Tire Comfort

I have a suspicion that many people would enjoy their bikes more if they went to slightly larger cross-section tires and ran them at lower pressures than what they’re accustomed to. I typically ride at least 32mm tires for commuting and general utility riding, and I’ll often go up to over 40mm. Of course, the clearance around the fork and chainstays, as well as rim width, place limits on tire size. But still, I often see relatively small diameter tires mounted on bikes that would accept wider rubber. And there’s nothing that says you have to pump your tires to the max pressure listed on the sidewall. I’ll often run my tires at 10-20% under the recommended max pressure to soften the ride; you’d be amazed how much this improves the comfort of any bike. If you’re running small cross-section, high pressure tires, you might be pleasantly surprised by the improvement in ride quality you’ll get from a larger tire run at lower pressure.

Rivendell has an excellent tire recommendation chart that breaks tire choice down by road surface and rider weight/load. View the chart here.

33 Responses to “Tire Comfort”

  • workingdog says:

    Wider tires can be more comfortable, but in my experience, I’ve not found greater comfort from running the tires at a lower pressure. At least for me, running near the max inflation is just as comfortable.

  • Steve Grimmer says:

    Agreed. I bought a Garneau Cityzen 300 last year for year-rounding after my skinny tire bike was stolen, and the Garneau came with 42mm Kenda Kahns. They are surprisingly comfortable and not nearly as slow as the width might suggest. I credit that to the sensible (minimal) tread pattern. Fatty tires make a big difference especially on aluminum frame bikes and the bumpy roads we have here in Winnipeg.

  • Runjikol says:

    Have to agree. The ride quality between 28mm 100psi and 47mm 60psi stands out markedly. Sure the thinner harder tyres make it easier to ride faster but it’s also a harsher ride for the same reason. Over about 70kms the thin hard fast tyres can occasionally give a bit of numbness in the hands but the wide soft tyres present no problems over the same distance.

    If you are finding your ride harsh take the advice of ecovelo and get a fat soft tyre. Like the saying goes, “The bigger the cushion the better the pushin’.”

  • Aaron says:

    The first time I rode my wife’s Polyvalent with 650Bx38 tires, I instantly understood where the love comes from. Very comfortable.

  • Tal Danzig says:

    I have three bikes, all with very different purposes:

    Road bike: 23mm high pressure, low rolling resistance tires
    It’s an aluminium frame, so comfort is minimal anyway, and in this case speed and efficiency take precedence. The Schwalbe Ultremo R is my current choice of tire.

    Commuter single speed: 28mm medium high pressure puncture resistant tires
    28mm Schwalbe Marathon’s provide a compromise between weight, rolling resistance, comfort, and durability. I’m probably a more aggressive commuter rider than average, so this bike is optimized more towards the speed end than comfort.

    Touring bike: 32mm medium pressure puncture resistant tires
    Again Schwalbe Marathon’s, but this time in a 32mm width and at a lower pressure to provide more comfort on this slower, heavier bike where I’m almost never out of the seat. This isn’t the bike I grab when I need to get somewhere quickly.

    Incidentally my choices are pretty much in line with the Rivendell chart linked above.

  • Doug R. says:

    Hello old friend, I enjoy riding my Pashley’s with slightly lower pressures and I agree the ride now has built in “shock absorbers”. However, I commute on a giant rapid that has 125 lb. 700c narrow tires, and I have a fear that running the pressure down on these tires might bring about rim damage when I go over some off road sections on my way to work. I am no expert, but the factory made them a specific way and until I know more, I don’t want to risk it? Fill me in ok?

  • doug in seattle. says:

    My camping rig runs 37s, which are the rough max for the frame. I wouldn’t mind bigger tires, but if I did I would probably want 650b wheels, which do better with huge tires.

    My day-trip rig, a mid-80s Univega road bike, is fitted with 28s. I thought I’d be able to squeeze fenders in there (like my other sadly broken mid-80s road bike), which are more important to me in the long run, but that unfortunately is a no-go. However, when I took my girlfriend’s 32mm equipped wheels and fitted them to my bike there were no problems at all! Time to head down to Recycled Cycles and hunt for some used 32s…

    Yesterday I did a century ride with over 20 miles of rough unpaved trails, and I was really yearning for some more cush. If only to give me an extra year or so before breaking another frame….

