supple gravel tires

Tires are the easiest and usually the cheapest way to improve the overall comfort when riding on a bike. This should be obvious to anyone, yet still, many riders focus on more expensive and sophisticated solutions like suspension stems and seatpost instead of simply changing tires. In this supple tire shootout I compared 6 different tires so you can choose the one you will enjoy the most. What is my choice? Read the article to find out!

The first really supple tire that I have tested was Soma Cazadero. I was amazed by the comfort improvement I got comparing to something more standard in terms of suppleness like Panaracer GravelKing SK tires. Since then I got the chance to test a lot more tires (including, according to many, the most supple of them all – Rene Herse tires) and now I know that a rider looking for improved comfort has a lot of interesting options to choose from. Here is the list of the most promising candidates:

Challenge Gravel Grinder TLR 42c
Rene Herse Steilacoom 38c Extralight
Rene Herse Snoqualmie Pass 44c Endurance
Terrene Elwood Light 42c
WTB Byway 44c
Soma Cazadero 50c

As you can see this is a very broad tire selection because of the presence of both narrow (38c) tires and a very wide one (50c), but also there is both super supple Extralight casing of Rene Herse tire and more durable, Endurance variant. Finally, in the mix, we have both a very quick, almost slick tires and true off-road variants like Steilacoom from Rene Herse. So everyone should find their best tire in this comparison.

To make this test as objective as possible I did my standard vibration measurements with all of those tires in a tubeless setup. Different was only the air pressure because the bigger the tire the lower the air pressure you need to achieve the same tire casing tension (which means the same level of deformation when the external force is applied). Based on this simple formula: (narrower tire width / wider tire width)* PSI of narrower tire, I calculated the appropriate air pressure for each contender. I started with 42c tires setting 25 PSI air pressure because from my experience this kind of air pressure offers the best combination of suppleness and speed on various road conditions. 42c means that the tire should be, more or less, 42 mm wide. But when I measured each tire on my Spinergy GX wheels (24 mm internal wide), I found out that 4 different tires were very close to that 42 mm measurement. Challenge GravelGrinder measured almost 43 mm, Snoqualmie Pass a little more than 41 mm, WTB Bayway was only 41 mm and only Terrene Elwood was true to its 42c description measuring exactly 42 mm. So, to make things easier I decided to run all of those 4 tires at 25 PSI. Why? Because changing air pressure by 1 PSI or even less from my experience is not ground-breaking in terms of comfort improvement (at least not with my testing methodology, which does not use a very sophisticated and sensitive measuring tools). The last two tires needed a different air pressures. Soma Cazadero 50c measured 47 mm wide so I run it at 22 PSI and for Steilacoom 38c (which measured exactly 39 mm) I set up 27 PSI air pressure.

Having set the appropriate air pressure I started the comparison test mounting the tested tires on the front wheel while keeping Rene Herse Barlow Pass Endurance tire (27 PSI) at the back. All the test was done on my benchmark bike (titanium Enigma Escape with Wave carbon handlebar and Redshift Suspension stem 100 mm).

Rene Herse Steilacoom 38c Extralight

I bought Rene Herse Steilacoom 38c in the most supple, Extralight casing because I wanted to experience the best comfort Rene Herse can provide. The bead itself is very thin and almost as fabric when you try to squeeze it. This is where the suppleness magic happens but also this is the Achilles’s heel of this tire – you can fairly easily tear the bead when encountering sharp rocks etc. But I wanted to get the most supple variant possible so I took the risk and to be honest after a couple of long rides I can tell you that they hold up pretty well. No punctures at all.

And how about the comfort? For sure, there is a lot of it. But it feels kind of weird. Why? 39 mm is not a wide tire, and it looks like the big knobs are making the tire itself even less pronounced than the 38c moniker suggests. So there is no “meaty” feeling of riding a big, chunky tire at a low air pressure but the Extralight casing is doing its magic to really smooth the road imperfections. Of course, the bigger the obstacle, the more apparent is the narrow form factor, but on the fast gravel road, Steilacoom is outstanding (only second to 50c Cazadero, that was run at much lower air pressure).

On bumpy forest rout, this tire still provided a very admirable level of comfort. And spectacular traction. This is by far the most confidence-inspiring tire in the whole test (not even Soma Cazadero can compete with that!). I believe that this is due to the combination of a very pronounced knobs and a very sticky rubber itself. When turning slowly on the tarmac you can easily hear the squeak of the tire. And this brings me nicely to the most disappointing feature of this tire. It is a slow tire. Really slow. I have read many reviews of this tire on the internet and no one was stating that this is a fast tire but also no one said that it is a very slow tire. But when I compared this tire back to back, on the same day and in the same conditions with 5 other tires, it was very apparent that this sticky knobs are slowing me on the tarmac considerably (this is also a very loud tire). Honestly, only very wide 50c Cazadero was slower, but not that much, and even Cazadero was slightly quieter. For me, it was really a big surprise that a 39 mm wide tire is, more or less, on the same level of rolling resistance and noise as 47 mm tire.

The installation itself is a “typical” Rene Herse experience. Without a compressor and a lot of soap, I would not try to install this tire. But every next installation of the same tire is much easier. I also did not experience any seal leakage (I used Orange Sealant) even at very low air pressures.

Soma Cazadero 700x50c

After talking about the narrowest tire it is time to tell you a little bit more about the widest one in this comparison. I really like Cazadero tires. They offer a very good grip in almost every situation and rolls reasonably fast on tarmac (but maybe not in the 47 mm variant). What is more, the casing is in my opinion very similar to the Extralight from Rene Herse tires. You can squeeze it as easily and it feels very similar in hands. The only difference is in the way the both tires handle low air pressure. Cazadero has the tendency to leaking the sealant near the rim and only increasing the pressure seems to solve that issue (at least in my case). Both Cazadero and Extralight variants of Rene Herse tires also “eats” sealant like crazy. So, especially with Cazadero (which also leaks it), you better use a lot of it to be sure that everything will be OK even after a really long ride.

