Veloflex is the silent killer, very quietly going about its business… and dominating the race circuit. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but, the Michelin tubulars you see on professional road racers look curiously like Veloflexes. For that matter, Bontrager and Specialized tubulars also bear a resemblence to Veloflex tubies, and the Specialized Mondo and Bontrager Race X Lite Pro tubulars are darn-near identical to the Veloflex Record in Crr. Do these companies have strategic relationships with Veloflex? Don't know. But if not, they're making tires that pay homage to the fine product this company makes.
And those Hutchinson tubulars that carried Lance Armstrong to so many Tour victories? We have no knowledge, at Slowtwitch, that Hutchinson makes tubulars. What would be typical in this case is to rebrand a good sew-up for race purposes, and Veloflex (and occasionally Dugast as well) is the go-to brand when you need good sew-ups.
After some years on the behind-the-scenes side of professional bike racing, you learn how common this sort of thing is. According to former team mechanics for US Postal, it wasn’t so much that the Veloflex was that much better, lighter, faster, it was that their quality was consistent, and the tire was predictable. They knew that after about "X" number of miles, you would start to puncture more. So, replace the tires before then, and you're likely good to go. And as we all saw, Lance—very curiously—rarely had flat tires. It doesn't hurt that the Veloflex product tends to roll fast too. Nearly every one of those TT Victories were aboard 22mm Veloflex tires wrapped around a Hed3 front and Zipp 900 tubular with ceramic bearings. If Lance rides it, it must be good.
The Record tubular and clincher are both tops in Crr (however, are thin tires). The various other Veloflex models tend not to be Crr slouches either, with varying degrees of weight and puncture resistance. Pick whatever flavor you’re comfortable with – it’s hard to go wrong with anything they make.
As mentioned above, Hutchinson does not actually make any tubular product that we know of, but it certainly deserves a mention for being the one and only commercially sold tubeless road tire. While it has been argued that these tires are neither lighter nor faster rolling than their tube-laden cousins (the added material in the casing negates these potential gains), it is a compelling product nonetheless. For those who live in areas with treacherous roads, they are clearly the best choice. Live in Tucson or Scottsdale and want to go more than two weeks without a flat? Get some Hutchinson tubeless tires along with a healthy dose of sealant, and you’re set. Even if you do manage to cut the tire enough that it won’t seal back up, you can always throw an inner tube in to it. Granted, your wheel choices are limited to brands like Fulcrum, Shimano, and Mavic, but they all make nice wheels that will get you around.
While both of these brands sell road tires, neither are what I’d consider to be your top racing choices. Neither makes a tire that is particularly fast-rolling, or has documented aerodynamic superiority. They are, in my personal view, budget-oriented choices; good OEM spec or training tires. Both of these companies have roots in mountain biking, and I’d venture a guess that their sales reflect this (names like the Nevegal, Ardent, Crossmark, and Small Block Eight conjure good feelings from Xterra racers everywhere).
Vredestein, Challenge, Schwalbe, Dugast, Clement, FMB
There are a lot of interesting choices out of this lot. At least in the US, the limiter is distribution. Dugast and Challenge have strong roots in cyclocross, although both also make fantastic road product. Are they worth the imported price and trouble to find them? That’s up to you.
Clement was purchased by Pirelli, and killed shortly thereafter. They’re back in business under ownership of Donn Kellogg (who was previously with Challenge USA), but with what appears to be a renewed focus on cyclocross.
Schwalbe is the one that strikes me with the most potential for growth, at least in the US. Go over to Europe and they’re everywhere. Commuter bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes. Part of the 'problem' is that they have so many options. It's fantastic if you know exactly what you want, and it's actually in-stock and available to buy… which isn’t always the case. Their Ultremo has always been a very nice tire; reasonable rolling resistance, good puncture resistance, and very easy installation (especially important if you have a set of wheels that tend to fit tires very tightly). In tubulars, they’ve struggled to get to market. You would see prototypes under the likes of Cameron Brown, and the occasional professional road team, but it took years for them to hit the sales floor. Now, they are actively sold under the Ultremo moniker, but I've yet to try them out.
If you’ve never heard of FMB, they are the hot ticket when it comes to road cycling, and specifically the cobbled Spring Classics. They have a very fast Silk Tubular road tire that could well carry you to your next triathlon victory, but the roadies go for the lust-worthy 27mm like-butta pavé tire. Team Saxo Bank has ridden this specific tire to much success in the past few Spring seasons.
A relative new idea in tires, we now have wheel manufacturers selling wheel + tire "systems". Zipp has been in the tire game for the larger part of a decade, originally made by Challenge, and more recently by Vittoria. The current Tangente offering is based around the 290tpi Corsa/Open Corsa with a Zipp-specific mold, a proprietary dimpled tread pattern, and a nylon breaker (instead of the stock Kevlar from Vittoria). Manufacturers who sell under their own name and do private label work for others tend to keep the best goodies for themselves—hence there not being a 320tpi Tangente to compete with the 320tpi Corsa (likewise from Mavic below). That's neither here nor there, and the Tangente stands as a good tire. Jack of many trades, master of few, it tends to hit the middle of the road on rolling resistance and weight, and in my experience is similar to the Vittoria product in its fragility—so keep these for race-day only. Zipp offers both clincher and tubular in 21 and 23mm widths.
