November in the wind tunnel: is wider faster?

What a question!  It might be simpler to ask "how long is a rope?" as there simply is no one answer to this question.  

In the simplest terms we can look at, aerodynamic performance of every wheel we tested suffered when the wider tire went on.  There has been much speculation over this one recently, but the results of the tests we ran conclusively show that, in terms of measured aerodynamics, narrow tires are faster.  

The question we were perhaps more intrigued to have answered was whether one rim or another tolerated wider tires better than others.  Unexcitingly, the answer to that is also no; all rims suffered a similar drop off in speed when outfitted with 25mm versus 23mm tires.

Now, back to my "how long is a rope" question - how wide is a 23mm or 25mm tire?  For that matter, how tall is either tire?  As the chart below shows, that answer varies widely (I slay me) based on the rim to which it's mounted.  The biggest determinant of inflated tire width and height (and thus inflated volume) is the interior width of the rim - the distance between the brake tracks.  The relationship between interior width variance and tire inflated volume is steady in direction (wider interior rim reliably equals more inflated tire volume), but the magnitude of the change is not as perfectly predictable.  For example, despite both rims having 18mm between the brake tracks, the tires we measured inflated bigger on Rails than on Pacenti SL23s.  But a basic rough rule of thumb is that for every 2mm gain in width between the brake tracks, you will gain 1mm in inflated width.  So if a tire of a stated size runs true to size on an Open Pro that is 14mm between the brake tracks, it will measure 2mm wider (which is equal to the most common size increment jump) on a rim with 18mm between the brake tracks.  Which means that if you prefer a 23mm tire on a traditional-width rim, you can use a 21 on a Rail and get the same volume (more explanation of that to follow).  And that, I promise, is the absolute last time I will mention an Open Pro in any discussion of aerodynamics!


The interesting part that follows on from this is that, when you measure two rims with the same tire, you aren't necessarily measuring the same tire on them.  The 23mm Conti 4000s II that we used measured 24.3mm wide on the 404, but was a full 1.5mm wider on the Rail (and .4mm taller on the Rail, but to keep things simpler we'll focus on width).  Similarly, the 25mm Conti 4000s II that measured 26.7mm wide on the 3.4 front measured 27.3mm wide on the Rail.  Tires also set up relatively lower on the Enve rim compared to the width increase - the 23mm tire was .1mm taller on the 404 than it was on the Enve, despite the tire being .6mm wider on the Enve than the 404.

Given the negative relationship between width and speed, and given that tires measure bigger on our rims than on any others tested (which we knew they would - those who've followed the Rail story know that design parameter #1 was an 18mm interior width), we had to peel the onion back a little bit on that one.  Interpolating the difference between 23mm and 25mm tires on the 404 creates a line that predicts where tires of widths between those two would fall.  Create the same line with the Rail 52, and you see that for any given actual inflated tire width, the 52's "seconds saved" line is above the 404's.  Of course we wouldn't be us if we didn't point out with equal emphasis that the 34's "seconds saved" line is below the 3.4's, so by using the same metric, a 3.4 is a little bit faster than a 34 for any given inflated tire width.  

The current trend is absolutely for wider tires.  Note that when we decided to test two tire sizes, we chose a 23 and a 25, not a 21 and a 23.  Wider tires have been shown to have lower rolling resistance at equal pressure (don't worry, we're building a better mousetrap to measure that), and as many people have learned, offer advantages in both comfort and handling.  Inflated volume also has serious ramifications for what tire pressure to use, which we will discuss in much more detail later, but the strange looks I've gotten for the past two years when I tell people what psi I use now make perfect sense.  

There is a terrific amount of interrelated data that comes out of this, all of which will come out over the next several installments, but for now the myth (if there really was one) that wider tires are aerodynamically faster is busted.  

Back to blog


Will, you may. And let me put it to you this way – the time I came back from a ride and said "jeez, that was a little off the low end, for sure" I measured the front at 55. Usually I prefer around 70 to 75 in the front, and 5 or 8 more in the back, but I am far from religious about it. I should be, because the day after I've ridden the rollers (I set them to 100 for rollers) I always hate it, because they are still up in the 90s. A Rail with a "23mm tire" at 78psi is very closely equivalent to the same "23mm tire" at 100psi on an Open Pro, so you can see I'm not really off base. What I arrived at through iterative experience turns out to match up to the SCIENCE!! (can't say that word without Thomas Dolby voice). Boyle's Law, what a concept. We'll talk a lot more about that later.

Dave Kirkpatrick

So, may I ask what PSI do you use your Rail 34's at?


Hi Dave.Great info. On the 'Actual tire width impact on aero' what are the difference(s) to the control standard (404) to the 404 exhibiting time gain? Interesting gains from all vendors over the control and more so with the Rail 34 given the rim depth difference.Thanks – Tim


Hi Tim,I'm afraid I'm not getting your question. Can you restate please?ThanksDave


one interesting observation is the slope of the various lines between the same rim and different tire width. It seems to me that also has some info in it. The less negative the slope the less the impact of the change in width, so for instance the change between the tires on the Rail 34 is more than on the Rail 52s for instance. This seems to have some aerodynamic info on the way the air travels around the tire and rim combo? Could it suggest that it could have an impact on the yaw effect as well? Is this something you can comment on?


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