“Mmmmm, so supple”-Me.
Of all the component options that you can put on a gravel bike, tires are the thing that causes the most stress and the most debate. What size, tread pattern, and pressure you choose can completely change how your bike handles in different conditions, and your tire choice can definitely make or break a given ride.
I’ve ridden a lot of tires over the years in different conditions and they all have their pros and cons depending upon where you’re going and what you’re trying to do. This results in having to change out tires more often than I’d like, while also sacrificing speed or traction somewhere on the route.
In all of the tires I’ve tried, I’ve never found one that handled like a road tire on pavement, but also chewed through mud and sand while gripping hard on loose climbs. In fact, the tire I just described sounds like a myth, and once you’ve ridden enough different tread and sidewall combinations, you realize that a lot of the marketing about rubber compounds, sidewalls, and rolling resistance is just that: marketing. It’s just a bunch of words to stamp on a sidewall to differentiate one company’s offering from another.
I actually held off on trying Compass / Rene Herse tires for quite a while, and in hindsight, that was a huge mistake. It just seemed impossible that what I had read and heard could be more than just hype. After all, I had ridden the best tires that the biggest companies had to offer, and they probably knew a lot more about tires than this guy in Seattle with a penchant for wool jerseys and toe cages, right? Right?
It was a Podcast with Jan Heine that finally got me to pull the trigger. Jan Heine is the founder of Compass, which later became Rene Herse (I don’t have the time to go into the whole history there, but if you’re inclined, you can find it here, and it is really quite interesting). After hearing him talk first hand about his passion, the research, the testing, and the sheer amount of time and energy that he has personally invested, I decided I’d give them a try.
Rene Herse tires come in two different treads: knobby or slick, that’s it. Each tread is offered in a multitude of sizes, and each size comes in three different casings (extralight, standard, and endurance). Each size has its own name, and the tires are named after famous ridgelines and mountain passes (mostly here in the PNW).
*I’d like to note that this a great shift from some of the more common tire names that sound like you are going out to destroy nature instead of enjoy it.
In any case, I have both the Oracle Ridge in 700c x 48 and the Humptulips Ridge in 26 x 2.3, and other than the obvious size differences, they handle identically.
The Mythical Tire Is No Myth
So, let’s just get right into it; The Oracle Ridge is a lot of tire. Is it really possible for a 48mm tire with huge knobs to maintain great traction on every unpaved surface, but still roll fast and handle predictably on pavement? Yes it can, and I know it’s high praise, but there is no other tire that comes close.
When inflated, Rene Herse tires have a rounded profile with flat and slick knobs, which maintain that rounded profile. This means that when you are on pavement, you can ride as aggressively as you would on a road slick and this knobby tire will corner low and fast while sticking to the tarmac.
This is a rather genius design because cornering at speed with a squared profile or super knobby shoulder can get really scary, really quickly. The tread pattern also makes very little road noise and therefore, little to no road buzz is transmitted into the handlebars.
You can expect similar handling when you venture onto fast rolling hard pack, but where things get so surprising is when you get into loose or muddy conditions. The knobs are spaced far enough apart that the tire will shed mud quite easily, keeping you moving through the wet stuff. They also grip tenaciously into loose corners and climbs allowing you to steer with confidence and not break traction when things get steep. They even handle dry, sandy conditions quite well as the knobs act like little paddles, keeping you afloat and maintaining control.
They also happen to be lighter with a more supple sidewall than any other tire I’ve run of a similar size. In fact, not only are they are lighter than both the 45mm WTB Riddler and the 47mm Teravail Cannonball, the supple casing creates a ride that is livelier, comfier, and faster than either of them.
Does all of this mean that you can run a 48mm tire and be as fast as you are on a 32mm tire? Maybe, it depends on the construction of the other tire, but probably not. It’s still a lot of tire with a big contact patch and a lot of weight to keep in rotation. What it does mean, is that you can get the benefits of a relatively giant tire without suffering the typical consequences.
Think about it like this, due to its lightweight, supple casing, and its tread pattern, the 48mm Oracle Ridge feels like a lot less tire when you’re actually pedaling it. You almost forget that you have all that tire underneath you until you go running over roots and big chunky rocks, and it reminds you that there are very few obstacles you can’t traverse.
Now, while I am a huge proponent of Bigger is Better, don’t stress if you can’t fit a 48mm tire in your frame, or if the terrain you ride would never require a tire of that size. They also make a 42 and a 38, as well as several options in 650b.
Setting them up tubeless was not an issue for me, however, I have had some issues getting Rene Herse tires to seat in the past. I set up some Barlow and Bon Jon Passes for a client and I had to inflate them with a tube the first time, and then break one side of the bead and reseat (both of those were the extralight casing). After that initial setup, they were fine, but be aware that some folks have reported some issues.
Overall, I have to say that any hype surrounding Rene Herse is anything but hype. Jan Heine is extremely passionate about what he does, designing tires that he wants to ride in the unpaved reaches of the Pacific Northwest. The fact that Lael Wilcox and Ted King both ride them also speaks volumes, as I will undoubtedly never put a tire through what either of them will.