Little known fact: There are other tire brands to choose from besides Maxxis and Schwalbe, and multiple high quality options have emerged from a host of lesser-known names aiming to upset the stranglehold that the two biggest players have on the high-end rubber market. The thing is, those two have been making some mostly-good (there were some hiccups) tires for many years now, and if there's one component that us mountain bikers can be basketcases about, it's our tires.
"I have to use this tire because it's the best,'' my buddy replied when I asked him why he felt that he couldn't try something a bit less common. He was used to them, he said before admitting to me in a low voice that it's probably all in his head. Vittoria is hoping that sort of self-reflection will catch on, and they're pouring tens of millions of dollars towards the development of their off-road rubber with that in mind.
I traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, a few weeks ago for a no-holds-barred look around inside of three of Vittoria's six tire factories.
Vittoria's operation is impressive. Cleaner than your kitchen counters, smiling employees everywhere, and a bunch of one-off, house-sized machines whirring and squishing stuff. Watch the fingers, though. There are also a few different testing facilities that evaluate not just Vittoria's own tires, but the competition's as well, with wet weather traction, durability, and other parameters being measured.
Is it weird that this tire factory is cleaner than my house? Vittoria has to keep the place spotless to avoid any contaminants getting into the rubber or damaging the very expensive machines.
Here's where it all begins: The additives are, er, added, to a degradable bag that's fed into a huge mixing machine. And no, that's not cheese.
Massive twin-screw rollers force out any air bubbles that make a loud 'crack' noise when they pop.
Vittoria has multiple research and development facilities that test things like wet weather traction, cold weather traction (remember, the rubber gets firmer), and durability.
You'll be able to take the same tour I did via an upcoming video where I run through the entire tire manufacturing process, but first, we're going to take a closer look at something else: graphene. It's not new stuff - you can even buy graphene-infused frames - but Vittoria is onto the second iteration of this sci-fi material, called Graphene 2.0, and they're making some bold claims about it.
What the Heck is Graphene?
Graphene sounds like some sort of space-age material that shows up in a corny Iron Man movie, but the truth is that we've all had plenty of experience with this black stuff without even knowing it. Ever used a pencil? What's often referred to as pencil lead is actually a mix of graphite and clay, and at a very basic level, graphene is essentially a single layer of graphite.
Zoom in even more and you'll be looking at an incredibly thin layer of bonded carbon atoms sitting in a weird 2D lattice arrangement (see below) that also happens to be incredibly strong.
Above is a rendition of how graphene is a thin layer of bonded carbon atoms sitting in a 2D lattice arrangement. I might have passed chemistry 11 if we talked about mountain bike tires.
Graphite, that stuff inside of pencils, is soft - it leaves marks behind when you drag it across paper - but the building blocks are graphene, and this stuff, well, it's among the strongest, lightest, and thinnest materials around, not to mention that it's really good at conducting heat and energy to boot. How the heck can graphite be soft but one of its ingredients - graphene - be so damn strong?
Now, before we get into this, I distinctly remember my school principal "asking" me to sign up for an extra gym class instead of having a third try at passing chemistry twenty years ago, so we're going to keep it relatively basic instead of pretending that we all have PhDs in microscoping things. I gotchu if dodgeball is your game, though.
I bet that the computer or phone you're reading this on feels pretty solid, right?
Of course, and so does a pencil, but if you put anything under a very powerful microscope that costs more than a truckload of Di2 and Enve-equipped Unno DH bikes, you'll see that these so-called solid objects are actually kinda porous.
They're all made of atoms that sit in a sort of 3D lattice arrangement and are held near together by an invisible force. It sounds wild, I know, but I'm told that this is pretty basic science stuff. It's relevant to where we're going with graphene, too. Zooming back out to graphite for a second, its atoms hold together tightly, but each layer is tied to the layers above and below it relatively weakly. Because this bond is somewhat brittle, those layers sheer apart easily and leave a mark behind on paper when you drag the tip of the pencil (the graphite) across it.
But graphene, which is just a single layer of graphite, behaves much differently because its atoms sit in a comparatively strange two-dimensional arrangement that sees them lay out flat. At just a single atom high, it's said that you'd need around one million layers to come up with a sheet that's as thick as a human hair.
