Some Thoughts On Tires for Gravel

One of the problems with riding a lot of miles is that I go through a lot of tires.  Tires aren’t cheap and if I’m not careful, I find that I can spend as much on bike tires as car tires.  This makes no sense to me, but it is what it is.

So it is with a certain amount of dread that I go shopping for new tread.  I’m not a gear junkie or a bike snob, so I typically head straight for the clearance rack. As you might expect, I’ve made some mistakes but other purchases have resulted in pleasant surprises.   I can’t say that I’ve ever found a tire I liked well enough to want to buy again, that is, until now.

I needed new rubber for the Salsa Fargo I plan to take to Nebraska next month.  I’m riding the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile unsupported gravel grinder that promises to push some boundaries a little further out for me.  That’s good.  Unsupported means that I’ll be on my own and while I understand that eastern Nebraska is a far cry from the Australian Outback, it is somewhat remote.  I’d rather not be changing tires on the side of a dusty road some sixty miles from the finish while watching the sun melt gently into the southwestern horizon.  Mid-October can be quite chilly when the sun sets in these parts.

So after putting more effort into tire research than I put into my entire senior year of college, I purchased a pair of Vittoria Mezcals.   The Mezcal is a 29″ x 2.25″  tubeless ready tire that fits ISO 622  (29″ or 700c) rims.  I mounted it on WTB’s STP i23 (23 mm) rims and it fit great.   I played around with mounting it tubeless but in the end I discovered I was going to need to retape the rims and I decided to throw tubes in as I am running out of time and don’t have the tape.   I’ll play around with tubeless once the snow flies.  For those who might be interested, the tire was extremely easy to seat and popping the bead was a breeze.  I used an Airshot at 130 psi to do so.   Fit was pretty much perfect.

Buying the folding bead version of a tire is one way to save a few grams of weight.
Already dirty. That’s good.
The center ridge lowers rolling resistance on pavement.
But the tires also performed admirably well in the loose, deep gravel that is typical in Greene County.

Most people probably wouldn’t choose the Mezcal for gravel because it’s really more of a cross country MTB tire.  It’s big and relatively heavy compared to most gravel tires, but the Fargo offers enough clearance to mount it. The reviews I read suggested that the Mezcal offered the most attractive combination of suppleness, grip, rolling resistance, weight and durability.  I paid $41/tire at Jenson USA.  If I was running a gravel racing bike like the Salsa Warbird or Raleigh Tamland, I would have chosen the Donnelly X’Plor MSO 40 mm or maybe the Panaracer Gravel King.  I think both would be excellent choices for the right bike, but they would have been very odd looking on the Fargo.

So I finally got to ride on the Mezcals this past week and I have to say that I’m a bit blown away.   They’ve completely changed the whole gravel experience for me. They are night and day different than the WTB Rangers I had previously mounted.  They’re very grippy and stable at speed.  In fact, there was a moment on Sunday when I took my hands off the bars to snap a picture.    I was going almost 20 mph…on gravel.   This is not something I would have tried on any other tires.  That’s stability.

Stability breeds confidence. 19 mph and no hands on gravel. Nice.

I decided to push them a little and for the next hour or so, I was bombing corners and diving from pavement to gravel and throwing everything I could at those tires and they handled it all.  I didn’t lose the back end one single time…not even a little.    The only time they got a little wonky at all (and it wasn’t a big deal) was leaning heavily into turns on pavement.  They didn’t feel bad there…just different.  I don’t think it will be an issue as I get used to them.

As I rode, I found myself thinking of a blog post from Guitar Ted where he talked about the fact that you really didn’t have to give up speed on gravel if you chose to run wider tires at lower psi.   This is counter-intuitive, but it resonated with me because I don’t care for the feel of skinny tires on the kind of loose gravel that is so prevalent in this part of Iowa.    The front end seems to have a mind of its own and if I’m not bouncing all over the place I feel like I’m sinking into quicksand.  Neither feeling is good and with these wider MTB tires I can avoid both.

So far, I’m very pleased with these tires.  We’ll see how they wear.   That’s really the only thing I don’t know at this point but it might not matter.   Riding the Vittoria Mezcal is good clean (dirty) fun.  I might just pick up another pair while I’m thinking about it.