14 September 2008

bikefix Exclusive Review: Continental Vertical UST tire

One tire. If, say, one were headed on a cross-country road trip, mountain biking at every stop along the way, what tire(s) would work best? Not best in any one place or any one condition, but as an all-around mountain bike tire? Of course, the answer would be different for different racers and freeriders, but for each that tire would have to handle rocks, roots, loam and sand reasonably well. It wouldn't necessarily be the best tire for New England roots, organic Midwestern topsoil, Moab's red rocks or buff Colorado singletrack, but should be up for pretty much anything.

Unfortunately, I ask this question not because I've got such a trip in the works. The question came as the answer when I asked myself what Continental's Vertiacal UST tires were really best for. I came across the Vertical while living in the UK six or eight years ago. It was recommended by a friend for 'big days out'- trips on Peak District classics like Cut Gate, to the Scottish Boarders and for the steeps around Sheffield. The tire, which Conti (rather optimistically) calls a 2.3, features a number of distorted, broad-based pentagonal knobs in a fairly widely-spaced pattern. Because each knob is considerably wider at the base than at its top, the Vertical seems far less prone to squirm than similarly sparse treads. It also sheds mud reasonably well. At around $20 for the wire bead version, they were an easy sell, and have been on and off bikes of mine ever since.

Be it by design or happy accident, the Vertical (there is a skinny 2.1in version called the Explorer) handles a remarkably wide range of trails very well. In the mud, it's as good as anything short of a mud-specific tire. It rolls reasonably quickly and breaks loose predictably on loose-over-hardpack (with a fair amount of warning beforehand). The fairly hard rubber compound wears reasonably well and provides plenty of grip in the soft soils of New England while allowing for controlled drifts when pushed hard in loose desert conditions- though it doesn't grip nearly as well as it could in softer compound.

All good? Not so quick. While nominally a 2.3, the Vertical is on par with most other companies' 2.1s and is smaller than some 2.0s I've owned. This makes it too chubby (at 730g) for more XC-oriented folks while not big enough for those of us in rockier regions. I can't help but think that a true 2.3 (or Continental 2.5) would be fantastic in this tread pattern. Also, being one of the older UST-compatible tires around, the Vertical is not only a bit heavy but also a bit fragile. At one point I had three or four hanging in the garage- one virtually brand new, all with cut sidewalls. In fact, the one photographed here has two cuts, which were patched from the inside. The company does make the tire using their cut-resistant ProTection casing, though that's not tubeless compatible. The $20 wire bead version is probably the best value all-around tire available, though. Continental has since introduced two generations of off-road tires, but the Vertical tread pattern remains one of the best on the market, especially in areas where trail surfaces and conditions vary widely. If you don't mind a bit of weight and aren't prone to sidewall cuts, few all-around XC tires can compete. If, like me, you tend to find every sharp rock on the trail, then they're too expensive (at $55) to be disposable.



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