Notes from the Small, Yet Grand, All-Ireland 650B Tyre-Test Party
"Hey, how do you like those tyres?"
It is a question we inevitably ask our fellow riders, when we spot them sporting some that are rumored to be good.
And how might they reply? Well, some might reply with unqualified enthusiasm (“Oh, they’re great! They’re the best!”). Others by launching into detailed descriptions of improbably nuanced sensations. Others still will quote the sciencey rhetoric from the latest articles on the subject - as if the technical data trumps personal experience.
In the realm of actual tyre reviews, whether professional or amateur, things are not all that different. When it comes to 650B tyres in particular - a size that only grew popular over the past 5 years (if “popular” is even the right word), few riders have the breadth of experience necessary to provide context for a proper review as such. So we see a lot of weird subjective stuff. And a lot of rhetoric. And yes, a lot of unqualified enthusiasm (cue my “review” of the Grand Bois Hetres, circa 2010!)
Although, on closer inspection, I am pleasantly surprised to find that my ramblings were not altogether unqualified!
The ride quality of the Grand Bois Hetre tires is truly superb. Better than Schwalbe Delta Cruisers. Better than the Fat Frank and Big Apple tires. Faster too. It is worth [switching to 650B] just to get these tires.Six years later, I still love my Hetres, and I still agree with the above. Except to add that there are now even more options worth switching to 650B for, if you are looking for a tyre that is wide, fast and comfortable.
But just how many options, I had not really thought about, until seven(!) pairs of them landed on my doorstep - courtesy of Merry Sales, the international distributor of Panaracer (and Soma) products. "Try these and see what you think?" said they.
Naturally, I called for reinforcements. And while I feared that finding 650B riders in Ireland would be no easy task, I was immediately contacted by several such persons from around the island. My idea then was to organise a 650B Meet-up, so that we could get a look at each other's bikes, invite others interested to join, and have a tyre-testing party in the process. Unfortunately, as the tentatively-set date approached, most of the fellows had to cancel due to family commitments and such. So in the end we had a cozy, and no less grand Party of Three.
The Guest of Honour, as it were, was a fine Dublin-based fellow named Damian, who'd arrived with his Rivendell Saluki (which he uses for casual road rides, touring, and brevets). I am always curious how riders who live in, say, Ireland, end up with a bicycle like this, so I'm afraid I quizzed and prodded him on this subject considerably - which might result in a separate rider/bike feature at a later date.
But in any case, the Saluki was Rivendell's predecessor to what is now the Homer Hillsen model. And Damian ordered his in 2007, which - it is rather shocking to realise - is nearly a decade ago! A vintage Rivendell? Well, maybe not quite yet. But give it another 5 years.
I had also invited Bryan - a.k.a. Elton John, a.k.a. owner of many seemingly plain yet magically-riding old bicycles - whom you've met here before. While Bryan lacks a 650B bike of his own (for now!), he was interested in riding some. And so I handed him my DIY Alice.
In the meanwhile, I myself hopped on the Rivendell Clementine that I have on loan for review. A convenient option, in its easy on-off for constant photo taking.
Getting back to the topic of 650B tyres. Damian and I are actually a tough couple of customers, in that we've each tried quite a few already and are both extremely pleased with what we currently ride: Me, the aforementioned Grand Bois Hetres and he the Compass Babyshoe Pass (which he claims are "even better").
To prime ourselves for the new tyre experience, we first briefly rode our own, then each others' bikes, with their old tyres. Then we proceeded to the difficult task of selecting one pair of new ones each (to do more than that in a day would be overload, we soon realised).
The sample tyres we had to choose from were all in the 38-42mm range, but rather varied in other qualities. When handling the tyres we could not help but notice the difference in their weight, as well as in the stiffness/softness of their casings. Was this what accounted for the "supple" ride quality we loved about some of the ones we'd tried already?
Some of the tyres were of the super-smooth and speedy variety, others were touring/commuting-oriented, others still for predominantly off road use. We decided to try one of each.
