The Life and Death of Narrow Bicycle Tyres

July 10, 2017
Roller Training Tyres
October 3, 2019

The Life and Death of Narrow Bicycle Tyres

by Rae Earl

Continental Tyres Logo Orange

The Conti R&D team in Germany spent years telling disbelieving cyclists that wider tyres are better than narrow ones. Well, the penny has finally dropped. Interac’s years of preaching this gospel of proven physics, (it earned us the reputation of being out of touch with reality), has finally been put to rest. So, what eventually spelled the demise of the super narrow tyres? Well, in a nutshell, the bicycle manufacturers along with wheel and other component producers, decided to listen to their counterparts in the tyre industry because what they were saying made loads of sense.

Remember the days when dinosaurs and 700 x 18C tyres ruled the Earth? They were fabulous (the tyres that is), as the overriding perception was that 18C tyres weighed next to nothing, could be inflated to 10 or 12 bars pressure, and, because they were so thin and pumped so hard, they had super low wind resistance and close to zero rolling resistance (a myth). As I said, that was the perception. Factually, it was mostly a load of crap. It took a while, but eventually, the downside of these horrendous little tyres started impacting on cyclists.

An 18mm wide tyre inflated to 10 bars is harder than a whore’s heart. Using these things is akin to riding on your wheel rims without the tyres. Even the tiniest of road surface imperfections are translated into shock waves which travel at the speed of sound from the wheel rims into the spokes, then on to the wheel hubs, through the drop-outs and into the frame. From there, this unrelenting transfer of vibration breezes up into the steering stem and seat post before finally finding a nice soft landing in your kidneys. After a 180km race on these things on rough roads, you had blurred vision, numbed hands, and you probably pissed blood for a couple of days. After two or three thousand kilometres on 18C tyres your bike’s wheel rims, spokes, hubs, and steering components were probably in worse shape than your kidneys and your local repair shop loved you.

For us at Interac, selling 18C Conti tyres was wonderful. Instead of deflecting over and around road debris like a 25C tyre, an 18C hammers down onto and bounces off objects in a litany of self-destruction. Interac’s tyre sales in those days were directly proportional to these extreme levels of attrition. After a couple of years of this crazy trend, the law of diminishing returns kicked in and cyclists realised that limited tyre life and serious levels of down time was not in their best interests.

The migration to the more durable 700 x 20C tyres and from there to 23C happened within a couple of years and there it stopped for over 2 decades. The switch from 18mm tyres to 23mm was considered such a quantum leap that anybody who suggested going even wider, was regarded as a weirdo. The destructive annual Paris-Roubaix race was probably the catalyst which was needed to underscore Continental’s claims that wider is better.

Next time round I’ll tell you about wide tyres and the exaggerated hype around the importance of rolling resistance.

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