First ride review: Pirelli PZero Velo tyre

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Pirelli bring motorsport expertise to cycling with launch of PZero Velo tyre range – first ride review

Famous motorsport name returns to cycling with new performance tyre range

Pirelli has unveiled its new range of high performance PZero Velo road bike tyres and is really talking up how its motorsport expertise has enabled it to produce tyres that offer “comparable rolling resistance to the best on the market, with superior handling, comfort and wet grip”, according to head of R&D, Piero Misani.

At launch, the range includes three models, each colour coded like Pirelli’s F1 compounds: the PZero Velo (silver) is the road racing tyre; the PZero 4S (for ‘Four Season’, blue) is the winter and endurance model with claims of increased durability, wet grip and puncture protection; and the PZero TT (red) is an ultra-fast race tyre targeting minimal rolling resistance and low weight, with no puncture protection belt.

Pirelli has returned to cycling with the launch of a three-strong road bike tyre range

The TT comes in 23mm width only but a 25 will soon follow. The other two come in 23, 25 and 28mm widths. All models and sizes cost €42.90, around £40, which is cheaper than nearly every key rival’s list price. The tyres will be in shops from August.

“We were attracted back to cycling by the boom in the sport, the large premium market and the appetite for advanced technology among consumers” – Pirelli Velo chief operating officer, Antonella Lauriola

All three models are only offered as clinchers. Pirelli acknowledge they need to develop tubeless versions for the key UK and US markets, plus tubs for the pro race team they hope to sponsor from as early as 2018, and those are the next priorities. But while pros still only want tubs and tubeless is the hot new thing getting all the attention, the vast majority of the market is for clinchers so that’s where Pirelli started.

Tyre tech

The PZero Velo range is designed around three key technologies: SmartNet Silica, Ideal Contour Shaping (ICS) and Functional Groove Shaping (FGS). The latter explains that the tread grooves aren’t just for show but nor are they to clear water as with a motor vehicle tyre. Rather, they help to boost feel and comfort as well as wet grip by creating edges that key into the surface. The ‘flash’ pattern is derived directly from Pirelli’s high performance motorcycle tyres and its change of angle keeps the groove running perpendicular to the forces that the tyre is experiencing as lean angle increases, maintaining a secure feel.

The range includes the PZero, 4S and TT

Ideal Contour Shaping refers to the curvature of the inflated tyre. It isn’t round and, according to Pirelli, has been very carefully engineered to tailor the steering response from upright by shaping the tread and also to increase the contact area once leant over through the precise alignment of the carcass plies.

Most important of all, though, is SmartNet Silica. Pay attention, now, here comes the science bit. SmartNet Silica is a new silicate-based molecule developed and patented by Pirelli. Essentially, the molecule is a rod rather than a sphere and it’s naturally inclined to distribute itself evenly in the tyre compound and also arrange itself longitudinally which, say Pirelli, benefits both rolling resistance and suppleness. The silica’s greatest attribute, though, is apparently high wet grip.

Return to cycling

This isn’t Pirelli’s first foray into cycling. The company was founded in 1872 and first made bicycle tyres in 1890, continuing to do so for some 60 years. These days it’s a vast company with a €2.5bn turnover and 30,000 staff. The launch included a visit to the global R&D centre on the outskirts of Milan. It’s a huge facility yet there are ten others around the world – Pirelli proudly tells us that 6% of revenue is spent on R&D. That’s about £200m each year.

Pirelli is a highly respected premium brand in car and motorcycle tyres and also the sole supplier to the Formula One and World Superbike championships. Pirelli Velo chief operating officer, Antonella Lauriola, tells us: “We were attracted back to cycling by the boom in the sport, the large premium market and the appetite for advanced technology among consumers.”

Pirelli believes its F1 tech should create lots of appeal and offer immediate credibility with riders who value performance and are prepared to pay for a premium product. “In this segment, we find our DNA,” she sums up.

Pirelli has drawn upon its vast experience in motorsport to develop the range

First ride impressions

We rode the PZero on a 40km road route that took in varied quality tarmac, some punchy climbs, tight corners and descents on which speeds nudged 50mph. While brief, it was comprehensive and informative.

Back at Pirelli’s ride testing centre – the same facility as used to develop the massive, sticky tyres for supercars from top brands such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche, among others – we had the chance to take on a writhing test track wetted with sprinklers and a dry handling course with fast corners and a pick’n’mix selection of increasingly rough parallel surfaces on its long straight. Our test bike was a top-spec Trek Madone eTap (lucky us) with wide Bontrager Aeolus 5 wheels onto which the 25mm PZero was an ideal fit. Our tyres were inflated to 7 bar (101psi) front and rear throughout, a realistic pressure rather than a lower one to flatter the comfort and wet grip.

The PZero Velo (colour-coded silver) is Pirelli's all-round racing tyre
The PZero 4S (blue) is the winter and endurance model
The TT targets minimal rolling resistance and low weight

The overall, and overriding, impression of the PZero is of its completeness. It’s fast, supple, grippy and communicative, and is claimed to be durable and puncture resistant, too, though of course we couldn’t test the last two. Few top tyres manage that full house. Some fast tyres are terrible in the wet (Zipp Tangente Speed, we’re looking at you) or lack a really supple feeling (Continental GP 4000 S II), and none really talk to you in the way the PZero does about how much grip you have available as you approach the limit.

That last one isn’t a parameter often discussed around cycling tyres, for two reasons. First, bicycle tyres with tiny contact patches and high pressures really have their work cut out to do anything in between grip and crash; and second, no other manufacturers have really made it a goal, even others with car and motorcycle divisions, such as Continental and Michelin. In high performance car and motorcycle tyres, the unquantifiable metric of ‘feel’ is all important. It’s what allows you to push up to, but not over, the limit. Expression of it usually involves lots of hand gestures of steering wheel or handlebar movements, and phrases such as “window of safe sliding” which describes the point at which the tyre is moving a little but still gripping. A bigger window gives you more warning of an impending limit and more confidence to ride near to that limit.

At this point I should mention that I used to test and race motorcycles myself, and even sampled Pirelli’s World Superbike slicks, so this is familiar ground and I’m delighted that Pirelli is bringing the discussion of performance tyres up to these levels. It matters because from good tyre feedback comes confidence and regardless of how fast you like to descend, confidence is crucial to an enjoyable ride. The PZero encouraged criterium levels of cornering aggression and we found we could lap fast, and consistently so, around both the wet and dry test courses.

RCUK’s Jamie tried Pirelli’s new tyre range on a 40km road ride, as well as outings on the Italian firm’s test tracks

We also had a brief taste of the PZero 4S on the wet handling track. It was on a different bike, so it was far from an ideal comparison, but the overall feeling was very similar. There wasn’t a tangible increase in wet grip and our lap time was the same. Its appeal lies in its claimed extra durability and puncture protection. For most riding, right up to and including racing, the PZero looks to be your go-to regardless of the conditions.

We didn’t get to try the PZero TT on the launch but the R&D chief told us that it has 10-12% lower rolling resistance and maintains equal wet grip, so that could prove to be the choice for road and certainly circuit racing as well as time trials. We’ll test a set in competition as soon as they’re available.

That’s it for now but first impressions of Pirelli’s return to cycling are very positive. Look out for our Industry Insider feature on the development story behind Pirelli’s new PZero range.

Website: Pirelli

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