Perfect weather for a bike ride . . .

February 20, 2013

Specialized Espoir Elite road tires, Long-Term Test

In a world chock full of "Ultra", "Turbo", "Pro Race", and "Jet", a name like "Espoir" stands out.  It's a strange name for a tire, yes; but, in Specialized's defense it loosely means "Hope" (l'espoir) in French.  Aside from Italy, France obviously has had much to do with cycling lore and history.  More specifically still, in France, the term Espoir also refers to the 19-22 year old cycling "hopefuls" category, known here as the juniors or U-21 leagues.  Now the name sorta grows on ya...Not bad, certainly original.  But, what's in a name?

I didn't want to post anything too early after first trying these tires back in June of 2012.  After all, the internet is already far too full of shallow reviews from short-term product users.  Electronic devices like phones are an easy mark here, where thousands of converts to the latest iDroyd smart-device post within five minutes of having the package open that they've found "the best phone EVAH.. buy it now!  AWESOME!  I LOVE IT!"  
SO, yeah -- I didn't want to be THAT guy.  

Compounding things, I'm a bit of a hard sell.  I'd been using Panaracer's venerable Pasela TourGuard tire since 2005 with hardly any complains whatsoever.  That story is still true today:  they are cheap, light enough, well made, quite flat proof, long wearing, comfortable, grippy, easy to change, and sorta retro-chic.  All good qualities.  My only real complaint involved their constantly evolving price-tag in response to Japanese exchange rates, oil prices (which no tire is immune to, really), and waiting for my special order to arrive -- requiring two trips to the bike shop, which, ultimately, equates to more cost in the form of time and gas money.  To that end, I sought out a potential replacement:  something locally stocked.  It was initially a fruitless search, as no other tire seemed to meet more than a few of the criteria mentioned earlier, which the Pasela always delivered in spades.  Until last summer.

Specialized and I have a checkered past when it comes to road tires... come to think of it, so have most people.  For the mountain bike and utility bike market, the California-based company has done quite well.  Tires like the Nimbus are legendary for their toughness and reliability for mountain bike users looking for a great mid-range commuter tire for a 26" wheel.  For the dirt crowd, the Captain and Ground Control trail tires are nearly legendary in some circles.  Their road tires, however, with a few bright spots in exception, have had struggles.  In the late 90's their Turbo series tires proved fast and light, but lacked flat-resistance and their tread life was questionably short.  Later, the Armadillo anti-flat casing started a revival of Specialized in the road tire space with the All-Condition models, yet, the casing - while tolerable in the utility range - rendered the ride quality less than optimal for road use... while still allowing the occasional flat.  The Mondo revived the design and scope of the original Turbo tires, but with better tread life and flat resistance - yet, they were still priced like a race tire, and lasted only slightly longer - despite being amazingly fast and nimble.  The Roubaix tires looked to answer those concerns with better tread compounds, and a hybrid casing design, placing the treadcap from a 23c tire onto the casing from a 25c mold.  The result was a very fast and comfortable endurance tire, yet, early versions had layer adhesion issues, which Specialized stood behind with their no-questions warranty and replacement program - yet, reputations are easily damaged.  The Roubaix Pro2 has since solved all its predecessor's issues, however, and has remained successful ever since.  The current version, I've heard, is even better.  

The Espoir seems to come to the table as a true 25c version of the Roubaix platform, but, with a tougher tread compound, mild tread siping on the shoulders, and with a new flat protection belt called "Black Belt", which replaces the long-standing Flak Jacket anti-flat belt.  The result is a long-wearing tread which rides comfortably and grips well, wet or dry... or on gravel or packed dirt.  After starting the initial installation of the Espoir tires onto the front and rear, I have since rotated the rear tire out, logging 1,800 miles before retiring it - which is above average for most tires with this level of feel.  However, it should be noted that I retired that rear tire prematurely, on the eve of a long brevet far from home:  I elected to not take any chances with a tire whose (very handy) built-in wear indicators had finally worn to subtle "shadows".  Certainly, I could have taken the original rear beyond 2,000 miles, but I wanted fresh rubber for the "big ride".  Instead I rotated the original front tire to the rear wheel, and replaced the front with a fresh Espoir.  So far, the wear indicators on the rear are still well visible, and I expect to extract an estimated 3,200 miles from that original tire.  With a price of $35.00 MSRP for the Espoirs, compared to $49.99 MSRP for the Paselas, which would normally yield 4,000 miles, the cost per mile is nearly identical.  The benefit of having the Espoirs right on the bike shop peg, however, increases the value further.

