Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dirt Trails on Skinny Tires?

Redline & Moser
Earlier today I went on a "welcome back to roadcycling" ride with Fixie Pixie and the route she planned out had us going though some short stretches of dirt trails. FP was riding a Redline cyclocross bike with 30mm tires and I was riding the Moser with 23mm tires.

Pamela, Charles River Trail
Now in the past I've been on rides with others where I've refused to go off road on narrow-tired bikes, thinking that surely this was unsafe - at least for someone like me. But for better or worse I've come to trust the Pixie and to agree to whatever she suggests. And so we went.

Moser Yearns for Spring
Riding off road on the Moser was surprisingly nice. In some ways it even felt easier than the bikes I have with fat tires, and I am trying to understand why. Possibly it is because the Moser is fast and doesn't get bogged down as much. But also, one thing I've noticed about bikes with racy geometry is that they "like to stay upright" more so than relaxed bikes. Maybe this is specific to me and my style of riding, I don't really know yet. But whatever the bike lacks in tire size it seems to make up for by recovering easily in instances where other bikes I own seem more prone to wiping out.

Stone Tower, Red Bikes
Maybe it is not as much about the tire size as it is about the bike itself - with certain geometries feeling more stable both on and off road? I do not understand the topic well enough to speculate. But it's interesting to discover that I do not need my 42mm tires to have fun and feel safe on dirt trails. Being able to go anywhere on one fast bike is simple and liberating.

50 comments:

  1. I weigh a lot, so i prefer fat tires in most conditions. Narrowest I'm running these days is probably a 38mm delta cruiser. But, I've seen ppl ride very comfortably offroad with relatively skinny and slick tires. Maybe not 23s, but certainly 28s. A lot has to do with the trails, and a lot has to do with the rider.

    Speaking of which, for all y'all mixte enthusiasts, here's an example of a guy having a lot of fun on the *wrong* bike for the job: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=W-rAv43UFnA

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  2. Good stuff, Velouria! The vast majority of my "off-roading" on road bikes has been on 23mm tyres, or no wider than 28mm. That's all one needs for lots and lots of paths and trails. A road bike with 42mm tires is overkill most of the time for what I like to call "Rough Riding" or some people call "underbiking." Mainly it comes down to confidence and just using momentum to get through anything that gets in your way.

    I'm not sure how much the geometry matters between one road bike and other for most trail riding. I think you're just getting more confident and letting the barriers fall away which seemed to prevent this kind of thing for you before.

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    1. Your "any bike, anywhere" mantra harkened me back to a bike shop co-worker in the 90's who insisted on following us down single-track trails on his brakeless Concorde low-profile track bike. It also invoked another who used to ride near the front of one of Toronto's weekly fast group rides on a crappy vintage Raleigh fixed-gear he'd assembled.

      Fit people with good balance, strength and a bit of bike know-how can ride whatever they want everywhere.

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    2. You mean your friend who took the brakeless bike on the single track is still around to tell the tale?! Color me impressed.

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  3. Where is the bridge in the picture above?

    ...sounds like you ought to come to D2R2.

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    1. I planned to do D2R2 last year but at the last minute it did not work out.

      The bridge is on the Charles River trail in (I think) Weston. Here is a vintage Lovely Bicycle post about that section of the trail.

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    2. It's connects Newton and Waltham, between of Bridge St. and Farwell St.

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  4. What is happening to you? I suppose you'll be throwing out your mudguards next!

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    1. The Moser does not have fenders/mudguards to begin with. Though I've just received a set from Crud to review, so it might be getting some.

      Bad things are happening to me, I know. I seem to like racing bikes.

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    2. Dirt on skinny tires is fun, deep gravel and roots, not so much. I put the big tires on the race bike. Ye olde racing bike will take 30mm GB slicks, much better for bouncing over roots and floating gravel.

