Would you set out on a bike ride if you were 100% certain that one of your tires was going to burst during the ride? Me neither. When you’re on your bike you have two small contact points with the ground. The condition of the tires which provide those points of contact matter a great deal. In fact, in some extreme cases it could be a question of life and death.
The more often you ride the more you will notice how your bike handles and how small changes can affect your ride, but when you’re new to cycling, figuring out nuances takes some time and experience.
For each tire there comes a time to be replaced, but…
…when to replace a bike tire?
Bicycle tires normally last 2000 – 6000 miles. You should replace them when they wear out or get damaged beyond repair. The weight of the rider, the terrain, the riding pressure and the quality of the tires determine how long they last. Front tires typically last longer than rear tires. More important than the mileage are the signs of wear when it comes to getting rid of your old rubber.
What causes bike tires to wear?
When you ride your bike there’s friction between the tires and the road. This is what allows you to move forward. It’s natural for the tires to wear out with use. The more you ride your bike the more the tires wear out.
Tires made of soft rubber provide more grip, but they wear faster than tires made of hard rubber. Soft tires are advisable for cold climates, because they are less rigid and slippery in cold than their hard counterparts which become stiff and slip easily in cold temperatures and may cause you to lose control in corners or when braking (just like winter and summer tires on cars).
Tires wear ideally when you ride them on the type of surface they were intended for: slicks last longest on paved roads, knobby MTB tires on trail roads. Some tires on hybrid or gravel bikes are designed to be used on a mixture of paved roads and off road. They achieve this with a strip in the middle and some treads or knobs on the sides.
Here are a few other factors that come into play in how fast your tires wear out.
- Rough road surface
- Tire pressure
- Accidental damage
Riding on the intended surface whether it be paved or off road maximizes tire life. Riding slicks off road or knobby tires on paved roads shortens its life span. If the road is full of potholes, it further reduces it since hitting a pothole results in a very concentrated high impact. It can damage your inner tubes as well as the sidewall of your tires. If the impact is big enough your wheel rims can sustain damages as well.
Cobble stones also cause tires to wear faster than paved roads since there the tires are constantly exposed to impacts and some stones may have sharper edges.
Tire pressure is an entire field of study in itself and numerous researches have been conducted as to what the best tire pressure is for different tire widths, rider weights and riding styles.
The narrower your tire and the rougher the terrain the higher pressure you need to inflate it to in order to protect tire sidewalls and rims. The less air you have in a narrow tire the more it deforms on imperfect roads and the more quickly it wears out. The range within which you need to keep your tire pressure is written on the tire’s sidewall, and it varies from tire to tire. For the most part it’s between 25psi on the low end for some MTB tires and 130psi on the higher end for road tires (1.7bars and 9 bars).
The combined weight of bike, rider and cargo also comes into play, and it’s closely related to the optimum tire pressure: generally speaking, the heavier the weight the higher the pressure should be. Make sure though not to exceed the maximum recommended pressure for your tire, since excessive pressure can be just as damaging and dangerous as too little pressure.
Every now and then tires may also sustain some accidental damages, such as cuts from broken glass, nails, sharp rocks or debris on the road etc. Even in those cases where the damage doesn’t result in a flat tire, it may damage the rubber surface and cause the tire to wear faster. While these are never desired or welcome, such damages are just part of riding a bike.
Skidding wears your rear tire on a single point like crazy. It’s like using sandpaper trying to damage it. Skidding is when you apply excessive braking force and you block your rear tires while your bike is still in motion.
For some fixie riders who ride without brakes this is inevitable and it’s part of the fun, but they can tell you how long their rear tires last.
Rubber ages even without riding your bike. The way you store it makes a difference. If the rubber is exposed to the elements during storage, such as extreme cold in the Winter and extreme heat in the Summer, the rubber structure starts to weaken, and cracks can spontaneously appear on the tire’s sidewall.
Signs of wear
What signs of wear should you be looking for to decide when to replace your tire?
Worn tread, knobs
If your tire has been lucky and has survived many miles without accidental damages, then you will see that the tread patterns start to fade or the knobs become smaller as time goes by and as you accumulate miles. This is a sign of normal wear and tear.