So yeah, the stuff is really thin despite being able to brag about things like being two hundred times stronger than steel, but what's it doing in Vittoria's tires?
What Does Graphene Do?
You'll find Graphene 2.0 used on Vittoria's high-end rubber in their cross-country, enduro, and downhill tires.
All that sounds promising for something that's nearly invisible to us peasants who can't justify our own transmission electron microscope, but a quick Google search brings up all sorts of headlines describing this graphene stuff as being a world-changing material.
The long list of attributes and superpowers includes that whole two hundred times stronger than steel thing, and that a single gram can cover 2,600 square meters while also weighing just 0.77 milligrams for each of those square meters. So yeah, it's light AF, too. It's able to move electricity at 100-percent efficiency as well, making it the quickest and most efficient conductor out there, and it offers extremely high thermal conductivity.
I bet that I could find something online about graphene that says it's going to put an end to puppy mills and climate change, too. The list of stuff that could benefit from a graphene injection includes computer chips, medical equipment, solar panels, bullet-proof vests, and about a zillion other things, although graphene production isn't exactly the simplest thing to do.
That's neat, but this isn't the Discovery Channel, so what happens when you put it in bike tires?
Vittoria has been using graphene in their tires for a few years now, and they cite improved cut and abrasion resistance, a higher tensile strength, less air seepage, and something that's especially important for those who spend time in the rain and mud, improved grip in wet conditions.
They're also saying that with their latest version, Graphene 2.0, they've been able to target very specific metrics to improve on by using the latest materials. For a tire with a road or cross-country focus, they can use an amount of graphene that not only helps to lower the tire's weight but also lower the rolling resistance. Mountain bike tires intended to see some real abuse get a different amount of graphene that's said to up flat protection, traction, and lifespan.
The graphene 2.0 presentation was full of words like "nano-intermediaries," "Homogenous Dispersions," "in situ polymerization," and my favorite one, ''empathetic matrix selective functionalization.'' It just rolls right off the tongue, right? Backing away from the big words a bit, graphene is said to interact with the rubber by partly filling the space between the rubber molecules. Vittoria says that how the graphene is oriented in the rubber, processing methods, and the quality of dispersion will all have an effect, which brings us to their latest version, Graphene 2.0.
Are you a visual learner? Science is easier to understand when there are photos and diagrams.
When graphene was first introduced in Vittoria's tires back in early 2016, they were putting the stuff into their rubber and seeing results, but they also knew that a more targeted approach would deliver more performance. Now, instead of straight-up mixing graphene in with the rubber compounds, they're using very specific - and very different - amounts of graphene in each of the tire's different compounds.
And speaking of compounds, Vittoria is also the only tire manufacturer doing four-compound road and mountain bike tires (stay tuned for a video tour of their impressive 4C compound machine) which, when you take into account G2.0, adds up to a whole lot of impressive technology.
Vittoria is the only tire manufacturer who have the ability to create a tire using four different compounds. You'll learn more about this impressive (and expensive) machine in an upcoming video.
One of my favorite memories dates back to grade three, making me about nine-years-old, when Alana, another student, stabbed me in the hand with a pencil. Truth be told, I likely deserved it, and thirty-odd years later I'm still looking at a tiny piece of graphite that broke off in the palm of my right hand as I type this. True story, and it means that I've had a small amount of graphene, that super-material that could change the world, embedded in my hand for all these years.
The world and my right hand aside, should this graphene stuff actually mean anything to us mountain bikers? It's still very early days, but I suspect so, and especially because we see so many demanding, high-tech industries embrace graphene for many of the same reasons that Vittoria is citing. Are you going to be able to tell the difference between a normal tire and one with graphene? Or Graphene 1.0 and Graphene 2.0? Honestly, I'm not sure at this point, but I've spent a ton of time on Vittoria's earlier graphene-equipped rubber and I've been impressed, especially with their wet weather performance, even if I can't pinpoint it on graphene itself. I suspect that the increased reliability and tread life - if it performs as promised - will be the biggest boon to most of us.
There's a set of Graphene 2.0-equipped Martello enduro tires on their way to Pinkbike for testing, and you'll be able to read all about how they perform and, just as importantly, how long they last, in a few months.