When I set about getting my Tricross ready for CX season this year, I make a decision: No more tubulars. It was somewhat hard. I had put so much time and energy into my Neuvation wheels that deciding to sell them was hard. Here’s the thing: Every time I needed something for the tubulars, I had to order it. Even if I went through my excellent local shop, they would have to order it too. They didn’t keep tubes of glue in stock. They definitely didn’t have any tubular tires in stock. And they have very little experience gluing them up. They were asking me what kinds of pressure to use. On the other hand, they have an incredibly good relationship with the people at NoTubes.com and sell just a boatload of wheelsets from there. Following Interbike, they will be testing things out for NoTubes. I’m supposed to run tubulars when they have this kind of relationship with a different company? Going tubeless for ‘cross meant getting new tires too. The last thing I picked up to change my CX experience was a set of TRP CX9 mini-v brakes.
TRP CX9 Mini-V Brakes
I don’t like TRP’s description of their CX9 mini-V brakes on their website:
Not everyone is a racer nor should every ride be a race. Cross bikes are the embodiment of cycling soul – able to venture over nearly all types of terrain swiftly and smoothly.
Yes, I love my Tricross for its versatility. But I also love to race it hard. Coming from a mountain bike background, I want a bike with adequate brakes. The Avid Shorty 4 cantilever brakes that came on the bike were nearly useless. I knew that if I could get a set of brakes that would let me go harder into the corners and barriers before I absolutely needed to slow down, I would have better races. So despite TRP’s assurance that the CX9’s were not, in fact, for racing, I bought them anyways.
Installation was pretty smooth. If you’re converting a bike with existing canti brakes, you’ll need longer cabling and housing. I actually managed to reuse the cabling for the front wheel, but just barely. The rear ended up being several inches too short and I had to run new cabling. The arms look pretty sharp, literally and figuratively. The aluminum is very precisely shaped with harsh edges, but the red anodizing looks good. They really spice up an otherwise boring, brown bike. Adjusting is pretty simple, with two hex screws to adjust spring tension on either side. At the same time, both my LBS and I have spent a lot of time tweaking the spacing. The brakes seem to be very sensitive to small changes. You can ride early in the day with no problems and then get back on the bike to find one pad rubbing. If the wheels are not nicely trued, you won’t be able to get the pads close enough to get a good lever feel. After a few weeks of riding with them, they seem to be well settled, but I have to pull the levers almost all the way to the bar to get really strong braking. The rear barrel adjust seems to work fine, but I haven’t gotten the front adjuster to do much of anything.
I love these brakes. That’s the short story. It has taken a little time to get used to the stopping power they afford and to understand how to modulate that power. However, I’ve gone out to my local mountain bike trails a few times and have so much more confidence. I can go faster along the swoopy singletrack because I know that I can actually slow the bike down when I need to. My first ‘cross race with them wasn’t a huge success as I didn’t have them dialed in yet. Braking was binary: fully on or fully off. Now I understand how they work and can use the power more effectively. It is incredibly confidence-inspiring to know you can stop the bike when you need to. I haven’t ridden a pair of really nice cantilevers (say, a Shorty Ultimate), but I would be surprised if they could outperform the CX9’s. They seem to be working well with my older Shimano 105 levers (5600 series). If you’re riding ‘cross on an older bike that can’t be upgraded to discs, I cannot recommend these highly enough. The overall price was a little over $100 for the set, which would only get you one wheel’s worth of Shorty Ultimates.
My only disappointment at all is that I have two useless canti mounts on the bike (though I could remove the hanger from the front).
Clement PDX Clinchers
When I had decided firmly on NoTubes wheels, I started researching tubeless CX tires like crazy. Clearly, I checked out the CX Magazine article from which I made most of my decisions. My initial inclination was to go with the Specialized Captain CX 2BR, but these seem to be out of stock everywhere. I considered the Vittoria XG TNT (Tubes/No Tubes), but all the information I could find would suggest that the TNT tires don’t mount well on Stan’s rims. (Here is one article about mountain bike tires. Here is another opinion about the CX tires.) The only other option that was “officially” tubeless was the Kenda cyclocross tires available in SCT versions: the Slant Six, Small Block 8, Kommando and Happy Medium. None of these particularly excited me, so I ended up deciding to test out claims that just about anything could be run tubeless if you wanted. I went for the Clement Crusade PDX clinchers because they were reputed to set up well enough tubeless, had a well-liked tread pattern and were supposed to measure out at 33c instead of all the tires that only measure 32c. It shouldn’t really matter for me, but I still want to make sure I’m riding on legal tires.
