They say you can tell a lot about a man by his shoes. I say you can tell a lot about a cyclist by their tires. When I worked in Washington, D.C., if you met someone wearing glossy ebony dress shoes and an over-sized Timex running watch with a nice suit, they almost certainly spent some serious time in the military.
Likewise, when you’re out on the road this spring and your eye catches the green stripe of a plump Vittoria tubular and a supple big-ring cadence, that rider is someone you don’t want to half-wheel. You want to follow. If you can.
An inch-wide tubular painstakingly glued on a carbon rim symbolizes all that is wonderful about a sport endlessly grappling with its origins and its future. That is why this combination of past and present will be the weapon of choice during the spring racing in Belgium and France.
Bicycle frames, particularly at the high end, become more alike with each season but the tires we select reveal our individual traditions and aspirations. There is so much bound up in that tiny friction point between our Earth and our speeding bodies that fly above it. What you choose says more about you than your kit. Maybe even your frame.
Show up on a Sunday ride in April looking like a Flemish hardman? That’s cool. Got 25s? On that day anything narrower than your thumb won’t cut it even if your legs reek of embro. Equip a crit-specialist’s machine with 28s? Trouble. The good kind.
These days picking tires is like cruising the cereal aisle with a 5-year old. Everything looks delicious. The wide wheel and wide tire movement sweetens things even more, whether you’re a winter commuter, a century aficionado or a Cat 3 who gets regular pro-deals.
For my part, I count on 25mm clinchers tougher than four-day old rice.
Some of the best advice I ever received was from a mechanic at a Seattle bike shop where I worked selling bikes right around the end of high school, half my lifetime ago. I bought my first bike there with the intent of racing, a slick red Cannondale 2.8. When I asked a mechanic I liked a lot what I should do to make the bike “better,” he had two pieces of advice: Learn how to fix it and ride 25s.
That sage in the shop apron offered me a direct path to competence and comfort. I wasn’t ready for that mundane answer. It was the early 90s. Something anodized and unaffordable was the response I wanted. While I failed to become even a passable wrench even on my own gear, I did eventually start riding wider tires a couple of years later after my brain started returning my aching lower back’s persistent calls.
That’s what works for me. What works for you will also say a lot about your origins as a rider, and your future. With that in mind, maybe you should not measure a man by his tires, at least until you’ve ridden a mile, or 40, on them.
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.