Steilacoom: Our First Cyclocross Tire

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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.

steilacoom_sx

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.

cross_nats_96

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.

WOLBERCROSSSUPERXSP1

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.

steilacoom_testing

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.

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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!

Click here for more information about the new Steilacoom tires.

Photo credits: Heidi Franz (top); Wade Schultz (second from bottom), Leander Vandefen (bottom).

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. Bicycle Quarterly's sister company, Compass Bicycles Ltd., turns the results of our research into high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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37 Responses to Steilacoom: Our First Cyclocross Tire

  1. Can anyone tell me why sub-30mm tires were common in cyclocross at one time? Was no one making them? Were they not allowed?

    • Cyclocross riders always have used tires there were somewhat wider than road racing tires. So when road racing tires measured 20 mm, cyclocross tires were considered “wide” at 25 mm. Today, road racing tires measure 25 mm, cyclocross tires are considered “wide” at 30-33 mm. Seeing this trend, the UCI put a cap on it with their maximum width, fearing that otherwise, racers might soon be on 42s or bigger… So who knows, in a few years, road racers might use tires as wide as cyclocross racers, at least those who race in UCI-sanctioned events.

      • I realize now my comment was poorly worded. Thanks for your response. It seems obvious now that 30mm+ tires would be better but I guess it was all relative at the time. 25mm would seem A LOT wider when 20mm was common on the road.

      • No worries – it made sense to me. I just wanted to point out that “wide” varies in cyclists’ perception. Just like handlebars – always sized wider for bigger shoulders, but “wide” meant 46 cm in the 1920s, 40 cm in the 1940s, and 44 cm in the 1980s. And racers in Paris-Roubaix always have used “wide” tires, but a decade ago, “wide” meant 25 mm. Today, that is “standard”.

      • Tom says:

        What exactly does the UCI find so threatening about wider tires? Struggling to understand the rationale behind such a rule.

      • I think they were afraid that cyclocross racers would race on mountain bikes. They like the aesthetic of a traditional racing bike, hence all the rules about minimum wheels size and frame geometry on the road. Paradoxically, they limited the number of dismounts, which is the one place where a cross bike with its larger main triangle and lighter weight has a real advantage…

    • crosssports says:

      In response to Tom, re: UCi and wider tires.
      Limitation on tire size was instituted to control the size of the tire arsenal needed to compete at the international level. Contrary to views often expressed, wider simply isn’t always better, and prior to the limitation regulation, it was common to find tire sizes at the Elite level change from as small as 28 (in certain types of mud) to 40(ish) in sand. A top Euro pro would bring as many as 50 wheel sets (or more) to a race. This was seen as a not inconsiderate impediment to international participation in races, as riders that had to fly to races simply couldn’t transport the array of wheels/tires necessary to compete.
      It was (and still is) generally considered that a 32 section tire was the best all-around compromise for CX, so the UCI capped the size at 33 to allow for manufacturing variance.
      Worth noting that US representatives to the UCI cross committee were involved in this decision making, and we are one of the countries that benefit the most from it at the elite level.

  2. Ray Varella says:

    How does this tire measure in comparison to the Barlow Pass tire?
    Is the casing 38mm and the knobs stand several mm taller or is it 38mm to the top of the knobs?
    A picture showing the two side by side would be very helpful.
    They look great for those muddy rides.
    Thank you

  3. Did the earlier narrow tires reflect the use of drier courses in Europe? Pictures of Continental cross almost never show the kind of sloppy mud that even casual, non-competitive trail riders in a lot of the US are accustomed to.

  4. nosyerg says:

    I’m curious what kind of crank and ring (guards?) you’re using on the bike in the last photo of this post.

    • It’s a René Herse triple crank with custom-made guards. I simply cut the teeth off two 48 rings to make guards for 42s… Took about 10 minutes each, with a hacksaw. Some people recommend snapping off the teeth (works only withe rings made from super-hard 7000-series aluminum, 6000-series will bend). I tried it: The edge I got was so rough that it would have required a lot of filing, making the process take far longer.

  5. Bryan says:

    Is the casing for this tire essentially the same as the 700C x 38mm Barlow Pass? If so, might this hint at tubeless-ready Barlow?

    • The casing is the same. However, the difference between the older “non-tubeless” tires and the latest “tubeless-ready” ones is in the bead shape, which is determined by the mold. So to make the Barlow Pass officially tubeless-ready would require a completely new mold.

  6. Robert Hest says:

    Can you tell me more about the bead material? Is it more resistant to stretching than your other tubeless-ready tires?

