I think it is safe to say that mud tires can be a hotly contested product based on locale, and how well trails get along with mountain bikers during the wet months. Many ecosystems have trails that when muddy, simply aren’t rideable without damaging what local mountain bike groups have toiled endlessly to build. There are places however that have trails that fare extremely well, allowing water to sheet straight off, and prevent single track from becoming laden with mud. I say this to prevent people from getting hung up on the fact that mud tires are available at all, as some trails may never see a dry day. Just because Ritchey offers a mud tire doesn’t mean you should go out an tear up your local trails, but if you routinely ride in the wet, this review is for you.
Around my neck of the woods, we definitely fall into the former category, with the worst soupy, clay filled mess this time of year that causes most of us to give up on mountain biking until April, or, at worst, June. Mother Nature routinely plays cruel jokes on us with stretches of sunny 70 degree weather, followed with torrential rains, and it repeats. The trails rarely dry enough to ride without a bit of shame, so finding suitable trails to test the ZMax tires was tough, so the all of the riding was done on double track, and a relatively unknown trail that I have spent a lot of time personally building and keeping up.
After only two rides my mind was made up. Why? Find out after the break!
As I initially reported on when I took the ZMax Grips out of the box for the first time, the Grips are narrow. I know that mud tires are historically narrower than their dry counterparts, so I was expecting them to be slightly smaller, but I was surprised when I inflated them for the first time. Obviously, the tire is marked a 2.0 so it should be narrow, though in reality the ZMax barely eked out a 1.9 when mounted up tubeless to a DT Swiss 1800 rim. Narrow mud tires help to penetrate through deep mud to find traction, and help with tire clearance when things really start packing up. On the flipside, narrow tires can be more squirrely and less sure footed than larger offerings. While I was slightly disappointed in their actual size, I was not disappointed in how they seated up tubeless. Hand pump, floor pump, doesn’t matter, what ever you are using you should have no difficulty getting the Ritcheys to seal even if you don’t have an air compressor. Of course, this means that the tires are a royal pain to get on the rim, but it’s that tight seal that allows for easy inflation by hand.
The ZMax Grips are currently a 26″ only model, and are offered only in the 26×2.0 size. I tested the ZMax Grip 2.0 WCS edition which retails for $59.95, but the tire is also offered in a cheaper Comp model which retails for $29.95 and weighs 100 grams more than the WCS.
The ZMax is light which is no surprise considering its size and the fact that it is tubeless ready. As UST tires are typically much heavier, tubeless ready allows for a light tire that can still be run with a tube, or run tubeless as long as you use a sealant. While running the ZMax Grips I used my go-to sealant, Stan’s Tire sealant, which I have had great luck with many tires sealing anything from thorn punctures, to large cuts, to light sidewall tears (notice the foreboding?). When I set out to test the ZMax grips, as mud tires, I was looking for 5 things: mud shedding, penetration through deep mud to find traction, grip over greasy roots and rocks, durability, and all around confidence on the trail. When I say that I typically don’t ride a lot in the rain, it isn’t for lack of skill or desire. In fact, I feel that I’m pretty good in the wet (as long as I have the right clothes, right Tyler?).
(Ed. – Ha! Yeah, dress like ya know!)
My immediate impression of the ZMax Grips as soon as they touched the mud was “whoa, these things are a handful.” Keep in mind that I didn’t touch the trail until I had ridden a few miles on the road to intentionally scrub off any mold release, to ensure the tires were at optimal grip. Unfortunately, that feeling of being out of control with the tires choosing the line for me, never really went away. This out of control feeling was only compounded by the tires slipping and sliding on roots and downed logs, which seemed more prevalent than what I am used to.
To make things even worse, on my first ride out on the ZMax’s it was wet enough that on many of the climbs, instead of propelling me forward, the Zmaxs dug straight down into the earth causing me to have to get off and walk. Honestly, the conditions were horrible so it is hard to place all of the blame on the tire, yet on the second ride there were similar issues, which were improved upon with a different tire, but we’ll get to that.
