The Zipp 404 made me a believer in aero equipment the way Led Zeppelin made me believe in rock and roll. After hearing Stairway to Heaven, there was no denying the power of rock as a primal channel for adolescent angst; it just did something. Those 404s—and this was pre-Firecrest, mind you—were a shock to the system, like I’d just upgraded my legs with three months of 18-hour weeks. So you can buy speed, was my thought.
Over the last few years the landscape for tires has changed dramatically, on the order of the green that flourishes after a fire. The 1990s and early 2000s were pretty desolate. Reviewing tires seemed to be utterly pointless; either a tire rode well and gripped well, but cut easily and the tread didn’t last long, or the tread lasted a reasonable amount of time and it cut easily, or the tire was impervious to all road detritus and possessed the character of a zombie—utterly lifeless.
Contrast that with today and how each new gravel tire ups the game and resets expectations. There’s no one reason why tires are better, and that’s the point. The combination of tubeless technology, better casings, superior rubber compounds and (despite the rule of threes) a more creative approach to tread design has given us a whole new era in stuff to roll on. And just as those 404s made me faster, on the crap roads I ride daily here, I’ve noticed that I’m often quicker (not to mention more comfortable) on a bigger tire inflated to lower pressure for rolling over the frost heaves and settling cracks.
I reviewed the USH a few years ago when it was badged with the Clement name and liked the tire a lot. Back then it was 35mm wide, was not tubeless and had a center slick with sizable spikes through the rest of the tread. I liked that tire and ran it on my tandem when I raced Old Caz on it last year.
The new USH comes in three sizes: 700×32, 700×40 and 650×50. I’ve been riding the 700×40 for the simple reason that once I’m on an unpaved surface around here, I want a big cushion of air between the rim and the rock. They each come in three versions: wire bead, folding bead and tubeless; they are available either all black or with a tan sidewall. The tubeless version goes for $70 in 700C and $67 in 650B.
This new version is, on paper, quite similar to the old one; there’s a center slick for low rolling resistance when riding in a straight line and a fine tread for traction on anything that isn’t asphalt. What’s different is that the center slick features an asymmetric design to help shed water on wet roads but the small spikes have been replaced by a sort of serrated herringbone. In a sense, the scale of the tire changed; the tread features are much finer and laid over a much bigger canvas (in the case of the 40mm tire).
This is the tire I ran at Fish Rock a few weeks ago. That event is 70 percent paved, so it pays to have a tire that rolls well. But people who tried riding 25s and 28s on Fish Rock Road paid in flats. This is the tire that never broke loose on a wet, 16 percent descent under hard braking. That alone surprised me.
Just recently I did a ride to the coast and back, taking in Willow Creek Road, which runs from above Occidental to the mouth of the Russian River. This is the road Old Caz descends in the beginning and climbs to the finish. Honestly, considering how wet conditions were, I didn’t expect the tire to have traction that one might classify as memorable. How wrong I was. While, yes, I did get a bit of shoveling in some turns, there were a great many I was shocked to cruise through sans stoppers. I reserved my brakes for the really tight switchbacks and, oh yeah, the dismounts for a landslide and a fallen old-growth Redwood; I was able to ride through the other two landslides. D’oh.
Only the gravel rides I do closest to home, through Annadel, are really suitable to a pure gravel tire, but if I’m riding through Annadel, I can’t ride anything smaller than 38mm without risking a flat. Most of my gravel rides that go farther afield end up mixing pavement and dirt, with the majority of the miles spent on pavement. As a result, I keep looking for a tire that will roll well on blacktop, but won’t wear out in 500 miles. The USH is arguably the smartest design I’ve encountered for that purpose.
Despite what people say about a tire that is larger in both diameter and width rolling just as fast as a smaller one, I don’t believe that’s quite the case. Yes, I was able to ride at 20-21 mph with no real difficulty, but for the same wattage on 27s, my experience tells me I’d have been a bit faster. That’s on a smooth road; on the rougher stuff, the fact that I can stay seated and keep pedaling offers a valuable offset.
Years ago I went to replace my Tercel wagon with a Legacy one. The guy who had sold me the Tercel told me he was surprised that I’d give up the firmer, sportier ride of the Tercel for the plusher ride of the Legacy. All I cared about was wagon and all-wheel drive. The ride quality didn’t even factor. These days, ride quality does factor, and if I’m not chasing someone who can dish 300 watts ad infinitum, I’ll take the rolling feather bed.
Final thought: Versatile as a Leatherman.