There has been a rash of racing tires introduced for 29″ers lately that don’t necessarily hold to the less tread/lighter weight theory. For lack of a better term, I call these “middleweight” race tires. Let’s take a look at three of the latest introductions and get a brief comparison of each.
Note: The tires were all ridden on different wheel sets and one set was tubed. The other two were tubeless. All three were used on the same test loop on the same bike, (a Salsa El Mariachi), and on the same day. Trails consisted of loam, hard pack, grass, sand, and rooty down hills and climbs.
The Contenders: The three tires in the test were the The GEAX Barro Race, the new Bontrager 29-3 tire, and the Continental Race King 2.2.
These tires all share similar traits in that they all can be run tubeless, (albeit the Conti isn’t blatantly marketed this way, it can be run tubeless.) They all have actual tread, (the GEAX model having the least tall tread), and all are nominally two inches in width, (with the rear 29-3 being the narrow one in the bunch). These tires are all relatively new introductions, and may be hard to find right now, but should all be available widely very soon. All are marketed as racing tires. Let’s take a look at each with comments following for performance.
GEAX Barro Race: We’ve been testing these tires for a bit now, but only on “real” single track just recently. The GEAX Barro Race is a “low tread” version of the Barro Mud tire. The width is good, although slightly less than the claimed two inches out of the box. The claimed width was attained after a few rides though. The TNT concept is excellent, although it adds weight. The Barro Race weighs about 630 grams each. A small price to pay for sidewall durability. Weight weenies could opt for the 425 gram folder version of the Barro Race, but would have a definite thin side wall.
Performance: The Barro Race is a strange tire in that the minimal tread in the center vibrates the saddle and the bars more than you might think. Out on rough single track, this sensation soon disappears. The Barro feels good on climbs, downhills are done without much drama, and braking traction is average. Where the Barro Race shined was on off cambers and in cornering performance. The outer tread knobs are the reason why. They grip quite well, and this tire likes a toss and lean style of turning. I found the tire would rail on corners if I trusted it to grip when I launched the El Mariachi over on its side. This style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; however, so be advised if you do not prefer that sort of turning style. The Barro Race may be a bit vague at lean angles just off center, since it hasn’t much for knobs in the center section. I found the Barro race to be okay in the sand, worked a treat over roots, and was generally a good tire overall. Lower pressures worked better. I ran 24psi rear and 21 psi front, which worked great for me. Overall, the Barro Race comes out feeling more like a trail tire than a race tire.
Bontrager 29-3: Here we have a front/rear specific tire set. I know folks will match front/front and rear/rear sets for their intended purposes, but I am going to be talking only about the set as they were designed to be run. The 29-3 uses Bontrager’s new 29″er specific design philosophy. These tread designs were designed from the ground up with big wheelers in mind. The set features a front that is voluminous, is a claimed 2.25 inches, (but is actually a 2.1), and has a rather “Prowler-like” look to it. The rear is a smaller tire in every dimension with a “Hutchinson Python-like” appearance, although it is smaller than that tire. The set looks odd, but looks are not everything. The excellent Tubeless Ready System beads were built into this tire, making them a no-brainer to set up. The production weights of the rear tire should be in the upper 500 gram range and the front will weigh about a 100 grams more in production trim.
Performance: Again, as odd as these tires may seem, looks can be deceiving. The 29-3 rear does more than you might think in terms of climbing traction, which is surprising given that it is a 1.85 inch tire, (Claimed 2.00). The front tire is very trail tire like, and mimics a Prowler’s performance very well. The front tire has huge volume, and I would recommend it to rigid fork users. In corners, the rear felt as if it was at its limits at times, but the front never got there. High lean angles, just off center lean angles, it didn’t matter to the Bontrager tires. Braking traction wasn’t good for the rear, but excellent up front. The front shed the tacky earth sections well, but the rear showed a propensity for packing up. It isn’t going to be a wet weather tire. Sand wasn’t great either, as the narrow rear cut in and lacked the propelling tread necessary to get out. Tire pressures worked best low in front, and at least 30 psi rear, due to the rear tires lack of volume. Overall a “Jekyll and Hyde” type of tire set that was a bit of a conundrum as a race tire set up.
Continental Race King 2.2: The Race King is Continental’s third 29″er tire and its first racing tire set for 29″ers. Consisting of lots of smallish, triangular knobs on a very tall, rounded profile casing, these tires were not transmitting a lot of confidence in traction to me by their looks. But again, just as with the Bontrager tires, looks can be misleading. The Race Kings should weigh about 640 grams on average and were 2.02 inches when mounted, (2.2 inch claimed) Note: The tires are still stretching, but most likely won’t quite get to 2.2 inch status. The Race Kings were the only tires in this test set up with tubes, but I will set them up tubeless soon. I noticed that the Race Kings set up taller than most 29″er tires this width, giving them lots of available cush.
Performance: The Race Kings are a surprise in that they have a great grip for climbing and cornering. This is even more surprising given the odd triangular shaped knobs which seem too close together to work as well as they do. Not only that, but they roll quite well, with little to no buzz on hard surfaces. The tallish casing allows you to slam roots that might otherwise pinch tires against rims. I ran pressures at 22psi front and 27psi rear which worked really well. The Continentals worked well at all lean angles in corners and in sand they tracked straight and were an above average performer there. I wouldn’t suspect a Race King would make a good mud tire, but it didn’t pack up any tacky earth like the rear 29-3 did, which again was somewhat of a surprise given the closely set knob pattern. Overall the Race King is a bit disappointing width-wise, but over achieves performance-wise to make up for it.
Conclusions: The racing tires with the best performance are usually the ones that allow a level of comfort and confidence to the rider. A tire that does the job just about everywhere and doesn’t let you down is ideal. Do any of the “middleweight contenders” qualify? I would stick the Continental Race King up there as “that tire”. It doesn’t favor any one type of cornering style, climbing style, and just plain works all over the trail. The Barro Race is an excellent tire, but it works best in corners with a hard leaning type of riding style, which isn’t going to work for everyone. The 29-3 is a confusing set up as is. A straight up rear/rear tire set up might prove to be a racier way to go here, but the underwhelming volume and width wouldn’t be very good for bigger, more aggressive riders. The front/front combo would be a great all around trail tire set up, but I wouldn’t call it a racing set up. My vote for middleweight race tire champ goes to the Continental Race King. It scores well in all categories and will roll along with the best racing treads with little to no penalty.
Look for further opinions and reviews on all three of these tires in the future.