I was never that interested in tubeless tyres for cyclocross until I got back into mountain biking. Tubeless tyres are a mature technology in the MTB industry, having proven themselves in competition and recreational use for years. If that’s where cyclocross tyres are headed, then sign me up.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I feel that tubeless-ready CX hasn’t quite reached critical mass. That would be when a broad range of product is available for different conditions and the tyres can be mounted up interchangeably and reliably. It didn’t quite happen this season, but next year I expect that tubeless will grab a lot more presence in the cyclocross scene, if only there were more choices in a dedicated mud tread. If I could only have one tyre to race on all season, I would choose a mud tread even if it meant a little extra rolling resistance in the drier races; a clogged-up tyre in a really sodden race is a wasted opportunity for epic awesome. A wise choice for those days is the Maxxis Mud Wrestler EXO Tubeless-Ready.
Despite all my plans for trying out new equipment at the CX races, I got a late start due to changes at my work place as Davidson Custom Bicycles moved out of its 31 year old location. By the time I had my singlespeed Davidson ready and a free weekend to race, it was MFG Cyclocross’ season ending event at Woodland Park. I lined up on the grid with Michelin Mud2 tyres on my Hed Belgium Plus rims. The Mud2 is a well regarded all-around conditions tyre rather than a pure mud tread, but it was never designed to be run tubeless, though it is one of the more reliable choices for conversions. And unlike the Kenda Happy Medium tyres I had mounted up for central Washinton gravel grinders, the Mud2 were a bit tricky to seat. Seat they did, and they didn’t burp during the race, though the tread was predictably overwhelmed in the muddier sections. The medium depth knobs are spaced a little too close together to shed easily. And overall, I thought them just satisfactory.
That wasn’t my opinion after the next race at Frontier Park. That course was strewn with loose, round pebbles over hardpack, pine needles over packed loam….and apparently some hidden sharp things. I tried to keep my momentum through a stepped chicane by entering the turn shallow, but my front tyre slid off the cambre while simultaneously my rear tyre punctured through the sidewall. End of race. The Mud2 has a very thin, supple sidewall, and I had just demonstrated why tubeless-ready tyres generally are more robust there. The hole was too big for the sealant to plug, and instead the sealant just ran all over my kit as I ran the bike to the pits. Ironically, if I would have been rolling on the Happy Mediums from before I would have had a faster tread for the conditions and a more durable sidewall.
The next race I did was in Gig Harbor which had a couple of deep mud sections and a lot of frozen grass. I hadn’t time to come up with a tubeless solution for my rear wheel, so I grabbed my spare tubular wheel with a medium conditions tread. The course was so bumpy that I ended up l dropping the air pressure to 21-22PSI in search of some suspension effect, though the rolling resistance was tough to muscle. Still dressed with a Mud2, my front wheel slipped on an off-cambre turn, one that I’m sure my knobbier tubular mud tyres could have neatly handled. The problem is that the Mud2 tread just doesn’t have aggressive side-knobs to hold onto those laterally pitched surfaces.
With just five days till the weekend of Waves For Water’s UCI race, there was no time to delay and I wanted something dependable. I actually really liked the Kenda Happy Medium over the summer, but those are basically a file tread with side-knobs, nothing like a mud tyre. Kenda does offer the Kommando Pro, but its tread impressed me as more of medium conditions choice. Their catalogue also lists the newly added Kommando Pro X actually meant for mud, but I as far as I could find no distributor or online retailer actually has it in stock (funny, since the model was shown at Interbike 2013). I did have success with another brand’s tubeless tyre over the summer when I did the High Cascades 100 in Bend OR; that tyre on my Giant XTC 27.5 hardtail was the Ikon EXO by Maxxis.
Previously Maxxis has offered a variety of cyclocross tyres but none of them before as tubeless-ready. In fact, Maxxis CX tyres had been singled out by many as particularly unsuited for tubeless conversions due to the looseness of their bead. If Maxxis now was bringing a tubeless-ready CX model to the party, they would need to make a convincing effort. What they did was adapt the carbon fibre bead already in use with their road and MTB lines and add a tougher, sealant-resistant casing. But what is somewhat surprising is that Maxxis went straight for a mud tread rather than targeting the broadest possible market with an all-around tread. The 700Cx33mm Mud Wrestler EXO now comes in 60TPI and 120TPI tubeless-ready models. The night before Waves For Water, I mounted up a pair of the 120TPI Mud Wrestlers without any drama and the first time I rode them was the half lap I snuck in just before the officials began staging my race. Forty-eight filthy minutes later, I knew I had found a real mud tyre in tubeless.
Nominally 33mm wide, the Mud Wrestler measured 32.7mm on a 25mm wide Hed Belgium Plus (which is as wider than any other rim brake CX rim and as wide as many 29er disc rims), so any elite racer who might potentially race UCI-sanctioned events need not worry about running foul of the UCI maximum tyre width rule. The tread consists of two rows of siped and angled blocks slightly overlapping across the centreline, flanked by large side-knobs. The overall density of knobs is kept open to quickly clear sticky mud, though the overlapping at the centre should provide just enough continuity to prevent the tyre from being a complete dog in rolling resistance. The height and position of the stiff side-knobs are what give it such great cornering, with the knob actually being the widest part of the tyre. There were a few places on the course where the mud was so sloppy that no 33mm tyre was going to pass without some issue, but once past the Maxxis shed the mud instantly. It also handled damp grass and loam with competence. The next day at Steilacoom’s familiar sandy loam and loose-over-hard, the Wrestler was confident and fast. It didn’t feel like I was giving away too much on the long paved straight at the finish line either.
On the Monday after the races I discovered a souvenir from my race weekend: a broken safety pin was embedded in my front Wrestler. Not only had I not noticed picking it up, I hadn’t lost any air pressure either. I pulled the pin out and spun the tyre; the sealant plugged the leak with minimal loss of air. With surefooted performance and reassuring durability, I plan to keep the Med Wrestlers on for the duration of the wet season just to have the option riding some muddy trails if the mood strikes me. With more tyre choices like this Maxxis, there are now even fewer barriers preventing both experienced CX racers and newcomers from embracing the tubeless tyres. Perhaps as more riders upgrade their wheels and frames to disc brake compatibility, they’ll take that opportunity to swap to tubeless at the same time, and then tubeless will dominate the cyclocross market.
UPDATE: The Kenda Kommando X Pro finally have arrived, though too late for CX season. All the more reason to get out, get dirty, and give the Kendas some dirt time.