  • DerrickP says:

    Absolutely! When I first started riding, I was told to go skinnier. “You’ll get there faster, which equals comfort.” Totally false. I get there just as fast with wide tires. And the wrist pain I had before is almost eliminated by the wider rubber and lower pressure. Thanks, Alan!

  • Eric Haaland says:

    I’ve been following this method outlined in this free article from Bicycle Quarterly: http://www.vintagebicyclepress.com/images/TireDrop.pdf. Basically, you determine the load on each wheel by weighing (or guessing) and then adjust the tire pressure to achieve a 15% tire drop (BQ says that 15% tire drop is the optimal balance of performance, comfort and handling). There’s an easy to read chart showing PSI for various width tires at various wheel loads. I’ve found this method to work well in keeping rolling resistance to a minimum while maximizing comfort.

  • carfreepvd says:

    Doesn’t low pressure increase the risk of pinch flats? Or are you safe if you are only 10-20 % below the recommended pressure?

  • Alan says:

    @Doug R

    If the tires on your Giant are small diameter racing tires, then you’ll need to keep the pressure up to protect the rims. If you have clearance, I’d suggest putting some 32mm tires on it, perhaps something like the blue label Jack Brown, and run them at around 60 psi. It’ll completely change the character of the bike for the better.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Eric

    Thanks a bunch for the link, Eric.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @carfreepvd

    “Doesn’t low pressure increase the risk of pinch flats?”

    It depends on how low the pressure, the cross-section of the tire, the thickness of the tube, the width of the rim, and the weight of the rider and load. Considering the variables, there’s no hard set rule here, but certainly many folks run their tire pressure much higher than needed due to the common misconception that rock hard tires are faster and more efficient. If you’re running at max, I’d try dropping 10-15% and see how it goes. The worse that can happen is a pinch flat, an experiment that will only cost you 10 minutes and $3… :-)

    Alan

  • Logan says:

    In addition to Eric’s link on Jan Heine’s tire drop article y’all may find a recent podcast interview of Jan on this topic interesting. In the audio interview Jan discusses tire drop, width, and pressure and its effects on comfort and speed. Very interesting stuff. He also mentions why skinny tires at high pressures “feel” faster. Jan is pretty good at balancing quantitative engineering values with qualitative assessments to give a great overall picture.

    http://www.terrybicycles.com/media/podcasts/Heine_v1.mp3

    Tammy has been running 48mm Schwalbe big apple tires at 35 psi (the mid-range recommended pressure) and has remarked how much more comfort, speed and control of the bike she feels. I used to wonder why she was so slow descending down the mountain and now she beats me down the hill! :)

  • RDW says:

    I’ve found that Riv tire chart to be just about dead on for me. I’m just short of 250 pounds, ride a mix of road, debris filled shoulder, and dirt paths (and yeah, sometimes sidewalks too) and my Panaracer Pasella TGs 35mm @65-70 psi seem almost perfect. If I was always on smooth pavement I might go a bit smaller but not much.

  • Herzog says:

    I bike around Boston. The condition of the roads here not only seems too rough for a smooth and efficient ride on my 37 mm tires, but seems to provide the only application for full suspension outside of hardcore mountain biking!

    So for me, it’s just *unimaginable* that one could ride on less than 37 mm in the city.

  • Herzog says:

    And BTW, I’m afraid of running my tires underinflated because I feel like I’ll bottom out on a pothole and damage my rim.

  • Rob Sayers says:

    On my Schwinn Voyageur I run 27×1 1/8 Panaracer Pasela TG. I read about people running up to 120 psi on them, and thinking that getting rid of rolling resistance was key, I ran 120/110 for a long time. I assumed that this was a good idea for long rides as it would let me conserve energy over time and let me finish stronger.

    Someone on a brevet told me that they prefer a little more resistance to having every single bump on the road beat you up along the way. The next brevet I ran 90/85. I couldn’t tell a difference in rolling resistance, but it made a huge difference in comfort both on the bike and the day after the brevet where I was not nearly as sore. I’m a believer now!

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    All of my bikes have 32mm-40mm tires, because I like to cycle on mixed terrain and not feel limited. However, I prefer higher pressure and have found that with lower pressure my ride tends to feel slower.

  • Herzog says:

    Logan,

    That link is awesome. Check it out everyone!

