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Gravel riding can mean all sorts of things, depending on where a rider chooses to ride. While there is some expectation than an amount of unpaved terrain will be involved, this can range from a groomed path to rugged and remote terrain. Needless to say, the choice of equipment, especially tyres, becomes increasingly important as the terrain gets more demanding.
In this regard, high volume tubeless tyres are a good choice for testing conditions because they provide more traction, grip, and puncture-resistance than narrower, road-oriented offerings. Just how much of each will depend upon the construction of the tyre and the nature of the tread.
This is something that Maxxis understands well, which is why they have a range of seven gravel tyres on offer with different casings and tread designs. Matt Wikstrom recently put three of these tyres to the test, which featured increasingly aggressive tread patterns, to learn more about what Maxxis has to offer gravel riders.
- What: Three high-volume tubeless gravel tyres with different casings and tread designs to suit distinct riding conditions.
- Key features: 700 x 40C, 60tpi or 120tpi single-ply casing, tubeless-compatible, dual-compound tread, puncture/cut-resistant layers, carbon fibre bead.
- Price: Ravager, AU$80 | US$64 | £60; Rambler, AU$85 | US$64 | £60; Re-Fuse, AU$85 | US$64 | £55.
- Weight: Ravager, 479g; Rambler, 417g; Re-Fuse, 518g.
- Highs: Each tyre works as advertised, pleasing choice of tread designs, some extra options for the casing of some models.
- Lows: Ravager missing 650B/27.5in option.
Maxxis is a tyre brand that a lot of cyclists, especially MTBers, will recognise. As familiar as the brand may be, Maxxis is a relatively new face for a company, Cheng Shin Rubber, that has been making tyres since 1967. The Taiwanese company started out manufacturing bicycle tyres, but in the years since then, it has expanded its interests to include all sorts of automotive and motorcycle tyres to become the ninth largest tyre manufacturer in the world.
Clearly, the company has plenty of experience with tyres, and it shows in the range of tyres that can be found in the current Maxxis bicycle tyre catalogue. There is something on offer for almost every discipline, though it’s fair to say that the brand enjoys its strongest reputation with off-road riders.
When it comes to gravel-oriented tyres, Maxxis currently has seven models: three (Raze, All Terrane, and Speed Terrane) are borrowed from cyclocross, so are limited to a width of 33C, while the other four models are available in a plumper 40C width with either a slick tread (Re-Fuse and Velocita AR) or knobbies (Rambler and Ravager).
All but the Raze are tubeless tyres, a feature that has to be counted as nearly indispensable for gravel riding. That doesn’t mean these tyres can’t be used with tubes, though; like any tubeless tyre, buyers are free to use them with inner tubes if they would rather avoid sealants and the vagaries of specific tubeless tyre/rim compatibility.
Three tubeless tyres with three different treads
The candidates for this review — Ravager, Rambler and Re-Fuse — were supplied by Lusty Industries and chosen on the basis of two criteria: first, tubeless compatibility; and second, a 40C width. At face value, the latter may seem an arbitrary preference — and to a certain extent it is, fashioned by my bias for rugged terrain — however gravel bikes are tending to provide more tyre clearance in the name of versatility. In this regard, tyre width resembles sprocket size, because neither are any fun to ride when they are too small for the terrain ahead.
Selecting this trio of tyres provided a pleasing progression in tread design from a near slick (Re-Fuse) to a true knobby (Ravager) with a Goldilocks option (Rambler) in between. When viewed side-by-side, some riders will be able to make some educated guesses at the strengths and weaknesses of each. Failing that, Maxxis ranks each in terms of two key features: cornering control and rolling efficiency.
Accordingly, Maxxis promises that the Re-Fuse offers the greatest rolling efficiency of the three, but this is coupled with the least amount of cornering control. The Ravager, by contrast, provides the maximum amount of cornering control with much less rolling efficiency, while the Rambler improves upon the weaknesses of each, especially cornering control, without shining in either regard.
Maxxis even goes so far as to provide a terrain guide for each tyre: the Re-Fuse is designed for hard pack only; the Rambler can contend with hard pack, with or without a loose covering; and the Ravager is best suited to medium, even loose, conditions. Importantly, none of these tyres are specifically designed to contend with wet or muddy terrain, so for those riders that enjoy getting filthy will have to look elsewhere for a suitable tyre.
