02 March 2008

bikefix Exclusive Review: Specialized Fast Trak Control 29x2.0 tires

Control. It's all about control. It doesn't matter how fast a tire rolls if you can't carry the speed you've gained into, and through, the corners. This point became particularly clear to me after moving from New England to the desert. There, there are trees and bushes to penalize riders for overshooting corners. Here: prickly pears. As I've mentioned in the past, my 29er (a single speed) is a bike for going fast. I'm not particularly predisposed to 100km dirt road SS epics. When I grab the 29er, it's usually with a small bag for a couple of hours' blast within riding distance of the house. Those trails are pretty fast and flowy and the SS has only one speed: Go.

So, as my year-old Geax Saguaro and two year old WTB ExiWolf tires started to loose their grip, I began shopping for a replacement set. While Schwalbe's new Racing Ralphs looked good (fast and light with lots of volume), they were spendy ($65 apiece) and apparently impossible to get a hold of. Specialized's Fast Trak, available in Low Knob (LK) and more aggressive (Control) versions, is a 600g (Control) tire that is fairly common in these parts. Our local Specialized dealer sends out $15 off $50 coupons to their e-mail list fairly regularly (IBDs take note- these really get folks in the door), which meant that two of Specialized's $37 Fast Trak Control tires came to a very reasonable $59. Sold.

Running these tires, as I do, on narrow (19mm) Sun ME14A rims, cornering knobs are important. The LKs save much of their weight on the cornering knobs, which scared me a bit. Besides, at 200g less than the ExiWolf and 40g less than the Saguaro, the set was already saving me 1/2lb- I didn't really feel the need to compromise cornering or casing thickness at that point. Mounted on my skinny-ass rims, the Fast Traks were noticeably narrower than the Saguaro or ExiWolf- easily a full 1/4in narrower than the latter, I was worried about pinch flatting, particularly in rocky terrain. The casing was also noticeably softer. Thinking I had slow leaks, I checked both to find my usual 30PSI. The front I left as-is, but I upped the rear to 35, which took care of a bit of a vague feeling in corners.

While they lacked the margin of error and comfort that a larger tire seems to grant a rider, I don't feel like the Fast Traks give up anything to my favorite ExiWolves. They seem to roll a bit faster than the Saguaro, though not as fast as Kenda's Small Block 8s. The payoff, though, is that they seem to corner far better than either, for more control and faster speeds overall. I had the misfortune of doing some muddy riding recently (Boo!) and there they can't compare with Bontrager's ACX 29 or Schwalbe's Little Albert 29- though they're really not meant to. They are passable for short muddy sections and seem to give up more cornering control than straight ahead traction- so just it's possible shift your weight back, power down and get through it.

The Fast Traks tend to slip predictably and the rear breaks loose first (if just barely). This provides some oversteer, though a bit less than I'd like. Still, it's far better than understeer- the defining handling characteristic of my '86 Ford Taurus wagon in the snow and something I'd like to leave as just a memory. My other complaint is that the casings on both tires (the last two at the dealer) were slightly wonky. Despite my best efforts (air compressor and Armor-All when mounting), the casings never ran true. The dealer mentioned an unconditional satisfaction guarantee (I don't know if that's theirs or Specialized's), so I'm waiting on replacements to come in. They've been fine for 200mi, but I'd rather not tempt fate- at least I'm running tubes (with Stans inside), and a decent tire shouldn't be all wonky out of the box.

My previous experience with (first generation) Fast Traks was cut short by a sharp rock cutting half way through the sidewall. The Control version uses a (new for 2008) cut-reistant casing that should help. For really rocky conditions or heavier riders, though, a 2.2 tire might be a bit more appropriate and comfortable (the 26in Fast Trak is available in a 2.2). For loamy or loose-over-hard conditions, though, the Fast Trak are a great tire: light, fast, grippy and reasonably priced.



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