Give ’em an inch… BQ & Tire Width

Note: After my analysis of the BQ comments on Gerard Vroomen’s interview by Jeff Jones, I eventually tie this all back to tandems in a follow-up blog entry that I’m still drafting.

On page 63 of the current edition of Bicycle Quarterly, they included extracts of a Jeff Jones / BikeRadar.com interview with Cervelo’s Gerard Vroomen published in a Feb 28th Cycling News article that focused on tire width.  I’m not sure why BQ didn’t just source the original article from Feb 26th on BikeRadar, but no matter… the information was the same.

For those who aren’t familiar with BQ’s founder and editor’s preferences when it comes to bicycle design, he is a highly accomplished randonneur with a strong bias towards the classic French bicycle designs of the pre- and post-war years, featuring 650c wheels with lower-pressure 31mm or wider tires.  From his perspective, and given that many of the more challenging US and European brevets will often take riders off smoothly paved roads, this all makes perfect sense.  Moreover, as pointed out by Vroomen in the BikeRadar article, it is true that wider tires at lower pressures will often times provide a more comfortable and controllable ride with lower rolling resistance vs. more narrow tires at higher pressures on certain road surfaces.  This has been fairly well-documented over the years, to include a fairly extensive series of articles in BQ’s Vol 5, No. 1 in 2006.

However, I did have to shake my head a bit, i.e., what the… as I read the BQ analysis of Vroomen’s comments when it strayed from the context in which Vroomen made his remarks. More specifically, it was a huge jump from Vroomen’s comments regarding tire testing on cobbles to more general conclusions such as,  “It’s reassuring to see that some racing teams agree with our findings.” Going on, in BQ’s summary it notes, “It is interesting that Vroomen thinks that 25 mm is the best compromise in tire width. Of course, wide tires don’t fit most of Cervelo’s models, so it would be difficult for Vroomen to endorse 30 or even 40 mm tires.”

Now, what Vroomen actually said was, ““In general, I think everybody should be riding wider tyres all the time but especially on a race like this weekend or Flanders, a Pavé is really overkill. So I think the 25mm Evo CX is really the way to go.” Note that Vroomen’s comments were, for the most part, addressing Cervelo’s tire and wheel testing relative to racing on Belgium’s notorious, bone-jarring cobblestone roads, and to a lesser extent included some comments on pro peleton tire size and pressures in general.  If you’ve never seen what these cobbles look like up close, here are two videos that provide some context.  The first is actually a pretty cool video that follows Team Saxo-Bank on a pre-race reconnaissance ride of the Paris-Roubaix… lots of slo-mo and awesome soundtrack:

This second video was shot from a bike-mounted camera during a Team Sky reconnaissance ride on the Paris-Roubaix course.  This is an excellent ‘rider’s perspective’ on what it’s like to ride across the cobbles.  Unlike the riders, you don’t have to endure the entire 5-minute long video to get the gist of the road surfaces that Vroomen and Cervelo Test Team were using to evaluate the different tire sizes.

Getting back to BQ’s treatment of the original article, what they omitted from their “reprint” of the cyclingnews.com article is somewhat revealing since it was the first two paragraphs that provided the context for the rest of the article and comments on tire size:

Wheels and tyres: Fatter is the way to go

The team are using Zipp wheels again: 404s for regular racing and wider, shallower 303s for the cobbled classics. The tubular tyres of choice are Vittoria’s Pavé and Corsa Evo CX models. The standard widths for these are 27mm and 23mm, but the team have been trying a 24mm Pavé and a 25mm Corsa Evo.

Vroomen explains: “The 24 is basically an narrow Pavé (I’m not really doing it justice if I describe it like that). And the 25 is the same tread pattern as a standard Evo CX 23mm but on a bigger casing. That allows us to run that tyre with a slightly lower pressure but still have very little rolling resistance and that fits very well on the new, wider Zipp rims.

“In general, I think everybody should be riding wider tyres all the time but especially on a race like this weekend or Flanders, a Pavé is really overkill. So I think the 25mm Evo CX is really the way to go.”

Therefore, if you read the entire Jeff Jones article instead of selected extracts, I believe when Vroomen suggests a ‘wider tire at lower pressure’ he make the point that professional cyclists have in many cases been racing on very narrow, e.g., 21.5mm tires, with as much as 175 psi.  And while BQ’s summary suggests, “It is interesting that Vroomen thinks that 25 mm is the best compromise in tire width,” it seems to ignore this was Vroomen speaking in terms of what would be the best compromise for racing on the cobbles.  Somehow Vroomen’s comment that the 27mm tires used by some teams on the cobbles in previous years were overkill escapes BQ’s attention in the summary and conclusions.  Now, it is quite interesting to see that the Cervelo team was experimenting with pressures as low as 72.5 (5 bar) to 116 (8 bar), but they also note that tire pressure is very dependent on rider weight, the assumption being that it was their very light riders who were able to use those very low pressures. Bear in mind, Cervelo has riders like Carlos Sastre who tip the scales at 135 lbs, with quite a few riders in the 140 lb weight range, and where the heaviest rider is Thor Hushovd at 182 lbs.

