one tire locked to rack bike is gone

When to change your road bike’s tires

I’ve had more tires get flats than I’ve had wear out. That may say more about my riding style than it does about my tires, but that means that I can go years before I need to change them. Which makes me wonder if I’ve gone too long. When should I replace them if they don’t pop?

You should change your tires when the tread wears out. That is typically after about 1,500 to 2,500 miles. However, different factors will wear out your tires faster, so you also need to know what to look for.

Quick Tire Anatomy

Before we get into the details, I want to make sure that we’re all using the same vocabulary.

Tire cross-section: Rim (1), rim strip (2), rim braking surface (3), bead core (4), inner tube (5), casing (6), and tread (7)

Wheel

Your wheel is the generic name for the circle thing that touches the ground and helps your bike move forward by rolling. More specifically, it’s the structural metal part that includes the rim.

Tire

Your tire is the rubber circle that goes around the outside of the wheel.

Tread

kind of worn out tire treads

Tread is the general term for the part of the tire that touches the ground while you ride. It is a thick protective piece of rubber that often has a pattern cut into it. The more that you ride, the more you will wear away at the tread until you get all the way to the casing.

Inner Tube

It is important to note that you don’t necessarily need to replace your inner tube at the same time as your tire. You only need to replace that once it has a puncture that you can’t or aren’t willing to fix. For me, it’s usually the latter.

Why Replace Them

I feel like it’s pretty obvious that you just “should” replace your tires eventually, but what are you actually gaining when you do so?

Reduced chance of punctures

The thicker your tread, the less likely it is that a thorn, piece of metal, or anything else will be able to pierce the rubber and puncture your tire and tube. As you wear down your tread over time, you’ll lose that protection. So replacing your tires resets your shields.

Better traction on slick roads

Just like in a car, completely smooth, often called “bald”, tires don’t get as much traction when the road is wet or if you riding on an unpaved path. The pattern in the tread is able to “grab” the road and cut through the water better than a bald tire can.

Replacing your tires will increase your traction over-all. There are other factors, like tire pressure, that also impact traction, but not having any tread can result in your tires sliding out from beneath you.

Not rolling resistance

Rolling resistance is about what it sounds like. When you roll a tire, it absorbs some of that kinetic (moving) energy and turns it into heat and noise. 

If you were to wear down a mountain bike tire till it was smooth, it would roll with much less resistance. However, road bike tires start out pretty smooth with a low rolling resistance. So, replacing your tire doesn’t make as much as tire pressure does

If you want a bit more technical information, Bicycle Rolling Resistance did a test of a new vs worn-out tire and found that they were nearly equal. They chalked up the minor differences to how the rubber had aged and become stiffer over time.

How many miles to expect

bike computer on total distance

From what I’ve been able to find in advertisements and what people have been reporting online, an average tire will last you approximately 1,500 to 2,500 miles.

However, there are a lot of factors that can take that number up or down.

Price

Road bike tires will cost anywhere between $15 and $50 for a single tire. As you would expect, the trend is that more expensive tires will allow you to ride further before replacing them. Some upwards of 4,000 miles.

It has everything to do with the rubber compound they make their tire with and how thick the tread is. Some are designed for long-distance and puncture resistance, others are designed for low rolling resistance.

Just make sure you know what you are looking for in a tire. I personally don’t ride terribly far, and I’m more likely to get a puncture. So, I get relatively cheap to mid-tier tires.

If you want to check out the actual prices of some tires, here is a link to the search results on Amazon.

Riding Style

If you are riding fast and aggressive, you are absolutely going to get fewer miles out of your tires. For instance, slamming your brakes and skidding to a stop is a great way to wear through tread in no time. I’m sure I could get fewer than 100 miles doing that.

If you never get over 10 mph, I bet your tires could last much longer than they are advertised. However, that’s when you start running into the next problem.

Time

dry-rot mtb tire

The rubber in your tires will age over time. It starts to develop cracks and weakens. At that point, it will deteriorate much more quickly than fresh tires.

