THE BEST GRAVEL TIRES 2023
Summary: Picking the best gravel tires for the surfaces you’re riding can make the difference between a fast, confident ride and a slow, shaky slog. For riding mixed paved and dirt roads (Class 1) with some gravel (Class 2), we currently recommend the semi-slick Specialized S-Works Pathfinder tires (available at the best prices from stores I recommend here, here, here). When your riding includes a higher percentage of gravel (Class 2) and larger rock sections (Class 3), we recommend the small knob Continental Terra Speed tires (here, here, here, here, and here). For all surfaces, including technical sections (Class 4) and mud, we recommend the big knob Tufo Gravel Swampero tires (here).
Picking the best gravel tires is one of the first things riders focus on. If you’ve come from the road cycling world like many of you fellow road cycling enthusiast readers and I have, we bring little experience to draw on in this search.
Unlike most road tires, gravel bike tires have an almost dizzying array of tread sizes, shapes, and patterns to choose from. Many come in a broad range of sizes, and most are tubeless. And with the growth of gravel cycling, new gravel bike tires are being introduced all the time.
All of this makes it hard even for experienced gravel riders to sort through all the options.
Since picking the right tires affects the speed, confidence, and enjoyment of your gravel rides as much as anything else, I and my fellow testers have done a combination of ride testing and comparative analysis I’ve not seen anywhere else to find and recommend the best gravel tires for you and me.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
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Gravel tire evaluations show some clear winners
GRAVEL SURFACES VARY GREATLY
Gravel is a generic term. While using it can help you distinguish between road or cyclocross or mountain biking, it doesn’t take you much further than that.
Just as there are different ways to do road cycling (like racing, climbing, endurance riding, recreational biking, commuting, e-biking, etc.) and sub-types within those (road racing, crit racing, time-trialing, track cycling, etc.), there are many types of gravel riding and a wide range of surfaces all called gravel.
When looking for the best gravel tires, the type of surface you ride is one of the most important considerations. That’s because gravel riding is done on a range of surfaces far broader than where you do road cycling or cyclocross racing and even mountain biking.
Think about your last gravel ride. It probably started on paved roads to get to the start of the gravel and may have had more of it between the gravel sections of your ride.
Depending on where you live or the gravel course you’ve chosen to do, your ride might have included hard-packed dirt roads or roads with a loose dirt layer on top with little or no gravel in sight. That’s still called a gravel ride.
Perhaps there was a small amount of gravel spread around or mostly on the crown or along the sides. There may have been a fair amount of uneven washboards or ruts, including some filled with water in the spring or after a summer rain.
Another gravel ride you’ve done or are planning could have sections with a lot of actual gravel, some of it densely packed and embedded in the road and loose and deep in other places. The gravel might be small and mostly round, similar to what you see on driveways, or it could be as large and jagged as rocks. Indeed, you may ride sections with good-sized rocks, some of them on the surface, some partially embedded in dirt roads.
You might also come across sections with deep truck-width tracks and ruts or roots, stumps, standing or running water, and sandy or loamy or muddy surfaces. You might find some of these surfaces on narrow single or double-track trails or up (and down) 5-10% or steeper, steady grades.
Clearly, the best gravel bike tires for a mostly hard-packed dirt route with a little bit of small gravel spread around would be different than those you’d want for rides with loose, deep gravel or a lot of large rocks, ruts, and technical descents.
CLASSES OF GRAVEL
Recognizing the wide variety of these “gravel” surfaces, former US professional road cyclist and mixed-surface pioneer Neil Shirley came up with descriptions of four gravel categories in 2017. Some added to Neil’s efforts or came up with their own definitions, while others have written about one or two of these surface types in more detail.
With input from Neil, other competitors, and event organizers, I amplified Neil’s descriptions and wrote this post in early 2020 detailing the amount of each of the four gravel classes and paved sections you’ll find at 25 of the most popular gravel events in the US.
To recap and illustrate, I summarized the gravel classes as follows:
Class 1 aka “Dirt” – maintained, consistent hardpacked dirt with small-sized or no gravel
Class 2 aka “Gravel” – loose, small, and medium-sized gravel spread over the road or in the crown or along the shoulder on top of hardpack or softer/uneven dirt; some washboard and occasional 1-2’ diameter potholes; sand and/or clay sections without gravel
Class 3 aka “Rocks” – unevenly sized, larger/sharper gravel and rocks, partly exposed/buried rocks, truck tire trenches, and rain grooves
Class 4 aka “Technical” – big rocks/rock gardens, deep loose gravel, deep ruts, path-, lane- or road-width potholes or single- or double track paths/roads with rocks, roots, fallen trees or other large obstacles
To show the contrast of surface mixes you’ll find, look at a few of the most well-known gravel events. The Tour of Battenkill is a mixed-surface event with only 35% of the route unpaved. Of that, 80% is Class 1 and 20% Class 2. At the other end of the gravel surface spectrum is Unbound, which is 95% unpaved and predominantly Class 3 (50%) or Class 2 (30%) gravel.
While those two are at the extremes, most of the popular gravel events are either predominantly Class 1 and Class 2 (e.g. Rasputitsa, D2R2, Croatan Buck Fifty, Barry-Roubaix, Crusher in the Tushar, Gravel Worlds, Rebecca’s Private Idaho) or Class 2, 3 and 4 (Grinduro, Coast to Coast, Hilly Billy Roubaix, SBT Gravel, Lost and Found).
Recognizing that many of us roadies gone groadie plan to ride some of these events or others like them, it’s clear that one type of gravel tire isn’t the best choice for all of them. Unfortunately, there isn’t an “all-around” gravel tire solution that works pretty well on all surfaces.
Instead, to successfully ride gravel, whether your measure is what place you finish or that you just have a good time wherever you place, you need to know what the best gravel tires are to get you across the mix of surfaces you are riding.
