Gravel Wheel & Tire Trends
After spending three days perusing booths at the 2019 Sea Otter Classic, I can say without hesitation that it’s a very good time to be a (gravel) tire nerd. Nearly every tire manufacturer–both big and small–now offers (or will be offering) dedicated gravel tires. But it’s not just tire companies that are sliding into the gravel space. Rim and wheel vendors are responding to gravel riders’ needs with dedicated models designed for mixed-surface use.
Early gravel tires were often scaled-up ‘cross tires or downsized MTB models. Those tires weren’t necessarily bad, but they tended to be slow rolling on pavement or hardpack dirt roads. While tires with aggressive, widely spaced knobs make sense for loamy or loose conditions, they’re overkill for less demanding terrain. Realizing that many riders spend as much–if not more–time on pavement, designers have responded with tread patterns that combine elements of traditional road tires with low-profile, tightly spaced side elements for added traction when cornering on gravel and dirt (without exhibiting the dreaded knob squirm on pavement)
Tread patterns aren’t the only area where manufacturers are spending their R&D dollars. While tubeless compatibility has become de rigueur, casings are being refined for the more demanding conditions gravel riders often experience. If you’ve ever suffered a casing failure in the wild, you’ll appreciate the beefed-up casing options from companies such as Kenda, Teravail, and WTB. We’re also seeing manu’s moving away from all-black color schemes and offering tan/skin-wall versions of their gravel models. Taking color coordination to the next level, Panaracer is offering limited edition versions of their GravelKing in a rainbow of tread and sidewall colors.
A few short years ago, gravel and all-road wheels mimicked their narrow, pavement-only siblings. Now that higher-volume tires have become the preferred platform for mixed-surface riding, however, gravel rims are gaining width in order to better support the newer, fatter tires. Most of the bespoke gravel wheels utilize 23-25 mm (internal width) rims, but a few companies are opting for even wider hoops. Mavic, who has generally been conservative when it comes to rim width, debuted their Allroad Pro SL+ carbon wheelset which boasts a 26 mm internal width. And although the 650B/road-plus platform continues to dominate, 700C wheels and tires are anything but dead (especially for riders who don’t want–or need–the added volume of road-plus wheels).