Why Only Black Tread?

Autumn means colder temperatures and rainy weather, here in the Cascade Mountains and in many parts of the world. More than ever, the grip of our tires is on our minds. Why do all Rene Herse tires have black tread? Colorful treads can look nice, but black rubber offers the best grip.

That is one reason why all car tires today are black. In the early days of motoring, tires were made from natural rubber, which is white or gray. (That is why the famous Michelin man is white…) By the 1910s, it was becoming apparent that white rubber didn’t last well, and tire makers discovered that adding carbon black to the rubber made it last much longer. As a positive side effect, it increased the tire’s grip, too – and it made the tires black. Even today, you can get car tires in many colors, but they are considered a novelty and not intended for daily use, much less for performance driving.

It may come as a surprise that the color of rubber and plastic affects many other properties, too. For example, gray resins are stronger than black or colored varieties. That is why the frames of Berthoud saddles are gray. With rubber, blue appears to be the least durable – which is why the blue hoods for old Mafac brake levers are almost unfindable today. And red backpacks fade far more quickly than other colors…

The reason is simple: Colors are additives, and often, surprisingly large amounts of the colorants are needed to create the color. This often changes the physical properties of the raw material. The black color of tires works the opposite way: Carbon black is an additive chosen for its performance-enhancing properties, and it just happened to change the color to black.

Before we made our Rene Herse tires, we rode tires from many makers. When I was racing in the 1990s, Vittoria introduced their ‘Professional All Weather’ model with softer green rubber on the shoulders. This was supposed to be grippier when leaning the bike into wet corners. It seemed like the perfect tire for Seattle’s infamous rainy season.

We tried the ‘All Weathers,’ and immediately scared ourselves: They seemed to grip fine at first, while we were still riding on the black center tread. Leaning further, grip was lost very suddenly as we transitioned to the green rubber. Then TOUR magazine did one of their famous tire tests. They measured tire grip on wet roads and confirmed that the ‘All Weather’ was less grippy than Vittoria’s standard, all-black tires! We never found out what the Italians were thinking when they developed these tires. I recall a big marketing push with all kinds of colors around that time, but it didn’t last long. Today, all Vittoria tires have black tread again.

Later, we imported the first supple, wide 650B tires from Japan. Made to resemble classic French rubber, the first model was available only in red and white. We loved the supple casings, but we found that in the wet, the white version was noticeably lacking in traction. Riding the red model, we also felt the grip bleed away earlier than we expected. We requested a special run of tires with black tread, and those gripped much better.

Of course, black tread alone isn’t a guarantee for excellent traction. I recall one tire from a small company that would spin when accelerating from a stop on cold, wet (but clean) pavement. Clearly, not all rubber is made equal.

When we first talked to the engineers at the tire factory in Japan about the tires we wanted to make, they showed us many beautiful colors. There was a very attractive tea green… When we asked about the performance, the engineers left no doubt: “Black has the best grip.” What about the colored treads? “It’s all about fashion. It allows small companies to offer tires that are different from the mainstream.”

There is nothing wrong with fashion, but for us, performance is more important. On the steep, twisty descents of the Cascade Mountains, we need tires that grip. And fortunately, Panaracer’s top-level tread rubber is among the grippiest you’ll find anywhere.

Of course, there is much more to making a tire grip than just the tread compound. Our herringbone tread pattern has many ribs that interlock with the road surface. When we tested the herringbone tread back-to-back with slick tires, the difference was very noticeable. A supple casing also grips better because it keeps its tread in contact with the road surface. A stiffer tire will bounce more and have less traction. For our Rene Herse tires, we’ve optimized all these parameters to offer you tires with more grip than just about any other tire – on dry and wet roads.

Even with the best tires, riding in Autumn and Winter requires extra caution. There are many factors that decrease traction when it’s wet and/or cold:

  • Cold rubber is less grippy – your traction is reduced when the temperature drops. This is quite significant, especially once the temperature drops below 10°C (50°F).
  • On wet roads, tread patterns that interlock with the road surface offer the greatest benefits. With the right tires, you can lean quite far into corners (top photo) – if the asphalt is clean.
  • After the first rain, the water mixes with dust, oil and other airborne pollution to form a very slippery surface layer. Use extreme caution when it hasn’t rained in a long time.
  • Your tires stay wet for a while after you ride through water. Remember this when you cross a wet patch on the road: Your tires may still be wet in the next corner, even if the road surface there is dry.
  • Painted traffic markings on the asphalt can be very slippery in the wet. Metal surfaces – grates, manhole covers, railroad tracks, plates covering trenches at construction sites – are even worse. Avoid them if you can. If you must ride over them, straighten your bike before you reach them, so you aren’t leaning while you are on the slippery surface.
  • Scan the road for shiny oil that has dripped from cars with leaky crankcases.
  • Tire sealants that use latex – which means most brands – won’t seal when it’s cold. (Latex doesn’t cure well when it’s colder than 10°C/50°F.)
  • Snow and ice require special considerations.

