The sport of cyclocross presents some pretty unusual demands on our equipment. Trying to balance these demands can be complicated, often times forcing us to make compromises. Sacrificing strength and durability in our frame and components in order to save weight and gain a competitive advantage is an obvious compromise we all make. But what about our tires? What is the balancing act we perform when choosing a cyclocross tire?
In the realm of cyclocross tires the balancing act is as old as the sport itself. The choice is simply SPEED vs. GRIP.
There are many tires on the market that range from FAST to GRIPPY. On the far end of the FAST spectrum are the file treads. These tires have super low rolling resistance and will be the fastest tire on the course on the straightaways. The trade-off is that file treads are lousy in the turns. The minimal side lugs on a file tread make these tires a poor choice for any rider that is not Sven Nys. Keep in mind also that UCI cyclocross courses are different from the typical US courses. Where a UCI course can be fast and smooth with sweeping turns, our local races are mostly tight and twisty. It is rare to find a US race where a pure file tread tire would be appropriate.
On the other end of the spectrum are the GRIPPY mud tires. These tires offer the very best in traction in any turn and are the best choice for wet or muddy conditions. These tires are often used in dry conditions because they will allow higher speeds and confidence in tight turns. Unfortunately, as much as a mud tire will help in the turns, they will slow you down on a straightaway. For many amateurs who travel from race to race with one set of cyclocross tires, mud tires are the obvious choice. Mud tires are made for muddy and wet conditions, but will perform satisfactorily on dry conditions. A file tread, on the other hand, would be a nightmare in wet and muddy conditions.
Between the extremes in this tire spectrum are the many “middle of the road” tread patterns that seek a compromise. Not as Grippy as a mud tire, not as Fast as a file tread, but somewhere in between. With this compromise, time and watts are lost on the straights and the turns. For certain courses, especially where both wet AND dry conditions exist simultaneously, these tires may be a decent choice. However, this compromised tire choice is far from ideal. The question looms…Is there such a thing as The Best of Both Worlds?
As this season approached I was ready to investigate my tire choices. I was very happy with my mud tires, Clement Crusade PDX. I had no worries in the turns, but knew my competition was getting away on the straights. I wanted the speed of a file tread, but in training this summer I had a few spectacular high speed wipe outs on a less aggressive tire. These wipeouts were sudden and disastrous, losing grip and crashing without warning. The speed on the straights was great, but the fear of crashing was rendering this straightaway speed obsolete when I got to a turn, and in cyclocross we turn a lot!
While nursing a bruised and skinned knee after a training crash, I was looking for a better tread option. When I saw the Challenge Chicane I instinctively knew that I had to give this tire a try. This tread pattern so obviously captures the advantages of both mud tires and file treads that I was baffled it had never been tried before. This tread pattern offers the low rolling resistance of a file tread on the straightaways because it IS a file tread in the middle. It also offers the confident grip of a mud tire in the turns because the side lugs ARE mud tire lugs. The grippy lugs are out of the way on the straights, letting the file tread roll uninhibited, then they are activated as you lean into a turn. These side lugs also offer amazing grip on off-camber surfaces, a side benefit I wasn’t expecting. This tread pattern is so ingenious and at the same time so simple. I honestly believe that Challenge has created a new Gold Standard for a cyclocross tread pattern that will be copied throughout the industry and will be seen more and more frequently at the start line.
I have used this tire with fantastic success for this entire season. These tires not only have a superior and innovative tread design, but they also offer the time-tested features of all Challenge tubular and open tubular (clincher) tires. These tires are hand made, have supple 300 TPI SuperPoly casings, and an extremely durable and compliant non-vulcanized, natural rubber tread compound. They weigh in at 355g for open tubulars and 415g for tubulars. In my case, I used the open tubular (clincher) version with a latex inner tube. Latex tubes are one of the primary features of all great tubular tires. When a latex tube is used on a clincher or open tubular tire, you will gain much of the advantages found in a tubular tire. You can learn more about the advantages of latex tubes in an earlier article on Custom Wheel Upgrades.
This tire will not replace a mud tire for wet and muddy conditions because it lacks the grip needed for accelerating in mud. It does, however, knock the file tread tires off the podium for virtually all dry cyclocross courses in America.