By Ed Pavelka
I have lots of respect for Jan Heine. He’s a talented long-distance rider and randonneur, being the first American finisher in the rainy, windy 2007 edition of Paris-Brest-Paris. He operates Vintage Bicycle Press in Seattle and produces its estimable magazine, Bicycle Quarterly. I think I learn more about cycling technology and history from each issue than from all other sources combined.
By reading BQ I know Heine is a hard-nosed critic when evaluating bikes and equipment. He prefers to base his judgments on objective testing whenever possible. In fact, reviews are usually accompanied by footnotes to substantiating studies or corroborating data. His advertisers don’t seem to receive soft treatment, and he keeps it all above board by informing readers of any potential conflicts of interest.
That’s especially true when it comes to several products Heine deals in. For example: “Disclaimer: Vintage Bicycle Pressimports Grand Bois tires and sells Challenge tires.”
That notice adjoins a recent tire evaluation on Heine’s website. Grand Bois and Challenge (formerly Clement) are 2 brands that he thinks so much of that he’s made them part of his business. Their quality was proven to him on his wheels and in what he terms a “real road” test. That’s a rollout evaluation to determine a tire’s speed in authentic riding conditions rather than in a lab on a drum.
Heine sent sample pairs of Grand Bois “Cerf” clincher tires to me and Fred Matheny when he began importing the brand early last year. We received the narrowest version — 700×26 — known as the Cerf “blue label” model. Heine also stocks the Cerf 700×28 “green label” as well as other 700C and 650B tires.
The following experiences are only about the 700×26 Cerf. We did not try the wider green label version.
Fred’s Thorny Start
Coach Fred put his Cerfs (“deer” in French) on the road first.
These Japanese clinchers, made for Grand Bois by Panaracer, have foldable Kevlar beads, but in order to keep rolling resistance and weight down they do not have Kevlar or any other special puncture-resistant material under the tread. This proved to be a vulnerability in springtime Colorado, where wind blows debris onto the roads — including the landmines known as goat head thorns.
In the first 300 miles (480 km), Fred had 2 flats. That’s about his yearly quota, so he was justifiably unimpressed with the tires and leery of continuing to use them. He wrote to Heine to ask if the Cerfs were known to be puncture prone.
Heine’s reply: “After more than 2 years on these tires and perhaps 15,000 miles, I average about a puncture every 2,000 miles, and I ride in the city where there is abundant glass on the roads. With sturdier ‘touring’ tires, I get about a flat every 3,000 miles. The 2 punctures appear to be just bad luck.”
Fred put another 400 miles (640 km) on the tires and had better luck — no more flats.
My Bumpy Start
After returning to the road following hip surgery, I used the Cerfs on my randonnee bike for the remainder of the 2008 season. I live in southeastern Pennsylvania where the country roads are in pretty good shape and are rarely littered with glass or other obvious puncture producers. Goat head thorns are unknown.
I had no flats during the initial 562 miles but had to stop using the rear tire at that point. I’d begun to feel thumping in the rear wheel, which turned out to be caused by the casing malfunction you see in this photo snapped in my basement shop. I emailed Heine to describe the problem and get an explanation.
“We have had a few isolated problems like that — 4 tires so far out of more than 1,500 sold,” he replied. “We returned the defective tires to Panaracer. They found that the casing sections, which are joined under the tread, did not overlap sufficiently. This is a quality-control defect, and they have taken measures to make sure it does not happen in future batches.
“Vintage Bicycle Press stands behind the tires we sell. While most companies do not allow returns of tires once they have been ridden, we will replace defective tires. I am sending you a new tire in today’s mail.”
The replacement Cerf arrived promptly. I installed it on the rear wheel and finished the season on it. During those additional 1,808 miles (2,910 km) I had no flats and the casing was sound. The tread squared off slightly, as all rear tires eventually do, but it looks capable of lasting another 1,000 miles (1,600 km). I count only 3 tiny nicks in the tread and no sidewall problems. For the record, during these miles my average weight was 200 lbs. (91 kg) and my moderately loaded bike was 30 lbs. (13.6 kg).
The original front tire was not defective and has remained on my bike, rolling through 2,730 miles (3,815 km) without a flat. Wear is so minimal that the file tread in the center is still visible. The sidewalls are grimy and scuffed in a couple of spots but show no abnormal wear.
On his website, Heine explains why wider tires can be faster than narrower ones and why they can hold the road better. He cites other advantages, such as allowing riders to venture safely onto roads that are in poor condition or even unpaved. Wider tires can be inflated with less pressure to add comfort on any surface.
His belief in the advantages of greater width leads him to offer tires no narrower than 26 mm, the width of the Cerfs we tested. The downsides of greater width are more weight and the possibility that the tire won’t fit into some frames or forks, or won’t fit when fenders are installed.
The 26-mm Cerfs aren’t so wide that fit should be a problem for most road bikes. They fit fine in my Independent Fabrication Club Racer and in Coach Fred’s Rivendell Rambouillet, both frames being made for sport riding or light touring. They were too wide, however, for his Serotta Ottrott and Ritchey Breakaway travel. I didn’t use them on my 1995 Litespeed Vortex but they do fit.
On my first ride, the Cerfs brought a smile. They rolled noticeably smoother than the tires they replaced, Continental Ultra Race 700×25 (240 grams), or any other rubber I could recall. Usually when changing tires I need to think hard about difference in road feel. Not in this case. The smoothness was instantly obvious and pleasurable.
I don’t go around corners fast enough to judge Heine’s claim of “excellent grip,” but Fred says he did notice an impressive road-hugging ability as well as the palpably smoother ride.
(I tested the Cerfs at 95 psi front and 100 psi rear because those are the pressures I’m accustomed to using. Interestingly, the tire sidewall says “Keep inflated 105 psi.”)
Do the Cerfs roll faster than most comparably sized clinchers? That’s the claim, but our cyclecomputers didn’t register faster average speeds during dozens of rides. The tire’s key attribute wasn’t velocity but smoothness.
Despite our high regard for the Cerfs, Heine says his testing and personal experience have shown other clincher tires to be smoother and/or faster. He discusses these in his test and offers some in his online store.
The 700×26 Grand Bois Cerf is a very good tire. It rolls smoother than any clincher tire Coach Fred and I can recall riding. It looks nice with its classic tan sidewall, wears well, and in our view its $58 premium price is not too outlandish. To keep the tire supple and minimize weight and rolling resistance it has no puncture-resistant tread belt. Depending on the kind of flat producers on your roads, this could be a drawback. Otherwise, the tread and sidewalls seem durable.