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Your Bike Tires Are Too Skinny. Riding on Fat, Supple Tires Is Just Better

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A few months back, my friend and fellow bicycle enthusiast Eric prepared for his first 100-mile bike ride. Concerned about how sore he’d be afterward, he wondered what he could do to improve his ride.

As a convert to the Church of Fat Tires, I was excited to share with him an idea I’d learned from other cyclists: Cram on the fattest soft-sided tires that will fit on your bike, then inflate them to a pressure that will seem surprisingly low.

I’ve been a volunteer bike mechanic in Seattle for almost 10 years and have gently modified my own midrange 1988 Peugeot into something modern and capable. Yet nothing prepared me for the impact of fat tires with pliable (aka “supple”) sidewalls and inflating them to a pressure much lower than what I was used to. I remember my amazement riding down a big hill, listening to the different sound my tires made and experiencing the sure and solid feeling the bike suddenly had. It felt grippier, more comfortable, less twitchy, and maybe even faster. In car terms, it was like going from a well-cared-for old Camry to a modern sport truck. It was exhilarating.

“Tires are probably the single most important component on your bike and the only part that touches the ground,” says Russ Roca, who has 175,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, The Path Less Pedaled, which focuses on enjoyment over speed and typically spotlights bikes that can ride on both gravel and pavement. “A wider tire means more volume and built-in suspension. It makes the bike feel more stable.”

Roca says wider tires are just more fun. “You’re not being jarred to death. You’re not bouncing off of every rock and pothole. They are the most noticeable upgrade you can make to your bike.”

This made sense, and I’d learn that not having my wrists and keister being jarred helped keep them from getting sore on longer rides.

Yet somehow, fat tires still feel like a bit of a secret. Us cyclists put pads in our shorts and buy heavy suspension systems for off-road bikes, but we’re somehow reluctant to experiment with the part of the bike that actually touches the road to help make for a nicer ride. Big, global bicycle brands still seem unsure about embracing the trend, perhaps trying to ensure that you buy a skinnier-tired road ride and wider-tired gravel bike instead of one “all-road” bike that can do both.

“Cycling has a lot of tradition, and sometimes we do things because they’ve always been done that way,” says Roca. “The industry says lighter equals good, which is easy to explain and market, but selling on ride feel and supple tires is more amorphous.”

Plus, wide tires are relatively new to the market. Models with supple sidewalls made with high-thread-count fabric and a coat of rubber thick enough to protect the weave but thin enough to let the tire be plenty flexible have become widely available only in the last decade. Throw a pandemic in there, and an industry that’s long on inventory, and you can understand why adoption has not been widespread.

Hidden in the buyers’ reluctance is the belief that a wider, softer tire is slower than a high-pressure skinny one, that the fatter tire weighs more and has more rolling resistance. But that’s not always the case.

Last year, I hit a, um, milestone birthday and bought myself a fancy new all-road bike from Rivendell Bicycle Works. It accommodates tires north of 40 millimeters wide. (I currently use 38s.) The frame is made of steel, and the bike is not particularly light, but I love how it feels and how it encourages me to ride as much as possible—and fast. A lot of that has to do with the tires.

Toward the end of a summer when I rode a lot, I ended up at a stoplight next to a spandex-clad racer on a skinny-tire bike. When the light turned green he shot off, and I thought: What the hell.

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