The big story of last weekend’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show were Enduro Allroad bikes – road bikes with tires wider than 45 mm. These bikes are great on paved roads, but their true element is gravel. Even on smooth gravel, these extra-wide tires roll better than narrower ones. On loose and rough gravel, there simply is no comparison. Instead of grinding through the gravel, you float over it! It’s amazing what ultra-wide, supple tires can do.
The idea for the Enduro Allroad bike came during the 2014 Oregon Outback (above), where even my 42 mm-wide Compass Babyshoe Pass tires sank deep into the soft gravel. I hunted from the left side of the “road” to the right, trying to find firmer ground. I could see the tracks of the rider ahead of me, Ira Ryan, who won the race. He was fishtailing all over the place (below).
As I tried to keep up the pace on this difficult stretch, I realized there was a solution: A wider tire would float on top of the loose stuff. It would be much faster and also make the bike easier and more fun to handle. The idea of a road tire that was even wider than my 42s was definitely pushing the envelope at the time. The big makers were still trying to figure out whether the ideal gravel tire was 28 or 32 mm wide.
The idea was good, but there was a problem: Nobody in living memory had ridden an extra-supple tire that wide. The closest thing in existence were the FMB tubulars that professional cross-country mountain bike racers use – but not on pavement. (Making a tire that wasn’t supple would have defeated the purpose of the exercise. After all, the goal is more speed and comfort, not less.)
Before we could commit to making tire molds, we had to make some prototype tires. But without molds, you cannot make tires! We found a solution to that problem. Panaracer made a few mountain bike tires with our Extralight casing. Then Peter Weigle shaved off the knobs to create ultra-wide slick tires. Talk about hand-made tires!
We tested these prototypes extensively. On gravel (above), we could not believe the new tires’ performance. Just as importantly, the sidewalls held up to the abuse of riding over rough ground at ridiculously high speed.
But the big surprise came on pavement: The new tires offered incredible cornering, because they put so much rubber on the road. And on the straights, the ultra-wide tires rolled extremely well, too. Whoever was riding the Enduro Allroad bike had no trouble keeping up with the riders on narrower tires.
Any drawbacks? Tire pressure becomes much more important. Whereas I can ride a 42 mm tire anywhere between 35 and 65 psi without trouble, the 54 mm tires require more careful pressure adjustments. Put in too much air, and the tire starts to bounce a bit on some undulations in the pavement. Let the pressure drop too low, and the sidewalls begin to collapse during enthusiastic cornering. For me, the pressure range on pavement was between 25 and 30 psi. Fortunately, that range worked equally well on gravel and on pavement, so at least there is no need to adjust the pressure in mid-ride with tires this wide.
As a result of this research, we introduced the first two Enduro Allroad tires last year. The Rat Trap Pass is a 26″ x 2.3″ tire (54 mm wide). The Switchback Hill (above, named after the first climb of the Oregon Outback) is a 650B x 48 mm. Our customers’ reaction was surprisingly positive, considering that this was a product that nobody had expected. The idea of the Enduro Allroad bike appealed to many riders.
Not quite a year later, the Enduro Allroad Bike is entering the mainstream. Last weekend, WTB introduced their new “Road Plus™” 650B x 47 mm tire (above). It’s interesting to see others follow our lead: The WTB tire even uses a tread pattern that resembles our Compass tires. (The “chevron” ribs are designed to interlock with the road surface as you corner.) And there finally seems to be a consensus that a knobby tread is of little use when riding on gravel. (The rock “layers” move in relation to each other, rather than the tire slipping on the top layer of gravel.)
The WTB tire may look similar to our Compass tires, but it doesn’t duplicate our efforts. At 515 g, it’s about 100 g heavier than our Switchback Hill, and it seems to be intended more as a utility tire.
With more tire choices, more Enduro Allroad Bikes will be built. Above is MAP’s “Rambonneur” with our Switchback Hill tires.
Masi, Miele, Rawland and Brodie have announced new models designed around 650B Enduro Allroad tires. It’s taken less than a year for the new concept to enter the mainstream. That also attests to the inherent appeal of the idea. It’s not something that needs marketing. Anybody who’s ever crested a deserted mountain pass on a gravel road, before launching into an exhilarating descent, understands.
Last autumn, I tested the Elephant NFE for Bicycle Quarterly (above). On the loose gravel of the Iron Horse Trail, I appreciated the extra floatation of the big tires. Where riders on narrower tires were struggling, I felt like I was on a road ride. The road may have been gravel, but the sensations were still those of a road bike. The “Road Plus™” name is not inappropriate, but since it’s trademarked to one company, it’s unlikely to catch on.
We chose the name “Enduro Allroad” to show that this type of bike is a logical extension of the “Allroad” bikes we’ve been riding for years. The new bikes are more geared toward gravel and rough stuff, whereas standard Allroad bikes with their 38-42 mm tires are better on pavement. Both categories overlap on smooth, hard gravel, where they offer similar performance. The new bikes don’t replace our existing ones, but the two categories complement each other.
At last autumn’s Bicycle Quarterly Un-Meeting, I was surprised how many riders already were on Enduro Allroad bikes. Above is BQ‘s Hahn Rossman on his converted Bontrager (with a new fork and disc brakes) with our 26″ Rat Trap Pass tires, in front of Denny Trimble on a Soma Wolverine.
I am not in favor of segmenting the bike world more than necessary – one bike for all purposes remains my dream – but I know that when I return to the route of the Oregon Outback, I want to be on an Enduro Allroad bike!
Photo credits (Hunter and MAP): http://www.theradavist.com, used with permission.