We enjoy riding our bikes year-round, so we’ve developed components that perform well in wet and cold conditions, not just when it’s dry and warm. With the right equipment and skills, riding in all weather can be safe and enjoyable.

Further reading:

P.S.: I apologize for re-using the same opening photo. There aren’t many that show us cornering hard in the rain – when it’s wet and cold, we prefer keep going to stay warm, rather than stop for photos!

About Jan Heine

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Rene Herse Cycles, that turns our research into the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
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44 Responses to Why Only Black Tread?

  1. Msrw says:

    Remember the Clement Champion del Mundo silk tubulars that were orange rubber? Those tires were also were amazingly slippery in wet conditions.

  2. Pk says:

    I appreciate your comment that ice requires special considerations. I would encourage people to consider not riding at all on it. A former pro rider I know fractured his elbow on his driveway 20 feet into his daily commute.

    • Jan Heine says:

      I second that, at least on tires without studs. More than once, when we found icy conditions, we’ve stopped at the nearest cafe to wait until the sun rose – which in the Seattle area almost always melts the ice…

    • Andrew says:

      I agree 100%. I commute daily 7-8 months of the year in Nova Scotia, Canada (a peninsula jutting into the North Atlantic). We have rainy, icy conditions beginning in late November. Then it’s time to put the bike away until April. Studded tires are an option but why not slow down and work some different muscles for a few months?

    • Andy Stow says:

      Studs are amazing. I’ve ridden miles on black ice I couldn’t stand on, with only the front tire studded.

      • Andrew says:

        Interesting – why not studs on the rear tire too?

      • Andy Stow says:

        @Andrew – It’s a fat bike, so each 45Nrth studded tire is nearly $200. I decided to try just one to be cheap. It’s relatively easier to control loss of rear traction, compared to front. Actually, it’s kind of fun to slide sideways on occasion.

        I’ve run dual studded tires on bikes that take more normal sizes, and that’s even better of course.

    • Mike Morrison says:

      I disagree 100%. I still need transportation in the winter. Why stop riding in the long winter months simply because of a little ice and snow? Studs allow me to keep doing what I love during the cold season.

    • Jacob Musha says:

      I also disagree. If I didn’t ride on snow or ice I would only be able to ride a little more than half the year… I tried an indoor trainer once and didn’t make it ten minutes. It’s not always fun to ride in the winter, but sometimes it really is.

      I also ride my bike to work every day.

    • samuli says:

      You can ride on the ice and snow just fine too, people have always done that in Finland for example. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/feb/12/ice-cycles-northerly-world-cities-winter-bicycle-revolution

  3. jon h says:

    great article as always, thanks jan (will rene herse be offering 650b latex tubes soon?)

    • Jan Heine says:

      Our testing (and at least one other test) showed latex tubes to roll slower than butyl tubes. They also lose air so quickly that they need inflating daily, which can become quite a chore on a long adventure. On the plus side, they are a little more comfortable. We feel that all things considered, lightweight butyl tubes are the best choice.

      • jon h says:

        oh, interesting, thanks for the intel, silca and bicycle rolling resistance both say they are faster (more efficient) but i totally agree they do lose air quickly, i run both lightweight butyl and latex tubes in my 700c bikes, i definitely think the latex is more comfortable and more resistant to punctures here in nyc

      • Frank says:

        I too am a great fan of latex tubes for the same reasons as jon h. Most tests I have seen say that latex rolls with less resistance but if true that is just a bonus for me. Perhaps the discrepancy between the results you found and that of other sources is down to the differences between tubes from different manufacturers? Michelin latex tubes for example are quite thicker-walled than Challenge tubes and the wall material seems to be softer too, while Vittoria is more or less in the middle. I would not, of course, rush to the conclusion that thicker walls mean more rolling resistance. Perhaps a matter for testing?

