Everything on the bike is a ‘consumable.’
In my humble opinion, nothing in cycling is more pseudo-sciency than tires.
Of course, most of cycling is scientifically ambiguous marketing claims mixed with actual advances. There’s infinite permutations of biophysics to account for with miracles of technology like asymmetrical rotors, ergonomic handlebar grips, dual-pivot suspension systems, wheel sizes, seat profiles, ever-shifting geometry, etc. As far as I can tell, this marketing serves a dual purpose; alienate new riders from ever having a clue about their bike, and confuse the seasoned riders into submission. Somewhere in the obfuscation, there are winners and losers, but don’t ask me what the “best” of anything is.
Tires are no different. Every six minutes, a new tread pattern is born, heralding a new evangelism untoward the traction gods. So, where does that leave me? Hopelessly chasing the “dream” tire, always just a few years away from development, of course! The correct number of upgrades for your bike is n+1…
Bikepacking: Maxxis Dual-Compound High Roller II and Minion DHR II
I’ll start with my newest tires, the least tested of the crop. Maxxis has a list of potential tire compounds longer than the Starbucks secret menu. The dual-compound used in these two tires, the High Roller II and the Minion DHR II, makes for a supple casing with firmer knobs for longer wear. This makes for a great bikepacking and adventuring tire, albeit a less-than-optimal race tire. These tires get their roots from Downhill bikes, so they’re built to resist tears in the sidewalls from sharp rocks at speed. Downhill rigs use 26-inch wheels, but Maxxis ported the technology right over to the 29er wheel size, providing a really tough tire for the bikepacking niche.
In practice, I’ve found the tread pattern to be the real winning trait for these nearly identical tires. The secret to this tire ideal is in the forward-sloped knobs, which serve to reduce rolling resistance on hardpacked trail and pavement. That reduction in rolling resistance is deceptively important around here; in the Northeast, if you manage to spend a whole day on a mountain bike without touching pavement, please email me and tell me your route so I can follow in your pedal strokes.
These tires were manufactured in a 2.4, but all I found were 2.3’s at a very reasonable $55.00 or so, as of November 2014. For an all-rounder bikepacking tire, it’s hard to do better. Race tires usually have softer compounds for grip, which can wear away quickly on long trips (or just busy summers).
WTB WeirWolf 2.3 TCS – An affordable clincher tire with ramped knobs and a decent compound.
Continental Mountain King II ProTection – A pricier tire with a flat protection strip and some extra durability for the long haul.
Look for a slanted knob profile for low rolling resistance and “buzz” on pavement, and seek a firmer compound than a race tire.
Monstercross: Schwalbe Smart Sam and Marathon Mondial
On my monstercross bike, I’ve taken to mixing tire widths. In the front, I get a little more grip and a little more insurance against wash-outs with a 40c Schwalbe Smart Sam Plus, and in the back I keep my rolling resistance down with a less knobby and more durable 35c Marathon Mondial.
The Mondial is already a legend in the touring community for a lot of reasons; it’s an ideal mix of knobby teeth in the sides that keep you cornering on rough trails, but the super-durable center line is where the magic lies. Schwalbe’s compound might just be tougher than the pavement under your bike; riders report getting upwards of 10,000 miles out of a single set. If there’s a better way to spend $35 on tires, I haven’t found it. The Mondial is a great all-rounder.
Traction off-road is decent, not breathtaking. You’ll still need to avoid wet roots and rocks if you can or you’ll skid out from lack of traction. Still, it’s confidence-inspiring compared to smooth tires, which I’ve off-roaded on pretty extensively over the years out of intrepid wanderlust whenever I’m out for a “road” ride.
In the front, I use the Smart Sam, or more specifically, the Smart Sam Plus, which adds a great flat protection strip. If you can find the Smart Sam Plus in a 40c, buy it. It’s hard to find, and I’m not even sure Schwalbe will be bringing the tire back for 2015.
That being said, even the regular Smart Sam with the stickier tread compound and no flat strip is a great front tire. No, scratch that, it’s the best front tire. This is what the center tread looks like after close to 2,000 miles. For a knobby tire to go this far with only about a 30-40% loss in tread says something about the durability of those closely-oriented knobs. Rolling resistance is fantastic, since the contact patch in the direct center of the tire is very consistent. It tracks well in the wet and icy weather we’ve had for the past three months, and the extra width really cuts down on road buzz and pain in the wrists and neck.