Some bike tires have a tire wear indicator on them, which show you when it’s time to replace them.
If you don’t change your tire when you see that it has been worn, your chances of getting a flat or exploding your tire increase.
Here’s an example of my rear tire, which is showing signs of wear after nearly 6000 miles and will soon be replaced.
Compare it to my front tire has the same amount of mileage and is still in good shape.
Tear on tire
Tears and cuts are signs that your tire has sustained some damages. Some of these tears are small and not dangerous, but some are. If the inner tube becomes visible, it is a sure sign that you need new tires.
Damage to bead
If the tire bead is damaged (tire bead is the contact surface between the tire and the wheel) as the result of hitting a pothole or another accident, it’s time for a new tire. Unfortunately such accidents can happen even to new tires.
This is typically an ‘old tire’ problem or a problem resulting from running the tire at insufficient pressure for prolonged times. Cracked sidewalls mean weakened structure. While not all cracks are equally dangerous, they are signs that the tire has reached or is coming to its end of life.
If you get regular flats, it could be a sign that your tire has been worn and even smaller pieces of glass or thorns penetrate through its structure.
Before trashing your existing tire,
- make sure that your inner tube is replaced or the hole is patched correctly
- run your fingers gently on the inside of your tire to check for a piece of glass or broken thorn or anything sharp that may cause the flats.
There are two subtle, but real issues you need to keep in mind, especially if you’re a procrastinator:
- Tires wear out gradually, and there isn’t an exact point when they turn from usable to unusable, so they require regular monitoring.
- When you notice that the tire is nearing its end of life, it’s tempting to use it for just another ride or another week. Procrastination will come back to bite you sooner or later. If you don’t take action in time, you may find yourself in a very uncomfortable situation (e.g. in the middle of a morning commute or on a weekend ride in the middle of nowhere) without a tire.
Swap? Replace both? Replace One?
Front and rear tires don’t wear out at the same rate since rear tires bear the rider’s weight, up to 80% more than the front tires. More weight equals more friction, which results in quicker wear.
There are three possible approaches to replacing tires:
- Swap front and rear tires with each other: this is the quickest and budget conscious solution, but this is the least advisable one. You can only swap tires if really needed and if your rear tire’s structurally intact, but treads have started to fade.
- Replace the worn tire only: this is a good option, since your front tire is often in a good enough condition that it can be used for twice as long as your rear tire.
- Replace both tires: this is a no-nonsense approach for those who want to avoid keeping track of front and rear tires separately. Riders taking this approach often replace their tires on a schedule, e.g. once every year or once every 2000 miles. This is the safest way of riding.
How to make bike tires last long?
In order to maximize your tire’s life span, you should select a good quality tire and follow best practices.
Choose good quality tires
I’ve written another article (link to article) about the best 700c commuter tires. For most riders, the Schwalbe Marathon Plus (check price on Amazon) or the Continental Ride Tour (check price on Amazon) are excellent options. I use both of them on my wife’s and my own bike, and they have lasted very long without giving us any trouble.
Keep it in mind that tires lose air over time. Instead of taking a lazy “set-it-and-forget-it” approach to tire pressure, take a proactive approach and check and adjust it regularly. I like checking mine once every one or two weeks since I have potholes, cobbles and train tracks on my commute.
Avoid potholes, curbs and select your route
As a kid I dealt with a flat every other week because I didn’t take much care where I rode my bike. Since I started commuting a few years ago I haven’t had to deal with a single flat tire on my commute despite there being curbs, cobbles, potholes and tram tracks.
Approach rough road sections with care or if possible, find an alternative route, which is easier on your tires and bike.
When braking, don’t wait until the last moment. Scan the road so you can react in time and you don’t have to come to a sudden full stop. This maximizes not only your tire life but also your brakes pads will last longer.
Avoid keeping your bike outdoors overnight if possible. This means that it’s not exposed to extreme temperatures, and the weakening of the rubber structure is slowed down.
A good friend of mine used to tell me “in this world everything is only temporarily eternal”. This is true for tires as well. They wear out and need to be replaced from time to time. If we take care of them they can serve us for a good while and we can extend their life-span.
I hope you now know when to replace your bike tire and you will pedal many joyful miles in between tire changes.