If you ride a production (read, mainstream) gravel or adventure bike there’s a good chance that it came equipped with 700C wheels and tires. While the debate over optimum tire width for gravel rages on, it’s generally acknowledged that 40 millimeters is the cutoff before one enters into monster cross territory. And just like gravel bikes themselves, tires designed for gravel and adventure riding are often open to interpretation.
I spent the past couple of months testing 700×40 versions of Kenda‘s Flintridge Pro, the Maxxis Rambler and Re-Fuse, and Panaracer‘s Gravelking SK. Each of the tires saw a mix of recreational and utility riding on terrain that included pavement, dirt, and of course, gravel. Thanks to Colorado’s ever changing weather, I also experienced first hand how the tires handled on snow and ice.
Tubeless road tires may be lagging behind their mountain counterparts, but these four models confirm that tubeless compatibility has become a must-have feature for gravel use. As with tubeless MTB tires, ride quality, comfort, and traction improved when the tires were ridden sans tubes. I tested each tire with various sealants–including Caffélatex and Orange Seal–and didn’t encounter any incompatibilities (such as blistering or delamination).
|Kenda Flintridge Pro||40.4||479||30-50||$59.99|
|Panaracer Gravelking SK||40.7||486||60||$49.99|
To insure consistent measurements, each tire was inflated to the maximum pressure and left for 72 hours. Tires were then inflated to 50 psi and the cross sections measured at the tire’s widest point. All measurements were taken using the same alloy rim with an internal width of 19.3 millimeters. Weights are the average of two sample tires using Feedback Sports‘ Summit digital scale.
Named for the Flint Ridge hills of Kansas (home of the Dirty Kanza 200), Kenda’s Flintridge Pro is as tough as its namesake. The tightly-packed tread is smooth and quiet on pavement, but still offers the necessary traction on hardpack dirt and gravel. Measuring a plump 40.4 millimeters, the 120 TPI casing provides excellent flotation and cushioning–if you drop the pressure a few pounds. The Flintridges’ sidewalls are on the stiff side, so I found myself gravitating towards the lower end of the tires’ 30-50 PSI range. Kenda specs the Flintridge Pro with the company’s DTC dual-durometer tread (60A center, 50A side), but to be honest, I couldn’t detect any improvement in cornering traction compared to similar, single-compound tires.
Maxxis classifies the Rambler as a gravel and dirt road racing tire, and I’d have to say they’re dead-on. First, the Rambler is seriously light. Tipping the scale at 378 grams, it’s 100-147 grams lighter than the other tires in this roundup. That light weight, however, comes (partially) at the expense of air volume. The Rambler’s casing measures only 38.2 millimeters, but even with the tires’ reduced width, the ride quality doesn’t suffer. Of all the tires I tested, the Rambler had the most supple sidewalls. If you haven’t made the jump to tubeless, this is one tire where running inner tubes doesn’t significantly hamper performance and comfort (even with the EXO sidewalls‘ added protection).
Remember what I said about gravel and adventure tires being open to interpretation? Well, Maxxis’ Re-Fuse proves that dirt and gravel tires don’t always need knobby treads. Although the Re-Fuse’s diamond-knurled tread looks like what you’d find on a traditional road tire, it’s surprisingly capable off-road when you drop the pressure. Whether you’re riding dirt or pavement, though, it’s best to take the Re-Fuse’s 75 PSI rating with a grain of salt. For mixed-surface rides I typically ran them at 30 PSI front and 40 PSI rear. For extra durability, Maxxis specs the company’s MaxxShield protection, which combines the company’s SilkShield bead-to-bead protection with a K2 layer. The result is a casing that’s stiffer than some high-performance tires, but extremely resistant to sidewall cuts and punctures.
Although the other tires in this roundup are relatively new offerings, Panaracer’s Gravelking has been available in various configurations since 2014. The 700×40 SK version that I tested features the same knobby tread found on the company’s 700×32 model, as well as tubeless-compatible beads and casings. Like its narrower counterparts, the SK’s supple casing offers a smooth, comfortable ride. With its ample 40.8 millimeter width (and tall profile), there’s plenty of rim protection for roots, rocks, as well as broken pavement. The tires’ small center knobs provide good traction on hardpack dirt, but I noticed a slight dead spot between the first and second row of side knobs (although you have to lean the tire over pretty far to feel it).
It’s great to see manufacturers offering more gravel and adventure tires–especially tubeless compatible models. So which is the best tire for you? Best is a pretty subjective, and it all depends on your requirements. If you value dirt and gravel performance, but still want a smooth ride on pavement, check out the Kenda Flintridge Pro or Panaracer Gravelking SK. For mixed-terrain riding where knobbies aren’t required, I recommend Maxxis’ Re-Fuse. And if you’re looking for a competition-worthy knobby, consider the Maxxis Rambler (especially if your frame/fork don’t have clearance for bigger rubber).