fat and skinny tiresApart from the actual type of bicycle you decide to commute on, be it a mountain bike, hybrid, tourer or racer the next biggest decision the bicycle commuter faces is what size tires to run.

Tires can completely change the feel of a ride (for better or worse!) and should be appropriate for the type of terrain you encounter on your daily commute, the weight of the load you are carrying and what your priorities are on the road.

Speed, durability, puncture protection and handling are all affected by your tire size choice and need to be considered.

Coming from a road bike I started off my bicycle commuting on the skinnier tire side. My Gitane Mach 1600 was fitted with Tiagra caliper brakes and this made tyre size choice limited to 700×23, 700×25. I could fit a 700×28 on there but if the wheel developed the slightest buckle the tire would rub on the caliper.

When I got my Long Haul Trucker I stuck with the skinnier tires and fitted a set of Continental Gatorskins (700×25 on the front and 700×28 on the rear) on it. After running them hassle free for a year (with tire liners) I started to lean towards wider maintenance free tires.

The tire liners made the skinnier tires pretty much maintenance free but I was concerned under a shopping or commuting load of damaging the rims. Hitting a pothole accidentally with 20kg of shopping in your panniers and skinny tires is a surefire way to buckle your wheel.

Here’s what my Long Haul Trucker looks like currently fitted with the supplied Continental Contact 700X37 tires. I’m going to run them till they wear and then switch to some Schwalbe Marathon Plus’ in either a 700×32 or 36.

My Surly Long Haul Trucker with wider tires as of July 2009

It took me a year to weigh up the pros and cons between running skinny or fat tires for my commutes so I thought I’d post up the four main factors that weighed in on my final decision on tire choice.



Punctures

Punctures are a bicycle commuters Achilles heel. I hate repairing punctures as it usually means I’ll be late to wherever I’m going and it’s fiddly patching tubes on the road. I do carry a spare tube out on the road with me but I prefer the repair method rather then change out the new tube after repairing the old one at home later.

That’s how much I hate taking off the tires from my wheels.

With this in mind I found the best way to stop punctures with skinnier tires was to run tire liners. A common problem with tire liners is that they a prone to puncturing or slicing the inner tube themselves where they overlap, I came up with a solution to this which I’ve previously wrote about “Fitting tire liners without puncturing your inner tube“.

Even with this method though there’s still the 5000km sheath check/replace and I was more after something I could just fit and forget. This is where fatter tires have a huge advantage over their skinnier cousins.

Fatter tires have more rubber to play with and room for fancier puncture protection technology. This does make them bulkier and heavier but if you hate punctures as much as I do then everything else is of secondary importance to puncture protection.



Rolling resistance

Skinny tires are going to be fat tires when it comes to rolling resistance, there’s just no way around it. What you, the bicycle commuter, needs to take into consideration is that this difference is minuscule provided you use semi slick fat tires.

Mountain bike style knobbly wider tires may look more robust but unless your commute takes you offroad for most of the trip they are not needed and will drastically slow you down and make lots of humming noise.

If you’re tearing around at 40km/h unloaded you’re going to have to work a lot harder with fatter tires fitted but under a commute or shopping pannier load you’re really not going to notice the difference.



Handling

With the skinnier Gatorskins fitted there was more then a few times I’d pull up to the lights with a shopping load and absent mindedly lean the wrong way or too far and nearly lose the back tyre off the road.

Skinnier tires mean a less stable bike under load as there’s less contact surface against the road. With fatter tires comes stability but at the cost of responsiveness in handling. This isn’t to say you lose the ability to emergency swerve out of the way if someone say opens a car door on you, it’s just it feels a little bit more awkward because the tire is much wider when it pivots against the road.

I find that I feel much more like I’m barrelling along sometimes with the Continental Contacts fitted and that I’m less inclined to take ultra sharp corner turns. Given the weight of some of the loads I strap onto the back of the Long Haul Trucker this is probably a good thing.



Durability

In the 6000km or so I rode the Gatorskins for I had no issues with durability. My rear 700×28 tire still has plenty of tread left in it so for now I’ve stored them in case I need to use them again.

Having said that I believe the Gatorskins are pretty up there when it comes to durability and so a long life is to be expected. If you’re comparing fatter tires to say the more racier skinny options available the durability difference becomes much more noticeable.

Again, tying in to my desire for a fit and forget tire the fatter tire options are much more attractive in the durability area. I’m not sure how many km I can expect to get out of my Continental Contacts but a reader recently emailed me about the durability of Schwalbe Marathon Pluses;

One bloke in the club said he got 17,000 out of a set. They look really nice too.


Whether that was country road riding or what I have no idea but even half that mileage is ridiculous value for money. More importantly to me it means I won’t be pulling off the tires anytime soon after fitting them.



Conclusion

As you can see I have a tendency towards the wider tires now with the Long Haul Trucker but if I was still getting around on my Gitane 1600 I’d probably be leaning towards Schwalbe Marathon Pluses in the 700×28.

If you use a backpack or travel more often without a load then the puncture resistant skinnier tires are definitely an attractive option. If you’re like me though and spend most of your time lugging around stuff then the stability and protection of a wider tire is ideal.

You’d be surprised how quickly a shopping or commute load stacks up weight wise and that’s I feel when you truly appreciate the comfort and protection a wider tire has to offer.

Less maintenance = less wear and tear = happier commuter!