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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16 Responses to “On "Cyclocross" Clinchers”

  1. mattio 17 October 2011 at 8:45 am #

    I’ve raced clinchers for a while now (though that’s about to change), and it’s important to chime in on some of your points about pressure. Namely, I’ve ridden Mud IIs and other similar high-quality Michelin tires at pressures well under 30psi – plunging down close to 22, but usually around 26 or 27.

    I’ve only pinch flatted in one race in 3 years. I weight under 130 lbs. My point is that weight and pressure are closely linked; heavier riders can get away with higher pressures because their weight will deform the tire, resulting in good grip, in a way that a smaller rider can’t without much lower pressure. A smaller rider is a bit less likely to pinchflat (a rule of thumb mediated by a rider’s grace and style).

    At 165 lbs, 40psi may be as low as you can go without negative repercussions, but for some others, the clinchers can handle much lower pressures.

  2. Martin Criminale 17 October 2011 at 9:31 am #

    After riding several Michelin and Specialized and Ritchey tires the Schwalbe Racing Ralph is getting rave reviews here in the NW where mud and traction are a huge issue for most of the season. I just got some myself and at about 175-180 lb. I can run them at less than 60 psi.

    But I have also never raced tubular cyclocross tires so take this with a grain of salt.

  3. Adam 17 October 2011 at 10:15 am #

    I’ve raced and ridden the hell out of some Challenge, cheap, wire-bead Grifos. They are incredible for the dollar amount spent. Granted, I also have tubular Grifos glued up to some Ambrosia rims, but those are only for special occasions. :)

  4. Adam 17 October 2011 at 10:16 am #

    Oh, and I’m fat…190lbs.

  5. sasha 17 October 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    I actually just did my first race on tubulars yesterday, and I have to say, I approve.

    That said, I’ve run Muds and Jets in the mid-30s (I’m 150-155) with good success over the last few years. Another tire that I’ve had good results with is the Clement PDX. If anything, more knobby than the muds, but also bigger, so you can run it at a lower pressure.

    I’d say that 60psi seems crazy to me. And I race in Northern California, where the courses tend to be dry and rocky.

    I’m also experimenting with tubeless cross tires this year, although I’ve not done enough low-pressure experimentation to have a dependable conclusion.

  6. TheFourBs / mperrone 17 October 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    Tubeless Cross experiments…might want to run that by Cosmo first =P

  7. Lou 18 October 2011 at 7:35 am #

    There are crappy tubulars too – and don’t underestimate the number of them you see rolled off – especially on wet days. I’ve seen far more days ended due to rolled tubulars than pinch flats on clinchers. That being said, I agree that not all clinchers (and tubes and rims) are equal. I currerntly ride Grifo/Fango combo with Challenge latex tubes on Revolution 23 WR rims and it’s buttah ! Can regularly run 28 – 32 PSI (haven’t tried lower) without pinch flats and I’m 170 lbs. Like night and day compared to my former Maxxis Raze/campy Vento/butyl tube set up. As Master’s pack filler, my new set up is more than enough for me and indistinguishable from the same tires, in tubular, on narrow rims. I agree that tubulars are the be all and end all, but for a privateer amateur, the convenience of the good clincher stuff is a consideration.

  8. Ben 18 October 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    Sounds like we’ve had very similar experiences with cross tires. I also had some bad experiences with the Maxxis Raze and great experience with the Mud 2.

    One tire that gets marketed as a cross tire but isn’t came oem on my bike. The Kenda Qwick is a bad, bad tire for racing.

    It sounds like you’ve had bad experiences with tubeless, wondering if you’ve tried it with the mud 2 on a mavic rim. That’s my combo and into my third season with it I’ve yet to loose a bead. I run 35 psi rear and 32 front and weigh 170.

  9. Jim 19 October 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    I am a lardass clyde – 250-275 – and run Muds at 40 PSI. I don’t flat if I keep ‘em at 40 and take care to note the rocks in warmups. On a rocky course I’ll go to 45, smooth I’ll drop to 35. But then I ride MTB tires at 22-25 through really tough terrain, 20 on smoother stuff. YMMV.

    I’ve had pretty good luck with Muds. Good all arounders. The Jet rear / Mud front is a money combination on off-cambers on dry days. Had better luck w/t Fangos, clincher & tubular. The two Vittorias I’ve tried, can’t remember the models, one clincher, one tubie, threw me to the ground like a snake scared horse. The Ritcheys suck, all the Kendas suck. Got some PDX’s to try this weekend, hoping they hold better in this year’s Mid-Atlantic mud than the Muds do. The Muds are good in light mud or slop atop slick; they aren’t so hot in real mud, they slide far but at least predictably in muddy corners.

    I’m a bottom third of the pack guy, kind of gave up on giving a shit this year and committed to my singlespeed and clinchers. I miss the smooth ride, OMFG are tubulars so much better… but like I said I quit caring about a lot of stuff for some reason this year and the SS with Mud II’s is about as not giving a crap as you can get.

