Tires aren't necessarily the most glamorous of bike components, but when it comes to ability to affect your ride, there's not much more important than your one and only contact point with the ground: your tires. I can race my bike and deal with shoddy shifting or an uncomfortable position, but going through that final corner with the win on the line, it's all on my tires. The same holds true training - I can ride the crappiest everything, just as long as my tires hold up.
Specialized is everywhere with high quality products over most every part of the cycling market. In the realm of tires though, Specialized is not the first name to come to mind. The industry leaders of Continental, Michelin, Hutchinson, even Maxxis are the trusty go to names when the topic of rubber arises. Not one to be content with being anything but an industry leader, Specialized wants a part of the tire stakes, and they're not messing around.
The company out of Morgan Hill, California brought in former Continental research and development guy, Wolf Vorm Walde, to give the Specialized tire line a complete makeover and bring it up to the level of the world's best. The new focus has not been in vain - the work of Vorm Walde has resulted in a line of tires that will take care of any rider's needs - from the technical criteriums, down to dirt road training.
Tires were actually Specialized's first product back in 1976. Mike Sinyard wasn't happy with the tires available. He wanted what wasn't available at the time - a tire that was durable, quick, and supple. The result was the Turbo. The tire name has since faded into history, but for 2011, Specialized is resurrecting the Turbo and the ideal of creating the perfect tire, or in the case of Specialized, a range of tires that will satisfy any rider's needs.
I won’t delve too deeply into the specifics of Specialized’s tire line-up in this piece. Instead, I got the chance to pick the brain of Mr. Vorm Walde on a few questions that I often wonder about...
peloton: How much of a role does rider feedback play in the development process?
It depends on who you talk to on the team. For the time trial guy, he's like: "Oh yeah, for my time trials I would like to have a tubular tire with a latex tube." For this rider, he is looking for the lowest rolling resistance possible. Whereas the team mechanics, the stage race guys, and the guys who are out on the road for six hours in the Spring Classics, they say: "Oh no, I don't want to have a tire start out with 12 or 13 (180psi!) bars in the morning, and then it goes down, because the race lasts 6-7 hours. Then I'm left with only 6 bars (87psi)." Tubulars with latex tubes lose air really fast.
It might come out that we have an all around tire that utilizes butyl tubes for the pros that has some tread on it, and for the time trials, we have a slick tire with a latex tube.
peloton: Tread vs. no tread. Does it make a difference?
A lot is psychological. On the other hand, there is no lab test or any valid test that could maybe prove that it's necessary to have tread pattern on the tire. It's a little bit of an open question and more research has to be done on it. What seems to be clear is: if you have a clean road surface, a slick tire is the best. Then you have a defined surface and the tire can sink into the road surface and adhesion is perfect. What might change the picture though is if you have dust or water on the road surface, then a little tread can help to punctuate this stuff in between the road and the tire and pinches through this grime and touches the road surface. Tread pattern does not help much on road tires. There have been some tests, and research has started to show that some tread may be good, but it's not proven...yet.
peloton: What common misconceptions do you hear/see a lot concerning tires?
The most obvious thing is air pressure. If you would go around and just check air pressure on a century ride, and call everyone in and check, I bet that 70% would have the wrong air pressure. They usually have too low of an air pressure because they don't use floor pumps. It's amazing that not everyone uses a floor pump. Actually, I think you should buy a floor pump with your bike. It reduces the number of flats you have and increases the life of the tire.
For the most part, people have too low or too high of pressure in their tires. If you weigh 60kg and ride 23mm tires you don’t need to ride at 9 bars (130psi) - it makes for a super hard riding bike. This rider could go down to 7 bars (100psi) with no problems. 7 bars for 60kg person is perfect for most of the roads. Now a 90kg guy should ride maybe 8 or 8.5 bars (120psi) to have the same ride feeling. You have to play a little bit with that to find the right air pressure: if you don’t get it right, you risk punctures, sidewall cuts, wear out the tire faster, and suffer from poor ride quality. Air pressure is very important.
There are little details that help a lot. If you look at people that ride a lot and care for their bikes, they often have the tire label centered nicely over the valve. It looks better, sure, but it also serves a purpose: if you have a puncture, it’s very easy to figure out where it occurred, so you’re faster in repairing your flat, which means you’re faster getting back on your bike.
When you change a tube, you should always check the rim strip. Of course, changing your tires before the threads poke through is a good idea, same with rotating your tires. The little things aren’t very glamorous, but they help a lot.
I would also suggest for more riders to consider wider tires. 23mm is pretty much the rule right now. When I started with tires it was 20mm. Tires have gotten bigger, so that's good. Still most of us could stand to go one size larger and would be better off with 25mm tires. It would increase the weight per wheelset by maybe 40 grams, but you would be amazed by how much more cushion and comfort you get out of your bike. Usually, when you ride back roads you go more or less straight, of course there are some turns, but you're not riding switchbacks all the time, so you don't need that super fast feeling. It's easy to keep your bike straight on the wider tires, you get more mileage, and for most of us, it would be the better choice.
peloton: Can it also be a faster choice?
