By Lars Hundley
How obtained: Cold hard cash, full price.
Available: online at the René Herse site.
RBR Sponsor: no
Tested: 20+ hours
- Maximum cushioning due to higher air volume
- No knobbies? No problem. Floats over gravel
- Amazingly fast on pavement too
- The best doesn’t come cheap
If you’re not familiar with the René Herse brand, it might be because you don’t know that Jan Heine changed his company’s branding from the previous name, Compass Tires. These are still the same tires from before, and they are still manufactured for him by Panaracer in Japan, to his standards and specifications.
I’ve been riding Switchback Hill Extralight tires on my Giant Revolt gravel bike for almost two months now. I bought them specifically for a gravel event, where they performed spectacularly, even with the smooth tread.
I was a little worried about the lack of knobbies when I ordered them, but read that the tire’s design was inspired by a gravel race in Oregon that has a lot of loose gravel, along with 30 percent pavement over the course.
I decided that if Jan Heine was willing to specifically mention “loose gravel” in the description, then I would take a chance on them. And it paid off. No flats on the 70 mile gravel grinder. Great control, even through deep gravel corners, where they float over the top rather than frighteningly plowing in like a narrow tire often does. The additional width easily made up for the lack of knobbies.
An added bonus was that all the extra air volume in the big tires let me run a pressure of just 34 pounds, which provided noticeable cushioning on the rough gravel. And even with such low pressure, they roll incredibly fast on pavement, which was an advantage during the high speed start that took us on asphalt the first five miles until we hit gravel.
After the event, I ended up keeping the 650b wheels and those tires on the bike, and have been riding the Revolt as my road bike most of the time. Once you experience the comfort of such a high volume tire, you don’t want to go back to a mere 25 mm or 28 mm tire unless you have to.
But what about fast group rides on pavement with other roadies?
I was very curious about how I’d do on a group ride with these, because these tires aren’t just a little bit wide. They’re extremely wide, at 48 mm. They look like a mountain bike tire — and they even stood out and got questions at the start at my gravel event, where most riders were on 38 mm to 42 mm tires.
I had read on Jan Heine’s blog that wide tires are just as fast as narrow tires all the way up to 54 mm wide, and all the way up to 22 mph, which was as wide and fast as he tested. Would that really be the case for me?
Let me tell you with complete awe that it is 100 percent true. I was able to keep up on several hard rides, and I perceived zero disadvantage of running such a huge tire. It didn’t feel like I was working harder to turn them.
It’s like having a secret weapon. Other riders see the giant tires and first assume that you are going to quickly get dropped when the pace speeds up. And then they decide that you must really be a strong rider to hang on with tires that big and wide. I got several comments about them, and separate compliments for riding well.
I have my Switchback Hill tires set up tubeless, with Orange Seal as my sealant. The tires mounted easily, and were easy to seat on the rim. In fact, I couldn’t find my Schraeder to Presta adapter and wasn’t able to use my compressor to seat them like usual. I was still able to seat them using a CO2 cartridge. It only took one cartridge in the front, but it did take me a couple of attempts with the back tire. You can also ride these tires with tubes.
These are not the only René Herse tires that I own, by the way. I have run 700 x 32 mm Stampede Pass tires on my Felt road bike, which is the widest that they will accept. Those tires also roll as fast as 25 mm tires.
I first learned about the Compass Tire / René Herse brand when I was just a reader of Road Bike Rider. It was this article by Jan Heine himself that opened my eyes to the world of wider tires and lower tire pressure for increased comfort, less rolling resistance, and better grip.
And now, after experiencing the speed and comfort of this ultra wide Switchback Hill tire, I’ve concluded that my next “pure” road bike is almost certainly going to be a gravel / all-road style frame that allows very wide tires, and both 650b and 700c wheels.
What’s the downside? I don’t race criteriums anymore, so I just don’t see any.