Oregon Outback: the event that changed all-road bikes

Oregon Outback: the event that changed all-road bikes

It’s hard to believe that the first Oregon Outback, that incredible 363-mile gravel race, was just five years ago. It’s almost like we live in a different world now, so much has changed…

Back then, the idea of running a race that traversed the entire state of Oregon from south to north – on gravel roads! – seemed completely outrageous. So seemed the idea of riding the entire distance non-stop. And the idea of riding a road bike on these gravel roads. More than one rider told me at the start that they were astonished to see me on my Rene Herse for this grueling event. I am sure Ira Ryan, on his Breadwinner B-Road, heard similar comments.

A joyful crew rolled out of Klamath Falls on Memorial Day weekend in 2014. Most were on mountain bikes equipped with bikepacking gear. Nobody knew what to expect. Would it take two days or a whole week to reach the Columbia River at the other end of the state? There were few options for bailout; there was no support – this was a real adventure.

It did not take long for the race positions to shake out. By the time we reached Switchback Hill (above), there were three riders at the front. Ira Ryan was the favorite, having won the Trans Iowa race in his home state. He was riding on 35 mm tires – which was considered wide! Another strong racer was on a mountain bike. He had opted for narrower 700C tires. I was on the widest rubber, with our just-released 650B x 42 Babyshoe Pass Extralights.

I couldn’t match the speed of the other two, not helped by a broken hand that was still in a brace… With almost 300 miles to go, I settled into my own pace.

As the day wore on and the ground got softer, I could see Ira’s tracks swerving wildly from side to side. There was only one set of recent tracks, so I knew that the second rider had abandoned by now… Even on my 42 mm tires, I was struggling. And yet, on the (even softer) edge of the road, I could see the tracks of two mountain bikers who had come through here a few days earlier. Their wide tires had enabled them to ride in a straight line…
A few hours later, I reached one of the three towns on the route, where I met Ira Ryan’s camera crew. I learned that he was just 15 minutes ahead. Even though I had struggled on the loose surface, I had made up a lot of time – probably because my tires were wider.

The solitude of the long day on the road gave me time to think. I remembered how the Paris-Dakar Rally had fascinated me as a teenager. I could see parallels to the Oregon Outback: In the early Dakars, competitors used 4×4 trucks, which seemed the best vehicles to traverse the deserts of northern Africa. Then Porsche developed a four-wheel-drive version of their 911 sports car and won the Dakar in their first attempt (above).
Here in the Oregon Outback, it was obvious that the wide tires of mountain bikes provided an advantage on very loose gravel. Yet it was also clear that the mountain bikes themselves were holding back their riders on what really were roads after all. For the Dakar, Porsche had allied four-wheel drive with sports-car performance. Could we do the same and combine the wide tires of a mountain bike with the performance of a road bike?

By the time I climbed Antelope Hill, I had a plan: We’d take our all-road bikes beyond the 42 mm-wide tires that we’d been riding until then. I was certain that ultra-wide road tires would transform our bikes’ performance on gravel and other loose surfaces.

The last miles of the race went by in a blur. When I saw that Ira had written “Go Jan!” into the gravel, I knew I was on the home stretch. (Thank you, Ira, for encouraging me!)

After losing much time in the middle of the night – I back-tracked for more than an hour to make sure that I was on course – there was no hope of catching Ira. (He was faster anyhow!) My goal now was to finish in 30 hours. I redoubled my efforts and let the bike fly on the descent to the Columbia River.

I made my goal – and took the photo above after realizing that there was nobody at the finish. But I also wondered how much faster (and more fun) the ride would have been on wider tires.

