Being There: Michelin’s 2013 Tire Launch

The hundred-year-old French tire brand, Michelin, got their start making bicycle tires, and now have their hands in just about everything that uses pneumatic tires. 

Bikes, racecars, and rubber-no, it’s not another reality TV show on TLC, it’s what Michelin had planned for the group of web and magazine editors they assembled in Sebring, Florida, at the famous Sebring International Speedway. The crux of the trip was centered around the addition of four new tires to Michelin’s premier Pro4 line; but we were also there to get a glimpse of their motorsports division, where most of the advancements in material and construction methods for Michelin tires come from. Michelin says they make a one billion dollar per year investment in tire development; this includes: automobile, aircraft, earthmovers, space shuttle, motorcycle, and finally, bicycles. The majority of the R&D money is spent on motorsports (Michelin has 25 miles of private test tracks, including a Formula 1 track at their facility in Ladoux, France), and even though the bicycle division budget pales in comparison, they directly benefit from new technologies gleaned from the other divisions within the French tire brand. 

Two of the four new tires released were available for us to touch, smell, fondle, and ride. 
The Pro4 line has been around for just over a year now, born from the Pro3, and before that Pro2. Now, the line grows by four: adding the Comp, Comp Limited, Wet, and Tubular to the existing Service Course and Endurance, bringing the Pro4 tire family to a complete six-pack. 
Pro4 Comp: The Comp comes into the line as their premier racing clincher tire. When the Pro4 Service Course was developed it had a change of rubber compound and profile from the Pro3, but utilized the same 110 TPI casing. The Comp retains the same rubber, but has an entirely new 150 TPI casing that reduces weight by 20 grams compared to the Service Course, and provides greater suppleness due to the finer nylon threads that make up the casing. Michelin’s Nick Margadonna says, ‘150 TPI is the highest thread count ever for nylon’. We would have a chance to confirm the improved ride quality later in the day on the Sebring Raceway, but just holding both the Service Course and Comp in our hands was enough to get an idea of malleability and suppleness; the difference between the two was apparent. Michelin claims the Comp has a 7% reduction in rolling resistance in comparison to the Service Course thanks to the weight reduction and increased TPI. In terms of durability, it uses a nylon breaker under the tread to thwart punctures, but the potential damage is increased due to the thinner nylon threads in the casing. Michelin tells us they are currently shipping the Comp-so it should be available now, or at least very soon. Initially, the Comp will only be available in a 23c, and comes in black, blue, and red. Pricing increases by $5 over the Service Course, going up to $79.99. 
Pro4 Limited Comp: This will not be your everyday tire. But for that special occasion it’s going to offer a distinct advantage in terms of reduction in rolling resistance by 20% over the Comp (27% over the Service Course), while weighing just 165 grams. It features the same 150 TPI casing as the Comp, but in order to achieve the lower weight and rolling resistance the nylon breaker has been removed as well as using a thinner tread. With more pros racing clinchers in time trials, we’d expect to see some of Michelin’s pro teams utilizing the Limited Comp in time trials this season. Michelin did not have the Limited Comp on hand for us to see or ride, but it should be hitting the market in six weeks. A 23c width is the only option and the price is set at $79.99. 
Any opportunity I have to use a photo of myself I jump on; this time it’s from the USPRO Criterium Championships in Downers Grove. Equipped with Michelin’s Pro2 Grip tires, my team had a distinct advantage in the corners during the rainy 100K race. 
PRO4 Grip: I’ve been a firm believer in Michelin’s wet weather-specific Grip tires after riding for a team they sponsored. At the time, it was the Pro2 Wet that I was riding, and when it came to a rainy race (especially a criterium), they provided a distinct advantage that few other teams had access to. Fast forward two tire generations and the Pro4 Grip re-enters the line but with a major design overhaul. The previous Grip iterations used the same tread profile as the rest of the tires in the line, just with a softer durometer compound to give it the added traction in the rain. Now, a complete shift in design philosophy gives the Grip a higher durometer compound, along with siping on the shoulders of the tire.

The siping isn’t for water dispersion; it’s actually to reduce the tire’s footprint on the ground. Michelin explained that eliminating rubber from the tread reduces the contact patch, thus increasing pressure on what is contacting the ground. The higher durometer rubber allows the tire to remain rigid and retain its footprint, while also helping thwart punctures since water acts as a lubricant, helping debris puncture through the rubber more easily than on a dry day. Also aiding puncture resistance and overall durability is a Kevlar breaker that stretches from tread to mid-way down each sidewall. The Grip uses the same 110 TPI casing found on the Service Course and weighs in at 220 grams. Pricing is set at $74.99. 

Pro4 Tubular: After a 10-year hiatus of offering a tubular tire to the US market, Michelin will once again sell their hand-made glue-up in both 23 and 25c width options. It uses a cotton casing surrounding a latex tube and weighs 280 grams for the 23c version, running $119. 
Parked right in amongst the race car teams in pit row, Michelin’s setup left nothing to be desired. With the help of Shimano, they had a fleet of bikes ready for tire testing on Sebring Raceway. 

