It’s no secret that we love cyclocross. It was only a matter of time until Compass Cycles would introduce a ‘cross tire. Like all our products, the new Steilacoom fills a need that currently isn’t being met: a supple, wide ‘cross clincher that is tubeless-ready and that approaches the ride and performance of my beloved FMB “Super Mud” tubulars.
The Steilacoom is named after an iconic ‘cross course near Seattle. It’s where I won my first cyclocross race on a course that (back then) featured a daunting descent and a brutal run-up. What makes the new Compass tire special is its width: 38 mm is wider than most ‘cross tires.
Some will argue that the UCI limits ‘cross tires to 33 mm. True, but most of us don’t race in UCI-sanctioned categories. In the U.S., this rule appears to apply only to the national championships. If you are competing at that level, you probably already have a bunch of FMB or Dugast tubulars and expensive wheels to glue them onto. For the rest of us, the UCI rule is irrelevant, yet most ‘cross tires are limited to a maximum width of 33 mm. If you ride clinchers, this is less than optimal.
To provide the same traction and comfort, a clincher needs to be about 10-15% wider than an equivalent tubular. Scaling up a 33 mm tubular gets you a 38 mm clincher. This tire still fits into most current cyclocross frames – no need to go “moster-cross” to fit the new Steilacoom tires.
The Steilacoom ‘cross tires are available with our Extralight casing that usually is used for handmade tubulars. It’s one of the best, fastest-rolling casings anywhere. For those on a budget or with a propensity to cut their tire sidewalls, we also offer them with the “standard” casing that still offers superb performance. The Steilacoom tires are tubeless-compatible – that is, they are designed to be used with tubeless rims and sealant. Of course, you also can set them up with tubes.
What about the tread pattern? It’s based on more than 20 years of experience racing cyclocross. The 1996 newspaper article above shows me at the very first collegiate cyclocross nationals ever held in the U.S., with my Alan – the bike I still race today.
Back then, cyclocross tires were quite simple: The best ones used a tread pattern that consisted of round knobs. Key was to have them spaced widely enough so that they didn’t clog up with mud. Traction was great – I just wish they had been wider than the 25 mm or so that they measured. (It’s incredible that back then, we raced ‘cross on tires as wide as those that the pros use today on the smooth roads of the Tour de France!)
When I discussed tread patterns with the engineers from Panaracer, their opinion was succinct: “With knob shapes, it’s mostly about fashion.” I thought about that and realized that the old round knobs made a lot of sense: You don’t want the tread to clog up with mud, so the fewer edges you have, the harder it is for the mud to stick to the tire. A round knob has the smallest surface area for mud to stick.
Panaracer’s engineers cautioned that round knobs might slide through the mud too easily. A straight edge provides more traction. That is why our knobs are square, with rounded corners. That way, the knobs present straight edges for the forces of pedaling and braking (front/back), as well as cornering (right/left). It’s logical.
What matters more than the knob shape is their size and especially their pattern on the tire. We placed the knobs so that there are a few more in the center. The square knobs are harder to deform than thinner, irregular shaped ones. This reduces the squirm on hard surfaces. The knobs are placed so that the transition from the center tread to the shoulders is smooth and gradual. The slightly larger shoulder knobs resist squirm during hard cornering. That way, the tire rolls smoother and corners better on hard-packed dirt and pavement. The first rides by cyclocross racers have confirmed this: On pavement, the Steilacoom exhibits none of the sudden breakaway that you get with most other knobbies. Some riders will want to use these tires for mixed-surface rides where they expect significant mud – or for a ‘cross race on a dry course.
Even thought the Steilacoom rolls OK and corners fine on pavement, it is not intended as a road tire. Efforts to make a knobby that rolls really well on the road are futile. To achieve that, you need to space the knobs so closely that they are useless in mud – they just pack up. And yet the knobs still squirm when you ride on pavement. You end up with a tire that doesn’t ride all that well on the road, while offering poor traction in mud – the worst of both worlds.
We’ve been testing the new tires, and so far, they have met our expectations. The ride is as great as you’d expect from our supple casings, and the knob pattern delivers on its promises. I can’t wait to race on them. I have a (slightly) more modern Alan with clearance for tires this wide. Now I just have to build it up with a set of tubeless rims!
Photo credits: Heidi Franz (top); Wade Schultz (second from bottom), Leander Vandefen (bottom).