Gripping terrain, managing rolling resistance, providing suspension over the bumps, and resisting damage when encountering rocks. Tires bear quite a lot of responsibility in getting you from start to finish with speed. Given the varied and diverse terrain of the course, selecting just the right option isn’t exactly an easy choice.
While trying to determine this myself, personally I’ve been back and forth between two options. The first being My Mosaic GT-1 set up with 700x32c all-road tires. Specifically the Panaracer Gravel King slick. The other being my Open WIDE with a big knobby high volume dirt tire — a René Herse Hurricane Ridge 700x42c out back and Oracle Ridge 700x48c up front. Both options have fared well on different sections of the course, but which will prevail as the ultimate choice?
New to the world of gravel? Check out our gravel tire buyers guide here.
The All-Road Thick Slick
A while back, I started running my Mosaic GT-1 as a fat tire road bike with various slick tires in the 32-36c range. Even on days when I plan to set off for a proper road ride, I can’t seem to avoid finding myself on at least one section of dirt, so a traditional 23-28c road tire just wasn't cutting it for my riding. More and more, I’ve been pushing my comfort zones of what these thick slicks can do in the dirt, and to my surprise they’ve really been quite capable.
Given that, I thought they’d make a prime contender for an uphill dirt time trial. Especially on the early stretches of the course heading up Deer Park, where the dirt is relatively smooth, they seemed like a sound choice. The thing is, the trail throws a few curve balls at you. For one, a number of sections get a bit off camber in a few places. Without any knobs, maintaining balance and holding a line gets pretty tricky, especially if there's been any rain. On top of that, the water management rocks take some careful thought to get through without bottoming out the tire. Crossable, sure, but not with the reckless abandon a bigger gravel tire can afford you. But up on the flatter and rolling sections of the stage, they do ride quite confidently and feel plenty fast.
As the course turns onto Railroad Grade, the slicks actually proved to feel a bit more suitable. Even though the pitch increases, the trail is a bit smoother, the dirt has a bit more grip, and it felt easier to just focus on the effort. Finally at the top, there’s no questions the thinner and lighter tires shine on the paved road.
The High Volume Knobbies
While the lighter weight slicks did prove to have their challenges, is it worth it to go for extra weight and rubber of a full on gravel tire? Switching over to my Open, I set out to find out. Riding down the road, they indeed feel pretty sluggish, but getting out on course with the 42/48c Réne Herse tires ended up providing an entirely different experience. Out of the gate, navigating the off camber stretches of Deer Park took far less focus and effort. And those rock patches? I was able to plow through them at speed without giving a second thought.
Up on the flatter sections, where you can really open up and pick up some speed, the heft of the bigger tires reveals itself and the grip of the tread was a bit less essential. Slower? Marginally, but not decisively so.
Moving to the final dirt stretch, the big tires continued to prove their value. Even though the slick tires have felt fine on the Railroad ascent, the extra cushion of the 42s really float up the trail with just a bit more ease. Less bouncing, more hammering, effective suspension is real.
So what am I going to run to put down my fastest time? The light and speedy slicks or the burly grippy knobs? While the slicks are up to the task, and in some places are even favorable, at the end of the day I feel the full on dirt tire is the ultimate choice to get the job down. Even though they’re heavier and in some cases roll slower, the ability to simply think less and pedal harder is, for me anyway, unquestionable the way to go. Of course, many factors are at play, and your mileage may vary—the rest of your bike, your riding style and personal strengths, and of course the weather on the day. For me though, it’s gonna be the big René Herse tires.