Cyclocross tire review: tubular cyclocross tires from Challenge, Dugast and Tufo

  • By Matt Pacocha
  • Published Sep. 18, 2009
  • Updated Feb. 23, 2011 at 12:41 PM EDT

By Matt Pacocha

Cyclocross tire test: the author testing tires, so you don’t have to.

Photo: Rob O’Dea

Editor’s Note A version of this review first ran in last December, too late for most cyclocross racers to make tire buying decisions for the race season. Matt has reviewed the information to make sure it is still relevant, and re-written parts. Watch for Matt’s review of some new Vittoria cyclocross tubulars soon — and look for the VeloNews issue containing the US Gran Prix of Cyclocross Guide on newsstands October 1.

The tubular tire — you know, the archaic technology that, if it were developed today, would be laughed out of the industry immediately because of how messy and inconvenient it is to use? It so happens that, especially for cyclocross, riding the right tubular tire on a challenging course can be akin to cheating. In motor sports the tire sponsor is always most important. It’s why they get the podium hat, right? It’s the same in cyclocross.

Tubular tires — just the tires themselves — have the largest impact on racecourse performance; more than frame material, drivetrain make, or even the overall weight of the bike. And don’t let anyone tell you that you have to buy an expensive carbon wheelset to mount your tubular tires to. Many companies are realizing that with the rise of cyclocross there is a new market for robust aluminum tubular wheelsets. A few that come to mind include Neuvation’s T1 wheels at $390 or Williams Cyclocross set at $370. Of course, your local shop will be happy to throw a set of hand-built wheels together with mid-to-top-level components for around $450. Think: Ultegra hubs, DT Swiss butted spokes and Mavic, Alex or Ambrosio rims.

Last season I rode and reviewed three tires from the top three tubular cyclocross manufacturers. It’s a good idea to revisit my review since all of these tires are all still available this year and unchanged, save for the Dugast Pipistrello, which, without its side knob, I can no longer recommend. Later in the season we will look at Vittoria’s new 2010 line of cyclocross tubulars.

In the first part of this cyclocross tire tech report I broke down how to build yourself the best possible quiver of tires for the conditions you ride in. Now, let’s take a specific look at the tires that fit each category from Challenge, Dugast and Tufo. In total, we glued and rode 11 sets of tires; then we ended up racing ten sets of them.

After riding all of the tires, a couple of traits cropped up that held through each manufacturer’s line; call-outs include price, suppleness, and ease of use.

Challenge had the lowest priced tires and they fell in the middle of the road when ranking the tire’s suppleness, but they were the heaviest.

Dugast’s tires are by far supplest, but they proved the hardest to mount straight and require extra steps to keep them running well. To prolong the cotton casing’s life, it must be treated with Aquaseal. Dugasts are easily the most fragile tires in the test.

The Tufos, on the other hand, are brutes. They’re almost impossible to kill, save for a sidewall slice, and most that I’ve had I’ve literally ridden the treads off them before they need to be replaced. If you flat a Tufo, it’s not a big deal: just pump in some sealant and you’re all ready to race again. Tufo’s do ride harshest out of the three brands and they’re surprisingly expensive considering that their handling performance isn’t really above the competition.

All three manufacturers’ tires are handmade; Challenge makes its tires in Thailand, Dugast in The Netherlands and Tufo in the Czech Republic.

Here’s the low down on each tire, divided up by file treads, all-rounders and mud tires:

File Treads: For Sun, Sand and Snow

These tires excel on pavement, grass, packed dirt, sand, and if conditions are right, even snow and ice.

Challenge XS $100

Cyclocross tire test: Challenge XS

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Sizes: 32mm (tested), 34mm (tested)

Measured Width: 32mm, 34mm

Knob Height (center/side): 0.5mm, 1.5mm

Weight: 400 grams

Excels On: Grass, pavement, sand (34mm)

Weakness: Cornering grip on slippery terrain

Challenge’s white Grifo XS only comes in a 32mm size, so it’s not the best for deep sand and snow, but the white compound is said to be softer to handle sub-zero conditions and ice better. I can say that it’s great on grass and tacky courses that have plenty of traction. It rolls extremely fast and Challenge’s poly casing is second only to Dugast in feel, but it is more durable.

