Until you've ridden on solid tyres, which are awful, it's easy to forget how good air-filled tyres are. The obvious disadvantage is that the air escapes when something pokes a hole in them. No one wants punctures. The question is: how badly do you want to prevent them?
All tyres are a compromise between puncture resistance, durability, weight, rolling resistance, and grip. A given tyre can excel in more than one area but not in all of them. So it's a question of priorities. If you've got a short commute and really don't want to fix a puncture, you'll be happier with a slower tyre with better protection. If you're riding faster or further, you might want a lighter, quicker tyre whose puncture protection is only fair.
To improve puncture resistance, tyre makers can use: a harder-compound rubber for the tread, or simply a greater thickness of rubber; a protective layer under the tread, usually made from synthetic fibres; and stronger, coarser fibres for the woven casing.
Harder rubber has better wear life and puncture resistance, while softer rubber grips the tarmac better, particularly in the wet. Some tyres are dual compound, using harder rubber in the centre for mile-eating durability and softer rubber on the ‘shoulders’ to provide cornering grip. Making the tread thicker, using more rubber, also reduces punctures and increases wear life, but adds significantly to weight and rolling resistance.
Most puncture resistant tyres use one or more layers of woven synthetic fibres underneath the tread, typically Kevlar – the stuff they make bulletproof vests from. Some tyres use a layer of harder or springier rubber instead. The tyre's casing, including the sidewalls, may also be reinforced against slashing, using a mesh of polymer fibre.
A tyre carcass is usually made of synthetic fibres, such as nylon; occasionally it’s cotton. The TPI number tells you how may Threads Per Inch there are. A higher TPI means thinner threads are used, making for a more supple, faster tyre. But coarser threads (lower TPI) are harder to tear so don’t puncture as easily.
You can limit punctures further by keeping your tyres inflated to the pressure rating that's stamped on the sidewall. It's worth checking your tyres periodically. Sometimes a shard of flint or speck of glass will embed itself in the tyre but not penetrate until you've pressed it in further by riding on it.
A tyre's size is given by the five numbers separated by a dash on its sidewall. That's the International Standards Organisation (ISO) designation. The numbers are millimetres. The first number is the width, the second the diameter at the bead (the edge). The tyre diameter and rim diameter must match. Your bike probably has either 622 ('700C') or 559 ('26 inch') wheels.
Schwalbe Marathon Plus
A heavy but near impregnable tyre that rolls better than you'd expect, particularly in the fatter sizes, the Marathon Plus resists punctures with a thick protective layer of springer rubber. You can ride over drawing pins and not puncture. They last forever too. The sidewalls are reflective. Available in a huge range of sizes: 35-349, 35-355, 35-406, 47-406, 40-507, 35-559, 40-559, 47-559, 37-590, 42-590, 25-622, 28-622, 32-622, 37-622, 40-622, 47-622, 40-635.
Continental Touring Plus
Like Schwalbe's Marathon Plus, Continental's Touring Plus is a heavy tyre that uses a protective layer of elastic rubber to become all but impervious to punctures. It's not easy to fit – the Schwalbe isn't either – but once on it rolls okay, more so in the 32mm and greater widths. Durability is good, and here again the sidewalls are reflective. Sizes available: 47-507, 47-559, 28-622, 32-622, 37-622, 42-622, 47-622, 42-635.
Specialized Nimbus Armadillo
It's not as tough as the Plus tyres but it's considerably lighter and it's still difficult to pierce or slash. 'Armadillo' protection is two layers of Kevlar, one running bead to bead, and a reinforced synthetic casing. The casing is only 60TPI too, so the threads don't cut easily. Rolling resistance is fine if you're going to fit this to a practical hybrid or a cyclo-cross bike; a road bike would be better off with one of Specialized's racier Armadillo tyres. Sizes available: 40-559, 28-622, 35-622, 38-622.
Ribmo is an acronym for 'Ride Bicycle More', the idea being that it won't be out of action with a puncture. The thick rubber tread is complemented by a casing reinforced bead to bead with ‘Protex’, an 800-denier cord woven with vinyl thread, and there’s a sub-tread breaker layer. It is tough too, if a little 'wooden' feeling in the narrower sizes. Sizes available: 32-559, 40-559, 47-559, 54-559, 23-622, 25-622, 28-622, 32-622, 35-622.
Designed as a durable tyre for road racers, primarily for mile-eating training rides, the Intensive also suits road-bike-riding commuters who don't want to sacrifice too much speed. It's light and rolls well, yet still has reasonable protection through the tread thanks to a Kevlar belt. The rubber compound feels durable and hard, as it's toughened with 'thermoplastic reinforced gum'. Sizes available: 23-622, 25-622
Micheline Pro4 Endurance
The Pro4 Endurance is the successor to Michelin's highly-rated Krylion tyre. It's meant, like the Intensive, as a high-mileage tyre for road cyclists who don't want to wear out – or puncture – their racing tyres. Despite being both fast and light, it has bead-to-bead puncture protection and the central section of the dual-density tread is hard wearing. It comes in different colours too. Sizes available: 23-622, 25-622.
Cheap doesn’t have to mean nasty. Choose wisely and you can buy a decent new commuter bike for £250 or less.
When your bike folds to the size of a suitcase, your cycle-to-work strategies will be different. Here are some tips.
White lines provide straightforward instructions – which are sometimes misunderstood or ignored. Here’s how to adjust your riding accordingly.