A knobby faster than a road tire?

At Compass, we see little point in replicating what you already can buy from others. When we made our first knobby tires, we wanted true dual-purpose tires. Could the new knobbies match the on-pavement of good road tires, yet grip as well in mud as true cyclocross tires. Impossible? You’ll never find out unless you try…

After a few seasons of cyclocross, there is no doubt that the Compass Steilacoom (700C x 38 mm) and Pumpkin Ridge (650B x 42 mm) offer plenty of grip and shed mud well – as you’d expect from their widely spaced knobs.

How about their on-pavement performance? I’ll let others speak on that. Matt Surch, the well-known Canadian gravel racer, wrote: “I don’t understand how the tread rolls so fast and quiet… these are wild!”

When BQ tester Mark tried them, he wrote: “Once the wind drowned out the tire roar at high speed, I was thinking about how unremarkable the Steilacoom tires had rolled on the paved descent. I had pretty much forgotten that I was riding on knobbies.” Yet he was glad to have them when a road closure detoured us via a muddy trail (above).

And now Mike Stead tested a set of Steilacooms for www.road.cc. Among other adventures, he set two Strava records on these tires. One was for a gravel descent. His comment: “I wasn’t even pushing that hard. […] The Steilacooms make you a better, faster descender than you deserve to be.”

The second KOM surprised not just him, but us as well: He set a new record for a flat-out 60-second sprint – on pavement. He wrote: “Averaging 45 kph, the Steilacooms made an awesome high-pitched noise as I fanged along the straight. Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, I went back the next week and recorded exactly the same time to the second.”

Mike’s time on the Steilacooms was two seconds faster than the previous KOM record, which he had set on our Barlow Pass tires. Does that mean our knobbies are faster than our road tires? Not necessarily – there are too many variables – but it shows that they certainly aren’t much slower. And that is remarkable, considering that our road tires are among the fastest in the world.

In a future post, I’ll explain how we created a knobby that doesn’t ride like a knobby… until you hit mud or snow, when it behaves exactly like a knobby. But don’t take our word for it – read Mike Stead’s review.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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30 Responses to A knobby faster than a road tire?

  1. Gary Jacobson says:

    I’ll be giving these knobbies a try.

    I look forward to a line of Compass tires like the BSP that have equally surprising speed and comfort but with a Gravelking -like casing.

    • The Panaracer Gravel King has a reinforced casing for better cut resistance. The down side: This inevitably makes it slower and less supple. Beyond the design of the tread pattern, the speed of the Compass knobbies really is due to the casing – as it is with our allroad tires.

  2. Larry Nelson says:

    I used to commute 7.5 miles to work. I had my choice of two bikes, one set up for mountains with knobbies, the other for commuting with semi-slicks. I got there in the same time on either bike, the limiting factor being aerodynamics. Knobbies were more reliable because they didn’t get cut by glass flakes on the road. I often stopped to help others fix flats.

    Knobbies are also good when there’s sand on the roadway. I’ve gotten used to riding 50mm tires (on a Rivendell Bombadil). Any chance you’ll make the Stellacoom in 50mm?
    –Larry Nelson.

  3. DaveS says:

    Please consider making a 26″ x 58mm knobby tire. I would buy a bunch.

    • Jacob Musha says:

      Until Compass comes out with a 26″ knobby, the Continental Race King RaceSport is pretty close. The tires are light, with supple casing. The knobs provide good traction and also roll well on pavement. I use them on my winter bike when I’m not using studded tires (which is most of the time since the studded tires are painfully heavy and slow.)

      Make sure you get the “RaceSport” version. A fellow BQ reader turned me onto them.

  4. SJ Rides says:

    Any chance to see this tread pattern in 26?

  5. Chris says:

    I’m curious if you have had complaints of or have yourselves experienced many sidewall cuts/punctures with these tires? I’ve recently been riding your road tires (32mm) and love them on the road but seldom take them onto gravel, where they make me a bit nervous about sidewall cuts, etc. I’ve had no issues after a couple thousand km, using them in the city and on country roads.

    • Supple sidewalls aren’t as cut-resistant – there is no way around it. The question is how much cut-resistance you need. Experienced riders who let the bike move under them, rather than force it into sharp rocks, usually have no trouble with our tires even on rough gravel. Running wide tires helps – the lower pressure allows the tire to deform rather than get cut. I used Compass Switchback Hill Extralight 650B x 48 mm tires during our Copper Canyon adventure with no trouble apart from a single pinch flat. (There was no time to set up the test bike tubeless.) The Standard casing is more cut-resistant, so if you are concerned about sidewall issues, I’d chose that.