The PDX’s seal up adequately on stock Alpha 400 rims. (I would expect they would seal up well enough on the 340s as well, since the only difference between the two rims is internal structure.) I tried inflating them to 50 psi to make sure they seated well and they blew off the rims. After resealing them, I raced at 32 psi front and rear, but had the rear tire burp after 11 minutes of racing. After messing with the rims a bit (see below), they seated up much better. The guys at the LBS said he got them to pop into the bead using a compressor, but without removing the valve core. Since then, they’ve stayed on well. I’ve played with pressures down to 29 psi which, for a 176 pound rider, is just enough on rocky, rooty terrain. I’m only vaguely interested in going any lower, since I ran my tubulars around 29-30 psi last year. At the 29 psi mark, you get great traction. I watched the tire while I was cornering hard at the latest edition of our local Wednesday Night Worlds CX practice and it was deforming perfectly to keep the tread flat on the ground. I was testing the limits of how fast I could take the corners and kept chickening out before the tires let go — at all.
My only disappointments are these: They don’t hold air well overnight (or even over the course of a day) and they’re pretty slow on pavement. My CX bike is also my commuter for the moment and I can top off the tires at 38 psi before work and when I’m ready to ride home 8 hours later, they’re at 26-28 psi. This will happen overnight too and seems to be exacerbated by cold temperatures. I’ve also noticed that they are pretty slow on the paved climbs that lay between my office and my house. The first problem bothers me a little. I worry that the tires haven’t really sealed up well. The latter problem isn’t a big deal, since they’re really considered more of a mud tire. If you want something to run fast on pavement, get the LAS instead. (There’s a lot more info about Clement’s offerings at their website.)
I’ve ridden them in a variety of conditions now. On dirt singletrack, they offer a huge amount of cornering confidence. They might be a little overly aggressive for your average grassy course, but while the frost was burning off the course at USGP Madison Day 2, I still felt like I could rail the corners. When you do find some mud, they roll right through and seem to clear out pretty quickly. I haven’t found a lot of mud yet, but the season is still young.
Ultimately, I would recommend the PDX as a great all-conditions CX tire, but would be somewhat more hesitant to recommend it as a tubeless alternative. It would be tremendously important to build up the rim with tape and/or rim strips to ensure a tight fit.
Stan’s NoTubes Alpha 400 Wheels
I’ve already enumerated a few of the reasons I went with the Stan’s NoTubes rims: a desire to thumb my nose at the mindless traditions many ‘crossers accept, the guys at my shop are recognized by NoTubes as highly knowledgable, they always have NoTubes stuff in stock and they gave me a screaming deal on them. The specific model under test here is the Alpha 400 Team, which seems to be different than the Comp model only in having stainless steel cartridge bearings and 4 less spokes per wheel. The only way I’m going to notice that is if I have to true the wheels more often, as the weight difference (all of 35 grams) will be completely unnoticeable to me.
I’m going to be honest here when I say that the only benefits of this wheelset over my old Roval Pavé wheels are functional benefits. The decals, as shown above, are relatively bright and gaudy. The hubs are utterly unremarkable aesthetically and quite loud when freewheeling. Mounting tires is not necessarily any easier or harder than other wheels, but have the advantage of being ready to setup tubeless right out of the box. However, it has been my experience that a tire not explicitly manufactured to be mounted tubeless will not be sufficiently tight on the rim. The folks at NoTubes have an Alpha-specific rim strip and have also suggested additional applications of the NoTubes rim tape and Gorilla Tape. I haven’t acquired a rim strip yet (NoTubes was supposed to send one to the shop), but the additional tape seems to have sufficiently built up the rim bed so that a non-tubeless tire seals up well. If you are not used to the sound of tires popping into Stan’s rims, it’s disconcerting to hear. It even happens when you’re mounting a tire up with a tube.
So far, as a cyclocross rim, they’re pretty good. I’ve been able to run sufficiently low pressures in clincher tires to get similar performance out of $40 clinchers as $100 tubulars. People will tell me that my 150 tpi clinchers can never be as supple as 320 tpi tubulars, but I’m convinced I am not sensitive enough to notice a difference. I look forward to a few more races and really testing them out. I’m also excited to see how they are as a road rim. They should mount some road tubeless tires pretty well.
All together now!
Any of these individual pieces is probably worth their price, but the most startling impact is when they are all put together. I could go on at length about the ride and confidence, but I will choose instead to close this post with an anecdote. I have a particular loop of rocky, rooty cross country ski trails that I ride when I want to test my fitness. There’s a narrow ribbon of singletrack down the center that makes it worth riding. It’s open, it’s mostly flat and very heavy on pedaling. I rode this loop the other day on my cross bike and covered the 5-ish miles 19 seconds faster than my fastest previous time — set on a hardtail 29″ mountain bike. Was all the expense and time worth it? 19 seconds says, “yes.”