Joining the Arms Race - Switching to Challenge Grifo Tubulars for CX

3:03 PM

When I started cycling it didn't take long for me to see the arms race at work.  When you have a sport that is populated by (primarily) middle-aged men with large disposable incomes it is not all that surprising to see hitech gagetry move from the professional ranks down to the Freds.  I am no longer shocked to watch the men in category 4/5 cyclocross line up with their carbon fiber bikes and Zipp wheels.

At first, I was immune to this.  I loved my stock bike, with my stock wheels, and my new sport.  I made bold claims like "you can't tell the difference between those wheels!" and "the weight difference isn't all that much!"  And I believed these things when I said them.

I blame The Spouse for my transformation from a stock-racer to a weight-weenie-gear-junkie.  While I was digging in my heels, he was doing research to improve his entry-level cross bike.  First came a new Easton EC 90 fork, then a used set of Dura Ace wheels.  To be honest, I didn't pay too much attention until his upgrades moved on to a whole new bike and I became the recipient of his hand-me-down fork and wheels.

I still remember that first workout.  It turns out I could feel the difference, in both weight and handling, with the new wheels and fork.  Cornering was amazing, as I was fully able to appreciate the difference in weight on rolling parts.  Before my new wheels and fork I had a small doubt in the back of my mind that my bike didn’t fit me very well.  I am a tall rider and my Gary Fisher Presidio is a tall bike, but at times I felt top-heavy out on the course when things got a bit technical.  With the new parts I gained an immediate confidence that translated into improved skills and a lot more fun.

I loved my upgrades, but always felt that tubulars were just a step too far.  I didn’t want to add something that required messing around with glue.  I listened to the converted rave about how low they could get their tire pressure, but I still wasn’t swayed.  I’m not exactly a heavy rider and had always raced in the mid-20s for pressure without any difficulty on my clinchers.

Then I pinched-flatted at a race this year.  Maybe if I had been having a mediocre race at that point I would have just replaced my tube and checked my pressure a little more carefully the next time, but I was having an amazing day and was completely bummed to be standing on the other side of the tape watching the racers zoom by.  It also helped that, once again, I had a convenient pair of hand-me-down tubulars just waiting for my use.  Because of (yet another) upgrade to his bike, The Spouse now had an extra pair of Easton EA70 wheels with Challenge Grifo tubulars ready to mount.  Not wanting to get into the minutiae of learning how to glue them up, I relied on my LBS to get them ready.

Call me a converted fanatic.  Before getting my tubulars I thought I was fairly aggressive in corners, but it didn’t take long for me to rip through the turns with ease on the Grifos.  I could actually hear the grass shredding beneath the treads.  The first course I used them on was not particularly technical, but did have a long off-camber section with several tricky turns.  I immediately noticed that while several ladies were off their bikes negotiating the turns in traffic or spinning their rear wheel out on the punchy uphills, I was able to ride through everything.  Because of the amazing grip I didn’t have any trouble getting out of the seat and powering up steep hills. I also took more speed into corners and found myself leaning in more to maintain that speed.  

I loved them right away, and every additional race on them convinced me they were worth any extra fussiness.  The Jingle Cross courses threw long steep uphills, long technical downhills and mud at the racers over the weekend - and my wheel set-up was perfect for everything.  Dry or wet, the Grifos are an amazing all-around tire.  

By the end of the season I was still loving the tubulars, and look forward to even more aggressive riding next fall.  I haven’t yet dialed in the pressure.  I’ve discovered that when I drop it to around 20 to 22 psi I feel like I’m going to flat, even though I know someone my size could easily ride lower than 20 pounds.  I will have to experiment more with the variable pressures next season to really figure out what I am comfortable with and what works best in which conditions.  Perhaps that is the best argument I can make for the tubulars - even though I tend to like a simple set-up with my bikes, I’m totally willing and excited to fuss around with my new tires because of what a difference they make in my racing.

Now, if only they were free...

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