Product Courtesy of Speedmatrix

Introduction

Mountain bikers have constantly been seeking a better mousetrap when it comes to tires. Different terrain and riding styles require different kinds of tires. However, due to cost constraints, not many riders are willing to try too many different tires in their search for their ‘perfect’ tire.

Schwalbe has created a 3-tire system, allowing 3 different types of tire to be chosen for any kind of riding conditions. Using the Racing Ralph, Furious Fred and Nobby Nic, the rider can select the best combination of front and rear tire for the best performance of grip and rolling resistance. Here is an excerpt from the Schwalbe website regarding how these systems are meant to be used.

The complete range – comprising the Racing Ralph, Furious Fred and Nobby Nic – now offer an ideal tire combination for every track, all weathers for both Cross Country and Marathon events. Selecting the correct combination of tires for front and rear wheel can increase total performance on grip and rolling resistance. Depending on how rough, or wet the course is, Schwalbe technician Markus Hachmeyer and Gerrit Gaastra, Schwalbe product advisor, recommends different combinations.

Where does the 3-Tire-System idea come from? 
Gerrit Gaastra: From motocross, where there are essentially three kinds of tire: slick, rain and intermediate tires for semi-dry tracks. We transferred this concept to MTB. Furious Fred with its light tread rolls fast and straight over dry tracks, the more sturdy Nobby Nic is the specialist for heavy, muddy terrain and Racing Ralph is the allrounder. In order to further improve performance, these tires can be combined.

For which conditions do you recommend combinations?
Gerrit Gaastra: The skillful combination of tires can produce more speed in about half of all conceivable weather and ground conditions. In dry weather and light terrain I would combine Furious Fred with Racing Ralph on the front wheel. The rider then keeps his front wheel well under control and can work against under-steer. On the back, where there is almost 70 per cent of the rider’s weight, Furious Fred can use its sensationally low rolling resistance to best effect.

Another example: In rougher areas like in the Alps I fit Nobby Nic on the front – for more braking- and steering-control and on the rear the Racing Ralph is better suited. Alternatively the new Racing Ralph is a very good allrounder and can be used on the front and the back if the conditions are not too extreme – that’s to say: Either too muddy, or too rough.

How many tires does a cross country rider need?
Gerrit Gaastra: With two Racing Ralph and one each Furious Fred and Nobby Nic any rider had enough basic equipment for many conditions. But for someone who doesn’t want to compromise and would like to be prepared for any eventuality, two of each tire provides the ultimate number of combinations.

The Tires

Nobby Nic

The Nobby Nic is designed to have maximum grip with low rolling resistance. By combining the Evo Carcass with a triple rubber compound and U-blocks, these tires achieve outstanding grip, especially during off-camber turns and at high cornering speeds. It is the grippiest tire in this three-tire line-up.

The Nobby Nics tested here are identical with the previous set reviewed earlier, with the a new ‘Double Defense’ protection beneath its knobs and on its sidewalls for a 90gram weight penalty. The built-in puncture protection also made the tire feel less supple during riding, but it’s a trade off between feeling the trail and changing tubes. For people interested in finding out more regarding the Nobby Nic, the previous review can be found here.

Conclusion

The Nobby Nic combines the outstanding qualities of the Racing Ralph, then increases the grip level through a new and higher knob pattern. It is also better suited for more technical terrain as it resists low speed washout and is less likely to slip during rough uphill sections.

Racing Ralph

The Racing Ralph tire was well loved among XC riders when it was first launched years ago. Now, Schwalbe has updated the design, with lower tire weights and rolling resistance – yet increasing the overall grip. The knobs are slightly higher and more angular with the update, and features similar U-blocks on the side knobs for more aggressive cornering grip. Weight has been kept to a bare minimum of 520grams for maximum responsiveness during hard acceleration.

The supple casing has a distinctive roundish shape with relatively low height knobs for maximum speed in hardpack terrain.

Field Test

Comparing the new Racing Ralphs with the first generation ones, the first thing I must say is how much more grippy these tires are. The Evo compound really works to claw the wheels up wet and slimy terrain that the older Ralphs would baulk at. And the compound also seems to reduce the wear rate of the tire, something which the previous generation was notorious for. However, these are still XC tires, and it will take skill and finesse to ride these over wet rooty/ rocky terrain. The knobs are abit too low to hold traction up wet rooty climbs in particular, and washouts occur at higher speeds when compared to the Nobby Nic. Over dry or damp hardpack, these tires rule with their supple and lightweight casing, and are able to hold high speeds with little effort.

In the front, the tires carve high speed turns with ease, holding speed and its chosen line tenaciously over hardpack terrain. The rear tire still requires a bit of grip modulation up technical slopes, and momentum would certainly help here.

On the road, these tires spin up easily and can maintain a decent cruising speed thanks to to the low rolling resistance of the casing and compound.

Conclusion

The Racing Ralphs are a benchmark XC tire from Schwalbe. Lightweight, fast, grippy cornering characteristics all make for an extremely competitive all-weather/ terrain XC race tire. The low wear characteristics of the tire should also endear it to users who are put off by low durometer tires which achieve grip with the wear characteristics akin to pencil erasers.

Furious Fred

The Furious Fred, Schwalbe latest offering, pitches itself as the ultimate race day tire. Designed with dry day cross country racing in mind, weight and rolling resistance is pared down to the minimum. The tradeoff however, according to Schwalbe website: “Grip is limited and risk of puncturing is high.”

Out of the box, the design intent of the Furious Freds (FFs) is immediately apparent. The knobs are minimalist at best and like other semi-slicks such as Continental Supersonics and Maxxis Wormdrive, they are insanely light: Our 2.0 tube version tipped the scales (heavier than 295g claimed) at just over 315g (per tire), but easily shaved a good 200g over our regular trail tires (Jimmys 2.1). Like all Schwalbes, tire width is skinnier than claimed.

