When I was growing up we called unpaved roads dirt roads. I still call them dirt roads. No pavement on it? That is a dirt road. Northern New Hampshire lingo, what can I say.
The bike industry seems to have decide "gravel" is de rigueur. Ok, I guess. However, again where I come from, gravel comes from a pit, and a gravel pit is where you go to get the dirt with which you build non-paved roads. You have your bank run gravel, your crushed gravel, your screened gravel. It all comes from the gravel pit. I am genetically gifted in this regard as my father operated a gravel pit and built dirt roads for a living. He was in the "dirt work" business. "Gravel work "just doesn't have that same ring to it, does it?
I also did a stint as a "shallow soil excavation specialist" which provided me with a breadth and depth of first hand experience. I am, in fact, quite intimate with dirt.
Now that definitions are out of the way, lets talk about dirt wheels. I love riding bikes on dirt. A wealth of low traffic dirt roads exist in Vermont, my home for the past 25 years or so. Any 700c based ride that I do is a mixed terrain ride. Pavement, typically in poor condition, to a lovely ribbon of dirt that runs along flat river valleys, or up and down the steep flanks of the Green Mountains, or the rolling scenic ridge lines. In the summer I routinely make 110 miles runs to New Hampshire to go to the lake (New Hampshire has the best lakes) on a route that has miles of flat pavement, two 1200 foot climbs, two 1200 foot descents, and finishes with 20 miles of rolling dirt roads before the final 20 miles of short, steep, grunty little pavement punchers typical of the lakes regions, and then a water crossing. Pretty "mixed", especially if I swim the last bit.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have access to a lot of wheels. I try to ride them all in all conditions. Some people call that "product development" but I just get bored easily. My rotation of 700c wheels ranges from a wide, shallow, box section aluminum on my vintage Vitus 979, to the 35mm deep carbon clincher rim brake NEXT:QUICK on my Vitus Carbone 9, 55mm deep carbon rim brake NEXT:FAST on my Specialized Allez Sprint. Moving on to disc bikes, I run a 55mm deep carbon NEXT:FAST disc on my Zaconato double ring equipped "do it allroad". All of the above are running 23mm, 25mm, or 28mm wide Specialized Turbo, Shwalbe Pro One, or Vittoria Corsa tires (both in tubed and tubeless).
Getting wider, I keep a set of NEXT:Xplor with 30mm Shwalbe G One Speeds that I swap onto the Zanc, and then I have a matching Zanconato disc single ring bike with sliding drop outs for either 1x11 or single speed upon which I alternate a set of NEXT:Rule shod with Vittoria Terrano Dry (35mm) or Shwalbe G One All Around (38mm) and a pair of NEXT:Xplor+ 650b (road plus) wheels mounted with WTB Byways (47mm). Of course I have a quiver of tubulars for cross but let's ignore that for now.
Then I guess have some mountain bikes, too....
I may not get as many miles in as a lot of people, but I darn it if I don't rank up there with the best of them when it comes to rolling stock. Here are my (current) opinions on wheel and tire selection, YMMV:
[Disclaimer: the opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of NEXT Cycling, LLC. Oh wait, no, nope, I guess they sort of do. NVM.]
- Fast group road rides and racing: I like a 25 true width most of the time, in general, but often run a 23 up front and a 25 in the back, which open up to 25 and 27 on my 19.5 internal hooked rims. I inflate to pretty low pressures. 75 to 90 PSI (I am let's say 155# most of the time). I don't love 28mm tires, at least on the front, for racing speeds and handling. At my size a supple 25mm tire is all I need.
- Pavement and dirt mixed rides: New England dirt tends to be moist, which tends to drive the rocks down into the dirt and create a pretty smooth track with maybe some loose rock on the verges and lots of pot holes and ruts. If my route is mostly pavement I am going to grab a road bike with the 25s set up at maybe 65 to 85 PSI. Pressure is meaningless unless you weigh the same as me, but it is a data point. I rarely flat and if I do it is on from debris on the pavement, not rocks on the dirt roads. In general I think people "over bike" for dirt roads but to each his own.