And if you just prefer to ride gravel roads and routes without ever doing a gravel event, you still are better off picking the best tires for the mix of those surfaces.
TYPES OF GRAVEL BIKE TIRES
While some may think that choosing the best gravel bike tires for where you will ride or compete comes down to picking from tires of the same width, it’s unfortunately not that easy. On the other hand, it’s also not as difficult as trying to decode the mix of various knob sizes, shapes, and locations you see on different tires.
After researching the range of gravel bike tires sold by over a dozen leading gravel tire manufacturers, I found that most of them were designed to serve one of three gravel surface mixes and could be organized based on the size of the knobs they used.
To simplify this, I grouped the tires into three types:
Slick or Semi-Slick – Tires with no knobs – sometimes just wide sizes of road tires – or those with a slick center strip and small or medium-sized knobs along the tire shoulders. These are usually 32-40 mm wide and are best when you are doing gravel rides that are mostly mixed surfaces rides of paved and Class 1 gravel roads for tires with no knobs and up to Class 2 and a limited amount of Class 3 for those with shoulder or side knobs.
Small Knob – Gravel tires with smaller, shorter knobs running down the tire’s center. Some continue this pattern out onto the tire’s shoulders, while others use bigger knobs there.
These “small knob” tires are the most versatile category of gravel tires. While they are best suited for rides where most of the rolling is done on paved, Class 1, and Class 2 surfaces, some also perform quite well on Class 3 surfaces. Their label sizes run from 35 to 42mm, but many actually measure wider on modern gravel wheels. You can order some in still wider sizes if you are a less experienced gravel cyclist.
Big Knob – Tires with larger knobs that are taller and placed further apart. You’ll want these when there is a relatively high percentage of Class 3 and Class 4 gravel surfaces on your ride. While some may think it wise to have these ultimate grippers and their 38-45mm labeled tires spinning beneath you on every gravel surface to take on whatever comes up, they are very slow on paved, Class 1, and Class 2 surfaces, usually not very supple or comfortable, and can make for a very long day.
Given that so many gravel riding situations and events are best suited for Semi-Slick and Small Knob gravel bike tires and that there are more of them to choose from, I’ve focussed this review on those tires. Riding one of the best 30-34mm wide road tubeless tires, inflated to the right pressure for gravel, is your best performance choice when riding your road or gravel bike on paved roads and Class 1 dirt surfaces. I’m also adding reviews of Big Knob tires as we get more opportunities to ride those surfaces.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
When choosing between gravel bike tires, there are a number of performance characteristics I look for.
Grip, Handling. How well a gravel tire grips whatever surface it’s on when going straight, accelerating, climbing, and braking is certainly important. How well it handles and holds when cornering or changing your line on all manner of gravel surfaces is key to how much speed, fun, and safety you’ll have on your ride.
Comfort. The comfort of gravel bike tires obviously matters a lot in choosing between them. While you can lower your tire pressure or go with a wider tire to improve comfort, doing so may make for sloppier handling.
Rolling and Puncture Resistance. A tire’s rolling resistance plays a more important role in choosing between them when riding at 12-15mph on gravel than when riding a road bike at aero speeds in excess of 20 mph. Likewise, puncture resistance is also critical because you’re riding over a lot of objects that can flat a tire in a mile of gravel than you might see in a month of road biking.
Unfortunately, there’s not been nearly as much independent testing done on gravel tire rolling and puncture resistance as you can find about road bike tires. I have drawn as many comparisons as possible by curating the independent gravel tire testing done by Tour Magazine (subscription required), Tom Anhalt, Bicycle Rolling Resistance (BRR), and one or two other magazines (with less independence) for some of the tires I rode. For others, there’s just no good testing data available yet. Instead, you’ll get my unscientific takeaways from the comparison ride testing we’ve done described in the next section.
Installation. How easy or hard a gravel tire is to mount, inflate, seal, and remove is an important consideration, especially for roadies less experienced or comfortable with tubeless tires.
Price. Fortunately, there’s not a lot of absolute difference between gravel tire prices. And they certainly don’t cost nearly as much as other components on our gravel rigs that are less important to our performance and enjoyment. Still, the price of everything, including gravel bike tires, matters.
Other things that matter in gravel tire selection aren’t easily measurable or comparable. For example, tire wear is something I’d sure like to know, but it’s hard to generalize since we all ride on different surfaces. Because the absolute price of gravel tires is one of the smaller expenses in one’s gravel gear budget, I would also prefer to have a better-performing tire than a longer-lasting one. Of course, if the wear of a tire is known to be far greater than others while the performance difference is much less, that might play a bigger role in my purchase decision.
Some things our roadie backgrounds might suggest should also matter really don’t when it comes to gravel bike tires. Things like tire weight or threads per inch (TPI) or brand or whether you can get a tan sidewall is less important and perhaps not important at all. (Well maybe the tan sidewall matters just for the looks if not for the performance.)
Weight differences between the same types of gravel bike tires are often small and essentially irrelevant compared to the weight of your bike, wheels, and all the bottles, food, tools, and other crap some of us carry on our gravel bikes to be ready for any situation. TPI is just one thing that goes into tire comfort.
I focus on the performance outcome than the design input.
After noting all of the above things that matter most, I came up with four criteria that integrate many of them and speak to me more simply when evaluating a pair of gravel bike tires.
SPEED – How fast can I go on the tires? This brings together all the following criteria and the tire’s rolling resistance.
CONFIDENCE – How confident do I feel riding the tires on the combination of surfaces on my route?
GROAD FEEL – An analog to road feel, how connected do the tires make me feel to the surface underneath me, how aligned is that to what my eyes are telling me and my brain is processing in ways that allow me to make quick decisions on the bike?
VERSATILITY – How capable are the tires on the range of paved and gravel surfaces I’m riding?
HOW WE TEST GRAVEL BIKE TIRES
To test gravel bike tires, I ride a 13-mile course with a good amount of paved, Class 1, and Class 2 surfaces and a few Class 3 and 4 sections.
