First impressions: Panaracer Gravel King SK tires, 700C x 38 mm

After having ridden at my familiar southern stomping grounds for years, it’s funny that I had never properly discovered the hidden trail network that ran through it and clandestinely intersected the roads I’d spent so much time on. An opportunity to ride with folks who knew about these ribbons of singletrack finally popped up, and so I felt I needed to prepare for it.

That preparation means more suitable rubber. As good as my American Classic Timekeepers are, they simply aren’t cut out for taking on trails. With my last set of knobby tires long since disintegrated, and with so many more options available in light of the gravel cycling boom, I thought I should sample one of them to get my trail-riding feet wet again.

With my budget a little tight and me unwilling to spend obscene amounts on tires I might not end up using frequently, I went with Panaracer’s long-running Gravel King SKs. I got my pair from online seller/importer Cycle Meeting for PhP3,800, or about PhP1,900 (~US$35) apiece, which is not too shabby considering many other gravel tire options go for PhP4,000 on their own. The 700C x 38 mm advertised size (which, strangely, differs from the ISO/ETRTO listed size of “40-622”) should fit into Hyro’s frame and fork. These newer gravel tires seem to have better reconciled the differing demands of riding on the road and grip on the rough stuff, although due to the word “gravel” really meaning different surfaces to different people and locations, no single tire will work for everyone’s riding as it’s all points on a fairly wide spectrum.

This is not my first dance with Panaracer rubber. Previously I had a pair of Fairweather For Traveller tires, which they produced in collaboration with Tokyo bike shop Blue Lug, and are basically the herringbone-tread Gravel King slick tires in disguise. These, however, are tubeless compatible, and have a tread pattern made up of square knobs and ridges – hence the “SK” designation, to differentiate them from the four other tread patterns in the Gravel King lineup.

True to Panaracer’s reputation and my previous experience, these tires were a pain to mount to my wheels and set up tubeless. Like the Fairweather tires before them, the SKs had tough, stubborn beads that made hoiking them over my rims a chore – slightly less so than the Fairweathers, but nowhere near as easy as with the Timekeepers. Worse, when they were finally inside the rim bed, they were a baggy fit, which undermined their tubeless set-up capability. I charged up my Bontrager Flash Charger pump to 160 psi about four or five times to seat them, only to be greeted with just a hiss of leaking air. When the sweet pops of success came, it was only after I had laid down five or six layers of tubeless rim tape, as opposed to the two or three the Timekeepers needed. As this is only my second rodeo with tubeless bike tires, this added setup length may have been due to the much larger volume on these 38 mm rubbers.

Fresh Orange Seal Endurance sealant injected and 42 psi of air pumped in, I rode them around the village for two laps to saturate the SKs’ tire carcasses with sealant, and to get a few ride impressions on pavement.

Hyro’s original footwear: Schwalbe Super Swan 700C x 35 mm mud knobbies. Photo circa 2016

For my ride impressions to have sufficient context, I feel like I have to make comparisons with Hyro’s original tires. They were Schwalbe Super Swan 700C x 35 mm knobbies meant for use in the mud – and they themselves are simply a narrow-carcass variant of the Rocket Ron mountain bike tire. Hyro is a cyclocross bike, after all – essentially the prototypical gravel bike when the gravel bike category was just a pipe dream.

In the few times I rode them on pavement and asphalt, they were not my favorite. The steam-roller effect of the larger tire size was an interesting novelty compared to the 28 mm slicks I usually ride, simply rolling over ruts and road acne, but everything else about the Super Swans was terrible away from the trails. Steering response felt sluggish and ponderous, and the wide voids in between tread blocks meant I couldn’t really lean into turns and shift my weight very well. Inertia from a standing start was rather bad, too. Away from the mud, the Super Swans gave Hyro a distinctly “straight and upright is best” riding style that felt very alien to me and my roadie predilections.

By comparison, the SKs benefit from almost ten years of gravel tire refinement over the Super Swans, and they feel like a much better dual-purpose tire. The design trend towards a dense center tread, combined with more aggressive lugs toward the tread shoulders, makes for much better steering response on the street. Tubeless tire technology finally delivers on the promises the Super Swan’s 35 mm width simply hinted at; where those tires couldn’t be run below 60 psi, at 42 psi the SKs deliver a distinctly more balloon-like cushiony ride quality.

The jury’s out on how much heavier these will be to spin up, as the SK’s much larger carcass compared to a 28 mm slick also means the whole bike has larger tire circumference and is effectively geared harder like-for-like. It also remains to be seen how well these tires will behave on that long-hidden singletrack. I’ll have two upcoming rides to see for myself. In the meantime, I am mildly impressed so far.

From scratch

Over the years I’ve had this blog up and running, I guess one could say I’ve continuously engaged in an equipment and technological arms race with myself. As I steadily got better as a rider, my investment in ever-shinier new things and baubles kept escalating, perhaps culminating ultimately in the preparation for my 2022 Subic-Masinloc-Subic audax return.

It was a good run, and I got a lot of content out of it, but this kind of spending has also slowly become unsustainable. Not on my day job’s salary, and not on the reputation this website has. Some of you may think that I get free stuff or review samples regularly, but the reality is I pay for 99% of what I write about here.

I felt like hitting a reset button.

That came from a former colleague of mine, Troy, who lived just down the street from me and had finally gotten a bicycle of his own. He was excited to get pedaling, but our immediate vicinity didn’t offer the space nor the terrain variety to satisfy his budding riding tastes, and venturing out into the roads leading to the city was a challenge too far for a relative novice.

So I invited him to ride around my usual stomping grounds down south. Lots of room, good variety of terrain, and relatively safe for a cycling newbie. Troy was delighted, finally able to stretch his cycling legs and push man and machine farther. Riding a bicycle in the Philippines is a lot about building confidence in your abilities and your equipment, and this ride was a good opportunity for both.

It was an easy ride for me as I spent the morning leading my friend and showing him around the premises. However, it was also exactly what I needed. Troy’s second-hand hardtail mountain bike barely had anything on it: plastic flat pedals, no water bottle cages, no saddle bag for spares, no bike computer, no sensors, no power meter, and no lights. Yet it successfully reminded me that you don’t really need all that much to have fun on a bike ride.

Sometimes all one needs is to stop being jaded and go back to basics.

Shake-up

Admittedly, the past couple of years have been pretty heavy on product reviews around here. Early on, I made the December 200 km audax redux my main priority, and so I’ve done the equivalent of throwing money at it to increase the odds of my preparation and its successful completion.

Life circumstances are going to change this pattern for 2023. Suffice it to say, in the coming year, I don’t expect to have the same capacity to keep purchasing and testing new things as before. Pretty much everything I’ve written about on this blog – apart from the very infrequent review sample that comes my way – is stuff I’ve paid for with my own money. It’s not the most sustainable thing to do in an age where written blogs like this are arguably a relic of the past, video publishing platforms like YouTube and TikTok are all the rage, and crowdfunding or sponsorships are the way forward for many a content creator.

Best year in cycling I’ve had in a while, only second to 2015

Admittedly, too, the whole cycle of purchasing and evaluating new product, no matter how good it is, can get repetitive and boring if you do it regularly enough.

As much as I would like to write more about outdoor rides…I don’t expect to have much spare time for those either. Circumstances will dictate I spend whatever spare time I have to ride be done indoors on the trainer.

That said, I will still be around. There remain stories to be told from my saddle, although they may change in the coming months. I simply hope you still find it worth your while to hold my befendered back wheel.

Happy holidays, everyone, and thank you for your patronage.