    I was able to get my 700c-35 BJ Passes to mount up tubeless once (new Velocity A23 rims). But the bead stretched, and I couldn’t get them mounted a second time. I’m concerned that the same thing will happen here unless the bead material is more stretch resistant, which is especially a concern for CX where tubeless is a bigger factor for flat resistance and low pressures.

    • The bead material of the Bon Jon Pass tires was changed recently. The new ones have a “(90 psi)” added to the label on the sidewall. These use a new bead that is much more resistant to stretching. The old tires were safe to 90 psi with tubes, but only 60 psi tubeless.

      The Steilacoom cyclocross tires use the new bead, so they are safe to 90 psi. Of course, you probably won’t run them that hard in ‘cross, but it’s good to know they can handle that sort of pressure.

  7. Alex M says:

    Have you considered or have plans for a 700×42 tire? Just curious.

  8. Wow! Good to read about the factors that went into this tread design.

  9. thebvo says:

    They look awesome! Makes me want to turn one of my old TREK frames into a cross bike. What are some of the desirable design features of converting a used frame?
    These tires will be a huge hit I’m sure. I’m curious why these are being released before the Snoqualmie pass tires since you posted that spy shot mentioned above.

    • Cyclocross season is starting soon, and we wanted these to be available for the first races…

      As to the desirable features of
      a frame for ‘cross, the primary ones are tire clearance and speed. Brakes that stop well in the wet come
      next… A horizontal top tube makes portaging the bike easier, but on modern courses, there are fewer dismounts, so it’s not as important.

  10. Jacob Musha says:

    I’ve been racing cyclocross for about five years and from the start I’ve wished for wider tires than 33mm tubulars. Some of the courses around here are very rough and my back takes a beating during the races.

    I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be on a bike with 26×2″ knobby tubulars. But (as far as I know) the rims and tires don’t exist, not to mention the custom frame I would need to run them.

    • I’ve wanted to ride the FMB mountain bike tubulars, too. The ones I saw mounted to 650C rims, but they should fit on a standard mountain bike frame. The Firefly we tested in Mexico might be an even better candidate, since it has a road bike geometry with clearance for 54 mm-wide 26″ tires. I’ve been thinking about this…

  11. Conrad says:

    Smart move to make these 38. I think that will make them the best cross clinchers available. And very few USAC races around here, so who cares about the width rules.

  12. Kevin says:

    Completely agree with this “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. ” Like many for gravel riding I moved to wider and wider 700c tires only to eventually discover this blog and get the 650b bug. However, for CX racing I’m very curious about your experience with wider 700c tires considering the downside of increased gyroscopic forces that is often mentioned. These tires are low in weight so that should help. I look forward to feedback on this as well as the tubeless experience. There is a lot of negative feedback on tubeless use at the very low pressure that racers often want to use. Many mixed reviews. What have your initial impressions been? What setup will you run? (sealant, rim, pressure, etc). Maybe that’s a trade secret…:)

    Thanks for the great products.

    • No trade secrets. We are working on a full report. As to tubeless, I think tires have come a long way in recent years. We weren’t the first to jump on the tubeless bandwagon, but these tires now seal up better and stay more securely on the rims than the first ones. One problem that persists are rims that are out of tolerance or poorly designed. Especially the quality of WTB rims is very variable. We had one set that was seriously undersized, and a set of Switchback Hill 650B x 48 tires would only mount with great difficulty. We didn’t ride them, considering this too dangerous.

  13. Frank says:

    I’m always excited to hear that cyclocross is nigh upon the northern hemisphere. It means that soon it will be sun sun summer down here in Tasmania!

  14. opignonlibre says:

    My opinion may not be popular but as an amateur cross and MTB racer here in europe I obey strictly to the UCI rule and most of my local peers do the same when racing cyclocross.

    Most of the appeal and fun about cyclocross racing is doing it with a bike that is somewhat not totally up to the task. If you don’t adhere to such a vision why not just stick with MTB races ?

    I must admit I am a bit disappointed that you chose to sell such tires and label them as cyclocross tires. I’d rather see a true 33mm tire in your range + some 40-46mm tires for people looking for all road / adventure tires.

    Note: My MTB is a 29plus so I’m not at all against wide tires as long as they are used outside the cyclocross races.

    • You make a good point. But why concede so quickly that a mountain bike is better for cyclocross than a ‘cross bike? When I started racing cyclocross more than 20 years ago, many racers experimented with suspension. Before the UCI could outlaw suspension, they already had found that it didn’t provide any advantage. On a well-designed course, a real cyclocross bike should be faster…

      Finally, all our tires do is level the playing field between tubulars and clinchers. Our clinchers are just 10% wider than the UCI-legal tubulars I used to run in ‘cross. Once they are covered with mud, you’ll have a hard time seeing the difference.

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