It is with great shame and embarrassment that I confess to having given in to simple fashion. I bought and mounted a pair of Clement 700c x 28mm skin wall tires. They just look so damn good. I’m sorry world. I am one of those guys now.
My rule of thumb for bike gear has been each thing has to prove its worth before I buy in.. Bike shorts are great to avoid chaffing and sores and once you are onboard with shorts you will soon realize that bibs are far better. Likewise, jerseys have pockets that are so helpful and they wick perfectly. And so it has been for years now as my closet and draws have filled with bike stuff. The same has been true for on-the-bike goodies. I mostly ride Shimano 105 mechanicals, but I might make the move to Ultegra—but honestly I know there is no real advantage for me to go to Dura Ace. Likewise, if a box of Campagnolo Super Record fell from the sky, I would happily mount it on the bike and learn to use the fiddly little thumb shifter thing—I dunno, I have never tried it. But in reality there is no good reason other than vanity for me to shell out the three grand needed to show off such a gorgeous and flashy group set. Let’s talk again when I am averaging 25mph over a 40 mile ride. Meanwhile I can set up a Gofundme! There is a guy at Flatwoods we have nicknamed by his bike make—I wont say it here to protect the innocent. What makes him stand out is how clearly outclassed he is by his bike—no way can that man make that bike do what it is meant to do. No one wants to be that guy—the guy who bought in so visibly well above his abilities. So some consumer caution and awareness of one’s place in the Strava pecking order is a noble thing. Far better to perform notably on moderate gear and impress that way than to be a Credit Card Cavendish. And silly as this may seem, don’t think that people are not looking and judging—oh they are!
Thus, most of what I have on the bike and on me makes sense and is task-specific. But not the tires on my black commuting Surly Cross Check. To all who know, it is clearly the bike of a slave to fashion, a trendy loser in material dialogue with a bunch of snobby cycle elitists.
Let me explain. There are four major components to a wheel—and each plays a role in how it rolls and how well it does that. Wheels are hubs, rims, spokes, and tires. Each in their time, but for now, tires. These are the action zones of a wheel—the main stress area and the most fiddly part. Tires, like bar tape and water bottles, are temporary friends. Your bars or derailleurs may be with you for some time, but your tires will come and go. Most people are happy if they get 2000 miles on a tire—you can find riders marveling at tires that have lasted twice that while others feel a bit ripped of at tires run bald at half that. It all depends on the roads one rides, how one rides them, and the many varied properties of a tire. Most are rubber one kind or another and many have all sorts of elaborate rip stoppers and puncture protections built in. But it is all give and take. Want a bomb proof tire than can run over molten lava filled with nails and barbed wire—pretty much what riding on the shoulder of most major American roads feels like—well, there is a tire that can do that. My Schwalbes for example are up to that task. But bombproof comes at a price. Kevlar walls, 1/8 of an inch insulation, deep tread, magic puncture protective potions all add weight to a tire and make it roll slow. So you want speed? There are tires for that too—nice tires too—slick, no tread, narrow (but not too narrow) widths, side walls so thin you can almost see through them, wafer thin bands of rubber. These can roll so fast it will make your head spin too. Just don’t touch a thorn or a bit of glass. Pop, psssssssssssss. You might think that it is hard to feel these differences but you would be wrong—oh so wrong. The differences are very pronounced.
Last year I rode about 1500 miles on my commuting bike on regular roads on a pair of Continental Gatorskins in 700c x 25mm. They were/are great. I had no flats at all and never wanted for speed. I use my commute as a series of sprints—even though the steel bike and knapsack are less than ideal for the task. The Gatorskins did well and looked sharp. But there were nevertheless a few areas on my route that were a bit rattling. With tires at about 90psi the jolts made it all the way to my teeth in most cases. So after the long ride this summer I wanted to try something a bit more absorbing. I had a pair of Maxxis 700c x 28mm on hand, and so I mounted those and felt a big difference. Softer and more noticeably more cushioning than the 25mm immediately. That was when I went a bit deeper.
Most tires are rubber treads with either rubber or reinforced side walls. Skin walls though harken back to an older way of making tires—that is why they are so popular for vintage bikes. Skin walls laminate a rubber strip to a liner of treated cloth. The thickness of the cloth and the treatment can vary—the thinner the cloth, the lighter the wheel since rubber is heavy. The little 60 TPI you can see on the tire packaging refers to the thickness of the cloth–60 being moderate. It is sort of like a stitch count. Some tires use cotton, some synthetic, and some use silk–it all depends on what the tire is designed to do (but silk is a bit of a costly indulgence for anyone other than a pro with a team doing mounting). The result is a tire that has a black rubber strip and the distinctive “skin” (white skin as it happens) colored side walls that invoke a retro charm. On the practical side, the softer sides mean they can absorb more shock—if 28s are soft, then 28 skin walls are just that much softer. The softer sides mean the tire compresses with more ease–more compression means more bump absorption. Softer sides though also mean a somewhat weaker and more vulnerable tire. It is all about choices, swings and round abouts.
I rode them today for the first time. I have a simple test. The Cross Check runs its rear break cable over the top tube. There are little rubber donuts you can get to keep the wire from bouncing on the metal and making a little ringing noise when you hit bumps. I don’t have those donuts—my bike rings its way over rough surfaces. Or at least it did when I was running the Gatorskins. Today’s ride on the Clements was totally silent. Silent! Same roads, same cracks and bumps, but the tires absorbed enough of the road that the cable was totally quiet. To me that is a huge endorsement. But whom am I kidding. The tires look great. I will be lucky if they last 500 miles and if I don’t have a blow out miles from home in a rain storm—those are eventualities I am signing up for my putting skin walls in my wheels. But they look so good!
Zack Gallardo who keeps a nice bicycling vlog on youtube has a fun skin wall confessional here. He hits the high points and might add a bit more info than I did—and do it in a fun vid format. His conclusion though was that in the end, the skin walls were not worth the hassle. I am on the other end of the equation, but we will see where I end up.