I’ve been a cyclist for nearly 30 years; it’s a fact that amazes me. Very little, other than the love of my parents, has been as undisputed a part of my life for so long. In all that time there’s never been a period in which the bicycle was undergoing such deep exploration and consideration as there is right now. More specifically, never have so many different companies introduced so many different and exciting tires. It would be easy to pin this on the growth of the adventure category, but it’s actually more complicated than that.
The first piece started to develop a few years back when Specialized hired the Finnish outfit Wheel Energy to test all their tires and place them relative to other tires on the market in terms of rolling resistance. They didn’t fare well. The big red S was producing some of the very slowest rubber on the market. As a result, they overhauled their full tire lineup and began using new compounds with much better rolling resistance. While some people may contest my analysis, from where I sit, their dustbinning of a complete tire lineup set in motion similar upheavals at other companies. Bicycle tire compounds have come further in the last five years than they did in the previous 25. Seriously.
Combine those new compounds with ever-improving casings and then the larger sizes being run on multistrada bikes, which have been made possible by disc brakes, And everything we know about tires has evolved. We used to assume that a fatter tire was slower. We also assumed that a softer compound was slower. Another assumption was that lower tire pressure was slower. What we’ve learned is that the skinniest, hardest, highest-inflated tire isn’t the fastest. You can hear the engineers slapping their foreheads from here.
For the last couple of months I’ve been running the Panaracer Gravelkings ($49.99) on two different sets of wheels. One set of wheels rolls on the 40mm version, while another set runs the 32mm version. I’ve set both up tubeless, and while I’ve had some trouble getting them to seal, that’s true of basically all my experiences with any tire I try to run tubeless on a road bike, and not something specific to the Gravelkings.
Both tires feature a 126 tpi casing and an aramid (Kevlar) bead. The tires’ big, distinguishing feature is the set of identically sized square knobs that measure roughly 3mm by 3mm and make up the center portion of the tread. With the 32 there are three rows of blocks, while the 40 has five rows of them. Both tires measured pretty accurately; naturally, the wider the rim, the wider the tire measures.
With the 32, I’ve found it to be a terrifically quick wheel for riding on B roads. Anything with more potholes than patches is what this tire is made to handle. Its grip was impressive, even on wet roads. And for reasons I have trouble explaining even to myself, somehow this tire feels smaller, quicker, than it measures. It’s a 32 in 28 clothes. If I lived in a place that had endless miles of hardpacked dirt without the added challenge of rock, this would be an automatic go-to tire.
I live in a place where all of our dirt roads include a large family-sized portion of rock. Out in western Sonoma County, it’s mostly decomposing granite, which can be sharp as a comic’s wit. But closer to home there’s an incredible amount of volcanic rock thrown in, yielding long stretches of potato-shaped blobs of long-cooled magma that range in size from fist to basketball. Running a 32mm tire on our unpaved roads is to play last tag with fate. The menu of outcomes only includes two items, but they are as effective as a red light at stopping the ride. The first is puncturing, while the second is pinch flatting.
As a result, I ride the 40mm Gravelking far more than I ride the 32. It’s the fastest rolling tire I’ve ridden in this size. It may not spin up as quickly as a 25mm clincher will, but it doesn’t drag on the action like virtually all of the dialog in Revenge of the Sith. The traction in dry conditions compares to rubber cement on fingertips and in the wet it’s better than any other tire I’ve tried. I’ve set PRs on climbs while running this tire, on days when I wasn’t going all-out.
I tend to run the 40s around 50 psi; that’s high enough to avoid pinch flats on the rock and keep the tires quick-rolling without gutting the grab. With the 32s I run pressure between 70 and 78 psi. That changes based on the conditions I think I’ll be encountering.
What I find so interesting about our current climate in tire development and selection is how it discharges with prejudice the idea that you can market one tire to the masses. For most riders who live in places where bike races take place, yes, you can elect to run nothing but 23mm tires for traditional road riding. But the moment you begin to look beyond pavement, no one answer will do. Possible tire pressures change, and as soil types and rock content change so do the requirements for grip and casing durability. I know of plenty of roads in New England where I could run the 32 and never look back.
But I don’t live and ride there, not anymore. With all the rock I encounter, I’m fastest both up and down, mostly because I don’t have to be as selective with my line, on the Gravelking 40s. I heart these tires and am crushing on them like a teen girl for Justin Bieber.
Final thought: I always liked New Wave.