My taste in gravel tires runs counter to much of what I see other riders opt for. Lining up for the start of some elective masochism, I tend to see riders trade width for knobs. If the most foolproof answer for an event like Fishrock or Unbound is a 40mm-wide tire with quick-rolling knobs, the trade I see most riders make is to go skinnier on the tire but keep the knobs in an effort to reach a faster-rolling solution.
My experience has been that keeping the girth but losing the knobs results in a quick-rolling tire that gives up less traction than what a visual would suggest. No tire has driven this lesson home better than the Donnelly Sport USH, which is essentially a 40mm-wide herringbone design.
Panaracer’s GravelKing SS takes one of the most successful (if not the most successful) gravel tire on the planet (the GravelKing SK) and substitutes a tread similar to a herringbone for the rows of square blocks. The result?
Why’d they wait so damn long?
That’s not really a result. What I mean to say is that I can’t figure why such a capable tire wasn’t on the market three years ago.
Panaracer intends for the tire to be used in drier conditions, which is unsurprising, given its distinct lack of knobs. But as some of my relatives would say, “But that’s no nevermind.” Which is to say, don’t let the lack of large lugs on the tires fool you into thinking this tire won’t grip.
The center section of the tire features an opposing chevron design; you could think of it as similar to turning a herringbone 90 degrees. Small diamonds make up the next portion of tread, the part that will engage in gentle cornering. Beyond that are large blocks arranged lengthwise; they provide great cornering grip without also including the drumroll feel caused by rolling over knobs in hard cornering on pavement.
I was curious to see how Panaracer’s ZSG (Zero Slip Grip) compound would fare in hard miles and I was surprised that after more than 150 miles, more than half of which has been on dirt, the chevrons on the rear tire show no discernible wear.
I just spent two days in Mendocino County, riding some of the gnarliest terrain I’ve ever encountered on a gravel bike—certainly the most demanding descents, and that includes Grinduro. Yes, I managed to break the rear tire free on a couple of occasions, and I did plenty of drifting on loose gravel, but on tight singletrack, especially on trails with fall-line exposure, the tires handled with precision. Even on ultra-steep trails, I was able to control my speed and not just slide to my doom. My front brake blared like a train horn, but I had control.
Ultimately, that’s the measure of a tire: control. And let me add that control isn’t just one thing. One standard by which I consider control is the way a tire behaves when it breaks free. The GravelKing SS did so gently; the bigger a tire’s footprint the easier it is to maintain control and stay upright.
I’ve been running these at 36 psi rear and 34 psi front and after my recent rides I think I’d be willing to drop a few psi for rides that stayed on dirt. Max pressure is rated at 60 psi, but I’d only go that high if I wanted dental work.
The array of sizes this tire comes in means that they’ve got a size for virtually everyone. The 700C comes in 32, 35, 38 and 43mm widths, as well as a 650B in a 48mm width. I’ve encountered a number of gravel bikes that can’t take a 40mm-wide tire, so the 38mm width that I’ve been riding is welcome.
The GravelKing SS comes in all black and with a brown sidewall. There are also two versions: the standard and the plus; the plus adds Panaracer’s ProTite, which is an extra bead-to-bead protective belt. I’ve inspected my tires to see if the fact that I suffered nary a flat while playing in Mendo could be attributed to the fact that I’ve been riding the SS+. Despite all that was dished their way, I can’t find a single cut or puncture mark that would have stopped me and that the ProTite prevented from becoming said problem.
The standard GravelKing SS goes for $45.99, while the SS+ goes for $54.99.
Final thought: I’ll take surface area over knobs.
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