Wider Road Tyres – Busting the ‘Skinny is Faster’ Myth

Once upon a time, in the UK at least, the bicycle was a utilitarian beast. It had to get you to work, carried out leisure riding duties at the weekend, transported you to the neighbouring village for wooing purposes and, every now and then, got used for racing. As the sport of cycling progressed, however, such work horses were sidelined by the racing establishment in favour of lighter, faster, dedicated speed machines.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, as road bikes got progressively lighter and technology improved, all sorts of changes came to pass. Seat posts, then bars, then frames then even wheels were constructed from carbon fibre. Aero farings came and went. Shifting got smoother, faster and more wide ranging. Brakes became slightly better. Even riders changes shape (compare Fausto Coppi to Chris Froome).

Yet one thing remained the same. If you were racing, you wanted narrow 23c (or even 21c) tyres pumped up as hard as they would go. This was the rule. High pressure, super narrow tyres offered lower rolling resistance and made you go faster. Which was technically true – on a glass smooth surface, a rock solid tyre the width thumb was faster rolling than a lower pressure, wider tyre.

The ‘skinny tyre brigade’ held high tyre pressures as a badge of honour. If you could handle a bike travelling at 80kph, down an alpine descent, with just a few millimetres of diamond hard rubber between you and oblivion, then you were a master bike handler. Running 120psi plus meant that your sprints would be more effective than the opposition. Even casual riders followed this established rule. Commuters would buy higher rated track pumps. Teenagers and middle aged weekend warriors alike would seek out tyres with the highest possible tyre rating and then exceed it by ten percent, just because they could. Conventional wisdom held and still does for many, that the narrower and harder your tyres the faster and more efficient your riding would be.

But there was a (and is) problem. Very few races are held on glass. They are usually on open roads, where cars and lorries go. These are NOT smooth surfaces. As a general rule, they are full of potholes, covered in debris and, being made of Tarmac, are essentially a continual slight washboard surface for super hard tyres. Listen carefully and you can actually hear your bike crying slightly as your harder than concrete tyres beat the hell out of the rims, frame and your wrists. Advanced analysis techniques allowed race teams and manufacturers to analyse what was going on and it turned out that, in fact, when the combined effects of rock solid rubber constantly meeting with road resistance and the fatigue caused by endless vibrations are taken into account, narrow 140psi tyres in most roads were actually a disadvantage. The narrower + harder = faster equation was deeply flawed. Reality simply got in the way.

What was needed were slightly wider, slightly softer tyres to cope with the real world. With the data in the professionals were the first to take notice. By the end of the 2014 race season, almost every professional team was running 25c tyres at around 100psi, sometimes less. Many manufacturers created damping devices on their bikes to reduce fatigue. There was an increasing understanding that beating the bike and rider into submission did not make for great race results week-in-week-out.

Then a few bike companies went further…much further. Boosting tyre size to 27c or even 33c, Genesis bikes discovered, allows tyres to be run at lower pressures still. Now the riders were essentially floating on a cushion of 70-80psi air. Obstacles were breezed over, cornering grip was vastly improved and, contrary to popular myth, riders were not suddenly slowed by sluggish performance. Actually, when you factored out end of race sprints, many riders were able to go faster, for longer.

The 2016 Spring classics saw half a dozen top teams running 27/28c tyres at pressures previously unheard of. Pinch punctures were almost a thing of the past and the lack of rock hard resistance meant that fewer infraction punctures occurred too. Grip and comfort in rough sections (I.e. Most roads) wipers vastly improve. Riders were fresher at the end of long stages. Almost every spring classes was won on bigger volume tyres. The racing world had sat up and taken notice of the boffins, with results on the race circuit ramming home the truth.

But that’s not the end of the story. Forces other than high performance racers were driving this ever growing revolution. Commuters, tired of having racks rattled to pieces, infraction punctured from high pressures, or pinch flats from super skinny tyres, embraced fat rubber as a more comfortable way to get to work. Time saved fixing punctures more than makes up for being a few seconds slower away from the lights. There is also a greater sense of security when you look down and see more than 2 cm of rubber between you and oblivion. Commuters switching from hybrids or mountain bikes also find the fatter rubber more palatable to their bicycle aesthetic.

Cycle tourists and audax riders love the fatter tyre, especially their capacity to wander off the Tarmac for shortcuts or more interesting adventures. The growth in gravel riding from the USA saw a whole new generation of on/off road racers embrace big road rubber. Audax and sportive riders, keen to put in the miles and unconcerned by Strava segments viewed the larger volume tyre as an enormous boon during long days in the saddle.

So what do these bigger tyre bikes look like? Well, Biketart has been quick to pick up on the trend and stocks the remarkable Genesis Datum, perhaps the finest example going. Featuring a super stiff carbon frame for getting the power down, but huge 33c tyres for comfort, lower levels of punctures and light off road performance, the Datum’ s three models have been among the quicker selling bikes that Genesis have ever produced.

With fat rubber, the big winner is the rider. Greater comfort, fewer punctures of any sort, higher levels of endurance and versatility. We even win on price. Saved from creating complex frames that can be both fast and forgiving, manufacturers and spec bikes with better gears and wheels for less money.

With so many winning combinations and increasing numbers of tyre companies producing high performance, high volume rubber, it looks as though big volume road bike tyres are here to stay. Pop into Biketart or browse our website to see if you fancy joining the fat tyre road revolution.