05 August 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: Schwalbe Nobby Nic 26x2.25 UST tire

Ever since Specialized discontinued the Roll X, the best tire I'd found for Southwest trail riding, I've been in a bit of a funk. A moderately aggressive descender who enjoys climbing probably more than he should, I prize durability, good traction, low rolling resistance, reasonable weight and large volume in a tire. While there are plenty of tires on the market that can claim these characteristics, few that I've tried can demonstrate tenacious, predictable and communicative cornering in our area's predominately loose-over-hard conditions.

Featuring a higher-volume casing than most tires (very close in width to its nominal 2.25in size), Schwalbe's Nobby Nic has to be the best Southwest trail tire I've ridden in a long time. Across the tire's casing, the Schwalbe have sprinkled only a handful of knobs, all split or otherwise relieved to increase the number of biting edges. The closely-spaced cornering shoulder knobs are located almost completely inboard of the tire's widest point, leaving them well-supported and making the Nobby Nic just as tall as but a bit narrower than its casing width would suggest. While there is only one tread pattern Schwalbe recommend different rotating directions for front and rear mounting.

Looking at the Nobby Nic, I was worried that the widely-spaced knobs would leave the casing vulnerable to the sharp rocks that have written off many otherwise great tires since my move to the desert 5 years ago. After a few months' riding, my Nics' rubber is showing a good number of shallow nicks but, beyond one cut that was sealed by the Stans sealant inside, none have yet caused any problems.

On my favorite Albuquerque-area trails, the fat Schwalbes (which are also available in 2.1 and 2.4in widths) performed pretty well initially. The front was excellent all around and the rear provided very good forward and braking traction with far less rolling resistance than its widely-spaced knobs would suggest. The extra volume provided extra confidence on loose, rocky descents while protecting my rims. Cornering, however, was a bit odd. Talking to Charlie, who has also ridden and reviewed these tires, he reported the same sort of behavior. Most of the time, the rear tire behaved well- holding tight and drifting slightly when pushed hard. Once or twice each ride, though, the rear would break loose without warning, causing me to unclip my inside foot and launching my heart into my throat. Neither Charlie or I could put a finger on the exact conditions that lead to this behavior, which made it hard to guard against and had me less than sold.

On a whim one day, I decided to try reversing the rear tire's rotating direction. I'm not sure why I though it would make the Nobby Nic corner better, but I figured that it was worth a shot- the rear was pretty worn and if nothing else, I'd get a few more rides out of it. Mounted backwards, Nobby Nic behaves much more predictably, with little (if any) reduction in braking or driving traction. I tend to prefer a rear tire that breaks loose before the front (oversteer being easier to correct or recover from than understeer) and was concerned that this wouldn't be the case with the majority of my weight on the rear wheel. So far, this hasn't been the case- while less prone to drift than some tires I've ridden, the rear Nic will break free before the front almost every time- a good thing.

While the Nobby Nic wears alarmingly quickly as a rear tire, it is one of the few tires I've ridden that wears well. Usually, I end up throwing out tires with plenty of center tread because their shoulder knobs have worn severely, making cornering sketchy. This has particularly been true of other Schwalbe tires I've used recently- the triple compound construction (each knob features an extra-fast nougat center) works great, but once the outer layer of rubber is worn away, their cornering knobs can become undermined and unstable very quickly. This will likely be a non-issue for those who live in loamier areas or who don't corner very aggressively, but for me it's a big deal and has kept the rear Nic on my bike far longer than I would have expected. Have a look at the photo to the right: the center knobs have devolved to soft-edged blobs but the shoulder knobs are still in pretty good shape.

What's not to like, then? As we've noted in the past, Schwalbe's tires are not only expensive ($87 each as tested), but they wear very quickly. The company has this to say:
One last comment about the price, Schwalbe can not be compared to any other tire on the market when it comes to cost. We use 100% grade A materials for the construction of our tires. That means all raw materials are at the highest purity levels possible. Other tires on the market mix additives to the raw materials, this creates a lower grade rubber and a lower cost to manufacture.
While using the best materials possible is in some ways admirable, we have to question what it achieves in this case. If additives or cheaper materials can yield a tire that performs as well but wears longer and/or costs less (which is what the competition seem to be doing), we're all for it. As worldwide rubber prices have gone up, the difference between Schwalbe and even house brands like Bontrager and Specialized has narrowed- but nearly $90 per tire, 2-4 times per year is still a bit hard to swallow. Also, while cornering has remained good as my Nobby Nic's have worn, the rear's forward and braking traction has suffered, especially on hardpack, where only careful application of power now prevents slipping on climbs.

I really like the Nobby Nic's. They have proved to be predictable and capable performers in every condition I've exposed them to, from loose motorcycle trails to loamy Colorado singletrack. When mounted on the rear, their wear is a concern that is amplified by their cost. Without qualification, the Nobby Nic is one of the best front tires I've ridden- for that it gets a bikefix Pick. Until Schwalbe see fit to offer the tubeless Nic's in a harder wearing and/or less expensive compound, I will try (and would have to recommend) keeping one on the front and going for something a bit longer-wearing (or at least significantly cheaper) on the rear.




Anonymous said...

Hi Marc, and thank you for the review. Schwalbe has just made a few significant changes to the Nobby Nic for 2010; have you had a chance to test these out yet? As of January 2010, it looks like it is strictly a European purchase until they make their way into the USA. I am excited to hear a few reviews on the updated version! Cheers. Greg

bikefix said...


Do you have any more info on when the revised Nobby Nic might land stateside? It looks like they've done some work to increase cut resistance and to improve life- both great things in my opinion... Shoot us an e-mail using the link at the top of the page. Thanks,