I’ve only got room in my frame for 35’s, but the 40c fits fine in the front. This is emblematic of a lot of forks; they’ll usually take a larger tire than your rear triangle, so don’t be afraid to bump a little past manufacturer recommended tire width up there.
Schwalbe Marathon Deluxe HS 420 – Kelley uses these primo deluxe touring tires on her 26″, and the Marathon series just keeps getting better every year, with longer lasting sidewalls that go the distance.
Schwalbe Little Big Ben – I used these for a winter tire last year, and was super pleased with the knob profile. it’s 80% knob and 20% channel, so you get most of the speed benefits of smooth tires with just enough “teeth” to keep you going over a bit of sand and grit.
Continental Speed Ride – This comes on recommendation from Rivendell, which is usually an indication of touring-worthiness (they advocate the Smart Sam as well). It’s also a meaty 42c, good for off-roading on CX bikes with wide clearances.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match tires, no matter what your discipline is. The front and back tires do fundamentally different things for the bike; the rear takes most of your weight, requiring greater durability. In addition, if you skid on your rear tire, you can usually recover; not so for the front tire. Go knobby up front (they’ll last longer anyways).
Road: Continental Gator Hardshell
The Continental Gator Hardshell joins Gummi bears, ball bearings, and Porches as “Things that are better when they’re made in Germany.” For some reason, those Germans really know how to manufacture with precision and utility. The Gatorskins are no exception, and when you’re faced with the decision to grab the handmade German version or the cheaper mass-manufactured version, the difference is worth the premium price.
I say “premium” with air quotes; road tires can be a lot more expensive than this. The brown sidewalls are ubiquitous on endurance bikes and tourists alike for a reason; they keep going, and they don’t flat.
Well, almost. I flatted my rear tire trying to jump a sharp curb. I duct-taped a cut dollar bill (don’t tell the Feds!) into the sidewall to prevent a wider rip, and then used Gorilla Glue to seal the outside, and after several hundred miles, it’s doing fine. I might not tour on it, but I’ll century on it! This legendary durability and supple casing is a cinderella’s shoe for road cyclists who prefer wandering dirt roads to getting KOM’s in Strava.
Schwalbe Marathon Supreme – These tires are snappier in a 28″ than their wider counterparts. For an all-weather “adventure” tire that’ll fit most frames, it’s a good option.
The Touring Tire mindset can also minimize grief on a road ride. Flat-resistant, 28mm road tires give a little bit more cushion over rough pavement (the entire Northeast right now). The rolling resistance should also stay pretty low, since the lower PSI will help absorb some road buzz to keep you sailing along.
Spare Tire: Kenda Small Block Eight Cyclocross Tire
Ask me if I believe in strapping spare tires to a touring bike; my answer has historically been a vitriolic “No.” I might have even glared at you…
Cut to 2013, where I headed west in late October and suffered the wrath of the Goat’s Head Thorn. I garnered a $50 cab fare to the local REI in Colorado Springs, out of options with one spare tube and over 40 punctures after walking my bike through a campground that was littered with those little caltrops.
Still, I abhor extra touring weight, so if I’m going to go in for a spare tire on a particularly long or remote tour, it’s gonna have to be small and compact. I grabbed a pair of Kenda Small Block 8’s secondhand, and they’re the perfect “Spare.” The supple, thin casing rolls up compactly, letting me toss it into a pannier as an 11oz insurance policy.
And so, the ultimate question: Tire “A” or Tire “B”?
Truth is, it makes a lot less difference than most people like to pretend.
In my opinion, 50% of a tire’s performance is placebo. Get a tire that speaks to you from a design, logic, or emotional standpoint. Worried about flats? Go beefier. Want to go fast? Get something light. There may or may not be a (statistically significant) difference between the two, but the mental game you’re playing will rationalize the purchase.
That’s psychology! Marketing executives don’t make six digits for nothing.
My title is an homage to a great actor and an even better person.Rest in peace, Leonard. I dig your photography.