Many of us commute daily with thoughts of work, weather and family life shuffling around in our minds, but rarely do we think about the tyres that are helping get us to our destination. And while it's not a common thought, it certainly should be as choosing the right tyres for commuting can improve comfort, safety, speed and overall riding experience - not to mention reduce the chance of a dreaded flat. We've previously covered what to know when buying a commuter bike, and so now it's time to cover which tyres are the best for commuting and why.
Tyres for commuting basics
Tyres suitable for commuting can fall under multiple names and often depend on your bike of choice and the terrain you cover on your journey. Generally speaking, tyres for commuting need to provide good grip, comfort and durability to handle the ever-changing urban environment and variety of terrain you'll be faced with. Great tyres for commuting could be road, touring, cyclocross and/or urban tyres, and so to help differentiate the three, we've briefly described each below.
Typically, touring tyres are exceptional commuter tyres built for enormous distances on varying terrain and provide superior puncture resistance.
If you’re on a road bike, you’re likely limited by frame clearance. In this case, you should look at training road tyres with puncture resistance. The 'training' aspect of these tyres means they’ve been designed for all-weather use and durability in mind. Go for the widest your frame can fit comfortably.
And if neither seems like the right fit for your bike, then urban bike tyres or cyclocross tyres may be what you’re after. Urban tyres, designed for tarmac and bike path use, are typically a little lighter and more affordable when compared to touring tyres. Cyclocross tyres are a good option for those that ride on gravel and dirt paths to get to work as they feature toned down versions of tread patterns found on mountain bikes.
The are three main tyre types you'll encounter - tubular, tubeless and clincher - all with slightly different compositions and features. Clincher tyres are the ones we are most familiar with and the tyre type that most commuters will use as almost every new bike is equipped with them. Clincher tyres require a tube, which sits in between the wheel rim and the tyre to inflate and hold air. In the event of a puncture, this inner tube can easily be replaced or patched as long as you have the right equipment and know how. Clincher tyres are held in place via a steel (aka: wire) or kevler fiber bead (aka: folding) on their side, which hooks underneath the ridges of a wheel rim to hold the tyre in place.
The other tyre type you are likely to encounter is tubeless, which is growing in popularity after being used on mountain and cyclocross bikes for a long period of time. There is literally no tube with tubeless tyres, instead, it is just a tyre that hooks onto the wheel as a normal clincher would, but with much tighter tolerances to create a firmer, airtight seal. The sealant is then added into the tyre to plug small holes and splits if they occur, reducing the chance of flats. Tubeless tyres can be run at lower pressures, improving traction, comfort and control. In order to use tubeless tyres, you'll need compatible wheels.
The final tyre type, tubular, is popular with professional road riders due to the performance benefits they provide but are not a practical tyre choice for commuting.
Anatomy of a tyre
To know what to look for when purchasing tyres for commuting, it will be helpful if you have a good understanding of the elements that a tyre is made of.
Bead: For clincher and tubeless tyres, the bead holds the tyre onto the rim and is typically made from either wire or kevlar, wire featuring on inexpensive tyres, kevlar featuring on more premium options.
Casing: The casing is the foundation of the tyre, connecting the beads to one another and providing enough resistance from stretch to keep the air in while conforming to the ground surface. The casing is made from either nylon, cotton or silk and measured in 'threads per inch' or 'TPI'. Tyres with a lower TPI count (e.g: 60 TPI) provide good puncture protection but poor rolling resistance, conversely, tyres with high TPI counts (120 TPI +) provide a more supple ride with good rolling resistance but often with reduced puncture protection. The suppleness of a tyre heavily influences it's ride quality and grip.
Sidewall: This is literally the side of the tyre and is part of the casing that isn't intended to touch the ground, as a consequence this part of the tyre is the thinnest. Important details such as the wheel and tyre size, and recommended tyre pressure will be found on the sidewall.
In order to improve their resistance to punctures, many tyres will add a 'sub-tread' layer or 'puncture proof belt'. Some tyres will simply feature more rubber, increasing the thickness of the tread, while others will use specific materials to enhance their resilience. Some sturdier tyres designed for winter training and commuting will feature puncture protection in the sidewall too – if you want to avoid flats at all costs, seek tyres with such a feature. Typically, the more puncture protection a tyre offers, the slower and heavier it is.
Keeping your tyres at the correct pressure, checking for embedded objects and cleaning your bike regularly are all things you can do to reduce your risk of punctures.
