Supple Trumps Wide

Supple Trumps Wide

High-performance bicycles have changed tremendously in recent years. As one manufacturer said at last year’s Interbike: “In the past, everybody asked how much your bike weighed. Now all they want to know is how wide a tire it fits.”

Wide tires have revolutionized how we view performance bikes. In the past, you knew a rider was serious about going fast if his or her tires were narrow. Now it’s almost the opposite: The latest performance bikes have wider tires than many utility bikes (below).


This change has happened so quickly that the bike industry can hardly keep up. Just a few years ago, ‘gravel’ bikes had clearance for 32 mm tires. Now 48 mm tires are becoming the standard for ‘all-road’ bikes that are intended as much for pavement as for gravel.

As a result of this rapid change, many cyclists are on the fence when it comes to buying a new bike: Bicycle technology seems so much in flux right now that it seems prudent to wait and see how it all shakes out. Why not postpone a new bike purchase for a few years? By then, we should know exactly what a 21st century high-performance bike looks like.


Or should you just take the plunge and buy the bike of your dreams? After all, there is so much fun to be had. Will a 2018 bike be obsolete in just a few year’s time?

It’s difficult to predict the future, but what I can say is this: The bikes we enjoy most haven’t changed in the last decade. My Rene Herse (above) is seven years old, and yet, the only thing I’d do differently today is add low-rider racks and make it Rinko-compatible. The basic idea of what makes a great bike for paved and gravel roads hasn’t changed – it’s just that the mainstream bike industry has taken some time to catch up.

In practical terms, for normal road riding, 38-42 mm tires will serve you well. If you intend to ride mostly on gravel, look for clearances that allow 48-54 mm tires. It’s unlikely that these recommendations will change much in the future. Tires wider than 54 mm are almost impossible to fit without giving up the character and feel of a road bike: narrow Q factor, nimble handling, and light weight.

What if you aren’t ready to take the plunge? Fortunately, you don’t need a new bike to transform your riding. The science is undisputed: The benefits of the ‘wide tire revolution’ lie mostly in the supple casings. The extra width is just an added benefit.

In other words: A supple 28 mm tire will be faster and more comfortable than a 48 mm-wide ‘touring’ tire with a stiff casing. Especially if you ride mostly on pavement, you can experience 80% of the benefits simply by switching to supple high-performance tires in a size that fits your current bike.


You’ll be amazed by the transformation. The first Specialized Diverge could handle only 32 mm-wide tires (with fenders). That didn’t lessen the fun when we took it on wonderful adventures, like the ride up the abandoned road to Carbon Glacier on Mount Rainier (above).

I also enjoyed its speed and grip on smoother roads. Simply switching your tires buys you time while you decide what you want in your next bike. Only caveat: After riding supple high-performance tires, there is no going back. Once you’ve tried them, you’ll choose great tires for your next bike, too, no matter their width.

Update 11/17/2020: We’ve just published our new book ‘The All-Road Bike Revolution’ with all the research that has changed cycling in recent years. Find out why wide tires can be fast, how to find a frame that optimizes your power output, and how to get a bike that handles like an extension of your body. More information is here.

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Comments (22)

  • Doug L.

    Took a chance installed 38mm Barlow Pass treads on my old VO Campeur and never looked back. Great tire and I agree with your article. Supple tires make the variety of paving choices much more enjoyable.. You do not necessarily need 26 or 650B to enjoy trial riding with your kids 700C with 23 mm rims work just fine.

    July 3, 2018 at 8:36 am
  • larryatcycleitalia

    Excellent advice! Of course the bike biz doesn’t much like it as they want to sell you a lot more than a pair of nice tires.

    July 3, 2018 at 9:06 am
  • Keith Benefiel

    When I bought my new 1979 Mondia Super Cross frame, I got a bundle of 20 Wolber knobby sew ups to go with it. Shredded ’em all. Clement Del Mundo tubulars handled all the “mixed” tours and fared quite well considering the state of Wyoming roads in the 70s and 80s. A long line of various 700C clinchers ensued. Seeking more fatness, I lowered the canti studs for 650B. Another decade of sundry 650s and I discovered Compass. After 40 years and well over 100,000 mi. on the same ride, no tire or component change has ever so significantly raised the performance level. All our cycles except the 5″ fatties are so shod. Thanks for “Reubenesque” rubber!

