In early January I headed out to Cumberland State Forest to do a little recon and mapping for a spring gravel ride.
I took this opportunity to finally test out a pair of the Switchback Hills tire from Compass Cycles. This tire is a tubeless ready 650bx48mm slick that is touted to be ideal for a variety of surfaces.
First a quick rundown of what we’re dealing with here. Compass has been contracting with Panaracer for several years now to make tires to their spec. Essentially, they have requested the lightest, most supple casings Panaracer can make combined with the best rubber compound as well. Not all that long ago they finally started making most of their tires tubeless compatible. For this tire and for the ride it was tested on, this is key. For anyone who has been following the blog or just talked to any of the staff, you know we’re big believers in tubeless tire systems as well as the 650B wheel size. However, up until this point, I had personally been using WTB 650b tires on my primary bike, which have bit heavier construction for a good balance between durability and ride. Compass tires have often been on my other bike, but usually in a 35mm wide 700c tire. But like I said, this was the day to try the Switchback Hills tire.
For the ride we did in the state forest I would have to say that they live up to their billing.
After kitting up and checking our bikes we rolled out of the parking lot in Bear Creek Lake. The route starts out with a bit of pavement and a short climb from the base of the lake’s dam. I immediately noticed that the tires themselves didn’t seem to feel any appreciably slower than the much narrower 35mm versions I had been riding before. Before loading up the bike that morning I had put about 35psi in the tires and that seemed to be good. Once we turned left onto the first unpaved forest service road of the ride things really got good though. The combination of the high volume size of the tire with its construction made for a pretty incredible ride. Despite the surface being mostly hardpacked dirt and crushed gravel peppered with larger chunks and bumps the feel wasn’t much different than the tarmac we had just left. The tires just seemed to conform perfectly to the varying surface of the dirt road as I rolled along, soaking up any harshness that the surface generated.
Smoothing out the terrain for a more comfortable ride was not where the finer points of this end though. It was clear that on this surface this was a faster tire as well. I seemed to be working less most of the time than my riding companion that was on 34mm x 700c WTB Exposure tires. The faster we went and the bumpier the road was, the more this tire shines. On several downhill sections to many of the old bridge crossings in the state forest, I found myself seemingly floating away from James and his narrower tires. Climbing back up from these crossings I never felt the bit of sluggish lag usually associated with a wider tire. The claimed weight per tire is only 57 grams lighter than the WTB Byways I often run, so while this is a factor it would seem that it’s not the only factor at play.
Also, while most of the route we were on lacked much in the way of cornering, it was obvious that the tires provided a better than average amount of grip for a “slick” tire due to their size.
Late in the ride when we turned onto the longest paved part of the route my feelings that these tires were plenty fast on pavement was confirmed. Despite the cold and my relative lack of fitness at this time of year, I still floated along at brisker pace than I would have expected. While I wouldn’t ever claim that these are in the same class as a true skinny racing tire when it comes to speed (nor would I foolishly show up on a FAST road ride with them an expect anything other than getting dropped) given their size and capabilities the Switchback Hills is still a pretty remarkable tire.
For my birthday ride in March, I’ll be returning to this same route and I will absolutely be riding these tires again for the occasion.
More on this killer 75% gravel ride, next week.