There are a number of factors that influence grip, and perhaps surprisingly to some, the tread pattern isn't one of them. Tread patterns can help shed water and when off road can provide additional grip, but on smooth tarmac, they actually lead to less contact with the road and less grip as a result. A smooth tyre at the correct pressure and with the right rubber compound will provide the best grip on tarmac, and if you cross some trails along the way, then a tyre with a light tread pattern should be more than enough. You'll commonly see commuter tyres with a subtle tread pattern for light trail riding and rough roads but thicker and more pronounced tread patterns are best left to mountain bikes as they create a substantial drag on smooth surfaces.
That then leads to the question, what is the correct pressure? Each tyre will differ but the less pressure in your tyre, the larger the contact patch with the ground, which increases the tyre's grip. The downside of running too low a tyre pressure is the increased chance of pinch flats. So there is a balance to be reached. The sidewall of the tyre should provide a range of pressures specific to the tyre so always remain within those tolerances.
Tyre compounds will also play a role in grip. Softer tyre compounds provide better grip over harder compounds but will wear more quickly. Many more premium tyres for commuting will comprise of 'dual' tread that features a harder compound along the middle to aid durability and speed, and then a softer compound on the sides to aid grip. Again, there's a balance that must be reached between a soft enough compound to provide ample grip and a hard enough compound to wear appropriately and ward off sharp objects.
If you are purchasing a complete bike than tyre width is not likely to be a key consideration as the correct tyres will be installed already, however, with regular riding, your tyres will wear out and you'll need to replace them. You may also find you want to increase your speed or enhance the tyre's durability, in which case knowing the correct tyre width and how it influences the ride is important.
As mentioned, tyres for commuting are generally wider than standard road tyres but narrower than mountain bike tyres. The most common road tyres widths are 23c, 25c and 28c (millimeters) compared to mountain bike tyres which are commonly 2.0in to 2.2in. This is because tyres for commuting aim to provide better grip, comfort and durability than road bike tyres but don't want to create unnecessary rolling resistance (due to more pronounced tread pattern) and carry the extra weight of mountain bike tyres.
Most commuter bikes use tyres in the range of 28c to 42c that provide goods levels of comfort, grip, durability and speed. Larger tyres can also be run at a lower pressure, further aiding comfort and grip and enhancing rollover ability which comes in handy when clearly obstacles.
Before you go buying the largest tyre available, it's important to know that the tyre's width must sit within the recommended wheel rim range and not be compromised by frame clearance, brakes or any additional accessories such as fenders. Consult your place of purchase if you're unsure of the limits of your bike.
Wheel diameter is something to be aware of depending on whether you intend on commuting on a road, touring, cyclocross, mountain or another style bike.
Road, touring and urban bikes will typically feature 700c wheels. Due to their size, these wheels roll well and provide a smooth ride thanks to the increased air volume over smaller wheels.
While you’ll struggle to find variances in the size of road, touring or urban wheels, mountain bikes typically come equipped with either 29in, 27.5in or even 26in wheels.
If you are commuting on a mountain bike, a great option is to purchase a set of ‘slick’ tyres to replace the typical mountain bike tyres that feature a highly pronounced tread pattern and carry additional weight. These are often sold as either urban or touring tyres. Of note, 29in wheels share a tyre diameter with 700c tyres, so your options are plentiful.
Reflective sidewalls: Visibility is a key consideration when riding on poorly-lit roads so to aid safety many tyres suited to commuting have reflective sidewalls. This increases the chance of other road users seeing you and giving you sufficient space as the reflection is coming from the farthest points of your bike instead of the handlebars or seatpost like traditional lights.
Valve types: Valves are bonded onto tubes in order to be inflated and road tyres have two options; Schrader and Presta. Presta valves (aka - high pressure or 'French' valves) are most commonly found on higher-end bikes and are easy to recognise because they are significantly narrower than Schrader valves. Schrader valves are most commonly found on recreational and entry level road bikes, they are also the same valves used on car tyres. As each valve is different, unique connections at the pump head are often required to pump up the corresponding tyre. Schrader connections require a pin to push down the spring, whereas presta valves are opened via the lock ring. Read our How to Pump Up a Bike Tyre article for more information on valve tyres.
Mudguards and Fenders: These add-ons can make riding in inclement weather much more bearable, shielding you from the spray of water, mud, and grime. The only consideration you need to make is does the mudguard or fender impact the maximum tyre size allowable? There needs to be sufficient clearance for some mudguards so it's worth checking this before purchase.