I’ve always been a Schwalbe fan. While this German-based manufacturer doesn’t currently see high sales in the US compared to, say, a Continental or Vittoria, their European business is booming. You see their tires on road bikes, mountain bikes, and most importantly – lots and lots of commuter bikes. That’s their bread and butter (and good on ‘em).
They have a vast range of tire models, and a monumental amount of options for most models. Want the lightest, fastest-rolling race tire for your mountain bike? They’ve got that. Want a little bit of extra sidewall protection for the same tire? They’ve got that too. Want to run a 2.4” front and 2.2” rear? Perhaps tubeless, 650b, or 29er? Check, check, and – check. My personal favorite is their Marathon Cross 700x38mm parked on the front of my cyclocross bike. It looks more like a 40 or 42mm, has fantastic grip, and has yet to see a puncture even on rock-laden trails. I’ve also used their Marathon Winter 700x35 studded tire with great success on ice-covered roads.
While their options in road and triathlon tires haven’t historically been as all-inclusive as the mountain/commuter half of the business, Schwalbe set out to change that this year. In the past, I’ve ridden their 700x23mm Ultremo R clincher, and quite liked it. The ride (with a latex inner tube) was smooth… very tubular-esque. And this anti-puncture weenie was very happy to suffer nary a cut or flat. I never knew the “official” coefficient of rolling resistance (Crr), but my subjective seat-of-the-pants test says they were at least middle of the pack – very good in my mind, considering the puncture protection. Think along the lines of a Conti GP4000 S or Michelin Pro.
Schwalbe’s Ultremo line has since been updated to be called the Ultremo ZX, available in both clincher and tubular. New-for-2012, however, is a Vectran puncture strip that is said to both increase puncture protection and reduce rolling resistance by at least 25%. They also have a ton of color options for those vain types who MUST have white tires to match their white shoe covers and pristine refrigerator-white 12-pound Cervelo R3. What? I would never do such a thing… ‘swear.
Schwalbe gets in to tubeless
The big news for Schwalbe this year is a brand new tubeless tire offering. With this addition, we are now at four total manufacturers that offer tubeless (Hutchinson, Maxxis, IRC, and now Schwalbe). It is simply called the Ultremo ZX Tubeless. Weight is an attractive 295 grams. Most inner tubes weigh between 60 and 100 grams, so this puts the Ultremo ZX Tubeless tire on-par with a “standard” racing clincher with tube. It is only available in 700x23mm size, which is fine with me, as it hits the middle 80% of user needs. As you can see from the photo below, puncture protection is on-par with what we’ve come to expect from other tubeless tires (when used with a latex-based sealant, such as Schwalbe’s own Doc Blue).
But… BUT…! I can sense the tire geeks chomping at the bit to ask. But… what about the rolling resistance?! Aren’t tubeless tires slower-rolling ‘cause the casing is so thick and rigid? Well, geeks – hold on to your hats. We can give you a cautiously optimistic hint that these tires might break that trend. I hesitate to list specific numbers, as we must first understand a big qualifier that lies in testing protocol. As with wind tunnel data, Crr testing results are wholly dependent on how you test. What speed and surface? One wheel or two? How much weight is on the wheel(s)? What tire pressure? What ambient temperature. Heck – what tool are you actually using to measure? And on and on. The point is: I encourage you to look at each set of test data only compared to itself when looking at specific wattage or Crr output.
For example, Bob’s test says that this tire requires X watts to spin. But Joe’s test says that the same tire requires Y watts. If there is some sort of large difference, I’d likely chalk it up to different test protocol (or one being a lousy test). However, we can generally compare trends between tests. Let’s say Bob and Joe test three tires – A, B, and C. If both tests report back that A is the fastest and C is the slowest – and at relatively consistent differences between each of the three – it suggests validity of the two tests. Perhaps their system of measuring is simply different. Maybe Bob is testing on a smooth surface and Joe is testing on a textured surface. Or it could be something as simple as Bob testing while riding the bike (with both wheels being measured) and Joe is testing with a single wheel on a mechanical drum roller. Make sense?
That being said, Schwalbe’s own testing reports back that the new Ultremo ZX Tubeless has 25% lower rolling resistance than their Ultremo ZX Tubular – which has a latex inner tube (pictured above). You read that correctly – the tubeless version isn’t equal or worse – it is 25% better. Every triathlete's favorite cyclist (Fabian Cancellara) has been testing different iterations of the tire for use in time trials. This is a guy who has always ridden tubulars. Every single one of his World Championships, Olympics performances, and Tour stage wins were aboard tubulars (at least that I'm aware of). If he fully switches to tubeless for TT, it would be a huge departure. We will all have to wait until these tires hit retail stores later this year to see what the independent Crr tests say, but keep your fingers crossed.
The folks at Schwalbe also tell me that this tire addresses one of the most-common gripes with road tubeless tires: getting them on or off of the darn rim. Due to the low volume and high pressure of a road tire (compared to the high volume and low pressure of a mountain bike tire), road tubeless tires need to have a very strong bead to stay in place. Some reports of early road tubeless tires indicated that you need to have a lot of time and patience to mount them (or live next door to The Incredible Hulk). If you so happened to get a flat on the side of the road – good luck putting a tube in there. Schwalbe says that they’ve designed a tire bead that will install with standard tire levers - and will inflate with a floor pump. Some loose-fitting or poorly-designed beads (or rims) necessitate the use of an air compressor to achieve initial inflation.
Schwalbe’s QC process includes test fitting every single production tire on a rim and inflating it for 24 hours. This is part of the beauty of owning your own factory – which Schwalbe does – in Indonesia. As we’ve come to learn, it isn’t always common to find brands that are also manufacturers of their own product.
If these tires do everything they say, we may have a winner on our hands. Of course we still have the issue of limited wheel availability, but this is a step in the right direction. We look forward to receiving these tires to test, and hope to report back with positive news.
Editor's note: These new tires are actually scheduled as a Model Year 2013 product launch - but will hit distributors' and retailers' shelves some time in mid-to-late 2012.