If there is one part every cyclist has had to replace at least once in the lifetime of their bike, it’s a tire. This might give the impression that tires are unreliable, or prone to failure, but that’s not a fair interpretation.
The truth is that bicycle tires are subjected to more stress and damage than any other part on the bike.
They bear all the weight and take all the friction and punishment of the road. Considering that, it’s impressive that they last as long as they do. And they do last a long time. How long?
One set of tires can last you 2 years or more, adding up to thousands of miles of riding.
Yet, they don’t all make it that far. Even those that do eventually reach their limits. Knowing when to change them out is just as important as taking care of them along the way.
So how do you know when it’s time to replace your bike tires? It depends. With so many forces acting upon them, tires can fail in a variety of ways. You’ll need to be on the lookout for several different signs.
Table of Contents
- When To Replace Your Bike Tire: 7 Warning Signs To Look For
- How Many Miles Does A Bike Tire Last?
- Factors That Impact The Life of Your Bicycle Tire
- How To Make Your Bike Tires Last Longer
- Replacing A Bike Tire
- When Should I Change My Bike Tire?
When To Replace Your Bike Tire: 7 Warning Signs To Look For
The tread on your bike tire is a prime example of form meeting function. While there are undoubtedly some aesthetic liberties taken with tread patterns from time to time, the pattern of knobs and grooves is arguably the feature that has the most influence on your tire’s overall performance.
Without their knobby protrusions, all-terrain and mountain bike tires can’t provide the traction needed to accelerate and maneuver in loose dirt and sand.
The shallow grooves on-road bike tires are needed to channel water out of your path, and without them, it’s no longer safe to ride the bike in wet conditions.
For those reasons, you should immediately replace your bike tires when the treads are worn enough to impede their function. You can determine this with a visual inspection. If the knobs or grooves have become near flush with the surrounding rubber, it’s time for those tires to be replaced.
Traditional pneumatic bicycle tires are made from rubber that has been treated with added chemicals for increased durability and performance.
However, even with these additives, the rubber is far from invincible. Age, disuse, environmental factors, and other chemical agents will cause it, and thus bike tires, to deteriorate over time.
This breakdown manifests as cracking, ranging from thin breaks you have to hunt for, to gaps that are immediately visible. Exposure to direct sunlight accelerates the occurrence of this phenomenon.
Ozone can also cause fine fissures to appear over time. Brushed electric motors generate ozone, so e-bike riders should pay close attention to their tire condition.
Harsh chemical cleaners, improper inflation, and the unavoidable rigors of time will all generate cracks. They tend to first appear in the sidewalls, which are stretched most from pressure. If you observed long, deep, or numerous cracks on your tire, don’t ride on it, as it could split or burst at any time.
Nicks, Cuts And Holes
The only bike tires you’ll find in perfect condition are those that have never been ridden upon. The moment they touch the road, they begin to collect signs of damage.
Design features are meant to address this, from toughness to thickness, and even chemical coatings. But, there is no way to prevent this damage completely
Take a look at your tires and you’ll find plenty of evidence this is so. Yet, because most of these marks are superficial, they don’t impact the safety or performance of your tire.
Gradually, however, the sheer number of nicks can impact the integrity of the material.
Small cuts, once formed, will begin to lengthen and deepen. They can collect small rocks and grit that can become impacted and cause punctures or other damage.
Look for marks that cut deep, or holes that are collecting debris, are hard to clear and don’t close up when cleaned. If you find any of this, it’s time to change the tire.
Visible Subtread or Casing
Tires are constructed in layers. The outermost layer is the tread, the only part of the bike intended to contact the road. This is the thickest and strongest part of the tire, as it has to stand up to all punishment. It is the only tire layer designed for this purpose.
The subsequent layers are meant to maintain structural integrity, flexibility, and performance. For instance, many bike tires have a subtread layer for additional puncture resistance.
Meanwhile, all traditional pneumatic tires have a base layer, the casing.
The casing is made of woven fabric. It may have a higher or lower thread count, or be made from cotton, silk, or nylon, but regardless of these details, the casing is not safe to ride on directly.
If your treads are so worn that you see the threads of the casing, your tire is beyond the point where it should have been replaced.
When your tires are in good condition, they will still be rounded in the center, where they contact the road. As you ride, this shape is naturally eroded, flattening your tire’s profile.
A tire is considered to be “squared-off” when the center is no longer rounded, and instead of sloping to the sides, it transitions at a sharp angle.
Tires with prominent treads will generally be replaced before squaring can occur, as significant tread wear precedes true flattening of the surface. However, on many road bikes, particularly those meant for riding in dry conditions, the treads will be completely smooth.
In such cases, it can be hard to see how much the tire has eroded until it squares off. Riding on tires in this condition will feel slower, so if your speed is suffering, inspect your wheels.
Squared off tires are not only suboptimal performers, but they are more likely to puncture or blow out. Replace them when you find them.
It makes sense to patch a tire instead of replacing it when you experience a single flat, especially if you know exactly what the cause was. But, what about when your bike tire keeps going flat, and you can’t figure out why? At that point, it can be best to replace it.
