Summary: Slicks? For gravel? YES.
I labored over my opening line because I was anxious to establish cred right away–that I’m an experienced, observant rider and gravel influencer… um, what? I’m totally not! I realized that, as a newer gravel rider and gear geek myself, I’d rather read a review from someone who was like me. And maybe others would, too.
When my friends at GRAVELBIKE asked, “You have a Niner, right? Can it take a 42?” I said, “Sure!” because I’d spent a whole ten minutes reviewing my own bike’s specs on the Niner website and was relatively sure I knew what I was agreeing to.
Opening up the box, the Ramparts looked huge and slick! Slick gravel tires? Sounds … crazy? Except just the previous week I’d heard my friend Scott talking about this very creature. I was definitely intrigued. One wrinkle–just a few days earlier I’d had new tires set up for Dirty Kanza, and I try not to break the don’t introduce anything new on race day rule. Kanza and that sick flint? I wasn’t going to take untested tires out there.
After Kanza, I pulled out the Ramparts for a closer look. I asked a friend with a basement shop if I could borrow his bike stand and compressor, but I still had a problem: I’d never set up tires tubeless before. It’s true, I admit it: I’ve been a woman who pays for it. I studied the tires and asked a few friends who’d converted conventional tires to tubeless and it wasn’t easing my anxiety. I kept riding my Maxxis Ramblers, which have served me very well, and kept thinking about the Teravails. Meanwhile, I reached out to Ponderosa Cyclery owner Vince Asta for a tutorial. Vince and Jessica shared the process, recommended a few go-to products and tools, and answered my many questions with patience and humor. Biggest benefit: I saw with my own eyes that it was not only possible, but likely that I could set up the tires using a floor pump and forego the air compressor all together. I was pretty excited about this because I had vivid visions of overfilling the tires and having one explode off the rim, slinging goop in my face and all over the walls of my friend’s basement.
With RAGBRAI approaching, I planned to ride 3-4 days of pavement through Iowa and find some gravel on the side if I could. This would be my 14th appearance at RAGBRAI, with the last several riding my steel Surly Crosscheck. Roadies may sneer, but I love that fucking bike. I load up my pannier with snacks, supplies, and six-packs (or, on bagger years, with sleeping bag, tent, and camping gear) and I think most of us agree that RAGBRAI is definitely not a race.
The point is, here was another event, and I was still not testing these new tires. So I posted my conundrum in a group bike chat with friends, comparing my Surly to a dependable wife and the Niner with slicks to a hot new girlfriend. The response was universal: take the hot girlfriend.
If you’ve ever read my blogs, you know I have a terrible habit of burying the lede. And here I am 500-plus words into this review, finally telling you how smoothly the install went and how much I enjoy riding these tires.
I flipped the bike over rather than using the stand–it’s the way I’ve changed every tube and tire, and I was more comfortable sticking to what I knew. I got the Ramblers off without issue and set them carefully aside. They’d only been installed a month earlier; the sealant was still liquid, pooled in the bottom of each tire. Could I recycle it? Hmm. Following Vince’s advice of placing the tires around one edge of the rim, I decided to pour the sealant from the Maxxis tires into the Ramparts. This is a pretty dumb idea because when trying to get the second edge of the tire into the rim, you are then juggling to keep the wheel vertical and prevent that sealant from spilling out. Probably this would have been highly entertaining to an observer–an observer not easily offended by a few choice epithets–so I’m glad I was alone.
Ignoring Vince’s advice to use only my fingers to get the tires off or to seat that second edge of the tire. My hands simply aren’t strong enough. To pull the tire into the rim I needed my trusty Silca tire lever–I think I would have broken a plastic lever. This is nothing against the tire, and Vince explained his reasoning, which is sound: using a lever to jam the tire in the rim provides the opportunity to tear the rim tape, and that rim tape needs to be well-sealed. Vince tip: once the tire is in, push your thumb in the center of the tire and repeat all around the tire to help center and seat it in the rim.
