It’s not uncommon for me to show up to a ride and have friends ask what I’m on. Given that I review stuff, what I’m on is constantly changing. I know that such work carries the strong whiff of adventure and novelty. I know this because I recall what it was like when I first started, and then stopped, and then started again. But I have an admission to declare, one that will get me a sympathy score of something like -5 on a scale of 1 to 10.
When I run across something I really like, when I encounter something that noticeably improves my experience, I don’t want to switch it out. I am, first and foremost, a flow junkie. Anything that increases the likelihood that I will get to church on time, or at all, is something I don’t want to give up. This is why reviewing road tires was beyond boring for ages. Most of them were so similar, it didn’t much matter whose tire you were on. All the $30 training tires road okay, while all the $70 open tubulars livened my experience like putting salt on watermelon.
I’ve ridden a bunch of gravel tires now. Many of them work well. A few completely blow for my use, but are probably fine in other realms, while a handful require you to wear sunglasses as you mount them because they are so awesome they shine like a welding arc. Tires of that character inspire weird urges in me, like doing crazy hard rides in an effort to wear the tires out a bit quicker.
The 38mm tire, ready for action.
When I first tried the Panaracer GravelKing SKs, I did some serious miles on the 40s and some rides on the 32s, though not quite so much because a 32mm tire is of, shall we say, limited merit on our dirt roads.
I fell in love with the 40s and struggled to comprehend how a tire so big could allow me to do 28 mph in a paceline. I mean, what gives? I could roll over any rocks I encountered and they were as unlikely to flat as my kids are to stay silent.
Then, Panaracer adjusted the line. Honestly, when I got the press release, I was terrified. I didn’t want them to change a tire that I adore. After talking to my contact and doing some deep breathing exercises, I was able to relax. Panaracer added some sizes and then reassigned a size to one of the existing tires. The 40mm tire I’d ridden previously was a big 40. They measured it on some of the popular wider rims that are available and have now designated it a 43mm tire, which strikes me as a more accurate figure.
The GravelKing SK now comes in six 700C sizes: 26, 32, 35, 38 and 43, plus a 650×48 (I earlier reported that there was a 28 in this tire, but that was incorrect). All are tubeless except for the 26mm tire, which require tubes. I can grant that in many circumstances that the 43 was a bit overkill, but hot donuts man, that thing sure did inspire confidence! And while a wider tire is less aerodynamic, it’s worth noting that those bigger tires have a larger diameter, which means they have better rolling resistance.
And can we go back to the sizes for a second? Six flippin’ sizes! I mean Trojan only makes two sizes of condoms. Opening tooling for seven sizes of tires is an incredible expense and illustrates Panaracer’s monumental commitment to the gravel category.
The 35mm size, with some post-race spice.
Of late I’ve been riding the 35 and 38mm tires. The 35 is what I ran at the recent Super Skaggs Grasshopper and rarely have I run a tire that felt more perfect for conditions. I was able to stay in the peloton with a minimum of effort for that first hour of the race. With pressure at a modest 38 psi front and 40 psi rear, they were sticky like a Jolly Rancher left on a hot car seat. Don’t ask how I know how sticky that is. I was able to roll blind into turns with broken or gravel-strewn pavement and never once slid. On singletrack the bike never slid so long as a favored my front brake sufficiently.
One interesting phenomenon I keep running into is when tires and/or wheels are too small. I’m done with 27.5 mountain bike tires, except for 27 plus stuff. If I want to crash, all I need to do is ride a mountain bike with 27.5″ x 2.2″ tires. I’m going down. Similarly, if I ride a tire narrower than 35mm on a gravel ride, I’m going to go down or flat, and maybe both. A 35mm tire seems to pass some threshold that allows the bike to float over certain obstacles that might otherwise capture my front wheel. For sure the front wheel is much less likely to get caught in a rut, and even if it sinks in one momentarily, it seems to pop back out without any real issue.
There’s a field of baby head rocks on the fire road nearest me. It’s a place of such hostility to bike tires it took me more than a year just to get to a point that I was comfortable rolling through it on a mountain bike without slowing or picking my line with care. I’m not willing to ride it on anything smaller than a 35mm tire and honestly, I’m nervous on anything smaller than a 38. Of the many tires I’ve ridden through that stretch, the 35mm GravelKing SK gave me the kind of confidence I’ve come to expect when running a bigger tire. That’s just a fancy way of saying that I never felt the rim bottom out against the tire.
The GravelKing SKs have been terrific in hard pack, sandy situations and, of course, quick on pavement. About the only circumstance where they don’t kill is in mud, and Panaracer has a tire just for that. I’m just relieved that I have enough wheels around here that I can leave one pair set up with a set of these tires. But which size to leave on?
Final thought: I don’t care if our roads get repaved.
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