The problem is that there are many ways that damage to the tire can manifest, and it’s not always easy to find or fix. Moreover, a flat means more than just damage to the tire. The inner tube is taking damage.
The tire could have a poor fit to the rim, allowing the tube to be pinched.
A fine, nearly invisible bit of wire may be lodged in the inner casing so that even a new tube will be punctured the moment you ride on the tire in question. Regardless, if a tire is going flat and you can’t figure out why, it’s safer to replace it than to take a chance riding on it.
To function ideally, bike tires need to maintain their streamlined shape. As we’ve seen, wear from normal use will gradually reshape them, but more extreme conditions can cause dramatic deformation that instantly and obviously make them unsafe and unusable.
Internally, tires have as many points of failure as they have layers, as these layers are held together with glue. Hard impacts can cause the layers to detach, leading to bulges and warping of the outer tread.
This can even detach the casing from the metal wires that hold the tire’s shape, called the beads, so that won’t properly seat into the rim.
The outside of the tire can also deform. Exceptionally hot asphalt can cause the tire to melt, allowing it to become misshapen.
Hard stops at high speeds will chew right through the rubber in a skid, leaving a noticeable flat spot. If there is anything that seriously alters the shape of the tire, plays it safe, and remove it.
How Many Miles Does A Bike Tire Last?
Predicting the mileage of any particular set of tires is practically impossible. Just consider the myriad factors that can influence this single statistic.
The product brand, rubber thickness, toughness, diameter, chemical composition, tread geometry, number of layers, casing fabric, and thread count only cover the structural considerations.
Add in the type of bike, the bike’s individual frame geometry, the weight of the rider, average temperature of the environment, average speeds, and the type of terrain, and you can see the amount of variability is practically infinite. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t arrive at useful, general calculations.
For instance, on average, road bike tires are expected to last between 1000-3000 miles. This figure assumes riding in intended conditions, and the variance is mainly down to tire quality.
Higher qualities will deliver longer lifespans. As you add in additional factors, you can adjust upwards or downwards accordingly.
Switch to racing tires, with their emphasis on speed over durability, and suddenly your upper range is 1000 miles. Riding a mountain bike instead?
Their tires place a premium on durability, and can carry you for 6000 miles over uneven and loose terrain, but have a shorter lifespan on level asphalt.
The table below can give you a general idea of what to expect. No figures are given for terrains unsuitable for the type of tires listed.
Flat, Paved Terrain
Mild Off-Road Conditions
Extreme Off-Road Conditions
Road Bikes Avg.
Touring Hybrid Tires Avg
Mountain Bikes Avg.
Factors That Impact The Life of Your Bicycle Tire
How You Ride
Everyone rides in a way that is most comfortable for them. This isn’t just a matter of your bike, experience, or your level of fitness. There are also psychological factors, along with environmental concerns, that determine your riding tendencies.
Posture and positioning can be dictated by the bike’s frame and handlebars. Cruisers tend to require an upright posture that puts more weight on the rear tire, while road bikes with drop bars promote a forward leaning posture that more evenly distributes the weight for more even wear.
In an urban environment, you’ll have to stop more frequently, which eats away at your bike tire treads.
If you’re the type who likes to ride fast, every bump or stop will submit your tires to greater stress at those higher speeds. Slow riders, by contrast, can get more than the average life from their tires, while trick riders that subject their tires to jumps and hard impacts will need to replace them often.
Regardless of how you ride, the condition of the road can cut short the life of your tires. There’s a difference between asphalt and cobblestone, or a rocky mountain path vs a dirt road. In general, level, smoother paths are easier on your wheels, provided the tires are made for the terrain you’re riding on.
For road bikes, this means sticking to even, paved surfaces. Roads made uneven by cracks and potholes are subject to cracking and deformation from hard drops and bumps.
Riding up, and dropping off, curbs are also detrimental, as is too much time spent riding over grit, gravel, or extremely hot asphalt.
Mountain bike tires are very hardy, made to take a beating, but you can get the most out of them riding in mild off-road conditions.
Flat dirt paths, loose sand, gravel, and snow all do much less damage than steep, punishing downhill impacts and rides over sharp debris like large rocks and roots.
Bike tires bear an amazing amount of weight. Not just the weight of the bike, or the weight of the rider, or the weight of the cargo, but the combined weight of all those things multiplied by the force of impacts, stops, and sharp maneuvers.
Most tires are rated to carry around 200 lbs, and, as you’ve likely guessed, less weight is better.
Tires distribute weight via compression. As the tire rotates, rolling friction is generated along the contact patch, which wears down the rubber. Heavier loads increase this friction.
They also increase stopping distance when braking, which can cause rubber loss due to skids.
Weight that significantly exceeds the posted max capacity can result in compression so severe that the rims cut into the inside of the tire.
In a worst-case scenario, a hard impact can multiply a too-heavy load to the point that the tire ruptures, resulting in a blowout, likely to be accompanied by a bent rim.
Careful tread design and material toughness have no meaning if a tire is not inflated. Likewise, you shouldn’t expect to get the best performance or longevity from a tire that is inflated improperly.
