Gravel racing and touring season is upon us. This form of racing has been increasing in popularity in the United States, with new races popping up and established races selling out. This is all for good reason. Compared to road racing there is less auto traffic, slower speeds (making it safer), and great natural scenery. In addition, the less than perfect riding surfaces force you to focus on your riding line and not on the fire in your lungs and legs. The atmosphere is drastically less serious than road and criterium racing with a focus on finishing and having fun over “winning”. It really is the merging of “cyclocross meets road racing”, and gets cyclists into a competitive environment while their “road only” buddies are still on the computrainer.
This past weekend was the nations biggest gravel race, Barry-Roubaix in Hastings Michigan. Barry is the county, and Roubaix is because it is ridiculously challenging. On this day the cyclists outnumber the entire population of Hastings, MI. Race distances are 24, 36 and 62 miles, with 80% of the riding surfaces being gravel roads. The Barry-Roubaix gravel is more like packed sand and dirt, some loose gravel, a lot of water-filled pot holes and a smattering of sloppy, waterlogged bogs. Most riders are on cyclocross or mountain bikes, and a few brave souls opted for a road bike. Any one of these bikes would be a good choice based on the possible conditions. This day favored the cyclocross bike, but wetter or snowy conditions would tip the scale to mountain bikes, drier conditions would favor a road bike. In any case, tire choice is still a vital consideration.
The last thing a rider wants to do is travel twelve hours round trip, pay for a hotel and food, and have a bad experience due to tire choice or tire failure. My initial instinct was to use my cyclocross tires, but most high end cyclocross tires are designed for performance on a cyclocross course, not a gravel road. Many cross tires, including mine, have no real puncture protection. They also have a tread pattern that is too aggressive for gravel and will be slow on the paved sections. When in doubt, ask Nick!
Nick wisely steered me to the Challenge Almanzo gravel tire. Challenge is the biggest name in cyclocross tires, used by most of the top teams around the world. The Almanzo is named for the famous 100 mile gravel race in Southeastern Minnesota.
Challenge is most notorious for making superior tubular cyclocross tires. In the world of racing, tubular tires are the pinnacle. They offer the best performance and the least weight, period. For some, however, tubulars are impractical because of price and convenience. If you want a different tread pattern for a race, you need a different set of wheels with that tire already glued and ready to go. A quick tire change before a race is not possible with a tubular tire. For those looking for a compromise between performance and convenience, “open tubulars” are the solution.
An open tubular is essentially a tubular tire carcass that has not been sewn shut around a tube yet. It offers tubular features that are mounted like a clincher tire. The easiest way to identify an open tubular is to first look at the tire in the package. If it is folded up and the entire tire tread and sidewall lay essentially flat, it MAY be an open tubular. If you can hold it up and it has the shape of a bicycle tire, it is a standard clincher. Not all folding tires are open tubulars, however. It is the unseen features that separate the good folding clincher from the great open tubular.
A great open tubular will be handmade. The tread will be glued to the casing which can be seen as a fine ridge between the two components. This allows the casing and tread to be manufactured separately, achieving the best possible properties to be built into each. This is in contrast to the less expensive, lower performing tire made in one mold with one compound.
The suppleness of the casing and sidewalls is a major contributor to the ride quality of the tire. The TPI, or Threads Per Inch, will help determine the tire’s suppleness. Generally, a higher TPI will mean a more supple and compliant sidewall and a superior ride quality. The Almanzo has 260 TPI and a gravel friendly 30mm width.
A gravel tire will require puncture protection. The Almanzo has two Puncture Protection Strips (PPS), one between the casing and tread and another on the inside of the casing which appears as a red strip. This dual protection is a necessary feature for a gravel tire that must endure road conditions that would shred most quality road tires.
The Challenge Almanzo was a dream to ride at Barry-Roubaix. The file tread center was fast and smooth on the asphalt and hard packed sand, with enough traction for the steep climbs. The more aggressive side tread was grippy in the sandy, gravely turns, while at the same time the non-vulcanized, grippier rubber was fast and confident in the asphalt turns leading to the finish. This Challenge tire is at the top of its class and has me wanting to try out their open tubular cyclocross tires. Next up…Cheesehead Roubaix!