Specialized Pathfinder Pro gravel tyre: a visual report card

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Specialized is one of the mainstream originators of the ambiguously defined gravel category, with a broad and growing range of adventure-oriented products on offer. The brand’s new Pathfinder Pro 2Bliss Ready tyre is Specialized’s latest gravel tyre, and at face value, seems one of its most versatile offerings yet. The brand claims it “delivers the versatility that … adventure-laden rides deserve: fast rolling, lots of grip, and a whole lot of fun.”

It bolsters a tyre line-up that includes:

The Roubaix Pro: A bigger-volume slick road tyre, available in 700×32.
The Sawtooth: A versatile herringbone pattern, available in sizes from 700×38 and up.
The Tracer: A CX tyre for “dry and intermediate” conditions, available in 700×33 and 700×38.
The Trigger: For “asphalt, hard-pack, and gravel paths”, available in 700×33 tubulars, and 700×38 and 700×47 clincher.
The Terra: A wet weather CX tyre, available in 700×33 and 700×38.

The Pathfinder appears to strike a middle-ground between most of the above, with a slick centre tread that transitions to a closely-spaced diamond pattern and more aggressive chevrons on the outer edge.

In Australia it’s available in 700×38 and 700×42 sizes (black only). International markets also get 650Bx47, and the option of ‘transparent’ sidewalls across the board (a rather nice, but still less mindblowing than it sounds, brown gumwall). RRP: AU$75/US$45/£42.

I’ve had good luck with Specialized’s tyres in the past. The Roubaix Pro is one of my favourite fat slicks, offering minimal compromise in speed and excellent durability; I got more than 7,000km out of a pair before a puncture. Like the Roubaix Pro, the Pathfinder Pro features Specialized’s BlackBelt puncture protection and acceptably supple 120TPI Endurant casing. And like the Roubaix Pro, it is also adorned with a couple more zesty monikers – it features Specialized’s ‘Gripton’ compound, and it is ‘2Bliss Ready’ (tubeless ready).

When Specialized sent a pair of 700×38 Pathfinders over for review, I was curious to see whether their claimed versatility would marry up with my previous positive associations with the brand’s tyres.

Stats and early impressions

Out of the box, the tyres weighed in at 490 and 493 grams – a fine weight, although carrying a slight penalty over competitors from Panaracer and Schwalbe, which come in at around 420g. They mounted with a floorpump on the first wheelset I mounted them on – a Light Bicycles carbon clincher – and held pressure overnight without sealant. When I transferred them after a month of riding to a DT Swiss P1800 wheelset, they stubbornly refused to inflate even with an Air Tool Blast canister, so I think it’s fair to say that your results may vary. Once I eventually got them re-installed – after quite some angst – they measured in at a smidge over 39mm actual width on the 19mm internal DT Swiss rim.

Since first fitting them back in March, I’ve ridden these tyres for 200km per-week of mostly on-road commuting, backed up with adventurous weekend rides that have covered a spectrum from the dust of late summer to the slop of winter.

Over those hundreds of kilometres of testing, I kept coming back to the one question that Specialized seems to answer in the affirmative: could the Pathfinder be the one tyre for most applications?

Well, yes. And no.

A great road(-ish) tyre

If the surface could be described as a ‘road’ – whether sealed or unsealed – the Pathfinder is pretty great. It’s not a unique tyre in catering for these strengths, sharing a similar profile to the WTB Byway and the Donnelly X’Plor USH. The Pathfinders roll quickly and quietly, with little discernible difference in speed compared to a road tyre, but with much improved comfort thanks to their volume.

You’ll want to factor in some time to dial in the optimal pressure, though. Specialized’s advised range for the Pathfinder is 50-80psi, which strikes me as weirdly high. I weigh in at about 72kg, and considered 50psi the absolute upper limit for this tyre to function well. Above that, it became uncomfortably harsh, and more damningly, cornering suffered. At higher pressures, the tyre’s slick centre sits slightly proud of the surrounding tread, on a rounded profile. As you lean the bike over there’s a discernible transition which can feel a bit sketchy, especially on sandy surfaces. On wider rims (and as the tyre wears in) this becomes less of a problem – but nonetheless, worth being aware of.

Run the tyre too soft, on the other hand, and it can feel downright wallowy, sacrificing much of its zippiness. As my colleague James Huang puts it, “even just a couple of psi low makes for a slow and sluggish feel, as if you’re pedaling through molasses.”

That leaves you the task of finding a pretty narrow window between the Pathfinder being fast-rolling but sketchy, and slow-rolling but grippy. For my purposes, I found the sweet-spot to be around 45psi (on-road) and 38-40psi (off-road) – slightly higher than I’d usually run for a tyre of this size.

