Over the last couple of years we’ve ridden around 20,000 collective kilometers from Vietnam to Laos and back into Vietnam on our gravel/road epic ride, all with zero flats. Alongside the skill of those who took on the challenge, tyre choice has a big part to play in this, so here is a run down by Ashley Carruthers of the tyres that have made the grade and survived puncture free. 

The Vietnam-Laos-Vietnam Gravel Road Epic is perhaps best described as ‘Supported gravel-road touring’. We have the luxury of a support vehicle so we don’t have the burden of carrying all our gear. That allows us to be light out on the road, so that sections of dirt and bad tarmac can turn into impromptu gravel races. When we hit a day-long section of smooth tarmac, we swap out our nobblies for slicks and enjoy the road bike-like experience while taking in the stunning scenery. It really is the best of both worlds.

On this ride we cover almost 2000km on the most varied surfaces you can imagine. Some days we are on near-perfect tarmac all day. On other ‘sealed’ road days, we hit frequent potholes, gravel roadworks, hastily cleared landslides and slippery sections caused by seepage from the rainforest . On still others we cover up to 150km of dirt with surfaces ranging from smoothly graded to mud to sand to rocks.

Andy finds his way through the jungle singletrack in Pu Luong.

Tyre choice is challenging to say the least. After three iterations of this trip the search for the perfect setup continues, but I reckon I’ve come close.

My strategy now is to take along two wheelsets, and I advise all our riders to do the same.

The choice of tubeless goes without saying. On my 700mm Hunt wheelset I mount something for smooth days, which on the last couple of trips has been 30mm Schwalbe G-One Allrounds. I really like this tyre, and for the next trip I’ll go to the wider 35mm version. Having that extra bit or rubber allows you to carry speed off a smooth section of road and into a potholed or rocky one with the confidence that you’re not going to flat or lose traction fatally.

 

Don’t lose traction like this guy. The Norco Search XR mounted with 700 x 42mm WTB Resolutes. A fast rolling but grippy tyre that can take a surprising amount of punishment.

For dirt and bad road days in 2019 I brought along another 700mm wheelset mounted with WTB Resolute 42mm bags. On the long descent down to Luang Prabang they didn’t flat when ridden into very rocky stuff at speed, and kept me upright during some pretty hairy moments in loose sand. On mixed surface days they rolled surprisingly well on the smooth stuff, and gave loads of confidence in the steep, twisty road descents with a fresh mystery around every corner that Laos specialises in.

For the Laos-Vietnam epic, Emma Pooley also chose 650b wheels (her preference, even on her road bike), and ran 47mm WTB Byways. Needless to say she had zero trouble keeping up with/beating the rest of us on the road even with that amount of rubber. Her bike was the Sonder Camino Ti.

Emma Pooley with her WTB Byway 650b x 47mm

On the same ride, Philippe rode an S Works Crux with Schwalbe G-One 700 x 35mm and had zero puncture problems.

Philippe and Emma on a fast, smooth section of dirt heading out of Champasak.

My recent fellow rider Andy brought a 650b Enve wheelset and ran Ultradynamico ROSÉ Race 47.99mm (!) tryes with a striking tread pattern I’d never seen before. I’ll certainly be looking into them in future. These were spinning on his Open – if you don’t know Open yet, check them out. Open is an interesting small brand with a serious backstory – it was founded by Cervelo co-founder Gérard Vroomen and Andy Kessler, ex BMC CEO who met Gerard while also at Cervelo.

Andy’s Open, featuring Enve wheelset mounted with Ultradynamico ROSÉ Race tyres. Gravel weapon.

On the last two instances of this tour we’ve had zero flats, and no one has been stuck with what I’d consider a poor tyre.

When you think about it, that’s a  testament to just how good the range and quality of gravel-specific tyres that is now out there on the market really is.

The Philosophy

On our Vietnam-Laos Gravel/Road adventure, rather than deliberately seeking out a consistent surface, our objective is to find and ride the most picturesque, challenging, beautiful and culturally interesting back routes through Laos and Vietnam.

We truly enter Laos from Vietnam through the back door, and exit the same way. Our first port of call in the Lao PDR is Viang Xai, a spot so remote that the Pathet Lao communist leaders chose it as a hideout during the war.

Viang Xai at dusk. Photo by Andrew Brown, 2019.

A tour of the amazing cave complexes where they hid is a highlight of our first afternoon in this history-steeped country.

The last Lao town on our trip. Ban Het, is a rough and ready dot on the map with a smattering of services for the forestry and jungle preservation workers who live nearby. From there it’s nothing but jungle and climbing to the Vietnamese border gate of Bo Y, where our arrival always brings the officials out of their torpor to come and admire the bikes and crack some jokes about our tight nicks.

On our last ride along this route, we were delighted when a dirt back road with a ridiculously spiky profile took us right through the middle of the local Hmong new year celebrations. Riders were obliged to stop in the middle of a demanding 170km day and drink a glass of rice wine before being allowed to go through the pink cordon the community had set up across the road. Moments like these are the magic of this trip.

In that innocent-looking plastic bottle is the deadly Hmong rice wine.