06 February 2008

bikefix Exclusive Review: Kenda Small Block 8 29x2.1 tire

Its been quite a while since I was one for 'race' tires. Living in an area with plenty of sharp, angry rocks and not really racing much will cure one of the need to run the fastest, lightest tires possible. Of course, as my commitment to an upcoming 24-hour race becomes much more real and frightening by the day, I'm looking for anything that might help lessen the pain. Talking to the Dans down at the local biketorium, I learned that Danny had a slightly used Kenda Small Block 8 29er tire that he hadn't had time to build a bike around, and he was gracious enough to let me borrow it for a few rides.

Kenda's Small Block 8 is part of John Tomac's signature series of tires. We're not sure how much input he had in their development, but he's signed off on all of them, which was nice of him. An accomplished all-around rider, Tomac has certainly done his share of racing over the years- some of it on pretty odd gear- and been very successful. His range of tires for Kenda has been well-received, and it seems like the Nevegal is everywhere. It turns out that, in sand and hardpack, having lots of small knobs can be a good thing. Actually, I'm guessing that it's lots of edges that make the difference, but you can't really have one without the other. And the Small Block 8 has loads. Interestingly, they're smaller knobs than on the 26in Small Blocks, and look a little scary for those of us who like to turn corners. On the (narrow-ish) rim, the Small Block 8 didn't have quite as much volume as the Geax Saguaro it replaced- it seems a bit smaller than Specialized's 29x2.0 Fast Trak. That's hardly the end of the world- 1/8in isn't going to make a huge difference to most pinch flats anyways. With a light casing, folding bead and minimal tread, the Small Block 8 weighs a (quoted) 584g- reasonable for a 26in tire, let alone a 29er. With the specter of pre-dawn laps in my head, I threw them on the back of my 29er single speed and headed out.

At this point, I've got about 9 hours' riding on the Small Block 8 as a rear tire, and I must say that I'm impressed. First and foremost, it rolls fast and carries noticeably more speed than the Saguaro. On an early-morning suffer-fest with frozen trails and superhero traction, it was fantastic, providing as much forward and turning traction as I could take advantage of. A week later and several degrees warmer, the same trails were a mess. Thanks, though, to the knobs' low height (and despite their close spacing), they never packed up with mud while providing more traction than a semi-slick. Cornering was still OK, given the slipperiness. Ride three was more representative of my normal rides. Not particularly wet and not frozen, the trails felt much like they do all year- mostly hardpack with no more than 1/8in of coarse sand on the surface. Next to the Saguaro, the Small Block 8 gave up a bit of forward traction and broke loose a hair earlier- probably 9/10 in both cases. It was never a surprise to feel the tire break loose, and it did so in a pretty controlled fashion. While slightly faster than each the Saguaro and WTB ExiWolf, its hard to know if that speed is lost again in corners or on climbs.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the Small Block 8. Because 24 hour races involve a fair amount of fatigue, though, I'm not sure I want to give up control for speed- I come close enough to the cacti as it is. Maybe a 29x2.3 (a 2.3 is available for 26in wheels) would be a bit more forgiving? For shorter or less-technical events (I'm remembering many NORBA courses here), you're riding the Great Divide, or if you have a fair amount of pavement on the way to the trailhead, it could be a winner.



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