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  5. I guess it really depends on the nature of the trail in question-- the term is pretty broadly used, and some trails demand fat tires. Hard-packed gravel and grassy fields are more forgiving for narrow tires, but wash-boarded, rutted, loose gravel roads or trails with large rocks or tree roots jutting out, pretty much dictate fatter tires at lower pressure.

    Also, as another poster pointed out, rider weight is a factor, too. The lighter the rider, the less pressure is needed in the tires to maintain a desired sidewall deflection. A heaver rider on narrow tires will require really high pressure.

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  6. The old Motorola training camp in Delafield Wisconsin used to encourage the amateur campers to bring the MTBs along. When the campers were on the most technical section of trail in Kettle Moraine the team riders would come flying past on standard road bikes. And they flew. The team didn't have to train or practice for this, they were bike riders and they could ride.

    By virtue of being relatively small and light you're getting more flotation from 23s than most of us would. And you're riding the Moser w/o a lot of bags and encumbrances. Being close to a pure clean bike lets you work with everything the bike has got.

    I use wide road tires all the time for the comfort. The best wide (28-29mm) tires are not noticeably slower than 23s until you are going really fast.

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    1. What are the best 28-29mm tires in your experience?

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    2. I'm a huge fan of the Challenge 700C x 29 mm tires "Paris-Roubaix" model. (Nominal width: 27 mm) for road and everything else!

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  7. I think I turn the question around and ask why ride anywhere with tires skinnier then, say 32mm. It seems the reasons for larger tires are many and I'm not sure what if any the benefits of skinny tires are until you get to the far reaches of performance. I love that I don't really think about or distinguish between pavement, dirt, and path on my bike.

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    1. Speaking solely for myself, I prefer the specific 23mm tires I am using (Michelin Krylion) to any 28-38mm tires I've tried so far. To get my other favourite tires - Grand Bois Hetres - I would have to go all the way to 40mm (or 42mm depending on whom you ask).

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    2. Have you tried narrower tires by Grand Bois? You might like them if you like the Hetres. 23mm vs 42mm seems pretty extreme.

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    3. I have not tried the narrower Grand Bois yet. They are expensive and the reports of flats scare me off. I have not had any flats on the 42mm Hetres.

      The rational in the 23mm & 42mm preference is that I do not feel the sizes in between give me a sufficient cush advantage but I do feel that they slow me down. Maybe I just need to find a faster tire, but I do not have the budget to try every tire there is. The 650Bx42mm Hetres on the other hand do not make me especially slower and provide a huge amount of cush, so they seem worth it.

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    4. I've had Grand Bois Cerf tires on my Kellogg / Spectrum since last February without a flat. Riding mixed Chicago streets and paved and limestone trails in and around the city.

      The Cerfs are as comfortable a tire as I've ever had. In fact, when I had the clincher wheel set made, I also had a tubular set made for trail riding. The Cerfs are so comfortable I've never got around to installing the tubular wheel set.

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    5. Can't speak for those in the in between 28-38 range, but my dad has the 23mm Grand Bois "Col de la Madeline" and adores them. He says that he believes them to be a little fatter than your typical 23mm tire, and with a very cushy ride quality.

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  8. Of course I agree with somervillain and scottg; the trails we rode were not that technical. But now I wonder how 28-32mm would do on the technical ones.

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  9. I rode my Jeunet with its 28mm Panaracer Pasela TG's on a 24-mile rail trail that was mostly hard-packed gravel. It did just fine when the surface remained packed, but it definitely squirmed and fishtailed on the looser, sandier sections.

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  10. I once rode White Clay in DE with my usual trail-riding buddy and an old friend who races elite cyclocross. The other guy and I were on "real" mountain bikes with >2" tires. The cross hotshot was on a singlespeed scandium crossbike. Singlespeed. 42x16. Regular 32mm knobby up front, and a @28mm slick in the rear. He spanked us all day, on every climb. At first, he was apologetic: "I have to climb fast if i'm going to climb at all with this ratio". By the end of the day, he was heckling us about "aren't you glad you've got those fat knobbies? They really seem to be helping you!"
    So, yes, you could do well with 28-32mm pavement tires. Especially if you're an awesome cross racer. But, the truth is, the fat knobbies were helping us. If my fat/non-racer self was to swap bikes with him, I'd have fallen victim to both a pinch-flat and a coronary within minutes. He would probably have gone even faster on my mtb, though.

