When it comes to variable condition (non-mud) tubular cyclo-cross tires, aficionados tend to argee that only one thing matters: the casing. This is because just about every manufacturer uses a variation of the same tread: the chevron pattern first seen on the Clement Grifo more than 60 years ago.
Various other designs have been offered over the years but nothing has unseated the venerable Grifo for the conditions you find between sand, grass (where you may select a file tread) and all-out mud – until now. Enter Specialized, prolific designers of mountain bike tires, with their new Tracer. Based on the Renegade cross-country tire, it impressed us pretty much from the get-go.
The first thing we noticed is how quickly it seems to roll. While we'd never have described the feel of the Grifo pattern as rough and it doesn't produce a buzz on pavement or hardpack, the Tracer is noticeably smoother, with a feel that's almost like a file-tread. This is a fast tire that will serve most riders much better than a file-tread on most courses.
The Tracer is a round tire and as such it drifts noticeably, but we found it to do so in a very predictable and manageable manner. One of the greatest advantages the tire has over a file tread – especially the new-school 'Americanized' file-treads with side knobs – is its braking traction, which is quite good on most surfaces, from blue groove hardpack to grass, to surfaces that are generally easier to deal with, like loamy dirt.
After spending three months on the Tracer, with a solid month of that racing in dry, dusty conditions, it became our go-to non-mud tire. For typical US courses, we found the Tracer to offer better performance than a chevron-treaded medium condition tire or a file-tread. It doesn't handle sand as well as a typical European-designed file-tread but seems just about as fast, so for most racers there's little reason not to capitalize on the added security of this fast knobby.
The Tracer is based on the Renegade mountain bike tread design
Materials and construction: handmade, with a synthetic casing
Specialized are offering a three-model cyclo-cross tubular line for 2012, available now. The Tracer sits in the middle of the range. All three tires are made with Specialized-designed treads by the Italian/Thai company Challenge. The 410g (average of two test samples) Tracer is handmade using a cold-vulcanization technique – basically, gluing the base-tape and 60a durometer tread to the synthetic, 260 TPI poly-blend casing, which encompasses a Challenge-made latex tube.
The reduced suppleness of the poly casing is noticeable when ridden back-to-back with a high-end cotton-cased competitor, but this is less of an issue with variable condition tires than it is with mud tires, which generally need to be run at lower pressures to deal with the more challenging, slicker conditions they're used in. With a couple more PSI in the tire, the performance gap seems to narrow, and Specialized's excellent tread design seems to make up much of the difference.
Super-bumpy courses show some of the poly-blend casing's weakness; the rider is forced to ride a finer line between finding a pressure low enough for comfort and traction without going too far and producing a folding feeling. Generally we've found cotton casings to have a wider range, meaning they can go lower without folding and are more supple at higher pressures, so they're less dependent on 'nailing' the right pressure.
Construction is high quality and we didn't have any separation between the casing and base tape or tread. The tread wore reasonably and still has plenty of life after three months of use, in which the tires were both trained and raced on, and saw more time on the road than a race tire should. Because the casing material is synthetic, the Tracer is less susceptible to rot than a cotton tire. Furthermore, the tires come coated and don't require additional sealing measures.
Specialized designed the tread pattern and the tubular is manufactured by Challenge