Panaracer Gravel King SS and SS+ tyre review: Playing fast and loose

The perfect middle-ground between a slick and a knobby, or something else entirely?

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There aren’t many gravel tyres with a following as devoted as those in the Panaracer Gravel King range. Across the line-up – which offers everything from what are basically road tyres to chunky mud-oriented gravel tyres – there’s something for most conditions. 

There are two models, though, that get the lion’s share of attention: the Gravel King SK (with small knobs, hence ‘SK’), and the Gravel King Slick. They’re both great tyres in their own right – the Gravel King SK in particular is one of my benchmarks – but some bright spark at Panaracer wondered if there was a gap in the market for something in between.

That gap was filled by the Panaracer Gravel King SS and its hardier sibling, the SS+. 

The SS (Semi-Slick) more or less combines elements of both the Slick and SK tyres to create what Panaracer calls a “dryer-condition, race-day-ready and fast-rolling tyre … made for riders who want to go fast while maintaining great control, traction and climbing prowess.”

The tread pattern looks a bit like if the Gravel King and the Gravel King SK had a baby. A central file tread gives way to a diamond pattern, with more aggressive blocky lugs on the shoulder which remind me of a more tightly spaced SK shoulder pattern. 

The tread pattern of the SS and the SS+ is the same. This is the SS in a 700×38 mm width.

Like the rest of the Gravel King family, there are two casings offered – the standard version, and a beefed-up + version. The standard SS has a puncture-resistant belt to bolster the 126 TPI casing, with a Zero Slip Grip (ZSP) compound. The SS+, meanwhile, has a bead-to-bead layer of anti-puncture ‘ProTite’ material, giving a little insurance against tread and sidewall gashes in more rugged terrain.

In either variant, you have a wide range of widths to choose from in the 700c wheelsize: 700×28, 700×32, 700×35, 700×38, and 700×43. There’s just one 650b size offered: 650x48b (or 27.5”x1.9, depending on your preferred format).

The 650b version is a big-volume, plush-riding semi-slick.

In each size there’s the choice of black or tan sidewalls, but in a couple of sizes Panaracer also releases two limited colours each year. So if you’re extra lucky, you just might be able to score a set of Flamingo Pink or Pansy Blue tyres.

Mid-last year, Panaracer sent over a pair of the Gravel King SS in 700×38 and Gravel King SS+ in 650x48b, and I’ve been using them as part of my rotation since. 

So how are they? 

I’ll kick off with the disclaimer that applies for any gravel tyre review. It goes a little something like this (and a-one-two-three-four): 

The performance of gravel tyres varies depending on the conditions in which you ride them, and those conditions vary dramatically depending on where you are, what you ride, and how you ride it. 

As noted, Panaracer describes the Gravel King SS as a “race-day tyre” for “dryer gravel and dirt”, which strikes me as a fairly accurate description. In the 700×38 size, it’s pretty light (a claimed 410 g, but my samples measured just south of 400 g), and rolls fast enough that it really doesn’t feel meaningfully slower than a road tyre. 

Now, pegging it as a “race day” tyre seems (to me) to imply some fragility, but happily that’s really not the case. I haven’t experienced a puncture or sidewall tear in either the SS or the SS+, and I’ve had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the durability of the Gravel King SK and Slick tyres that I’ve used at various points over the past few years. These share the same casing, so I wouldn’t expect any real issues – it’s not like they’re a wafer-thin ultra-optimised cotton tyre with a day-long lifespan. 

Pricing is on the more affordable side of average, but with a bit of an ‘Australia tax’. The SS retails at US$49.99 / AU$99.90, while the SS+ comes in at US$59.99 / AU$125.

Horses for courses

The cycling industry’s schtick is hyper-compartmentalising its products, finding niches within a niche for bikes, apparel, gear – and yes, gravel tyres. That has its pros and its cons – you can find products that are perfect for very specific terrain, but you also have lots of things that aren’t quite right for what you ride. 

That’s where I think our Gravel Gradient comes in handy, helping to define where a tyre’s true strengths lie.  

In the US – which, unlike Australia, has a thriving gravel race scene, often conducted on gravel roads – the Gravel King SS would be most at home on well-made gravel roads and hard-packed dirt: a fairly narrowly defined band between Grade 2 and Grade 3 gravel. That’s where the pair of 700×38 SS tyres shone for me, as a go-fast gravel tyre for well-made conditions. They have similar strengths to another tyre I’ve spent a lot of time on, the Specialized Pathfinder, but are about 20% lighter and not quite as versatile. 

With the Pathfinder review, I assessed that tyre across the diverse terrain near home, and I was using the same testing ground for the SS. And – like the Pathfinder – it exposed the limits of the tyre’s capabilities pretty quickly.

When things got loose – sand or gravel scattered over a hard-packed surface – things sometimes got pretty sketchy. I had a couple of crashes in fairly tame terrain where the front end washed out, leaving me tumbling to the ground wondering what just happened.

If you’re comparing the SS to a slick, it’s more versatile than that; but if your benchmark is a more well-rounded gravel tyre, you’ll be surprised (and probably not all that pleasantly). In the 700×38 size, they are a bit narrower than I would normally prefer – and on a 21.5 mm rim, actually measure up a bit undersized at 37.5 mm – which probably didn’t help matters.  

I wish I’d asked for the 700×43 variant, because in wider sizes, their versatility improves considerably.

The SS+ that I was running were plump at 650×48 mm, but measured up bigger at 650×52 mm due to the 35 mm internal width rims I was using them on. At that size, despite a few handling quirks due to the oversized rims, they were confident bulldozers, and seemed to hook onto loose surfaces more effectively than they did in the narrower size. Even with a less supple casing due to the extra sidewall protection of the + variant, I found they had a lovely floaty ride quality. 

So where does that leave us? 

A bit of a mixed bag, really. They’re a little narrowly focused for what I’m personally looking for in a gravel tyre, but if you’re mostly riding on well-made surfaces they may be just what you’re after.

If it’s a toss-up between these and the Gravel King Slick, I’d go for the SS for a bit of extra capability without too much downside. But for a lot of people and a lot of conditions, I think the Gravel King SK – and other tyres like it – is going to provide a more well-rounded experience. 

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