A Trek Domane road bike with road tires (left) and gravel tires (right).
Do you pass tantalizing gravel detours on your road rides? Perhaps you’ve wondered where these unpaved off-shoots lead, but they remain unexplored because you own a road bike. Maybe your road bike is all you have. Or, you’re unsure if this whole gravel thing will pan out. Perhaps you’re a dedicated one-bike rider. Whatever your situation, there’s no reason gravel needs to be off-limits just because you ride a road bike.
A lot of riders ask if they can put gravel tires on their road bike. I’ll tell you right now, the answer is yes! But let’s also take a closer look at how to set up a road bike for gravel, what gravel tires work best, and a few fun success stories of riders who have beefed up their road bikes with dirt-friendly tires.
Can you ride gravel on a road bike?
Gravel sometimes shows up in road racing. Tire selection was key on Stage 4 of this year's Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. Photo: A.S.O./Thomas Maheux.
Before gravel bikes became the hot new thing, many cyclists were already exploring dirt and gravel roads on their road bikes. Early Tour de France races mostly took place on unpaved roads and mountain passes. There are even modern road races, like Strade Bianche, that feature numerous gravel sectors. Of course, dedicated gravel bikes are a lot more capable, comfortable, and confidence-inspiring when the pavement ends, but many modern road bikes will have no issues handling smoother and less technical gravel roads.
Tires are the biggest advantage gravel bikes have on rough terrain. Road bikes have narrow and slick road tires designed to minimize rolling resistance on paved surfaces. Gravel bike tires are much wider and often have extra tread for better traction and comfort on unpaved surfaces. If you want to start exploring gravel on your road bike, consider wider tires with a bit of tread. These can be gravel-specific tires, or they can be beefed-up road tires.
Want to go a little deeper on the road vs. gravel comparison? Check out our post covering the 6 key differences between road and gravel bikes.
Road vs. gravel bike tire clearance
The main consideration, if you’re planning to swap gravel tires onto your road bike, is tire clearance. Most road bikes can only fit tires in the 25-32mm range (versus 40-45mm for gravel bikes). Before buying tires, look up the maximum tire clearance for your bike. This will narrow down your tire options. If you choose the widest tires your bike can fit, you can run the lowest tire pressures possible, which will increase your comfort and traction on gravel.
If your bike doesn’t have a listed maximum tire width, the ISO standard is to have at least 6mm of clearance between your tire and any part of the frame. Daring riders will push this to around 4mm and get away with it, but be wary. If you go too wide, the tire will rub your frame. Mud, dirt, and debris can also get caught between the tire and frame and cause damage.
Best road bike gravel tire options
Panaracer GravelKing Slick, GravelKing SS, & GravelKing SK
Width options: 26mm, 28mm, 32mm, 35mm
Panaracer’s GravelKing line-up is the classic tire choice for road-to-gravel conversions. The GravelKing comes in slick, semi-slick (SS), and knobby (SK) versions for a range of terrain. Every tread comes in sizes as narrow as 26mm, which means even old-school rim-brake bikes with limited tire clearance can get the same knobby tread as a full-on gravel bike. All GravelKing tires are tubeless compatible and are also available in plus (+) versions that provide extra puncture protection.
Specialized Pathfinder Pro
Width Options: 32mm
The Pathfinder Pro is extremely popular, especially among racers, because of its blend of speed, traction, puncture protection. A slick center tread keeps things moving fast, while side knobs let you rally loose corners. It's a multi-time Unbound Gravel 200 winner, and best of all, that race-winning pedigree is available in a road bike-friendly 32mm width.
Challenge Strada Pro & Strada Bianca Pro
Width options: 25mm, 27mm, 30mm, 33mm
Challenge tires are handmade in Italy and feature super-supple high-TPI casings that roll exceptionally fast. Strada tires are pro-level race tires designed for rough pavement, cobblestones, and light gravel. The Strada Pro is a bit lighter and comes in 25mm, 27mm, and 30mm sizes. The Strada Bianca Pro comes in wider 30mm and 33mm sizes, and it’s a bit more robust to handle rugged surfaces. Both models come in clincher and tubeless versions.
Maxxis Re-fuse Gravel
Width options: 32mm
The Maxxis Re-fuse is super durable thanks to MaxxShield bead-to-bead puncture protection. It uses a versatile diamond file tread pattern. The extra tough, tubeless-ready casing is designed to survive everything from urban commutes to rough gravel and it's ideal for riders concerned about punctures from road debris.
Vittoria Corsa N.EXT
Width options: 26mm, 28mm, 30mm, 32mm, 34mm
The Corsa N.EXT is a more durable nylon-casing version of the legendary Corsa road racing tire. Like the standard Corsa, it is fast-rolling and supple to maximize on-road speed, but the nylon casing is tough enough to leave the pavement. I tested the Corsa N.EXT on my own road bike and used it to explore lots of rough local gravel. It comes in clincher and tubeless versions.
ENVE SES Road
Width options: 25mm, 27mm, 29mm, 31mm
Similar to the Corsa N.EXT, ENVE's new SES road tires are designed to be versatile enough to roll fast on pavement but also handle dirt and gravel roads. The odd size options may work well for riders trying to push the tire clearance of their road bike (i.e., squeezing a 29mm tire into a frame designed for 28mm tires). All SES road tires are tubeless compatible.
Width Options: 28mm, 32mm, 35mm
The Mondo is Specialized's latest "endurance" tire designed to take on the rough cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and the Spring classics. It uses a new dual compound rubber that is hard-wearing and fast in the center and soft and grippy on the shoulders. That's paired with puncture protection strips under the center tread and sidewalls to enhance durability. In the short time since its release, Mondo has already proven itself by winning BWR California, one of the gravel "Monuments."
Road bike gravel tire success stories
Alex Howes at SBT GRVL
Howes made the road bike work at SBT GRVL. Photo: Linda Guerrette.
SBT GRVL is known as one of the “Monuments of Gravel.” The premier event is 140 miles long and attracts many of the best gravel racers in the world. The 2021 winner, Alex Howes, decided to race SBT GRVL on his Cannondale SuperSix Evo road bike. To handle the course, he stuffed a set of gravel tires (based on photos, a 34mm WTB ByWay and 32mm Panaracer GravelKing SS) onto his bike. Howes beat top gravel pros riding full-on gravel bikes. If you ever need proof that the rider matters more than the equipment, this might be the best example.
Carl’s Cielo Sportif Classic
Earlier this year, I highlighted this Cielo Sportif Classic road bike owned by Carl Sechrist, one of TPC’s Master Technicians. He squeezed a set of 30mm Challenge Strada Pro tires into this bike and has been regularly riding the local gravel roads here in Boulder, Colorado. One of his favorite routes is known as “The Fruit Loops,” which features steep climbs and descents with loose, marble-sized gravel, deep ruts, and washboard roads. His bike handles it like a champ and it’s been so fun, he says he now rides it more than his actual gravel bike.
My Cannondale CAAD10
Ten years ago, I was a broke college student who spent everything on a 2013 Cannondale CAAD10. I couldn’t afford a second bike, but I was desperate to explore all the gravel roads snaking through the Colorado foothills. One day, I put a set of 28mm Panaracer GravelKings on my bike and just went for it. It was one of the best decisions of my life. Sure, the ride was a bit rough, and the tires rubbed my brake calipers, but I had a blast. I even explored some mellow singletrack and survived. If you’re on the fence about putting gravel tires on your road bike, all I can say is, just try it. It might lead to some of the most fun you’ll ever have on a bike.