    There's a reason why ppl who race on trails favor knobbies. There's also a reason why ppl who race on truly "technical" trails tend to do so on @2" tires.
    -rob

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  11. The best 28mm clinchers IMO are the Challenge Parigi-Roubaix. Somervillain has them on his Mercian, you might see if he would loan you a front wheel.

    Next up is Conti GP4000. Good tire, flat-resistant, fast, just not as smooth and supple as the Challenge.

    Michelin has tires marked as 25mm that measure 27-28mm. Seems to vary a lot batch to batch. Too many labels for me to track. Michelin riders swear by them, I've not personally used them.

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    1. The Challenge P-Rs are labeled as 27mm, but measure 29.5mm on my Super Champion rims. The trick to a supple ride on the P-Rs is not to over-inflate them. They are wonderfully supple at 50-60psi, but feel as harsh as 23mm tires if pumped up to 90psi.

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  12. There are certainly trails that benefit from big knobby tires, particularly very muddy, sandy or otherwise soft ground, but there is a surprising amount of terrain you can comfortably ride on 700x23-25c tires if you're confident in your bike handling skills.
    I don't know the greater Boston area that well, but I can also say from experience that there are a lot of rail-trails and dirt multi-use paths that are SMOOTHER than many New Jersey roads.
    I've actually had this on my mind lately, as I've been gifted with a fairly nice road bike frame in my size, and, as I try to scrounge parts to build it up, find myself wondering what the biggest tires I can fit on it will be so I can ride on the dirt and gravel towpath I use for some of my routes.

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  13. Challenge tires are terrific!
    The Grifo XS 700x32 splits the difference between a slick and cx tire - supple, grippy and surprisingly low rolling resistance. Great all-rounder tire.
    I also like the Challenge PR for a true slick tire.

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  14. The Fixie Pixie seems like she might be trouble. People like that will get you tangled up in all sorts of things if you let em.

    I'm waiting for the post where you tell us about how you tried tallbike jousting at the invitation of a friend, and how after some sleepless nights of apprehension and anxiety you kicked ass and want to share your thoughts and impressions on possible advances in tall-bike geometry.

    As far as skinny tires on dirt are concerned, lots of the old classic road races were run on roads just about like those trails, not to mention that the majority of everyday cycling was on surfaces like that for much of the history of the bicycle. Maybe you're simply returning to our historical roots. I probably shouldn't ride my skinny bikes on dirt and gravel as much as I do but most of my problems doing it are about flats and such and not safety.

    It sounds like you had fun, so, like, carry on...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Going back into history sewups as narrow as 22-23mm were not common until the 70s. Old Clement Criteriums were 25. #1 reds were 24. It was not unusual to race on wider tires like Paris-Roubaix @ 26-27 or Campionatos at 29. I can remember Jim Ochowicz winning the Old Town Criterium on Elvezias, which were maybe 30mm. Perfectly reasonable for a badly paved off camber downhill 180 degree turn in the rain. The narrower tires came with uniformly well paved roads.

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  15. Dirt Trails on Skinny Tires?

    Abstracting from the crucial pressure issue, I would go with Skinny Tires on Dirt Trails?

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  16. I would not want to ride through gravel or very soft dirt on tires less sure-footed than my 28c Contis. Hard dirt is great with 23c.

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  17. The bike and tires (Gran Bois 700X30) I used today were definitely overkill for the little sections of non-pavement that we did. I do those on my Seven all the time with the Gran Bois 700X26 - and on my fixie with similar size tires.

