Lighten up - how tan wall tyres became a metaphor of cycling today
Last week, a man walked into The Bike Rooms in Piccadilly in London to pick up his brand new Dogma F10 - a matt black jaw dropper of an Italian drool machine with a cycling performance pedigree comparable to Ferrari.
What was interesting was not so much his choice of bike, but his choice of tyres. He had brought his own for the mechanic to fit, a pair of Vittoria Corsa G+ with tan side walls.
There was a time, we'll call it the dark ages, when cycle tyres were black. Big black tubes of rubber on rims with sections deeper than the Mariana Trench.
It was a sector dominated by Continental and their GP4000. It wasn't so much that we didn't want tan wall tyres, it was more that they weren't available. And besides, Conti had it nailed - the GP series was nigh on bombproof and gripped the road like velcro.
Tan walls were an option only for the pros, and those who took their riding so seriously that they would be happy to ride tubulars and be prepared to put up with the risks associated. Namely that at any moment that tub could blow, probably at your furthest, remotest point from home and you would have no way of fixing it. Because tubs aren't clinchers and there's no inner tube to replace.
So we looked on at a peloton whose wheels looked that much nicer due to the tan-ness of their walls, the way they accentuated the carbon, made it pop. Because we've become a sartorially aware bunch over the years. You can blame Rapha for that. If we'd been cycling 20 years ago we'd have been happy with a stinky old Santini jersey and a bike that moved without squeaking. Nowadays its all "oooh look at you and your fresh new jersey / wheels / bike". We are a peloton of dandies, we actually think about the best way to look bad in lycra.
Which is why tan wall tyres have become a metaphor of cycling today. They are the tyre trend and an astonishing demonstration of marketing genius on the part of Vittoria. In terms of quality, Vittoria's Corsa G+ don't come close to Conti on puncture resistance, grip, or longevity. But we don't give a shit because they are winners on looks. They are the sultry Italian temptress of the tyre world and we are hopelessly in lust.
Oddly, the German bratwurst munchers that are Continental have had a tyre with a contrast sidewall all along. The Continental GPClassic possesses all the characteristics of a GP4000 but with a retro looking red-brown sidewall. It could easily be a strong contender for a Vittoria Corsa but rather than ramp up production and marketing, Continental chose instead to quietly sweep it under the carpet. Knowledge of its existence remains only on a mythical level among those few who visit the Continental website.
Instead, Continental is rumoured to be developing an entirely new tan wall option. Better late than never you might say. Then we might get the looks and the ability, a perfect 10 of the tyre world.
Until then at least we have sizzling Italian good looks, and a spare inner tube.