When it comes to its presence in the mountain bike marketplace, Michelin's best and worst aspects are the same thing. The French tire giant is capable of making race-winning rubber for any sport that rolls on wheels. Cycling, Formula One, WRC, Paris Dakar, and almost every motorcycle racing venue. You name it and Michelin has probably been on the podium, but in the world of mountain bike, not so much. With annual tire sales pegged at 184 million and over six thousand people working in its R&D departments, mountain bike is a niche market for Michelin. It could be argued that while its mountain bike tires have been a showcase for its state-of-the-art manufacturing processes, Michelin's massive brain trust has yet to muster the pinpoint focus required to produce a gold-standard tire. You know what I'm talking about: that must-ride, elite-level design that would most likely be blacked out by pro riders who are sponsored by competitive tire brands.
In Michelin's defense, the subtle differences between a winning and a losing mountain bike tire can be difficult, if not impossible, to quantify and ambiguity is the great Satan of the manufacturing process. With expertise in every aspect of construction and design, Michelin is capable of manufacturing the perfect mountain bike tire; what it needed was a concise explanation of what that perfect tire was. Enter Vincent Ledieu, an accomplished tire engineer and a ripper on a bike. Ledieu became Michelin's Rosetta Stone—the man who could translate the intuitive whims and quixotic technical feedback garnered from testing sessions with Michelin's pro athletes, into language that chemists and product engineers could understand. Ledieu and his team broke ground developing the enduro-specific Wild Advanced range of tires—a successful project that caught the attention of Michelin's leadership, who then decided to devote the resources necessary to establish the brand as a key player across the elite venues of the sport.
Youthful and urgent, Vincent Ledieu
provided the focal point that Michelin needed to persevere through a lengthy, three-year development process. The plan was to stay within the boundaries that Michelin and its sponsored athletes knew best (cross-country/trail and all-mountain), and eventually, four tires emerged—each designed, tested and perfected for a singular mission. The fast-rolling Jet XCR and its grippier sister, the Force XC, were designed for cross-country; and for all-mountain, Michelin developed the fast-rolling Force AM, and the very aggressive Wild AM. All four tires achieved podium finishes at World Cup XCO and EWS venues during 2016, after which, Michelin invited select members of the media to join them for a first ride experience on the rugged front-country trails of Santa Barbara, California.
The Jet XCR is the least amount of tire that a top XC racer can get away with and still expect a podium finish. Pegged as a dry-condition/hard-pack-surface design, the XCR depends as much upon its grippy two-density GumX 2D rubber compound for traction as does its impossibly small chevron tread pattern. A ridge of V-shaped center blocks minimizes rolling resistance while providing a measure of mechanical grip for climbing and braking. Under the minimal tread, is a base-layer of energetic rubber that, in conjunction with the tire's supple 150 TPI casing, is said to further reduce rolling resistance. Tubeless ready, of course, the Jet XCR weighs between 560 and 610 grams (depending upon casing size) and can be had in 27.5 x 2.25-inch, 29 x 2.25-inch, or 29 x 2.1-inch options. Price: TBD.
Michelin says that, while the Jet XCR used on both the front and rear wheel is a popular choice for XC racing, running an XCR on the rear wheel and pairing it with their slightly more aggressive Force XC up front provides much better cornering and technical performance with a very minimal rolling resistance penalty. We used that configuration in the 27.5-inch size on 30mm rims to evaluate the Jet XCR.
Switching from some of the grippiest 2.4-inch enduro tires made, to Michelin's dainty-looking cross-country semi-slick did not leave me with the impression that I was going to find grip anywhere, but I did. Dashing in and out of stream crossings and scrambling up well-polished sandstone rocks revealed that Michelin's rubber compounds could generate traction in wet conditions. Over loose gravel, the XCR's tiny tread blocks afforded little mechanical grip, but the well placed edging blocks managed just enough cornering traction to keep the rubber side down during those sketchy moments. On hard pack surfaces, the XCR made my long-travel trail bike turn with unexpected conviction and pedal like it had an electronic motor—which is exactly what it was invented to do.
World Cup cross-country courses have become more technically challenging. Michelin's Force XC has a slightly more aggressive tread pattern to excel on tougher venues and in inclement weather. The Force XC's GumX 3D tread uses a softer compound for its staggered edging blocks and a slightly harder center tread for reduced rolling resistance and durability. The rounded profile and extra grip make it a better choice for a front tire than Michelin's Jet XCR, and when used on both ends of the bike, it can double as a fast-condition trail tire. The Cross Shield casing is tougher, with 110 TPI fabric, backed with a high-density reinforcing ply to ward off punctures and sidewall tears. Michelin offers a 2.1-inch casing in 26, 27.5 and 29-inch wheel sizes, and a 2.25-inch casing in 27.5 and 29-inch wheel sizes. Weight ranges from 580 to 680 grams. Price: TBD.
In its press release, Michelin bills the Force XC as a trail riding tire for mixed and soft conditions. I'd agree that the tire is well suited for fast-paced cross-country style trails, but the modern trail bike has become far more capable in the technical sense, so the Force XC lacks the width and grip to match its enhanced performance. That said, it should be excellent for competition, and there are many trail systems that would showcase this fast-rolling and nimble feeling tire. It sticks to wet surfaces and corners well. When it breaks traction in a turn, the tire drifts with a secure feel. A supple casing and just enough center tread ensure ample climbing and braking traction, and the only situation where the Force XC falls noticeably short is where its tread blocks cannot penetrate deep enough to find grip, like gravel or dry, loose soil over a hard surface.