      • Jan Heine says:

        It’s quite possible that the Michelin tubes we tested – with their thick walls – affected the results.

  4. Andrew says:

    What are your recommendations for tubeless setup in the winter given the issue with latex sealant?

    • Jan Heine says:

      I don’t know of any sealant that works in cold conditions. It’s something we are actively pursuing right now…

    • Andrew Cohen says:

      I saw an ad for some Orange Seal branded product formulated for cold weather, probably aimed at the fatbike users of the world. No idea if it is any good, but there it is . . .

  5. Huck says:

    What about silca compound tires, such as FMB & older Michelins?

    • Jan Heine says:

      I don’t know much about it. In theory, silica makes it possible to make white tires that grip well without carbon black. In practice, getting the silica to bond with the rubber is not easy and requires huge machines. That appears to be the reason why only huge companies who make their bicycle tire in the same factories as their car tires use silica. (FMB buys in their treads, so the treads that use silica probably come from Michelin.) However, adding colorants to those tires also would make their performance deteriorate.

  6. Here in Venezuela we use whatever we can afford, especially if it’s for urban commuting. However, there are several stores and lots of people trying to sell their Vittoria black/green tires. NO ONE buys them, even with a huge discount!

  7. Stefan Tirtey says:

    I listened to the (German) Antritt Podcast yesterday in which you spoke about the trade-off between longevity and grip. It occured to me that this the precise trade-off that designers of climbing shoes need to manage. Did you ever compare notes with the engineers at LaSportiva or FiveTen, for example?

    • Jan Heine says:

      The latest rubber compounds are amazing: They have more grip than the softest of the old tires, yet last much longer. So that compromise no longer really applies. It’s the one area where tire technology really has advanced significantly in recent years.

  8. morten reippuert says:

    Green and Vittoria also means Pavé which was produced until 2y ago – the green strip is in the midle and i do remmember those open all weather clincher tires from the nineties – they where horible compared to the grey ‘Extreme’.

    I have ridden 27mm green Pavé tubulars in recent years – they are very grippy in the wett, also compared to the latests Vittoria Corsa Graphene, though the current gen. Corsa resistst flint puctures in the wett 10x better than the Pavé’s.

    I wett, i’d say the 27mm Pavé are gripper than 28mm Corsa Graphene, 27(29)mm Challenge Paris Roubaix and Compass 35mm Extralights – but neither is as grippy as Pannaracer’s 32mm GrvelKing slick’s – they are less fast though.

    • Jan Heine says:

      I recall that some Vittorias had the green tread in the center. At least with black tread on the shoulders, you will be on ‘real’ rubber when you lean the bike.

      • Morten Reippuert says:

        Yes, that is the Pavé tyres im talking about – they are very grippy in the wet, on fallen leaves etc – even though the middle strip of the compound is green.
        They have been used for Paris-Roubaix, Flanders etc by the Pros for 15 years, they still used them in 2019 even though they where replaced by the all black Corsa Control with graphene 2 years ago.

        In the last years of production the Pavé’s existed in an alll black versions too (no graphene) – however i dont thiink they where found on Pro bikes in Parix-Roubaix or Flanders.

        As i recall carbon black is mainly used in rubbur compunds for tyres for its for wear resistance (and it adds a significant restsiance to wear, graphene adds even more to wear resistance)
        Grip is about thread pattern and the softness of the compound, its is not nesecarily related to the choise of color of the compound.

        When it comes to thread the new Vittoria Corsa’s parralel grove thread apears to offer the best grip out there. Their improved grip is not due to the usage of carbon black and graphene in the compound – its the thread. I cant recall if it was Velonews or Cyclingtips that touch the subject of thread in a recent podcast. Belive the subject included NASA as the reserach behind Vittorias nbew thread pattern is based on recent NASA research.

        …reg the green shouldered open all weather from the nineties. The green open all weather were not good at all, the green shouldered no thread Michelin Axial Pro where where quite good in wett weather though. The cheap consumer Vittoria tire with green shoulders that lokked like the handmade tubular and opentubular clincher version of the Open All weather: they where awfulll and outright dangerous on wett danish autum/winter/spring roads.

      • Jan Heine says:

        I always wondered whether switching the green tread to the center (where its poor grip matters less) was a desperate effort to salvage the idea.

