Lael Wilcox: What Makes a Great Bikepacking Tire?

Lael Wilcox: What Makes a Great Bikepacking Tire?

Long distance bikepacking is all about making equipment compromises. Generally speaking, for me, bikepacking is multi-day dirt-road riding and carrying what I need along the way. Road surfaces, conditions, and weather are ever-changing— that’s part of the adventure. When setting out for a tour, I select equipment based on what will be the most fun or make me the happiest for the trip, or simply what I have at hand that’s ready to go. When setting out for a race, I choose what will make me the fastest over time. There are a lot of different elements that factor into the time it takes to cover an immense distance, like speed, efficiency, time on the bike and comfort. Maybe the easiest way for me to dive into these aspects is through specific illustration. I’ll use the it as an example. 

The Tour Divide is a 2,750 mile (4,425 km) self-supported mountain bike race based on Adventure Cycling Association’s Great Divide Mountain Bike Route that travels through the Rockies from Banff, Alberta, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico on the Mexican border. It follows the continental divide as closely as possible, on forest service roads with over 200,000 feet (60,000 m) of climbing along the way. 

I’ve toured stretches and raced the full route three times. I hold the women’s record at 15 1/2 days (set in 2015). My ultimate dream is beating the men’s record that’s just under 14 days. To accomplish this task, I have to ride nearly 200 miles (320 km ) and 14,000’ (4,300 m) of climbing every day for two weeks, while taking care of all of my own needs (eating, sleeping, and maintaining my bike), without any external help. Commercial businesses are acceptable, meaning you can buy food, stay at hotels and visit bike shops, but these must be available to the public and can not be prearranged before the race begins.

From the start, the clock continues to run. So much can happen out there. I’ve had a fox steal all of my food in the night. In 2015, I got stuck in the mud in Southern Montana for a 12-hour stretch. Last year, on the summer solstice, it snowed over 30 inches (75 cm) near Steamboat Springs. There are so many beautiful moments, like a herd of elk stampeding up to Union Pass in the late evening or owls swooping low on the hunt. Yes, it’s a race, but it’s also experiencing almost every moment of every day through all conditions from the seat of your bicycle. 

Bikepacking is really about adapting to ever-changing conditions, and yet there hasn’t been a tire that is designed specifically for bikepacking. Most racers are on mountain bike tires that are designed for technical terrain, because we need aggressive knobs to deal with mud and snow. But mountain bike tires come in many varieties, each designed for one type of terrain. The idea is that you switch tires for different courses. But we’re racing all the way from Canada to Mexico on the same set of tires.

I was excited when Rene Herse Cycles asked me for input into their new bikepacking tire. “What is your ideal tire for the Tour Divide?” asked Jan.

Nearly the entire ride would be considered gravel with fairly smooth dirt roads, and it is totally passable on a gravel bike with 38 or 42 mm tires. However, no one has ever won the race or established a time record on a gravel bike. I believe this to be the case because over such a long distance, you just get too beat-up. I’d select at least a 2” (50 mm) tire for comfort, preferably a 2.2” (55 mm). This translates into more comfort for all contact points and joints (hands, feet, butt, shoulders, wrists, knees, back, neck, etc). Larger volume tires also enable me to rest and recover more on the descents, as I don’t have to actively control the bike as much.

The tire must be versatile for different surfaces— some tread for traction and handling, but also fast rolling on pavement. You can’t ride through mud and snow on a slick, but you also don’t want knobs that fold over in the paved hairpin turns when you descend into a town for a resupply. I also prefer a medium-weight tubeless-ready tire for durability and to avoid flats and failures. It’s never convenient to fix punctures (or any other roadside mechanicals). In a race setting, this could waste time and add frustration. It’s a big mental challenge to sacrifice sleep and endure so many other challenges – and then spend time on the side of the road dealing with a mechanical. Facing adversity is definitely part of the race, but if you can avoid problems by selecting more durable gear from the outset, this could save time and mental energy.