Like a balloon, an over-inflated tire is prone to punctures. Pump the pressure too low, and your tire will fall to pinch flats or cracking.
What counts as proper inflation varies depending on the type of tire. For instance, road bikes tend to have narrow tires meant to ride on flat surfaces. Because they don’t benefit from much give, they require greater pressure, in the range of 80-130 psi.
Conversely, mountain bikes have wider tires, and lower pressure, between 25-35 psi, allows them to spread for easier riding over loose terrain, and to gain traction on uneven sections.
However, there are many types of tires, and each comes with recommended inflation levels. You may experiment within the limits, but you shouldn’t exceed them in either direction.
With all the threats to bike tires on the road, you might think they would be safest if left in a garage, unridden. But, tires are made for riding, and they deteriorate in a different way if left idle for too long a time.
With proper care, they will actually last longer when ridden upon regularly.
The rubber of your treads is formulated to stand up to the rigors of riding. Regular riding allows the chemical protectants added to be refreshed on the surface of the tire, whether due to the erosion of older outer layers, or the flexing caused by compression.
Unused tires gradually dry out. The rubber becomes stiff and flaky. This loss of elasticity leads to cracks and splitting when you finally do hop into the saddle again. The fiber of the casing can also suffer dry rot in such conditions, unraveling the foundational layer of the tire, and ruining it.
How To Make Your Bike Tires Last Longer
If you want your tires to carry you for thousands of miles, you have to combat all of the threats listed above. Luckily, it’s fairly simple to safeguard them, once you know what you’re protecting them from.
- Choose The Right Tires For The Terrain. Don’t take narrow, smooth tires into off-road conditions. Don’t ruin deeply threaded, soft mountain bike tires on asphalt. Tires will do their best when used as intended.
- Adjust Inflation To Reflect Your Style. While you can get by simply inflating both tires to the same manufacturer recommended psi, your tires will experience less wear if they are fine tuned to your weight distribution and usage.
- Don’t Let Them Sit For Long. If your bike is sitting unused, take it out for a short ride once every couple weeks. You don’t have to do anything strenuous. The point is simply to keep the tires flexible and protected.
- Carry Less Weight. To the degree that it’s possible, limit the amount of weight the tires have to bear. Always observe the max weight capacity. If you have to exceed it for some reason, make it brief, and don’t go more than 20 lbs over.
- Apply Tire Protectant. If you want to slow down the effects of weather, temperature, UV rays and ozone, you can apply a protectant. This will keep your tires in like new condition, longer.
Replacing A Bike Tire
When the time inevitably comes to replace a tire, you can always opt to take it to your local bike shop to get the job done. However, if you want to save some money, it’s something you can do yourself without much trouble.
You’ll need a 15 mm wrench, to remove the wheel, and tire lever, or flathead screwdriver will be useful for prying the tire away from the rim.
- Remove the wheel. To do this, unscrew the axle with your wrench, and disengage the brakes from the rim. On the back tire, remove the chain, disengage the brakes, unscrew the wheel. Many bikes have levers to quickly accomplish both tasks. Refer to your bike’s manual, or check online, to determine exactly how this should be done.
- Remove the tire. Slip the lever or screwdriver between the rim and tire, and lever the tire bead from its seating. Once you have it up, you can work your way around the wheel until the tire is totally removed.
- Attach the inner tube. Take your new inner tube and position it around the rim. Make sure the stem is inserted through the hole in the rim.
- Inflate the inner tube enough that it will stay in place.
- Work the new tire onto the rim, around the new tube. Be careful to seat the bead of one edge into the rim. Save the other side for when you fully inflate the tube.
- Inflate the tube to the proper psi, and get the other edge of the tire properly seated. Then, reattach the wheel, and you’re done!
When Should I Change My Bike Tire?
When you look at all of the different ways a bike tire can wear out or fail, your decision to replace one ultimately comes down to one of two different reasons. Either the condition of the tire makes the bike unsafe to ride, or it reduces performance such that riding the bike is difficult.
When tires are brittle and cracking, or the rubber is chewed up by an accumulation of nicks and skids, there is an increased risk of failure. An exposed subthread or casing does nothing to protect against punctures and ruptures and could go out under you suddenly.
These are issues of safety, and you must replace your tire when it is unsafe.
You are risking serious injury, or even death when you ride on tires that are likely to fail when you need them most. Yet, not every issue is so dramatic.
If you have road tires, but your commute takes you over occasional gravel, you should change your tires to something that can handle both terrains equally.
Similarly, if you have mountain bike tires, but only ever ride on asphalt, you should change your tires. When the tires are incompatible with your riding experience, replace them, and enjoy the improved performance.
It’s easy to take tires for granted. Many riders only spare a thought for them when the road is visibly rough, or they hit a bump too hard. Take a moment to think of how many times that has happened to you, and it turned out your tires were just fine.
These hard-working rings, made of rubber, cloth, metal, and glue, are incredibly resilient. Ask yourself: what other parts on your bike last longer the more you use it? Your tires will carry you for hundreds of miles when you don’t take care of them. Just imagine how far they’ll go when you do.