Finally, with regard to BQ’s assertion, “Of course, wide tires don’t fit most of Cervelo’s models, so it would be difficult for Vroomen to endorse 30 or even 40 mm tires.” That also appears to be a self-serving comment given that Vroomen — as co-owner of Cervelo with Phil White — has the resources and authority to redesign Cervelo bicycles on a whim.  If their testing and analysis indicated that — as BQ infers in its comments — a 30 or 40mm tire would put Cervelo Test Team riders in a better position to win an event like Paris-Roubaix, they’d have already built those event-specific bikes with wider tires that fall within the UCI’s maximum wheel/tire diameter limitation of 70cm.  In fact, Cervelo has already developed a prototype cyclocross version of their R3 that can accommodate tires larger than 30mm, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that such testing could be conducted.  But, that said, if Vroomen believes that a 27mm Vittoria’s Pavé is overkill for Paris-Roubaix, I can’t imagine that there’s much interest in looking at even larger diameter tires.

OK, so why does a guy with a blog about tandems get all jacked-up about a tire-size article?  Well, tire size and pressure is just as much a hot-topic for tandem enthusiasts as every other type of cyclist.  There are all kinds of different ‘camps’ when it comes to how narrow is too narrow and so on.  I’ll attempt to tie this back to tandems in a follow-on blog entry that I’ve been playing around with but just haven’t finished.

In closing on this entry, while the BQ article did succeed in stirring my thoughts on tire size, I truly found the attempt to create a linkage between Vroomen’s comments on tires and BQ’s prior advocacy of very large volume tires is a HUGE stretch that just doesn’t work.   If BQ was advocating moving the average cyclist off of 23mm tires to 25mm, that would have had very good correlation to the Vroomen comments. Making the jump to 30mm or 40mm tires, that’s the stretch…

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About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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4 Responses to Give ’em an inch… BQ & Tire Width

  1. David Hunter says:

    Thor Hushovd’s bike ran 27mm Vittoria Paves at Roubaix. The frame was a modified R3 that had additional clearance at the stays and fork presumably for mud clearance since there was plenty of room for much fatter tires. If they thought that even fatter tires were an advantage they certainly would have used them since the frame was not a limiting factor.

    See photos and commentary at:
    http://www.cyclingnews.com/features/pro-bike-thor-hushovds-cervelo-testteam-cervelo-r3-paris-roubaix

  2. Wayne says:

    I agree with your assertion that the BQ article stretches to use Vroomen’s remarks to bolster the argument for 40mm tires. On the other hand the point that the bicycle racing business is driven by bike frame and component manufacturers is very valid.

    In order to use 40mm tires a team would have to use a frame that would not sell and refuse to use products of its wheel and tire sponsors that the team is paid to advertise. Racing’s governing body has created, ignored and or changed its rules regarding frames and components to help the bicycle industry. The UCI and espcially the teams know who pays the bills.

    This influence was dramatically illustrated when Tom Boonen’s Quickstep team switched to Specialized bikes. Lacking a bike with the proper fit, Tom Boonen rode a custom aluminum frame while Specialized developed a carbon frame for him. He rode that aluminum frame painted to look like a Specialized carbon bike in the spring and did not simply revert to the tried and true frame he had great success with the prior year.

    Wayne Sulak

    • TG says:

      I don’t disagree about the bicycle industry and UCI being in cahoots, but Cervelo TestTeam is different from all other professional cycling teams in that the bike manufacturer is the team owner & primary sponsor. Moreover, the founders and co-owners of Cervelo — Vroomen & White — are both engineers who make the product and design decisions. Therefore, if they saw an opportunity to adopt a revolutionary new approach to frame design that gave their riders an advantage and falls within the UCI’s 70cm wheel specification they could certainly do that. After all, the road bike builders have watched the explosion taking place in the off-road marketing of 29″ wheeled bikes and would certainly seize upon the opportunity to revolutionize road bikes with fat tires IF it gave them a legal advantage that improved their likelihood of putting riders on podiums.

  3. Pingback: Tandem Tires… Is Bigger Better? « The TandemGeek's Blog

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