A few months later, Jan called and told me that they were sending me prototypes of the new bikepacking tires for testing. “What shall we call it? Do you have a favorite climb on the Tour Divide?” he asked. I didn’t have to think long: Fleecer Ridge (above) is a beautiful climb with a rough, steep descent on the route in Southern Montana. It illustrates the varied challenges that this wonderful route presents, and it’s a perfect name for the new tire.

Now that I’ve been testing the Fleecer Ridge 29″ x 2.2″ (700 x 55 mm) tires with the Endurance casing, I found that they check all of the boxes as ideal for the Tour Divide. It rolls fast, it’s got great traction with its large, widely spaced knobs, but the round profile and clever knob arrangement also allow me to lean the bike deep into corners on pavement. It’s been 100% reliable, with no flats so far.

On that note, I would also select these tires for bikepacking expeditions on unknown terrain or other long-distance races where I expect mixed conditions, like our recent route-building project in Colombia, the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan, and the Hope 1000 in Switzerland. For really rough rides, I might go for the Endurance Plus casing, and for a shorter, smoother course, I might pick the Extralight’s amazing speed. To sum it up, for the riding that I love, if I had to choose one tire, the Fleecer Ridge would be it.

Depending on conditions, I might opt for a slightly narrower rear tire to increase mud clearance. For the most part, I ride a Specialized Epic Hardtail, and the tire clearance between the chainstays with a 55 mm tire is pretty tight. Muddy conditions can halt forward progression pretty quickly. For this bike, 48 mm rear tire would probably be best. In that case, I’d be compromising a little comfort for better mud clearance. Jan, can you make a 48 mm version for me, too?

Photo credits: Rugile Kaladyte, Spencer Harding (Photo 3)

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Comments (37)

  • Conrad

    All right!!! So it should be a simple thing now to do this in a 26 tire, right? Clearance is much easier to incorporate into a 26 tire, especially for smaller frames. Looking forward to it!

    May 4, 2020 at 8:58 am
    • Noah

      I vote for a 650b version as well!

      May 4, 2020 at 9:39 am
    • Korina

      26″? Yes please!

      May 4, 2020 at 12:04 pm
    • César

      Another vote for a 26”, with endurance casing !!

      May 4, 2020 at 1:20 pm
    • Brendan

      Another vote and intent to purchase for a 26″ version.

      May 6, 2020 at 8:09 pm
  • Brian Sims

    Jan, can you describe the difference, if any, in tread pattern between the Fleecer Ridge and Juniper/Pumpkin Ridge? Is the difference just size or is there a difference in pattern?

    May 4, 2020 at 9:04 am
    • Jan Heine

      The tread pattern of each of our knobbies is different, since there needs to be a clearly defined relationship between a knob size that is fixed (large enough to prevent squirm and folding over in corners, small enough to dig into mud) and the open space required to clear mud. So we can’t just enlarge or reduce the size of the pattern, as it wouldn’t work any longer. Also, we’re constantly evolving our patterns, and each tire benefits from what we’ve learned from the last one.

      May 4, 2020 at 9:07 am
  • Alan

    I ride an all-road bike with Rat Trap Passes [26″ x 2.3″]. This article discusses research & development for bikepacking only in the 29″ size. Basic question: has bikepacking coalesced around 29+?

    May 4, 2020 at 9:21 am
    • Jan Heine

      I think mountain bikes have coalesced around 29″. But don’t worry, we’ll continue to support the other sizes, too. For 650B, we already have the Juniper Ridge – albeit that’s a little narrower at a true 50 mm (on most rims). Many have asked for a knobby 26″ tire – it would be nice to add that to the program at some point.

      May 4, 2020 at 9:24 am
      • Mitch Potter

        One of the reasons some of us are interested in a 650b version of the Fleecer Ridge is the introduction of bikes such as the Open WI.DE. that are designed for 700c rims with narrower tires and 650b rims with wider ones. I’ll be using my WI.DE. for bikepacking next year and it’d be truly awesome to have a 650b version of the Fleecer Ridge for events such as the Tour Divide.

