Believe it or not but tyres were actually the first product launched by Specialized, and they did so back in the late 1970s. Granted the brand might these days be synonymous with high-end bikes, but they also know a thing or two about tyres!
With the current range of Specialized mountain bike tyres covering everything from lightweight cross country, to dual ply downhill, to fat bikes and even plus size, no matter what your poison, Specialized has you covered. There is also a range of side wall and rubber compound options to suit all requirements: the S-Works offers the lightest sidewalls for fast cross country performance; the Control offers 15% more sidewall cut resistance over the S-Works; and the Grid offers 23% more sidewall cut resistance over the Control, dual rubber compound for increased grip, and stiffer sidewalls for more cornering support. The dual ply downhill casing offers the highest amount of puncture protection, sidewall support, and dual rubber compound for grip.
Having all of these tyre options at hand, it’s no wonder we are used to seeing Specialized rubber on the bikes of the fastest riders in the world. The likes of Gwin, Brosnan and Kulhavy have all ridden Specialized tyres to World Cup, World Championship, and Olympic victories.
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Specialized tyres use a proprietary compound known as 'Gripton'. The Gripton compound uses 'mostly synthetic rubber reinforced with silicon dioxide', which Specialized claims reduces the amount of energy lost through hysteresis. This basically means less deformation, less heat build-up, and a more efficient tyre with improved rolling resistance when compared to natural rubber.
"Gripton. There really is nothing else like it in bicycle tyres. This is our flagship tyre compound, and it is only available on Specialized tyres."
The Gripton compound is soft, allowing it to adapt and conform to rough surfaces. It has a durometer of 56A, making it much softer than other tyres, meaning the tyre not only conforms to the surface it is rolling over, but also filters vibration, which produces a smoother ride.
The durometer rating of rubber indicates its hardness. Higher numbers represent harder compounds. Lower numbers represent softer compounds. From a mountain biking point of view, the softer durometer rubber will gain more traction, but wear quickly, whereas a harder durometer rubber will sacrifice traction for durability.
With this in mind, Specialized offer varying durometer compounds on all their off-road tyres. XC and Trail tyres use a 60-durometer rubber. All mountain tyres use 60-durometer rubber on the centre tread and 50-durometer rubber on the edge. This improves traction when cornering at high speed and load. The Butcher (Control and Grid versions) use 50-durometer rubber and at the very low end of the scale. Downhill tyres use a 42-durometer rubber providing 'ultra-sticky traction.'
Tyres matter. A lot
To optimise performance from their mountain bike tyre range, Specialized worked extensively on tread pattern. Through 'Finite Element Analysis' Specialized have determined the 'optimal tread block size and shape in order to achieve the elusive goal of high traction and low rolling resistance.'
Specialized have been able to reduce the amount of rubber surrounding the knobs, claiming that 'less material in the tread equals less deformation. This in turn means less rolling resistance, and less rolling resistance means faster'.
Too much rubber makes a tyre slow
Specialized have concentrated on manipulating tread pattern to cater for the 'myriad traction challenges' an off-road tyre faces. They also offer three types of tyre casing across their MTB line: S-Works, Control and Grid.
S-Works features a 120TPI nylon casing, the 'lightest and fastest rolling construction for XC racing' Weight of the S-Works tyre is kept low by eliminating excess rubber, improving the tyre's rolling resistance.
Control features a 60TPI casing, sidewall protection, and more rubber than the S-Works. The Control is described as the 'versatile all-rounder' with a robust 'butyl wrapped nylon casing.'
Grid also features a 60TPI casing with extra protection on the sidewall via a 'cut resistance fabric layer' and is built for everyday use. It's tough, 3-ply casing is strong enough to handle big thorns, rocks, and the roughest terrain.
Watch the tyres being put to the test in Canberra, Australia.
Cross country tyre
A staple of the XC scene, the name says it all. This tyre is FAST. The particular variety of Fast Trak tyres being tested were the 29x2.2 Control 2bliss Ready. The claimed weight is 620g and the pair came in at 610g and 640g, putting them in the ballpark of the competition. Width-wise they are a little skinny. 52.69mm for a 2.2 inch Fast Trak verse 55.15mm for a 2.2 inch Maxxis Icon. Setting the Fast Trak tyres up tubeless was relatively simple on a set of Mavic Crossmax SLR wheels. One tyre went on with floor pump and the other needed some slight encouragement from a compressor - both tyres on in under 10 minutes is a tick in my book.
