On "Cyclocross" Clinchers

Oct 16 2011

Inflate to min 60psiIf you’ve been following the Cyclocosm Tumblr at all, you’ve probably seen a few interesting parts failures over the past few weeks. But today’s post is less about a specific failure and more about a broken philosophy: the idea that any clincher with knobs on it is somehow race-appropriate componentry for cyclocross.

It’s Not All Bad, I Guess

I should be specific here: most cyclocross-branded clinchers work well enough—so long as you have no plans to actually race. And in and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. For decades, a loud and long-bearded contingent of Internet cycling personalities has bemoaned the popularity of race-inspired equipment that is ill-suited to the needs of the casual cyclist.

For rough pavement or all-weather commuting, fire roads, and light trail use, a fatter, slightly knobby tire road tire running a 60+ psi is a great choice, and even the least sophsticated CX-branded rubber is a quantum leap beyond the 800g Cheng Shin monstrosities that spread like an STI in shops and box stores alike during the hybrid boom of the 1990s.

Racing on a Crummy Clincher

In terms of actual cyclocross racing—with high-speed cornering on mixed terrain, there are a lot of clinchers out there that simply aren’t competitive. Sure, if you’re willing to endure a masochistic enough pressure, you can hack your way through a race, and maybe even feel like you’re going pretty fast.

But if you’re really tight-roping the ragged edge of traction, hard tires don’t hold on washy, off-camber bends. Hard tires spin out as you try to apply power at the slightest suggestion of mud or loose terrain. And most importantly, hard tires don’t conform to obstacles, subjecting your body, your bike, and your most fickle components (derailleurs, spokes, seatposts clamps, headset bolts) to hammer blow after hammer blow.

There was a time when I thought this lack of suspension could be overcome by vigilant mechanical work and pure physical toughness. But after a few seasons, it’s become clear that the jarring and abuse is a secondary issue. The facts are that you can’t steer or apply power using tire that’s actively careening off the very surface obstacles that make cyclocross awesome.

Go Ahead. Lower the Pressure. See What Happens.

The obvious solution to these problems is to lower your tire pressure, but it’s a bitterly double-edged sword. With every psi you drop, your odds of catching a pinch flat increase, and the bumpier the course gets, and the more you have to gain from compliant, lower-pressure tires, the less safe it is to go for the low-psi advantage.

In my experience (at a not-particularly-nimble 165lbs) 40psi is about as low as you can go with a reasonable expectation of not flatting—and at that pressure, you’re giving away speed. You can still be competitive against tubulars on anything that’s not too muddy/bouncy, but be mentally and physically prepared to close a lot of gaps—rattling ass-in-the-air over washboard hardpack while your rivals pedal away is a psychological disadvantage that gets worse with every lap.

If We Have to Name Names

That said, cheaper and less experienced riders are more or less stuck with the clincher—even $2,600 race-branded machines ship with them. In a perfect world, I’d have bought every clincher I could get my hands on, and I’d let you know which ones suck and which ones rule. Alas, my masochism has limits—having found a handful of tires that don’t work, and a single one that does, I’m disinclined to further study.

My clincher of choice—for 100% of race conditions—is the Michelin Mud2. It has fantastic traction in almost anything, and supple (if somewhat fragile) sidewalls that make it feel tubular-awesome starting around 34psi (if you’re willing to risk a pinch). Sure, it’s a little knobby for hard-packed terrain, but rolling resistance caused by tread pattern (as opposed to say, pressure) is almost meaningless. Unless your ‘cross races are decided by paved, downhill coasting sections, it’s not something I’d bother worrying about.

As far as bad ‘cross tires go, it’s really hard to pick any one offender. There’s the Maxxis Raze that I managed to roll in the SS race of last year’s Ice Weasels. There’s the Vittoria XG that measured 2.5mm narrower than listed and slid six inches sideways every time I tired to pedal it through downhill corners at Green Mountain. And of course, there’s the old “tubeless-ready” Hutchinson Bulldogs that were actually pretty nice, except that their beads broke every other time I tried to mount them.

As always, your mileage may vary. Feel free to comment if you’ve had a good or bad experience with a particular clincher—and be specific about how you’ve used it. I’ve heard good things about a one or two other models, but as I said earlier, there are so many bad tires, and my experiences with them have been so awful, that I really don’t have the stomach for looking anymore.

Suggestions and Practical Advice

If you’re looking for a rule of thumb on what’s awful and what’s not, minimum recommended pressure has been a pretty good indicator for me. Numbers well outside the realm of what’s reasonable for CX—50 on the Raze and 60 on the Vittoria—have always turned out poorly. I’d long considered pressure indications were the result of much legal hang-wringing, but my experience seems to be suggesting that the Mud2 really has been engineered to effectively hold the rim and the dirt all the way down to its 29psi lower limit.

So it seems to me that a great solution this problem would be a little more truth in advertising—namely, not presenting tires with a 60psi minimum recommended inflation as cyclocross race equipment. I understand the marketing imperative of covering the CX niche, but let’s be honest: there are a whole lot more people out there commuting and pleasure riding on 23mm tires who’d be having a whole lot more fun and a lot fewer flats on my Vittoria XGs. Don’t insult consumers and batter your brand by pretending anything knobby is a CX tire because you feel like it needs to exist.

Industry publications could also help the alleviate some of the problem by keeping reader expectations a little more reasonable. While I’ve never been the biggest fan of Matt Pacochia, I give him credit for prefacing this article on CX clinchers by saying (essentially) “tubulars are better” (and also for only including three models, all of which I assume to be race-viable). The cycling press could still maintain its uncomfortably cozy relationship with manufacturers by ranking tires that don’t cut it in actual CX racing under a separate set of criteria to keep the scores inflated (so to speak).

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