubber with little or no tread.
Cheaper tires have inner tubes made of butyl or latex; pricier tires are tubeless. They’re designed to provide excellent grip on paved roads as long as those roads are dry (in rainy weather, road bike tires are very slippery).
Some tires are made for high-mileage cyclists. Others are made solely for speed, whether during training or in-season.
Hybrid and City Bikes
If you aren’t a mountain biker or professional cyclist, you probably own a hybrid bike or a city bike, and you use tires suitable for any terrain and all kinds of weather.
The best kind of tires are designed specifically for your style and location of riding:
For example, city bike tires are made to be reliable and to feel comfortable on asphalt. For those who live in the north, there are also winter tires with excellent grip on snow and ice.
Slick and semi-slick tires for riding around town are great for professional and recreational cyclists who get around by bike, even when they’re not touring or riding in a group.
All-terrain tires, on the other hand, are ideal for cyclists who use their hybrid bicycles to go to school and work on the weekdays—but go out in the mountains with family and friends on weekends.
Good tires cost so much because they’re designed for a specific type of bike, terrain, and style of riding. This requires thoughtful design, quality materials, and sturdy construction that make the tire fit for purpose and fit for use.
Tires are one of the components of a bicycle that are always worth spending a little more on. They are the only thing standing between you and the ground, and how well they work determines how safe, fast, stable, and comfortable you are.
I’d go for a good bike with great tires over a great bike with good tires on any day, and so should you.