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Mountain Gear

First Ride: Michelin Wild Series Tires

New rubber from Michelin, killer MTBing and Porsches in Alabama? Yup. Let Nick Legan explain

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With the two-wheeled fun behind us, the following day we headed to the Michelin-sponsored Porsche Driving School at the Barber Motorsports Park to put some of Michelin’s automobile tires to the test.

Why the four-wheeled fun? Well, Michelin is a very large company and it uses an “engineering toolbox” to share information across tire design disciplines. So technology developed for car, motorcycle, agricultural, aeronautical and aerospace (the Space Shuttle lands on Michelins) tires is accessible to bicycle tire engineers as well.

In the case of the Wild range, tire designer and former World Cup mountain biker Rudy Megevand used Michelin technology from passenger car tires, specifically in tire compound optimization.

By analyzing a tire’s contact patch pressure Michelin is better able to produce tire compounds for the specific tasks of a bicycle tire.

*Not to be confused with inflation pressure, contact patch pressure involves inflation pressure as well as the load on the tire (the weight of the rider and bicycle) and dynamic forces like cornering and power transmission.

Megevand also cleared up a bit of advertising speak in the bicycle tire realm.

“It’s not all about shore hardness (durometer rating),” he said. A softer compound tire is not necessarily better than a harder one. Tread compound rebound is also a fundamental characteristic. Michelin found that there is a lag from the time a pressure is applied to the time the tire deflects and in how quickly it rebounds. This can drastically affect how a tire “feels.”

So, that’s the excuse for taking us to the Porsche Driving School. The real reason? Driving $100,000 cars around a closed 2.38-mile track with 16 turns and 100 feet of elevation change is a blast!

Over the course of the day we drove Porsche Boxster, Boxster Spider, Cayman S and Carrera S cars during various on- and off-track exercises. We were put through the paces on an autocross course, a wet skid pad, a hard-braking circuit and, of course, the race track.

The experience was exceptional. Except for a very brief introductory lecture in the morning and a lunch break midday, we got a lot of seat time in the various Porsche models. The classes go quickly but it was amazing to see big improvement in such a short time. If you’re a car enthusiast like me, a driving school should be in your future.

The most interesting theme of the day was the constant instructor advice on how to keep the tires working effectively. It’s all about grip and weight distribution. Subtle uses of the brakes can have large ramifications when it comes to getting around a corner quickly. Likewise slamming a foot into the accelerator did little good mid-corner.

While this may be obvious to most of us, feeling it in a very big way on the race track (at high speeds) is impressive. Suffice it to say that everyone who attended enjoyed himself and can’t wait to get home to brag about his heroic efforts behind the wheel of $100,000 cars. For my part, I’m just as stoked to get a set of Michelin Race’Rs in the mail next week for longer term “testing.”

With the new Wild series of mountain bike tires, Michelin is making a comeback of sorts. New product and a new, more aggressive advertising campaign meant that a small group of cycling journalists were assembled recently in Birmingham, Alabama.

Why the sleepy Alabama town you ask?

Two reasons: The sweet 22-mile loop trail at Oak Mountain State Park and the Porsche Driving School at Barber Motorsports Park. Both are located 20 minutes from downtown and both venues were used to showcase Michelin’s effort in all things tire-related.

Day one involved a short presentation on the history of Michelin and then got down to the nitty gritty on the latest lineup.

Here’s what you need to know: Andre and Edouard Michelin (a pair of French brothers) founded the company in 1889. Its first product was in 1891 — the world’s first easily demountable bicycle tire. Fast forward to the world’s first folding tire in 1978, the first use of silica rubber in 1995 and the first tubeless mountain bike tire in 2000.

For 2011, Michelin introduced a ground-up redesign on its cross-country tires with the Wild series. Three tread patterns make up the line, each offered in 60 and 127 tpi casings and single or dual compounds (which use entirely new compounds for the Wild line).

The Tires

This 26-inch version of the Race'R was set up tubeless. Photo by Nick Legan

Aggressive riders will like the Rock’R for extreme terrain. It features burly chevron- and square-shaped blocks and huge side knobs for gnarly conditions. It and the Grip’R are, unlike the Race’R, directional tires.

The Grip’R is designed for mixed conditions and looks promising. It has widely spaced knobs designed to quickly clear mud and the somewhat shallow center knobs should make for a quick rolling tire.

But it was the Race’R hardpack tire that we were in ‘Bama to ride. For the fastest rolling tire in the group Michelin used shallow-profile, diamond-shaped center blocks and taller, more aggressive side knobs. The overall profile is fairly square and should appeal to cross-country riders in arid areas.

The Race’R is the only tire in the lineup available in a 29er version. Unfortunately the 29er version isn’t made in the nicer 127 tpi or the dual compound. But that didn’t stop it from being a nice hardpack tire. And though limited in construction options, it is available in both 2.1- and 2.25-inch sizes.

At $50 each for the 60tpi casing version ($65 for the Advanced 127 tpi casing), Michelin claims the 29 x 2.25 tire tips the scales at 730 grams. The 29 x 2.1 is quite a bit lighter at 660 grams. Unfortunately I never had a tire off the bike in my hands to verify.

It’s also worth noting that the entire Wild range can be set up tubeless. Gumwall Technology tires have a tubeless bead. Other tires in the Wild range are “tubeless ready” meaning they can be run tubeless but only on UST rims with sealant.

The Trail

The trails at Oak Mountain were a great test for a tire like the Race’R. With good climbing, including a two-mile rocky doubletrack hump, ripping fast descents, creek crossings, rock gardens, roots, gravel-covered turns and sandy spots, the Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers (BUMP) built-and-maintained trails are a reason to visit Alabama.

Over the Oak Mountain trails, the Race’R tires, inflated to 27 psi front and back, worked well. Even though I was having an off day when it came to chucking the bike into a corner, the tires never let me down. The low center knobs let the big 29er wheels roll up to speed yet never broke loose erratically under braking.

The Race’R’s aggressive side knobs bit into the trail well in the corners. And when I started to push hard on descents, the tires let me know when I was close to exceeding their capabilities. Like the braking, the Race’R cornered in a very predictable manner.

The Verdict

The Race’Rs didn’t roll as fast as the WTB Vulpines on my bike at home, but did allow for better cornering. The Vulpines cost a bit more at $65, but weigh a bit less at 580 grams for the 2.1-inch. The shallower side knobs on the Vulpine help keep weight down, but give up a bit in corners. The center knobs of the Race’R are also a bit meatier than the Vulpine. This, combined with the better cornering, make the Race’R a better all-around tire for most riders.

Michelin has clearly done its homework on the Wild Race’R. They also did their homework finding a perfect trail to launch the tire. Oak Mountain offered a little of everything and the Race’R handled it all exceptionally well.