We rode the Pro4 Grip on an 18-mile road loop near Sebring, and then on the Sebring International Raceway track. The Pro4 Comp we rode only on the track, and neither the Pro4 Limited nor the Pro4 tubular were available for test. The Pro4 Grip was a noticeably stiffer tire than a supple tire like a high-thread-count tubular. Its cornering grip seemed fine on the dry roads here as well as on the rubber-coated track, but there was not a drop of water on any road around on which to test its wet grip.
The Pro4 Comp rode very nicely. It was obviously very light and felt snappy when accelerating. It also felt quite supple on the bumpy racetrack, which is actually built out of an air force landing strip from WWII. It is made out of 20-foot deep blocks of concrete floating on a sand bed to support landing B-52s. Some of the wider longitudinal cracks in it did give one a bit of pause when riding their direction on 23mm tires. The Pro4 Comp was noticeably more comfortable than the Pro4 Grip riding this bumpy surface and hitting the rumble-strip and curbed track edges as well. It took the sharp hairpin on the track very nicely — plenty of cornering grip.
Michelin moved its bicycle tire production from France to Thailand over five years ago with the inception of the Pro3 tire. It has built an entire wing at Lion Tyres to make only its tires, bringing in its own equipment and technology, while still being able to capitalize on low Thai labor costs.
Michelin is not heavily invested in bike racing and for that reason is perhaps less chosen by the high-end, race-oriented crowd than it otherwise might be. Last year, its only WorldTour team was Ag2r La Mondiale, but now that team is sponsored by Schwalbe, leaving the French tire giant without a top-end pro team. The product presentation on Thursday highlighted the relationship with Ag2r La Mondiale as being critical in product development… Rather than having a traditional supplier relationship with pro teams, in which the supplier pays the team to use its equipment, Michelin USA’s Ralph Cronin said, “Michelin feels that the teams should come to us, since we have the best product, which we do.”
The bottom line is that Michelin is an engineering company at heart, not a marketing company. It chooses to spend only a small percentage of its budget on marketing, and in a time of belt-tightening, its scales back marketing efforts before engineering efforts. The company employs 6,000 people worldwide in research and development alone, spending almost a billion dollars per year on R&D. While its bicycle division is a tiny percentage of the overall company, its bicycle engineers can draw on the vast technical resources and knowledge base of the company in designing its tires. For example, it has computer simulation software that simulates performance and looks at changes in tire shape under various conditions, something it claims sets it aside from other bicycle tire companies.
Michelin is also quick to remind that it started out as a bicycle-tire company, before the inception of the automobile. Once the car came along and the company started making car tires, it produced the green Michelin maps and the red Michelin Guide to restaurants as a way to get people to drive more and hence to buy more tires.
Michelin claims that its investment in R&D dwarfs that of other tire companies that do both automobile and bicycle tires. Its main engineering campus in Ladoux, France, covers 1,112 acres, has 79 separate buildings and 41km of test tracks of 19 different types. For example, it has one employee whose entire job is to ensure that the entire wet test track is covered with precisely the correct depth of water (varying from 2mm to 8mm)!
Sure, most of the Ladoux test tracks are automobile-oriented, but when Michelin says that one bike tire grips better in the wet than another, it has the data to back it up. Rather than having only the perceptions of a test rider to learn from, it instead has data that says, “at X speed, tire A loses grip at Y angle with Z depth of water.” This data comes via a telemetrically-wired bicycle with accelerometers, angle sensors, and speed sensors, as well as an adjustable third outrigger wheel so the rider need not fall to the pavement every time his tires break free of the wet surface. So, when Michelin says that a given tire has certain characteristics, you might be inclined to believe it and give some of the new Pro4s a try. It claims to have used 50 different test machines and subjected tires to 250,000km of testing in developing its Pro4 line.