Michelin's Force AM is intended to offer a faster, lighter option for trail riders who don't need or want to push around a thousand gram enduro racing tire. The AM version of the Force mirrors the tread pattern of its cross-country sibling, but the blocks are at least double the height, and its reinforced edging tread is lined up in a row to provide ample push-back against high-pressure cornering forces.
Its casing is Michelin's tougher Trail Shield design with a rugged, 60 TPI fabric and an additional layer of high-density material to ward off punctures and rips. Used as a front/rear combination, the Force AM would be well suited for moderately technical trail riding on hard or dry surfaces. For a true all-mountain application, Michelin suggests that the Force AM be used as a faster rolling rear tire, paired with its Wild AM (a no-compromise enduro-inspired tire) as the front option.
The Force AM features Michelin's rugged Gum-X 3D dual-density tread compound, and will be available with a 2.25-inch casing in 26, 27.5 and 29-inch wheel sizes, a 2.35-inch casing in 27.5 and 29-inch sizes, and a 2.6-inch casing will be offered for 27.5-inch wheels only. Weights range from 690 to 830 grams. Price: TBD.First Impression
Most of my riding as of late has been on long travel all-mountain bikes, shod with gravity-specific tires like Schwalbe's Magic Mary or the Maxxis Minion, so the minimal crown tread of the Force AM tire seemed like a stretch for that genre. Michelin's tech crew set my bike up with a 2.35-inch Force AM on the rear and a 2.35-inch Wild AM on the front. Both appear larger when mounted, (they measure close to their stated width), and they perform as such. As a rear tire, the Force AM corners well on a variety of terrain in much the same way as a Schwalbe Rock Razor (my favorite semi-slick AM tire). Lay the bike over onto the stiff edging blocks, and it will carve its way around most any turn with minimal drifting. The crown tread grips a measure better than a Rock Razor in wet and dry conditions, and it provides more braking grip on rock faces. I'd agree with Michelin that the Force AM is a dry-condition specialist, and its sell-points are predictable cornering, low rolling resistance, and a tough casing.
The most impressive of Michelin's new quartet is the Wild AM. With its spiky, staggered tread pattern and a sturdy row of reinforced edge blocks, the Wild AM mirrors a number of successful downhill and enduro designs. The leading edges of each block on the center tread are angled slightly to reduce rolling resistance on hard surfaces, but not as much as the Maxxis Minion and its many copycats—presumably to retain a greater measure of climbing traction. A slightly rounded tread profile, staggered transition blocks and slightly offset edge blocks, ensure that there will be consistent traction as the tire is brought into a lean. The Wild AM's Trail Shield casing, which is available in a 2.35-inch width, and in both 27.5 and 29-inch wheel sizes, uses Michelin's tough, 60 TPI fabric and high-density reinforcement ply for durability. The Gum-X 3D tread compound is slightly harder in the crown, with softer edging blocks. Weight is stated at 760 grams for the 27.5 and 800 grams for the 29-inch sizes. Price: TBD.
Michelin's Wild AM was my favorite of the quartet, mostly because it feels like it has double the traction. It rolls fast too. Its casing is more flexible, compared to the ultra reinforced gravity casings that grace popular enduro tires, so it smooths out the chatter and helps the bike maintain its momentum. That said, there is a pressure threshold, above which, the Wild AM will start to feel rough and bouncy. Intentionally or not, Michelin's tech staff set my front tire at 32 psi and the rear, at 34 psi. I was bouncing all over the place while climbing over the zone's uneven rock faces until I dropped the pressures to 28 and 30 psi, after which, they held a good line and delivered the degree of smoothness that I was hoping for. On the downs, I had no issues with sidewall cuts or punctures pounding down the boulders using those pressures and, after a handful of surprise switchbacks and stream crossings, I learned that I could trust my Wild AM tires to find traction almost anywhere, which freed my senses to concentrate on the trail ahead. So far, the Wild AM is stacking up to be a winner, with a very efficient feel under power and a tenacious grip on a wide variety of surfaces and textures, Michelin's best AM Trail offering for 2017 may be its ticket to the top step in the category. I'll report back on that statement in a few months. Is Michelin on Track?
It's been a while since I've entered a cross-country event—or ridden an XC race bike, for that matter—so I can't comment on the ability of the Jet XCR or the Force XC tires to win at the Wold Cup level. I can, however, report that both of Michelin's new XC tires felt surprisingly capable on the trail and I don't recall any
XC racing semi-slick that clicked that box. As trail bike tires, both should fill the bill for riders who feel comfortable in Spandex and are searching to murder Strava times on blue graded trails.
The Force AM and Wild AM designs should resonate well with the harder-edged trail bike types. Lightweight and technically capable, they are true all-mountain tires that span the growing chasm created by the hyper-development of enduro racing bicycles, which have left trail riders with a busload of oversized and overweight options that rip the downs but are cumbersome oafs for climbing and everything else. Michelin's conservative foursome for 2017 reminds us that there are a lot of excellent riders out there who don't need an enduro bike to shred trails but still need great tires to maximize that experience. There's the win. I would like to see the Wild AM in a 2.6-inch casing, otherwise, I think Michelin is on track.