    Where those plush tires are really appreciated are on some of the potlumped roads we were on - roads with potholes that have been overfilled, then hit by the snow plow, grown bigger, then re-overfilled, etc!

    It thanks to those road surfaces that I don't use tires skinnier than 26 on my *road* bikes. And since I have the plush tires, I never hesitate to take a dirt road or path on my road bikes. I'll don't take them on technical, rooted, rocky, log covered mountain bike tracks, but dirt roads are often in better shape than many of our paved roads.

    As others mentioned, you don't have to jump from 700CX23mm all the way to 650BX42. I really like the various 700C Gran Bois tires. I have the 26 (rear) and 28 (front) on my Seven with the fenders and the 30s on the bike I rode today. I don't want to jinx myself, but I have not had issues with flats on these tires. I initially hesitated to try them due to that worry, but have found them reliable, fast and comfortable. I wish they were less expensive, but once $25 Avocet tires disappeared, it was hard to find anything good at that price point. Most of the tires I use these days come in at a similar price to the Gran Bois tires. You are more than welcome to ride any of my bikes to try them out. We are close enough in size that it should work.

    And for those who asked about the bridge, it is on a section of the Charles River path just behind Russo's in Watertown. This section of path is hardpack dirt and boardwalk. The Norumbega Tower featured in the other photos.

    Looking forward to getting back out with Velouria again!

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    1. Okay so truthfully it was like an 8x10' patch of dirt we crossed, but hey it was exciting! : )

      I need to try the 26mm or 28mm Grand Bois for sure.

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  18. Is that Norumbega Tower in the last picture? I use that as a waypoint on many of my rides. One of my first 'longish' rides was my "Viking History of Massachussetts" rides... hmm I think i'll have to plan that ride again soon for this year to gear up for my "at least one century" goal for the year.

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    1. Yes it is! I'd never seen it before and was so glad to encounter it.

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    2. I just made the same discovery. I rode a mossy moist trail and hard packed gravel on my road bike with 700x25 slick tires. It went amazingly well.

      Previously, I found that my touring bike with wider but harder tires had problems with heavy gravel and washboard roads. Washboard roads just beat me up on that bike. For harsh conditions, mountain bikes with their suspension and knobby wide tires have the advantage.

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    3. The history is really whacky!

      My trip report - with the an overview of the history:
      http://verdammelt.posterous.com/viking-boston-bike-ride-the-trip-to-norumbega

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  19. Because of my weight I generally avoid tires less than 28mm. I just have to pump them up to such a high pressure that I get to harsh a ride. Having said that, as long as the surface is firm and reasonably smooth tire width isn't that important for getting around.

    And if somebody really wants wide tires, get a Moonlander. 4.7" tires.

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  20. I've had the Grand Bois Cypres 700-30/32 and they rode spectacularly while they lasted. About 1500 miles rear, 2500 front. I am 180 and usually carry at least some bag weight. Replaced them with Jack Browns with the reputation for super durability - absolutely the same casing on the Rivendell and the Grand Bois. Just a little more width on the JB. JBs have lasted longer, probably sample variation.

    The JBs became spares when I had the luck to find Grifo XS at $30/pair. As wonderful as the JB or GB tires are, just no comparison. No matter how nice they are, the Japanese nylon tires ride like Japanese nylon. The Challenge are Thai polyester but feel like Italian cotton.

    My sweetie is on Challenge PR. Again because we found the deal at $50/pair. I've borrowed those wheels a few times for riding with the young and fast. The only relevant comparison would be to sewups.

    Conti GPs routinely do 4000 miles and more under fast and heavy riders with no flats. I've a spare in the drawer that has 3000 and still looks almost fresh. With that sort of strength they just can't ride as sweet as the tires above. Still the 700/28 Conti will be smoother than any 700/23.

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  21. I am one of those very low body fat people but still run really fat (or at least uncommonly wide) tires exclusively, generally at 70psi.