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  11. Nate C. 7 November 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    i’ll leave a few reviews to go along. i’ve raced a vittoria tubular (front only) for a few races and actually preferred clinchers, probably due to familiarity rather than superiority.

    there is one key to clincher racing: latex tubes. clinchers feel completely different with regular tubes and latex tubes make them much softer.

    michelin mud2. agree, phenomenal tire for all conditions. or so i thought, until i tried the:

    ritchey speedmax pro. these things are amazing in any condition that isn’t going to leave you sliding around. they’re super soft, softer than a lot of cheap tubulars out there, like the vittoria i raced.

    i also like the panaracer cinder cx if you’re allowed to run 34s where you race. the bigger diameter means you can run a lower pressure without as much flat risk, which is an excellent way to get over one of the clincher handicaps.

  12. Jonathan 29 November 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    I’ve raced a full season here in the Midwest, 16 races and counting, on courses ranging from bumpy, grassy, rutted out, dry farm cross to slick, wet, thin mud, to full on peanut butter mud. I’ve switched back and forth between Challenge Fangos (32mm) and the Clement PDX (33) which I really like for muddy days.

    I’ve run as low as 25 psi on muddy days, and as high as 32 psi, but never anything more, and I’ve had zero flats and zero traction issues. I weigh 160 and am not too heavy on equipment.

    I think that 40 psi is absolute insanity for racing. You should very easily be able to go well below that without any issues as long as you’re handling the bike in a reasonable fashion… As awesome as tubulars are, if you don’t have the money, a smart clincher is not going to hold you back at all.

  13. Liam H 25 September 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    Bit disappointed that you haven’t added the old Euro favourite the Challenge Grifo (Clincher or tub here) as they’re what a lot of the pro’s ride over the course of a Euro Cross Season (especially if some are paid to do so) They’re my choice of The Best All Round Cyclocross Tires alongside Dugast’s expensive Typhoons they’re a great tire.

    The Challenge Grifos will also allow you to go down to a sensibly low 40 psi in cheap ‘Pro’ format and even lower in their premium model!

  14. Sam V. 10 June 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    I raced all of last season on Challenge grifo open tubulars (the 300 tpi casing ones) at 30 psi front and back and 140lbs. absolutely no pinch flats, though I did roll a tire, so that is one disadvantage that can be put in both tubular and clincher tires.

  15. J. D. Kimple 1 October 2014 at 4:27 am #

    I’ve raced for 4 years on clinchers, just Masters pack filler. Like others here, have raced clinchers and not felt let down. Several years ago I ran tubeless, with a Kenda Kommando rear and Panaracer Crossblaster up front, 30 r/28 f most days. Never felt let down. I did burp the back pretty good on a crappy remount early on that season but after that, where the sealant had a bit more time, no issues.

    Currently run latex tubes with an ounce of sealant in each with PDX f/Slant Six rear and this hooks up way better than Mud 2s. Or Duro MoeJoes on the other bike. If real muddy I will go with PDX all around. About same pressures as above, and for the record I clock in at 185. No pinch flats, even the year I ran the Razes (at 30f/32r). A few times I’ve slipped out on off camber or tight turns but I watched guys in front of me lose it on Grifo tubulars. To me, Grifos have crap for side knobs and slide too much for my taste, tubs or clinchers. Plus, there is usually less than 10 races a year nearby, can’t justify the cost of tubs.

    For the record, I also take the same setup on MTB trails but with a little more air -like 37 f/40 r. I do bounce around here but there is a lot of rocks and roots, so you’ll have that. I have pinch flatted in the woods but I was closer to my CX pressures when that happens.

    Racing on clinchers can be done and it’s not so scary. Latex tubes, drop your pressure and go.

    • Cosmo Catalano 1 October 2014 at 8:30 am #

      I think it does depend a lot on region. New England has a lot of soft-ish stuff (grass, wet dirt, firm mud) with hard stuff (rocks, roots) poking out of it, in a way that is not always obvious. For me, that made clinchers a recipe for disaster. Latex was maybe better, but still—monthly occurence. It’s also a region that believes CX events should involve racing against other riders—often times, you can’t be that particular about where you put the bike because there are other competitors all around you.

      Most of the races I’ve done on Colorado’s front range have been very hard-packed. Some are extremely bumpy, but it’s like a washboarding, not the sudden snap from soft to hard that gave me rim-strikes 2-3 times a lap in New England. There’s also a lot of hard-packed dirt with loose grit over it, which doesn’t feel great to be under a super-supple tubular—been a bit more confident on Michelin Mud2s. Also, BRAC seems to be confused about what makes CX fun, so most of my fields have <20 riders; this makes for far, far less improvisational line selection.

      Honestly, ideal (non-UCI) bike set-up out here might be 29er MTB with ~40mm tubeless file/racing tread. Probably with drop bars for Tomac steez, though so many obstacles would be bunny-hop gimmes with flat bars, even for a clown like me.

      And I’ve always found the Grifo slide to be a feature, though I admit not one everyone would welcome/want to have.

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