It’s Amazing How Tires & Wheels Can Transform A Bike

Note: Somehow, the version of my thoughts on tires and wheels as initially published last evening was not the final one, it was an earlier draft that lacked several photos, edits and formatting changes. I have updated it to the one I intended to publish, along with some additional comments on wheel design prompted by a posted comment as well as a private note I received. Sorry about that and thanks for reading.

A comment by long-time friend TandemRacer (aka, David) on my previous post is yet another great segue to one of several posts I’ve had in draft.  And, to be honest, if you follow my weekly journal at “Riding Two Up” a lot of this will be redundant; sorry about that.

Regardless, David — who has far more competitive riding experience than I do and who has easily logged 50-times as many miles either training, racing on the road, track, dirt or even on tandems (he and his spouse did what I believe was the last Co-Motion Classic and also raced off-road a couple times) — noted:

“The biggest real improvement in bikes in the past 20 years has been the move to higher volume tires. Fat tires with supple casings make a huge difference in the comfort and handling of a road bike while also likely improving efficiency.”


Some Background… or, why I think the way I do

Having grown up on road racing bicycles with skinny sew-ups and then clinchers in the 70’s and 80’s, I can vividly recall riding on 700 x 18mm and 20mm tires well into the 90’s on my ’84 Raleigh Prestige, mostly Continental sew-ups, but also clinchers on my 1992 Trek 2300.  I’m not sure why, perhaps because of marketing and trends in professional road and track racing, skinny tires at very high pressure while not necessarily comfortable, sure seemed like they delivered faster times and higher speeds on good road and track conditions.

Even when we first stepped into the world of tandeming, I fitted our 1996/97 Santana Arriva with a set of 700 x 23 Vredestein Fortezza  Tri-Comp tires (poached from my Trek 2300 single bike given how lifeless the Specialized Transition tires 700 x 26 tires were) and never had a second thought about it: they just seemed right and the purple tread compound looked really good on the Royal Plum Pearl colored Arriva.  Of course, having moved to Georgia in 1991, we’ve always been spoiled with wonderful roads that seem to get fresh asphalt every 5-10 years.  Our only dose of reality would come when we ventured into Alabama with their “chip-seal” version of paving or “up North” where concrete roads with expansion joints and worn-out asphalt with patches and “tar snakes” were the norm.  I’d always “up-size” our tires to 25mm, which was about as large as we could go on our newer Erickson tandems with their very tire-size limited AME / TrueTemper Alpha-Q carbon forks.

In fact, the very idea a shock absorbing seat post was needed for a stoker on a tandem never clicked… until we rode on a concrete bike way at the 2003 Midwest Tandem Rally in Dayton, Ohio.  However, it was at the 2004 Southwest Tandem Rally in New Braunfels, Texas, where I finally understood why Jan Heine had for all of those years I’d been reading his posts on various forums as well as his Vintage Bicycle Quarterly was an advocate for large volume, wide tires, rims and frames that were purpose built to accommodate them.  Even with the 700 x 25 tires on our Erickson travel tandem deflated to perhaps 85psi we found ourselves feeling as though we were having to ride up and over every Texas-size “chip” in the chip-seal. Our mountain bike tandem would have had less rolling resistance!


I guess my point in all of this is, there are a lot of things about bicycles that can influence how they feel, handle and perform.  But, quite honestly, it really does seem to come down to where the rubber meets the road, and just how much rubber, air-pressure and wheel design / weight / drag that truly defines what you’re feeling.


Years ago, we all knew aluminum delivered a harsh ride, whereas we knew SL steel and titanium were far more compliant. Well, I’m here to tell you, even though I bought into all of that, I’m now of a mind it’s tire, wheel and tire pressure that truly define the ride and handling qualities of the average cyclist’s bicycles, regardless of what type of material was used for the frame.  Yes, there are definitely some materials that do a better job of dampening vibration and some frames do — as Jan has described — plane better than others.  But, I’ve found I can quickly alter all of that with a change of wheels, different size tires, adjusting air pressure and/or a combination of all the foregoing.