During Michelin’s tire presentation, held literally 100 meters from the racetrack, Ferraris, Porsches, Vipers, and Audis screamed by at regular intervals as they tested for the upcoming 61st edition of the Sebring 12-hour Le Mans race. Somehow, Michelin was able to secure us one-hour of track time so we could rail the famous turns of the Florida track on the new rubber that they just unveiled. Only two of the new four tires were available for us to ride, the Comp and the Grip, while the Comp Limited and Tubular were still a few weeks out. With nary a cloud in the sky, the Grip wouldn’t be given due justice on the dry track, but I’m not about to start complaining about the lack of rain. 
Once the green flag dropped it was time to burn rubber, or at least pedal as hard as we could. The three-mile track had fast straightaways, tight turns, and plenty of bumps to get a good first impression of the tires. (Photo: Michelin)
I’ve had the unique opportunity of racing my bike on a handful of different car tracks over the years: Laguna Seca, Infineon, Miller Motorsports Park, and Road Atlanta, all of which share a common theme-they all have silky smooth, well manicured surfaces. This was definitely not the case for Sebring. The Sebring track is built on a World War II airfield and still uses much of the same concrete from the half-century old runways. The cracked and rough sections are actually why the Sebring track is such a good tire testing facility for Michelin’s race car tires; and it just so happened to be a boon for our own mini-test session for ride quality and suppleness. 
As with just about every press event, there’s always a throw down on the bike, and at least we could justify it in the name of tire testing. (Photo: Michelin)

Once the green flag dropped we were off like a shot! In reality, we must have looked quite comical to the pit crews and drivers watching us ride the same track where moments before they were hitting triple digit speeds. No matter, we attacked the three-mile, 17-turn course with everything we had, trying to get a feel for the speed, cornering, and overall ride quality of the tires we were on. Each lap we would switch wheels back and forth with the Comp’s and Grip’s so we could get a feel for each. One hour isn’t a huge amount of time to form a definitive conclusion, but I’m confident in saying there’s a distinct and noticeable ride difference between the two tires. The Comps are noticeably smoother over the large seams of the concrete, and the rough transitions that blend asphalt and concrete. Although it’s not exactly a fair head-to-head test between the two considering the Grip is a purpose-built tire, it’s a good gauge of the performance gained with by the Comp’s 150 TPI casing versus the 110 TPI used on the Grip and Service Course. Considering the Service Course is already one of our favorite tires, and performs near the top in third-party rolling resistance tests, we have some big expectations for the Comp and Comp Limited once we’re able to test them out on our home roads. Look for a longer-term review that will include assessing durability and how many miles we can squeeze out of the rubber. 
RBA MINI-VIEW: Michelin’s Nick Margadonna

RBA: What is your recommendation for finding one’s ideal tire pressure?
Nick: Michelin tires have a range between 87 psi and 116 psi, and to help find the ideal pressure we have a guide based on rider weight (find it here). It’s a common misconception that the higher pressure the faster the tire is. That is true to a certain extent since the greater the tire deflection the higher the rolling resistance will be, but when the pressure gets too high the tire doesn’t function how it should. You want the tire to deform with an impact; and if the tire is too hard it cannot do that, making for a rough ride and sometimes an impact break of the tube. An impact break is often thought to be a pinch flat, but it’s actually from the force just not having anywhere to go and splitting the tube. Pressure is subjective, so it’s about finding your happy medium between comfort and efficiency. 
RBA: Should there always be equal tire pressure front and rear?
Nick: Since 70% of the rider’s weight is on the rear tire you should compensate for that in the air pressure. Typically 3-5 psi less in the front will help balance out the ride. 
RBA: What’s your opinion on 23c or 25c tire width?
Nick: A 25c tire has less rolling resistance than a 23c at the same pressure. It comes down to weight dispersion, and the wider tire has less deflection of the sidewall to carry the weight, making them more efficient. It was only 10 years ago that everyone was using 20c tires, so the trend is definitely moving in the direction of wider tires. Consumer demands are still mainly for 23c tires, but we will continue to add wider options to the lines.
RBA: Tubulars vs. clinchers vs. tubeless?
Nick: A clincher tire can have less rolling resistance than a tubular, and with clincher wheel technology moving quickly they’re only going to continue improving. As far as tubeless, we co-developed road tubeless with Hutchinson but decided not to come to market with it because we didn’t see the benefits. Having a butyl liner in the tubeless tires doesn’t give them any distinct advantages over a tube. Tubeless ready tires [tires designed for tubeless but don’t have an inner liner, thus requiring a sealant to remain airtight] are going in the right direction. They are what have the potential for decreased weight and rolling resistance. 
RBA: Latex or butyl tubes?
Nick: Latex is a more efficient rubber and has slightly lower rolling resistance than butyl. It’s lighter, but less durable too. We don’t even sell a latex tube in the US since the performance difference is minimal compared to our lightweight butyl tube. 
Teams had two days available for winter testing before the American Le Mans season kicks off with the 12 Hours of Sebring. We were told that in order to be competitive, the team budget for a privateer would easily surpass $6,000,000 per season. 
Out of the approximately 50 cars that will be competing in the 12 Hours of Sebring, about 85% will be using Michelin tires.
The Risi Ferrari team uses their pit stop to re-fuel, change tires, and get a fresh set of brake rotors, while the driver and crew member look at the engine diagnostic from the last run. 
Every tire is carefully detailed and serial numbered. All the teams using Michelin tires lease them, and must return every one of them post-practice or race. If even a single tire is unaccounted for the team will be fired. Michelin says that is the only way to maintain their proprietary technology from landing in the wrong hands. 
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