When things get loose, the XS gets a little bit sketchy and in snow and mixed mud conditions  a larger side knob would be useful and benefit the tire in almost every case. My suggestion would be for Challenge to take the side knob from its new mud tire, the Fango, and add it to the XS; that might push it to the top of this list.

In the larger 34mm size the XS floats over sand and bumps incredibly well, but there are two drawbacks: Challenge uses the same tread from the 32mm tire — it does this on all of its 34mm tires — which isn’t optimal as you end up riding on the sidewalls in certain instances.

I also found that the larger Challenge casing is disproportionately taller than it is wider, compared to the 32mm, which gives it a disconcerting folding feel around corners at lower pressures; it feels like its folding. Though I really like the larger tire, the smaller 32mm works better. If you want a 32, this could be your tire.

Dugast Pipistrello $120

Cyclocross tire test:Dugast Pipistrello

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Sizes: 30mm, 32mm (tested), 34mm

Measured Width: 32mm

Knob Height (center/side): 1mm, 2.5mm

Weight: 345 grams

Excels On: Grass, pavement, tacky and loamy dirt, sand (34mm), snow and ice

Weakness: Mud, dry and loose terrain

The aggressive side knobs on the Pipistrello set it apart from the minimalist route that both Challenge and, to a lesser extent, Tufo take. The Pipistrello’s sharp diamond-shaped knobs allow this tire to confidently go places where no other file tread in this test can go.

These knobs make the Pipistrello slightly more appealing than the other two tires here because they make the tire slightly safer and easier to corner on. I rode the 32mm Pipistrello and came away convinced that if I could do it over I would go with the fatter 34mm version. The larger tire is much more appealing for sand and snow, and though it’s fatter it shouldn’t roll much slower, since the contact patch is smooth.

While I wouldn’t be brave enough to ride the XS or Dry Plus on a snowy day, I would consider the Pipistrello. The Pipistrello tread is mounted to a Dugast cotton casing, which is the supplest of the three manufacturers. Over the last year of use, I have noticed that the Dugast is the least durable tire of the bunch, even when you take extra precautions like treating the sidewalls.

As with all of my Dugast tires, I have had to re-glue edges of the tread on occasion. This is something that most wouldn’t put up with from a larger manufacturer, but you have to from Dugast, because if you don’t like taking care of them, then you probably shouldn’t be riding them.

Tufo Dry Plus $140

Cyclocross tire test: Tufo Dry Plus

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Sizes: 32mm (tested), 34mm

Measured Width: 32mm

Knob Height (center/side): 0.5mm, 2.5mm

Weight: 326 grams

Excels on: Grass, pavement, sand (34mm)

Weakness: Cornering grip on slippery terrain, price

The Dry Plus keeps pace with Challenge’s XS, but lacks an aggressive side knob, which keeps it behind the Pipistrello. The advantage to the Dry Plus — and all of the Tufo tires — is how extremely durable they are. Tufo uses a proprietary construction method that differs from the traditional way both Challenge and Dugast construct their tires. Tufo relies on a butyl insert that’s bonded to the casing, which is two-ply and joins under the tread rather than under the base tape. Since the tread is vulcanized over the casing’s seam, the tire’s tread and casing is very straight in relation to the base tape. This construction method is also a reason for the tire’s durability. Challenge and Dugast hand glue the treads to the casing and over time the corners can peel; This is not the case with Tufo’s construction method.

We have enormous problems in Colorado with an obnoxious weed called Tribulus Terrestris, also known as the infamous goat head thorn. These little buggers wouldn’t work better if they had been designed in a lab to flatten bicycle tires.

While Tufo’s tires aren’t impervious to these little stickers they are easy to fix with sealant; Tufo makes two types of its own sealant and Stan’s works fine too.

I’ve fixed surprisingly large holes in my Tufo tires and this is a big advantage for an expensive tubular tire. Interestingly, the diamonds in the tread pattern that Tufo uses are siped, which makes for excellent grip in traction and braking even on ice. The octagon-shaped side knobs are spaced a bit too widely for my preference. They offer more cornering traction than the XS, but considerably less than the Pipistrello.

All-Rounders: Jacks-of-all-Trades; Masters of Many

If you could only have one tire, it should come from this bunch. You can ride one of these tires in a 32mm size through mud and dry; sand and snow and hardly ever need more. For Colorado and other dry climates I would recommend the larger 34mm version of these tires; this is what I use for most of my racing.