    July 3, 2018 at 9:47 am
  • Richard

    An underappreciated benefit of a large casing is that it enables the rider to deliberately “bounce” the bike through a stretch of rough terrain at high speed. That ability can be invaluable when it’s not possible to slow down before a bad spot.
    The technique is similar to a series of bunny-hops, and is somewhat analogous to “planing” in that it involves rhythmic storage & release of energy. The objective is to initiate a series of graceful parabolic leaps rather than to struggle for control in response to uninterrupted harsh vibration.
    If the concept isn’t clear, think of an inflated tire as a torus-shaped “ball.” Then consider the difference in difficulty between dribbling a basketball and a tennis ball. Rule of thumb: If your wheel is relatively easy to dribble, your tire is probably wide enough for the rhythmic bounce technique.
    If that’s “wide enough,” what is “too wide?” That question seems to be related to steering deflection from hitting objects off-center on rough terrain, and to contact patch offset from center-line while cornering on a smooth surface. Some research might be beneficial.

    July 3, 2018 at 9:54 am
  • David Cummings

    While I embrace the ethos of the bike industry following “all road” bikes, I reject its mentality of “everything new is better” (e.g. the arms race for ever wider cassettes). Keep up the good work, Jan, and continue to promote function over fashion!

    July 3, 2018 at 10:03 am
    • Jon

      Re: the arms race for ever wider cassettes. The 3T Exploro in the photo appears to have a 1 by 11 gear train. Why are they pushing 1 by 11 with all the compromises it requires such as cross chaining, wide rear dropout spacing and specially designed rear derailleurs? It seems much more logical to me to go to 2 by 5 or 2 by 6. They would still have to sell us new hubs and cassettes plus frames with 120 or 126 rear spacing. It is frustrating when you just want something sensible so you can just go for a fun ride.
      I still think Jan should begin making 5 and 6-speed Uniglide style hubs and cassettes. Then when the cog teeth wear you just take of the cogs and flip them around and they are good as new. Just steel cogs without the expense of machinging tooth profiles, thicker to last longer and an inexpensive, oxide(?) coating to keep them from rusting. Unfortunately the market for those would be small. Or how about new freewheel cogs for old, reliable freewheel bodies? Just tell me what body you will build them for before the price skyrockets on ebay!

      July 5, 2018 at 3:12 pm
  • heather

    As the tires get wider on these all road adventure bikes part of me wonders why not just ride mountain bikes? I know modern ones are super hideous, so it is aesthetic or is it that you want to really ride on all roads and balk at the super narrow twisty gnarly mtb trails? I haven’t got a car so I ride everywhere. It makes no sense for me to have a dedicated mountain bike that is terrible for road riding. I will get groceries in town and take the wild back way home. I Iive in mtb land and there is a clear line between mtb and road riding. I get lots of flack and jokes for riding my road bike on ‘scary’ trails. Limited funds and options have long meant I rode what I had. I live in a semi rural area with a mix of dirt, heavy logging gravel roads and paved roads, lots of trails. If that was a dorky clunky hybrid that’s what I rode. In years long past I had lugged steel mountain bikes which if supple tires existed would have been wonderful. My last one was aluminum and it was horrible so it turned me off mountain bikes. Last several years i’ve ridden my road bikes with supple 26 or 23mm tires. Only problem is descending on gravel roads is not fun, so I avoid that. I will say that the size and weight of you and your bike matters in tire width experience.

    July 3, 2018 at 11:21 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Mountain bikes have a very different riding position and geometry, since they are intended for very different riding. Since they are designed for flat bars (which have no forward reach), their top tubes are much longer. An allroad bike still is a road bike, just designed for wider tires. On technical singletrack, a mountain bike is probably better, but on roads – whether paved or gravel – you’ll be much happier on an allroad bike.

      July 3, 2018 at 1:23 pm
    • wrangle

      I, too, have almost always had limited funds, no car, and the additional constraint of living in small apartments where I only had room to keep a single bike. For me, a basic rigid mountain bike has always been a great solution. While it’s true that the geometry is less “road-like”, if you have a bike that’s a good fit it’s possible to set up a rigid mountain bike to ride quite well on the road. As long as you’re not doing anything super-extreme or actual competitive sport cycling, the geometry probably won’t make much of a difference. I’ve used a converted mountain bike to ride light trails, run errands, commute to work daily, and in hundreds of non-competitive group rides over the years. If I ever end up with enough spare cash to get a shiny new all-road bike with all the latest tech, I’d consider it… but since I only have room for one bike, I’d also worry about it being a major theft target if I left it locked outside of a restaurant. I realize that money and storage space aren’t an issue for lots of people, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t own a few bikes for different purposes. I just want to point out how versatile, useful, and affordable a humble old MTB can be.