Back in Seattle, I went to work on making road bikes with ultra-wide tires. My only concern was that nobody had ever ridden supple road tires that wide. Would they even be rideable? Or would the wheels bounce down the road like basketballs? Before we invested in tire molds, we needed to test this. So I asked the engineers at the factory in Japan (who makes our tires) to make prototype tires with our Extralight casing, using a mountain bike tire mold. A few weeks later, eight completely hand-made tires arrived. Now we had super-supple knobbies, but we wanted road tires.
The next step was to send the prototype tires to Peter Weigle, the famous framebuilder and constructeur. Years ago, he built a machine to shave the tread off tires, before we offered wide high-performance tires with just the right amount of tread. Peter shaved off the knobs to turn our prototype tires into slicks (above). The result were probably the most expensive bicycle tires ever made, but now we finally had 54 mm-wide, supple, slick tires that we could test.

Alex Wetmore had a 26″ bike that fit tires this wide, his Travel Gifford. We borrowed it and installed the new tires. If you look carefully, you can still see where the knobs were on the prototype tire above. It’s hard to describe our excitement: We were about to try something completely new.
Then we started testing the new tires. On gravel, the 54 mm-wide tires were amazing. The bike just cruised over stuff that would have meant serious ‘underbiking’ on 42 mm tires. It was fun!
What surprised us even more was the new tires’ performance on pavement. The grip was just incredible, both because there was so much rubber on the road and because the soft, supple tires no longer skipped over bumps. On this difficult descent in Leschi, you usually have to be cautious and brake for the bumpy turns. With the new tires, we pedaled as hard as we could, yet we weren’t able to reach the limits of grip. Did I say the testing was fun?

Knowing that the ultra-wide road tires worked as well as we had hoped, we ordered molds for two new tires: the Rat Trap Pass 26″ x 2.3″ and the Switchback Hill 650B x 48 (above). Both were revolutionary at the time, by far the widest high-performance road tires anybody had made in more than half a century. (Some very early pneumatic tires had been quite wide, too.)

There were no road bikes yet for such wide tires, so we worked with Firefly to make us a custom titanium road bike designed around the 26″ Rat Trap Pass tires. We took it to 13,000 ft (4000 m) on the Paso de Cortes in Mexico (above), where it performed even better than we had hoped. (Testing the new tires was definitely fun!)

26″ wheels make sense for tires this wide, but the 650B wheel size had more traction at this point – that is why we introduced tires for both wheel sizes. The next step was obvious: Bike makers needed an inexpensive OEM tire before they could commit to making bikes for tires this wide. As a small company specializing in high-performance components, this wasn’t something we were equipped to do.
Fortunately, others were taking note of our pioneering work. In 2016, WTB launched its Byway tires. Now there were ultra-wide 650B road tires at OEM price points. Bike manufacturers were quick to act, and before long, almost every bike maker designed bikes around this tire size. Today, the size introduced with our Switchback Hill tires has become a new industry standard.

It’s hard to believe that all this started just 5 years ago, with the first Oregon Outback, that incredible 363-mile gravel race.

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Comments (23)

  • Ridemonger

    Great post!
    I have followed and participated in the revolution. (I currently have five bikes with your tires. I default to Babyshoe xtra lites, but also have Switchbacks, Pumpkins, Rat traps, and Chinooks. I feel like a part of the family and I got a little bit of a warm spot in my stomach reading.
    Thank you for all of what you folks do!

    May 28, 2019 at 8:51 am
    • Jan Heine

      It’s been a fun journey, and it wouldn’t have been possible without our customers and friends!

      May 28, 2019 at 8:56 am
  • Ian

    Only recently have I joined in with the larger tires, but I’ve been running the Compass 700×28 on my lowracer recumbent for many years. That was the biggest that would fit. However, just got a new recumbent last week, spec’ed it with the 700×38 Barlow Pass, love it at 40psi. And looks like I probably have room for some 700×44 Snoqualmie, but might drop down to 650 and the Switchback Hill.
    Thanks for what you’ve provided to cycling. I just wish that I’d been able to convince friends and club members that this is the way to go. Still far too many on 25c tires at 100+psi.

