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In Defense of Fat Tires on Road Bikes

While on a ride with a bike mechanic acquaintance this spring, I noticed that his otherwise unremarkable steel frame bike had very large tires, approaching beach-cruiser proportions. Since it seemed a somewhat unusual choice by someone who knows a lot about bikes, I asked him for the reasoning behind riding huge tires on the road. His response was simple, “because they’re comfortable.”

As soon as he said it, I pictured a cracked, potholed stretch of road I ride daily that jars my hands, rear end, and everything in my panniers every single time. Fat tires! How had I not thought of that?

At the time, I was riding 27 inch rims with 1 1/4 inch tires – not exactly skinny racers, but not fat, either. When they wore out, I found a pair of 1 3/8 inch cyclocross tires that were only mildly knobby (it can be hard to find non-knobby fatter tires). They were the widest tires my bike shop recommended with the rims I had.

Does an eighth of an inch make a difference? Yes! I noticed the change in comfort and speed immediately.

First, the speed. I assume that this is why everyone doesn’t ride fat tires. It felt like a brake pad was rubbing, except it wasn’t. At first, it took a noticeable amount of increased effort to go the same speed. Within 2 weeks, my legs had adjusted to the new level of rolling resistance and all felt back to normal.

Second, my new tires did dampen the rattling of riding over rails and ridges. I appreciate it in general, but my hands especially feel like they’ve benefited from a smoother ride.

Since then, I switched to 700c wheels (similar size as 27″, but in metric). My current tires are 700x40c, or 5mm fatter still than the 1 3/8 inch tires.

Either I’ve taken the fat tires thing a bit far, or I need a new frame. As far as I can tell, they are the absolute fattest tires that my Schwinn Le Tour could possibly accommodate. Fenders are out of the question. I true my wheels more regularly than in the past because there’s so little clearance on my back stays. People give me a hard time, saying things like, “those are great tires – for winter.”

I have no regrets in my tire purchase. I retort, “They are great tires for road construction season.”  The city of Minneapolis has a few short months in between potential snow fall to fix the roads devastated by last season’s freeze and thaw routine, and regular rides turn into cyclocross training. In their infinite wisdom, someone decided to cover fairly major streets with pea gravel and not seal it until more than two weeks later. My commute earlier this week ran into a two-inch deep trench in the middle of the street I was crossing. In both cases, wider tires let me ride faster with more confidence.

I probably need skinnier rubber if I’m going to be competitive in Babes in Bikeland, but right now I wouldn’t trade my fatty tires for anything.

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2 comments on “In Defense of Fat Tires on Road Bikes

  1. Aswesome.
    1. When you ride a lot you get so accustomed to your ride, that every change is noticeable… but you always get used to it! This is why I try not to be stubborn about trying new things. Because I often have that, “Why did I ever do this any other way?!” moment.
    2. Don’t let other people tell you what to do. You know what’s best.

  2. Interesting post. I ride a mountain bike around the city so I can use big fat smooth tires. What I like is that they give me options – I can hop onto the sidewalk or slip down a rough alley. It is a lot more rolling resistance, but I’m riding for fitness anyway.

    Thanks for sharing.

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