Gravel/XC tire review: Kenda Small Block 8

July 14, 2022

In November 2020 I bought a new-old-stock 22" 2013 Kona King Kahuna frame as the base for a gravel/XC mountain bike.

Most modern bikes are too small for me – I need a long seat tube and high stack to fit, and the former quality is not on trend – but the older King Kahuna is sized right so I went for it.

By the way, after riding the King Kahuna for almost 2 years I feel it’s the best fitting bike, of any type I’ve owned. Nimble, quick, light, and at least the way I have it set up, comfortable.

Kona King Kahuna bike

My thinking was that if I could put some carefully chosen, lightweight but tough parts on the 29” wheeled Kona, I could use it everywhere. This would include gravel and light trail use, as well as commuting.

That winter I purchased a pair of lightly used Norco Factory Team 2.1” tires – which are just rebranded Kenda Small Block 8 tires - from someone on Pinkbike. I liked the fact that they were $50 for the pair and had a unique sidewall label: Norco Factory Team.

I recognize the clash of running Norco tires on a Kona, but they were cheap, and mid-pandemic they were available.

Rear wheel

While the Small Block 8s were intended to be the tires I run on my King Kahuna, in a dramatic turn of events I chose to install some brand new Schwable 2.25” Racing Ray and Racing Ralph tires.

I still use the Racing Ray on the front, but this spring I discovered the rear’s Ralph was full of holes; tire sealant plugs littered the tire tread.

So come April 2022, to avoid buying another $130 tire I grabbed one of the Norco Factory Teams from its hook and mounted it on my rear wheel.

Aired up the tire looks narrower than the Ralph (I didn’t measure it, only by sight) and has a much squarer profile than the Schwable. My rims are 29mm internal width and the Small Block 8s are a little old school casing width-wise, so they end up being skinnier overall.

For my first ride using the Norco Factory Team/Kenda Small Block 8 tire, I chose a route with a mix of rough asphalt and gravel.

I aired the tire up to 28 PSI based on this tubeless tire pressure table. I’ve since tried lower combinations in the 20s, multiple 30s and even gone up to 40 PSI.

Finally, the tire review

I find the Norco Factory Team/Kenda Small Block 8s to be pretty good XC mountain bike tires, but poor gravel tires.

The Kenda’s have lots of grip on dry singletrack and have proven to be very durable, taking all sorts of questionable abuse when XC mountain biking. That said due to their closely spaced tread design they clog up easily on muddy trails.

There’s also, and this is most important, considerable noise and drag when you're not on singletrack.

Due to their tread pattern – which is a bit like the Schwalbe G-One Speed, a designated gravel tire and not a model I’ve tested – the Small Block 8 is very s-l-o-w rolling.

On any hard surface (asphalt, concrete or hard-packed gravel) I can hear the many hundreds of tire knobs grabbing onto the road like an army of tiny suction cups.

Tire tread

I know how my bike felt with a Racing Ralph on the rear: it was fast! With the Norco Factory Team/Kenda Small Block 8 tire, it’s noticeably harder to pedal.

The tire has a unique design, is durable and superficially speaking, the Norco Factory Team label has significant street cred.

Yet when I consider the performance of the Kenda Small Block 8 for gravel and other hard-packed surfaces I would not recommend them. There are better options out there if you want fast rolling rubber.