Choosing the right tyres for cyclocross: A beginner’s guide
For those new to the sport of cyclocross, the subject of tyres, treads and pressures is pretty mysterious. For those who have been riding for some time it becomes a subject of obsessive proportions! Choosing the right tyres for cyclocross is probably the most crucial part of getting yourself ready for racing. With the cyclocross season fully underway and some big races on sand having recently taken place at Koksijde and Zonhoven I thought it would be a good time to look at the things to consider when choosing the right tyres for cyclocross. Here I hope to provide a little advice for anyone feeling overwhelmed by the number of options out there.
There are essentially four choices you have to make:
- What type of tyre you are going to use
- The tyre tread pattern
- Tyre width
- What pressure to run the tyres at.
I will cover each of these in turn and hopefully demystify some of the options available.
Type of tyre
Tyre set-ups fall into three categories: tubulars, clinchers with tubes and tubeless clinchers.
All professional riders race on tubulars for the simple reason that they give the best levels of grip and durability in a race. The tyres can be run at very low pressure, for example Kevin Pauwels when he won the Milton Keynes World Cup race in 2014 had as little as 1.2 bar or 18 psi of pressure in his tyres. This means that the wheel rim is practically making contact with the ground, but the soft tyre will grip into mud extremely well. However, the downside of tubulars is that they need to be glued to fix them to the rims which can be pretty fiddly if you have not done this before. The four big tubular manufacturers in cyclocross are Dugast, Challenge, Tufo and FMB and most riders have their own favourites.
Clinchers with tubes
For those on a budget clincher tyres are available in a wide variety of treads and do not require the same careful gluing that tubulars do. However, they do require greater air pressure to ensure the bead of the tyre grips onto the rim lip so they have to be run that bit harder and consequently there is some loss of grip in deep mud. The other disadvantages are that a clincher is more prone to pinch flats (where the inner tube will pinch against the rim edge and split if hard objects are ridden over) and the rim is not as strong as a tubular rim. I believe the main reason many riders stick to clinchers is the low cost and convenient servicing.
I personally don’t know of many riders that use tubeless clinchers but there are a number of products available. The advantage of running tubeless is that the tyre has a good chance of self-sealing following a puncture. I guess though that the convenience of regular clinchers is lost due to the careful setting up that is required and one still has the disadvantage of potential damage to the rim caused by hard objects. Overall a tubeless set-up is likely to be somewhere between regular clinchers and tubulars in terms of performance and convenience. However Tufo do manufacture tubeless tubulars. These provide all the benefits of a tubular as well as the self-sealing properties of a tubeless clincher.
When choosing the right tyre for cyclocross you also need to consider the tyre tread. There are three main treads: file, chevron (also known as intermediate) and mud.
Generally speaking file treads are used in sand and dry hard-pack conditions. They could also be used on snow or ice depending upon the conditions.
File treads have an open diamond tread pattern as seen in this picture. This helps them to have a good grip on sand and grass.
An intermediate tread will cover most surfaces with a good degree of success.
Intermediate tyres have a chevron pattern which makes them highly versatile for a range of conditions. If you are only going to buy one tyre, this is what you should choose.
The true mud tyres are used in the races for which cyclocross is famous: ankle deep mud and proper gloop. It is interesting though that at the aforementioned Milton Keynes round of the World Cup, Kevin Pauwels actually used both intermediate (Challenge Grifo) and Mud (Challenge Limus) interchangeably during the same race. Maybe if you run the tyres as soft as he did there is not too much of a performance difference.
As you can see from the example above, mud tyres have a tread where the blocks are more widely spaced to help them shed the mud they pick up.
When choosing the right tyres for cyclocross you are quite limited in the options available in terms of width. This is because the UCI regulations stipulate that you cannot have tyres with a width greater than 33mm. I would suggest that you wouldn’t want to ride anything narrower than 30 mm. The wider the tyre, the more grip it gives you so think about the type of conditions you will be riding in.
When deciding what pressure to run your tyres at you want to take into account your weight, your riding style and the ground conditions. Riders tend to find that as they get more skilled they can ride at a lower pressure. Having a softer tyre improves traction so is sensible if the ground conditions are slippery.
I would suggest that you stick within the range of 20 to 35 psi with the higher pressure being used for harder ground.
If you are going to be riding tubular tyres at a low pressure, be sure to glue the tyre on carefully as you don’t want to risk it rolling off. Glueing tubulars is a whole art in itself and outside of the scope of this post, but essentially good adhesions comes from patient preparation of the rim and attention to detail when fitting the tyre.
Hopefully this provides a brief overview of the things to consider when choosing the right tyres for cyclocross. Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or thoughts on this subject.