The most drastic change was braved by Damian, whose smooth Babyshoe was swapped for the knobby 42mm Soma Cazaderos.
For Alice (formerly shod with Hetres), Bryan chose the 38mm Soma B-lines with terracotta tread.
And for the Clementine, which had come to me with nice, all-arounder Panaracer Paselas, I chose the smooth-treaded Pacenti Pari-Moto tyres of the same brand and same 42mm width.
And with that, we set off along the country roads, toward the nearest forest.
Now, in case you're one of those folks who thinks that Ireland is all dirt roads and thatched cottages (can't imagine who filled your head with that nonsense!), I'm afraid I must dissuade you of such romantic notions. In fact it is pretty difficult to find unpaved stretches of road of any significant distance these days on the Emerald Isle, so super-modern and advanced it's become. But having lived here for nearly 3 years now, I have my arsenal of secret places (can't tell you what they are, for fear they too will get paved!) and it was toward one of these that we headed.
"What do you think of the tyres so far?" I shouted en route.
"Ach, sure they're grand!" came the collective reply.
"Less or more grand than the ones on the bike before? Can you quantify the grandness on a Likert scale?"
And then we broke into a chorus of laughter, for surely worse tyre testers than us these country roads had never seen.
By the time we arrived in the forest, a great sense of relief came over us, as the day was an unusually hot one, and, while Damian was made of more resilient stuff, both Bryan and I had turned an alarming shade of beetroot red. The forest, however, with its lush tree canopy and mixed herbal scents, soon cured that, and we were ready for The Mini-Loop.
The Mini-Loop is a fantastic place to mess around on bikes. Alternating between rough dirt and loose gravel, it is short but sweet - incorporating both a steep flick of a climb and a screaming descent.
Taking turns, we each "raced" (okay, only Damian raced, while "tackled carefully" probably describes Bryan's and mine style more accurately) the loop on all three bikes... with the exception that I only rode the (too-large for me) Saluki a tiny bit, managing to immediately come close to crashing it when I attempted to stop and hit my undercarriage on the top tube!
Happily, the boys had no such issues and were able to ride all 3 bikes without incident.
It was particularly cool to see them both on the Rivendell Clementine and on my Alice. I can so rarely get other people to try the bikes I have in my possession. (Something about my bikes being "weird"? What!)
In the throes of our forestine frolics, we eventually remembered that we were meant to be forming impressions of tyres. Luckily, by this stage we had actually managed to form some thoughts.
The dominant one we all agreed on, was that the Soma Cazaderos did not feel in keeping with how they looked. That is to say, while they looked like knobbies, they rode almost like slicks - including on pavement. Upon closer examination (we deliberately had not read anything about the tyres in advance), this made sense as these tyres have a "slick" ridge that runs along the centre, which is what makes contact with the ground most of the time. On first impression, they seem like a good option for a mainly off-road tyre which you don't want to feel slow and draggy on the in-betwen pavement stretches either.
The Soma B-Lines felt "fine," and "on the faster end of commutery," but without anything more punchy or specific that immediately stood out about them. To me, they feel (I still have them on Alice, so it's been a few rides now) remarkably similar to the Panaracer Paselas that were originally fitted on the demo-Clementine - which would make sense, as the tread on the two is nearly identical. (So, if you like Panaracer Paselas, but have always dreamt of them in terracotta, there's at least one reason to go for the Soma B-Lines.) But in any case, while I like these tyres just fine and would have been perfectly pleased with them had I known no other tyres, I have to say that I prefer the smoother, faster-rolling feel of tyres such as my Hetres.