And, prompted by a friend’s feedback, let me expand a bit on wheels. When I say “a wheel” I’m inferring to a given wheel design as a whole: it’s rim design, dimensions and material, the spoke material, count, design and arrangement or any other method used to connect the rim to the wheel axle, and the hubs. There are enough different wheel designs and theories on wheel design to fill volumes of books, just as there are when it comes to tire bicycle tire design.  Even the basic, conventional bicycle wheel can be created from a wide variety of spokes of different materials, gauges, butting and in so many different lacing patterns to achieve a desired characteristic, e.g., a 48 spoke wheel with triple butted spokes laced 5x for maximum load capacity vs. an 18 spoke wheel with bladed spokes in a radial lacing for light weight and low drag time trials.  Moreover, with the advent of the high-end integrated wheelsets — from conventional-looking wheels with carbon rims or composite spokes all the way to dish wheels — the options are truly endless but all come with trade-offs on cost, reliability, ease of repair and durability.


And, with that in mind… after a lot of words for something that started out to be a short introduction, here’s the original subject line: Hey, I put new wheels on my Calfee Single Bike!

I stepped-off a slippery slope a few weeks back when I was out on a ride from the house aboard my single Calfee Tetra Pro, merely wishing I was on the Calfee Tetra tandem with Miss Debbie.  We’ve not had a lot of tandem time since July for a variety of reasons, so I’d been rediscovering riding solo.  And, as I was finding myself out on the road by myself it dawned on me how much of an impact making a “technology upgrade” as well as a “cosmetic upgrade” to our Calfee tandem back in February had made that perhaps it was time to do the same for the Calfee single bikes.

Yes, we have at trio of Calfee’s: my 1997/98 Calfee Tetra Pro I bought second hand in 2007 as a way of making sure carbon was the way to go for our next tandem and, well, it was.  So, enter the Calfee Tetra tandem and a mere 4 miles into the first ride Miss Debbie when asked, “So how do you like the ride?” responded with, “Well, I know what I want for my next single bike.”  It wasn’t long after I found her a second hand Calfee Luna Pro.

So, the first thing that came to mind was finding a second set of Campagnolo Eurus G3 wheels — 2008 – 2009 vintage or there abouts —  as I’d bought a new set of those to use on the Calfee that somehow ended up on Debbie’s Calfee.  Well, OK: I was worried about putting too many miles on the wheels, thus hastening their life, and knew Debbie’s petite form was ideally suited to the svelte wheels and would make her riding experience a bit more sporty.  I replaced the G3’s with a not-too-shabby conventional set of wheels I’d built up with Campy Record hubs, a lightweight Mavic 32h Open Pro wheels and DB Sapim spokes that were originally on my ’99 Erickson single which I’d stripped for parts to build-up Debbie’s Calfee.

That set of G3’s have held-up incredibly well with easily 15,000 miles of use, never once going out of true and the internals looking like new when I pulled them apart for a service check at 12,000 miles.  So, that’s what I went looking for, found and then rolled the dice and purchased in the hope they were as good as they looked in the photos and as described.  They were!

When they arrived they appeared to be a year or two newer model than the ones on Debbie’s Calfee (new, bolder graphics, etc.) and in equally good condition with nothing more than normal wear.  A spin in the truing stand confirmed they were still as true as they day they were built, and spoke tension was also good all around. When I pulled the hubs apart the internals were in like-new condition. In fact, the factory lubricants were in pristine shape with no indication of any contamination or degradation.

After cleaning, lubricating, re-assembling and putting them on my Calfee with a set of worn-in but not yet worn-out Vredestein Fortezza 700 x 25’s — as well as a just-cleaned rear cassette and chain with fresh lubricant — I headed out for a short 13-mile ride to see how they felt and performed as compared to the Open Pro/Campy Record wheelset I’d ridden on two days earlier.

It suffices to say, the ride qualities of the Calfee were quite different.  While my average speed was only up a few tenths, the “feel” of the bike was now far more light and nimble, with a lot more road vibration and feel. In other words, it was a more lively, lighter and aggressive feeling bike than it had been with the other wheels.  And, well, that should be no surprise since the G3 wheelset was 1.5 lbs lighter with half as many spokes and they also looked pretty slick.  So, as you’d expect, I was very happy with my decision to “freshen up” my 23-year old Calfee.

Just to make sure I wasn’t kidding myself on how much of a difference the wheels made, I took my Erickson single bike with it’s conventional Campy Chorus/Mavic CXP33 wheelset out for a 25-mile ride the day after I rode the Calfee with the G3’s.  (Yes, I built back-up the Erickson in 2016 using the parts from the Ritchey Logic Pro Debbie had been riding before she got her own Calfee. It hadn’t been ridden on the road ever since, having been relegated to a stationary trainer.)

