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Can Challenge’s new Mud ‘cross tire kill a Rhino?

Challenge, the handmade Italian tire manufacturer, has a new tire that’s ready for the coming cyclocross season. The Grifo Fango mud tire rounds out the brand’s line that includes the Grifo XS file tread, which is built for sand and smooth courses and the Grifo, an all-conditions tire that’s over 20 years old, easily recognized by its chevron tread pattern.

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By Matt Pacocha

On Safari: The gold Seta Extra hot patch signifies this Grifo has a silk casing.

On Safari: The gold Seta Extra hot patch signifies this Grifo has a silk casing.

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Challenge, the handmade Italian tire manufacturer, has a new tire that’s ready for the coming cyclocross season. The Grifo Fango mud tire rounds out the brand’s line that includes the Grifo XS file tread, which is built for sand and smooth courses and the Grifo, an all-conditions tire that’s over 20 years old, easily recognized by its chevron tread pattern.

The Grifo Fango is set to compete with Dugast’s Rhino, a pure-bred super-aggressive tire that has become the mud tire enthusiasts and pros clamor for. The question is if the Fango can take down a mud tire with a reputation that precedes all others.

Challenge might have been resting on its laurels; it hasn’t developed a new cyclocross tire since its originals were developed under the Clement name over 20 years ago. It might have been that Challenge thought the market just wasn’t ready to support an investment in this area. It also could have been a problem with its U.S. agent not conveying domestic needs back to headquarters. Its European cyclocross riders drove the issue home when they started showing up on tires from another manufacturer, namely Dugast.

One thing is for sure, before this year Challenge just existed quietly in the U.S. market. Things took a turn for the Italian brand when longtime industry insider Donn Kellogg struck up business with Alex Braun, a man whose family resurrected the Clement molds and restructured the Thai factory after both were dumped by Pirelli in 2001.

On Safari: The table chronicles the Fango's development.

On Safari: The table chronicles the Fango’s development.

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Braun’s family owns the company now known as Challenge. Last fall he and Kellogg founded the U.S. branch of the company that’s simply known as Challenge USA.

Kellogg started his quest to build the Challenge name, reputation and product line in the U.S. a year ago, almost to the day of the release of the Fango, in a gray Jeep Grand Cherokee and a plan that had him crisscrossing the country in search of dealers, distributors and partners for his tires. His efforts seem to have paid off; Challenge’s Forte road tire won four national championship road titles this season, three of which were at the elite level, including Tyler Hamilton’s national road championship.

The new cyclocross tire was born from frustration of Challenge sponsored ’crossers racing on another brand’s tire in the mud. Last season his hands were tied; he didn’t have a better choice for them.

On Safari: The first sketch Kellogg and Parbo put to paper

On Safari: The first sketch Kellogg and Parbo put to paper

Photo: Matt Pacocha

“We knew we needed a new more aggressive tread,” said Kellogg. “The Fidea team, Katie Compton — our top riders were requesting another more mud-oriented tread pattern.”

This year will be different since Challenge has the Fango. “There is no substitute (this year,)” he said.

Toward the end of the season last year, Kellogg sat down at a coffee shop with Danish cyclocrosser Joachim Parbo to pull some ideas together for a new tire. No design idea was off limits. The two discussed the elements of other manufacturers’ tires, how they worked and which they liked the best. The notes and sketches from that meeting became the guiding light for Challenge’s mud tire project.

The Fidea Cyclocross team, whose riders are contractually obligated to ride Challenge tires this year, offered input. The sketches evolved into CAD drawings and finally a SLA model before the first steel tread mold was cut. The final product is the Grifo Fango, which will be available to consumers in less than two weeks in two sizes of tubular (32mm and 34mm) and one open tubular (32mm).

On Safari: Kellogg explains the purpose of each knob.

On Safari: Kellogg explains the purpose of each knob.

Photo: Matt Pacocha

While Challenge isn’t a boutique manufacturer, its tires are handmade using traditional techniques. Kellogg says that over 40 hands touch each tire in production. The new tire will be made using the same methods, albeit with a new tread pattern.

Even though the new Fango is barely out, Kellogg is scheming about improvements for the brand’s benchmarks, the Grifo and Grifo XS.

“More and more people are realizing that for true performance (in cyclocross) you have to go to a tubular tire,” said Kellogg. “Right now, we offer the greatest selection, the best availability and the best chain of distribution in the U.S. We want to be known as the number one tire in cyclocross and with that we understand that you have to have different designs for different courses and different situations — we have to provide a quiver of tires. ”

For 2009 that quiver is broader than ever.

The Fango isn’t the only change the brand is making. It will also offer a softer compound white tread for its XS file tread and a 32mm Grifo tire with a silk casing. That tire has a mark set on becoming the most supple tire in the U.S. market this year. The only other manufacturers producing silk cyclocross tires are boutiques like Dugast and FMB, but those tires are so expensive and in such limited production that no one will import them.

On Safari: The Fango rolls quicker but looks less aggresive than Dugast's Rhino.

On Safari: The Fango rolls quicker but looks less aggresive than Dugast’s Rhino.

Photo: Matt Pacocha

After a hard ride on one of the first Open Tubular Fango tires in the U.S., I have praise for it. It’s very fast and offers a predictable, firm grip on grass and tacky soil. If this were a replacement for the Grifo I would have nothing to criticize; it’s faster with better grip.

I would say Challenge knocked it out of the park, except for the fact it will have to do battle with the best mud tire on the market — I have concerns that its knobs aren’t tall enough to eclipse the Rhino in certain types of mud. I can only hope for some muddy conditions for the two tires to go head to head in. Right now, I believe this is going to be a great tire for those who prefer a more aggressive pattern for everyday use. And in that respect it might very well be better than the Rhino.

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