Ask anyone what tyres you should fit on your cyclocross bike and it’s a fair bet that they will answer “Challenge.”
The fact that the trademark gum walls serve to increase the look and lines of your bike immeasurably only adds to the Challenge appeal. But are these tyres all they are cracked up to be?
It’s true that some riders’ opinions of Challenge tyres are less than glowing. The rubber they are constructed from is particularly soft, which contributes to the low rolling resistance but as a result, nasty things can stick to it. These could gradually work their way through until the inevitable breach in the rubber occurs.
This blighted the Belgian women’s team who Challenge sponsor - they reported a lot of punctures on training rides. Meanwhile the men’s team, who were riding the same Challenge tyres, didn’t report any problems. This turned out to be because the men’s team was coating its tyres with vinegar in winter, known as the “season of the little stones” in Belgium which lasts about seven months.
The logic is simple. The vinegar hardens up the rubber and prevents sharp stones from bedding in. The centrifugal force of the spinning wheel does the rest of the job, flinging the stones back away from the tyre. Vinegar should be applied every two or three days during the winter, according to anyone who has ever raced in Belgium, apparently.
Hadleigh Castle Olympic MTB track isn’t, admittedly, Belgium, although it wouldn’t have been far from it before the tectonic plates shifted. Nevertheless it provided an ideal testing ground for the Challenge Baby Limus, with its gravel trails and snaking hillside courses. On top of that, you can choose to cycle along road to get there or ride along the edge of a field. We chose road one way, field the other. On one of the grimmest days of a particularly grim winter so far.
You only realise how good your tyres are when you realise you are tackling ridiculous terrain and still remaining upright. It helps to keep the PSI low (we went for around 50 to allow for the variety of surfaces) but generally if you’re descending confidently on wet stones around hairpins so squished together that they almost overlap themselves, on a track designed for mountain bikes while you’re riding a cross bike, then they must be pretty decent.
Challenge tyres are of a handmade tubular construction - even the clincher versions are known as “open tubulars”. The casing is 300 threads per inch, which is almost unheard of outside of tubular tyres and means you are actually getting a tubular that you can put an inner tube into. Generally speaking, the more threads per inch, the thinner each individual thread. This makes the casing thinner and lighter and consequently the tyre more supple. The rubber is natural, rather than the usual synthetic, which Challenge says aids grip, and each tyre is hand stitched in the factory in Thailand. None of this vulcanisation (essentially melting of rubber), which also hardens a tyre up and affects the grip.
The Baby Limus is a new model to the Challenge lineup, offering a more spaced-out tread which enables it to cut its way through mud. Varying tread heights help when you’re riding along a hard surface, such as a road. A pretty decent all-rounder really, although you won’t want to ride too long on the road with them.
You really notice the difference the softer rubber makes to grip and overall ride characteristics, but the thing you will notice before anything else is how easy they are to get on the wheel. So easy, in fact, that we wondered if we had done it right, especially since the Hunt tubeless-ready wheels we were attaching them to were supposed to be a bugger for attaching tyres.
We admit we haven’t given our Baby Limus the vinegar treatment yet - it’s one of those things that you remember just as you’re about to do battle with a muddy field. We might be tempting fate but neither have we experienced the sharp end of the “season of the little stones.” Talk about tempting fate.
Summary: All the feel and benefits of a tubular tyre minus the four-day gluing process. Regarded as the premium cyclocross tyre for good reason, although if you want to avoid falling victim to the “season of the little stones,” get the vinegar out.
4 / 5
£46.80 (per tyre)
Previously published on www.thetimes.co.uk/onyourbike on January 5 2016