What is the difference? HINT: It’s not just the packaging!
Most riders don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether their bike is equipped with folding bead vs wire bead tires. Our focus tends to be on: “Hey, what’s going to hold up best for the longest amount of riding time?”
When I first started cycling several years ago, I had no idea what folding bead or wire bead meant. I just wanted to enjoy my rides without thinking about anything else. But different types of tires can make a difference in how our rides feel, which affects how long we want to be out on the trail or the road. And for those newer to cycling, the “bead” is the part of the tire that touches the rim. So let’s dive into the meat and potatoes of our tires.
Bike Tire Materials
Kevlar, that strong, flexible, versatile wonder material, is the key component of folded bead tires, the part that makes them “foldable.” Folding bead tires are sold folded up; whereas wire bead tires cannot be folded because they are made with steel wire. This material makes them very stiff. They resemble hula hoops when you see them in a bike shop.
Rubber Compounds in Bike Tires
Folded bead tires are manufactured with softer rubber compounds. Softer tires can provide greater traction. These tires are ideal for wet, rough, and/or muddy riding conditions. However, because they are softer, they will wear out faster, which means the need to be replaced more frequently.
Wire bead tires are made with what’s called a dual compound rubber. Dual compound rubber greatly improves the life expectancy of the wire bead tire. The center line of the tire that most often touches the road is the stiffer, more typical rubber compound that can enhance traction. The sides of wire bead tires are made of a softer rubber that enhances cornering maneuvers.
Tire flexibility makes a difference in the way they’re packaged and how they’re stowed for travel. If you’re planning a long-distance bike trip, you’ll likely require more than just extra tubes. You’ll probably also want extra tires, just in case. Folding bead tires are much more flexible and are easily packed. A wire bead tire is just too stiff for packing.
Added Weight for your Bike
Folding bead tires weigh about 2 ounces less than wire bead tires, which is an added bonus for traveling. Lighter weight can also equate to better performance, because you’re using less energy and effort to pedal. For some riders, that extra 4 ounces with wire bead tires for riding won’t necessarily make that much difference.
Folding bead tires usually cost more than wire bead tires because Kevlar and softer rubber compounds are premium materials. Riders who prefer folding bead tires testify that the higher price is worth it for a better riding experience. However, other riders may not notice the difference in the ride quality.
Tubeless technology is exactly how it sounds—installing the tire directly onto the rim without a tube. Instead, the tire is designed to create an airtight seal with the rim. Sealant is applied to help maintain that seal if and when the tire experiences punctures. Many riders are choosing to go tubeless with their tire set up nowadays. Tubeless is pretty much the default for mid to high end mountain bikes, gravel bikes, and is even becoming more common in road bikes.
In order to ride without tubes, the tire must be what is commonly referred to as tubeless compatible or tubeless ready. It’s important to note that very few wire bead tires are tubeless ready. Therefore, if you plan to set up your bike with tubeless tires, foldable tires will most likely be your go-to option.
So…which one is better?
The choice between folding bead vs wire bead tires boils down to how and where you ride. The performance of each depends on the individual cyclist’s wants and needs. I use both types, just not on the same bike. If I try it that way, I’ll let you know how it goes!
Still not sure which is best for you? Stop by the store and we’ll provide our recommendations based on the information you give us.