A Mile in Their Shoes

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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.

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25 comments

  1. todd k

    I’ve gone as high as 32 and I really enjoy those 32′s….friggin monster truck tire, but a darn nice tire even at that size and can ride over almost any condition I would care to through at it. I cant fit a fender around them, though, this time of year, so I moved back to down to a 28 during the rainy season.

  2. Sachi

    My favorite tires back in the 80s were Clément Campionato del Mondos, nice fat 27-28 mm tubulars. Vittoria’s 28 mm tubulars are every bit as nice, and noticeably more supple than the 24s.

  3. armybikerider

    +++1 on the 25 clinchers. Especially on the Cannondale 2.8 frame – arguably the stiffest frame ever made. I’ve got a vintage 1993 C-Record equipped 2.8 in my garage that does duty as a roller bike. Even fat sew ups aren’t enough to mute the jarring on my old body.

  4. TV@VT

    Keep your eyes out for the new wider Vittoria Open Pave tire coming out this spring – 700 x 27! Can’t wait to try those. Haven’t seen one yet, but I hear they’re coming soon. Anyone else try one yet?

  5. Stekie

    Another vote for 25 mm clinchers. Even the least comfortable aluminium frame becomes (more or less) a sedan with them. After a winter on 25 mm GP4Season there’s no way of going back to narrower tires.

  6. Q

    I decided I should try fatter tires a couple of years ago while repairing a pinch flat on the side of the road. I installed 25s and haven’t looked back. No more flats. Because they are ridable at lower PSI, I can be lazier about how often I reinflate as well.

  7. August Cole

    Thanks for the comments. I may be preaching to the converted. Tubeless could be another interesting step, particularly for the 25+ width tires.

    Q: I ran my tires (25 Michelin) down to low 80s in the front, mid 80s in the rear, this winter. Awesome.

    Army Bike Rider: Glad it’s not just me. Great bike for sprinting, but a brute. I swore I would never buy another aluminum road bike again and ended up on a ti bike. The new Caad10s look more civilized… and may fit fat tires too.

  8. Alex TC

    I’m sticking to the 23 for the moment, but I’ve been riding wide-rim wheels for sometime now. Started with the originals, the HED Ardennes few yrs ago, love at the first ride and immediately became a convert (and a preacher too). The 23s look and feel more like 25s on them or pretty much any wide rim, anything above 22-23mm wide has the same effect, so I felt no need to move up to 25 (yet) even after a couple of months on a pair.

  9. Michael

    I ride 28s on my travel/winter/mixed-road-type bike and love them, but on my light road bike, I ride 23s. However, being small and light, I ride 85-90 psi in them, so they ride really well too. The only pinch flats I have had also dented the rim (unsignaled pothole on a double century ride with strangers), and I doubt higher pressure would have saved me. Whatever size diameter lets you run lower pressures seems to be the ticket.

  10. Hautacam

    August? The same August who was a shop rat (a loving term) at a certain bike shop at the north end of the U District in Seattle and who rode for the MTB team there at least one summer? Who later went on to work at another local shop located a stone’s throw from Greenlake? I hope so!

    Nice piece of writing in any event.

    I’m on Vittoria cx 700×25 folding clinchers. And box section clincher rims. Love ‘em. They go well with my 23+ year-old lugged steel frame from that same north end U District shop.

    Best from the 206 and a La Vie Boue alumnus.

  11. david smith

    August:
    3 years ago, standing up to get through an intersection on the 2.8 the left side crankarm snapped (due to age certainly NOT watts). My wife convinced that the old C’dale would likely snap next so she encouraged me to go for the comfort of Ti also. 19,000 miles later, my Lynskey has yet to let me down. I’l never go back to Al.

  12. Jonathan

    August: I’m currently throwing legs over a 2011 CAAD10 – and while the winter has been thawing out slowly here in CO I’ve been running some Clement Strada 28′s on it. They fit perfectly fine and have made a great wider winter tire! On a great bike if I can say so myself.

  13. Gary

    33mm is my new favorite size. There’s a section of scenic road in Contra Costa County here in California that has been closed to cars for years (because of landslides) and not maintained. It has developed monumental and irregular longitudinal cracks. No worries for me as I bomb down the descents feeling like a kid. Unless you need a race bike, I would suggest that wide tires at lower pressures are a simpler and better solution to bad roads than silicon frame inserts, seat tube/top tube decouplers, and other techie workarounds.