The course is situated in the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, not far from where I live. Before heading there, I put my bike on the car roof rack and put another set of wheels in the back along with my bike stand, pump, toolbox, food, and water.
Once I get to the course, aka the In The Know Cycling Gravel Test Track (no sign there yet), I head out for a lap or two on the wheels and tires that are on my bike. After stopping to make notes on what matters most (see above section), I put my bike up on the stand, switch wheels, adjust the disc calipers as necessary, and head off for another lap or two, stop, make notes, put the bike on the rack, and head home.
Once home, I switch the tires and wheels I’d been riding that day. The tires on one wheelset go on the other one, and the tires that came off that other would go on the first one.
The next day, I head back out to the ITKC Gravel Test Track and ride another bunch of laps with the new tire-wheelset combinations, again making notes after each set of laps.
I usually turn back into a roadie for the next few days and test ride some of the wheels and other gear we’re also evaluating or do an inside ride if the weather doesn’t allow for a productive road ride test.
Later that week or the next, I’ll grab a couple of new sets of gravel tires, mount them up and do another couple of days of laps and note-taking at the test track with wheelset and tire switching between gravel riding days.
At the same time that I’m testing these gravel bike tires, I’ll often also be testing gravel wheels. I’ve got a good selection of wheels in the test cave, including those with 23mm and 25mm inside rim widths, sizes I find best suit gravel riding on 35mm to 45mm tires. Some of the wheels even double as gravel and road wheels. (See here for the gravel wheelset reviews.)
Because tire handling and comfort can be somewhat different depending on the rim material and width of a wheelset (as well as the wheels’ hubs, spokes, and assembly), I try to test each set of tires on at least a couple of wheelsets.
And instead of using the same pressure for each tire-wheel combination, I set my tires to the level indicated by the SRAM Tire Pressure Guide and ENVE Tubeless Tire Pressure Recommendations based on the inner rim width, tire size, rider weight, and other factors.
While I use these recommendations as a starting point, if I think the tires were riding especially hard or the handling is a little mushy, I adjust the pressure down or up after a lap to see if I could get better performance from the tires.
While I appreciate that you may be riding gravel on wheels with 21mm, 19mm, or even 17mm inner widths, I don’t see much benefit in testing these tires out on wheels in those sizes. Ride performance – especially handling and comfort – diminishes as you ride on narrower rims. The inside rim width of most new gravel wheels (and all of those I’ve been testing) measures between 23mm and 25mm, so that’s the width of the wheels I use for testing.
Needless to say, I’ve gotten to know the test track quite well. I work the corners where I could really go all out to test the handling and the sections of deep and loose gravel to separate out the more and less versatile tires. There are great sections to evaluate the acceleration in soft dirt and loose gravel, where I can feel how differently the tires ride as the surfaces vary, how fast I can go on paved and hard-pack dirt sections, etc.
The weather also changes quite a bit in the spring, and with it, there are changes in how wet or dry and how soft or hard the surface is. There are plenty of potholes filled with water earlier in the spring, and those same holes show partially buried rocks once they dry. I’m always bumming about the end of the ski season in the spring, so I’ve got a few places where I can keep doing slalom radius turns going downhill to see how well the tires carve or wash out.
And yes, much of this riding happens as a few other cyclists and many walkers enjoy the rugged and raw beauty of the wildlife reserve. On busy days, I do a lot of maneuvering that is good for testing line changes and braking. On other days when I get there early or during the week, it almost feels like a personal playground except, of course, for some of those who already lived or were recently born there.
My fellow gravel tester Conor has been testing tires and other gravel gear with me since the beginning of 2022. When I’m done with my tests, I send the tires up to Conor to ride his gravel playground – the state of Vermont. Dirt and gravel roads outnumber paved ones by a bazillion to one in Vermont – he even rides them to go to work or into town – and there are more trails for gravel and mountain bikes than you could probably ride in 3 lifetimes.
Vermont Overland, Rooted Vermont, and Rasputitsa are just three of the better-known gravel events that happen there. There are hundreds of Class 1, 2, 3, and 4 miles and the type of steep climbs, technical sections, and mud season surfaces that you might experience at the extremes of where you live.
Without any knowledge of my evaluations, Conor tests the complete range of surface classes he has available just outside his back door. He shares his notes with me, and then I compile our individual takes into the reviews and ratings you see below.
In this section, we’ve evaluated and compared Slick and Semi-Slick tires designed for gravel and best suited for “multi-surface” rides on paved, Class 1, and Class 2 roads. Some can also get you through small amounts of Class 3 surfaces, especially if you are a good bike handler and have the tires inflated below the pressure that best suits riding fast on less challenging surfaces. As an alternative on smooth dirt roads, 32-34mm road tubeless tires can work equally well as an alternative.
In addition to the tires reviewed below, we’re currently test-riding the Schwalbe G-One RS.
Specialized S-Works Pathfinder – Best Performer
Specialized’s S-Works Pathfinder combines a slick center strip, closely packed small-knob tread on its shoulders, and ample width that together create unmatched versatility compared to most other small-knob gravel tires. Its slick section is fast on paved and hard-packed dirt roads, while the shoulder knobs and width boost your confidence riding on all but the most challenging surfaces.
As my fellow tester Conor wrote in his notes about the Pathfinder, “If I had to pick one tire to go fast in just about any condition, this would probably be my top pick. They feel lightning fast on pavement and smooth gravel, but they really handle much rougher conditions quite well.”
Despite its slick center strip, the Pathfinder feels as grippy on the flats and climbs as some of our other top-rated tires, including the Continental Terra Speed, which have small knobs along their center strips. Descending in looser dirt or gravel Class 2 type surfaces, the Pathfinder’s absence of center tread requires you to depend a bit more on your handling skills.