- Endurance and exploration road rides: My century rides over the mountains into NH are long days in the saddle. I am old enough that my body needs a little help. Sometimes I grab the racey road wheels with 25s, but I usually regret it around 80 miles in. My preferred is a 28mm slick on the Xplor wheels. At 28-30 wide at the rim on a 30mm wide rim, they cut through the air very efficiently, which really adds up when your speed is 19-22 mph for several hours. The added suspension cushioning of the wider tires at say 55PSI in the front REALLY helps with my hands, arms, shoulders and neck. It makes for a very pleasant(er) 9 hour day on the bike. Anything 3 hours or over I think I actually prefer this set up. There is a little bit of a mental block to overcome as I think we most all still have a bit of wide tire stigma for fast road riding, but the science is quite convincing that wider on a wide optimized aero rim is as fast or faster with only a small weight penalty. It sure rides nice. I would not want to do a 6 corner crit on them but if you are just out for a ride, why not? There is really no downside.
- Fast Gravel Grinders: Dirt Drinders? For fast dirt road rides or those with a minimum of pavement, or if it is early or late in the year so the roads are soft or muddy, a 32 file tread that will generally measure 35mm on the rim is my go to. At 50PSI a file tread will run almost as fast as a road tire, and faster if the conditions are not perfect. I like the grip and flotation of the 32-35 file in sketchy bits, but generally I find anything more than that in width or tread to be slugglish. This set up was great at a fast (nutso!!) "race" like Paris to Ancaster even though sections were pretty loose.
- "Epic" Gravel Grinders or Mud Runs: This seems to be an emerging genre here in New England with all of the Overland races and Raspititsa and the IRR (which thankfully I have never tried to complete). For a ride like that, if conditions are not PERFECT, I will git skeered and bump up to the 38mm tire or if it has legit trails with roots and stuff, the Road+ wheels. The single ring bike is nice in that with a direct mount ring I can gear up and down for the wheel/tire combo and course conditions. Yes, I like to over think things.
- Rocky Gravel Grinders: The mid-west and western states have what I will begrudgingly call "gravel" roads. Events like Dirty Kanza, wow. It is a dirt road strewn with huge, sharp edged rocks. Also we went over some crazy town stuff at the Belgian Waffle Ride in Carlsbad, for example. For dirt roads that are not our lovely New England humidity absorbing brown ribbons but are dry, where the rocks come to and stay on the surface, I think you want to run a wide, burly tire. The Maxxis Rambler is popular, and many people find a 40mm or larger tire to be required to avoid punctures. Not my cup of tea, and I do have limited first hand experience on that rocky stuff, but I have a wave of sponsored riders who race across the country that I constantly squeeze for feedback and tire beta.
- Rides that hit trails: The road plus is cool. A tire with a center file and side knobs will scoot along on pavement but then you can air down really low and it becomes a drop bar mountain bike. If conditions warranted a tire with full tread, I would ride a mountain bike.
What is next? What do I want to try more? This summer I want to give pure Road Plus pavement riding with a light, supple, slick tire an open mind or honest effort. Currently, I don't think that is the hot ticket for Road Plus, though I think it is really great for a bike like the Cannondale Slate that is meant to go anywhere. Part of my hesitance is likely my "old roadie bias". That is why I want to really give it a fair shake this year commuting around and on a century ride. And as always I want to continue to test as many cyclocross tires set up tubeless as I possibly can. I still prefer a tubular for racing, but I often find myself on tubeless because I have not had a proper, serious, cyclocross season in several years.
I hope this has been helpful as you try to decide what NEXT wheels and tire set up might be best suited for you. There will be a Part 2 specific to wheels, but for now read this and then jump over to our Allroad Wheel Guide.
Now go hit some dirt roads!