A serious cycling challenge needs serious tyres, and when I messaged Rory at Upgrade Bikes he had just the thing in stock.
The tyres in question are the Paris-Roubaix Pro by Challenge, and the particular challenge I had in mind for them was the Trans Alba Race - a 1100 mile bikepacking romp around the whisky and haggis-farming heartlands of Scotland.
As always, the first challenge is fitting the tyres. Like similar handmade clinchers the Paris-Roubaix have a "lie flat" construction and the tyre defiantly popped into its default flat shape at the halfway point on each of the first few tries.
Thankfully the technique is quickly acquired through trial and error; the second tyre was much faster, and soon I was admiring the pristine yellow sidewalls of my freshly mounted rubber.
Challenge have been making tyres since the late 1990s, when Max Braun took over the Clément factory that had been used by Pirelli. The Challenge brand name was established in 2000, since when they have forged a strong reputation in particular for their cyclocross tubulars; the Grifo and Limus are prized among 'cross racers as the last word in race-day grip and feel.
Challenge's vast range even includes a tread created specifically for the dry sandy conditions of one particular Belgian 'cross course, the Koksijde - so it's fair to say they're specialists.
The Paris-Roubaix, as the name suggests, are road tyres designed to provide a balance of speed and comfort over paved or cobbled roads. They are clinchers, but with a supple ride feel and handmade quality of construction that's as close as possible to tubulars.
Over the course of 10 days riding the Trans Alba, I'd ample opportunity to put that vaunted ride quality to the test. And although they felt great, it actually wasn't until after I'd got home, unstrapped 15kg of luggage from the bike, and compared against a few rides on my other bike and its narrower 25mm tyres that I was able to fully appreciate the plush feel of the Challenges.
At 27mm wide they strike a great balance of comfort, low weight and a feeling of rapidity. They took the worst of the sting out of many a weather-scarred section of highland tarmac, and after multiple successive 12-hour days in the saddle this was greatly appreciated.
The tread is minimal - a light, dense array of chevrons - but the grip was never less than sure-footed and the tyres flew as fast as I could spin them. My sample pair weighed in a few grams above Challenge's published weight of 285g, at 301g and 302g apiece, but unless you're chasing an absolute weight-weenie build the comfort and ride feel more than compensates.
Challenge suggest running between 90-130psi; I kept well to the lower end of that range (does anyone still put over 100psi into a road tyre?) and enjoyed the ride. It's worth noting, as you navigate Challenge's sometimes bewildering range of tyre variants, that the Pro version use a SuperPoly casing, whereas the SC version uses corespun cotton; I can't be certain how the two compare, but I'd imagine the latter comes even closer to tubular-esque levels of silky suppleness.
One thing the Challenge Paris-Roubaix don't claim is invincibility, and the flip-side of those 300tpi sidewalls is vulnerability to the occasional puncture.
Whether it was the extra load on my bike, fatigued inattention to road debris or simply bad luck, I suffered three or four flats over the course of the race. That's a higher than usual strike rate, but as I say it's difficult to know where to attribute blame. These are however performance-focused tyres, and that performance is tilted towards speed rather than resilience. So, while the Paris-Roubaix is an excellent tyre it is perhaps best reserved for summer race and sportive duty.
After about 1200 miles the chevron tread on the centre of the rear tyre is worn smooth; the front, as you'd expect, is wearing a little better. Ride quality and handling remains superb, although there are small nicks and cuts to both tyres that need keeping an eye on.
I'd guess you could stretch maybe 2500 miles out of a pair, but it depends of course on factors like the weight of bike + rider and the road surfaces you're riding.
It's worth adding that after the initial fitting, the tyres loosened up nicely and were no hassle to remove and refit for repairs to tubes.
I would love to try the Paris-Roubaix tyres in the new tubeless ready version, where the occasional sidewall nick would likely be sealed instantly without the need to stop. But even in this clincher guise with standard inner tubes, the Challenge Paris-Roubaix Pro are easy tyres to recommend.
On my regular bike they had a chance to showcase their fast-rolling comfort, and I wouldn't hesitate to run these tyres on a long sportive. If you're a fan of the ride quality of handmade clinchers, as I am, you'll find these tyres are easily a match for the very best from the likes of Vittoria and Veloflex.
Add into the mix their good looks, and the Challenge Paris-Roubaix Pro tyre has all the hallmarks of a classic.
Challenge Paris-Roubaix Pro handmade clincher tyre, £60 - www.upgradebikes.co.uk.
Find out more and view the full range at www.challengetires.com.