Wider tires ridden at the same air pressure have lower rolling resistance because of the contact patch. [baffled look from me] Let me explain. Let’s say we don't ride on the tire, we ride on an air cushion, we ride on air, and the tire just contains this air. So when we sit on the bike, we press in the tires, and you have a certain contact patch, a certain contact area, and as the tire is the one restricting the growth of this contact patch, the wider tire makes a wider but shorter contact patch, and the narrow tire makes a slimmer but longer contact patch. That means that the narrower tire has to deflect more to embrace the same size air cushion and this increased deflection means that more energy has to go into deforming the material, which means more energy is lost.
peloton: So you’re saying that I could ride a 25mm tire and be at an advantage?
peloton: 25’s often recommend a lower air pressure though, right?
Not necessarily. The max air pressure is usually the same. It's up to what you choose. On a 25mm tire, 8 bars feel harder than a 23, so you would normally go to 7.5 bars, but if you maintain the same air pressure, you would be faster on the wider tire.
That's part of the beauty of the wider tire. You can run it at lower air pressure, and it feels softer and gives you more comfort. When you race, you just pump it up a little more. If you go by the numbers in the lab, if you have a 19mm tubular tire and a 25mm tubular both ridden at 9 bars in a 40km time trial, you would win with the 25mm tires by 50 seconds. That’s all just from the reduction in rolling resistance.
peloton: Why doesn't everyone ride 25?
I don't know!
peloton: Someone like Nick Nuyens or Alberto Contador would be looking to ride the fastest tire, why don’t they ride 25mm tires on a normal basis?
What is still necessary is to look at the drag. But still, you could ride a 23mm tire in the front and a 25 in the rear. That's what I tell them to do.
peloton: What else do you suggest to the riders and teams?
It's common for pro teams to store their tubular tires for a year in the warehouse in order for them to dry out and harden. That makes sense in a way, because when the compound hardens, it's very cut resistant and you get less punctures, but on the other hand, some of the performance is lost. The harder compound has lost some of its elasticity, it's slower, they don't have the same grip as a fresh tire, maybe even the glue on the inner bends of the rim strip has hardened so much it comes off easier. So I would recommend to have a tire sit 2 months, and then use them - that still gives some time to dry and harden, but not so much that performance is lost.
I would like to see them changing tires for different conditions. Of course, that's a logistical nightmare, but for the top riders you can have tires with softer compounds for alpine stages when it's wet in order to have more safety for them, you can have time trial tires, and then we have all around tires for all the stage races and one day races. Maybe for the Spring Classics you have some extra support and reinforced tires. So that's also what we're working on with them.
peloton: Tubeless tires. It's a pretty hot topic. What are your thoughts on tubeless?
It's hyped a little bit. If we look at the constructions that we have right now: tube type clincher tires, tubular tires, and tubeless tires, you can't say one is superior to the two others, it's just not the case. There is a spot and an application for all three. A tube type tire will always be the low maintenance solution. For say 70% of riders, a tube type tire does the job perfectly in terms of performance and is super easy to maintain. Everyone was taught by his father to patch a tube, so everyone knows how to handle that.
Tubular tires will always have their place in high end racing where you have mechanical support, because they offer very nice run-flat ability. If you have a flat in the middle of the peloton, you can't just roll off immediately to the side of the road,you have to keep your line. When you make your money with your body and with your health, then you need this safety feature.
Tubeless eliminates parts: it eliminates a rim strip and the tube. Those two parts can be the source of failure. Old rim strip, ripped rim strip, too sharp of an edge poking around the rim strip, cracked rim strip, all this we see. The same with the tube - you can hurt it when you mount it. We spoke about latex tubes and butyl tubes and the differences there. You also have friction between the tube and the tire and it, which increases rolling resistances over the solution where you have no tube.
You can't pinch the tube, because there is no tube, when you run over railroad tracks or whatever. If you like to ride on rough gravel or back roads you have a lower risk of a flat. You can also fill it up with a solution, so you can build up a very puncture proof setup with tubeless tires. Maintenance though, in case you have a puncture, is horrible. You can be back on the road with a tube in 3-5 minutes by changing the tube. You probably won't get that with tubeless. So, again, it depends on your preferences. The clincher tires are still the fastest to repair.
peloton: How did you get into tires? How did you end up sitting here today?
I come from Hannover in Germany. Hannover is the headquarters for Continental tires. They are the biggest employer in the area along with Volkswagen. At the time, I was riding bikes, and it was clear you were riding Continental tires, because they are from your hometown. After school, I was looking to see what I could do, and I got into Continental, and once I realized what they do for bikes and bicycle tires and what it all means, I was hooked. It's a rather small industry, so you see what you do and don't have these big, huge infrastructure problems that you have in other industries.