The sizing is typical Specialized:  a little larger than most other "25c" tires, but not as large as the Pasela 28s I have used in the past (which tend to run small for a "28").  For my build and weight, they seem to be perfect, volume-wise, soaking up the bumps nicely and riding comfortably on chip-seal, jointed concrete, tarmac - even rough roads are handled well, surprising for a tire with a recommended pressure of 115 PSI.  The ride, overall, is excellent for a tire in this class,  price range and with this casing construction.  The flat protection belt doesn't seem to detract from the ride quality at all, and the 60 TPI casing is surprisingly supple - but not prone to cuts: a good balance.  Despite a few extended gravel road forays, certainly outside Specialized's intended use, the tires showed no signs of sidewall abrasions.  

The Espoirs "feel" fast, and acceleration is good.  They aren't a super-light tire, but they are light enough to enjoy speedy endeavors.  The folding bead and advanced construction certainly keep the heft at bay, and they come in just a breath lighter than the Paselas @ 270grams advertised.  The tread rolls very well, and they feel stable - good for long days in the saddle.  

Flat-protection is excellent.  The Black Belt casing is, dare I say it, a revelation when combined with this particular tread compound - and the Espoir gets 2 layers of the stuff.  I had been waiting to get a flat tire before writing this review, mainly to see if it would ever happen, and to see how the tires handled punctures in general.  Certainly, "your mileage my vary" applies here - but, the best test came during my last 200km ride, which found me on wet roads for multiple hours - on streets that had been treated for snow and ice in the month prior.  This particular combination creates a "perfect storm" of flat tire potential, with sand, glass shards, tiny sharp rocks, and trash littering the right-hand 3 feet of every road and highway in the area.  Add moisture, and tires become sponges - gathering and hanging onto countless potential sharps that could eventually work their way into the tread, and into the tube.  Rear tire #1 had been retired, as I'd mentioned, after 1,800 miles with no flats and only a few random tread cuts.  The original front tire, now on the back, has still not had a flat, with 2,500 miles logged.  This first flat came on the front tire, oddly enough:  but, it's how I found it that is most remarkable, in my eyes. 

After finishing the 200k, I cleaned up the bike briefly and hung it back up.  Due to countless after-work school functions and appointments, I haven't been able to ride since then, February 7th.  I discovered the flat last night, February 18th.  Eleven days after the ride, I gave the front tire a squeeze and noticed it was soft.  The rear tire was still firm, so something was amiss.  I took the opportunity to get out my "tire pick" (and old eyeglass repair kit flatblade screwdriver) to review each tire and pry out anything I might have picked up on the last ride.  I must have pulled a thimble-full of assorted glass, rock and metal bits from each tire, they'd picked up so much; but, nothing had worked its way through the flat belt on the rear tire:  the most likely candidate for a flat.  The front had collected fewer bits of junk, yet none of them yielded the familiar "hiss" when removed, which would indicate they were the culprit responsible for the pressure loss.  So, I decided to just pump up the tire and see if it'd lose air again.  Remarkably, still no hissing - back at 115 PSI.  I circled the tire again, with more scrutiny, and finally found a 1mm wide grey dot flush with the tread surface.  I began to pick at it with the screwdriver, and as it came out, the hissing started.  GOT IT.  As I continued to work on getting the "thing" out, it just kept coming... and it ended up being a metal tack or brad, about 0.75cm long, and razor sharp at its end.

Squeezing my bike tires briefly as I walk into the garage is a daily thing for me.  It's right there, and I just reach up and give them the squeeze test.  Nothing is flat-proof, this is true - yet, this particular tire's tread compound and the flat belt had held this tack so tightly in place as to almost keep an airtight seal around it...for eleven days, before I noticed any change in pressure.  I've never had a bicycle tire behave this way, and it made me wonder:  did I pick up that tack at the beginning of the ride?  Near the end?  BEFORE the ride, at some other time?  Surely as no two flats are alike, this is probably a very specific, unique case... but, for a tire to have resisted all the other junk I'd yanked out of the tread alone is impressive enough.  Similarly shaped objects extracted from the Paselas on odd occasions certainly didn't behave in this way, instead putting me on the rim in a matter of a dozen or so rotations.  For something as sharp as this was, it was only a matter of time before the Espoir's flat belts gave up - but, what could have been a very unsafe front tire blowout, or at least a very rainy flat change in a muddy ditch, instead ended up going completely unnoticed until long after the ride had ended.  The tire had dropped to 50 PSI...which really, is probably still rideable - if a little mushy.  Impressed, yes I am.

Some would argue that having a tread compound that picks up such debris is asking for a flat eventually -- so why not have the tread not be so "grabby"?  To be fair, I must reiterate the conditions of the roads before the ride - February in this area, if snow/ice treatments have been laid down, makes for nasty conditions for any tire.  By contrast, with the drought, this is the first truly rainy ride I've had on the Espoirs.  Similar conditions after dry rides, the tread has picked up practically nothing.  This represented the first time I'd really had to break out the tire pick since installing them.  Contrast to the Paselas, which have more defined tread and manage to grab potential flat-makers even when it's dry, the Espoirs really don't pick up much at all.  For the conditions, it was a terrific test.  Considering maybe 5% of my riding ever occurs in the rain, I don't see it as an issue, and the flat belts truly did their job - with that one, exceptional exception.   