It’s a relatively light tire considering its width and installs quite easily on gravel wheel rims. While the casing and tread feel somewhat thin, it seems well reinforced for cut protection. In testing, the tires were quite stout. The Pathfinder rolled over everything we could throw at it, including Vermont Class 4 surfaces of bedrock, boulders, gravel, and mud pits without puncturing. Independent tests give it one of the better tread puncture resistance scores.
That durability does come with some small trade-offs. It feels reasonably supple but not quite at the level of the Continental and Goodyear or Rene’ Herse standard casings. And while using a consistently textured drum roller to lab test gravel bike tires doesn’t replicate the range of surfaces you can experience on a single gravel ride, the Pathfinder’s independently measured rolling resistance shows it a couple of watts off the pace of the best-performing Continental Terra Speed and Tufo Gravel Thundero.
Considering the versatility and durability of the Pathfinder, trading off a bit of pliability and rolling resistance is something I’d expect most enthusiast-level groadies would happily take. Conor, who can change a tire as fast as anyone but has the same family and work demands on his time as most of us, didn’t bother to switch to a lighter, slicker gravel tire for a race on smooth dirt roads while he was testing the Pathfinder. He felt he didn’t really need to and also liked the idea of not having to change the tires again if he wanted to do a ride a few days later that included some rugged Class 4 roads.
To be clear, there are surface conditions where a more treaded tire will be a better choice. While they handle occasional mud patches, a more treaded tire would be noticeably better for soupy mud baths or on roads with a lot of rough patches and loose conditions.
Labeled a 42mm wide tire, once inflated it measures 43mm to 45mm depending on your inflation pressure and rim’s internal width (see chart below). This may put it close to or beyond the clearance available in some bike frames.
Note that Specialized also makes similarly named gravel bike tires called the Pathfinder Pro, Pathfinder Sport, S-Works Tracer, and S-Works Terra. While we haven’t tested those, I wouldn’t expect they would not perform the same as the S-Works Pathfinder tested here.
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Rene’ Herse Snoqualmie Pass
While the Rene’ Herse Snoqualmie Pass’ file tread and absence of knobs make it look more like a slick category gravel tire, its 44mm width puts it up against small-knob ones in the way fans of this company’s tires have used them over the years.
Rene’ Herse enthusiasts talk about how the tire’s extra width and supple casing make these tires as or more effective in gaining traction on dirt and gravel than knobbed tires. Further, they say the absence of tread lowers rolling resistance. The company’s published research supports these views.
While I can’t fault fans of Rene’ Herse tires for their enthusiasm, that kind of performance compared to other tires we’ve tested is not what we’ve experienced in the case of the model reviewed here, one which I understand is emblematic of the characteristics customers look for in a tire from this company. This performance may have been the case before gravel tire developments in the last several years or on certain types of surfaces, or in the absence of independent testers and comparative reviewers.
My fellow tester Conor, who lives in the dirt and gravel road kingdom …eh… the state of Vermont, has owned and ridden many Rene’ Herse tires. For this comparative review, he rode both the Endurance and Standard casing 44mm wide Snoqualmie Pass tires over a wide variety of surfaces, from paved roads to unpaved technical segments and everything in between.
Because of the differences between how Rene’ Herse and most other gravel tires associate their tire specs and composition with their product names, it’s worth taking a moment to explain Rene’ Herse’s approach.
The company makes a line of file tread tires that differ little (if at all) in their tread pattern. The same goes for the tread size and pattern of their knob tire line.
Instead, the Rene’ Herse tires differ in the widths and casing within each line.
Among the file tread tires the company sells, there are eight widths from 700C x 26mm to 700C x 56mm, each of which has a different product name. Each width/named tire is available in Endurance Plus, Endurance, Standard, and Extralight casing options. From one casing option to the next in that progression, rolling resistance, grip, and weight get better while puncture resistance gets worse.
Bicycle Rolling Resistance lab tested each casing model of the 44mm wide Snoqualmie Pass (results available to Pro Members) to quantify the differences in these and other characteristics.
Lab testing is only one type of comparative testing and isn’t quantitatively or often even relatively translatable to field test results. The Rene’ Herse Snoqualmie Pass 44mm Endurance casing tire (which I’ll call the RH 44E going forward) lab-tested rolling resistance and puncture resistance is on par with all but the best tires Bicycle Rolling Resistance has evaluated. (The RH 44S or Standard casing’s rolling resistance is nearly as good as the best, but its puncture resistance is worse than the average of those we’ve reviewed.)
In Conor’s field testing, he found the RH 44E and RH 44S tires roll “lightning fast” on paved and well-maintained dirt roads, aka Class 1 gravel surfaces. There is little noticeable speed difference riding the RH 44 tires on these surfaces and our top-rated Continental Terra Speed and Specialized S-Works Pathfinder.
The RH 44S would actually be a better choice than the RH 44E for these less demanding types of paved and dirt “gravel” rides. In this case, the Standard casing is a better bang for your buck – less expensive, slightly lighter, and with barely lower rolling resistance.
But there’s really little reason to ride anything this wide on these types of surfaces. One of the better 32mm road slick tires would be lighter still, have even less rolling resistance, and would be more than wide enough to provide the handling and comfort most would want.
And not all gravel bikes will have enough room for a 44mm tire in the first place. Certainly, most of the latest road disc and “all-road” bikes that are intended for both paved and unpaved Class 1 and Class 2 surfaces won’t have clearance for a 44mm tire.
When properly inflated to take advantage of the RH 44’s width (i.e., lower than you might normally go), the traction you get from these tires on dirt roads, even on those with some loose dirt and occasional gravel stones (Class 2 surfaces) is a lot better than one might think looking at their lack of tread. However, they start to lose traction when climbing on those surfaces.
They aren’t great on more demanding Class 3 and technical Class 4 surfaces, underperforming narrower, slick tires or semi-slick ones with their small shoulder knobs. Even for a technically skilled gravel rider like Conor, they don’t inspire much confidence going downhill. Instead, they can feel like they are skipping or floating across the gravel surface though not totally breaking free.