  6. Dr J says:

    “At Compass, we see little point in replicating what you already can buy from others” – Does it mean that we will never see these wider than 650Bx42mm? I guess I have to stick to my Maxxis tires then…

  7. Jayme Frye says:

    26″ Please and thank you. 😀

  8. Axel Reichert says:

    My first Barlow Pass (rear wheel, with tube) left me with mixed
    feelings:

    It rolled really well on almost MTB-terrain in the Swiss Alps and
    surprisingly survived the abuse without sidewall cuts or pinch flats
    (out of fear, I had packed a Conti Top Contact as stand-in).

    The downside came after only 3500 km (200 of which gravel), when the
    rubber was gone and I got in quick succession several cuts (not
    sidewall) on my usual routes, a clear indicator for end-of-life and
    weak puncture resistance. Although the plush and fast feeling of the
    Barlow Pass got me hooked, I reverted to the Contis and Marathon
    Supremes. No flat for 4500 km with the same fraction of gravel and
    still going strong.

    Mike’s review sounds so great, however, that I now consider a
    Steilacoom at the rear and a Barlow Pass for the front: The knobbies
    increase the life span and the traction, which was a bit lacking with
    a slick for steep (> 15 %) gravel sections, whereas both
    characteristics are unimportant for the front, so better take the
    slick there.

    Does this rationale sound reasonable? Comments about slick traction
    problems on steep gravel?

    • I’ve ridden a lot with riders on knobbies, and on gravel, their tires reach the limits exactly when mine do. It’s really the top layer of gravel that is sliding on the rocks below. Knobbies do make a difference when there is a viscous substrate to dig into, like mud or snow.

      As to the longevity of the tires. Certainly, a Marathon with a thick tread will last longer than a Compass tire, but 3500 km seems short. Our tires are much more geared toward performance, but we put a little extra rubber under the center of the tread, so they last much longer than other high-performance tires.

      Using different tires on the same bike isn’t really recommended, as you’ll get different grip when cornering.

  9. Froste says:

    Would XC mtb bike racers be interested in a tire like this? Yes, I think so!
    27.5 2.2s would be amazing, that would also fit my dirt rando bike.

  10. Ray Varella says:

    650 x48B goes on my wish list in case you’re keeping track.
    The 700c are my next tire purchase. I have two, possibly three bikes that will fit them.

    Thank you

  11. Jon Blum says:

    Since the title here has a question mark, it would seem possible to answer the question through the type of rolling-resistance testing you have done before. Are you going to run the tests?

    • We could test the knobbies on the track. The results are easy to predict: Probably, the Compass knobbies will be a little slower than the slick tires, but it’s not more than a few percent – otherwise, you’d notice the difference on the road. And unfortunately, that is almost within the error margins of the tests. So in the end, we’d learn very little from a lot of effort – we would just confirm is that the knobbies roll almost as fast as our allroad tires on paved roads.

  12. Guy Hall says:

    +1 for 26” 🙂

  13. MANG says:

    Looking forward to trying a set out. One more vote for knobbies in 26″, 50-54mm wide!

  14. Derek says:

    About the speed, the tread rubber between the knobs might be thinner than the tread of a road tire, making the knobby more supple. Do Compass knobby tires actually have less rolling resistance than your road tires?

    • The tread between the knobs is indeed quite thin, since it won’t wear. That is one reason why Compass dual-purpose knobbies roll so fast. There are others… I don’t think the knobbies roll faster than our road tires – but also not noticeably slower.

  15. Wilson Wilson says:

    Here is another comment for 26″. This tire tread reminds me of the old school general purpose all terrain tire of the 80’s.

  16. Rick Thompson says:

    How about knobbies on the inside? Kidding, but wondering if you have ever seen this – my Snoqualmie Pass tire just removed, after several month’s use with a tube and sealant (Orange Seal). There have been about 30 thorn punctures, which all sealed after pulling the thorn. Finally found the tire completely flat the other day and decided to put in a new tube. The space between tube and tire had wet sealant (a lot), and this pattern of cured sealant knobs goes all around the entire inner tire. Weird.
    Orange seal pattern inside bike tire

  17. Frederic says:

    Jan, the same for 26’’, please 😕
    Thank you 🙏

  18. Hiro says:

    I like it better than a center ridge. By the way, it’s too bad that the link to Monthly Archives has disappeared.

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