So, there is a big difference between riding 2,000 miles in one season versus riding 2,000 miles over 10 years. Fresh tires can last a long-distance season, but an old pair that aren’t used much won’t go as far before they fall apart.

Storage Environment

Related to aging over time, different environmental conditions can speed up the aging process. Leaving your tires outside all the time in the sunlight and weather will reduce their range.

As well, keeping them in places that are very hot, very dry, or in a place that is constantly going from one extreme to another, will reduce their range. The worse the environment, the greater the drop.

Terrain

The road is constantly wearing off tiny pieces of your tire. It makes sense that different kinds of paths will wear out your tire at different rates.

Smooth roads don’t wear your tires as much as an unpaved path. So, the less you ride on a road, the less range you can expect out of your tires.

Training

Bike on my trainer

If you ride on a trainer very often, that will still wear your tires. While they can be rolling on smooth metal, it presses a much smaller area of your tire. That forces them to flex more and will wear them out at a reasonable rate.

Some people swear by having an extra rear wheel just for riding on a trainer, and some people invest in more expensive trainers, like this one on Amazon, that don’t even require a rear wheel.

How to tell when your tires are worn out

I track my rides with Garmin and Strava, but I don’t really know how far my tires have gone. So, I need to rely on the more obvious sign that it’s time to change out my tires.

Tread

If you look at a road bike tire, you’ll see that it has a pattern of groove cut-outs. Those are more useful than just for looks. They also indicate how worn your tires are.

The grooves will get more and more shallow until the tires are smooth. Some tires even have circular holes in the tread specifically for you to see just how much tread there is left.

If you have less tread, you’ll have less grip on the road, and you’ll get more punctures.

More frequent punctures

Speaking of which, if you have a sudden uptick in how many punctures you get while you are riding, it’s probably time to get new tires. The thinner walls leave less between the sharp objects and your inner tube.

Do check to see if you have a thorn or something stuck in it, though. There’s no sense in tossing a perfectly good tire that just needs to have a sharp object pulled out of it.

Dry-rot

This is really only likely if you have tires that are many years old. The side walls will usually be the first places to develop cracks. It is a sign that the rubber has become more brittle and is starting to break.

If your tires are showing signs of dry-rot, go ahead and replace them. They will go downhill very quickly if you keep using them.

What to do with your tires

one tire locked to rack bike is gone

I literally mean, what do you do with your tires once you decide the tread is low? For now, I’m going to hope that you or someone you know is willing to replace the tires on your wheels. I might cover how to do that in a later post, though.

It is important to keep in mind that you should have a backup tire if you want to be able to ride right after a tire runs out.

Rotate

Just like on a car, your front and rear tires wear out at different rates. Generally, your rear tire will wear out before your front tire does. So, just like on a car, you can swap around your tires and let them wear out to the same level.

This strategy does maximize the amount of time that goes between when you need to buy new tires, but it does require that you buy both tires at once.

Move it back (now y’all)

Instead of swapping your front and back tire with one another, you can get a new front tire and move your old front tire to the rear wheel. This does mean that you’ll be buying tires a bit more frequently, but you’ll only be buying one at a time.

I think that there is a pretty even split between people that rotate their tires and ones that move their front wheel back. I have also heard of people getting another complete rear wheel, putting the old tires on that, and using it as a training wheel.

Whichever

If you don’t care about optimizing how long your tires last, you can just replace whichever one goes bad first. This strategy is definitely optimizing for the least amount of effort and stress, but I find it more fun to employ a more in-depth strategy for my tire placement.

Clean slate

If you are a glutton for punishment, or just really like working on your bike, you could just swap out both tires once one of them is worn out.

While I wouldn’t suggest this strategy, it does work really well. You’ll almost always have fresh tires that are ready to go. It’s the most expensive option so far as it minimizes the time between purchases and maximizes how much you spend each time.

In Bulk

If you have the storage space, you can always buy a bunch of tires all at once. Forget having one backup tire, how about more like six? This technically applies to all of the strategies. I just wanted to reiterate that you should have a backup tire.

I hope that I’ve empowered you so you can see when to change your tires and not have to worry about whether or not you’re riding on borrowed time.

Thanks for being here!

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