While Conor didn’t experience any punctures in the RH 44 tires, he has gotten many sidewall cuts over the years riding other Rene’ Herse tires, even those with the supposedly more resistant Endurance casing. They aren’t heavily reinforced nor the most durable, with the rubber wearing more quickly than others we’ve tested.
For 90% of his riding, Conor would choose a semi-slick tire like the Specialized S-Works Pathfinder over the fully-slick or file-treaded RH 44E.
If you’re planning on doing a fair number of paved miles or mixed paved and unpaved dirt touring type riding where you may be carrying extra weight in your panniers and not riding as aggressively as you would on gravel roads, the RH 44E or 44S would be options to consider.
We’ve not done any comparative testing in those conditions to say how they would rate vs. others, but their added volume would seem to allow for the somewhat higher pressures needed to carry more weight while maintaining good comfort, road feel, and rolling resistance on less challenging surfaces.
If that’s the kind of riding you do, you can check out the Rene’ Herse Snoqualmie Pass for US$74 – $96, depending on your casing choice, directly from Rene’ Herse.
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SMALL KNOB GRAVEL TIRE REVIEWS
In this section, we’ve evaluated and compared Small Knob tires best suited for gravel rides on paved, Class 1, and Class 2 surfaces. Depending on the size of their side knobs, some are also quite capable on Class 3 or 4 surfaces. Others aren’t versatile enough for those more challenging surfaces.
The best gravel tires are at the top, with lower-rated ones following them in order.
In addition to the tires reviewed below, we’re currently test-riding the Tufo Gravel Thundero and Challenge Getaway Pro HTLR.
Continental Terra Speed – Best Performer
The Continental Terra Speed is the rare gravel tire that combines speed, confidence, and versatility across all but the most challenging gravel terrain.
Looking at the tread pattern and Black Chili compound label on the Continental sidewall, I wasn’t surprised by the speed. The small, elongated hexagonal and diamond-shaped knobs in the rolling direction make for a good surface grip without being so large as to impede your forward motion.
And for groadies like me, the Black Chili name is closely associated with low rolling resistance tires, if not the most comfortable rides. I found very similar performance riding the Continental Terra Speed on paved, Class 1 dirt, and Class 2 spread gravel surfaces. It’s as fast as any gravel tire I’ve ridden for this review.
What surprised me was how fast it moved through deeper, looser gravel typical of Class 3 and Class 4 surfaces. Riding these 40mm tires on 23C and 25C wheels at a good clip of speed, I felt the sensation of riding more along the top of the gravel than sinking into it and requiring the side knobs to take charge, as is the case with many gravel bike tires.
Doing S-turns through the deeper, looser stuff also filled me with a good deal of confidence. Pushing it hard, I found the point where the combination of turn radius and speed would cause the wheels with these tires to slide out. It was consistent and became predictable.
That said, I had to get moving pretty fast before I’d had to come off my line. While you can’t rail the turns with the help of larger shoulder knobs as you can with the WTB Raddler on these kinds of Class 3 or 4 surfaces, I knew and could depend on the Terra Speed’s limits. And those limits were far greater on the Terra Speed than other tires that also don’t have larger shoulder knobs to keep you in the turn.
The Terra Speed’s handling on Class 1 and Class 2 surfaces is solid. It also climbs and accelerates well with no perceptible slip in its grip.
Every tire comes with trade-offs. With the Terra Speed, you give up some comfort and groad-feel, both on par with the average tire in this Small Knob group but not up to the level of some of the better ones for this characteristic, like the WTB Raddler.
All in, if I’m out for a medium-length ride on mostly paved, Class 1 and 2 surfaces with only a few short Class 3 or 4 sections where speed is my priority, I’ll put the Terra Speed to work for me above any other tire I’ve evaluated.
You can buy the Continental Terra Speed at market prices of US$55, £46, €48 by clicking these links to stores I recommend at Competitive Cyclist, BTD (BikeTiresDirect), Planet Cyclery, Merlin, Tredz (10% off w/code ITKTDZ10), and other stores I also rate highly through this link in Know’s Shop.
The Raddler brings it all together. Even with its short, small knobs running down the tire’s center, it feels like it is rolling nearly as well as a semi-slick gravel tire. This keeps you moving both on paved surfaces before and between your gravel sections and on the hard-packed Class 1 dirt and loose dirt and Class 2 spread gravel sections where its knobs give you plenty of grip for straight-ahead rolling and accelerating into and up climbs.
As the gravel got denser and deeper and the rocks and ruts got larger, I found the Raddler’s larger shoulder knobs kept me tracking in the direction I wanted to go. When climbing, descending, cornering, or doing slalom test turns on these more challenging types of surfaces, those knobs would keep me or bring me back on my line. With most other Small Knob type tires, I had to depend more on my gravel handling skills to control my back wheel slides.
The Raddler’s good grip and handling across a wider range of surfaces than most gave this groadie the confidence to charge into corners, attack going up climbs, and not let up going down them. The rubber was comfortable and gave me a good feel for the surface underneath me that closely matched what I was processing with my eyes and brain.
Overall, the Raddler’s high-performance level, dependability, and versatility make it a favorite. Add in that you can get them with tan sidewalls and that they mount, inflate, and seal relatively easily, and this tire rises to the top of my list of Small Knob gravel bike tires for paved, Class 1, and 2 surfaces with the versatility to take on more challenging surfaces when needed and give you comfort on the longest of my rides.
At a market price of US$54, £45, €50, you can buy the WTB Raddler at stores I recommend by clicking through these links to BTD (BikeTiresDirect), Performance Bike Chain Reaction Cycles, and others at Know’s Shop.