Challenge Grifo $100

Cyclocross tire test: Challenge Grifo

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Sizes: 30mm, 32mm (tested), 34mm

Measured Width: 32mm

Knob Height (center/side): 2mm, 2mm

Weight: 426 grams

Excels on: Soil with traction

Weakness: Lower pressures

Challenge’s Grifo is a stalwart ’cross tire, but its round side knobs are upstaged by the designs of its competitors in this category. The Grifo has plenty of drive and braking traction, but its cornering grip is vague compared to the others. This lack of cornering traction, I will argue, is too sketchy for most domestic cyclocrossers, but it’s a feel that’s appreciated by European racers.

Like Challenge’s 34mm XS file tread, I found the 32mm Grifo a bit tall, which made for a disconcerting folding feel at pressures below 30psi, so I wouldn’t recommend going below that pressure with this tire. In all, the Grifo is a viable, less expensive, alternative to its competitors, though if pressed, I would rank it a distant third to Dugast’s Typhoon and Tufo’s new Flexus Primus.

Dugast Typhoon $115

Cyclocross tire test: Dugast Typhoon

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Sizes: 28mm, 30mm, 32mm (tested), 34mm (tested)

Measured Width: 32.5mm, 35mm

Knob Height (center/side): 2mm, 2mm

Weight: 345 grams (32mm), 357 grams (34mm)

Excels on: All terrains except for extreme mud

Weakness: Durability — sharp rocks and thorns

Dugast’s Typhoon sets the bar for suppleness and traction among all of the industry’s cyclocross tires. It suffers in terrain where there are sharp rocks and thorns, but if those features are absent this tire is the one and only ’cross tire to have.

It excels in dry, wet, smooth and bumpy terrain. It can even hold its own on muddy days or in the sand. Its cotton casing is many times suppler than Challenge or Tufo and even though its ‘Radius Control’ side knob looks insignificant, it really works under cornering pressure and with the right dirt, it makes the Typhoon feel as though it’s on rails.

The tread is good, but the main feature is the casing and its suppleness — why is this so important? The suppler a tire’s casing the better it can conform to the terrain. This is best illustrated on a off-camber side hill, there the supple casing, at the right pressure, allows the tread to actually roll sideways so that it stays in contact with the terrain and offers the most possible grip.

When you feel this happen, you can easily ride past anyone running a clincher, a tire with a stiffer casing or one with too much air in it. The advantage is uncanny, like the difference between regular and powder skis on a deep day.

The bummer about Dugasts is that they’re a lot harder to work with. They’re harder to mount straight and have delicate cotton sidewalls that require extra effort and attention to make last — they are easily cut and they can rot if put away wet.

Tufo Primus $140

Cyclocross tire test: Tufo Primus

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Sizes: 32mm (tested), 34mm (tested)

Measured Width: 32mm, 34mm

Knob Height (center/side): 2mm, 2mm

Weight: 335 grams (32mm), 361 grams (34mm)

Excels on: Abrasive terrain

Weakness: Lacks suppleness

If a Dugast is the hardest tire to work with, then Tufo is the easiest. As with the Dry Plus, the Flexus Primus all-rounder is the straightest, easiest to mount tire of the three manufacturers because of its construction.

The Primus is an excellent tire; it’s the direct descendent of the old Flexus, which Tufo has sold for three seasons. It differs from the old tire via a slightly more aggressive tread and more casing sizes — Tufo adds a 34mm option to its entire Flexus line for 2009.

Like all Tufo’s, the Primus is easily repaired with sealant — sometimes a tubular like Challenge or Dugast with standard construction and a separate tube and casing cannot be saved even if the puncture is small. The Primus feels solid, almost like a tubeless mountain bike tire, and while it’s not nearly as supple as Dugast’s Typhoon or even a Challenge, it has a place, especially on rough courses that would shred or flatten one of the more delicate, traditionally made tires.

One thing is for sure, baring an abnormal accident the Primus will get you through a season or more of racing; it’s a tough tire. The only place the Primus, or any Tufo, lacks is on a technical course with lots of icy or muddy off-cambers.

Mud Tires: Mud in the Other Guy’s Eye

Without a specific tire it’s possible to lose loads of time on a muddy day. This is when you’ll suffer most if you don’t have the right equipment. No matter where you live, if you’re serious about ’cross you should have one of these even if you only race a few mudders a year.