    And I can make them go really, really fast. ;?)

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    1. The other day someone asked me if the cruiser bike was a lot slower than the hybrid. I said no... they're just as fast.

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  22. I've taken my old road bike with the same 700x23 michelin krylon's off road on dirt/gravel and mud and It's a blast... once you get the feel of the slipping and sliding the slick tires have on such surfaces it isn't too bad. The clearance on the older calipers helps when you have mud or leaves sloshing around as they wont get clogged as easily. I very much liked those tires, I've been riding on ultra gatorskins for the last couple of months, but I do miss the michelin's, took them everywhere.

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  23. If you want 28 mm tires I think Conti 4-season are great. More or less a racetire, semi-slick and 250 g, but more puncture protection than pure race tires. GP4000s is also good but only goes to 25 mm. The main problem with slicks on gravel is going uphill.
    Going on a mixed pavement/gravel ride I prefer to have good tires for the pavement because the pavement has much more of a tendency to mess you up if you fall.

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  24. I have used 28mm and 32 mm on "technical" trails with great success, although I did carry my bike over severely washboarded and deep muddy areas. And I avoid riding over big roots and rocks!

    I agree with an earlier poster - the real question is why go narrower. Unless you are racing the speed/weight differential is minimal. I know a lot of people prefer the "feel" you get with good 23 mm tires - a sort of liveliness you can get with their "springy" side walls. Of course, if you REALLY like that feel you've got to move away from clinchers and go to sewups!

    But in my case, over many, many years as a transportational and recreational cyclist, I have moved exclusively to >28 mm tires, mostly 32mm. I've had too many instances of my tires getting caught in narrow cracks between concrete slab sections on many of the roads around here as well as other problems from skinny tires such as being more prone to blow-outs or damage due to potholes, etc. I just feel a lot more safe and secure with the wider tires.

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  25. AWESOME!!! I have more personal experience with fat tired mountain bikes than I do on skinnier tire'd bikes,so MHO would be it's a comfort and what you're used to thing...though my main bike I go-to is an Origin 8 cyclocrosser (soon to be replaced with a Surly Cross Check frame/fork) and I ride b-and gravel roads on it (intentionelly) at every opportunity,and have never wished for the mountain bike (except when my spinals are ailing me and I wish for my suspended fork on the mtn bike ;) )...so I could very well be wrong. I loved hearng you rhit dirt though,that's just awesome,my friend!

    The Disabled Cyclist

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  26. Check this out ..http://www.rsf.org.uk/ It's the site for The Rough Stuff Fellowship. Yes, I know it sounds like a branch of the John Wayne Fan Club (of which I'm a proud card-carrying member !) but actually it was my first introduction to off-road riding. Back then, to prepare for a long off-road ride , all you did was to remove your socks, because your feet were going to get wet! And don't forget the Art of Cyclocross ! That uses dropped bars and only slightly tweaked frame angles from a road race bike. It's huge here in France have a quick look at http://www.cyclocrossman.com/ Personally I never took it up, but some of my pals did and I eventually used one of their cyclocross bikes as an excellent fast commuter bike.

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  27. If I could only have one bike it would be a cyclocross bike. They're fast, comfortable, reliable, forgiving on urban pavement-or lack thereof, their light-weight design makes them great for fun bunny-hops, use them in mountain bike race to triathlons, just plain fun. Ride anywhere, anytime.

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  28. Formerly Local YokelFebruary 28, 2012 at 3:03 PM

    Aha! Horsford's Folly!
    And the bridge o'er the mighty Chuck.
    Waltham and Newton rock.

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  29. I rode Grand Bois 700 x 30 on D2R2 last year and they were great. 75 PSI really helps, too. Looking forward to using them on Sandy's Green Mountain Double this summer!

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  30. Interesting post. Thanks! I've just ridden the C&O Canal towpath on my 700x23 road bike tires. Tire blew, but I had already known it was worn.

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