Bicycle tires come in a bewildering variety of sizes. To make matters worse, in the early days of cycling, every country that manufactured bicycles developed its own system of marking the sizes. These different national sizing schemes created a situation in which the same size tyre would be known by different numbers in different countries. Even worse, different-sized tires that were not interchangeable with one another were often marked with the same numbers!
Traditional Sizing Systems
The traditional sizing systems are based on a measurement of the outside diameter of a tire. This would usually be measured in inches (26", 27", etc.) or millimeters (650, 700, etc.).
Unfortunately, evolution of tires and rims has made these measurements lose contact with reality. Here's how it works: Let's start with the 26 x 2.125 size that became popular on heavyweight "balloon tire" bikes in the late '30's and still remains common on "beach cruiser" bikes. This size tyre is very close to 26 inches in actual diameter. Some riders, however were dissatisfied with these tires, and wanted something a bit lighter and faster. The industry responded by making "middleweight" tires, marked 26 x 1.75 to fit the same rims. Although they are still called "26 inch", these tires are actually 25 5/8", not 26". This same rim size was adopted by the early pioneers of west-coast "klunkers", and became the standard for mountain bikes. Due to the appetite of the market, you can get tires as narrow as 25 mm to fit these rims, so you wind up with a "26 inch" tyre that is more like 24 7/8" in actual diameter!
A second number or letter code would indicate the width of the tire. (26 x 1.75, 27 x 1 1/4...650B, 700C...)
Does Point Seven Five Equal Three Quarters?
Note that the inch-based designations sometimes express the width in a decimal (26 x 1.75) and sometimes as a common fraction (26 x 1 3/4). This is the most common cause of mismatches. Although these size designations are mathematically equal, they refer to different size tires, which are NOT interchangeable. It is dangerous to generalize when talking about tyre sizing, but I would confidently state the following:
Brown's Law Of Tyre Sizing:
If two tires are marked with sizes that are mathematically equal,
but one is expressed as a decimal and the other as a fraction,
these two tires will not be interchangeable.
Dishonesty in Sizing
Competitive pressures have often led to inaccuracy in width measurement. Here's how it works: Suppose you are in the market for a high performance 700 x 25 tire; you might reasonably investigate catalogues and advertisements to try to find the lightest 700-25 available. If the Pepsi Tyre Company and the Coke Tyre Company had tires of equal quality and technology, but the Pepsi 700-25 was actually a 700-24 marked as a 25, the Pepsi tyre would be lighter than the accurately-marked Coke 700-25. This would put them at a competitive advantage. In self defense, Coke would retaliate by marketing an even lighter 700-23 labeled as a 700-25.
This scenario prevailed throughout the '70's and '80's. The situation got so out-of-hand that cooler heads have prevailed, and there is a strong (but not universal) trend toward accurate width measurements.
The ISO system uses two numbers; the first is the width of the tyre or rim in millimeters (The actual tyre width will vary a bit depending on the width of the rim. The rim width is the inner width measured between the flanges as shown in the diagram.)
The second ISO number is the critical one, it is the diameter of the bead seat of the rim, in mm ("B.S.D."). Generally, if this number matches, the tyre involved will fit onto the rim; if it doesn't match, the tyre won't fit.
In the French system, the first number is the nominal diameter in mm, followed by a letter code for the width: "A" is narrow, "D" is wide. The letter codes no longer correspond to the tyre width, since narrow tires are often made for rim sizes that originally took wide tires; for example, 700 C was originally a wide size, but now is available in very narrow widths, with actual diameters as small as 660 mm.
