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There's been a fascinating history in ultralight manual wheelchair tires, where when consumers latch on to a particular high-performance tire, it catches on like wildfire - all but obliterating prior tire trends. And, the tide is changing as we speak, with the market moving to its next hip tire trend, one that's taking the market by storm.

A Brief History of High-Performance Tires
In the late 1980s, the ultra-light wheelchair high-performance tire standard was set with the "orange" Continental Tubular tire - a tire-and-tube technology from the bike industry. Available in 1" and 1-3/8" widths, at 142-PSI rating, Continentals quickly caught on as the wheelchair world's exclusive high-performance tire due to its rigid structure and gummy grip. In 1991, for example, you literally could not find an ultralight wheelchair at a basketball or tennis tournament that didn't have Continentals - they owned the market.

Yet, Continentals had their drawbacks. They were tough to mount on a rim; they leaked air, especially when used with wheel locks; they used a Presta valve stem that required an obscure adapter for use with most North American pumps; they were expensive; and, if you got a flat, you had to replace the entire tire. In the world of wheelchair tires, Continentals were like Italian sports cars - great in performance, but full of idiosyncrasies that tried your patience in the longterm.

Around 1995, a new tire rapidly entered the market, gunning for Continental. Primo USA was the North American distributor of one of the largest Asian tire manufacturers, and they dove head first into the ultralight wheelchair market with the V-Trak, a 100-PSI, 1"-wide, gray clincher tire that used a standard Schrader-valve tube. Users and athletes quickly recognized that the Primo V-Trak was less expensive and lower maintenance than the Continental, with seemingly equal performance, and soon gray Primo tires were mixed among orange Continental tires on sport courts across the country. By 1999, from everyday ultralight wheelchairs to outright sport chairs, the Primo V-Trak reigned supreme, where Continentals were all but extinct from the scene. Over a four-year period, the entire ultralight wheelchair market literally bailed from using Continentals, to marrying Primos on virtually every high-performance ultralight wheelchair with wheels on the ground.

Game On
Since Primo's coup of the wheelchair high-performance tire market in the late 1990s, bit players have come, gone, or stayed, trying to take Primo's market share just as it had obliterated Continental's. Kick tires - a flat-free high-performance tire - had a lukewarm run; and, Kenda tires have had some success as a Primo alternative, namely capturing some market share with colored tires. However, it wasn't until recently that a new tire arrived in town, ground-swelling market share in a similar way that Primo sank Continental's game.  Could this "new" tire be the next major market share, sending the Primo V-Trak down the same see-ya road as the Continental Tubular?

Heeeeeere's Johny
The hottest tire on the block is the Schwalbe Marathon Plus Evolution HS - and it's taking the wheelchair world by storm. In fact, you've likely seen them by now on a wheelchair of someone you know, or rolling across a sport court on a champion's chair, or pictured on a wheelchair brochure. You know, they're the, unmistakably black-colored tires with the bold, white Marathon logo on the sidewall. But, why are Marathons catching on so quickly in a segment that's been so dominated by Primo? Why are users fueling Marathons' success from the ground, up?

In a sentence, Marathons offer the best of all tire technologies. Marathons start as a clincher tire, using a separate tube, that inflates to a rock-hard 145-PSI for minimal rolling resistance. From there, they feature a specifically-designed smooth sidewall, so they don't chew one's hands, and they have an exceptionally gummy but long-life tread surface for optimal traction and longevity.

However, what makes Marathons truly remarkable is their patent-pending "flat-less" technology, called Smart Guard. The secret to the design is that while Marathons feature a regular tube, they're engineered with a 5mm-thick specialized rubber chamber between the tire tread and tube that all but eliminates flats. In fact, according to the manufacturer, you can push a thumb tack into the tire, and it won't puncture the tube. While anyone can make a thicker tire, Schwalbe uses a specifically-shaped chamber, with a proprietary rubber within - all of which doesn't noticeably add weight or increase rolling resistance.

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Aesthetics, too, come into play with Marathon tires, featuring Schwalbe's "Black'n'Roll" technology, the first black tire claimed not to leave skid marks or mar walls (though, now there are gray versions, as well).

When all of the Marathon's cutting edge technologies are combined - superior rolling characteristics, optimal traction, flat-less performance, easy maintenance, and a cool, black aesthetic - the result is profound: Arguably the best ultralight wheelchair tire on the market today.

Available in 22", 24", 25", and 26" sizes, the Marathon Plus Evolution HS is offered on most high-end ultralight order forms for around a $110 up charge on new wheelchairs, or purchased through on-line mobility retailers for approximately $90 per pair. Sure, there are less expensive tires out there, but the return on longterm performance, where Marathons offer such outstanding durability, tread life, and handling makes Marathons among the best out-of-pocket money that you can put into your ultralight ride.

Despite all of the marketing hype you'll read about ultralight wheelchair frame designs and materials, that fact is, much of an ultralight wheelchair's performance and reliability come down to its absolute core feature - that is, its wheels. And, in today's market, if your looking to get the most performance per penny in ultralight performance parts, Schwalbe Marathon Plus Evolution HS tires are among the strongest investments that you can make.

Published 1/09, Copyright 2009, WheelchairJunkie.com