Monday, 17 June 2013

Choosing your tread for cyclocross tubulars

The most common question I get asked about 'cross tubs, at races, in emails and on twitter is....

What's a good all-rounder tread to get?

Or a derivative thereof.

It's a good question - most people asking it are just starting off with tubulars, or only wanting to invest a modest amount and are therefore looking for one wheelset, on one bike to cover all conditions.

Unfortunately, it's a bit like the question 'how long is a piece of string?'. There are so many variables to take into account - rider style, weather, soil type, frequency of use and so on. However, I've tried to put together a handy guide to get you thinking about how to choose your first or sole pair of tubulars, with a few recommendations to start you off. You will doubtless pick holes in my reasoning, find exceptions, struggle in snow and want a clincher alternative to boot. You're probably right on all counts but life is too short to cover it all.... unless you want to buy me a pint and make your pitch.

Rider style:

Mountainbike background? Roadie? BMXer? The higher your confidence in your bike handling skills, the less critical the choice is in many ways. I'm not the best bike handler so make up for it by getting tread choice and tire pressure absolutely right for the conditions. In really slick conditions, I've been outridden by better bike handlers on a less than optimal tread choice ie their only choice, but at least stacking the odds in my favour keeps me moving forward. If you are not blessed with ninja skills then err on the side of a more mud oriented tread as you will struggle less in the mud than you will lose in the dry.


I always laugh at London-based 'crossers. No, not because they are in London (well a little bit) but because they seem to be using general tread choices long after we North-West riders have switched to mud treads. Last year, in the NW of England, we started on muds and that's how it stayed all season. Most of the recent seasons have been like that too. Even in Summer Cross, us Northerners are using muds most of the time. If where you live is not the rainfall capital of the country then perhaps a more general tread is the best one-shot choice. If you live in NW England, then just get muds and be done with it, for all year use.

Soil type:

I have a twitter acquaintance (@philipglowinski) that studies geological maps of new race venues to get clues about the likely soil type. Most people would probably scoff but I'm a bit geeky too and thought that was brilliant. Either way, the point is soil type can make a big difference even given the same rainfall as on a differing type elsewhere. Case in point, Sutton Park, much loved as a classic venue for National Champs, was usually pretty fast and dry given the sandy soil. Heavy rain rarely turned it into a complete mudbath, unlike Peel Park, Bradford which only requires a light sprinkling to become pretty tasty for the mud lovers. South East soil types tend to be different to NW soil types to South West soil types etc etc Check yours out - is it essentially a faster drying soil type, or more loamy, or clay based. It'll give a starting point at least.

How often are you racing?

Most treads wear reasonably well these days, but more aggressive treads do by definition wear more when used on frequently on harder surfaces. Thus your mud tread specials might look a bit worse for wear if you blast around on hardpack surfaces a lot in between the odd mud race. Worth thinking about as tubs of any description are not cheap these days.

So what do I rate?

Predominantly muddy races/NW England/Yorks - FMB SuperMud or Dugast Rhino

You won't go far wrong with a mud tread like FMB SuperMud. Designed as a direct competitor to the imperious Dugast Rhino, I've written about them here, and rate them as better all round than the Rhino which is still pretty damn good. They work well in drier conditions too as they are not quite as aggressive. Comprehensively pre-sealed and double stitched by Francois at FMB, they will last you a few seasons too if looked after.

FMB SuperMud

Dugast Rhino

Recently a lot of folks have been impressed with the Challenge Limus - it has a great tread, a good supple casing and seems to shed well. Perhaps struggles a bit in quicker conditions due to the aggressive tractor style tread but nonetheless a good choice and more available than exotica from FMB or Dugast.

Challenge Limus

Alternatives worth looking for - Clement PDX (super aggressive tread). Vittoria XM (robust, reasonably agressive tread)

Intermediate conditions - not too many mudbaths, drier soil types

The benchmark for years has been between Dugast Typhoon and Challenge Grifo. Both great, both proven. But... there are new interlopers in the scrap.

FMBs SSC is similarly styled to the above, in terms of tread but the knobs are a little taller and a little more aggressive - like a Rhino on the edges. Therefore, it handles muddier conditions just that little better whilst still rolling fast in the dry. I've used them and really rated them.


The new kid on the block is the Dugast Small Bird - my test pair are about to arrive so I can't yet say what they are like, but the idea is sound with them being essentially a revamped Rhino style tread, busier like a 'small block 8' type mtb tread for the dry, lower central knobs with a harder compound in the centre and softer more aggressive side knobs. Best of both worlds job hopefully and they could maybe be the ultimate one-job tread.

