When buying new bicycle tires, one decision you’ll have to make is whether to go with folding tires or wire bead tires. Wire bead tires contain a thin steel wire in the bead built into the tire. Folding bike tires have a kevlar bead. The bead is the part of the tire that touches the rim. This guide explains the differences and outlines the pros and cons of folding bike tires vs wire bead. I’ll cover tire longevity, performance, materials, weight, cost, ride quality, puncture protection, and more.
Over the years, I have run both types of tires on my bikes while mountain biking, touring, and commuting. These days, I pretty much always buy foldable tires because they can be run tubeless. In the past, I used to buy wire bead because they’re cheaper. In this guide, I’ll share my experience.
Folding bike tires are lighter and offer better grip. They also fold up, making carrying a spare easier. In addition, most offer tubeless compatibility.
Wire bead tires are cheaper and longer lasting.
What’s the Difference Between Folding Bike Tires and Wire Bead Bike Tires?
The main difference between a folding bike tire and a wire bead tire is the design of the bead. The bead is the part of the tire that clinches to the rim.
On a folding bike tire, the bead is made from a synthetic material, such as Kevlar. On a wire bead tire, the bead is made from steel wire that is covered in rubber.
Wire beads are stiff and rigid. The steel wire bead can’t be folded or bent. Bending the bead will damage the tire. These tires are sometimes referred to as rigid tires.
Kevlar beads are flexible. They can be folded without causing damage to the tire.
There are other differences as well including the types of materials used, the weight of the tire, the cost of the tire, how the tire rides, how long it lasts, and more. In the following sections, I’ll outline these differences and some benefits and drawbacks of both tire types.
Folding Tires Vs Wire Bead
Wire bead tires last longer than folding tires. This is because wire tires are usually made from harder rubber compounds. Over time, friction between the tire and the road abrades away the tire’s material.
The harder wire bead tires don’t wear down as quickly as the softer folding tires. Softer materials abrade away faster. A steel bead tire may last 300-1000 miles longer than a folding bead tire.
Winner: Wire bead tires are longer lasting.
Folding bike tires are lighter weight than wire bead tires. On average, the folding tires weigh around 2 ounces (57 grams) less than wire bead tires. By switching from wire bead to folding tires, you can cut around 4 ounces from your bike.
The folding design makes for a lighter tire simply because it doesn’t have a heavy metal bead. The bead does need to be made from a thicker material but there is still a weight savings.
The wheels are the best place to remove weight from a bike. Lighter wheels spin up faster and with less effort because they contain less rotational mass. This improves your efficiency. You’ll be able to ride a little faster and further without tiring out because it takes less effort to pedal. You’ll also be able to accelerate a bit faster. The bike will also feel more nimble when the wheels are lighter.
This is important if you ride long distances or if you ride competitively. Every little advantage is important. If you only ride casually, the weight savings is not significant.
Winner: Folding tires are lighter.
Rubber Compounds and Grip
The type of rubber compound used is also different. Foldable tires are usually made from a softer rubber compound. The softer compounds improve traction. This allows you to ride over slippery, rough, or wet surfaces more easily.
This is possible because the softer rubber conforms to the road surface better, increasing the size of the contact patch. This creates more friction between the tire and the road, improving traction. This allows you to ride faster and more confidently on loose or slippery surfaces. They offer better performance. The soft rubber also makes it easier to fold the tires for transportation.
The drawback is that the softer rubber wears down more quickly. This means you will have to replace your tires more frequently.
Steel bead tires are made from a harder rubber compound. Usually, they are made of dual-compound rubber. The center of the tire is made from a harder compound. This reduces rolling resistance and improves the tire’s longevity. The edge of the tire is made from a softer compound. This improves grip for cornering. This is sometimes referred to as dual-compound tread in marketing material. Dual compound tires offer great performance and longevity.
Winner: Folding tires offer better grip.
Tire Bead Materials
Most folding bike tires contain Kevlar. Kevlar is a strong and durable synthetic material. In bike tires, it is used to reinforce the rubber compound to stiffen the tire. Kevlar stiffens the parts of the tire that are necessary for cornering and handling such as the bead and sidewalls. Some tires also have a Kevlar belt under the tread. This increases puncture protection.