Once the pressure was dialled, I felt able to begin pushing the limits of traction and grip, to figure out just how far the Pathfinder’s claimed versatility stretched.

Defining gravel

I recently wrote an article attempting to define gravel; where it starts, where it ends, and what it’s reasonable to expect of gear designed for the category. Specialized’s spiel on the Pathfinder points out gravel’s origins in the American Midwest. And appropriately, the Pathfinder has runs on the board in what is certainly the Midwest’s biggest gravel race, and arguably the world’s: Colin Strickland rode the 700×42 variant of the Pathfinder to victory in this year’s Dirty Kanza.

I do not live in the Midwest. My mixed terrain rides, in Melbourne’s leafy east, range from paved roads and paths to dirt roads, to fire-track, to single-track. What my ‘gravel’ looks like, may not look like yours.

Broadly speaking, I have two favoured ‘gravel’ routes from home. One’s a 75km(ish) gravel loop on mostly unpaved roads into the hills north east of Melbourne. The other’s a variant of what’s recently been popularised by Curve Cycling as the ‘Big Day Out’ – a sequence of single-track, fire-track, bike paths, gravel road and paved road. Most weekends, I stitch sections of this together depending on how long I have at my disposal.

The Pathfinder is perfect for the first more road-ish loop, but could it handle the diversity of terrain of the latter?

One misty Sunday, I set off on a truncated version of the Big Day Out with a goal in mind: to produce a visual report-card of where the Pathfinders thrived and where they failed, across as broad a spectrum of ‘gravel’ as possible.

The report card

Hard-packed gravel: A. The Pathfinder excels at the less gnarly end of the spectrum, rolling quickly and handling fast turns with aplomb. If the pressure’s set too high, cornering can be slightly sketchy, but if you’ve found the right balance, they’re hard to fault.

Sandy clay: C+. Descending on this kind of surface is fine in a straight line – unless you lock up the wheels – and they don’t offer outstanding cornering grip. Climbing, you can struggle for traction.

Loose chunky gravel: A. Plenty for the tyre to hook onto, climbs smoothly and confidently.

Sand: B-. Fast and confident, mostly, but drifts in corners. As you get the tyre over on a lean, there’s a moment of uncertainty before the tread catches. Putting it as charitably as possible, it certainly makes you feel alive. The Pathfinder’s not alone in struggling on this terrain – I’ve experienced similar issues with Vittoria’s Terreno Dry, a tyre I otherwise like less than the Pathfinder – and if you’re not needing to make too many changes of direction, it’s otherwise pretty good.

Well-made gravel road: A+. The Pathfinder’s natural habitat, delivering road tyre-like zip with added grip.

Off-camber mud: D-. Yeah, nah. This is unlikely to pan out for you.

What’s that, Skippy? Some bloke with wheels stopped to say hello as he went past? Quick, look nonplussed!

Wet dirt: D+. On this type of surface, the Pathfinder is more or less as useful as a slick, but with the added bonus that the tread picks up slop and holds onto it. Not its finest moment.

Rocky fire-road: B. The Pathfinder’s relative suppleness and volume makes it fairly handy in rocky terrain – it is a pretty useful bulldozer, and it feels solid enough I have never found cause for concern when it came to sidewall tears. When rolling over wet rocks and roots, the tyres can struggle for purchase, but on the whole, the Pathfinder behaves better through this kind of terrain than expected.

In summary

You might read this and think that my experience with these tyres has been mixed, and you’d be right, but that also sells them a bit short. I enjoy riding the Specialized Pathfinders more than many gravel tyres I’ve used, and I suspect they’re close to being all that road-leaning gravel riders might require, particularly in dryer 2WD-passable sections.

But in a category as broad as gravel, catering for the full wildly divergent spectrum of surfaces with a single tyre is a considerable challenge, no matter what the marketing copy might suggest. Whilst the Pathfinder is great in some conditions, it quickly meets its limits in others.

Is my version of ‘versatility’ different than what Specialized are thinking? Based on the way the Pathfinder rides, possibly so: it’s not really capable of conquering all gradients of gravel, but does best as a zippy transitional tyre back and forth between tarmac and unpaved roads. That’s ‘versatile’, to a point, but it doesn’t quite stretch to my expectations of the word.

In our gravel gradient, I’d view the Specialized Pathfinder as a decent Grade 3 or Grade 4 tyre that performs at its peak on Grade 2.  That’s fine: there’s certainly a lot of riders that need a tyre that’s capable on dirt roads, smooth gravel, and – at a pinch – some rougher stuff. If your riding routinely takes you off the beaten path, however, perhaps it’s best to look elsewhere.

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