        May 4, 2020 at 10:12 am
        • Jan Heine

          Totally agree – the new Open really pushed the boundaries of what you can do with a road bike.

          May 4, 2020 at 10:25 am
    • Jacob Musha

      Is there any advantage to the huge wheels on this terrain? I get that some people like the 29er size for mountain biking but what good is it here, other than being what the mainstream makers are pushing? There are several disadvantages, everything else being equal: heavier, wheels are less strong, frames and forks need to be longer/taller to accommodate the larger diameter. Then there is the geometry issue. At 5’9″ (50th percentile US adult male, 98th percentile female!) I could possibly use this tire size without fenders. With fenders, forget it.

      I would take a wild guess and say that a 60mm (2.35″) tire on a 26″ rim could make up for the “bigger wheels roll better over obstacles” advantage (if it exists at all) with none of the disadvantages of big wheels.

      May 4, 2020 at 10:35 am
      • Ford

        Exactly !

        But thank you, Jan, for continuing to expand the lineup of fantastic tires !
        I’m rolling on Rat Trap Pass tires right now but would like a nicer, more supple knobby than exists in 26″.

        May 4, 2020 at 1:18 pm
  • Mike Schiller

    This is great news.. I have just commissioned a 700×55 low trail disc rando. I prefer the 700c tire off-road and this will be the perfect tire for my rides.

    May 4, 2020 at 9:34 am
  • George Recker

    Rode the Divide, late last Sept. was on Rat Trap 2.3s (26) Had to leave the route (Canada) cause of the early snow. Wished I’d had better traction tires, but did not want to lose the ROLL with my Compass tires. Yes we need a great 26 inch tire from you guys!!! PLease — I too am looking forward for a 26 tire in the 2 to 2.3 range.

    May 4, 2020 at 9:38 am
  • kai s

    how are the skinwall sides protected from uv-light and ozone? have negative experiences in the past, from other brands…
    also interested in the durometer of the tread:)

    May 4, 2020 at 9:38 am
    • Jan Heine

      All rubber deteriorates with UV and especially ozone. That is independent of the color, but some tanwalls in the past had thinner rubber coatings on the sidewalls, so you’d get that dried-out look and then the casing threads started to fray.

      Most modern tires – including ours – have stabilizers in the rubber to prevent that, and there isn’t any difference in longevity between the black and tan walls. The biggest concern these days is ozone, which is emitted by electric motors – don’t store your bike near a freezer or heater furnace blower!

      May 4, 2020 at 9:48 am
  • Chad

    What is the range of acceptable rim widths for these?

    May 4, 2020 at 10:38 am
    • Jan Heine

      You’ve got a lot of leeway with rim widths. We recommend rims with inner widths of 20 to 45 mm for this size. Much narrower, and a tire this wide risks folding over when cornering hard. And you always want to the rim to be about 10% narrower than the tire. Otherwise, the risk of blow-offs increases significantly.

      May 4, 2020 at 10:49 am
      • Derek

        Looking at ETRTO charts and trying to generalize, they seem to recommend inner rim width around half the nominal width of the tire. Do you think that’s a good rule of thumb to choose rim width?

        May 4, 2020 at 12:24 pm
        • Jan Heine

          There’s no need to overthink it. I’m running Rat Trap Pass tires, which are almost the same width, on 20 mm internal rims. No problems, even on super-fast, paved descents where any problems would show up first. There’s also this blog post about rim width and tire size

          May 4, 2020 at 12:46 pm
          • Derek

            “No need to overthink it.”

            That’s exactly my point. If we had a general rule that worked, then we would not need to ask, or look at charts, or write articles about it.

            More importantly, Tour Divide looks awesome, and it’s great to see a tire made for that kind of riding.

            May 4, 2020 at 2:30 pm
          • Jan Heine

            Here’s a general rule for rim width (internal):

          • Up to 42 mm: any rim works (max.: 90% of tire width).
          • Above 42 mm: rim larger than 20 mm (max.: 90% of tire width).
May 4, 2020 at 2:34 pm
  • Slim

    Yeah, that agrees with my experiences. 2.35”/60mm on a 28mm rim, 42mm tire on 21 mm rim, have all been good.

