So I got a request to write about for my favorite half-dozen clinchers. “What a fun survey,” I thought. And I began making my list. A list is nothing without bias, and I began to consider my priorities.
The first priority when I choose a tire is ride quality. Life is short; I say, ride what you like, even if that means you’re on carbon fiber rims intended for PROs. Placing ride quality first meant this list would skew toward open tubulars and away from inexpensive 60 tpi clinchers.
Second is availability. There’s no point in loving something you can’t find. A prime example of this is Pariba. They make one of the single most supple open tubulars I ever rode. It featured a godawful lavender tread (nothing wrong with lavender as a color, but it won’t match a single component on the market) with a grip like chewing gum. But you can’t find it anywhere in the U.S. Or at least, the combination of me, Google and 15 minutes of wasted time were unsuccessful. Ergo, not on list.
Third is mountability. If the tire has a great ride quality but is insanely hard to mount, and ultimately, to change a flat, that will bump it on down the list.
Fourth is flat protection. You don’t buy an open tubular because it doesn’t flat. You buy it because it is the rubber equivalent of the kid glove. No other tire combines sensitivity, grip and reduced rolling resistance so effectively as a good open tubular.
I quickly realized I don’t currently have direct experience with six clinchers that I can recommend. Some tires that I liked in the past have been discontinued. Some that I previously gave good reviews to have been changed to increase flat protection marginally, while decreasing ride quality noticeably. And there are some, such as everything by Challenge, that I have not ridden at all, while still others, such as Schwalbe, where I seem to have ridden all the wrong ones.
1. Any Vittoria Open Corsa. No other open tubular combines ride quality and availability the way the Vittoria Open Corsas do. Carrying Open Corsas is kind of a barometer by which I measure shops. If they don’t have these, it can only mean one of two things: Either they like something else better, or they aren’t that concerned with ride quality. I like the CG for durability. I rode thousands of miles training and racing on its tubular brother; it got my through some nasty Battenkill-style courses and training rides. That said, the CX is a little more supple and is preferable for descending and cornering. Performance-wise, probably the best tire out there, but you can’t run it every day. Put another way, this isn’t a tire for most of New England, but it’s the perfect tire for Provence and Tuscany. I haven’t tried the Open Corsa Tech or Slick, but would run either without reservation.
2. Torelli Gavia. This is my tire of choice as I’ve previously mentioned. It features a handmade casing and comes in but one color: Henry Ford black. It is also one of the grippiest tires I’ve ridden. I know the guys at Torelli and they let me to purchase directly from them, giving me a 320 tpi ride at 127 tpi prices. The Torellis are a good deal harder to find than the Vittorias, though you can purchase them online, so if you don’t need them today, you can do well. They tend to run a bit more expensive online than the Vittorias do, but I prefer the ride quality of the Gavia over the CG.
3. Vredestein Fortezza Tri-Comp. Any open tubular is hard to mount the first time you put it on a rim. This is a feature inherited from its tubular fathers, which is why we were all taught to stretch our tubulars on a rim before gluing them on a wheel. The Fortezza Tri-Comp stretches more than your average tire and after the first week of riding or so, I can change flats without the need for a tire lever, which stops quick as a pee and helps keep me in the group’s good graces. The Tri-Comp is a great tire, but I do not remotely buy Vredestein’s contention that they need to be pumped up to 145 psi to work properly. That’s like suggesting your food won’t stay frozen unless you pack your freezer to capacity. Right. At that pressure mountain road asphalt feels like black ice. Back at sane pressures (7-8 bar), they offer cat-like cornering with driving glove sensitivity. When a shop doesn’t carry Vittoria Open Corsas, this is usually the tire I find in its place.
4. Specialized Mondo Pro II. The Mondo Pro II is the Def Con II of bicycle tires. It offers almost all the protection of the Armadillo’s conventional warfare while still engaging the road with supple diplomacy. This is the only bicycle tire that I’ve ever ridden that I can say has never flatted in more than 1000 miles of riding and I’m still willing to ride on mountain descents with the same gusto I reserve for open tubulars. To be clear: the ride quality of the Mondo Pro II suffers in the ride quality department when compared to the offerings from Vittoria, Vredestein and Torelli. However any other tire with as seemingly impervious a nature as the Mondo Pro II is inevitably bound to offer the sensitivity of a mosh pit, which is why this tire so surprised me.
5. Specialized Mondo S-Works. Sensitive as a chick flick, as available as Chevy and me-too priced, the Mondo S-Works is a terrific alternative to any of the other open tubulars listed above. Just one problem: changing this tire is harder than calculus. If human flesh stretched so little, we’d all look like Heidi Montag. I dread changing flats with this tire the way I dread changing flats with a tubular, and that’s a level of fear that I reserve for Brian DePalma movies and phone calls from the IRS (not saying either are scary, just that I never know what I’m in for). It’s a terrifc-riding tire, but if you buy a pair, just make sure you carry two tire levers with you.
Again, this list is rather personal. There are hundreds of tires on the market. In the next year or two, I hope to try two or three more that might increase my vocabulary.
Let’s get something out of the way: I’m a tire snob. I appreciate all the work that goes into designing a good tire and the number of really hard-working, conscientious people who go about their craft on a daily basis. There are any number of good tires and perhaps as many as a half dozen great tires of the clincher variety.
When I buy tires, which I do a lot of, I purchase open tubulars. This is why I buy a lot of tires. Kind of a syllogistic little thing because if you ride open tubulars, you ride a tire with a casing as soft as worsted wool and it will cut as easily as human flesh under a doctor’s scalpel. Call it an occupational hazard. It’s not unlike the weight you gain from drinking red wine.