The very supple casing combined with a low air pressure (22 PSI) and significant width (47 mm) resulted in a supremely comfortable ride no matter the conditions. This is a true king of this supple tire shootout when the comfort is considered. But, not everyone will like riding on a 47 mm wide 700c tire, especially on tarmac, where the drag is significant. Also, you have to have a lot of tire clearance in your bike to accommodate this kind of tire. And finally, a big 700c tire means also slower steering and a possible, toe overlap issues so you have to be very careful when deciding to go with a 50c tire. Yet, the comfort you get can makes you forget about all of the issues mentioned above…

Challenge Gravel Grinder TLC 42c

These tires are not the first choice when you look for the most comfort yet from my experience with Argon 18 Dark Matter gravel bike, I knew that they are quite special. So when I got them again, this time on Argon 18 Subito bike, I needed to test them properly. They work really well in a tubeless setup (but the installation is not that easy-breezy) and hold air nicely. They also provide a very ample level of comfort no matter the condition (both bumpy roads and fast gravel routes).

Challenge tire

But they are not that fast as you would imagine from their thread and they are not as grippy either. Especially on loose surfaces, fast cornering is challenging when riding on Gravel Grinder tires. Mud is also not good for them so going seriously off-road with those tires is not the best idea. Neither is riding solely on tarmac so this tire, apart from a great level of comfort, is not great at anything else and it is hard for me to recommend it, especially when you can easily find better contenders. Like Terrene tires…

Terrene Elwood 42c

I have read a couple of reviews stating that this is indeed a very supple tire so naturally, I wanted to see if this is true. And yes, it is true. Elwood is on pair with Challenge Gravel Grinder tires when the comfort is considered. They even have the same level of casing suppleness when you hold and try to squeeze them (but significantly less soft than Rene Herse Extraligh or Soma Cazadero). Yet, the similarities between Terrene Elwood and Challenge Gravel Grinder tires end here because Elwood offers much more traction in every situation and rolls faster on tarmac too. Honestly, this was a surprise for me because when comparing both tires thread you would expect Gravel Grinder to be much better in terms of rolling resistance. I think that tight thread and the rubber itself is making the Elwood tire fast.

The downsides? I see two. First is the tubeless setup. It is fairly easy to set up these tire tubeless but the tires itself does not hold the air that good. I think this is connected with the second issue: the quality of this tire. On the side, you can clearly see the “made in China” info (Rene Herse or Soma Cazadero are made in Japan) and you can tell that the quality of this tire could be better. How? My rim is good but when I mounted the Elwood tire on it, I immediately noticed a big side to side movement when riding. I did not see this with any other tested tires so it looks like the rubber itself was not made to the highest of quality standards. But also, Elwood is a quite cheap tire, so maybe we should not expect miracles from the build quality?

Rene Herse Snoqualmie Pass 44c Endurance

This tire is by far the fastest in this test (on tarmac) but the semi-slick thread is also making it slow on loose or really rough surfaces. Slow, because there is simply not enough grip in those situations. Yet, you can expect that from this kind of tire.

What was more surprising is the level of suppleness that this tire provides, or, to be more exact, lack of it in comparison to other tires in my test. This was very apparent on a fast gravel track, but also on bumpy forest road, where this tire falls behind. I believe this is caused by the Endurance casing which is significantly less delicate and much less flexing than the Extralight variant. It is a simple truth: you can have suppleness or increased toughness. You can’t have both. But don’t get me wrong. This is still a supple tire, just go with Extralight casing if you want to reach suppleness heaven.

WTB Byway 44c

This is the biggest revelation in my supple tires comparison. For many reasons. Let’s start with the thread. It is a combination of a semi-slick center and knobs on the sides. This results in low rolling resistance on tarmac (second only to Snoqualmie Pass) but also a surprisingly good traction in corners and in various situations. Of course, loose or muddy terrain is still too much for this tire, but in most scenarios, you will be very happy with the level of traction that this tire provides.

WTB byway

Then there is suppleness, or, “meaty” feeling when riding on it (only Cazadero 50c was providing the same supple sensation). Byway subjectively feels more comfortable even than Steilacoom Extralight (although my measurements showed a slight difference in favor of Rene Herse tire). Then, there is the easiness of tubeless setup and no leakage of sealant even at very low air pressure. And finally, there is the look and price. I really like the color of Bayway and honestly, when you compare its price to Rene Herse tires, it feels like a real bargain.

So which tire is the best?

There is no easy answer to that question and I believe that we have 3 winners. First is the Steilacoom Extralight tire. It provides a great supple ride and tons of grip in every situation so you can go wherever you want with it (maybe only avoid sharp rocks on the way because of its very thin casing). The only thing that is (literally) holding back this tire is its slowness on tarmac. The second winner is Soma Cazadero 50 for its supreme levels of comfort no matter the road conditions. But 47 tire width makes it more an off-road choice than a great all-rounder. And the last winner is WTB Byway 44c. This, as opposed to Cazadero, is in my opinion a truly all-round tire. Great comfort, great speed, and more than enough grip in most of the situations, but also a great look and price. This is why it stays at the front of my benchmark bike for foreseeable future. Why not also at the back, you may ask. Because at the back I have a Rene Herse Barlow Pass in Endurance casing, so I got the fastest possible tire and I do not have to worry about punctures. WTB Byway is probably much more prone to punctures due to its supple casing so I feel that I will be better off with Byway at the front. Especially because I really need all the comfort I can get there…