Part of the versatility of a monstercross bike is that its use can change based on what tires you run. Jon Severson of Monstercross News is back with a look at some of his favorite tires and how they can change the character of a monstercross bike.
by Jon Severson
Suggesting the idea one only needs three or four bikes, much less maybe one or two, sounds sacrilegious in this N+1 mindset of bike ownership. Marketing tells us we need an aero gravel bike or two-night bikepacking steed.
It can seem dull to suggest simplification, but fear not, one bike does not mean you have to limit your choices. It’s a great excuse to become a tire fanatic, which is also a free pass to own multiple wheels. If you’re a singlespeed person, it’s an excuse to also own a slew of freewheels (or cogs) and chain rings. It’s fun to see what works best on which terrain.
For the space I have today, I’ll simply focus on my personal tire favorites I keep in rotation on my own monstercross bike and why. Cyclocross Magazine published a similar high-volume knobby round-up earlier this year, but this is my own take. It doesn’t mean these are the best, and it doesn’t mean a tire released in the near future won’t roll past these to become my top choice. These are just my current personal favorites.
[Editor’s note: Jon Severson has been hired in the past for contract work with Panaracer and Soma but did not work on the mentioned products.]
The Seven Tires
My favorite tires for monster crossin’ are Panaracer FireCross, Bruce Gordon Rock n’ Road, Soma Cazadero (42mm & 50mm), Ritchey Megabite, 45Nrth Gravdal, Panaracer Gravel King SK (43mm), and Soma Supple Vitesse 48mm.
Panaracer Fire Cross
Based on the legendary Fire XC Pro that Panaracer launched in the 1990s, this 45mm-wide beauty was the first I ran when I built up my Surly Crosscheck years ago with dirt drops. [Ed. note: It’s not the first 45mm knobby from Panaracer, as Mark McCormack used a 45mm Smoke to take silver at the snowy 1995 Cyclocross National Championships.]
Pros: Unbeatable off-road control/grip in all conditions and brilliant in snow.
Cons: Heavy and slow rolling (well, in comparison to the rest).
Bruce Gordon Rock n’ Road
Call it the first gravel tire. Call it the first 29er tire. Either way, you’d be right.
This tire Joe Murray designed for Bruce Gordon re-released at 2012 NAHBS came out in the 80s and was originally made by CST back then and now made by Panaracer for Bruce. If I could only ride one set of tires, well, this would be it.
Pros: Fast rolling, Lightweight, supple casing. Not bad in sand, actually.
Cons: Not great in snow. Not easy to find in shops. Not fantastic in mud.
Originally offered in 42mm only and now available in a 50mm, the 42mm tire is a touch narrower than the Bruce Gordons and a similar weight. The 50mm is heavier, of course, but the extra cush is nice. It is also made by Panaracer.
Pros: Rolls very fast on pavement. Great for mixed use. Oddly works very well in snow for a tire designed in the Bay Area. Predictable in mud. 50mm is like cheap suspension.
Cons: 50mm is noticeable heavier and not as fast rolling as the 42mm.
Fun fact is that Ritchey used to make a slew of 38mm-42mm wide tires in the 90s for a few years when they used to offer the Mount Cross bike (kind of a 29er/monstercross/gravel bike ahead of its time). The modern Megabite, or the Mount Cross V2, is a 38mm wide tire, which fits in on the bottom end of the monstercross spectrum.
Pros: Lightweight knobby that rolls quite well. Fits a lot of old hybrid/27” touring frames, great in dry, hardpack conditions.
Cons: Lack of volume makes for a harsher ride. Packs up with mud easily.
This is a studded winter tire with 252 metal studs that measures in at 38mm and has reflective sidewalls. The set I have is the lower thread count wire bead version, and it’s not a tire I need every winter, but when it’s icy nothing beats it. Also available in a nicer folding, concave carbide-studded, 127tpi version.
Pros: Nothing beats it in icy conditions. 5mm reflective strip really makes you visible. Fits a lot of ’cross bikes as well as many old hybrid/27” touring frames.
Cons: Heavy and very condition specific.
Panaracer Gravel King SK 43mm version
Panaracer’s Gravel King SK tire is something that kind of reminds you of the old semi-slick tires of the 1990s and is a well-proven tire in the gravel communities. For me, it’s primarily a rear tire.
Pros: Fastest rolling of the tires with tread, no doubt. Puncture resistant casing. Handles sand better than expected. Great set of tires for forays into gravel rides.
Cons: Not a great front tire for all-around conditions. Off-road it can feel out of its league.
Soma Supple Vitesse 48mm
I’ll admit, when Soma gave me a set of these I tried them out just to be nice. My gut told me these really wouldn’t be a great monstercross tire. Hell, I just wanted to put them on for a week so I could give feedback and get to mounting up the Cazadero 50s that I felt I’d put my real time in on.
The Supple Vitesses ended up staying on my bike for two months thanks to it being exceptionally dry. The extra-supple “tubular casing” and thin yet durable rubber with a hint of tread shine when you get to that low-pressure sweet spot. Oddly, on and off-road, these ripped and gripped better than expected.
[Ed. Note: The Vitesse is good alternative to the supple but fragile Compass Bon Jon Pass tire we’ve reviewed, but they are not tubeless.]
Pros: Very fast rolling. Smooths out the ride like no other. Oddly grippy.
Cons: Mud and loose sand are its enemy. Extra supple casing means extra thin, likelihood of slicing a sidewall is greater than the rest.
Your Quiver of Tires
As you can imagine, the above tire selection really changes how one uses a monstercross bike. Throw on the FireCross and your bike is more off-road singletrack ripping machine than all-arounder or a wet snow machine. The Cazadero and Bruce Gordon tires really split the difference between on and off-road like no other here on Colorado’s Front Range because they are nimble yet still comfortable.
The Ritchey Megabite is great for sneaking into a cyclocross race or having a fast all-around set of tires.
The Panaracer Gravel King SKs are for dedicated gravel use or for use in the rear with a Cazadero or Rock n’ Road up front when conditions are dry. Sometimes the Rock n’ Road up front with the Cazadero in the rear. Sometimes when conditions demand early in the season, the Fire Cross up front gives me the control I need when it’s wet or loose with a Rock n’ Road or Cazadero in the rear.
Having the Gravdal and Supple Vitesse in the quiver of tires is more of a luxury, but I can’t imagine not having them. During many of our Colorado winters, I find the Fire Cross front/rear or sometimes just front with the Cazadero in the rear does the job. Sometimes the Cazadero 50s front/rear or just front with a 42mm in the rear stays on the bike from fall through spring.
But when I need it, the Gravdal is like a good pair of winter boots. Don’t always need it, but you’re glad you have it.
The Supple Vitesse? I still throw them on from time to time because they roll great on pavement and they always surprise me how well they grip off-road. They just make the bike feel like a totally different machine to me.
Now again, this is just me. I’m 220lbs when I’m really in shape, 235-240lbs when old injuries or a new pizza joint come into my life. I live on the south end of Front Range in Colorado where it’s dry and sunny 320 days a year. I’m not training for anything, and I just ride to ride.
For most, the Cazadero and Rock n’ Roads will serve you year round just fine in most parts of the world. For others, one or two of the other tires may make sense. Or maybe none of these speak to you. WTB, Kenda, Maxxis and others make tires these days in 40-45mm wide variations that no doubt work great.
This is just what I’ve found works for me over the last decade or so.
For more monstercross content, see Severson’s column archive.