French version of 26 x 1 3/8; Italian high-performance bikes for smaller riders
French utility bikes, tandems, and loaded-touring bikes; some older Raleigh and Schwinn mountain bikes
Triathlon, time trial, high performance road bikes for smaller riders
European Juvenile road bikes, most wheelchairs
European Juvenile road bikes
European Juvenile, folding
ISO Cross Reference:
ISO Bead Seat Diameter
28 x 1 1/2, 700 B
27 x anything
700 C, 28 x (two fractions), 29 inch
(28 x 1 1/2 F.13 Canada)
26 x 1.25, x 1.375
26 x 1 1/4, 26 x 1 3/8 (S-6)
26 x 1 3/8 (E.A.3), 650 A
650B, 26 x 1 1/2
26 x 1, 26 x 1 3/4, 650 C
26 x 1.00- x 2.125
24 x 1 1/4, 24 x 1 3/8 (S-5)
24 x 1 1/8, 24 x 1 3/8 (E.5), 600 A
24 x 1, 24 x 1 1/8
24 x 1.5- x 2.125
22 x 1.75; x 2.125
20 x 1 1/8; x 1 1/4; x 1 3/8
20 x 1 3/4
20 x 1.5- x 2.125
17 x 1 1/4
18 x 1.5- x 2.125
16 x 1 3/8
16 x 1 3/8
16 x 1 3/4
16 x 1.75- x 2.125
12 1/2 X anything.
10 x 2
8 x 1 1/4
Most of this information was compiled by John Allen for Sutherland's Handbook For Bicycle Mechanics, the bible of bicycle technology. Sutherland's has a more detailed, more thorough version of this chart.
Although you can use practically any tyre/rim combination that shares the same bead seat diameter, it is unwise to use widely disparate sizes.
If you use a very narrow tyre on a wide rim, you risk pinch flats and rim damage from road hazards.
If you use a very wide tyre on a narrow rim, you risk sidewall or rim failure. This combination causes very sloppy handling at low speeds. Unfortunately, current mountain-bike fashion pushes the edge of this. In the interest of weight saving, most current mountain bikes have excessively narrow rims. Such narrow rims work very poorly with wide tires, unless the tires are overinflated...but that defeats the purpose of wide tires, and puts undue stress on the rim sidewalls.
Georg Boeger has kindly provided a chart showing recommended width combinations:
GMS Global Measuring System The current industry standard for specifying the actual inflated size of a bicycle tire does not account for subtle variation in tread and casing size. To address this problem and provide you with more information for comparing tires, WTB has introduced the Global Measuring System (GMS) for tire measurement.
The GMS uses a two-number system: the first number is the width of the casing, and the second number is the width of the tread, both in millimeters. These measurements are taken on a rim which is 20 mm wide at the bead-capturing point, with a tire inflated to 60psi and maintained for 24 hours.
In addition to being able to accurately size a tire, knowing the actual casing size and tread width provides an indication of air volume, tread characteristics and tread contact area; all of which provide you with a more concise idea of what ride characteristics to expect from each of WTB's tires.
Tubular tires are mainly used for racing. A tubular tire has no beads; instead, the two edges of the carcass are sewn together (hence the term "sew-up") with the inner tube inside. Tubulars fit only on special rims, where they are held on by cement.
Tubulars existed in 6 different sizes, but only two of them are readily available these days.
Full-sized tubulars fit rims of the same diameter as 622 mm (700c) clinchers. This size is sometimes referred to as "28 inch" or "700". It is also, confusingly, sometimes referred to as "27 inch." The "27 inch" designation is inaccurate and obsolete, but you'll sometimes run into it in older printed material.
In clincher tires, there is a real difference between "700c" and "27 inch" sizes, but for tubulars this is a false distinction. Whenever you see mention of "27 inch tubulars" the writer is actually referring to standard full-sized tubulars, as used on most racing bikes.
"26 inch" or "650" tubulars are smaller, mainly used on time-trial or motorpacing track bikes.
"24 inch", "22 inch" "20 inch" and "18 inch" tubulars are sizes formerly used for children's racing bikes, but pretty much extinct these days.
Tubulars are also sometimes called "sew-ups" or "tubs" (British usage.)
If you want to sound like an ignorant yahoo, call them "tubies" or "tubeless tires."