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Review – Specialized DH Tires

Butcher. Clutch. Hillbilly.

Words by Tim Coleman. Photos by Dave Mackie, Reilly Kintzele, Stephen Exley and Tim Coleman.
November 27th, 2014

With the return of Specialized’s involvement in downhill racing a few years ago it was only a matter of time until the Big S developed some new DH oriented tires. Recently Specialized released three new downhill tires; the Butcher, the Clutch and the Hillbilly. The Butcher is intended as a direct replacement / competitor to the Maxxis Minion DHF. The Clutch is a more aggressive tread that would be similar in use to something like a High Roller. The Hillbilly is a soft condition tire that is essentially a pre-cut mud spike.

All three tires come in both a 2.3” and 2.5” width. They all retail for $79 CDN and all weigh a claimed 1250 grams for the 2.3” width, and 1280 grams for the 2.5” width (except the 2.5” Hillbilly, which weights 1300 grams). The 2.3” Specialized tires seem comparable in width to a 2.5” Maxxis, while the 2.5” Specialized tires wind up more like a 2.7” Maxxis. I was also impressed with the build quality on all three of the Specialized DH tires. All tires seated evenly on the rim at only 30 psi, the knobs matched evenly across the tire, and the tires ran true on the rim when inflated. The casings on all three tires are 2 ply, 60 TPI and have butyl inserts which are supposed to help minimize pinch flats. Across all three tires I think Specialized struck a nice balance between being tough enough to prevent pinch flats / mechanical damage, yet compliant and light enough to offer great ride characteristics. On the topic of casings, I was rather impressed with how well the Specialized DH casings held up. Even after completely wearing out a set of Clutches, the tire itself was still in good shape with no visible threads showing through the rubber, no thin areas around the bead, and no missing knobs.

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill  From left to right; the Clutch DH, the Hillbilly DH and the Butcher DH

Specialized Butcher DH 2.3
The Specialized Butcher is the Big S’s response to the wildly popular Maxxis Minion DHF.  They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in this case Specialized has done a good job in flattering the designers of the Minion DHF. The knob sizing and placement of the Butcher is quite similar to that of the DHF. Rubber wise the Butcher DH has 42A rubber moulded over a 70A base. I tested the rubber softness with a calibrated durometer and found the center knobbies to be 48A and the side knobbies to be 51A. The durometer measures the rubber softness down a little ways into the knob, so the numbers shown here give an idea of the depth of the 42A layer, and don’t necessarily imply that Specialized is lying to us. That said it does seem odd that the center knobs measure softer than the side knobs, but I have a theory that I’ll explain later.

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill
  
The Butcher DH mounted up to my race bike

The first thing I noticed when riding the Butchers was how fast they rolled. This isn’t a surprise given the large knob area down the center, and the ample ramping. However the low rolling resistance comes at the cost of braking grip, which is a common compromise. I suppose one could always break out the Exacto knife and cut some slits across the center knobs to improve braking performance if needed. The second thing I noticed when riding the Butcher was how easily I could feel the side knobs roll over and squirm in hard pack corners. When I took a closer look at the tire I noticed that the side knobs are more compliant than the comparable Minion DHF. As a result the tire felt very vague on the limit and didn’t give clear feedback on when grip was running out. This rang all kinds of alarm bells in my rather small brain, and I found myself being a bit apprehensive to really push the tire on hard pack. In soft dirt however the side knobs hooked up and provided excellent grip. The combination of a fast rolling tire (ideal for more hard pack conditions) and a suppler side knob (ideal for soft conditions) seemed like an odd pairing to me. I can’t help but wonder if the harder durometer readings I took off the side knobs aren’t an attempt by Specialized to minimize the squirm when leaned over on hard pack.

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill   While I thought the side knobs were a bit too compliant, the Butcher would have been perfect for some trails. The Race the Ranch course in Kamloops is a great example given its unusual combination of long flattish straights and soft dusty corners.  Photo by: Stephen Exley(who is the race director for the excellent Western Open)

In terms of durability I did notice the side knobs wearing at a faster rate than I would have expected. This isn’t entirely surprisingly considering the side knobs on this set spent the majority of their lives bent over and smeared across the dirt. If you ride hard and like going sideways a lot, you’re going to mangle the side knobs fairly quickly (in comparison to comparable Minion DHF / Wicked Will / Excavator). The center knobs however wore normally for a soft compound tire.

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill   Wear evident on the side knobs after two half days in the bike park. While the wear on the side knobs isn’t a big concern, I’d expect the side knobs on the Butcher to wear a little quicker than a comparable tire.

As a wrap, I didn’t love the Butcher, but then again I’m not a huge Minion DHF fan either. My biggest gripe was how easily the side knobs rolled under hard cornering. Ideally the center knobs would have had some sipes running across the tire, and the side knobs would be better supported. On the up side the Butcher does roll fast, is made very well, and in non-hardpack corners does offer up good grip. If you’re a big fan of the Minion DHF you may really like the Butcher, and at the price, you’ll have little to lose.

Specialized Clutch DH 2.3
If the Butcher was designed to take on the Minion DHF head to head, I feel the Clutch DH is a direct competitor to the iconic High Roller. The Clutch DH uses a 42A durometer center knob and a super soft 40A compound side knob. After a couple of runs I tested the rubber softness with my calibrated durometer and found the tire to be a little firmer than Specialized claim with the center knobs measuring 50A and the side knobs averaging 42A.

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill   The Clutch DH tires mounted up to my race bike. I quite like the minimal styling on the Specialized tires with small tasteful logos.