I wanted to work with bikes. I liked the way the work actually happens. I have to say that the world of tires is fascinating. It doesn't seem so from the outside, but in tires you get to talk with everybody. You talk with the downhill guy, the cross-country star, the bike messenger, Mom and Dad wanting to go for a bike vacation along a river to do some wine tasting, and you talk with top professionals riding their bike in the Tour de France. So, you cover pretty much all of the spectrum, not just one segment. You have to talk with everyone, and they all need tires. The tires have to be different, the construction is different, the material can be different, and it's a very colorful world you actually deal with, but it's always about tires. The sourcing for tires is partly in Europe and Asia quite a bit as well, so you get around a lot with tires.
peloton: So what did you study in school?
I started with Economics, then moved to Product Development, and finally got an Engineering degree in the end.
peloton: How do you come to be THE guy that designs tires?
You can't really study it in university. There is something like that - there are some universities that are pretty good at elastomers and things like that, but that's more like Chemistry. That's also a big part of tires, but very, very specialized. It's about the raw materials. If you go into tires or bicycle tires, a lot of the training is done on the job. The process in product development is pretty much the same as for other products. You go through the same steps, you just apply it to tires, so that's the part you can study. All the rest is training on the job. You have to hang around the factory and talk with the engineers. It's usually small teams, everyone is pretty specialized with his position and his job. When you fill different positions you get different views, you come up with the answers, you dig further, and so it all eventually adds up.
peloton: Why did you leave Continental?
I started with Continental pretty much after school. It was a very good time. I liked working for them. I worked for them for 10 years. If you open a product, it’s highly likely your holding something I worked on. I worked on development, made some of the treads, put together the specs, and launched it on the market, so it's become a part of me after such a long time.
I especially enjoyed working with the team we had there. At the time pretty much, pretty much all of us came to Continental fresh and new. It was a department they were not putting much faith in anymore. A bunch of old guys retired at the time and a bunch of new guys came in, and I was one of them. We had this pressure from the upper management, because they said "Oh we don't need to do bicycle tires anymore, it doesn't fit with the time." So we said "No, it's a fun thing to do," and we drove the department up, and we were successful.
After we went through many development cycles, it was simply time to do something new, to broaden my horizon, to see how tires are done elsewhere, to see productions and facilities I could never get into, because I was with Continental. I also wanted to possibly work for a company that is also very strong on the sales side. At Continental, it's a lot about production and development and not so much about the sales and marketing focus.
In order to continue learning I needed to leave the company and do something else. It also involved another decision: do I want to stay within the bicycle industry or do I want to move over to automotive? With Continental you can easily change to one of the many automotive branches there, but these industries are so big. The way they work and the way the processes occur, you are always reduced to a limited function, and you don't see the whole thing. Whereas, in the bicycle industry you see it from the start until the end - you make a full cycle, and you have to take everything into account. I really like that part of the industry, and I thought "Well, I'll stay in the industry." Specialized approached me, and it all fit together. I said: "Yeah, that's something I can do.” And it’s something I wanted to do.
peloton: So you ended up at Specialized. You can say that Specialized tires, at that point, weren't at the level of Continental. Was it something where you saw potential to move forward?
Exactly. It was pretty much the same story with Continental when I went there. The odds were against us as well. With a good team we were able to turn it around and turn it into a success, which it is right now. Personally, I think it's more fun to build something up, than to join the biggest, most successful team. Then you can just go along and ride the work of others. But here, you can bring your whole self in. As we grow, we are getting new guys on the team, and we are highly motivated. We don't take success for granted. We have to work at it. We can't rest on our laurels. We have to show what we can do, we have to prove what we can do. To me that's very demanding, but at the same time it's also very rewarding, because when the successes come it's because we have worked hard for it. We have pushed for it, and we always knew it was possible. So, that's really the motivation to get it going.
peloton: Does Specialized let you do what you need to do in the quest to make the best tires?
We have long relationships with the suppliers and everything, but in the end, it's all about being successful and having the best product. You can't say I want the best product and then limit yourself by always retreating to the same source that doesn’t offer the quality you need.
You have to open up and say "Ok, if this is the goal for development, how do I get it?" If that includes changing the source because they have a better process of whatever, then I have to go there and make it happen.
I have to look into materials. Maybe this producer has a very nice process and everything is dialed in in terms of how they make tires, but maybe they are not strong on the development side, because they focus so much on the machines and how they build tires. Then you can go in and say "Hey, you guys do a great job of producing tires, and we can offer you the capacity to look into what raw material suppliers actually offer, and then the two of us can try to bring this new material into your production. Then we end up with a new product that no one else has."
That's really a kick, because from what I see so far, no one else does that. I mean, the producers themselves do it to some extent depending on their strategy, but other brands that are out there that don't have their own production, no one does that. They pretty much design tires and see where they can get that. We want to take a different approach and bring something new into it and come up with something new that no one has.