Maxxis uses two rubber compounds to create the tread for each of these tyres, one underlaying the other. A firm compound is used for the foundation of the tread, while a second, softer compound, serves the surface. In the case of the Ravager and Rambler, the same combination of compounds is used, so the only difference between the tread of each is the size and shape of the knobs.
More differences below the tread
The Ravager, Rambler and Re-Fuse all feature single-ply casings with 60tpi or 120tpi to which at least one extra layer of material is added for puncture- and/or tear-resistance. In the case of the Re-Fuse, the 60tpi casing is bolstered with two extra layers of protection, one layer of so-called SilkShield that runs from bead-to-bead, and a layer of K2 (a proprietary version of Kevlar) for the centre of the tread. This combination maximises puncture-resistance, but it increases the final weight of the tyre, such that it was the heaviest of the three tyres reviewed here.
Maxxis gives buyers a choice of two casings for the Ravager and Rambler. The first option combines 60tpi casing with SilkShield, similar to the Re-Fuse; the second is 120tpi casing with so-called EXO protection, where an extra layer of material is used to line the sidewalls to specifically protect the tyre against cuts and abrasions from rocks. Aside from the difference in fortification, there’s also a difference in weight, such that tyres with 60tpi/SilkShield are ~10% heavier than those with 120tpi/EXO.
The samples provided for this review all featured carbon fibre folding beads that Maxxis believes is better suited to higher tyre pressures. That seems like overkill for a 40C tyre, but given that a lot of cyclists tend to over-inflate their tyres, at least for road use, the extra bead strength may be warranted. Be that as it may, the maximum recommended pressure for each tyre is a modest (yet sensible) 75psi/5.2bar.
Weight, price, and options
Of the three tyres supplied for this review, the Rambler (120tpi/EXO casing) was the lightest at 417g; the Ravager (120tpi/EXO casing) weighed 479g; and the Re-Fuse was 518g. Compared to conventional road tyres, these weights may seem high, however they are close to the norm for a 700 x 40C tyre (e.g. Schwalbe’s tubeless G-One Allround weighs ~460g). For those hoping to save some weight, the Velocita AR is the lightest gravel tyre in the Maxxis catalogue with a claimed weight of 380g (120tpi/EXO casing).
The Ravager, Rambler, and Re-Fuse all sell for around the same price — AU$80-85 | US$64 | £55-60 — regardless of casing choice. At present, the Ravager is available in one size only, 700 x 40C; the Rambler is available three sizes, 700 x 38C, 700 x 40C, and 27.5 x 1.50in; and the Re-fuse is also available in three sizes, 700 x32C, 700 x 40C, and 27.5 x 2.00in.
Three distinct tread designs makes for three distinct tyres
After spending a few weeks comparing the Ravager, Rambler, and Re-Fuse, the results weren’t surprising because each lived up to the performance ratings and terrain recommendations provided by Maxxis.
All three tyres were tested on one bike, a Specialized Crux Pro, where the 40-41mm measured width for each came close to challenging the amount of clearance the frame had to offer. I expected the knobby Ravager to take up more room than the Re-Fuse, and while the knobs added to the overall width and height of the tyre, it was only a matter of an extra 1-2mm, depending on tyre pressure.
Installing each tyre was no more or less demanding than any tubeless tyre. The larger volume of a 40C tyre means that a standard floor pump won’t puff it up quickly enough to get it seated; an air compressor is a far better choice for this kind of job, especially when the tyres are still stiff out of the packet. With that said, once it came to re-installing the tyres, I was able to use a floor pump to inflate and seat the tyres with relative ease.
All tyres were inflated to 40psi/2.8bar throughout the review period. This is a pressure that works well for me when tackling mixed terrain: firm enough for paved roads, yet quite forgiving for unpaved, even rugged, terrain. Any time that I’ve experimented with lower pressures for a gravel tyre, on-road performance is always the first to suffer, while any off-road gains are normally a matter of nuance.
Comparing the on-road performance of each tyre was a straightforward matter, and the results were entirely expected: the Re-Fuse offered the best performance followed by the Rambler, while the Ravager was ill-suited to tarmac. This was not simply a matter of poor rolling efficiency, the Ravager’s large knobs interfered with the steering, rendering the front wheel somewhat unpredictable when cornering.
