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How to tell when a road bike tire needs to be replaced

Just like your brakes, strips and chains, tires on a road bike don’t last forever. It’s just part of doing business, the more you ride, the more often you wear rubber compounds or damage tires by riding on glass or debris on the road.

The latter is pretty simple – if you have a hole or cut in your tire, it’s time to replace it – but what are some other signs that your road bike tire needs to be replaced?

Before we get into how to tell, a first note: If you think it’s time for a new tire, it probably is. Check your tires carefully before every ride and don’t try to prolong their life. Riding on a faulty tire not only puts your wheelset at risk of damage after a puncture, but it can also be dangerous if the tire fails in traffic or flying downhill.

From worn tread to “I shouldn’t have so many flats,” here are six simple tips for when you need to replace your road bike tires.

You may have ridden the store and then a dusty old cruiser with a cracked sidewall, but paired cracks and air pressure over 80 PSI are not a good combination. If you notice cracks in your tires due to age or exposure to harsh environments, it’s time to replace them. It may also indicate that your bike needs additional TLC, such as new brake pads and chain lube.

As we mentioned above, if your tire has a cut or hole (no matter how successfully you start it with a gel or dollar bill), it’s time to replace it. It’s that simple.

Apartments, Apartments and More Apartments
It’s always a good idea to double-check your tires for staples, glass, or debris after being punctured and before you install a new tube and ride. If you can’t find the culprit, and you’ve sacrificed a few tubes to the bike gods, it might be a good idea to start over with a new set of tires.

bald step
This can be a little tricky because road bike tires have shallow grooves in their tread. Look closely at the surface of the tire to make sure there is still a visible pattern (not applicable if you are riding a slick). If it looks excessively worn, especially if you can see the casing, it’s time to replace it.

Note that depending on the brand of your tires, you may have a wear indicator that slowly begins to wear out over the life of the tire. Once you can’t see it (it could be a different color or a small groove), it’s time to replace it.

Always check your tires for any defects or inconsistencies, whether it’s a manufacturer’s issue or a usage issue. Most road bike tires come in a folded package, and problems can arise if they are folded for too long. Additionally, riding on hot surfaces can cause the rubber to soften and possibly fail at high PSI.

has a ridge
A “healthy” tire should essentially look like a scoop of ice cream (the tire), resting on a cone (the rim). Since the middle of the tire has the most contact with the ground (especially on trainers), you will start to wear this rubber, creating a flat ridge in the center of the tire. As this square section becomes more extreme, your bike will start to handle differently and you will be more susceptible to the flat. Usually, the rear tire needs to be replaced first, as this is where the friction is greatest while riding.

Side note: When changing tires and tubes, don’t just throw them away. Take them to your bike shop or local tire shop for recycling, and the rubber can be reused for other uses.

Learn how to understand aerodynamics and rolling resistance and why they are so important when choosing the right wheels and tires for training and racing.

If you’ve ever ridden deep rims on a windy day, you’ve felt the pull of your bike against the wind. Or, you might have put on new tires and got a feel for how they really grip the road in tight turns. Knowing the basics behind wheels and tires can help you make an informed buying choice.

low speed aerodynamics
Bikes travel at very low speeds compared to airplanes or Formula 1 cars, so not all the same aerodynamic principles apply. When optimizing bicycle tires and wheels, bicycle manufacturers use computational fluid dynamics modeling and test their gear in low-speed wind tunnels. CFD modeling allows us to “see” how air molecules move around an object. This is an important factor when designing bicycle components designed to reduce surface friction caused by wind resistance.

How important is aerodynamics? Bike manufacturer Specialized built its own in-house “Win Tunnel” to help design and optimize bikes, wheels and tires. Aerodynamics is a key component of speed. The more aerodynamic it is, the faster it moves for the same effort.

rolling resistance
In addition to aerodynamics, the rolling resistance of a tire on the road also affects speed and handling. Rolling resistance is the friction between two surfaces, one of which is stationary – the road – and the other rolling on the first surface – the tire. If we reduce rolling resistance — the friction between the tire and the road surface — the same object will roll farther with the same thrust.

When riding a high-performance tire with low rolling resistance, your same effort (eg, 200 watts) will cause your bike to roll farther on the road

wheel depth
Deep rim wheels allow air to “stick” to the sides of the wheel for longer. When this happens, the air friction on the wheels and the turbulence created at the trailing edges on either side of the wheels are also reduced. This is also known as the resistance factor. The lower the drag coefficient, the faster the wheel.

Front and rear wheel size
You may have seen drivers with different front and rear wheels. The choice of the front wheel has a bigger impact on the handling of the bike. While disc wheels are the fastest aerodynamically, using disc wheels in the front can make the bike difficult to steer. You may only see front and rear discs on track bikes. For outdoor races like time trials and triathlons, you will often see deeper rim front and rear discs. If the wind blows, you may see riders opting for a shallower front wheel and a darker rim rear for improved handling.

Front disc wheels are prohibited on road bikes and triathlons due to the dangers of using disc wheels on the road.

wheel width
The recent trend is back to wider wheels. Wider wheels allow for wider bike tires, which have been shown to provide lower rolling resistance and therefore be faster than narrower tires. It is important to pay attention to the width of the wheel and use tires that are within the wheel’s approved range. Both tire and wheel manufacturers provide recommended optimum widths.

Wheel Rim Shape

Current trends for choosing wheels are not only going for a deeper profile but also wheels that are wider at their midsection and blunt at their spokebeds. This is to reduce air turbulence drag as it moves passed the wheel while still allowing for good handling.

Dimples and Sawteeth

Dimples on the surface of wheels—like those found on a golf ball—allow air to better adhere to the sides of the wheel. This creates an air “cushion” around the wheel or a boundary layer. The air flowing against air, instead of air flowing against the wheel surface, reduces turbulence.

A wheel with a “sinusoidal” profile is designed for improved handling in windy conditions.

The different depths across the interior edge of a wheel improve aerodynamics by offering characteristics of both deeper- and shallower-depth wheels. The goal of this shape is to make the wheel feel less “squirrelly.”

Crosswinds and Deep Wheels

Unless you’re riding in a wind tunnel, you will never experience a direct headwind for the entire duration of an event. This is why most deep wheels are optimized to perform in real-world conditions where the wind is “attacking you” at various angles from the side. Crosswinds can affect handling, but they do not change aerodynamics. The very design features that make wheels aerodynamic also make them fast in windy conditions.

Pro Tip: The more you practice riding with your deep-profile race wheels in variable wind conditions, the more comfortable and therefore the faster you’ll be on race day. 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Though it seems counterintuitive, wider tires have smaller contact patches compared to narrower tires. If you think about how your weight on the bike pushes the tires into the road, a wider tire will spread out wider across the width of the tire but the length of the contact patch will be shorter. This decreased length of the contact surface means decreased friction between the road and your tire. 

Continental states that its 25mm tire has 10 to 15 percent less rolling resistance than its 23mm tire. A 23mm tire inflated to 123psi, a 25mm tire inflated to 94psi and a 28mm tire inflated to 80psi all have the same rolling resistance.

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