    It does depend on the specific tire. Some have a more pointed shape, some a flatter.
    I have a nominal 2.1” (53mm) tire that I put on an 23mm internal rim, and the casing is now wider than the tread, not ideal.

    May 5, 2020 at 9:03 am
    • Jan Heine

      There’s a lot going on with tire design. You want the tread not to cover too much of the sidewall, since the tread is quite stiff. (It doesn’t make sense to use a very supple casing and then cover it with tread rubber.) And yet you want the tread to wrap around far enough that the casing isn’t exposed when seen from above. It’s a balancing act – one of the first modern 650B x 42 tires had a tread that wrapped too far, so it wasn’t as supple as it could have been. When we designed our Babyshoe Pass, we used the knowledge we gained from that… and when we designed the tubeless Babyshoe, we fine-tuned it further.

      May 5, 2020 at 10:06 am
  • Owen

    So inspiring to read Lael, I really hope someday she beats the Tour Divide men’s record. I’ll second her wishes for a 48mm version, but look forward to these in the meantime!

    May 4, 2020 at 11:08 am
    • Lael Wilcox

      Thanks Owen! I’ll do my best.

      May 4, 2020 at 2:10 pm
  • Steve P

    Will the Fleecer Ridge be available in Standard and Extralight casings too?

    May 4, 2020 at 12:15 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Yes. I wouldn’t want to live without an Extralight, and the Standard is a great option for most riders.

      May 4, 2020 at 12:28 pm
      • Steve P

        Agreed. I will be interested to compare the EL to other supple xc tires.

        As someone who sometimes chooses a hardtail for highly variable mixed terrain, the Fleece Ridge is intriguing.

        May 4, 2020 at 12:38 pm
  • Robert

    Good article! Good news, nice.
    I am very happy with my 650B x 48 Juniper Ridge tyres on my Bokeh bike.
    To my happiness I see it similar to the article, it would be great to expand to 50mm.
    My Juniper Ridge also builds a bit narrower on my rim and a JR in 50mm would be perfect. Please Please Please 😉

    Thanks! and keep it up. (I totally love the 700C x 35 Bon Jon Pass tires on my road bike setup, damn, so smooth)

    May 4, 2020 at 12:35 pm
  • DanEE Bwoyy

    Heyy Jan we still need a 650b/ 57-60 out here don’t forget about us Bwoy.

    May 4, 2020 at 3:32 pm
  • dannitdamn

    literally the tire ive been waiting for ever since you launched your cross model, what is it, the hurricane ridge? i love the additional width and tread of these over the 700×50 gravel kings. guess its time to pony up

    May 4, 2020 at 4:07 pm
  • Tom

    Adding my voice to the “Rat Trap Pass needs knobs” 26-er crowd…

    May 4, 2020 at 9:06 pm
  • Slim

    +1 for a 700x48mm version. Most new gravel bikes can run this in the front, several can run it in the rear. Also, people using older mtb frames, either as a mtb or converted to drop bars, those tend to have a bit less clearance, so 48mm would be a great option.

    May 5, 2020 at 9:07 am
  • Scott

    I’m excited to run these tires on my 333Fab Ti gravel bike that Max Kullaway built for me in 2015 – the frame was designed around the folding bead Schwalbe ‘Smart Sam’ tire in 53mm width, when set up tubeless. This particular tire with a folding bead is no longer available anywhere. The new Fleecer Ridge 55mm tire will resurrect Max’s machine on the tire width it was intended to run. See you on the trails !

    May 6, 2020 at 3:48 pm
  • Brendan

    Lael, I saw your documentary on youtube, and enjoyed it and really liked your brother’s musical score. May he one day be a contemporary of the likes of Hans Zimmer. I also relished the video you did with Revelate Designs that explained your gear selection and uses. I hope you do more videos & articles discussing your bike and gear choices as they evolve.

    May 6, 2020 at 8:54 pm
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