Anybody that has ridden an MTB on the road will already understand this: a knobby tyre has an uneven surface that effectively raises it off the ground, resulting in less grip. The knobs also squirm around under load, especially as the wheel is tilted into a turn. Compared to a road-oriented tyre like the Re-Fuse, it makes for an unsettling sensation, which undermined my confidence to the point where I was reluctant to corner aggressively when riding the Ravagers.
The Rambler was a much easier tyre to use on the road, and in many ways, it resembled the Re-Fuse. It never felt quite as swift or agile, though. Interestingly, when I compared the top speed for a short descent, all three tyres performed equally well from a standing start (Figure 1A). A steady effort over three laps of a short 3.3km circuit was a different matter: in this setting, the Re-Fuse was a quicker tyre while the Ravager and Rambler couldn’t be separated (Figure 1B).
Moving onto unpaved terrain, the Re-Fuse worked really well in the absence of any loose material (e.g. sand, pea gravel), offering a lovely plush ride that smoothed out all sorts of ruts and bumps. There was plenty of grip in the corners, too, especially when compared to a narrower (e.g. 28C) road tyre.
Living in an area where a lot of the unpaved terrain is typically dry and dusty, it wasn’t hard to challenge the off-road capabilities of the Re-Fuse. This tyre was prone to sliding in sand and didn’t have much to offer in terms of traction when I was out of the saddle on dusty climbs. It was still possible to traverse some slippery sections, but I had to work hard to keep the bike under control.
This was the realm where the Ravager was able to shine. Cornering control was much improved, as was traction, so I didn’t have to work as hard, or concentrate as much, to ride the bike. Indeed, I was able to attack sandy sections with a new level of confidence because I could maintain my line and make corrections as required without the tyres skating away from me.
As impressive as the Ravager was, when put to the test against the clock on a 2km circuit that was part hardpack and part loose singletrack, I was no quicker than when I was using the Re-Fuse (Figure 1C). My bike control was noticeably less erratic though, and I relished the extra steering control and traction that was at my disposal. A closer look at my splits for the loose section of this course revealed that the Ravager offered a small edge, so I suspect that if I was able to repeat this test on a longer stretch of loose singletrack, the Ravager would trump the Re-Fuse.
I didn’t bother repeating this test with the Rambler, but in terms of cornering control and traction, it also trumped the Re-Fuse. And while I could tackle loose conditions with some of the same confidence as the Ravager, once the terrain turned to sand, the Rambler was just as slippery as the Re-Fuse.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation to come from comparing these tyres was the way that the Ravager’s knobby tread worked to provide some extra comfort. This was most noticeable for rugged surfaces, where the tyres were always a little plusher than the Rambler and Re-Fuse. With that said, the Ravagers never managed to transform the Crux Pro into a pillowy cruiser, but they consistently took the edge off every bump, rut, and rock I encountered. When coupled with the Ravager’s impressive grip and traction, it was easily the best tyre for my local gravel rides.
Summary and final thoughts
The Ravager, Rambler, and Re-Fuse are all capable high-volume tubeless gravel tyres, though it should be clear from the comparisons above that there is a limit to the capabilities of each. The Re-Fuse was quick and agile on paved surfaces, and while it performed nearly as well on hardpack, this tyre struggled with loose surfaces. The Ravager was the antithesis, struggling with tarmac but shining off-road, while the Rambler fell somewhere in between with a pleasing Goldilocks blend of traits.
Understanding this, it should be obvious that deciding on the best tyre from this bunch for any individual will be a matter of matchmaking. Here the local terrain will be decisive, as will be their riding preferences, and their equipment. The number of mainstream gravel bikes that have been designed around high-volume tyres has been growing, and while this threatens to blur the boundary with MTB, once experienced, it is hard to go back to smaller tyres.
With just a few weeks of testing, I’m not in a position to comment on the puncture-resistance of the tyres reviewed here, or the relative effectiveness of EXO versus SilkShield. Nevertheless, I appreciate that Maxxis offers the Ravager and Rambler with a choice of casings, and more importantly, that there is no upcharge for one over the other. The only shortcoming that I can identify, and it’s a minor one, is that Maxxis has yet to offer the Ravager for 27.5in/650B wheels.