Steel bead tires have a steel wire built into the bead. The function of the steel wire is to stiffen the tires so they handle reliably. The steel wire can not be folded or bent.
Some popular tires come in both a steel bead and folding version.
Winner: Folding tires use more modern materials.
Folding bike tires are much more flexible. They are designed to be folded up for transport. This makes them easier to ship. They are also easier to carry on your bike.
This comes in handy if you’re traveling long distances through remote regions. You may need to carry a spare tire.
Wire bead tires are not flexible. They can’t be folded up because they are too stiff. Folding could also damage the wire bead. They must remain in their round form. This makes them a bit harder to transport and store. They take up more space.
Some wire bead tires can be twisted into a figure 8 and then folded. This makes the tire smaller for shipping. As long as the bead isn’t kinked, it should be fine.
Winner: Folding tires are more flexible.
Folding tires often offer better puncture protection. Some models come with a thick Kevlar belt built into the tire tread. This protects from punctures. Nails, shards of glass, and other sharp objects have a hard time piercing the Kevlar strip.
Most folding tires can also be run tubeless. Running tubeless tires is also a great way to reduce punctures.
Punctures may be a bit more frequent with wire bead tires. Most do not offer puncture protection.
Winner: Folding tires offer more puncture protection.
Wire bead tires are cheaper than folding tires. You could save $30-$60+ depending on the type of tires you choose by choosing cheaper wire bead tires instead of folding tires. If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off with wire bead.
Folding tires are more expensive for a couple of reasons. First, the Kevlar and softer rubber compounds used in folding tires are premium materials. They are a bit more expensive. Production of wire bead tires is also simpler. It is an older technology.
One area where you can save on folding tiers is when you order them online. Shipping may be cheaper because they pack down smaller and ship more easily. Personally, I prefer buying bike tires online rather than at my local bike shop. Prices are better.
Winner: Wire bead tires are cheaper.
Lateral Tire Roll
Some folding tires will roll laterally on the rims while cornering. This happens when the tires are being run at lower pressure. Wire bead tires have stiffer sidewalls that are less likely to roll, even at low pressures.
This tire roll is usually caused by running tires that are too wide for the rims. You can solve this issue by installing wider rims or narrower tires.
If you experience tire roll, you should increase the air pressure in your tires. High pressure will reduce lateral roll.
Winner: Wire bead tires can perform better at low pressure because they are stiffer.
Ease of Installation
Some people believe that wire bead tires are harder to mount than folding tires. The argument is that they are harder to install because they are stiffer. I don’t really believe that this is the case.
How hard a tire is to install depends on the tire and rim combination. Rim and tire sizes can also play a role. Sometimes they’re easy and sometimes they’re hard. The type of bead doesn’t really matter, in my experience. As long as you have some good tire levers and the right size tire, both types of tires are relatively easy to install.
Winner: They are the same.
Carrying Spare Tires
Some bicycle tourists and bikepackers carry spare tires on occasion. This may be necessary while traveling through a remote location or developing country where finding quality tires is difficult.
It is easier to carry folding tires because they pack down much more compactly. You could easily strap a spare bike tire to your luggage rack.
Wire bead tires must be kept in their round form. Folding them can damage the bead. This makes them a bit more bulky to carry. Some cyclists simply strap a spare rubber bead tire onto the top of their rear rack over their panniers. This can work fine. It’s just a bit bulkier.
If you don’t tour, you’ll never need to worry about this. Most cyclists never need to carry extra tires. They just carry an extra inner tube. For long rides, folding tires are more convenient to carry than regular tires.
Winner: Folding tires are easier to carry as spares.
Tubeless clincher tires do not use an inner tube. Instead, they create an airtight seal with the rim. This is achieved with a special tubeless rim as well as the help of rim tape and a special liquid sealant that is poured into the tire. When a tubeless tire is punctured, the sealant fills the puncture so you can keep riding. This makes flat tires much less common.
If you want to ride tubeless, you’ll want to look for tires that are ‘tubeless compatible’ or ‘tubeless ready’. Look for the term UST (Universal Standard Tubeless) or Tubeless Ready on the side of the tire.
