*Tongue-in-cheek jab at my limited experience on the topic, plus a nod to one of our favorite cyclocross guys. Probably not very funny if I have to explain it!
Continuing in the vein of bike-related nerd-dom and minutiae, I feel like blathering about tires some more. As many of us know, talking tires and pressure with a cyclocrosser can be like opening Pandora’s box. On and on and on..about tires? Really? Yes, and I know why after running them for a few years now. When you get it right, it’s amazing what the right tire at the right pressure can do for a racer. It can mean the difference between feeling out of control and feeling like you’re cornering on rails. A friend of mine asked me about what tubulars I liked a few weeks ago, so it got the wheels turning (har) and I figured another blog post about tires might be useful to someone else out there. Here we go, I’ll try to keep it brief.
Background and Caveats
I’m no mechanical whiz, and I don’t glue/install my own tires, but I do clean my bikes and wheels each week, especially after the race on race day. My experience is actually pretty limited, but I have tried three of the four biggest brands I can think of – Challenge, Clement, and FMB. I have no experience with Dugast…yet. With that in mind, I have laid hands on all of the tires I have used before they were glued, I have maintained them throughout each of their respective life spans, and I’ve raced them all pretty extensively.
First Tubulars Ever – Challenge Fango
A few years back, before making the dive into Serious Cyclocross Equipment, I researched the topic with gusto. Like a lot of other things in life, I probably spent too much time researching, reading, and hand-wringing over the topic. At the time, I was planning my first and only tubular wheel set (28 hole Hed Belgium rims laced to Chris King Classic Cyclocross hubs with Sapim CX-Ray spokes), and with only one set to rely on, I wanted a tire that I could feel good about “doing it all” – something that would be good in most conditions. This was sometime in 2010, and Challenge had recently introduced the Fango a few years prior. The reviews I read placed it as a fast-rolling mud tire with a pretty good side knob, so I gave it a try as a jack of all trades.
I think my results and experiences with this tire were mixed. I was a tubular newbie and It took me a while to get the pressure right, but after a few uses, I had discovered a happy place where I was able to take advantage of them. At around 170 lbs, I found 30 PSI to be a where I ended up on most race days. Half way through the first season of use, I got a small puncture in the front tire. A little more research led me to purchase some Caffelatex sealant which did the trick and allowed me to finish the season with the tires. Overall, I found the grip to be good at the lower pressures that tubulars allow. They did not excel at mud-shedding, but appeared to be better than the griffo/chevron type of treads that are popular that I saw on other people’s bikes.
With about 10 races on them that year, the tread wear was not excessive, so I decided to maintain them throughout the off-season and try them the following year. The off-season maintenance was limited to putting them away clean and keeping some shape in them by pumping them up with air every few weeks. The life of these tires ended in the second race of the year at Charm City in 2011 when I punctured the rear tire and rode it flat to the pit. Half a lap riding it on the rim put a series of tiny holes through the sidewall that made the tire unsalvageable. To be fair, I don’t think any tire would have lasted through that.
As a replacement for my Fangos, I tried a pair of Clement PDX clinchers to get me through the rest of the season. Again, with some more research, I landed with the PDX as a good option for an all-around tire, and like the Fango, it was reviewed as a mud tire that rolled pretty fast on the center tread and had good side grip in dry conditions.
I loved this tire. As a matter of fact, I still love it and still have the clincher as a training tire for ‘cross skills practice days. The tread on this tire is confidence-inspiring. In mud, the tread provided great bite, and while it’s not perfect, it cleared better than the Fango. I liked the tread so much, I decided to give the tubular version a try for the following season.
Out of the box, these things looked great. The Clement tire creation process is a bit different from other brands that basically attach a tread to a tube casing. Clements are essentially created with the tread integrated as part of the tube, so the results are very precise, and from what I understand, are much easier to glue on straight. The tread-on-tube varieties (Challenge, FMB, etc) tend to have more imperfections that appear as a “wobble” if you were to spin the tire and look straight down on it, even in instances where the tire (the tube, really) is glued on perfectly straight.
Experiences with the tubular version of the tire were very similar to the clincher, with one notable exception. The 33mm tubular tire presents visibly more narrow than the 33mm clincher version. Using Hed Belgium rims as a reference point (with clincher and tubular versions), the difference is obvious. I haven’t taken the time to actually measure the difference, but the extra volume of the clincher does have some benefits that I’ve grown to like. With the PDX though, it’s all about the tread, and it works well. While the tire is not as supple as the Fango, the grip factor more than made up for it. In fact, I’ve since gotten a second set of dedicated tubular mud wheels, and I got PDX’s for those.
Most Recent – FMB SSC
A season on the not-so supple Clement tires left me feeling like I was missing the boat a bit. I have always heard more experienced racers talking about the amazing feeling of riding a cotton-cased tubular at the right pressure. I wanted to experience this too, dang it! Before the 2014 season, I decided to pick the brain of one of our local fast guys. His recommendation was the FMB SSC as a good all-conditions tread, so I went with it.
The FMB SSC has been reviewed as a supple, high-end tire with a bit of added sidewall sealant applied at some point during the build process. This was appealing since I knew from prior research that cotton casings require a lot more TLC, especially when exposed to wet or muddy conditions. Rather than trying to seal the sidewalls myself, these seemed like the perfect tire for me. While definitely on the expensive end of the spectrum, I was all-in trying to chase this elusive “tire nirvana”.
Knock on wood, these things have held up well and have also lived up to the hype. I would not race the tire on a muddy track because of the “chevron” type of tread, but in the mostly dry conditions experienced last year in the mid-atlantic, these tires were perfection. Of the three tires I’ve tried, they are by far the most supple and offer surprisingly great traction. I express surprise at the traction because looking at the tread, it appears to be sort of on the narrow side compared to the Challenge Fango, for instance. Regardless, with the pressure dialed in perfectly on the weekend of DCCX, I had some of my best results of that season, and a lot of that I attribute the confidence gained running the SSC.
The sidewalls come with _some_ sealant, but they definitely have shown some early wear, both from race conditions and repeated washing. I’ve maintained them by keep air topped off in the off-season so they maintain their shape, and if the glue is still solid (gotta check soon!), I’ll keep running them as-is and would expect to get through most of the rest of the 2015 season, if not all the way through.
In fact, my experience with these tires was so good, I decided to re-up and got a new set of the SSC “Pro”, which has a bit of extra sealant installed on the sidewalls for even greater protection. They’re standing by, at the ready if and when the current set give way unexpectedly.
Stop It With The Words Already – Give Me The Straight Dope
Comparing these three tires and brands against each other, here’s how I rate them:
Challenge Fango – better mud clearing than FMB SSC, not as grippy as the PDX, least expensive of the three. A totally decent tire, but my least favorite.
Clement PDX – Good mud tire, GREAT tread in the grass. Least supple of the three, but the grip makes up for that somewhat. Second best. (If I had to run clinchers, it would be my first and last choice)
FMB SSC – Best of the three because they’re so supple and the tread is surprisingly grippy, but I wouldn’t use them in the mud as the tread doesn’t seem suited for it (and they market a “Super Mud” tire). They definitely are expensive and require some extra care. This may be obviated by the extra protection on the “Pro” version, reviews on that will be forthcoming.
I’d love to hear what other people think and what their experiences have been. Please comment, ping me, tweet at me, whatever.