In the fashion world, what is old often becomes new again. Kids these days are wearing bucket hats, overalls, and chokers — stuff I haven’t seen since the ‘90s. Meanwhile, in the bike world, cyclists have been bringing back lace-up shoes, flannel, and fanny packs.
I don’t care for most retro gear, but there’s one vintage trend that I’m fully on board with — tanwall tires. Here’s why you should consider riding them.
Why you should ride tanwall tires
There is one simple reason tanwall tires have exploded in popularity — they just look good. For some, tanwalls are a nostalgic throwback to cycling’s glory days. For others, they help plain and boring bikes pop. Sure standard “blackwall” tires are fine, but I dare you to look at the following bikes and tell me that the tanwalls don’t make them look damn good.
Matte black frames are ubiquitous and dull, but with some Vittoria Corsas, this once-boring 3T Strada really comes alive.
Steel, handbuilt Italian bikes need tires that can match their flair. Vittoria Corsas take this already gorgeous custom Stelbel to the next level.
This Open WI.DE was painted in an opinion-dividing shade of pale pink, but adding some dark-tan WTB Raddlers both mellows it out and classes it up, increasing its appeal.
My Lynskey GR270 is raw titanium, the perfect backdrop for displaying some tanwall tires. In this case, I went with Panaracer Gravelking SKs that look great when dirty.
Tan Specialized tires make this S-Works Enduro seem a bit more grown-up. The dark hue is the perfect complement to the frame’s satin raspberry paint.
I blinged out my personal Specialized Epic Evo with some tan Schwalbe Nobby Nics. Again, tanwalls just work on matte black frames.
Tanwall tire style guide
You can’t just put tanwall tires on any bike … Well, OK, you actually can. But not every bike will look good with tanwall tires. If you want your bike to rake in upvotes on r/Bikeporn, there is one basic rule to follow: Don’t make your bike too busy.
Because tan sidewalls contrast strongly with black tread and black wheels, your eyes are drawn to them. If you have a frame or wheels with wild patterns or multiple colors that demand attention, adding a tanwall tire into the mix can make your bike look like a hot mess. Personally, I think the closer your bike frame is to a single, solid color, the better tanwall tires will look. This is why tanwalls work so well on matte black frames. Check out some of the examples below.
This custom-painted custom “Reach the Dream” Argonaut is the perfect example of tanwalls gone wrong. The S-Works Turbos clash with the crazy scrum of colors and patterns. Some low-key black tires would compliment this bike much better.
This EF x Palace x Cannondale SuperSix Evo is right on the limit for me. The sticker-bombed design is restrained enough that the frame looks like it has only two primary colors: white and yellow. There’s enough white space for the Vittoria Corsas to still pop and enhance the overall look of the bike.
This custom-painted “Road to Rad” Specialized Tarmac has black Schwalbe Pro Ones, and that is definitely the right choice. Even though it’s mostly red, which usually works great with tanwalls, the pattern makes the frame and wheels busy enough that adding tanwalls would just create too much chaos.
The other thing to keep in mind is that there are many different shades of tan ranging from nearly white to brown. Lighter tans provide more contrast, which can help brighten up frames that are dark or washed out. Darker tans and browns are more muted, which can help balance out brighter pop colors. Whatever tire you choose, the key is to find something that complements your frame rather than clashes with it. In some cases, that means sticking to blackwall tires.
What are tanwall tires anyway?
So you’re interested in picking up some tanwalls. But what exactly are they? And do they ride any differently than black tires? First, let’s dive into the history. Pneumatic bicycle tires were introduced over 100 years ago, and in the beginning, they all had tanwalls. That’s because these original tires were tubulars.
Tanwall tubulars are de rigueur for vintage bikes.
Tubulars had tan walls because of their construction. An inner tube sewn into the tire casing, which can be glued to the rim. These tire casings were usually made from natural fibers like cotton, which became tan in color after being processed and sealed. Tire tread was then glued to the top of the casing. The tan sidewalls remained exposed, thus producing the classic tanwall look. This appearance is what modern clincher and tubeless tanwall tires are replicating.
Skinwall vs. gumwall vs. tanwall tires vs. blackwall tires
For simplicity, when talking about appearance, I have been using “tanwall” to refer to any tire with a non-black sidewall. However, you may have heard tanwalls referred to as skinwalls or gumwalls too.
If we want to be pedantic, “skinwall” refers specifically to tires with exposed fabric casings. The casings may be sealed with rubber, but the threads remain visible. The actual tread rubber only covers the top of the tire casing. Popular examples are the Specialized Turbo Cotton, Vittoria Corsa Speed, Continental GP5000 Transparent, and most Challenge tires.
Top racers like two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (in white) and Primož Roglič ride skinwall tires. They're both on Vittoria Corsas. | Image courtesy ASO/Tour de France
In terms of performance, skinwall tires are generally lighter, more supple, and faster rolling than standard blackwall tires because they have less rubber covering the casing. The downside is that the sidewalls are often more fragile and prone to cuts and punctures. Many modern skinwall tires use synthetic and puncture-resistant fabrics in the casing to combat this, but without a layer of tread rubber covering the sidewalls, they will always be weaker. Also, because the threads are exposed, skinwalls are susceptible to dry rot as they age. Racers sometimes save skinwalls for race day and train on more robust tires.
“Gumwall” tires have tread rubber covering the entire exterior of the tire casing, but the sidewalls are colored to mimic the appearance of skinwall tires. The term has fallen a bit out of favor because old-school gumwall tires were often cheap, thick, and heavy. They used low TPI (threads per inch) casings molded directly into low-quality rubber. Modern tires are much better though. Performance tanwall models from brands like Specialized, Schwalbe, Maxxis, Panaracer, Rene Herse, and WTB use high-TPI nylon casings covered with thinner and advanced rubber compounds. Because these modern tanwalls are so different from old-school gumwalls, many riders just call them “tanwalls.”
In general, this type of tanwall won’t perform any differently from standard blackwall tires. The tan sidewalls are just for looks (which is all you need!). As a result, they’re more durable than true skinwall tires, which makes them a great choice for training, daily riding, and rugged off-road riding.
This classic-looking Cielo Sportif Classic deserves classic-looking Challenge Strada Bianca tires.
Hopefully, I’ve made my case for why tanwall tires rock. Now it’s up to you to go get some tanwalls to give your bike some extra pizazz. I’ll admit though, tanwalls aren’t for everyone. My wife is a fashion nerd, and she refuses to run tanwalls on her bikes. “They make new bikes look outdated,” she says. Maybe she’s right. But since I’m the family cycling nerd, I like to think I know better in this case. What do you think? Are you a tanwall-lover like me? Or is black the only acceptable tire color? Let me know in the comments!