    May 28, 2019 at 11:23 am
  • Mike M

    It really does seem like another world when 35 mm tires were considered wide. Compared to the pencil tires that dominated road cycling for decades, sure, 35mm is positively plush. As you’ve proven scientifically, and many of your customers have proven anecdotally, going wider still to 50mm+ (on supple casings), you don’t give up anything on smooth pavement or gravel (or mulch, or stonedust, or…) but you gain a lot in comfort and speed. Thanks a lot for all that you’ve done for bikes and riders over the years!

    May 28, 2019 at 12:20 pm
  • ViveLemond

    Great article. What’s amazing is how much the Switchback Hill tires are game changers relative to the already “large” Baby Shoe pass tires at 42mm. I’ve embraced the All-Road way, but much of the time felt like I was “underbiking” on 42mm tires on dirt roads and gravel. With the SBHs, this feeling is totally gone, replaced by confidence on all surfaces, greater comfort, and safety.
    Do you think it’s possible, if the frames would allow it, to continue the evolution, into maybe 60mm+ tires with supple casings? I guess the bikes already exist- Imagine a Fat Bike with tires at this level of performance!

    May 28, 2019 at 12:34 pm
  • G.

    Some readers have advocated for smaller than 26″ Compass tires, previously. How about going the opposite direction, might make penny-farthings rideable again 😉

    May 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm
  • Curtis Moran

    I purchased two different used bikes specifically to test the two tires in this post. These tires have enhanced my cycling experience tenfold. Thanks.

    May 28, 2019 at 8:42 pm
  • Steve Palincsar

    Wonderful post. Thank you for putting it all in perspective.

    May 29, 2019 at 6:14 am
  • Alan Rutherford

    Rat Trap Passes are the best tires ever.

    May 29, 2019 at 4:59 pm
  • Frank

    Hi Jan. Thanks for all of your work. Is there any demand for the BSP and SBH tyres in the new Endurance casing? I’d buy a set of each! Best. Frank

    May 30, 2019 at 12:56 am
  • mekore

    Still waiting for wide, light, modern 26″ rims..
    been using old stock araya’s for years

    May 30, 2019 at 4:25 am
    • mekore

      I mean for rim brakes

      May 30, 2019 at 8:14 am
    • Jacob Musha

      How wide and heavy are your Arayas, and where can I get some (what model are they)? Among the current selection of 26″ rim brake rims, it seems like narrow-medium widths are available at medium weights, or wide rims are available at relatively heavy weights.
      I’m sitting on my own stack of 26″ rims in the 350-370g range, but the outer width is only 21mm. I don’t have problems using these with the 52mm Rat Trap Pass, but it doesn’t seem ideal.

      May 30, 2019 at 9:33 am
  • Mike M

    One thing that strikes me is how much the RTPs and the other wide (44mm+) tires in your range resemble the tires used by the “scorchers” in old-timey photographs and illustrations. Do you have a sense of the width of those tires, and how they would compare to the RTPs?

    May 30, 2019 at 6:34 am
    • Jan Heine

      When pneumatic tires first were developed, the whole idea was that comfort equals speed, and wider was better. After all, riders just came from the narrow solid or hollow airless rubber ‘bandages’ of the aptly-named boneshakers. I’ve only measured one early pneumatic, the lovely 1890s Humber in our book The Competition Bicycle. It’s tires looked huge, but they measured just 43 mm wide.
      The only high-performance tires that were nearly as wide as the Switchback Hills were the ‘ballon’ tires that Vélocio promoted in the 1920s. Those were almost 50 mm wide. In fact, a friend in France put a set of Switchbacks on a 1920s R.P.F. and it was a perfect fit.