It is always interesting riding a new type of tyre. You get very familiar and trusting with what you know and going away from that can put questions in your mind: 'how far can I lean in?,' 'will I lose grip through this gravel?,' and 'can I keep traction up this climb?' After only 5 minutes of riding on single track, I can say that all of these questions had been answered and my mind was put at ease. There was no getting-to-know-you period. I could push hard and the Fast Traks would handle it.
Drive grip up steep pinchy climbs was excellent, better than any other XC tyre I’ve ridden. You can take corners with confidence. The small knobs bite into almost all surfaces and when the tyre does start to lose traction when leant over it is progressive, not all or nothing like some tyres out there.
In my eyes the most important features for a XC tyre is consistency and predictability. This has it in spades. There is no vague feeling as you lean further and further over. If a drift does happen, just hold on and enjoy the ride. As for rolling resistance, once again, they’re fast. Some big rides have been logged on the Fast Traks including lots of roads, bike paths and dirt roads. It was never the tyres holding the speed back.
And then there's the all-important tyre pressure question. With the control sidewalls being the more robust version, you can get away with running some pretty low pressures without the dreaded tyre squirm. I weigh 71kg and was comfortably running 22psi in the front and 24psi in the rear, never burping or rolling the tyre. This allowed for amazing grip levels.
After riding over 600-miles on these tyres without the hint of a puncture through almost all possible terrain and condition, their durability can’t be questioned. They wear very slowly and you won’t be seeing torn side knobs after 2 rides like some other brands.
The Fast Trak Control 2Bliss Ready ticks all the boxes. It easily matches its two major competitors in the Schwalbe Racing Ralph and Maxxis Icon and at its price point this tyre represents great value for money.
All Mountain, Gravity, Enduro or trail riding - call it whatever you like. These tyres need to perform well in a variety of conditions. We want them to have the grip of a downhill tyre, the rolling resistance of a XC tyre, and never let you down when the going gets tough. Amongst Specialized’s arsenal of tyres are the Butcher and Purgatory. For testing they were used with the Butcher up front and Purgatory on the rear. The Butcher has a claimed weight of 755g and came in at 760g, and the Purgatory has a claimed weight of 730g and came in at 700g. This puts them on the light side for this type of tyre.
Width-wise, they are a little skinny compared to other 2.3 inch tyres. The Butcher measuring 53.50mm and the Purgatory 54.21mm verse 55.71mm for a Maxxis Minion DHF. Set up was a breeze: added a little sealant and they mounted to a set of Mavic Crossmax XL Pro wheels with only the use of a floor pump, it doesn’t get any easier than this.
Butcher 27.5x2.3 Control 2Bliss Ready
Using the Butcher up front, it handled everything thrown at it: good bite under braking, rolled relatively well for this type of tyre, and had great cornering grip through a wide variety of trail conditions. This tread pattern provides everything I want out of a front tyre for enduro riding. From wet, off-camber roots, dry sandy trails, and rock gardens to manicured berms, there was always ample grip. A true all-round performer.
Purgatory 27.5x2.3 Control 2Bliss Ready
Using the Purgatory on the rear, it had a vastly different job to the Butcher up front. The square edged knobs give buckets of traction on climbs. It was like being a tractor riding up some hills. I was amazed at what I could ride up with this tyre.
Surprisingly with this drive grip, it didn’t translate to a slow rolling tyre. The firmer rubber compound on the centre keeps you rolling along very well. Much the same as the drive grip, braking grip was also excellent: plenty of bite when you get the weight back and slam on the anchors. Depending on your riding style, you may or may not like how this tyre corners. It does tend to drift easily and you will find the rear end sliding more than something with bigger side knobs. However, it is predictable and will not all of a sudden give way. If you don’t mind a bit of drift, this will suit you.
The Butcher and Purgatory had the control casing and for 90% of the riding I did on these they were more than up to it. I never had a puncture, never rolled the tyre off the rim, and never crashed from the tyre unexpectedly losing traction. When pushing hard on descents, the kind of pace you be doing in an enduro race, both front and rear tyres squirmed a lot under braking and cornering and the rear tyre would often squeeze out a burp of air and sealant on fast berms.
My advice: if you’re a casual trail rider or looking for a more aggressive XC tyre, the control casing will be fine, but if you’re an enduro racer who pushes hard, go for the GRID compound that gives a stiffer side wall for better cornering support and added puncture protection.
Hero image provided by Specialized