Okay, moment of truth #1, would I hear those lovely pops using only a trusty hand pump? Yes I would. I almost wept. A soft popopop followed by two loud cracks as I pumped and the tire was on. I repeated the process with the other tire and got both wheels back on the bike. I spun the wheels and observed no leaks = my face remained slime-free.
Moment of truth #2, would they hold on a brief ride? Yes they would. Do you remember the first time you changed the oil in you car? It felt like that. I was proud and elated and grateful that the tires were so very easy to install for an absolute beginner.
Moment of truth #3, RAGBRAI. Was I really going to take these barely-tested tires out for a few hundred miles among 20,000 of my closest friends? Yep I was. And I had not a single issue. I pumped them up hard and rode pavement. I let out a little air and rode pavement in the rain (though was extremely cautious on turns), I let out a little more and rode short sections of crushed rock. In every case, what I felt was a cushiony comfort that I’ve never ridden before, not even on the fat bike at 7 psi. Once back from RAGBRAI, I continued to ride socially on pavement and was reluctant to return to my wife, the Surly. The Niner on Ramparts was just too comfortable.
Next up was a more interesting test: a 20-miler of Nebraska gravel hills and back roads. I’m going to admit right here that I don’t consistently measure psi. I squeeze. Hard for pavement, a bit of squish for gravel, a bit more for MMR (Minimum Maintenance Road), sand, mud, and/or poor conditions. The day was hot and dry, as were the roads, but I knew I had at least one section of freshly-dumped crushed rock, plus I’d be revisiting the site of June 2018’s terrible crash. Decision: a bit more squish. I took the bike out near the Linoma lighthouse and rode south from there. I felt confident through the flat section of fresh rock, riding slightly wider tires does that! I rode up and down the hills of Pflug road past the glass chapel (Holy Family Shrine) and on up to Highway 31, where I turned around. One question I’d had with the slicks was whether I’d be able to get going again in loose rock if I stopped on an ascent. I stopped a few times and it wasn’t really an issue, but the road surface had plenty of hard-baked dirt. I made a note to try it again on a looser surface.
I am slightly more hesitant hurtling head-first down hills since my crash… but only slightly. I’d set these up myself. Was I confident enough in my work to really let ‘er rip coming back on Pflug? The three hills between the highway and the chapel are steep enough that coming north, you can pick up enough speed to pop right up the ups, no pedaling needed–if you’re willing to let the bike have her head. Was I? I was! Minimal handling needed, I pointed her nose toward the bottom and off we went! I have a mantra I’ve been known to chant when starting a steep descent; The path is clear and the bike knows the way, the path is clear and the bike knows the way. But there also might have been a hollered, YAHOOOO! or two heard by local farmers. Bombing down hills is FUN. The ride was comfortable and I had all the speed I needed.
The final hill down from the chapel to the 90-degree turn west I took slowly, as I have since I wiped out there in 2018. Coincidentally, it was the same time of day–5 PM–and that same older couple in their same old truck was closing the gate at the chapel parking lot. They definitely watched me and I wondered if they recognized me from that sunny June evening a year ago. That’s a story for another day, but suffice to say the tires handled my slow-ass turn just fine. The rest of my ride was relatively flat as I continued on to a picnic by the river. The Ramparts rolled fast and smooth and even through sections rutted by farm equipment I felt noticeably less impact to my body than on the Ramblers. Something I didn’t expect was for my hands and arms to be less sore. I suffer from neuropathy and am typically fighting off numbness within the first several miles, regardless of how I’ve adjusted bike geometry. Thanks to several surgeries (blah blah, cancer, blah blah) I simply won’t ever have the core muscles that could help keep all the weight off my hands. (Why do I mention this? Because 1: there are plenty of riders out there who don’t know strengthening the core helps with numb hands; and 2: plenty of riders need tips other than, strengthen your core. Huh–could plusher tires be part of the answer?