Overall, I've been extremely pleased with the Specialized Espoir Elite road tires.  They are just as comfortable as the Paselas they replaced, and the tread wear is on-par and could exceed the Paselas (followup to be posted when replacement occurs).  They roll fast, and feel nimble, and flat-protection is superb in light of their comfortable ride and excellent handling - qualities usually sacrificed.  They are reasonably priced, cost-per-mile is low, they benefit from subtle logos and discrete "just-a-tire" styling, they handle nearly any road or weather condition, they mount easily - yet securely - which gives them good marks for roadside repair ease, and they are available locally at my favorite bike shop.  Sure: anything is available online, especially bike tires - but, you're getting more than product at your local bike store, and that's the avenue I still encourage.  

It's often difficult to find "the right" tire for randonneuring, but the Specialized Espoir Elite - at least for this randonneur - seems to fit the bill nicely.  It was indeed a hard sell, because aesthetically I still have a soft spot for tan sidewalls on my lugged steel bike... but I've let go of that in lieu of these inexpensive, great performing, easy-to-live-with tires.  Eight 200km permanents, gravel rambles, and countless commutes, they've done everything I've asked of them, and the way they handled the ONE flat I've experienced so-far seems to have sealed the deal.  My only hope is that Specialized will continue to manufacture them for years to come.

Hope... get it?  See what I did there.... yeah... 

Thanks for reading!

Support Your Local Bike Shop!
Specialized Espoir Elite tires are available locally at:
BikeSource, with two locations in the KC Area:


Anonymous said...

Great review! Appreciate the effort you put into it, and you have struck a nice balance between personal experience and general remarks.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this GREAT and helpful review. I just bought a pair!

Reid said...

I have used Espoir Elites for a while. Great review. I had a slice in the sidewall which flatted the tube. I put a self sticking tire patch on the inside of the tyre thinking it would hold enough to get home so I wouldn't split or create an anuerism. 300 mi later same s still nothing more than a pimple & no sign of addl splitting.

Luke said...

Thanks for the review, I was unsure about the Espoir Sports as they seemed to be OEM on my Secteur Sport Disc. However, I've found them really nice to ride and reliable, two flats in 4000 miles isn't bad going and like you say when they go they go slowly. Sadly my rear tyre is now down to the carcass, the front may yet have some life in it. So I'm off to my LBS to replace them with the Red/Black Espoir Elite, I think I'll rotate them after 3k miles to see it I can get 5k miles out of them.

Anonymous said...

What a great review!

iI will start using a pair of those next week and I am curious to know how will they deal with a 242 pounds (110Kg) guy on top of them. My only concern is puncture resistance because I will be riding on some rough roads.

Richard said...

Really helpful informative review. Thank you.

Russ Koss said...

You answered every question I had about these tires. I think this was the best review I've read about any product at any time. Thank you.

wedge99 said...

Thank you for the really informative review. I just got a Specialized Allez Elite and was looking around for a good review on the tires. Excellent job! Thank you for the effort put into the review.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your review, well said. I never heard of them until I bought my Roubaix and they were OEM on my model. I'm getting ready to replace the rear tire a second time (1800 miles on each) and no flats! There are better tires out there but not for $35.

Anonymous said...

I bought a pair of Espoire Elites last year on the recommendation of a LBS. It was a very non-premeditated buy as I was in the middle of a 125km ride and my Bontrager Race Lites finally failed after 10 seasons of use. So when I got home I looked around for reviews, and took comfort in this one. Alas, after 4 flats so far this season (vs 3 across the lifetime of the Bontragers) I'm beginning to think it has less to do with bad luck and more to do with bad tires :-(

Myron said...

Thanks for the review. I went to the LBS this weekend to replace a tube. Turns out the rear tire was toast - pinched. Wanted to replace the Specialized Mondo with another (love those tires) but was told that Mondos were no longer in production. The tech brought out the Espoir Elite, with which I was not familiar. He recommended it, but I was disappointed that Mondos were not available. After reading this review I'll be going back soon to replace the front tire with an Espoir Elite. (It's also a very good-looking tire, by the way.)

Anonymous said...

200 miles in with my Espoir Sport (OEMs) and picked up a rear flat that was not a graceful recovery. No debris to be found - just blew out on a turn. Maybe I should give the Elites a try instead.

Bennie said...

I have put 3500 miles on my bike in just 5 months. These tires have done great. I just had my second flat the other day. For $35 each I plan to go back with the Espoir Elites.