MTB Tire Beads Explained (Wire vs Folding)
A modern mountain bike tire is just as high tech as the rest of the bike and technology is constantly improving. This is done by improving the design and materials of individual parts like the tire beading. The tire bead may only be a small piece of any tire in terms of size, but plays arguably very important role as it’s the only area actually connected to the rim.
Let’s quickly round up how a mountain bike tire is constructed: You’ve got the tire bead on either side of the tire, the tire casing holding it all together, the tire pattern on the top – that’s the bit that keeps you connected to the ground – and then the rubber sidewalls on either side. Printed on the sidewall is all the information you need to know about your tire. Here’s how to decipher it all and here is how it looks:
With the basics covered, follow me down the rabbit hole for a deep dive into the fine details about tire beads for mountain biking. Or check out all about how MTB tires are designed and constructed here.
Pro-tip: Stiff wire beads are mostly found on Downhill MTB tires now. If you want lighter, easy-to-install tires, check out the best folding bead tires on Amazon now.
Now, let’s get into the only part of the tire actually touching the rim: the tire bead.
What’s a tire bead?
The tire beads are what hold the tire on the rim. As the only part of the tire actually touching the rim, beadings are important for a tire to get right. There are different beading materials like steel, Kevlar and aramid that affect the handling in slightly different manners.
Thankfully most manufacturers seem to have this nailed these days.
What is a wire bead mountain bike tire?
Wire or steel beadings were used for heavy-duty downhill tires, and are still seen on some cheaper end tires. Metal material is used to reinforce the contact area with the rim for the tire to be able to handle high-impact riding while keeping a perfect fit.
Other than the weight, there is nothing wrong with steel beads – except if you try to get your tire on or off the rim. Rigid beads tend to require extra effort, patience and good technique on a tire change.
Can you fold a wire bead tire?
A steel or wire bead tire cannot be folded. Only tires with Kevlar or aramid beads can be foldable tires. The reason is that when the metal in the beading is folded, it remains bent and cannot seal to the rim anymore.
Usually, it’s the higher-end tires that have Kevlar or aramid beads on them. These can be folding beads, also called folding tires. Dual-ply casings tend to be not foldable, even with Kevlar beads. You can clearly make those out in your local bike shop. Those are the ones curled up in their packaging as opposed to hanging around as a full tire-shaped circle.
The difference between folding bead and (non-folding) wire bead
Wire beads tires are generally stiffer compared to folding bead tires. With modern materials such as tough Kevlar beads seen in folding tires, steel bead tires have become uncommon. For most riding styles and for installation they are often too rigid.
In my estimation, there isn’t a good reason anymore to go with a steel bead tire. Even for Downhill, they don’t work noticeably better than modern folding tires. With the rigidity and durability of dual ply casings and protective inserts (within the casing or in the tire) is all you need when smashing down some park laps.
Apart from the actual handling, the main disadvantage of wire bead tires is probably the difficulty you’ll have installing them. Hands down the most issues I ever had in my tire-changing days were with those wire beads. Sure there are some rim and folding tire mismatches from hell, but they are still manageable with better technique or more raw force.
Especially for tubeless installations wire beads may actually hurt your experience.
Can a wire bead tire be tubeless?
Steel or wire bead tires can be tubeless. However, the type of bead is no indication if a tire is designed for tubeless use, rather it’s the layer of latex inside the tire casing that makes a tubeless tire airtight. If a tire is not marked as “Tubeless”, “UST”, or “Tubeless Ready” it is designed for use with inner tubes only.
And if that wasn’t enough geeking out, I wrote up more on that and MTB tire casings as a whole.