On Tires

They say that shoes make the man (which seems odd to me, as I thought men made shoes, but I rarely paid attention in biology classes). If this is truly the case, then it may be that spare tires make the MAMIL, and tires make the bike.

I have a real problem with bike tires- I buy them. I buy a lot of them, and then I ride them, but then, I buy more, swap them out, and hang the perfectly good, slightly-used ones up for future service (which, honestly, rarely happens).

In conjunction with my tire fetish, I also love to build wheels. The Zen of lacing a wheel is very relaxing, although I recommend delaying the Zen of drinking a beer while lacing a wheel until at least the third set of spokes is in. Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve built around 50 pairs of wheels, some for myself, the rest for friends who are looking for a way to shut me up for a couple of hours.

For the last year or so, I’ve been playing with large tires on road bikes. Many articles have been written about the increased rolling efficiency of larger tires at lower pressures, and like many cyclists, it’s been a bit of a challenge to switch my MAMIL brain from 700×23 at 120PSI to 650b x 42 at 37.5PSI.

In the journey from itty-bitty tires that skate over the road and translate every pebble directly to the sit-bones, I have learned to feel the subtle differences in tire size and pressures. My first road tubeless setup was on a pair of American Classic rim-brake wheels with IRC RBCC slicks. These tires are amazing, and at 80PSI they feel almost frictionless. They are rolling under an older steel frame (1998 Ibis Spanky, made with genuine More-On tubing). The bike feels almost effortless to ride, and the 25c-labeled (28mm wide measured on the AC wheels) tires are able to clear the caliper brakes. Panaracer builds these tires, and I absolutely love them for their supple feel and tenacious cornering grip.

I managed to break my 2003-vintage titanium frame, the first bike I had designed with my own twisted brain cells. An exhaustive search for a new frame led me to Waltly Titanium in Shenzen, who produced my updated design with aplomb. For those who don’t have any faith in Chinese manufacturing, but ride anything carbon (frame, bars, fork, wheels, seatport, etc.), now is the time for some soul-searching. There’s an app for that on your Chinese-made everything.

My new frame allowed for considerably larger tires, up to 700×40, and I set about playing and satisfying my fetish. My first pair of 650b road wheels are DT311 rims laced to SRAM 900 hubs, both are high-quality, low weight, and fairly inexpensive. I purchased the wheelset used, and they came with Compass BabyShoe Pass 650×42 tires (made by Panaracer). These tires have a very fine file-tread, and I ran them with tubes as they were not labeled tubeless. One tire seemed to delaminate on the inside, rubbing the tube into oblivion. I replaced them with Pacenti PariMoto 650×42, this time tubeless, and again, made by Panaracer.

The Paris are nearly identical to the Babys, bar the gumwalls, and both come from Panaracer’s factory in Japan. Both roll exceptionally well, and the PariMoto was very happy at about 40PSI on both Colorado roads as well as Mallorcan. As they were marketed as a gravel tire, I never hesitated to leave the tarmac and roll over variable surfaces. On one long ride in the fall, I even rolled them through 2-3″ of snow, and much to my surprise, I did not crash or struggle. As the tires are unencumbered by any knobbage, I was truly impressed by their grip.

Later, I bought a pair of American Classic Race 650b wheels, and got a fantastic price. A couple of weeks later, they closed their doors, which may explain the good deal I got. Given their high quality reputation, however, I expect to be rolling this wheelset for years to come. I purchased Panaracer Gravel King 650bx42s. There is no shortage of rave reviews about this particular tire, and they are all absolutely correct- it’s wonderful. I can’t tell a real difference between the BabyShoes, PariMotos, and Gravel Kings- they share a tread design and come from the same factory. I tested the tires in Belgium, on Flandrian cobbles as well as 3 sectors from Paris-Roubaix, starting with the Arenberg Trench. The high-volume, low pressure (37.5PSI) tubless setup took the edges off the cobbles and made the adventure a pleasure. After experiencing this lauded terrain, I cannot imagine slamming into them at high speed, on 700×28, with pressured over 70PSI as the pros do.

Due to the aforementioned fetish, being very satisfied with the easy-rolling, highly-durable Gravel Kings (as a road tire; I have been using Hutchinson Overrides for gravel), I started searching for more tires. The 700×38 Gravel King had caught my eye, and I purchased a pair and set them up tubeless. Again, these are file-tread only, they do not have the side-knobs of the SK version. I ran them at 45PSI on a variety of pavement types, and frankly, was blown away by the ride quality of the tire. After a few days, they had stretched to 39mm on Stan’s Crest rims.

With the 700x38s rolling, they felt like the IRC RBCCs: frictionless, effortless, and fast. The low pressure smoothed out the rough tarmac sections, and even concrete expansion joints were barely perceivable. I think this tire may be the holy grail of plush riding- if your frame can handle it, it’s worth a try.

Update May 28- I rode these for their actual designed-use: gravel, and I must say, they were spectacular. Although I do think of these as a road tire due to the lack of knobs, they rolled up Horse Gulch in Durango as well as on many miles of unpaved roads and never missed a beat. If your definition of ‘gravel’ includes a healthy dose of magnesium-chloride dust-control, these are the tire for you. I was also very impressed at how they rolled over rocks on what is basically a mountain bike access route.

So, where does this bring us in the musings? It’s amazing how much of an impact on ride quality that tires can make, and it’s worth trying out as many as you can get away with. At a certain point, you will run across a pair that improves the ride quality of your bike in a significant manner. I am continually impressed with the quality of the products produced by Panaracer (under varying brands), and how good their tires feel on multiple surfaces.