Challenge Fango $100

Cyclocross tire test: Challenge Fango

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Sizes: 32mm (tested), 34mm (tested)

Measured Width: 31.5mm, 33.5mm

Knob Height (center/side): 2mm, 2mm

Weight: 415 grams (32mm), 430 grams (34mm)

Excels on: Thin mud, packed snow, works on pavement

Weakness: Deep mud

The new Fango is Challenge’s best tire. Of the three mud tires in this test, it does the best job crossing over to dry conditions. The best part of this tire is its almost continuous side knob; if Challenge retrofitted this design to its XS or even the Grifo, it would make both tires better. That extraordinary little side knob grips off-cambers incredibly well and offered great confidence on ice and mud filled courses.

The Fango is also the fastest-rolling mud tire here; this is due to its lower overall knob height and ramp-shaped center knob. The lower knobs quickly show weakness in deep mud that requires penetration for grip; however, its design makes it a great tire for when mud is thin.

Comparably, if you were riding a Dugast tire, you’d likely ride the Typhoon in conditions where the Fango excels. If Challenge upped the knob height on the Fango it may help it gain ground to its competition and make it a true mud-specific tire.

I can whole-heartedly recommend the Fango for someone looking for a mud tire that can cross to dry conditions as well. It’s also very good in snowy, slushy or variably icy conditions where lower knobs present an advantage. One note: The Fango is noticeably better in a 32mm size as opposed to the larger 34mm. I attribute this to the orientation of the tread on the casing, since both sizes share the same tread width.

Dugast Rhino $120

Cyclocross tire test: Dugast Rhino

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Sizes: 30mm, 32mm (tested), 34mm

Measured Width: (32mm)

Knob Height (center/side): 3mm, 2mm

Weight: 350 grams

Excels on: Ultra slippery soft terrain, mud of any sort

Weakness: Hard surfaces — pavement, hard packed dirt, ice

Like the Typhoon, Dugast’s Rhino sets a bar in its respective category. It has the same supple casing as the rest of the Dugast’s cotton line and the most aggressive tread pattern in the industry. On a day when other tires don’t seem to stick, the Rhino grips like Velcro.

The features that give it good grip on a wet day do detract from the tire’s versatility. I’ve found that its tall knobs are too squirmy for pavement, hard-packed dirt and snow or ice. The Rhino is not a versatile tire, in my opinion, but if you have it when the conditions are right, it offers a huge advantage.

It’s my favorite mud tire and what I would recommend that everyone have a set in their arsenal if they want a serious advantage on a muddy day. Treating the sidewalls of these tires is an absolute must, so don’t forget to buy Aquaseal and to be generous with your application.

Tufo Cubus $140

Cyclocross tire test: Tufo Cubus

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Sizes: 32mm (tested), 34mm

Measured Width: (32mm)

Knob Height (center/side): 3mm, 2.5mm

Weight: 350 grams

Excels on: Slippery soft surfaces, mud, better than Rhino on pavement and hard terrain

Weakness: Off-camber grip, suppleness, price

Tufo’s Cubus comes out swinging at Dugast’s benchmark Rhino. It’s made with all of Tufo’s good and bad features, and it hooks up really well when it’s slick. It loses ground to the Rhino in two specific places: off-camber sections (because of its stiffer casing) and price.

Who would have thought you could pick a Dugast because it’s cheaper?

In this case, these two features break the deal for me. While its grip is excellent, on a day you really need every advantage a suppler casing could be the difference between charging past your competitors and sliding down the hill on your butt.

In addition, mud and snow softens the blows of rocks and softens thorns, so a more delicate tire may hold up just as well as a tough Tufo on the day. While the higher price of the Flexus Primus can be justified for an all-rounder that sees a lot of use, for a specific mud tire that’s is used less often, I’d rather go with a cheaper tire that works better in those seriously specific conditions.

FILED UNDER: Bikes and Tech / Cyclocross / Reviews TAGS: /

Matt Pacocha

Matt Pacocha

Pacocha, the VeloNews test editor, started in the industry sweeping shop floors at 13. Since then he’s wrenched, raced mountain bikes on the national circuit for four years, worked at IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association) for two years, raced on the road in Belgium for six months, and served four years as the tech editor for VeloNews. And, of course, Pacocha is the staff's resident cyclocross fanatic.

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