  • David says:

    Every tire I’ve seen data for has lower resistance at higher pressure, all the way up to the max allowed pressure. It’s true that the returns start to diminish at higher pressures, but the slope of the curve is still significant as you approach the limit. For this reason, I like to ride with the highest pressure that still feels comfortable. I find that if the bike is fitted properly and over the length of my commute (only 7 miles each way), hand numbness is not an issue even with 32mm tires at 90 psi. In addition to helping to prevent pinch flats, I love the feeling of flying on a well-tuned machine that jumps in response to effort and rolls efficiently and quietly while coasting.

  • j. pierce says:

    See, I do this already. But I think you have to be careful about going to far in this direction – there are a heck of a lot of bikes here I see ridden around burlington with huge mountain bike tires being ridden at low enough PSI it’s a wonder you don’t see sparks. Our roads aren’t *that* bad.

  • Gee says:

    I’m rolling on 28mm with close to max pressure on a Specialized Sirrus. I have a daily commute of 12 minutes. It used to be 20 minutes for a year. I value speed over comfort, or maybe rather speed = “comfort” for my mind. But I might change with my next bike. I’m waiting for a belt drive bike with Alfine 11 to arrive.

  • CTP says:

    I totally disagree… I like skinnier tires at higher pressure, reducing the effort I need to pedal, thus increasing my enjoyment of biking…

  • Alan says:

    @CTP

    Except that often times, unless one is riding on perfect roads and at racing speeds (that second part is a major point), larger diameter, more compliant tires, actually provide lower rolling resistance. For more on this, check out Heine, J., M. Vande Kamp, 2009: Minimizing Suspension Losses. Bicycle Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1, p.12

    Alan

    PS – I should also add that the quality and construction of a tire has a tremendous affect on rolling resistance, in many cases more so than cross-section and pressure.

  • lyle says:

    I’ve had Schwalbe Marathon Supremes for about a month now and have been running them at 85 PSI. The ride is harsher but they are so much faster than the Continentals I had on before which I ran at 60 PSI.

    If I had a single purpose, Saturday only grocery getter, I could see running at a lower PSI, but for me, the loss in speed is simply not worth any possible gain in comfort.

  • Alan says:

    @Lyle

    The Marathon Supremes are bound to be faster than the Contis, regardless of PSI. You might try running your Supremes a little lower; I have them on two bikes and I sometimes run them down around 60-65 psi and I don’t notice any increase in rolling resistance when doing so.

    Alan

  • Gee says:

    @Alan

    Rolling resistance is only one factor. Acceleration/response when launching at a green light or climbing is also a reason for narrow tires and high pressure imo.

  • Carl in San Angelo says:

    My daily commuter has low end Bontrager 700×32’s. I actually run them about 10% over pressure because I don’t like the squirmy feel if they’re any lower. I really dislike them for that reason, and am looking for something with stiffer sidewallls.

    Do the Schwalbe tires or others still have a secure feel at low pressure?

  • lyle says:

    @ Carl

    I went from Continental 700x35s to Schwalbe 700x32s. Getting the Continentals on the rims was always a breeze, getting the Schwalbes on the rim is a lot of work. Mainly because the sidewalls are super stiff. I’m only running mine at about 85 PSI and the recommended max is 90, so I’m hardly low pressure, but I could probably run them as low as 60PSI without any problems.

  • Will says:

    Jan Heine’s work on optimal tire pressure also appeared in Adventure Cycling in 2009. A pdf is here: http://bit.ly/9NWeJM .

  • dynaryder says:

    Been running 26×2″ Marathon Supremes on my daily commuter for almost two years now. 2″ wide and only 70psi,but boy do they roll nice. These things are the sportbike radials of the bicycle world. I’ve had to slam on the brakes going downhill in the rain,and the front dug in hard enough to get air under the rear tire,but it stayed stable and hauled me down to zero with no drama. Ride quality is superb;I’d never go down to skinny high-pressure tires after running these. If you’re racing the TdF,then go ahead and run skinnies. But if you’re riding the bombed-out roads of most urban areas,then you def want the fatties.

  • Mark says:

    I’ve been commuting for almost 15 years on 26×1.5″ tires. I run them at about 45psi. The bike is plenty fast (I average about 20mph on most trips) and quite comfortable to ride. Very durable too – cracks, potholes, construction and dirt roads aren’t a problem.

 
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