Where the Sidewall Ends; or, Black and Tan Fantasy

Before the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) earlier this year, I added its RSS feed to my homepage to get the latest images from those framebuilders who would be exhibiting. One image depicted a model by Winter Bicycles called “Strado Classico.” This model attempted to recreate a Campy Super Record road bike, circa 1980. The bike’s craftsmanship was fine, but Winter Bicycles did not quite get the details right. For one thing, the bike had strap-on shift levers and a braze-on front derailleur. Winter’s most glaring anachronism, however, was its choice of rubber: blackwall tires.

Around 1980, blackwall tires only came on cheap bikes, bikes like English racers from Western Auto and Sears Free Spirits. Good ten-speeds came with black rubber and tan sidewalls. Nowadays, of course, nearly all high-end bicycles have blackwall tires. These new-style tires offend my aesthetic sensibilities. I keep asking myself: are blackwall tires really uglier than black and tan tires, or has my personal experience conditioned my response?

Here’s my conclusion: as a color scheme, black and tan is aesthetically superior. The world of dogs offers plenty of proof. Think of Zeus and Apollo, Higgins’s twin Dobermans on Magnum P.I. What could be more handsome than one black and tan Doberman standing guard than two Dobermans standing guard? Or think of the Manchester Terrier, the Doberman’s Mini-Me, a dog that exudes taste and class: why, it used to be called the “Gentleman’s Terrier.” And then there’s the Rottweiler. With a neck thicker than its head and a chest as twice as thick as either, the Rottweiler is the fullback of the dog world, a symbol of strength and power. Black and tan: the colors of evening and earth. The contrast embodies the evanescent mystery of night and the solidity of the soil beneath our feet.

From now on, I resolved, I would only buy black and tan tires.  Little did I realize how hard they would be to find. Nowadays, major tiremakers retail only blackwall tires. After extensive searching, I located three different brands with tan sidewalls: Veloflex, Challenge, and Grand Bois. The Veloflex tires, though handsome, are too lightweight to suit my riding style. The Challenge model, Parigi-Roubaix, seemed ideal for me, but I disliked the company’s oxymoronic characterization of the tire as an “open tubular.” It’s a clincher. Call it that. I settled on the Grand Bois, a lightweight, yet high-profile Japanese-made tire ideal for my style of riding. I put a pair of Grand Bois “Cerf Blue Label” tires on my Engin (my favorite bicycle). They are beautiful, and they are smooth. As the tires on my other bikes wear out, I plan to replace them all with Grand Bois tires: the perfect combination of performance and aesthetics.

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About The Philosopher of Cycling
Formerly a bicycle mechanic, a bicycle tourist, and a bicycle racer, The Philosopher of Cycling continues to make bicycling an integral part of his life. When he is not out riding one of the bikes in his stable, he can be found at home repairing one of the others or, perhaps, reclining on the couch reading about bicycles and bicycling. As he often says, "I gauge the quality of life by how closely it approximates bike touring."

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