      May 30, 2019 at 8:56 am
  • John Bayley

    I’m not sure I agree with the statement, “[…] Rat Trap Pass 26″ x 2.3″ and the Switchback Hill 650B x 48 (above). Both were revolutionary at the time, by far the widest high-performance road tires anybody had made in more than half a century.” I used the Jobst Brandt designed Avocet City 26×1.9″ smooth treaded road tyres (https://www.harriscyclery.net/product/avocet-26-x-1.9-fasgrip-city-1320.htm) extensively from the early ’90s, mostly on tandem, until supplies dried up in 201?. I know you don’t like Avocet tyres and disagree with Jobst’s view (and extensive real-world testing) on smooth treads, but they were high performance road tyres that measured the same width as Switchback Hills and offered precisely the benefits you describe.
    And, speaking of gravel races, Pamela and I won the tandem division in New Zealand’s long-running (since ’96) Rainbow Rage “gravel” race (http://www.rainbowrage.co.nz/race-info/) in 2003, I think, on either those tyres or Ritchey SpeedMax. I mention that not to boast, but rather to point out that little to nothing in the cycling world is truly new.

    May 30, 2019 at 9:01 am
    • Jan Heine

      I think you are comparing apples to oranges here. You are right that there were attempts to make higher-performance tires in wider widths, but none ever used ultra-supple casings like we use on our Rene Herse tires. Those Avocets and Ritcheys were fast touring tires, not wide racing tires, and that is a fundamental difference.
      The weight of the 26″ x 1.9″ Avocet Fasgrip was listed at 635 g. That is 50% more than the Rat Trap Pass Extralight (418 g) – and the Rat Trap is wider. The Avocets were listed as a 66 tpi casing, and, based on the belief that high pressures made a tire roll fast, they were rated to an astounding 80 psi. Tires like that tested (reasonably) well in Jobst’s steel drum tests, but on the road, they always felt sluggish to me. I rode them back in the day, too, but I was always happy to return to my racing bike with its more supple, faster-rolling racing tubulars.
      Even today, nobody else is making really wide tires with ultra-supple high-performance casings from racing tubulars. I had great hopes for Vittoria’s gravel tires, but they are made to the specs of Geax mountain bike tires, rather than scaled up versions of their Corsa racing tires. I suspect the market for truly high-performance tires is too small to be worth while for these big makers.
      You are right, though, that there isn’t much new in the cycling world, but you have to go back to the 1940s. All the old randonneurs fondly remembered the hand-made Barreau clinchers. They used true high-performance casings – both in the tubulars made for professional racers and in the wide clinchers that Rene Herse and other used on their bikes for the Concours de Machines. Those stories and seeing those tires inspired us to develop our Compass (now Rene Herse) tires in the first place. And yet, even the old Barreaus ran to a maximum of 42 mm. That is why we were in such uncharted waters when we decided that we wanted 60% more air. A 54 mm road tire with a supple tubular casing wasn’t something anybody alive had ever ridden.

      May 30, 2019 at 9:53 am
      • Jan Heine

        Lest I forget, there were also the Campionato del Mondo tubulars. They measured only 28 mm or so, but they had the same casings as the narrower racing tubulars. At the time, 28 mm was huge, and the Del Mondos showed us that wider tires could actually roll faster than narrow ones. I fondly remember an old Cinelli that I rode with those tires. It seemed incredibly fast, so I decided to try that bike for racing. Of course, I put my race wheels (with their narrow tires) on – and the magic speed of the Cinelli disappeared. Back then, it was a mystery to me – hindsight is always 20/20!

        May 30, 2019 at 10:00 am
  • Stuart Fogg

    Please forgive me if this has been asked before: is it OK to use significantly different widths front and rear? My fork will easily accommodate a 60-622 but my chainstays are tight with a 48-622 and probably wouldn’t take anything wider on 584 rims. I’m thinking extra width at the front might help steering on really loose or chunky surfaces but there must be other considerations I’m missing.

    May 30, 2019 at 12:31 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Good question. I think it depends on how different the width is. At some point, the different radii of the tires probably will affect how the bike leans into turns. We haven’t tested that…

      May 30, 2019 at 9:05 pm
  • Martin Rahn

    I used the Rat Trap Extralight for the Route of Caravans in Marocco and they managed the rough gravel and occasional rocky trails so much better than the mountainbike tires of my friend. He had to replace them after 400km due to ripped profils, my ones still looks like new.

    May 31, 2019 at 11:44 pm

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