They say you can tell a lot about a man by his shoes. I say you can tell a lot about a cyclist by their tires. When I worked in Washington, D.C., if you met someone wearing glossy ebony dress shoes and an over-sized Timex running watch with a nice suit, they almost certainly spent some serious time in the military.
Likewise, when you’re out on the road this spring and your eye catches the green stripe of a plump Vittoria tubular and a supple big-ring cadence, that rider is someone you don’t want to half-wheel. You want to follow. If you can.
An inch-wide tubular painstakingly glued on a carbon rim symbolizes all that is wonderful about a sport endlessly grappling with its origins and its future. That is why this combination of past and present will be the weapon of choice during the spring racing in Belgium and France.
Bicycle frames, particularly at the high end, become more alike with each season but the tires we select reveal our individual traditions and aspirations. There is so much bound up in that tiny friction point between our Earth and our speeding bodies that fly above it. What you choose says more about you than your kit. Maybe even your frame.
Show up on a Sunday ride in April looking like a Flemish hardman? That’s cool. Got 25s? On that day anything narrower than your thumb won’t cut it even if your legs reek of embro. Equip a crit-specialist’s machine with 28s? Trouble. The good kind.
These days picking tires is like cruising the cereal aisle with a 5-year old. Everything looks delicious. The wide wheel and wide tire movement sweetens things even more, whether you’re a winter commuter, a century aficionado or a Cat 3 who gets regular pro-deals.
For my part, I count on 25mm clinchers tougher than four-day old rice.
Some of the best advice I ever received was from a mechanic at a Seattle bike shop where I worked selling bikes right around the end of high school, half my lifetime ago. I bought my first bike there with the intent of racing, a slick red Cannondale 2.8. When I asked a mechanic I liked a lot what I should do to make the bike “better,” he had two pieces of advice: Learn how to fix it and ride 25s.
That sage in the shop apron offered me a direct path to competence and comfort. I wasn’t ready for that mundane answer. It was the early 90s. Something anodized and unaffordable was the response I wanted. While I failed to become even a passable wrench even on my own gear, I did eventually start riding wider tires a couple of years later after my brain started returning my aching lower back’s persistent calls.
That’s what works for me. What works for you will also say a lot about your origins as a rider, and your future. With that in mind, maybe you should not measure a man by his tires, at least until you’ve ridden a mile, or 40, on them.