Goodyear Connector Ultimate
The Goodyear Connector Ultimate performs as well as our top-rated Continental Terra Speed in many respects. Its qualitative performance is very similar and favors a slightly more demanding mix of surfaces. But its poor rolling resistance, as measured by BRR, makes it less desirable for those looking for pure speed.
The Connector Ultimate’s low, small center strip knobs are more closely packed than most. On either side of the center, you get three rows of larger, more widely spaced knobs and a row of good-sized shoulder knobs along the tire’s outside edges.
While certainly not large or aggressive knobs, those beyond the Goodyear’s center strip are larger than the ones you find on the Conti or popular Gravel King SK.
Of course, it’s hard to predict performance based on the knob size and spacing wizardry that goes into gravel tire design. Yet the clear result of that design and the Connector Ultimate’s supple casing is a confidently performing tire. That’s especially the sense when you ride Class 1/dirt, Class 2/gravel, and Class 3/rocks surfaces, ideal for when you are doing your rides on mostly unpaved surfaces, similar to what Conor enjoys in Vermont.
It’s not slow on paved roads but doesn’t shine as the best small knob and semi-slick ones. If you ride “mixed-surface” gravel where 25% or more of your ride is on paved roads, then the Conti or Specialized S-Works Pathfinder would be a better choice.
The Connector Ultimate’s combination of tread design and supple casing gives us a ton of confidence on all but the most demanding surfaces. You also retain a great feel for the surface, something you’d give up with a wider or more aggressive big knob tire.
Setting up the Connector is also easier than most, perhaps due to its supple feel. That may have contributed to a small and quickly plugged puncture that Conor experienced, though independent lab testing tread puncture resistance is better than most gravel tires though its sidewall resistance is slightly worse. Even so, the added surface versatility, confidence, and groad feel might be more than worth the occasional puncture.
With gravel tires, you sometimes play to your weaknesses. If you’re a super-fit road rider who is less confident on dirt, you might choose a more aggressive, big knob or wider tire for a gravel event to gain more confidence on the technical sections despite how it might slow you down on the less demanding ones.
However, if you’re an adept technical rider, you might choose a small block tire like this Goodyear for a technical course. You’ll pick up speed on most of the course vs. the wider or more aggressively knobbed tire and your piloting skills will carry you through the techy bits.
Maxxis Rambler EXO TR
On paved, Class 1, and Class 2 surfaces that are this 38mm Maxxis Rambler EXO TR’s sweet spot, these tires roll confidently. On more challenging terrain, you can quickly lose control. With these tires more than others, it’s important to know what you are getting into.
You roll along smoothly on asphalt with the Ramblers underneath you. That feeling continues on Class 1 packed and loose dirt to the point where you feel you are almost cheating the surface. Its roughness is trying to slow you down, but you can accelerate, roll, corner and climb with seemingly little resistance and higher than normal speeds.
Grip is very good on these gravel bike tires when you need it to accelerate, go uphill, and corner. You quickly build confidence in what the Ramblers can do for you. While not super supple or providing a chart-topping groad feel, they are sufficiently comfortable and responsive at the right pressure for the combination of tire size, wheel inside width, and rider weight on both 25C and 23C wheels.
Outside the Rambler’s natural habitat, your confidence in them can go out the window fast. For me, it happened going down a 7% or so grade in loose, dense gravel. Let’s just say I had to pay a lot of attention to what was going on to avoid washing out. Attempting even big radius turns, my simulation of line changes on a Class 3 rock or Class 4 technical surfaces was skid city and not something I’d want to do at speed.
Fellow tester Miles has ridden the Maxxis Rambler EXO TRs a bunch and has had much success with them on well-maintained dirt roads. After riding a Vermont Overland, however, he commented that he definitely couldn’t “send it” on the final technical descent with the Ramblers on board. He still finished top-10 which speaks to how well the Ramblers (and Miles) do on a course that’s 85% Class 1 dirt or Class 2 spread gravel.
Per independent lab testing, their relative rolling resistance and puncture resistance is worse than average. That may give you the sense of rolling fast from whatever effort you’re putting out to keep up and keep you on the edge of a “breakthrough” (i.e. puncture), adding to the thrill and risk of taking these tires up to the edge of their capabilities.
If you often ride the surfaces that bring out the best in the Ramblers, you can trust these will help you ride along at a good clip. They’re available for US$54, £40, €52, through these links to recommended stores Competitive Cyclist, BTD (BikeTiresDirect), Planet Cyclery, Tredz (10% off w/code ITKTDZ10) Merlin Cycles, and more at Know’s Shop.
Zipp G40 XPLR
The Zipp G40 XPLR has been riding the gravel previously as the Course G40 and Tangente G40 before being rebranded under parent SRAM’s XPRL gravel umbrella that includes wheels, derailleurs, cassettes, bars, forks, and dropper posts from SRAM, RockShox, and Zipp.
The tire is the same; only the name and graphics have changed. And as before, it’s sold just in a 40mm width with a tan sidewall, two characteristics that are quite popular amongst gravel riders. It mounts up very easily and is a nice-looking tire.
Conor rode the G40 through the gamut of Vermont gravel conditions – mud season ruts, deep mud, smooth dirt, pavement, singletrack, and Class 4 roads (unmaintained jeep roads aka Vermont Pave). That’s a wider and more demanding range of surfaces than I can explore in my backyard.
The G40 performs best on Class 1/dirt, Class 2/gravel, and Class 3/rocks, but the way it rides on those surfaces suggests that it’s as rugged as any piece of mountain bike gear that SRAM’s RockShox MTB group might also make. Durability is difficult to review given the unpredictability of road hazards one might hit, but it didn’t puncture over a few hundred miles in the toughest of Vermont conditions and didn’t seem to show much tread wear either.
In our experience, it’s clearly a stout tire. In independent lab tests, however, the G40 puncture resistance was worse than average.
It doesn’t pack up with mud too badly except on loamy singletrack. It’s better than similar tires, such as the Panaracer Gravelking SK, which packs up quickly. The Zipp has a good but not excellent grip, tending to break traction at times when climbing.
