It’s a predictable pattern. The morning after a title event, athletes, fans, pundits and journalists play Monday morning quarterback and reconsider a coach’s personnel decisions, the air pressure in equipment as well as cleat and tread choices.
Sure, Belgian team manager Sven Vanthourenhout’s choice of picking a young team and excluding last year’s bronze medalist seems to have worked out just fine, and we won’t really know if anything was underinflated or whose shoes were underspiked in Valkenburg, but tread choice? We’re always happy to geek out there.
Cant Starts the Switcheroo
After Wout van Aert’s success running dual casing tubulars and old green Michelin clincher treads at the 2017 Cyclocross World Championships, there was much talk about tire choice coming into the epically muddy 2018 Championships in Valkenburg-Limburg.
Van Aert’s coach Niels Albert threw more burning rubber into the fire earlier last week, stating that they were working on a special tire for Worlds.
Yet, before Sunday had even arrived, there was already talk about unconventional tire choices winning the World Championships. After Saturday’s three races were over, there was only one title-winning tire: the Challenge Limus.
While riders using the Limus, Challenge’s main mud tread (and past Editors’ Choice winner), shouldn’t be a surprise in such muddy conditions, it was a bit of a surprise to see Sanne Cant lining up in Valkenburg-Limburg with the tires.
After Katie Compton and Sanne Cant escaped their competitors and set up for a thrilling two-woman battle, we believe it was already a foregone conclusion that a Challenge Limus would sweep the day’s titles. Compton swapped to Challenge from Donnelly at the turn of the year.
However, Cant normally rides FMB tubulars mounted to her Cole wheels, and earlier this season we got a close look at her dry conditions tire choice:
Although FMB released a new mud tread this past season, which look remarkably similar to Van Aert’s winning Mud tires from last year, Cant did not roll on the new green rubber in Valkenburg:
Instead, after trying the heavily-knobbed Challenge Limus in pre-ride, Cant swapped to them for her title defense.
Either Compton or Cant seemed destined to continue the string of victories already set by the young Brits in the morning with Ben Tulett’s Junior Men’s win and Evie Richard’s title-reclaiming ride on Limus earlier in the day.
Sloppy Sunday Has Van Der Poel Second Guessing
Before the final race kicked off on Sunday, after Eli Iserbyt’s win on Limus in the U23 Men’s race, most money was unknowingly on a Challenge Limus to sweep all five races.
Did the previous four wins on a single tread call for a last-minute switch by Mathieu van der Poel, the pre-race favorite?
Van der Poel, who normally rides Dugast, defended his choice of using his normal Rhino mud tires in 2017 in Bieles after his multiple flats.
“These are the tires I ride on the whole year, and I don’t know why I should change it for one particular race.” -Mathieu van der Poel after his four flat tires at the 2017 Worlds.
When he took the start this past Sunday, it appeared that he had reconsidered that use-only-what-you-know approach.
In Valkenburg-Limburg, Van der Poel lined up behind the rainbow striped start line with his rainbow jersey hopes also riding on Challenge Limus tubulars—the first time we’ve seem him do so—and likely a result of Cant’s choice and experience.
When defending his tire choice from last year, Van der Poel did hint that he could be convinced otherwise. “I make my own choice,” he explained. “I do what I think is best. If someone else has a good opinion I will follow it. I’m not too stubborn to see when someone else has a better idea than I have.”
Sanne Cant, who rides for Van der Poel’s Correndon Circus sister team, Iko Beobank, seemed to have a better, winning idea on Saturday.
It’s also worth noting that in Europe, most racers are not constrained by tire sponsorships like teams are in the States. In fact, many racers pay for their tires and ultimately have the option to ride anything.
Albert and Van Aert Downsize
Of course, Van der Poel wasn’t the only one to execute a tread swap. Van Aert and Albert sure talked up their tire game before Worlds.
While Albert has an extensive tire cellar, his master plan for Valkenburg-Limburg was rumored to be a Dugast-built tire based around a 26″ mountain bike tread for extra grip on the hilly, muddy course, according to Sunday’s UCI broadcast team of Anthony McCrossan and Simon Burney.
While it’s common for road racers to want to be as skinny as possible when a title is on the line, perhaps pushing the limits of a T.U.E. to do so, cyclocrossers often want to go the opposite direction with their tires, going fatter and up to the 33mm limit for better floatation over bumps, in the sand, and more contact with the ground.
However, Albert and Van Aert went through the effort to have the UCI pre-measure the mounted prototype tire, but apparently found it at the limits of the 33mm maximum width. So they went in the opposite direction.
In muddy, soft conditions, narrower tires have long been touted as a smart choice, especially years ago when frames’ mud clearance was minimal. A narrower tire offers more clearance inside the frame and fork, and in certain conditions, cuts through the slop and potentially has a better chance to get more bite into a harder surface below. Also, in the soft conditions, the shock absorption of higher-volume tires is unnecessary.
On Sunday, Van Aert told Cyclocross Magazine’s Corey Coogan Cisek another reason for picking narrower tires.
“I think I am one of the few guys in the peloton who likes to ride on narrow tires.”
Van Aert ran his normal Dugast Rhino tubulars in 30mm width. “I [ran] normal mud tires, but the only difference is I [ran] more narrow, so 30mm width.”
On the heavily rutted course, it’s arguable that Van Aert could slot into ruts with a bit less precision, and roll through them with a bit less friction and rolling resistance.
“I felt comfortable today in the ruts because [the tires] are more narrow than the rut actually is so you are more sliding through it.”
For the third time in the last four World Championships, Van Aert and Albert left no knob unturned as they considered their tires for Van Aert’s title defense, and based on their result, it’s hard to second-guess their choice.
Yet Van Aert isn’t quick to credit his choice with the win.
“I don’t know, but I think it wasn’t a story about tires this year,” he said.
“It was more a story about strong legs.”
We can’t argue with that.
For more from Valkenburg-Limburg, see our dedicated 2018 Cyclocross World Championships page.