a great tire is a supple tire
Tires are crucial for a comfortable ride. The more supple tire the more comfortable you will be on a bumpy road. Up to this point, Soma Cazadero were my benchmark in terms of tire suppleness. But this could change because I got a pair of Rene Herse Barlow Pass tires which are well known for its suppleness. Let the fight begin!
When I compared Soma Cazadero 42c tire with Panaracer GravelKing SK 42c tire I found out that a supple tire can be more than 13% more comfortable. These results were achieved at 30 PSI air pressure. Since then I discovered that the best possible (in terms of comfort) air pressure for 42c tire is something like 25 PSI so this time I did all of the testings around 25 PSI. Why around? Because I also found out that you should change the tire pressure when you change the tire size to get comparable results. How? You simply use this formula: (narrower tire width divided by a wider tire width) * (air pressure of the narrower tire). This works when you go wider, but to calculate the right air pressure of narrower tire you reverse the formula: (wider tire width divided by a narrower tire width) * (air pressure of the wider tire). So when I use a 42mm tire at 25 PSI, then for 40mm tire air pressure should be set at roughly 26,5 PSI. Why 40 mm when Barlow Pass that I bought is labeled as 38c? Simply because when I installed it on a wide carbon rim 24 mm it measured 40 mm.
OK, it is time to introduce the benchmark setup…
I am currently testing the top of the line Canyon Grail SLX 8.0 ETAP bike and I decided to use it as a bike for this tire comparison. Why? Because it has a rather stiff front end (when riding on hoods as opposite to the flexing area of the tops) which should nicely highlight any difference in comfort between tested tires. For the sake of the comparison, I measured also rear end comfort but Grail is equipped with my all-time favorite VCLS 2.0 flexing seatpost and on top of that I put my Brooks C17 saddle so, as opposed to the front, the rear should, at least in theory, show very little difference. But nevertheless, there were still measurable differences. Grail SLX 8.0 comes with a great pair of DT Swiss GRC1400 Spline db wheels. Great because there are light but also great for the testing purposes because carbon wheels, in general, are considered as stiffer than aluminum, which again, should highlight any differences between comfort offered by different tires.
The last thing worth noticing is that I did all of the tests in a tubeless setup. Why? Because I believe that inner tubes can sometimes decrease the overall level of comfort (both in terms of different quality tubes and the terrain that you are riding when using them – more on that topic later because I also did a small comparison between tubed vs tubeless setup!)
Let’s meet the contenders!
Soma Cazadero tire is one of my long time favorite tire that I use on a daily basis. Even when you grab it you can feel that the sidewalls are very soft and flexible which promises a lot of comfort when riding. And this indeed is the case, especially with air pressure set up at 25 PSI. I also like this tire because it is very easy to mount tubeless on any rim that I used. It holds the air nicely and it is a benchmark tire (in my opinion) in terms of mixed gravel riding. Dry, wet, muddy, bumpy or any other condition you can imagine and the tire will perform remarkably well. It gives you a sense of security that allows you to focus on fast riding, wherever you are. The only real drawback I can think of is the rolling resistance, especially on asphalt. You can definitely hear the tire buzzing a lot and you can feel that this tire is slowing you down (especially compared to something like Barlow Pass from Rene Herse).
OK, it is not time to introduce the potentially new comfort king: Rene Herse Barlow Pass 38c tire. It is semi-slick tire so of course there is no competition in terms of grip when compared to Soma Cazadero. Especially on slippery, muddy or wet conditions, you have to be very focused on choosing the correct path because otherwise, this tire will slide making a big jump in your heartbeat! Believe me, I experienced that a couple of times before I learned how to use this tire properly (yet I have to say that after a lot of learning I think that Barlow Pass can offer surprisingly good overall grip, for a semi-slick thread. You just have to know how to use it without risking your health). So the grip could be better, but overall speed is something else entirely. Boy, this tire is fast! Quiet and properly fast. On asphalt, gravel and even on a forest route (when it is dry). You can say that Barlow Pass is the opposite to Cazadero in any possible way. Expect for comfort. Rene Herse (Compass) tires are by many considered as the most comfortable out there. And yes, even though I have bought Barlow Pass with Endurance casing (because I intend to use them on a daily basis and need extra puncture protection), this tire feels comfy. But subjectively, Cazadero felt even comfier. The last thing that separates those two tires is the process of setting them tubeless. Cazadero is super easy and Barlow Pass is super hard to do so. For the first time ever I needed not only an air compressor, a lot of soap bubbles but also a tube to make this tire work tubeless (I had to put and inflate the inner tube first to make the tire expand properly, then remove the tube and inflate the tire again, this time with compressor and soap bubbles). I had to do all of this because the sidewalls of Barlow Pass Endurance are quite stiff as opposed to supple sidewalls of Cazadero.
Canyon Grail is sold with a Schwalbe G-One bite tires (40c) and since I have heard many good things about them I decided to include them in my comparison (as a reference tire). Subjectively, comfort-wise, this tire is on pair with something like Panaracer GravelKing SK tire. But in terms of overall speed and grip, I would say that this tire is somehow like a child of Barlow Pass and Cazadero tire. Despite the knobs, it is very fast and quiet tire but at the same time, much more grippy on wet or muddy conditions. But, like Barlow Pass, you have to learn this tire to use its full potential (sometimes you can feel that you are reaching the limits and in a second you will lose the grip, especially on fast corners when riding on asphalt that is covered with small debris). This tire, as a reference tire, I tested both in tubed and tubeless setup just to see if I can measure any difference between those two scenarios. And yes, there were small differences…
Up to this point, Soma Cazadero was for me the benchmark tire in terms of comfort, but Barlow Pass, even with Endurance (less supple) casing exactly matched Cazadero on a bumpy forest route and significantly surpassed it on a fast gravel road (9,5% less vibration at front of the bike when riding on hoods). I think that this difference on a fast gravel road is caused by the fact that Barlow Pass is a semi-slick tire and this created much more even cushioning than a Cazadero with big, protruding knobs (but this is only a wild guess and not a scientific explanation). The G-One bite tire was, as expected, nearly 9% less comfortable on a bumpy forest road and 11% less comfy on a fast gravel route than Rene Herse tire. But, to my surprise, G-One was only 1,5% less comfy than Cazadero in that scenario (which again suggests that maybe big knobs are not the best thing when you want to deal with high-frequency vibrations).
The last thing that I measured was tubed vs tubeless setup. On a bumpy forest road you can safely say that the difference is negligible (1,5% at best in tubeless favor) but on a fast gravel route the results again, surprised me because it looks like inner tube can create an additional bounciness that enhances the overall level of vibrations that are reaching the rider and thus you are better with tubeless setup in that scenario (I measured 3% fewer vibrations on tubeless setup). Not a big of a difference but still I would strongly recommend you going tubeless, especially for the benefits of a more secure ride (in terms of punctures).
To sum up
It is a tough nut to crack to be honest because there is no single great solution out there. If comfort is your main priority, then you should probably go with Barlow Pass tire. But this additional comfort comes at the cost of slightly less fun because you can’t go as hard as you can in every situation with this tire (of course apart from asphalt and dry hardpack). So when you look for the best overall performance, or should I say, the best compromise between overall speed and comfort, then I still think that Soma Cazadero is still the tire to beat. Yes, there are faster tires out there but you will have to sacrifice the comfort (G-One bite) or overall grip (Barlow Pass). But my search is not over yet. On the market, there are more interesting tires (like Continental Terra) that are waiting to be tested. So maybe it is only a matter of time when I will find something better than both Barlow Pass and Cazadero tires. Maybe…