TIME FOR THE SHOW. You’ve got to be wondering if I’m ever going to get these skids out for a real ride. Oh yes I did. I lined them up at Schillingbridge Brewery last weekend for Gravel Worlds. And about 17 hours after that 6 AM start, I pulled the plug at just over 121 miles. We’re not going to talk about why a person who rides at a pace of 7 mph is riding Gravel Worlds (because it’s there?) we’re going to talk about the dude with the guitar who noticed these tires at Branched Oak Farm, otherwise known as Checkpoint 1.
“Are those Teravails? Are those slicks? Are those new? What do you think? Are they, like, plush? Have you tried them in mud? What about loose gravel? Any issues stopping uphill?” So that was fun. I appreciated that he asked the same questions I’d had–almost to the letter. My answers: Yes, yes, yes, I think I love them, yes, not yet, and — about that loose gravel….
These tires are amazing and will be my go-to tires for hard-packed conditions and dry gravel. Uphill loose gravel or sand is a challenge, especially if one has to stop mid-way. The Denton Wall on the Gravel Worlds course is steep and sandy. I started up but almost immediately dismounted and walked. A stronger rider with better handling skills and some momentum may have been to maintain a slow and steady pace in uphill sand but for me, it was impossible.
GW conditions were ideal this year (2019) and even though I walked up the Denton Wall, there were zero moments I regretted riding these tires. I was more comfortable at mile 100 of GW than I was at mile 60 of Dirty Kanza with all other equipment and gear being equal and in similar conditions. Were the tires the difference? It certainly wasn’t that I trained a lot more between races, because I didn’t.
The GW course is hilly, but other than a few short sections, it really wasn’t technical. Even the MMR sections were mostly dry and totally rideable (remember, I was at the very back of the pack–the MMRs had had a chance to dry out in the sun from the overnight rain). I found myself thinking of Kanza and the flinty road surface and frequent crevasses, boulders, occasional cattle guard. How would these supple and comfortable tires fare? Can a review be complete before this experiment?
One more test: I rode out just for a short jaunt yesterday, once again leaving my poor Surly wife in the stable and taking out the Niner girlfriend. I was over on the Iowa side of the BK bridge riding on the Riverside trail and decided to go down into the (closed, flooded and mudded-out) casino parking garage. Here I had the opportunity to ride in deep sand and honestly, I had no idea I was even in deep sand until I stopped pedaling and put a foot down to look at the river. The tires handled beautifully, almost floating over the sand as long as I kept moving. It was flat, but there were some fun piled up sections of sand along the edges of the parking lot where I thought I could ride without ticking off any of the workers who’d been busy bulldozing giant mountains of mud left behind by that spring’s extreme and devastating floods.
It wasn’t flooding on my mind as I pedaled back to Omaha, but flint. How soon could I steal away to Emporia and test these tires or, more likely, their “durable” sisters, on the flint hills of Kansas?
In the meantime, I’m calling the Teravail Rampart ALL-ROAD Light & Supple (black with tan sidewall) tires a 10/10 for pavement and for hard-packed, dry conditions and an 8/10 for crushed rock and loose gravel damp or dry. I’m not going to comment on these tires in wet and muddy conditions. Frankly, I think it would be a struggle with no tread. I’ll be planning a weekend in Emporia this fall where I’ll try out the Rampart ALL-ROAD Durable version (all black.) Until then, for newer and more experienced riders, I encourage you to give slicks a try on gravel. Your body will thank you.
Ann Gentle is a hike chick, bike chick, step-up-to-the-mic chick who wrote about kicking cancer’s ass in the Ann Gentle’s Cancer Show blog on CaringBridge and currently writes about returning to biking in a changed body and reclaiming her life in the Go! blog hosted (for now) by Blogger. She’s here to affirm that anyone of any size can ride a bike and have a damn good time. Follow her on Twitter @huckle3erry or read the active blog at https://gogulf.blogspot.com/
Disclosure: Teravail provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.