The tradeoff of a stout, durable tire is that it often doesn’t give the speed or road and gravel feel you get with some of the more supple ones. That was our experience with the G40. When we really push the limits of our fitness and technical abilities, we don’t feel the confidence that the best tires provide.
It also doesn’t feel nearly as fast as more supple tires like the Continental Terra Speed. This is consistent with what independent rolling resistance drum tests concluded.
Bottom line, if you’re not out there pushing your limits, the G40 is a solid all-around gravel tire that’s also quiet on paved surfaces and can be ridden year-round. It’s not the best-performing tire, but you might get fewer flats riding it than others based on our experience.
Kenda Alluvium Pro
While better on some gravel roads than others, the Kenda Alluvium Pro doesn’t ever let you down.
It feels fast on paved surfaces and keeps you moving well on Class 1 hardpack and softer dirt. There’s plenty of grip navigating across the flats, in turns, going up and down these surfaces.
As you get onto the spread gravel of Class 2 roads and the more challenging looser and deeper gravel, dirt, rocks, and technical Class 3 and 4 sections, the Alluvium Pro hangs in there but doesn’t excel.
You don’t slide but can’t hold your line at speed through gravelly corners. You twist through deeper, looser dirt, gravel, and rocks going downhill but never wash out. Whether at or a few psi below the recommended pressure, it’s not uncomfortable but not a compliant ride.
In addition to the 35mm model shown here, I also tested the 40mm version. The latter measures a good deal wider (44mm wide on 25C rim at 30 psi) and heavier (488g/tire) and negotiates Class 2 surfaces a bit more confidently. As with the 35mm, the 40mm Alluvium Pro creates a rear-end wiggle at speed through deeper and looser dirt and gravel.
If you don’t demand the highest level of performance but want one tire that can get you almost anywhere at a price typically around US$70, you can order the Alluvium Pro at recommended stores REI and JensonUSA.
Panaracer Gravel King SK
The Panaracer Gravel King SK tubeless tires were a fail or meh for me on nearly every measure. They were a lot of unnecessary work to set up the first time and performed like wooden shoes on the very standard terrain and good wheels I rode them on.
The walls of the 35mm wide labeled tires I tested were paper thin. While that may contribute to their being 50 to 100 grams lighter per tire than others of the same width, it also meant they wouldn’t stand on their own enough to spread outside the wheel’s center channel, even with the force of my air compressor. To eliminate the possibility of the Gravel King and a particular wheelset not playing well together, I tried them on three different wheelsets with no luck.
Pumping these GravelKing SKs with a tube pushed the sidewalls out to the edge of the rim bed. I had to inflate them right up to their 5 bar/75 psi max pressure to get the tires to ping into the bead locks, that narrow channel on either edge of the rim bed. That’s higher than I can ever remember needing to inflate another tubeless gravel tire and, clearly, higher than you ever want to run them with the hookless rims that most modern gravel wheels use.
To run these Panaracers tubeless, I removed the tubes while maintaining tire contact with one rim wall, needed a compressor to inflate the tires against the other side, deflated, poured in the sealant through the valve, and inflated once again.
What we will do to satisfy our weight weenie obsession!
Fortunately, once the Gravel Kings were mounted and ridden a few laps, they must have reshaped somehow. I didn’t need to use a tube to inflate them on the next sets of wheels for additional testing, but I still needed a compressor with the valve core removed to get them to seat into the bead locks.
Whatever hoped-for lightweight benefit there might be didn’t materialize in the tire’s actual performance. The moderately-sized square block center tread suggests these are not intended for paved or Class 1 hard-pack dirt surfaces. My experience bears that out. They felt leaden and very slow.
Unfortunately, the ride got worse on Class 2 gravel and softer dirt that I’d thought would be their sweet spot. The tires didn’t feel very supple in hand and on these surfaces, and unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much groad feel. While they accelerated and stopped well, in between, they ping-ponged around through consistent gravel and were really wild in the deeper stuff.
Since the GravelKing SK tires enjoy “rock star” status in the gravel tire world, I was as surprised to find this poor level of performance in my testing as you probably are reading about it. To see if I was missing out on something, I tried them at different pressures on alloy and carbon wheels of different inside rim widths but couldn’t find a combination that allowed them to deliver great or even passing-grade performance. I didn’t feel confident going through corners at top speed, they didn’t track through softer dirt, sand, or deep gravel with any certainty, and it was a thrill a minute just going downhill through standard Class 2 gravel.
I couldn’t imagine riding them on Class 3 larger, variable-shaped gravel, partially exposed rocks, and tire trenches unless I wanted to play the role of a bucking bronco rider.
Perhaps I had the wrong width. Panaracer sells the 700c version of these tires in 32mm through 50mm widths. These 35mm ones actually measured between 37mm to 38mm depending on rim size and tire pressure. So they are in the same size neighborhood as others I’ve compared them to for this review.
Or perhaps I had them over-inflated. At between 30 and 32 psi, depending on whether I had them mounted on the 25C alloy or 23C carbon wheelset, I was inflating them at the recommended pressure for the combination of their actual tire width, the rim sizes, and my body weight (145-150lbs) to the same pressure as other tires in this category of similar actual width.
In search of more comfort and better overall performance from these tires, I tried them at 26 and 28 psi. While only a few pounds of pressure less, reducing the pressure by 2 to 6 psi on a gravel tire is a big drop.
At around that pressure, I did find comfort but no better performance. They were slow on paved and hard-pack dirt surfaces. Undoubtedly higher rolling resistance at lower pressure but perhaps fewer impedance losses from my bike and body bouncing around?
Yet, even at this more comfortable level, they felt sluggish in the softer dirt, swam left and right through deeper gravel, skidded rather than carved turns, and were unpredictable going downhill on anything other than consistent, hard-pack surfaces.