Most folding bike tires are tubeless ready. Very few wire bead tires are tubeless ready. This is because tubeless technology is newer. If you plan to ride tubeless, you should go with foldable beads. You will also need rims that are tubeless ready.
In most cases, it is possible to convert non tubeless ready tires and rims into tubeless. This process involves installing rim tape
For more in-depth info, check out my guide to tube vs tubeless tires.
Winner: Most modern folding tires are tubeless compatible
Threads Per Inch Count (TPI)
Folding tires usually have a higher TPI ( threads per inch) count than wire bead tires. This number represents the density of the nylon threads or rubber threads in the tire. A high thread number is better. Most folding tires have a TPI of 60 or 120. Most wire bead tires have a much lower TPI number.
A higher TPI tire will be lighter. It will also conform better to rough terrain, offer better traction, and be more comfortable. A lower TPI tire will have better puncture resistance but will be heavier. There are compromises.
For more in-depth info, check out this guide to TPI in bike tires.
Winner: Folding tires have a higher TPI count.
Some riders claim that folding tires offer better ride quality. They feel that they offer a smoother ride. This could be due to the rubber compound used. In reality most riders won’t be able to tell the difference when riding. Both tires can offer a comfortable ride.
Winner: Folding tires may offer a slightly better ride quality.
Which is Better?
For most riders, folding tires are the better choice. That said, both types of tires have their own benefits and drawbacks. The choice really comes down to which type of riding you do and your budget.
Folding tires are lighter weight. They add less rotating mass to the wheels. This improves performance and efficiency. They are also easier to transport in their folded state.
Wire bead tires, on the other hand, are cheaper and longer lasting.
Who Should Choose Folding Tires?
- Bicycle tourists and bikepackers: Folding tires are easy to pack in a pannier or strap to a rack.
- Competitive cyclists: Riders participating in races where every ounce counts are better off with folding tires.
- Those who want to run tubeless: Most folding mountain bike tires are tubeless ready.
- Weight-Conscious Riders: Those who are looking to reduce the overall weight of their bike can save a few ounces by switching to folding tires.
- Those who ride in an area where punctures are common: Folding tires offer better puncture protection.
- Mountain bikers and off-road riders: Folding tires are softer and offer better traction on loose and slippery surfaces.
Who Should Choose Wire Bead Tires?
- Budget-Conscious Cyclists: Wire bead tires are cheaper.
- Regular Commuters: Individuals who use their bikes frequently for daily commutes and need a durable, long-lasting tire.
- Beginner Cyclists: New riders who may not be ready to invest in more expensive folding tires and prefer a reliable, standard option.
- Long-Term Usage Seekers: People looking for tires that can withstand extended periods of use without frequent replacements.
What About Tubular Tires?
Tubular tires don’t have beads at all. Instead, the tube and tire are one piece. They have a contact area that is glued to the rim bed. Tubular tires can be folded. There is no wire bead.
Tubular tires are becoming increasingly rare. These days, they are really only used in competitive cycling. Recreational riders rarely use them because they are a bit of a hassle to mount.
I do quite a bit of bicycle touring and bikepaking. Sometimes, I have to carry a spare tire. I find it much more convenient to carry a folding tire. I can carry the tire in one of my panniers. It’s not in the way. I have carried a wired tire in the past by strapping it on top of my rear rack on top of my luggage. It works but it’s kind of in the way.
I also appreciate the increased performance of folding tires. The lighter weight makes me a little more efficient. They offer a bit more grip, which I like.
I still run wire bead tires on some of my bikes. I have an older commuter bike that I run cheap tires on. In my experience, the difference in performance is pretty minor. I do like the longevity of a wire bead tire.
When choosing between folding bike tires and wire bead tires, consider your needs and preferences. Folding tires are an excellent choice for cyclists who value light weight, performance, and ease of transport. On the other hand, wire bead tires are ideal for those who prioritize longevity, budget-friendliness, and durability.
Whether you’re a casual rider, a commuting cyclist, or a long distance bicycle tourists, understanding these differences helps in selecting the tire that best suits your riding style and requirements. Whichever tire you choose, I hope this guide has helped make buying new tires a bit smoother and easier.
Do you use folding tires or wire bead tires? Share your experience in the comments below!
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Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and insights based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.