Tuesday, 14 February 2012

REVIEW: Schwalbe Marathon

REVIEW Schwalbe Marathon, 700 x 25C Greenguard, wired.
PSI: 85-115; Weight: 520g; Price £21.99 (Wiggle)

Not showing the slightest sign of wear after 2,500 kms
This is the first of what I hope will be many tyre reviews, since it's an endlessly fascinating subject. New or different tyres represent one of the most dramatic ways you can change your ride without changing your bike. A Canadian friend of mine once imparted wisdom from his father: "Son, never go cheap on two things in life, shoe leather and tyres." I've never forgotten that. Tyres completely transform how a car drives, how a bike handles, and they can be the difference between heaven and hell - and not just as they puncture at dusk after a long day in the saddle.
My benchmark tyre for audax, club runs, winter racing and year-round commuting is the Continental Grand Prix Four Seasons in 700x23/25/28.
Once I'd adopted rack and panniers for a doubled commute across some very glassy London streets, I realised I was in an almost permanent state of anticipating punctures. Wear rates accelerated on the rear tyre and I was needing to check the tread with a strong torch and mini-Swiss army knife weekly, to prise out tiny shards of glass. The front tyre regularly yielded up six to eight fragments. With my mileages going up, the tyres were showing alot of scars after just six months. The tread was sliced, nicked, scored and pitted in every direction, with some real holes appearing. That doesn't mean the Conti isn't a brilliant tyre, as you'll see...
So for the winter I switched completely to Schwalbe's 'original' Marathon, now coming as standard with a three millimetre breaker layer of highly elastic, India rubber between tread and carcass. This is not to be confused with the 'Plus' version which has a thicker, blue layer of breaker.
I was attracted for two reasons. First because I had not realised that you could get this tyre in a narrow, racy 700x25 format, and secondly because it is a classic tyre that I'd always wanted to subject to a big test. Finally, Schwalbe had recently revisited the original format, adding the 'Greenguard' layer and beefing up the side walls, and the tyre seemed good value at £21.99, given the recent spike in rubber prices that have taken most branded tyres up into the range of £30 +.
I was mistaken about the first assumption, that the 700x25 format makes it a racy tyre. It isn't, and not just because of the 520g weight. I mounted the tyres on Shimano RS20 rims and inflated to my normal 100 PSI. The crown of the tyre 'balloons' slightly at this point, and added to the far higher rolling resistance of the sidewalls led to a sensation of the tyre wanting to 'fall over' when presented with a slight camber or knarly line of slippery painted yellow line.
A club mate reckoned I needed touring rims with an additional millimetre of width, and his advice was not to inflate them so high. I wasn't going to buy new wheels to service new tyres, but I dropped pressure to 90 PSI. The tyres felt just as hard on the road and to a pinch.
Two weeks later, they had eased to 75 PSI, entirely normal given my use pattern, but still felt equally hard to the touch and nearly as sharp on the road.
At this point the penny started to drop: we're dealing here with a totally different creature from a racy folder. This is an immensely strong tyre for round-the-world forays and huge loading.
Schwalbe say: "The completely new sidewall construction can withstand for much longer the typical cracking resulting from overloading due to insufficient inflation pressure."
If anything that's an understatement.
When the ice came last week, I reduced the front tyre to a nice soft state and surfed around on pack ice and snow, locking up the front tyre repeatedly and generally hooning around. There was no sense of being at advanced risk of a snakebite/ pressure puncture. Back home, I measured the PSI. It was down to 15, yes fifteen, and these tyres were still going fine. This is the closest thing to a runflat bike tyre that I've ever seen. Yet even at this astonishing low level, the hard compound was still evident, making the tyre less predictable on ice than I'd hoped.
In the car world, it was BMW who developed run-flats and years later the Owners Club magazine I receive is stuffed still with letters bemoaning the ride quality and stiffness of these tyres, even in their second and third generation.
The Marathons suffer from the same issues. They are hard, they bang and buck their way across holes and imperfections. The thick, endurance compound doesn't absorb the rough so much as reject it. You bounce and slam. If I descend off a kerb with a loaded pannier, the rear tyre slams down with a great bang and I'm expecting the rims to bow out well ahead of the tyres. 
In some ways this is thoroughly resassuring. You chug around and it is entirely, 100% a 'fit and forget' experience which is why these tyres are fitted to millions of Dutch work horses and German town bikes. You (almost) don't have to bother with a puncture kit. I have not punctured in five months of daily use. I have not checked the tyres once. The sidewalls are currently filthy. Brilliant.
Even the handling and cornering is OK. Not fast but safe. Particularly in the dry.
The only thing I really don't like is the lack of grip in the wet. Schwalbe give it 4/6 for wet grip. That's optimistic. In a straightline, these tyres grip very well, not least because of their own weight. You have to be a real hooligan to get them to lock up, for instance.
But presented with an uneven surface, a mild off-camber, a bevelled edge of a sleeping policeman, or any of the other things that regularly crop up on a London commute, and these tyres do not really inspire much confidence. I'd score them fair to poor in the wet grip department, entirely on account of the hard compound that will endure for thousands of miles. Try them out on wet cobbles and you'll be terrified. There is next to no grip.
Returning to my training bike with Conti 4-seasons, I am struck by what a totally brilliant tyre it is, whatever the nicks and dings. It has a suppleness that belies a race-weight tyre, and tremendous grip despite the near-absence of a tread.
Will I hold onto the Marathons? I have grown fond of them in that chug-around way, but they're not best mates. Come October I will ready my wallet for either the Marathon Supreme, or the Marathon Racer. The Supreme has Schwalbe's excellent Roadstar Triple Compound while the Racer weighs just 325g in 700x30 size. For now, I am looking forward to trying a new summer tyre or returning to the beloved Continentals.

1 comment:

  1. nice review...... I was gonna buy greenguards for my road bike, as I have marathon+'s on my MTB and they rule.... I know what you mean about the loss of performance in the wet...take a drain cover in the wet while cornering, and you feel the back end slide. Certainly wakes you up in the morning commute ;)... I can't fault them for longevity though. Might check out other schwalbe offerings


Richard Lofthouse

Richard Lofthouse