While once well-regarded, the GravelKing SKs didn’t perform well in my comparative testing on any of the criteria that matters most shown in my chart below against any of the tires I’ve reviewed and recommended above.
They sell for a relatively low market price of US$37, £33, €38 (maybe that’s part of the attraction?), and are available from stores I recommend by clicking through these links to Competitive Cyclist, BTD (BikeTiresDirect), Planet Cyclery, Tredz 10% off w/code ITKTDZ10, Merlin, Wiggle, and others at Know’s Shop.
BIG KNOB GRAVEL TIRE REVIEWS
In this section, we evaluate Big Knob tires best suited for gravel rides on Class 3 and 4 surfaces. Big knob tires can also be ridden on paved and Class 1 and 2 surfaces though some will be at a speed disadvantage to slick or small knob tires.
In addition to the tires reviewed below, we’re currently test-riding the Continental Terra Hardpack.
Rene Herse Hurricane Ridge
The 42mm wide Rene Herse Hurricane Ridge has been a staple in Conor’s tire rotation ever since buying a proper “gravel” bike several seasons ago. He decided to try it after being very positively impressed by the rolling resistance, bite, and tracking of Rene Herse’s first big knob tire, the 38mm wide Steilacoom, that he used for his cyclocross racing.
While the tire names are different, the Steilacoom and Hurricane Ridge are merely different widths of the same tire. Both of these tires, as well as all of the other tires in Rene Herse’s tire product line, are offered in four casing options – Endurance Plus, Endurance, Standard, and Extralight. From one casing option to the next in that progression, the tire’s rolling resistance, grip, and weight get better while puncture resistance gets worse.
Conor experienced sidewall cuts while riding CX with the Standard casing Steilacoom. Since the type of gravel you really want a Big Knob tire like the Hurricane Ridge for has lots of rocks and sidewall hazards – think Vermont Overland and class 4 roads – he opted for the Endurance casing with the 42mm wide Hurricane Ridge.
That said, the Endurance casing is more expensive than the Standard casing model and heavier. Drum tests also show it to have higher rolling resistance. With that in mind, the Standard casing version would be a reasonable choice if you ride these tires on less challenging gravel surfaces or are more tolerant of occasional flats than most on Class 3 and 4 surfaces where these and other Big Knob tires perform best.
From Conor’s riding experience, you don’t add much rolling resistance over long stretches of smooth dirt and paved roads by going with the Endurance casing model of the Hurricane Ridge. You do hear a little bit of road buzz, and they do feel slow on steep paved climbs.
But, the grip you feel from these tires, and the confidence you get from the added puncture protection allows you to really send it on challenging terrain and surfaces. You appreciate this not just with gnarly Class 4 roads but also on dry, loose surfaces and prevalent washboard conditions, even on maintained dirt and gravel roads.
The Hurricane Ridge tires are also the gold standard for riding in the mud though he’s found the newer Tufo Gravel Swampero performs just as well in sloppy conditions.
The Endurance casing Hurricane Ridge sells for US$92 while the Standard casing is US$78, both available direct from Rene Herse.
Tufo Gravel Swampero
When you first look at its big knobs and width options, you’d think that the Tufo Gravel Swampero tires are best suited for Class 3 and 4 gravel and mud season, along with those like the Rene Herse family of knobby tires starting with the Hurricane Ridge and its wider siblings.
The 40mm Swampero measures just a couple of millimeters narrower than the Hurricane Ridge Standard casing model but is nearly 100 grams lighter per tire. During our testing, they felt sufficiently robust on the most demanding surfaces while not overly built. Indeed, independent testing shows the Swampero sidewall puncture resistance to be a good deal better than that of Rene Herse Endurance casing tires while their tread puncture resistance is about average.
Conor’s experience riding them during the mud season and on Vermont’s most challenging terrain and gravel surfaces showed the Swamperos allowed him to ride a bit faster with a similarly good feel for the dirt and gravel than the Hurricane Ridge. While the Hurricane Ridge gives you slightly more confidence when cornering, it’s more because they are exceptional among gravel tires when leaning them over rather than any issues with the Swampero.
And true to this Tufo tire’s name, the Swampero sheds mud extremely well, perhaps a touch better than the Hurricane Ridge, despite the relatively narrow spacing between the Swampero’s tall knobs.
On paved and smooth dirt Class 1 surfaces, they do generate a small amount of road buzz, but noticeably less than the Rene Herse. Our experience on these surfaces convinced us that these are fast-rolling tires. Indeed, drum tests confirmed this and showed that the big knob Swampero is as fast as semi-slick tires like the Specialized S-Works Pathfinder and several of the small knob ones, though not as fast as Tufo’s small knob Thundero tires.
In addition to many training and group ride miles Conor put on the Swampero, he also rode them on a couple of fast “race / not a race” gravel events in mixed to dry conditions. Their versatility really shined in these situations. They gripped well on downhills and corners on Class 1 through 4 gravel.
The wear resistance of the Tufo Swampero also seems excellent. Based on the miles we’ve put on these tires, I would expect them to last a long time. Sometimes this comes at the expense of traction, as grippy tires tend to wear faster. But with the knob shape of these tires, neither Conor nor I had any complaints about their traction.
Bottom line, this is an exceptional all-around gravel tire that gives you a lot of confidence on a loose, rough, and muddy track while not giving up much at all in dry, fast conditions on any paved or gravel surface.
Conor, a loyal fan and owner of a range of Rene Herse knobby and file tread tires of different widths, liked the Swampero tires so much that after finishing his testing of these Tufos, he bought a set in the 44mm width. They’re only 20g more per tire than the 40mm version and, if your bike has the clearance, he’s generally found that wider is better. He’s planning to use them on all surfaces throughout the season.
The Tufo Swampero sells for US$68, €50, and is available at this link to BTD (BikeTiresDirect).
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Thanks, and enjoy your rides safely! Cheers, Steve