  14. August Cole

    Hautacam: That may be my doppleganger. Glad to know the other Augusts are giving us a good name. I worked for a spell at Montlake Bicycle Shop in sales during the summer after high school; what it lacked in pro-deals it made up for with truly excellent colleagues. I road raced for a year college in Philadelphia (which is a strong cycling town ), though I lined up at Seward Park crits once or twice… I haven’t owned a mountain bike since my ’86 RockHopper, but that may change some day. It should change sooner than later.

    Gary: 33s. Respect. My next bike is likely some time off, but fitting a tire like that with a road caliper is going to be a, or THE, key design feature for the builder. I can cram a 25 Michelin, which may be bigger than 25mm, into my current bike but it’s not enough. More. Too many good rides around here could be great ones with a bit more float, particularly in fall/winter/spring in the Boston area, which is to say just about all the time.

    Jonathan: That’s a perfect pairing. Year round use is next!

  15. Maremma Mark

    The Ruffy Tuffy in the photo at the top of the page are my tire of choice for the Eroica. I’ve ridden that eight times with those tires and had only one flat. They handle all the punishment you can dish out. For tubulars, the Vittoria Pave with the green stripes are sublime, I’ve got those on a Tommasini lugged steel frame and it’s a great combination. Though I’d like to find a pair of the Challenge tubulars which, strangely, are absent in Italy even though they’re supposedly made by an Italian company. Go figure.

    Wide tires are great, once you try them there’s no going back.

  16. Dave O

    Supple? Sublime? We’re talking about tires not enhancement surgery right?

    Ride what you want, ride what suits you and stay off the merchandising “I am what I buy” mentality that has many in debt up to their a**.

    Electronic shifting, disc brakes, its a wonder anyone was able to ride 50 years ago…

  17. MattS

    I could go on and on about the virtues of tires larger than 23mm, but the latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly covers the topic far better than I ever could. Power meter testing on a track showed hand-glued prototype Challenge 33mm slick clinchers were faster than all others tested (over 20), including Vittoria Evo Corsa CX tubulars, and a couple very supple tires out of production. I’ve spent thousands of kilometres on Grand Bois in 29 and 32mm, Challenges in 29, and a few others of lesser quality in the same size range. These tires mentioned are all quite supple and fast. BQs testing suggests 25s are faster than 23s, and when you go up to 32mm, you don’t lose significant speed on a smooth surface (if you lose any at all; some fatties are faster than most of the skinnier tires), and on rough surfaces, the larger tires are faster. Basically, the testing lines up with my experience. I use 25mm tubulars for road races,, 23mm tubeless for training (only because there are no remotely supple 25s), and 32mm Grand Bois on my al-road bike for the long days on mixed surfaces. That’s the most fun set-up to ride, those tires are beauties. And there is a new Extra Leger, more supple version out!

  18. August Cole

    Dave O: Couldn’t agree more (and if you saw what I ride you’d see what I mean …). I think tires are mostly a utilitarian choice and are apart from the ‘m’a-tu vu?’ side of cycling. They can still be rewarding or satisfying to use, however, particularly when they let you go places on your bike you’re not expected to go.

  19. Sam

    Tires have always been the most important part (car or bike). You can have all the power in the world, but if your tires can’t handle it, what’s the point?

    As long as that tire is made by Dugast or Vittoria, just make it fit what you’re riding.

  20. LesB

    To ScottyCycles or anyone who can illuminate:

    “25′s are the way to go. Smoother ride and less rolling resistance than smaller tires.”

    This is counter to my knowledge of the subject. I thought the whole purpose of thin high-pressure tires was reduction of rolling resistance.

    As far as smoothness, I love the way my bike with 700′s feels on the road and I’d never care to alter that ride. But there’s a lot to be said for less rolling resistance, and if that can be accomplished with fatter tires, I’d consider.

  21. sterlingbbiking

    my Felt roadie is shod with 25′s pro4 michelins and a Giant crosser with conti 32′s gatorskins. you know, I just love the look of wider rubber.
    and they sing different too!

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