Surprise! Your bike tires don’t actually have to match. There are plenty of reasons why you might want your front and rear tires to be different in size or tread. Tire selection can be a bit mysterious and confusing, especially when you complicate it by using different tires!
You can use different sizes of front and rear bike tires. A larger tire offers better traction in the front and better puncture protection and shock resistance in the rear, a slimmer tire saves weight and offers better aerodynamics in the front and also absorbs less vibration.
In this article, we’ll clear up some of the confusion about using two different types of tires on your bike. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of using different size tires on the front and back. We’ll also discuss the pros and cons of using different tread types on the front and back. And, of course, we’ll talk about why you might want to keep everything the same.
The Pros and Cons of Using Different Sized Tires
Mountain bikers have known for years that there are benefits and drawbacks to using different size tires on your bikes. However, it’s become so popular that you can even purchase new mountain bikes with mullet tires, that is, a larger tire in the front with a somewhat smaller tire in the back.
The Pros and Cons of a Wider Front Bike Tire than Rear Tires
You can save weight by using a smaller rear tire. If you want to save weight on the bike, you can easily do so by using a smaller tire on the rear wheel. This won’t affect your steering or traction much, as those are mostly controlled by the front tire.
You’ll get more bite and traction when cornering if you have a larger tire in the front. But, of course, you steer with your front tire. So if you need extra traction for cornering or getting through rough terrain, you’ll want to bump up the size of your front tire. You can also run larger tires at lower pressures, so that will give you extra grip and make the ride more comfortable by absorbing some of the shocks.
You may need two different size tubes. Hopefully, you’re running tubeless tires when you’re riding over obstacles and rough terrain. But even if you are, you might want to bring a spare tube along just in case you get a bad puncture that your sealant can’t fix.
And if you use two different tire sizes, you’ll probably need two different tube sizes! This isn’t a big deal, but it does mean you’ll need extra room in your saddle bag and a little extra weight on your bike.
You’ll need to run a higher pressure on the smaller tire, which is less comfortable. The smaller the tire, the higher the air pressure you will need to prevent pinch flats. Unfortunately, higher pressures also mean a less comfortable ride.
Rear tires tend to flat more frequently and wear down more often. You might be surprised that your rear tire gets the brunt of the stress. Typically, it’s the rear tire that is more likely to get a flat and more likely to wear out more quickly. Smaller tires are more likely to get pinch flats than larger ones, which can be a big bummer if you’re out on a long ride.
Pros and Cons of Putting a Larger Tire on the Rear
It’s much less common, but some people will put a larger tire on the rear wheel of their bike. Typically, you’ll see this more on road bikes than on any other type of bike.
A larger rear tire is more comfortable since the rear carries more of the weight. Likewise, your rear wheel carries more of your weight than your front tire. So putting a larger, cushier tire with a little less air pressure on the back wheel will absorb the road chatter that affects your back, neck, and sit bones.
Larger tires are more flat-resistant. It’s the rear tires that are most likely to get flats. This happens because the front wheel kicks up the debris that can get lodged in the rear wheel. However, larger tires are more flat resistant, especially with a little less air pressure -and they are less likely to get pinch flats.
Slimmer front tires are faster. In road biking, aerodynamics are everything. The frame of your bike will disrupt the airflow to the back tire, which makes its size less critical for aerodynamics. However, your front tire will take more of the wind.
So a slimmer tire will cut through the wind better. As a result, it will be more efficient and aerodynamic. It will also have better power transfer and less rotational weight, so in theory, it will be faster to have a smaller tire in the front while keeping a somewhat larger tire in the back.
Your hands will suffer from road vibrations. This is because the smaller the tire, the higher the air pressure you need in it. However, a higher air pressure won’t absorb as much road chatter. So you’ll feel it in your hands more.
You may be limited by your frame clearance or rim brakes. If you have rim brakes or an older race bike, you’ll find that the rear wheel clearance is very limited. You might only be able to get 25mm wheels on the rear anyway. So you may not be able to fit the size of tire that you need.
You’ll have to remember two different tire pressures. Whether you have a larger tire in the front or in the rear, you’ll need to remember two different air pressures for your bike. The smaller the tire, the higher the pressure needs to be. The larger the tire, the lower you can go and still avoid pinch flats. But if you get it wrong, you’ll be much more prone to flat tires.
The Pros and Cons of Using Identical Front and Rear Bike Tires
You can use the same size tube for both tires. If you don’t want to carry extra stuff in your saddlebag, you might want to stick to using the same size tire on the front and the rear. Then, you can use the same tube on either one if you happen to get a flat.
You can use the same air pressure for both tires. If you use the same size tires, then you can use the same air pressure front and back, as well. You won’t have to remember which one gets more or which one gets less.
You don’t get the benefit of extra traction in cornering.
If you use the same size tire in the front and back, you won’t get the extra traction and comfort in cornering that you would get if you increase the size of your front tire.
Can You Use Bike Tires with Different Treads? Different Brands?
You absolutely can use front and rear tires with different types of tread. In fact, some mountain bike tire manufacturers create tires specifically for the front and others specifically for the rear.
For example, Maxxis offers a front tire with an angled tread for extra grip while cornering and steering. However, on their rear tire, they offer a tread that has a straighter pattern to keep your back wheel from sliding out.
You can easily mix and match tire tread patterns and even brands to get the feel, traction, and cornering that you need to feel confident on your bike.
Final Thoughts on Tire Size and Tread
Ideally, you’ll be able to choose the tires that make you feel the most confident and powerful on your ride. This may be larger front tires, larger rear tires, and even the same size tires. You can mix and match tire size and even brand or tread style to fit your riding style. Of course, you’ll need to be aware of the tire clearance of your specific bike and brakes.