TTi speaks to Ken Avery from Italian manufacturer Vittoria, who explains how his hobby of mountain biking led to his career in the tire industry
Ken Avery wishes he had kept that first inner tube. But he was just a starry-eyed teenager, and teenagers are apt to lose things. He could not have understood, then, how a race-day mountain bike puncture would spark a love affair that set the course of his life.
“I had a flat tire and a notable pro gave me an inner tube,” Avery recalls. “I was so thankful. After the race, I went to a bicycle shop, bought an inner tube and handed it back to her. She said, ‘Kid, I’m a pro who rides for a tire company! I get as many inner tubes as I want!’”
The professional was Kathy Sessler, the downhill racer known as One Fast Mother, now general manager of leading World Cup team The Santa Cruz Syndicate. “We became friends and she sent me a set of tires,” Avery continues. “I was only 16 and this was a celebrity! I started drawing tires in study hall at high school and faxing them to her in California.” Realizing their merit, Sessler sent Avery’s drawings to Maxxis, and the tire maker gave him a job when he graduated. Today, Avery is senior vice president for product development at Vittoria.
“Vittoria is Italian for victory,” he says. “Everything is about performance – and what that means to you.” As a former Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) elite-level racer, Avery has followed the path into an industry of enthusiasts. “Ex-racers often come into the business,” he says. “They know how it feels at the limit of traction, how to get beyond that limit, then distill and trickle it down for general riders.”
Vittoria has a garlanded World Tour heritage and provides support vehicles for the Giro D’Italia. Avery remains closely involved with professional racing. “We choose which teams we work with,” he says. “We rely on athletes for validation and testing, but it’s a two-way communication. They give us a new problem to solve, we create a possible solution, then they test it. Every product we release has been through that cycle.
“Often, a product actually wins races before it’s launched,” he continues. “That means we already have a story and momentum and demand built behind it.” The latest example is Air-Liner Road, Vittoria’s new-to-market tubeless runflat system, a liner made of foam like that in running shoes.
“The internal pressure of an inflated tire compresses the foam and the tire performs normally,” Avery explains. “But in the event of a puncture, pressure releases and the liner expands to fill the tire.” Effective for 50km at moderate speed, the runflat enables athletes to finish races, or consumers to ride home. “Air-Liner Road won races before anyone knew we were testing it,” he says.
Vittoria is a leading cotton-casing tire manufacturer. Its tires are recognizable in the Tour de France thanks to their bright tan sidewalls, and are prized for their high thread count, measured in threads-per-inch. A high thread count means threads are thinner, which makes casings more supple and comfortable.
“It doesn’t deflect over bumps in the road but absorbs them, like a suspension,” says Avery. “Cotton is less durable than nylon. But we’ve innovated with Corespun technology: poly-filament cores inside cotton threads enable the same traits with greater durability.”
Avery designed Vittoria’s innovative mountain bike tread patterns. “Cross-country mountain biking is an endurance discipline over technical terrain,” says Avery. “Not just dirt, but rocks and roots. Aggressive tread designs provide grip but often make tires slow rolling.” Instead of a symmetrical pattern, the Mezcal has an alternating center ridge. “Interlocking the two sides reduces space between the center tread while keeping an open shoulder,” he explains. “The tire rolls fast but you still have the edges you need in corners.” The Terreno Dry employs a fish-scale pattern to combine a slick center tread with sideways traction for cornering and braking.
“I’ve always been obsessed with how a simple machine can be improved,” Avery says of his ongoing love for the industry. “It’s not just about winning the Tour de France, but how intricate details can affect everyday riders, too.” He only wishes he still had that inner tube. “It should be in a frame above my mantelpiece, because it changed my life.”
Click here to find out more about Vittoria’s bicycle tire development in the October issue of Tire Technology International.