Everything comes at a price, and some prices, extravagant though they may be, are still a bargain for the quality they bring to our lives. I’m talking about tires here, not wine.
Now while my personal fave is the Torelli Gavia, I do like to try others from time to time. I set out to review a set of Specialized’s Mondo S-Works open tubulars. This $70 290tpi tire is available in two widths, 21 and 23mm, and may be one of the more widely available open tubulars in bike shops around the U.S., though probably not worldwide. Availability is sort of key; no point in recommending something that can only be found in the razor-wire-fortified compound of a Central American drug lord.
Specialized has a notable history in bicycle tire manufacturing. I know of a few manufacturers who claim to have produced the first foldable clincher; I’m not in a position to pass judgement on such claims, but I can tell you the first foldable clincher I saw in a bike shop was the Specialized Turbo. It was the first foldable clincher I bought. I never purchased another non-folding clincher after that. Game. Set. Match.
The company has gone out on the ledge a few times in the name of performance. Anyone remember their nod to Pink Floyd with the ultra-grippy Umma Gumma tire? They sure were grippy but they lasted about as long as the flavor in a stick of chewing gum. Specialized has also been consistently the only tire company to follow motorcycle tire engineering by producing dual-radius treads. I’ve seen a few other tires produced this way, but no other company I’m aware of has committed to dual-radius tread as completely as Specialized.
The Mondo S-Works open tubular uses a dual-compound construction like a great many other tires out there; the company even gives the actual durometer numbers for the different tread materials on their web site, 70a in the center section and 60a on the shoulder. If you were a skateboarder in your past, as I was, these numbers are likely as familiar to you as psi figures. For those who did the normal thing and played stick-and-ball sports, 70a soft enough to make a skateboard wheel ride well on a street; 60a is akin to what many rock climbing shoes use—think Spiderman.
In the course of reviewing these tires on one bike, I rode a set of Mondo Pro II tires—two sets, in fact—on the Tarmac Pro and Roubaix Pro. The Tarmac featured the 23mm-wide casing version while the Roubaix was shod with a 25mm version called the Roubaix Pro II, which were amazing on rough and dirt roads. While I couldn’t switch the wheels with the open tubulars to the Tarmac or Roubaix (they were on wheels with a Campy cassette), I did ride all of the wheels/tires over all of the same roads at some time or other.
The Mondo S-Works open tubulars are the tightest, most difficult-to-mount clinchers I have ever encountered. The first time I mounted them required two tire levers. Now if I had hands like a lumberjack’s I can tell you I would still have needed at least one tire lever; these tires are tighter than a pair of Jordache jeans circa 1980. And while most cotton open tubulars stretch a bit with use, making subsequent mounting easier, my imagination stretched more than these tires did while watching the evening’s news.
The ride quality of the Mondo S-Words tires is exemplary. This is why spending $70 on a tire you are unlikely to get 1000 miles on is still reasonable, if not a downright good idea. We can discuss the sensitivity to road surface that comes with a top-quality carbon fiber frame, but that sensitivity can be utterly dashed with a lousy tire. A better set of tires is the quickest way to increase the road input you feel.
I have been a skeptic of dual-radius tires for the simple fact that I haven’t been able to objectively conclude that they offer improved cornering performance. I went as far as to inspect the tire for signs of wear in the softer compound red shoulder. On some tires, I can see where the wear ends due to the sharpness of the herringbone pattern; on the Mondo Pro II and the Mondo S-Works, the tire tread remained so smooth I couldn’t tell much. While the tire did show some signs of wear, it was minor and I realized that I couldn’t definitively attribute the breadth of the wear to the dual-radius design. I can’t say it doesn’t work, but I can’t tell you it is definitely an improvement, either.
And yet, as great as the Mondo S-Works are, what I didn’t expect to develop was a regard for the Mondo Pro II tire that exceeded my infatuation with the Mondo S-Works. While the Mondo Pro IIs don’t offer the same degree of road sensitivity that the Mondo S-Works do, the sensitivity they do offer isn’t bad for a 120tpi tire. The tire’s sensitivity and performance is all the more impressive when you consider Specialized’s inclusion of its proprietary Flak Jacket casing layer. They claim it reduces flats by 40 percent; my personal experience was that it reduced flats by all. I literally didn’t experience a single flat while riding the tires. The last time I rode a flat-proof tire it was as supple as a cinder block.
There’s a jetty near me that I ride twice a day between three and five days per week. This time of year waterfowl pluck mussels from the seabed and drop them on the jetty to break them. The smashed shells are hell on tires. I had one cut a 1/2-inch gash in a tire on its first ride. Weirder still was the inch-long finishing nail I yanked from the tread after hearing a ticking like a wheel magnet striking the sensor; the Flak Jacket hadn’t permitted the nail to puncture the tube by forcing it to run lengthwise along the tread. I think I could have ridden home with the nail protruding from the tread. I expected a hissing sound upon removal. Instead: silence.
The Mondo Pro IIs employ the same dual radius tread design and 70a center and 60a shoulder compounds. Surprisingly, the Mondo Pro II runs roughly 30g lighter than the Mondo S-Works. The tire retails for $40.
Every tire I’ve ever ridden that featured some sort of flat prevention belting has always made the ride of the tires so heinous as to evoke the Conestoga wagon. The Mondo Pro II is the first to feature good ride quality with real-world puncture resistance.
So yes, the accidental review. I hadn’t planned to review the Mondo Pro II, but as I logged more and more miles on both tires, the more I realized that it was the greater surprise, the bigger story. If there’s a better $40 tire out there, I’ve yet to ride it.