There are so many different ways to ride a bike. Some people use their bikes to commute daily to work. Others spend their weekends bombing down hills in the woods. Still, more only get their bike out once in a while to go to the beach or park.
Whatever your level of biking prowess, you’ve probably noticed there are many options out there for modifying your bike. Custom seats, handlebars, pedals—the upgrade possibilities are seemingly endless.
If you’ve had the same set of tires on your bike for a while, a new set of tires is a stellar upgrade. Before you run out and buy that new set, though, keep reading to make sure you understand what kinds of tires are available and why you might choose thin vs thick bike tires.
Understanding Bike Tire Sizes
First of all, let’s change up our vocabulary a bit here. The words “thin” and “thick” aren’t words the biking community consistently uses to describe tires. The words “narrow” and “wide” are more descriptive, but they are used in the same way.
When people who are new to biking ask about the differences between “thin” vs “thick” bike tires, they are asking about the differences between “narrow” and “wide” bike tires. Typically, narrow tires work best on roads or other flat, paved surfaces. Wide tires are usually found on mountain bikes or other off-road vehicles.
If you’re wondering whether to put thin or thick tires on your bike, it may surprise you to learn that there are four significant categories of bike tires. Each one serves a different purpose.
Let’s look at those categories and talk about when you might choose each particular type of tire for your bike.
Road tires are very narrow tires with very little tread on them. They usually measure between 18-22mm wide and run at high pressure (between 80 and 120psi.) The low tread, narrow width, and high pressure make them very fast.
Road tires are sometimes called road racing tires because they are the type of tires usually used by professional racers. That doesn’t mean you can’t put them on your road bike, though!
Before you put road tires on your bike, make sure you won’t need to take your bike into any unpaved places. Road tires perform very well on pavement but don’t have enough traction for use on grass, gravel, mud, or sand.
Urban and Commuter Tires
These are probably the tires that most people think of when they think of bike tires. They’re similar to road tires but usually slightly wider and have more tread. The bike you had growing up probably had something similar to commuter tires on it.
The definition of commuter tires is pretty flexible. Some commuters want very slick, narrow tires that are almost like road tires, while others want something thicker and more durable. Most commuter tires are narrow, with a tread that doesn’t have knobs but does have ridges. Commuter tires are not “knobbly” like mountain bike tires are.
Commuter tires are light and fast enough to be efficient on paved streets but thick and durable enough to hold up against uneven pavements, cracks, gravel, and other obstacles. They measure at various widths and fit various wheel sizes.
Gravel and Cyclocross Tires
Gravel tires are the next step up from commuter tires in the tire size hierarchy. Gravel and Cyclocross tires are wider than commuter tires, with thicker, knobbly tread. They are closer to mountain bike tires than they are to road tires. Many gravel tires are slimmed-down versions of mountain bike tires.
As their name implies, gravel tires are suitable to use on gravel. However, many commuters and touring bikers choose them because of their durability and increased comfort. The tread is often smoother in the center and more knobbly on the outside for improved handling and stability.
Gravel tires run at a lower psi than road tires and will slow you down slightly on the pavement. They typically measure between 32-40mm and fit a wheel size of around 27.5 inches.
Mountain Bike Tires
Mountain bike tires work well in many different conditions, but there is no one type of mountain bike tire. However, in general, they are wider, more knobbly, and less pressurized than any other type of tire. They are on the thicker end of the tire size spectrum.
The main difference between the various types of mountain bike tires is the tread pattern. People ride mountain bikes in clay, sand, grass, loam, dirt, hardpack, and rock. Each surface requires a slightly different tread pattern for safety and optimal riding.
Mountain bike tires measure between two and three inches wide. They fit wheels of 26, 27.5, and 29 inches and run at a low psi.
Thin vs Thick Bike Tires: Which Should You Put on Your Bike?
What will you do with the bike? That is the main question you should answer before putting tires on your bike. If you plan to get involved in road bike racing or mountain biking, you’ll need either road bike or mountain bike tires. But what if you’re a casual rider or commuter?
The most important thing to think about when choosing bike tires for casual riding is the type of terrain you’ll be riding on. Even if you’re a casual rider, you might opt for gravel or mountain bike tires if all your riding will be done off-road.
For casual riders, the best tires are usually the ones that provide the most comfort and durability. Since you won’t be riding your bike very often and won’t be racing it, you don’t need to worry too much about performance. You want something that will last a long time without much maintenance.
Commuter tires are a good choice for casual street riders because they are durable enough to avoid punctures and light enough to ride on the road. Likewise, commuter tires are also a solid choice for commuters.
Touring cyclists and those bikers who plan to use their bike for camping or carrying a lot of gear might want to try putting one type of tire on the front wheel and a different type on the back. A skinny road tire on the front wheel with a bigger gravel tire on the back provides a nice mix of lightweight speed, plus a cushion for the load you’re hauling.
If you’re choosing tires for your bike for the first time, the best thing to do to ensure you get the right ones is to consult a professional at a bike shop. People who work at bike shops love to talk about bikes! They also love to help people get the most out of their bikes.
Beyond simply helping you choose the right type of tires for your bike, a bike shop employee can also help you buy the right size tires and put them on for you.
Finally, only time will tell whether you’ve chosen the right tires for your bike. Once you’ve ridden the bike for a while and gotten a feel for the tires, you can decide if the tires you picked are right for you.