If you were a High Roller fan, chances are you’ll really like the Clutch. While I really liked the High Roller, I always found it polarized cornering and braking; meaning it’s great at doing one or the other, but any mix of the two and things get a bit messy. The Clutch seems to transition much more smoothly, which means that you can brake later into corners and smoothly fade off the brakes while starting to turn in without ending up in the rhubarb. Also with more center edges running in the direction of travel the Clutch is far more stable laterally than the Higher Roller. Ultimately I found the Clutch much easier and more forgiving to ride fast than the High Roller. I found the Clutch really shone in intermediate conditions, where the trails are wet and slippery, but there is no mud. This happens a lot around these parts where trails are often worn down to bed rock and covered in roots. The Whistler Bike Park has some notoriously slippery pieces of trail when it’s wet, and even on roots slicker than a Rob Warner pick up line, the soft gummy knobs proved to have tenacious grip. Due to the large well-supported side knobs the Clutch also offered up staggering levels of traction in the dry. Unfortunately this grip comes at a price. The Clutch rolls slower than glacial drift and gets pretty slidey in thick muddy conditions. In the super scientific “Pavement Drag Race with Buddies” experiment I found the Clutches to roll slightly slower than comparable tires like the Muddy Mary and the High Roller. That said if you generally ride steeper more brake intensive trails you’ll find the rolling resistance a non-issue. The other weakness of the Clutch is poor traction in any sort of thick mud, which is due to the generally large blocky knobs being unable to penetrate deep enough into the mud.

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill   Tearing up the Port Angeles race course in practice on the Clutch DH. Photo by: Reilly Kintzele

The biggest surprise of the Clutch was how well it wore. The knobs seemed to wear down slower than expected, and even when the cornering and braking edges were rounded off the Clutch still offered up loads of grip. In comparison to the 3C High Roller I often use I got a ton more life out of the Clutch.

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill   This set of Clutches had been through 8 or 9 hard days of riding when this photo was taken, and was still providing excellent grip in the wet and dry

The Clutch DH 2.3 was not only my favourite of the Specialized tires I tested, it’s quite possibly my new favourite tire period. I spent a good portion of the summer on the Clutch, and was so impressed that I’ve already bought myself another set. The Clutch offers up Kung Fu GI Joe™ levels of grip in the wet and dry, offers surprisingly long life given how soft they are, and a bargain at $79 CDN.

Specialized Hillbilly DH Tire
For years I’d seen a bunch of the World Cup racers using cut down spike tires in muddy races, so this past spring I decided I’d cut a set down and try them out. It took me three nights to cut a set down and I completely ruined my hands. The effort was well worth it thought, and the cut spikes exceeded all expectations. Where full length spikes would be lethal on rock and root sections the cut spikes rode like a normal tire, yet still provided excellent traction in the soft mud. Given the growing popularity of cut spike tires Specialized came up with the genius idea of making a cut spike with no cutting required. When the Hillbilly was announced you could hear a sigh of relief from the hands of racers and mechanics everywhere. The Hillbilly DH uses a 42A durometer rubber moulded over a 70A base for support. After a couple runs I tested the rubber softness with my calibrated durometer and found the center knobs to be 48A and the side knobs to be 46A. Grin!

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill   The Hillbilly mounted up and ready to tear up some dirt. Once again I like the subtle styling on the new Specialized tires

Similar to a cut spike the Hillbilly proved easy to ride. Whether on soft dirt, or firm, the Hillbilly offered up excellent grip. I was surprised at how easy the Hillbilly was to ride on the wet trails on the North Shore that are notoriously rocky and rooty. In comparison to my home-made cut spikes I found the Hillbilly was a littler easier to lock up under hard braking. After taking a closer look at the Hillbilly I noticed the center knobs are a hair shorter than the spikes I cut down, and instead of having two center knobs for every row, like a Wet Scream, it only has two center knobs for every third row. The biggest surprise from the Hillbilly was how fast it rolled for such an aggressive tire. In the very precise “Rolling Down the Road Next to a Buddy” test I found the Hillbilly rolled as fast if not faster than a 2.5” Maxxis High Roller.

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill   I’d like to have seen some more center knobs for a little more braking bite. Otherwise I think Specialized did an excellent job with the Hillbilly DH.

If you’re the type of rider that rides the same tire whether it’s wet or dry, the Hillbilly isn’t going to be a good fit for you. In the dry the Hillbilly isn’t going to work as well as a Butcher or Minion DHF, and they’d get torn up pretty quickly. However if you’ve got a couple sets of tires that you rotate through depending on trail conditions, I think you’ll find the Hillbilly an excellent choice for the wet. Given the aggressive tread on the Hillbilly it is going to wear far quicker than an intermediate condition tire like the Clutch or High Roller, but it will also provide far more grip. That said if the Hillbilly is used on primarily soft trails (where they’re best), the abrasion on the knobs will be minimal, and you’ll get a ton of life out of a set.

clutch, butcher, hillbilly, specialized dh tires, tim coleman, Sam Hill   In conditions like these a cut spike tire is the perfect choice. Now that I think about it this race was won on a set of Hillbillys. Photo by: Dave Mackie

I’ve recently discovered cut mud spikes, and been really impressed at how easy they are to ride fast, and how versatile they are in a wide variety of conditions. I think Specialized have created an excellent tire that I’ll use more often than a full length spike tire. While it’s nice that you can trim a full length spike down to your liking, I’m not sure the forearm cramps are worth it. The price will be tough for some to justify given that they’re a condition specific tire, but I think they’re worth every penny, and well worth a try. The only question is; is it socially acceptable to ride a cut spike tire like the Hillbilly on regular signed and posted trails?


Have you tried the new Specialized DH tires? What do you think? What is your favourite DH tire? Serve it up below.