    • Larry T. atCycleItalia says:

      I think I still have some of the green Vittoria tires – frankly I’ve not noticed any difference in the wet with them, but I’m pretty careful in the wet, especially here in Sicily where the roads are worn to the point of being slick in many corners even when 100% dry!
      I agree with Jan’s thoughts on latex tubes – a complete waste of time. I swear by Michelin A1 butyl tubes and will use nothing else, unless there’s nothing else!

  9. jasonmiles31 says:

    What about the sidewall color? Is the Tan color an aesthetic choice? Colored sidewalls could look cool.

    • Jan Heine says:

      The sidewall color is just an aesthetic choice – at least with black and tan. Sidewalls don’t need grip, and they don’t wear in a way that carbon black would make then last longer. I don’t know whether adding coloring additives other than black would change the properties in a way that matters.

      • Harald says:

        I do wonder if color/additives in the sidewall has any impact on UV resistance. One of my bikes is parked outside for 8 hours a day, and you can definitely see deterioration presumably from the UV on the sidewalls.

  10. mike w. says:

    The worst wet pavement tyre i ever used was the Specialized Nimbus in the late 80’s-early 90’s. IIRC it was marketed as a rain tyre, but although they were good rollers on dry roads, they were positively dangerous in the damp- i broke two front teeth when they slipped on early morning dew and dumped me on the road. i don’t think Specialized produced them for more than a couple of years.

  11. Matt says:

    Interesting to read your mention of red fading; Infrared is the most active part of the light spectrum and the pigments we use most often in the paint industry aren’t very stable because of that.
    Never buy anything red if you plan on keeping it for a while, even modern lacquers with their nano technology UV protectors can’t stop the breakdown of the pigments.

  12. kai says:

    the black carbon of tires might also possibly protect the rubber from uv radiation?

    natural rubber is very sensitive here, also reportedly is damages by ozon.

  13. Volvimus says:

    Hi Jan, do you have any idea what additives Kool Stop uses in their salmon colored brake pads? At least on metal their compound seems to have properties equal to conventional rubber with carbon additives.

    • Jan Heine says:

      Not sure. The red pads have more friction, but are far less heat-resistant. If you brake hard, the rider behind you can smell them burning! The black ones don’t bite as hard, but are more resistant to heat. So we recommend the red ones for performance riding, where you brake late and hard, but not for a very long time. Riders who prefer to brake more gently, but for long periods of time, will find the black pads a better choice.

  14. Jonas Brandin says:

    I am surprised by this as i recall you in a prevoius post, nine years ago, said about the Hetres:
    ”By the way, Grand Bois thinks that the white tread should be marginally faster, as it contains more natural rubber. We haven’t tested this. We have tested the adhesion of the different-color treads in wet and dry, and found no difference to the black tread. They all stick great to wet and dry roads. They are among the grippiest rubber we have ridden.”
    I What made you change your minds? New tests?

    • Jan Heine says:

      You have a good memory! Nine years is a long time… Back then, we were only starting to explore what wide, supple tires could do. At first, all tread colors seemed to offer fine grip. It was only as we got use to the higher grip levels afforded by the wider tires that we noticed the differences between the colors. It’s all part of the product development.

      The tires we sell have evolved significantly from those early days of wide, supple tires. Even the Rene Herse tires may outwardly resemble the Compass tires we introduced more than five years ago, but they are actually quite different in many ways. When you ride our tires, you benefit from this un-matched experience with wide high-performance tires, and I think you’ll feel the difference. We keep testing and researching, so in nine years’ time, our tires will once more be different and improved.

  15. Keith Benefiel says:

    Babyshoes have outlasted 2 pair of your old “Gran Bois”, although the brick red looked sweet on my Mondia. Started making our own studded tires in the 70s. (sheet metal screws from the inside, backed by multi layers of duct tape). Then came IRC “Blizzards”, followed a few years later by insanely expensive Nokias which actually worked well and changed the whole game. Now it’s 5″ F. and 4″ R full stud 45N Dillingers. Riding 12 months in Jackson Hole with 6″ of boiler plate ice 3-5 months. Price for studded tires has fallen to reasonable. Just use them for ice, then Armour-all them and store well and they will last for decades

  16. Keith Benefiel says:

    …and if you would stud your Pumpkin Ridge, I could stay on my rando-rig all year.

  17. Phillip Cowan says:

    Your list of hazards should include running over layers of wet fall leaves. Hitting a patch of those while heeled over hard can be like hitting a spot of bearing grease.

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