By Caley Fretz
Specialized’s latest stab at a hyper-versatile, tough-but-fast, supple-yet-durable training tire has, for the first time in the company’s history, achieved all those things. The new All Condition Armadillo Elite, unveiled Thursday, is a delicious cocktail of
race-bred rubber and burly flat protection and is one of — if not the — best training tires on the market.
That’s a heavy claim, given the wide array of excellent options in the same category, and Specialized’s historic inability to produce a tire that is well rounded — durable with good ride quality. The competition is fierce: Bontrager’s Hardcase line is nearly faultless; Continental’s latest Gatorskin lineup is wider, faster, and more comfortable than ever while retaining the legendary durability (look for a review of the new Gatorskin 28mm soon); Michelin’s Pro4 Endurance is surprisingly durable and offers better ride quality than almost anything in its class.
At the heart of the new Armadillo is a combination of the company’s Gripton rubber compound, originally developed for race applications, and a new bead-to-bead nylon breaker, ditching the aramid (Kevlar) breaker of previous Armadillos. Its sidewalls are thinner, improving suppleness, while the center of the tread remains thick to maintain durability even with the slightly softer rubber compound.
The result is excellent: a heavy-duty training tire that rides impressively well and grips like few tires I’ve ever ridden, particularly in the rain. It’s a highly flat resistant tire you’d actually want to ride outside on the worst days of winter.
Specialized’s grand Armadillo Elite lab-testing claims
Despite the stiff competition, Specialized thinks it has a winner, and has some numbers to back it up. Please note, though, that all of these figures are directly from Specialized.
In comparison to the old All Condition Armadillo Elite, the new tire has reduced rolling resistance by a whopping 30 percent. Frankly, this is made considerably less impressive by the terrible ride quality of the previous model. They rode like blocks of wood strapped to the rims. But it’s still a good sign, as lower rolling resistance on the test rig generally translates to a good road feel when actually on pavement.
The new tire is also more puncture resistant, tested via a “nail-in-tread” test, and more cut resistant, measured via a “blade-in-sidewall” test. While the old Armadillo gave in to the nail at 146 N, the new one requires 182.4 N. In Specialized’s testing, the Continental Gatorskin (no size specified) withstood 180.8 newtons and the Bontrager Hardcase 177.1 N.
The blade-in-sidewall test had similar results, though the old Armadillo is a bit tougher here than the new one — 240.8 N for the old, 231.6 for the new, 193.6 for the Contis, and 191.5 for the Bontragers.
Translated into English, Specialized’s tires are a tiny bit tougher; they are Rocky to Continental’s Drago — a close match, but one with a definitive winner.
The real point, though, is that even simply holding their own with the Bontrager and Continental options proves that the tires are plenty tough. Which brings us to rolling resistance and ride feel.
Through a winter of testing the Armadillos I did not flat once, and I was continually impressed with the ride quality. The 25mm size of our early production run is well suited to the sort of riding these tires are designed for, but if your frame will take a 28mm tire, you should seriously consider the wider version.
It’s not that the feel itself is astounding relative to the entirety of the market, it’s how supple these tires feel relative to direct competitors — other heavy-duty training tires. The combination of surprisingly supple sidewalls and that soft rubber compound make the Armadillos feel like a much lighter, much thinner, and much less robust tire.
That said, these are no race tires. They cannot touch the ride quality of thinner, lighter rubber, and the difference between the Armadillo and something like Vittoria’s Open Corsa range is still night and day. But the Open Corsa’s are likely to last half as long and flat twice as much.
The tires have been so reliable, and the ride quality is so good, that they’ve become the go-to for my travel bike, the one I’m most likely to be riding all alone in a foreign country, with help far more than a cell phone call away. That means that they’ve seen a good dose of Belgian cobbles this week, and have once again proven their worth — running just 80 psi, with tubes, I haven’t flatted once. The cobbles still hurt, though.
The soft rubber was initially concerning, but it has not proven to be a problem. It hasn’t worn quickly, nor has it suffered the multitude of cuts that usually beset tires with softer rubber compounds — think Vittoria’s top-end road tires, or the Michelin Pro4 Endurance tires mentioned above. Whatever magic potion Specialized has put into Gripton, it works.
Performance in the wet is particularly impressive. This is an area where harder, more durable tires generally suffer, but the Armadillos felt secure and predictable.
For a tire like this, we’d like to see a road tubeless version. Given Specialized’s recent track record, such a tire is likely just around the corner.
The All Condition Armadillo Elite will be available in 23mm, 25mm, and 28mm, though I can’t imagine why you’d ever buy the former. They are available now for $65, which is actually relatively reasonable these days for a tire that will last for the better part of a year under most riders.