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There are two types of tyre:

Clincher tyre

Clincher tyres are the most common type of tyre.  The tyre has a separate inner tube, which is essentially a balloon that is pumped with air via a value.   The air in the inner tube forces the walls of the tyre outward creating the desired pressure and forcing hooped wires, or beads, on each side of its inner circumference into grooves in the rim of your wheel (clinching), keeping the tyre in place.

Tubular tyres

A tubular tyre, often referred to as a tub, is a bicycle tyre that is stitched closed around the inner tube to form a single unit.   The tyre is then glued to the rim of the wheel.

Tubular tyres are lighter than clinchers because they do not have the added weight of the hoops.  However, you will need to carry a complete spare tyre and glue to attach it to the rim, rather than just an inner tube or a repair kit, in case of a puncture which negates the weight saving.  They are therefore mostly used where the reduced weight is important and there is no need to carry spares, e.g. professional road racing and on the track.

Because of the all in one construction they are less prone to pinch flats and are less likely to roll off the rim when you get a flat.  However, if you do get a flat you will either need to replace the whole tyre (££) or unstitch the tyre, fix the puncture and then stitch it back up again before gluing it back to the rim.  On the road it will take much longer to fix a flat than with a clincher.

What should I look for in a bicycle tyre?

With a couple of very recent dual purpose exceptions, wheels will be designed to take either a clincher or a tubular tyre.  It is most likely that your wheels will be designed for clincher tyres.  However, whether it is a clincher or a tubular the main features you are looking for in a tyre are:

  1. puncture resistance – many tyres now have a puncture resistant layer beneath the rubber.  These can make a considerable difference to the number of punctures you get.
  2. grip in wet weather – some rubber compounds and tread patterns are more grippy in wet, muddy conditions than others.  A slick racing tyre will not offer the same sure grip as a heavily threaded mountain bike tyre.
  3. rolling resistance – this is how much energy is lost through friction between the tyre and the road surface.  Generally the smoother the thread and the narrower the tyre the less the rolling resistance will be.  Hence slick 19mm racing tyres will have low rolling resistance and take less effort to ride on than a heavily treaded mountain bike tyre.
  4. weight – the heavier the tyre the more weight you have to carry around and hence the more energy you will use.  There is also a factor called rotational mass.  Basically the weight at the circumference of the wheel has a greater negative effect on performance than weight near the hub.  Therefore the lighter the tyre the lower the rotational mass and the easier it is to accelerate.
  5. comfort – the thicker the tyre the more suspension there is between you and the road surface, hence the more comfortable the ride.  A 19mm racing tyre, pumped to 120psi, does not offer ultimate comfort!

As you can see some factors are almost the opposite of others and you will have to balance up what is important to you and the type of riding you do.  There are tyres whose manufacturers claim they offer everything, but then they are trying to sell them.