Cyclocross tire treads & the practical use of each, Part 1

Let’s talk a little bit about cyclocross tires.

First things first, we’re talking about tubular tires here. At the elite — truly elite, IE World Cup — level, there isn’t anyone running clinchers, or tubeless clinchers. There just isn’t.

Will there be, in a few years? I don’t know. Tubeless technology has certainly advanced over the last few years, but it simply hasn’t advanced far enough to allow for the low pressures that one consistently finds in the tires of the top competitors. How low? In the neighborhood of one bar is commonplace. Try running that in your tubeless cyclocross tires. Let me know what happens… after you clean the sealant off of everything.

So, we’re talking tubular tires, and this simplifies things for us. In fact, we can pretty much encapsulate nearly the entirety of the tire pattern discussion at the World Cup level with two words; “Grifo” and “Rhino.”

This is a Grifo —

intermediate tire tread

The Grifo is an intermediate tread cyclocross tire. It’s the most versatile tire in the quiver, the one that gets pulled out the most often. The knobs are small, so it rides fast on hard-packed terrain, and the profile is rounded so that while it hooks up reasonably well in the turns, there’s no abrupt edge to catch or skip out when you lean the bike over, the real pitfall or more aggressive tread profiles. Drop the pressure down low enough, and the terrain that this tire can continue to perform well on is astonishing. Race courses that most recreational riders wouldn’t even think of riding on anything short of the most aggressive, big-knobbed tire they own will be attacked on Grifo treads by the entirety of the World Cup peloton.

It’s important to note that when we say “Grifo” we’re really talking about a genus of tire patterns that are all variations of the same theme, but sold under several brand names. Grifo, Typhoon, MXP, Slalom, all close cousins. Heck, “cousins” isn’t close enough, this is more like one of those “multiple twins separated at birth” kinda’ stories.

This is a Rhino — mud cyclocross tire

The Rhino lives in the mud, but because it has a more or less continuous center tread block, it still rolls fast. In fact, the Rhino isn’t really much (if any) slower than the Grifo in a straight line, but the tall(er) side tread of this pattern will squirm under cornering pressure on hard surfaces, much more so than the Grifo.

Doppelgangers for the Rhino? The Clement PDX, for sure. The FMB Super Mud, kinda. The Challenge Limus, kinda/sorta.

There’s more variation in the mud patterns for a couple of reasons; one, they haven’t been around very long. If you’ve been racing as long as I have, you may actually remember when the Rhino first came out. Twenty, twenty five years ago, we didn’t have big knob mud treads at all. This means that, unlike the Grifo pattern, there are actually patents and IP protections preventing people from just copying whatever pattern seems to work for the top guys. This happens to be pretty good news, because…

Two, tread patterns matter more in a mud tire. Bigger tread blocks for traction, or smaller ones that pack up less? Continuous center tread for fast rolling, or broken-up for better grip? Small variations make a difference, the bigger the tread, the bigger the difference.

Having said all that? Look on the tires at the next muddy World Cup race. They’ll be running Dugast Rhino treads, almost without exception.

If you think you’re picking up on a theme here, you’re right. The vast, vast majority of professional cyclocross races are won on a Grifo or a Rhino, or on a subtle variation on one of these two themes. With one notable exception.

In the top ranks of European cross, you’ll also frequently see this —

european cyclocross tire

This is a file tread cyclocross tire. It’s used on courses that feature lots of deep sand, and — very rarely — snow and/or ice.

That’s it.

Unlike in the US, you simply won’t see file treads in other conditions. No sand? No file tread.

Ultimately, it’s all pretty simple like that.

Sandy? File tread.

Muddy? Rhino

Everything else? Grifo.

So, if you’re looking for cyclocross tires, this is where to begin. Start with one of these patterns, or something that looks like one of them. If the races in your locale trend towards hardpack, grass, or sandy surfaces? Your default tire is a Grifo pattern.

Tend to find yourself racing in the mud? You’re best starting off on something Rhino-like.

Live in Belgium, or The Netherlands? You’re going to need a set of files for the sand.

It’s just that simple.

“But wait!” you say. “What about all those other non-Grifo, non-Rhino tire patterns that are out there these days?

Stay tuned for part II…

Check out other cyclocross articles from the Source Endurance team.