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.
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.