Mavic also sells tires from Vittoria, to be used as a wheel and tire system. Of course, you can use a Mavic tire on a non-Mavic wheel, and vice versa, but they clearly intend to sell a set of tires with every wheelset. Mavic has done a good job on the sales story with two legitimately unique front and rear tires, similar in theory to what Continental did with the Attack/Force combo. The Griplink front tire is designed for maximum grip (‘cause who wants their front wheel to wash out?), and the Powerlink rear tire is designed for superior rolling. Both are available in clincher or tubular. Crr is mid-pack, but the tires appear to be of high quality, and the puncture protection is very good. They sell in only 23mm width. Some of the aero gurus have even suggested that the somewhat elliptical casing shape should do well in the wind tunnel. In addition, Mavic was smart to expand their offering to add the Askion training tire (clincher only). It can be had in 23 or 25mm, the latter of which is most certainly desirable for training if your bike frame has room for it. It’s no fast roller, but puncture protection is top notch—the definition of what a training tire should be.
Should you buy Mavic or Zipp tires if you own Hed, Shimano, or Enve wheels? There’s no reason not to. Evaluate your tire decision based on the merits of the tire. By the same token, if you are a Mavic or Zipp wheel user, by no means are you limited to their tires.
This category has struggled in the past decade, with fewer frames, wheels, tires, and tubes to choose from. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Ultimately, this entire category, which is wholly a bike-fit-based-need, has been steamrolled by the industry wanting fewer stock keeping units (SKUs). The big drivers of this are large OEMs such as Specialized, Trek, and others, who are the big purchasers and affect what the wheel and tire suppliers make. And, over time, it has devolved in to some quite laughable arguments in which people suggest that one wheel size (650c or 700c) is actually inherently faster than the other. It's almost as though some folks think that these large bike, wheel, and tire manufacturers are good Samaritans trying to do them a favor to hit their next triathlon P.R.
They're doing away with 650c because it’s slower than 700c? If only it was so. Fewer options to stock mean less cost for a number of reasons. They’re McDonald-izing the tire menu. In many cases, this also means a very compromised bike fit, or complete inability to achieve proper bike fit on small frame sizes. For now, there are a small handful of good tire options in 650c, but as of yet, not a single aftermarket latex inner tube. If you've gotta-have-latex, your only option is tubular—with the relatively frail and narrow 650x20c Vittoria Corsa. Your other primary choices include:
Continental GP4000 clincher 650x23c (Not 4000 'S')
Continental Sprinter tubular 650x22c
Continental Competition tubular 650x19c & 650x22c
Michelin Pro 4 clincher 650x23c
Vittoria Rubino Pro clincher 650x23c
Vittoria Open Corsa CX clincher 650x20c
Vittoria Corsa tubular 650x20c
Tires as we know them are getting faster and better. Specifically, clincher tires and wheels are catching up in a big way, and I expect them to further eat into the tubular market. We will see some of the more progressive cycling teams, such as Omega Pharma-QuickStep, ride time trials almost exclusively on clinchers in 2012. For triathletes, this has also spurred an as-of-late switch to clinchers. Matty Reed, a long-time tubular user, will ride clincher wheels and Maxxis tires this year. Even long-time industry insiders are admitting that—for triathlon—we are approaching the point where there is almost no reason to ride tubulars. Given the way in which most triathletes prefer to have their tubular tires glued (i.e. very lightly, so they can change a flat), the clinchers are absolutely faster. Mounds of rolling resistance data will show that the mechanical interface between clincher tire bead and clincher rim hook produce a consistently lower Crr than a shoddily-glued tubular. Add to that the fact that the recent crop of carbon clincher wheels are narrowing the weight delta between clinchers and tubulars, and you have a very compelling argument.
As well, expect tubeless tires to continue to grow, even if at a slow pace. Combine good rolling qualities, with reasonable weight, and darn-near flat-proof tires, we may have a winning recipe that is even more attractive when you start to think distances closer to, say, 140.6 miles. Time will tell, but keep your eyes peeled. As with Tony Martin’s clincher-ridden TT victory, it could only mean more and better options for the rest of us.
I will close with an attempt to answer the inevitable question of: "So, what’s the best tire?" First off, it is impossible to define 'best' for each individual person and his context. Even drilling down to 'fastest' takes many things in to account: Crr, aerodynamic properties, and puncture resistance. A good friend of mine in the mountain bike industry had a funny way that he summed up the current state of MTB tires: "Give me the durability of Maxxis, the grip and feel of Schwalbe, at a Kenda price." For us skinny-tire triathlete folks, I would translate that into something like this: Give me the durability of a Continental GP4000 or Michelin Pro, the feel and Crr of a Veloflex/FMB/Dugast, at a Kenda price… and the aerodynamics of whichever brand happen to jive best with my wheels. Why can't we have it all?