Ultimately, on the second ride out, the conditions were much better although the entire trail was still a greasy mess. I was feeling a little better on the Grips, and was pushing harder than before – right up to the point of total failure. After about 1.5 miles I noticed it was getting extremely hard to pedal, so I asked Riley if I had a flat. Sure enough, the rear was completely flat which I thought was odd since Stan’s fluid usually did a pretty good job preventing the tire from deflating completely after a puncture. I was surprised to find a large cut right in the middle of the sidewall. Now, I know this trail. I know all of the rocks, I know when to pedal, when to lift, what’s coming, and how to avoid it. I’ve been riding this trail for something like 10 years, and in that entire time I have never cut a sidewall. Sure, it could be a freak occurrence, but the fact that I routinely ride this trail at much higher speeds with tires just as light as the ZMax really makes me question their durability.
To add insult to injury, not only did I flat, but it wasn’t going to seal up and I wouldn’t be able to put a tube in without booting the tire, so I began the walk of shame back to the car, which thankfully was less than a mile with a few short cuts. Fortunately, I had planned to compare the ZMax Grips to the current tires I was riding (Schwalbe Nobby Nic 2.25 Tubeless Ready) so I happened to have a separate wheel ready to go in the car. This provided for an extremely insightful comparison between the two tires, back to back on the same section of trail, in the same conditions. First off, my bike felt goofy as the difference in tire size was so great that the back of the bike felt much higher when compared to the ZMax Grip that was still on the front. On the first initial descent I immediately felt more confident, carrying more speed through turns and over slippery obstacles than before. Admittedly, I would be lying if I said a bit of that didn’t come from already knowing the conditions, but some noted differences, such as how the tires varied on climbs, were quite clear.
While the ZMax Grip dug into climbs, the Nobby Nic tended to spin around on the surface. This meant that as long as the ZMax didn’t bog down, it offered more grip while climbing than the Nobby Nic. However, the Nobby Nic was better at conserving momentum, and if the climbs weren’t super muddy, the Nic easily prevailed. Even with the ZMax Grip still up front, the Nobby Nic made a tremendous difference in aiding control, especially over wet, rooty, chunder.
Even though the ZMax didn’t perform well in my neck of the woods, I have a feeling that the ZMax is an incredibly condition and environmental specific tire, which would undoubtedly work better in some other region. Our mud here isn’t just a thin film on the top, rather the entire ground become saturated, meaning tires that don’t float on top of the mud will be stopped dead in their tracks. I feel this was the difference maker between the two tires, and would probably work out differently elsewhere.
As bad as it sounds, there were some good points. The Ritchey ZMax Grip is excellent at shedding mud, many times I would look down to see a tire that looked as if it had just ridden through a creek. Also, as I stated earlier, the tire is very light and seats up extremely easily. With that said, just who would the target buyer be? It would have to be someone who lives in an area that has trails that stand up really well to rain, where only the very top layer gets wet. It’s the soggy, deep, soaked mud that gives these tires nightmares. I’m sure there are cross country riders that would greatly benefit from this tire in the right conditions on the right trails. However, if the trails you ride sound similar to what claimed one of my ZMaxs, you probably won’t notice many benefits to the Ritchey ZMax Grips over the tires you are currently riding, so long as they aren’t meant for hardpack!
All in all…
The ZMax Grip is the latest in Ritchey’s line of mud tires. I’ve used their original ZMax Classic (pic below) many times during wet races. One of the more testing courses is Conyers, GA, and similar trails in the Southeast where there’s a mix of clay, sand, dirt and rock. On Conyers’ backside in particular, there are hardpack sections of dirt that holds a good inch of mud on top, then rolls into massive sheets of rock similar to Moab. In those conditions, the narrow tire performed extremely well even when the rain was coming down hard. On the front side of the trail, where there’s a bit more of the orange, clay-like sand and long, grassy fields, the tire tended to dig in a bit like Zach experienced.
So, I can’t rate the Grip, but my experience with the Classic suggests that these tires are in fact VERY trail condition specific. For harder surfaces or mud only about 1″ deep, the Classic performs pretty darn well. Like the Grip, it sheds mud well, too. I don’t remember it ever getting bogged up, which is saying a lot if you’re ever ridden through southern clay and considering the Classic’s tread pattern is a bit tighter. It’s been a while since I’ve run them, but I used tubes when I did and don’t remember having any flats.