Schwalbe patented triple compound design continues to be used in the construction of the Furious Freds. An elastic base layer that Schwalbe says reduces rolling resistance, a firm compound on the center of the tread for durability, and a tacky edge compound for cornering grip.

Despite the weight savings of the standard tubed version, it was mildly disappointing that the tubeless version was not available – given that UST-specific tires can run at lower pressures). After some fiddling, we set up our tires toward the low end of the recommended range at 40psi before hitting the trails (recommended air pressure ranges between 35 and 70 psi). The tires are bi-directional; you run them forward thread direction for the front and reverse for rear duties.

Field Test

Despite the tire being designated for dry hard pack racing condition, we were interested see how the FFs actually performed on our major (read: legal) trails in varied conditions.

Living up to its namesake, the FFs (with no surprises) brings instant improvement in acceleration, straight line speeds under similar effort, thanks to the lightweight construction semi-slick knob profile. Cornering in the dry is predictable despite the lower side knobs; berm corners are taken with aplomb and climbing took a whole lot less effort. Riding the FFs felt like the bike was on steroids; the bike begged to be hammered off saddle, only to be let down by the reviewer’s somewhat suspect finesse.

Putting the FFs through dry gravel littered trails, there was more sliding/bouncing from the intended riding line. The FFs DO NOT dig into loose stuffs in sharp corners like regular knobbies do, so getting the right entry speed is crucial to avoiding a washout. The quick acceleration out of the apex makes up for this shortcoming somewhat, if only the exit line is not limited by the same loose condition.

As many would have suspected, aggressive semi slicks suffer from almost no traction in soft wet conditions. On a ride through Kent Ridge, the front gave up easily on wet steep down slopes and we ended up sliding off the intended line once too often. Climbing wet and slippery stuff was just as tiring as the rear slips easily under pedal pressure.

The high running pressures necessary for puncture protection led to a very harsh ride. We tried riding with 5 psi less for a bit more traction and comfort, but square edges easily bottomed out the tire, especially the rear. Ouch. So back up went the tire pressure.

Climbing rocky inclines were less than fun as rocks through the front end off the intended line. To overcome this, we learnt that the best way to ride the FFs is to get over the rutted stuffs in the quickest manner, using a gear or two higher than usual to attack the rough section direct, taking full advantage of the (lack of) weight of the FFs. We find ourselves bouncing around a lot more this way, but onto our intended line rather than away from it when with the usual more sedate riding style.

We were not able to test the FFs as long as we wanted to, but the tires show little wear after 10 rides. However do not expect the shallow knobs to last very long, especially under race use.

Conclusion

The Furious Fred is not an all-rounder tire. Schwalbe has designed the FFs solely as a premium tire for speed in the dry and there is no doubt about its racing pedigree. Riders looking for a speedy weapon of choice should look no further than the Furious Freds, if you can take the fast and furious heat.

Mix it up – Schwalbe Racing Ralph (Front) / Furious Fred (Rear) Combination

For this part of Schwalbe System review, we were given a 2.25” version of the popular Racing Ralph to match up with the FFs. The characteristics of the RRs is well documented in the previous review, an excellent all rounder tire with the bigger size giving more grip and comfort at some weight penalty. Recommended tire pressure is between 30 and 55psi and the weight comes in close to the claimed 520g for the 2.25 version.

We took this opportunity to test the popular big aggressive front and small slick rear combination with the Racing Ralph in place of the FF at the front (it made no sense and has no advantage doing the reverse). Instantly, the RR brought immediate improvement to both grip and comfort. The more generous knobs dig better for cornering traction; the big volume rolls easily over most of the trail obstacles and trail chatter was cushioned much better. The big volume RR also allows lower pressures (if necessary) but we found that the 2.25 width brought plenty of margin in traction and comfort and 40psi was very much ridable.

Keeping the FF on the rear retains the advantage of low resistance (since body weight is typically distributed 40/60 between the front and rear tires). On loose stuff, rear-end fish-tailing could not be avoided, but the reassuring 2.25 RR in front kept the bike going through some of the trickiest stuff. In short, the RR/FF combination was very much more ridable by a larger segment of riders out there than the pure FF setup which is strictly aimed at the racing crowd.

Mix it up – Schwalbe Nobby Nic (Front)/ Racing Ralph (Rear) Combination

With 2.25” tires on both ends of the bike, this combination is both fast rolling, grips well in corners and accelerates quickly on hardpack surfaces. The lack of height on the Racing Ralph’s knobs hinder it in loose conditions, and the rear has a bit of tendency to slide around abit more. However, the grip in all directions is far better than the race-only Furious Fred, and puncture resistance should be far greater. Pinch flats are also less likely due to the huge air volume of the 2.25 carcass.

The Nobby Nic out front does a good job of holding a stable line while carving corners; its grip on wet roots and loose terrain is excellent. The big knobs also help in braking on loose surfaces. However, as Schwalbe tends to fudge on their tire sizing, one can’t help but wonder how much more effective it would be if the 2.4” version is used up front. An even larger volume tire would allow running of lower pressures provided the rim is sufficiently wide enough for it. With the Nobby Nic out front and Racing Ralph in the back, the rolling resistance isn’t increased much over a Racing Ralph only combination.

On long races with unfamiliar terrain, such as during an adventure race, competitors need a setup for low rolling resistance with healthy amount of grip. This would be pretty close to the ideal, and it would be good to use on the various trail conditions we get here in Singapore without having to fuss around with tire selection.