Which is not to say my praises are limited to the Hetres exclusively. The Pacenti Pari-Motos I had tried on the Clementine, I fell in love with immediately. Considering that the bike already felt fast, nimble, comfortable, and great on gravel with the Pasela tyres, I was not sure I would experience a discernible difference with the Pari-Motos, but I did. It is as if all of these positive characteristics became exaggerated. The difference was especially prominent not on the road, as I might have expected, but on the gravel bits of the forest loop. Both climbing the steep bit and descending the winding loose section, the Pari-Motos felt faster and more cnfidence-inspiring than the Paselas. And again, that is not to say that the Paselas did not feel nice (there are those tyres that just feel "dead" and sluggish, but that was not the case with them), but that the Pari-Motos felt nicer still. I definitely prefer them and will leave them on the demo-Clementine.
Aside from these 3 pairs of tyres we tried, I had also sent Damian home with a pair of 42mm Soma Grand Randonneurs, which I hoped would be similar enough to the Hetre/Babyshoe Pass ilk, for him to notice subtle differences. He was kind enough to try these tyres for two weeks, on commutes as well as on the Wicklow 200 brevet. He reports as follows:
These tyres are shaped very like the Compass Babyshoe Pass. They are also smooth riding, but perhaps not quite as comfy as the Babyshoe Pass. They sound a bit different, they make a fast swishing noise like 25mm race tyres. I can tell you that they do descend fast like the Babyshoe - I overtook a series of racey types on the descent from the Wicklow Gap towards Hollywood, including a guy on a very zippy carbon thing with very deep rims. At Hollywood we chatted and he said my bike was incredibly fast on the descent. It is, but it's mainly the tyres I think. Still, they're not as comfortable as the Babyshoes but I'm going to let a bit of air out of them and that might change. I got a puncture FWIW but I don't think any conclusions can be drawn from that - loads of other people did too.A puncture? Bin them immediately! No. But it does go to show that really we need quite a lot of time with a tyre to see whether a thing like that, for instance, is an anomaly or a recurring characteristic. Although, in fairness, this too can be person/terrain/context dependent. For instance, I get flats on my Hetres very rarely (on two occasions over 5 years of ownership, to be precise, and one of those was a split tube), whereas others describe the very same tyres as "flat-prone." I am hoping to have the same luck with the Pari-Motos, despite their similar reputation.
It is amazing to consider just how many options for 650B tyres exist today. And, interestingly, most of them are made by Panaracer.
The originals had of course been made by French companies such as Michelin and Clement, but those have not been produced for some time. When the 650B size was first "rediscovered" (thanks largely to Ebisu, Rivendell and Toei) the Panaracer Col De La Vie and the Mitsubosi Trimline were the main options available on the market. Then came the various Rivendell 650B tyres in increasing widths, and finally the high-performing stuff from Grand Bois and Compass.
Not all modern 650B tyres are Japanese. At some point, the French Confriedes650B group colaborated with Hutchinson to produce some. The Finnish Nokian have been making studded tyres in 650B (you can read about my experience with those here). There is now also a generation of new, mostly mountain bike, 650B tires being produced by WTB (China), Surly (Taiwan), Schwalbe and Continental (Germany) and most recently Clement (not sure where those are made). Still, the usual suspects for the randonneurs and all-terrain roadbike lovers - including Grand Bois, Compass, Rivendell, and Soma - are all produced in the same Panaracer facilities - which is fascinating, considering the dramatic differences in character between some of them.
So, how does one go about reviewing tyres?
Dear readers, I could not tell you. I have considered the topic seriously. I will even admit to making some questionnaires, before scrapping them with a chuckle just before my visitors arrived. For it is one of those things, I fear, where the more systematic and diligent we try to be, the more the essence of the thing gets away from us.
And so perhaps it is the subjective accounts, the seemingly insignificant nuances, the pointless anecdotes - when gathered up from a sufficient number of riders, and over a sufficient length of time, that tell the tale better than even the most controlled and sciencey review.
All I can tell you is: Choose what seems suitable. Stick with what proves enjoyable. Ride, ride, ride. And rejoice at the wealth of 650B options available, should you ever change your mind or want to experiment further.
With thanks to Damian, Bryan, and Merry Sales. Full picture-set can be viewed here and have a Happy Week-End!