      July 4, 2018 at 1:13 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Old mountain bikes can be great, and there is a lot you can do with them. The top photo of the post shows Hahn on his ‘Ex-Bontrager,’ an old mountain bike which he converted to a low-trail allroad bike with the addition of a new fork, braze-ons for disc brakes and a front rack, and integrated generator-hub lighting.

        July 4, 2018 at 2:05 pm
      • Conrad

        Completely agree. Most people think 26 wheel bikes are obsolete so its not hard to find a really good one for cheap. Some of them, like the old Bontragers, were made with pretty lightweight tubing. Add drop bars and Compass rat traps and the bike is really good at everything.

        July 5, 2018 at 12:46 pm
  • JD Bamford

    I was thrilled to discover that the Pereira randonneur I had made for me in 2007 had good clearance for 700c x 38mm Steilacoom tires. Those tires now live on my touring wheelset, just waiting for the next unpaved adventure.

    July 3, 2018 at 1:08 pm
  • John Duval

    One benefit of wider tires, even where pinch flats are unlikely, is fewer flats. Riding around Southern California, I have always taken it for granted I would get many flats from glass and burrs. With 32mm Compass, tires that was about 3 per month on average. In the 4 years I have been riding 42mm and wider Compass tires, I have had two flats total. There seems to be a threshold pressure where certain types of punctures become much less likely. For me that was somewhere between 80 and 45psi.

    July 3, 2018 at 10:59 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You are right – fewer flats are a definite advantage of wider tires. Another one is that the wider tires last much longer, as you spread the wear over a larger contact patch.

      July 4, 2018 at 5:24 am
  • Christian Bratina

    With the wider tires, do you still need the thin flexible forks recommended previously or do you recommend the thicker wall, heavier fork blades for disc brakes.

    July 4, 2018 at 6:35 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Having ridden some really stiff forks on bikes with 48 mm tires, the difference (lack) in shock absorption on bigger bumps was very noticeable. So the flexible fork blades still make a difference, just like they do with 42 mm tires. However, the threshold goes up – a 48 mm tire can absorb a lot of smaller bumps, like expansion joints, that a 42 mm or narrower tire just transmits to the handlebars with little filtering.

      July 4, 2018 at 10:33 am
      • Christian Bratina

        Thanks for your input, so flexible forks are still important for all tire sizes when riding rough roads. But it brings up the question of brakes, as it does not seem that a flexible fork with disc brakes makes sense. Since I prefer rim brakes and thin seat tubes, a centerpull makes sense for the rear though cantilevers or Minimotors would work well in the front. What are your brake suggestions for either 700x40c or 26x54c?

        July 4, 2018 at 7:12 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          For 40 mm tires, I’d go with our centerpulls, if you ride in mountainous terrain where great braking performance adds to the enjoyment of cycling. Cantis work great, too, and the Rene Herse cantis are a bit lighter than even our centerpulls.
          For 54 mm tires, cantis are your best choice. A centerpull that can reach around a tire that big will look like an old U-Brake for mountain bikes. On gravel, your braking power is limited by tire traction anyhow, so the issues of fork blade twist that you get with cantis aren’t really an issue.

          July 7, 2018 at 9:35 am
      • Niklas L

        So the difference in shock absorption between 42mm and 48mm tyres is significant? How about the difference between 48mm (Switchback Hill) and 54mm (Rat Trap Pass)? Is it worth going down to smaller wheel size (650B to 26”) for gravel riding?

        July 5, 2018 at 12:16 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          You’ll definitely notice the difference between 48 and 42 mm. However, the Switchback Hill runs a bit large, so on most rims, it measures about 50 mm. That makes it only a few millimeters narrower than the Rat Trap Pass – not enough to really worry about. I prefer the 26″ wheels for these ultra-wide tires because they have the same rotational inertia as a 700C x 28 mm tire/wheel combination, so you get the same feel of the bike when cornering and when climbing/sprinting out of the saddle. However, with superlight carbon rims, going to slightly larger 650B wheels makes sense for the same reason.

          July 7, 2018 at 9:38 am
  • Eric Moss

    The future seems to point to tubeless, but I’m in love with tubulars. Do you know which tubulars have super supple casings like the Compass tires? Top-end Veloflex and Vittoria seem to, but I don’t know for sure.

    July 5, 2018 at 4:14 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Tubulars are great, if you don’t mind the hassle of gluing tires and carrying spare tires (rather than an extralight tube). The top-end Vittorias are great. Veloflex aren’t quite as supple. And if you want some of the best tubulars in the world, try the hand-made tubulars from FMB. They are an absolute joy to ride.

      July 7, 2018 at 9:32 am

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