I’ve been experimenting with rubber lately. No, I don’t mean anything that would get used in “50 Shades of Gray,” though. S&M isn’t quite my thing, unless you count what we do to ourselves in the saddle, and in that case, well then maybe.
Taking road bikes on both paved and unpaved surfaces—and I’m being careful not to say gravel because I have encountered gravel twice in the last month and both stretches were less than 100 meters—has given me reason to explore different tire widths and tread patterns.
When it comes to 23mm road tires, all of the top-of-the-line stuff is so good there’s not a lot to argue about. And trying to get excited about a budget tire and figure out whether Brand X’s $25 60 tpi clincher is better than Brand Y’s $25 60 tpi clincher is a chore I can’t muster much excitement for. However, when it comes to 700C tires for use on dirt, well that’s a whole different bottle of beer.
Before I get to the tires in question, a few notes about criteria. While I’d love to put together rides that are 50 miles of nothing but dirt road, sadly, I haven’t had a chance to enjoy that flavor of Nirvana. My rides mix the paved and unpaved. That’s been true for the events that I’ve done thus far, as well. As a result, I look for tires that will roll well on asphalt. And while we keep hearing from readers who think I’ve got rocks in my head for running 50 or 60 psi in tires, I don’t mind reporting (yet again) that I really don’t like the way any of these tires handle on the road pumped to 30 psi. The squish factor makes cornering on the road dodgy. Also, the rolling resistance at ultra-low pressure increases so much that I struggle to get the bike up to 20 mph. Big knobs aren’t conducive to high speed on the road, either, so I tend toward smoother finishes. Finally, while I know all of these details add up to decreased grip in corners when off road, I don’t mind that. In fact, I enjoy it. I like pushing the bike to the point that the tires break loose and a 35mm tire on a drop bar bike pumped up to 55 or 60 psi does it in a pretty controlled way. These days, that’s about the only way I get that thrill.
The tire that convinced me to go with disc brakes on the Airheart is the Clement X’Plor MSO in the 40mm width. I’ve ridden this thing through sand, over wet roads, through mud, on roads, over singletrack and deep into clay. It performed admirably everywhere; I have to say that the wet descent of Bolinas-Fairfax in Marin County was an occasion where the tire surprised me with its terrific grip. The ride in which the tire most surprised me was at D2R2 when I found myself carving around the outside of other riders and I managed to pass people on moist dirt. Not bad. I’ve ridden the tire at a wide range of pressure; everywhere from 30 psi up to 80 psi (when I knew I wasn’t going to hit any dirt).
This is the tire I wish I’d taken with me on my recent trip to Hawaii. It would have been helpful at Kaena Point.
Clement offers the 40mm-wide X’Plor MSO in two casings, 120 tpi and 60 tpi. They report a weight of 384 grams for the 120 tpi variant and 480g for the 60 tpi version. My 120tpi tires weighed in a bit less, at 371g each. Clement does offer a 32mm version of this tire; I’ve yet to try it. These babies are a premium product and carry a premium price as well; they go for $75 each.
The other tire I’ve been using with regularity is the Continental Cyclocross Speed. This is the tire they recommend for hard, fast conditions, which pretty much sums up my riding when it isn’t all paved. Whereas the X’Plor MSO enjoys a multitude of very small knobs placed close together, the Cyclcross Speed is a traditional diamond-file tread with the addition of some modest knobs at the edges of the tread.
This is the tire I rode at the Rock Cobbler in Bakersfield. Pumped to 55 psi front and rear, it provided enough grip to give me control on all the dirt. At one point on the road I looked down and say 27 mph as I was trying to bridge groups; that was a move I’m sure I paid for later, but I’d never have hit that speed with a tire pumped to 30 psi.
This is a 35mm-wide tire with a folding, 3-ply, 180 tpi casing. Interestingly, it also weighed in at 371g, only this tire has an advertised weight of 350g. Despite having the same weight, my perception has been that this is a faster rolling tire (than the Clement), easier to accelerate and more nimble in tight corners.
I’ve ridden a handful of tires in the 28 to 32mm-wide range and none of them were quite beefy enough for the fire roads I ride. Sure, I’ve flatted both the Conti’s and the Clements, but because the terrain I ride so often goes from paved to completely questionable in less than 100 meters, smaller tires are problematic because they flat more readily. Anything less than the Cyclocross Speed at Kaena Point and I’d have turned around. At $49, this is a bit less expensive than the Clement. For the roads I used to ride back in New England, there are times when either of these tires would be overkill, but here on the West Coast these tires are terrific performers.