As you might imagine, going from a 18.2 lb carbon bike with the G3 wheels to the 22.2 lb steel Erickson with the 2 lb – heavier wheelset made for a sluggish feeling ride.  The following day, the G3’s went on the Erickson and voila, just like the Calfee on it’s first ride with the G3’s, the ride feel and characteristics were very different. It was a much lighter, agile feeling bike with the same additional road feel/vibration that makes for a more lively, aggressive riding experience.


What’s the point of all this, other than gloating over some cool, new wheels?

It’s amazing how much wheels and tires can change how a bicycle feels.  And, you don’t have to drop a lot of money to change how your existing bike with it’s existing wheels performs.  As for allowing you to go faster, meh. To the point David made in the opening quote, I think I’ve gotten to the point where I get how riding a bike that’s easier and more comfortable to ride will, over the course of a long distance ride, probably do more to improve the average rider’s experience and performance. But, then again, sometimes you just want to go and have one of those invigorating rides with lots of out of the saddle climbs, bombing the descents and feeling like the rider you really wish you were.  Well, you can do all of those things, and even some of them on the same bike.

Just adjusting the tire pressure from “rock hard” to something that gives you a slight bulge when you put your full weight on the bike will do a lot to take the edge off a harsh feeling bike.  Yes, it will also feel like it’s wallowing around through the corners or when up and out of the saddle because, well, it is.  But, after a ride or two, it will become a new normal.  And, the opposite is true: if feel you bike is sluggish and wallows around a bit too much, check your tire pressures and make sure they’re where they should be. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bike where I didn’t need to top off the air every day before a ride to get it back where I wanted it.

Changing tire size, type (wire vs. folding), brands, compounds, thread count, etc. can all alter how a bike feels and handles.  And, of course, there is always the option of a high-end, performance wheelset.  Although, to be quite honest and since this is a tandem thread, I’ve owned and ridden on a lot of different go-fast wheelsets from Rolf, to Topolino’s, to Spinergy and even some lightweight conventional wheelsets with as few as 28 spokes.  For the tandem, I’m sold on running 36h conventional wheelsets and would not use any of the boutique wheels as my every day choice.  Yes, they feel great but IMHO, the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.  Save them for those special rides when you want to have that “extra boost” even if it’s a placebo effect that makes you go a bit faster.


Now, getting back to those wider, large volume tires… 

There’s something I still need to explore.  I have zero recent experience since the last time I had a road bike with large volume tires was my 1966 24″ Schwinn Typhoon bike  with 24″ x 1 3/4″ tires: my dad said I’d grow into it when I got it for my 6th birthday.

The Typhoon was replaced by Schwinn Deluxe Racer with 26″ x 1 3/8″ tires and after that, it was 27″ x 1″ racing tire bikes, followed by the 700 x 25, 23, 20 and 18’s. So, I’m out of my depth when it comes to higher volume tires.

About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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3 Responses to It’s Amazing How Tires & Wheels Can Transform A Bike

  1. msrw says:

    I think your friend is correct that high performance wider tires represent an inflection point on meaningful improvement (compared to change for the sake of change) on modern bikes. I would add that deep dish carbon wheels are arguably in the same category. For those who don’t race, the main benefit of deep dish wheels is to allow the rider to stay at a higher speed with less effort. The effect is quite noticeable.

  2. sixtiescycles says:

    To be fair, Jan Heine has promoted the traditional French <> style of wider, lower-pressure tires for some time. You don’t need to spend much time here to appreciate why that’s a great strategy (we live in France full time now, fyi). The only surprise is why it took so long to take hold, and for that I give Jan major kudos for promoting it in recent years. We’re riding on 28 mm Contis presently on our Paketa tandems, but looking forward to riding our 1971 Alex Singer with 650B wheels and ~45 mm tires pretty soon, when I get it overhauled. They had it right then. What happened? That’s a good discussion for us tandem wonks.

  3. TG says:

    Yeah, I too often times wonder how skinny tires came to be the dominant technology just as I was growing of age and began road cycling. My sense is, it’s all about the aforementioned “constant change for the sake of constant change” (ref. my prior article, “Is Newer Really Better”) in cycling technology that’s existed since bicycles were first introduced in the late 1800’s. But, we all bought into it, even Jan did in his early years. But, kudo’s to Jan via his Vintage Bicycle Quarterly and it’s second coming, Bicycle Quarterly. I’ve been an avid ready and have every copy ever published. What I don’t have and would love to have is a classic French single or tandem like the ’71 Singer you mentioned, just to be able to judge for myself.

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