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September Brown's comments about bike, tire, and trailer selection

Katy Trail Tire Selection

by ML Haag MD, Overland Park, KS

Tire choice is a very important issue for enjoyment of crushed limestone-surfaced rail trails, including the Katy Trail.  When I bring up the trail at my local bike shops here in the KC area, the subject of experiences with flat tires seems to be a repetitive theme.  The Katy Trail Website forum seems to echo such.  If one is serious about lengthy or repetitive rides on the Katy or other similar trails, then it is worth buying a special set of tires for such.  A road bike can be used, but most seem to agree that a 32mm tire is a minimum width required, perhaps narrower for lighter riders and no gear but I couldn’t imagine going narrower than a 28.  The vibration alone would shorten the trip for most.  Many road bikes can barely accommodate a 32mm tire which is why cyclocross, touring and some hybrid bikes are good choices.  Here are features of tires that are recommended for crushed limestone rail-trails:

1. Kevlar or aramid belts under the tread.  The limestone crushes into small arrowhead-like shards and this added puncture protection is desirable.
2. An appropriate tread pattern.  The best in my experience are those that are relatively smooth in the center and knobby (not grooved) on the edges.  If the pattern has fine grooves, the shards described above tend to get stuck in the tread then pushed into the cord which can eventuate into punctures. 
3. Reasonable weight and suppleness.
4. A width that is suitable for the surface and rider’s weight as well as any extra gear such as panniers etc.  If the tires are too narrow, they tend to sink into the softer portions of the trail, actually causing more resistance than slightly wider tires.  Also, the narrow tires/rims are more prone to punctures, broken spokes and bent rims.

Here are a few specific options with links:

Continental TravelContact
I have ridden hundreds of miles on rail trails with this tire and have never had a puncture.  Note that the size is listed as 700 X 37 but Continentals are notorious for running narrow; it barely measures as 34mm fully inflated but is likely too wide for most road bikes nevertheless.  A good choice for hybrid, touring and cyclocross bikes.  Has MTB version that is also narrow (and a good choice if you are riding a 26” bike).  Also available in a folding version than can be packed as an extra.  Slightly heavier than some of the other choices.  Tread pattern is the best of all for the trail, especially the lateral knobs, but it can be a little slick on wet roads or in mud.  Rides and rolls surprisingly well given the belt and the extra rubber on the central smooth portion.  Finally, its 100lb air pressure capability listed on the website must be a misprint or outdated as the sidewall of an ‘05 version I just purchased states 87lb max.  I have used the CityContact 700 X 32 also, which I believe is built on the same carcass but for my purposes the TravelContact has a more appropriate tread pattern and width.

Hutchinson Acrobat Stop Puncture
(Note no direct link: click on "CITY/TREKKING" link and choose 700 or 26” Acrobat)
This tire is recommended by Mark at the Hartsburg Cycle Depot and used on his rental bikes.  It comes in several sizes including MTB (26”).  It seems to be a tough tire and the tread pattern is also nearly ideal.  It is available in 700 X 28,32 and 37mm.  Note that the maximum psi rating on the sidewall of the 700 X 37 is in the high 80’s and so don’t let the low psi recommendations on their website discourage you from this tire.  If you get a chance, stop by the shop in Hartsburg and have a smoothie.  Mark will talk your ear off using an English accent that you unlikely to hear anywhere else along the trail.

Specialized Borough CX Armadillo Elite
A tough tire and a good size.  Note the 32mm is nearly the same size visually as the 37mm Continental above.  It’s another tough tire and more readily available at local bike shops than either of the above.  I am not certain about its weight or psi ratings.  Also, the tread does have finer grooves albeit they are few and not very deep but watch for the small stone-wedging as mentioned above.  Other Armadillo models that I have ridden, such as the Hemisphere, rode more stiffly than the Contis above.  Note the Armadillo All Condition Elite model in 23mm for road bikes on this page and 2 other road tires on the following, including up to 28mm

Schwalbe Marathon Plus and Marathon XR
These tires are world class touring/trekking tires that come as standard equipment on high end touring bikes such as the Cannondale T2000 (Although in prior years through ’05, the latter came with the TravelContacts).  Note the different sizes available including road bike sizes for the Plus model (albeit heavier than what most roadies would find acceptable).  Again, the grooves are perhaps a little narrower than the ideal but I don’t think one could question the reputed durability of these tires.  Check out the full line on their great website at: http://schwalbetires.com/bike_tires/road_tires
Roadies could consider the Marathon racer shown and there are numerous belted Trekking tires for hybrids etc.

Schwalbe Cross
I threw this one in as a separate listing because the tread pattern is great for our purposes and it has the mandatory belt.  It does not come in the narrower sizes though (<38mm). 

Maxxis Overdrive
This tire is relatively light for a 38mm belted tire.  The tread has that fine groove thing again but it’s not that busy.

Panaracer Pasela TG
Ditto above regarding tread but note numerous different sizes available.  Mentioned by name elsewhere in the Katy website forum and used extensively by tourers.

Kenda Kwest (K-shield model)
Ditto tread which is a bit too smooth on the edges and groovy in the center but note low price.

Also, consider fenders such as SKS.  They are reasonably lightweight and can help to cut down on dust on the water bottle etc.

Finally, don’t overlook the use of a 26” (mountain) bike if that’s all you have available and don’t wish to get a road or hybrid bike.  The ride is great and the resistance is less than you might expect with the proper tires.  The world’s premiere touring bike, the Koga-Miyata comes as a 26” (and the tires are, you guessed it, Continental TravelContacts).  I would not consider a full-suspension MTB for long rides though as the weight/benefit ratio would be excessive.

Remember to support the trailside businesses, spread the word and have a great ride!

ML Haag MD

Author’s comment: Note that I am just a lowly physician and weekend warrior rider.  I have no connections to any of these companies or anyone in the business.  The information that I have compiled above is through personal experimentation, research and positive results.  I ride a modified cyclocross bike and have never used a road bike on the Katy.  I have also rode a MTB several hundred miles on the trail but prefer the cross bike for longer distances.  To date, I have never sustained a puncture on rail trails using either setup (and TravelContacts).  Also, note that I did not get into the subject of tubes.  Some riders use Slime or heavier thorn-resistant tubes with good results.  I have not found these to be necessary with the proper tire choice but I respect their opinions nevertheless.  Neither have I used tire liners such as Spinskins but others have with seemingly mixed results.

I am the first to admit that there are many individuals who have had more or different experiences than me, especially those that live closer to the trail and those that prefer road bikes but I hope that this article proves helpful for many of you.  Also, remember to check the manufacturer’s websites periodically as the tire models are subject to change.

October 2005