Dugast Small Bird

Alternatives worth looking for - Schwalbe Racing Ralph (light, supple casing, bit low on volume in the casing), Gommitalia Magnum (see Grifo), Vittoria Evo XG (robust, bit sketchy in mud), Challenge Fango

Summer Cross

If you live in the North West or Yorkshire - see mud tires.

For those elsewhere, FMB Sprints are pretty awesome in the dry, AND pretty awesome in light mud too. With a surprising amount of grip from the stipples, the really aggressive side knobs keep you upright in most light mud conditions, and even on greasy, rain-slick, previously sun-baked grass. Just.

FMB Sprint

Alternatives - Challenge Grifo XS (more an out and out dry tire than the Sprints)

Everybody has their own favourite, their own opinion. Feel free to take me to task in the comments below and add your bit. I have ridden most of the treads outlined above but not all and there are some out there that I haven't mentioned that are worth a look too.

Gruff but friendly Nottingham importer John Holmes does great prices on Dugast tubulars as well as FMB - mention my name when you call him on 07946 461972.

Fangoso should soon also be able to hook you up with some FMBs.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Going Dutch - an immersion in cycling culture

A family holiday to the north of the Netherlands, to a city where the per capita use of bikes is allegedly the highest in the world, seemed like a good excuse to load the car with the full compliment of family bikes and go Dutch style..

Our base, at friends, was in Groningen, not too far from the German border and in a traditional part of the Netherlands. Got a stereotype image for Holland? We ticked them all, apart from tulips.

It is flat, eye openingly flat. It is windy, constantly so. The people are tall, the girls often blond. Everywhere is neat, straight, criss-crossed with canals and there are definitely windmills.

And then there are the bikes. They are simply everywhere and used by everybody. Riding out early on a Monday morning into the countryside from our hosts, I came to the first major bike path on the local A road and ran into what can only be described as multiple 'flotillas' of cyclists. Mostly college/school students with some commuters, they rode in groups, 4 or 5 long and two abreast. Chatting, laughing, texting, one handed. Like a clubrun of experienced riders, but with bags, panniers, casual clothes and a complete mastery of their mode of transport. For someone used to riding into work and seeing the odd grizzled fluoro-jacketed factory worker returning from a night-shift or dragging himself into work, it truly was an eye opener indeed.

Later in the trip I participated in the two-wheeled school run for our host's kids - to find that the rest of the (primary) school arrived on bikes too, leading to the largest collection of two-wheeled transport I have ever seen in one place. For one school.

Shopping, as well as the school run was accomplished on the 'bakfiets' - a two wheeled box big enough for 4 kids bolted to a normal Dutch bike. Heavy but surprisingly manoueverable, I had fun loading up with a selection of mine and borrowed kids and going beer, I mean essentials, shopping with ease.

I asked our hosts if the numbers and usage diminished in winter or in bad weather, and I got a slightly quizzical look which answered my question. People have well-suited bikes, clothing to match and an attitude of stoicism when it comes to the weather.

This was in evidence on the 2 family Sunday ride we did to a local village and cafe where 15km into a brisk headwind didn't phase the Dutch half, even if it presented problems with cold hands for my littlest. They just got on with it, warmed up with hot chocolate and blasted back home after.

My own training rides were unique in flavour - headwinds there are steady but not depressing and assuming you plan well, the returning tailwind is a thing of pure animal satisfaction. I hadn't ridden that fast on the flat since the last group crit race I had done. The wind is ever present and during winter I am sure can become nearly untenable, but it is constant rather than gusting and therefore allied with the flat terrain, allows you to chose a gear and effort to suit, and just get into the groove. More pleasingly, I rode for mile after mile, or rather km after km, on purpose built bike paths, usually on BOTH sides of a road, often with 2 lanes on the path itself and with utter deference and respect from the motorists whom I came into contact with. I hadn't realised how relaxing riding at speed could be, without traffic and surface hazards to sharpen the senses. The roads in that region, and the rest of the country I believe, are in incredibly good condition. In the Groningen region at least, revenue from natural gas reserves are used to keep them in such good condition. I saw one pothole in the whole trip, on the motorway near Amsterdam.

I expect that flatness would grate after a while, and certainly it was a pleasant surprise to come back to East Lancashire's vertiginous terrain but it is truly a wonderful place to immerse yourself in cycling culture in the widest sense. They don't do proper cobbles though, which was a shame...