Wide, Supple Tires Perform Well But Come with Quirks
In September, I reviewed the Compass Stampede Pass 700×32 tires. I was interested in the move to wider tires and thought that going from 25s up to 32s would be a good test of their reported benefits: a smoother ride, greater resistance to pinch flats and no loss in speed compared to “racier” tires. As I reported in that review, the Stampede Pass tires performed admirably.
But they still left hanging the question: How wide can you go?
With that question in mind, Jan Heine of Compass Bicycles sent me a pair of their Barlow Pass 700×38 Extralight tires. They’re designed to duplicate the legendary performance of the high-volume, handmade clinchers ridden by French randonneurs in the 1930s and 40s on the rough, often unpaved roads of the time.
My initial impression as I opened the package – these puppies are wide. Visually extravagant might be a better term. They appear much larger in proportion to the bike than the 32s, which looked plenty voluminous and drew questions (and a little dismay) from other riders.
But the Barlow Pass tires scream “monster truck” to most roadies. (See the photo of the tires on my Rivendell Roadeo.) Peering down on the front tire, I was reminded of how a racing teammate once described the team-issue 25mm tires we received at a time when 23s were considered wide: “fat, black sausages.” I wondered what he’d think of these 38s? And I wondered why I’d want them on my road bike.
An October ride near my western Colorado home provided an answer.
These Tires Expand Your Riding Universe
I started in town, meandered onto paved farm and ranch roads and then struck off on a mixture of dirt and gravel. The puffy tires rolled at my usual speed on pavement and handled the unpaved surfaces with plenty of traction in loose corners and surprising comfort even on washboard.
But the real payoff came when I detoured off the dirt road and headed out on the local singletrack playground, Buzzard Gulch. It’s moderate singletrack by Colorado standards—packed dirt, slickrock and small climbs tucked in the pinion and juniper trees—so it was perfect for tackling with a road bike. The Barlow Pass tires gripped almost as well as knobbies on dirt. They were even better on rock, with a gecko-like adhesion akin to climbing shoes on granite.
They also provided sufficient air volume to protect the rims while bouncing over rocks. I had fun swooping in and out of gullies, and while I would have descended faster on a suspended mountain bike, I went faster uphill on my light road bike. And in spite of cactus by the trail, as well as sharp rocks, the tires suffered no punctures or sidewall problems. Simply mounting fatter tires transformed my road bike into a much more versatile performer.
Before investing in a pair of tires this wide, though, check your bike’s clearance carefully. As I mentioned in the previous review, you need a bike with sufficient room for wide tires, and the 38s push the limits on even those frames designed with them in mind. On my Rivendell Roadeo, there was sufficient clearance, but I couldn’t have mounted fenders safely.
Pressure and Punctures
Compass tires come in both regular and extralight models. The difference in weight is mainly due to the casing. Heine’s testing has shown that tire performance is dependent on casing suppleness, so the extralight casings are thin indeed, reminding me of the old Clement Criterium tubulars.
Inflation pressures are important with wide tires. After the Stampede Pass review, I was taken to task by readers for running them too hard, at around 85 psi. So I reduced the wider Barlow Pass tires’ pressure to the 50 psi range. To my senses, accustomed to running 90-100 psi in 25 or 28 mm tires, the 38s felt a bit squirmy at first. But I quickly got used to the feeling and was rewarded with more cush on rough surfaces.
With the thin casing, I was concerned about punctures. I haven’t flatted the Stampede Pass 32s yet, but on the second ride with the Barlow Pass 38 tires, after a total of about 90 miles, I got a slow leak in the rear. The culprit turned out to be a goathead thorn the size of a fingernail paring that had gradually worked its way through the thinner tread on the outside of the casing and into the tube.
I normally have flats from these obnoxious weeds only once or twice a year. However, 2014 was wetter than normal, so the offending vines had grown up in the pavement cracks on little-used roads. Because bad luck with punctures is essentially random, it’s possible I would have had the same result with heavier tires. And the Barlow Pass tires handled the Buzzard Gulch singletrack with no problems. To take some liberties with Einstein, the puncture gods are both subtle and malicious.
A Few Quirks of Wider Tires
When I changed out the punctured tube by the roadside, I noticed two other quirks of wider tires. The quick release on my Shimano dual pivot brakes didn’t open wide enough to clear the tire so I had to undo the brake cable to get the re-inflated tire in. Not a big deal but another step in the flat repair process.
Also, I struggled with my Lezyne Road Drive mini-pump to get enough air into the big-volume casing. It was quite an arm workout to squeeze in 40 psi so I could ride home with no fear of a pinch flat. I usually carry a Blackburn Frame Pump along the left seatstay, but the wide tires rubbed on the pump’s shaft. The longer pump would have made the inflation task easier. (And if you prefer CO2 cartridges for your roadside inflation, be sure to carry multiples, or big enough cartridges to adequately inflate these tires. You might try practicing at home to see how much they hold.)
Winter set in before I could accumulate enough miles on the Barlow Pass tires to check their resistance to wear. However, after about 800 miles there is no tread wear visible and the sidewalls are pristine. For the same reason, I was unable to return to Red Mountain Pass where I tested the descending chops of the 32mm Stampede Pass tires. Based on the 38mm tires’ grip on shorter, curvy descents, I am sure they’d grip at least as tenaciously on any corner.
A Few Trade-Offs of Thin Casings
Running wide tires with a supple and thin casing definitely involves trade-offs. On the plus side, there’s greater comfort, tempting you onto small roads with bad pavement but great scenery, the kind of roads we often avoid on narrower tires. They definitely have more descending grip. They reduce fears of your tire falling into narrow pavement cracks and causing a crash. And they make your bike much more versatile, capable of riding pavement with no loss of speed compared to narrower rubber but also up to the challenge of dirt roads and mild singletrack.
Negatives include an arguably greater risk of punctures from small, sharp objects like goatheads and tire wires and a few inconveniences of wider casings like brake compatibility and frame clearance. They also increase toe overlap and raise the bottom bracket height compared to lower-profile tires.
Will I leave the 38s on the Roadeo? I envision using narrower and more flat-resistant tires, like Continental 4Seasons in 28mm, for winter rides when the roads are more littered with debris but mounting the Barlow Pass tires in more clement weather. They’ll be a big advantage when dry conditions tempt me onto varied surfaces. I also like them for added comfort on long rides, as well as increased cornering control on Colorado descents.
These “fat, black sausages” may look odd to conventional roadies’ eyes, but they justify the choices of those French randonneurs of nearly a century ago.