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RBR Newsletter

An Ongoing Discussion of Tubeless

Bike technology is ever-changing, though often it’s incremental (literally) – say, moving from a 9-speed drivetrain to 10-speed, or from 10 to 11, and so on. At other times, it’s more of a “systemic” shift, like disc brakes as an alternative to rim brakes, a real difference in the systems available.

The latter, it seems to me, is not a terrible example from which to springboard into RBR’s current debate on the issue of road tubeless wheels and tires.

We started this thread a couple of weeks ago with Mike Tierney’s Wheel Builder column titled "Tubeless, or Not Tubeless? That is the Question.” We’re continuing today with a follow-up piece by Mike (leading off the News & Reviews section) that explains his opinions on tubeless in more detail, along with a Tech Talk column from Jim Langley that puts a finer, first-hand-knowledge point on the virtues of “true tubeless” and the shortcomings of tubeless-compatible.

But first, I just want to make my own point about bike tech as an introduction to those columns, getting back to road disc for a moment.

How I Wished I’d Had Disc Brakes…

I’ve mentioned in the past a mountain century I’ve ridden often in North Georgia called Six Gap. It covers six climbs totaling around 11,000 feet in a touch over 100 miles. On one of those rides, it rained most of the day. And the descents got that much hairier. (On one, in dry conditions, I’ve topped out at 55mph in the past.)

By the time I was wending my way down Woody Gap, the final, 5-mile, descent, my fingers and hands were aching from the “squeeze and release, repeat” nature of the braking required on every descent that day to “squeegee” the water off the brake tracks to get a bit of braking power.

Oh, how I wished that I’d had disc brakes that day. But, sadly, back then, they were still found only in the realm of our MTB cousins, and on tandems and some city cruisers and such. But they weren’t ready for prime time yet on road bikes.

Over the next few years, though, they became available and now can be seen on more and more new road machines, and seem to be gaining a little traction among riders, too.

Along the way, I got to try road disc brakes at Interbike, the annual mega bike-products convention in Las Vegas, and I reported how much I liked the modulation and power of these new stoppers.

More than one reader opined, though, that they were perfectly happy with their old-school rim brakes and certainly did not see any need to make the switch in the future. (Fair enough; and truth be told, I haven’t – yet – either.)

If I were regularly riding down mountains in the rain, I would surely be more inclined to buy a new bike with disc brakes. (You can bet some of the riders in the TdF on Monday’s treacherous descent of the Col de Manse wished they had the option of disc brakes, too, to remove the fear of rolling off a glued-on tire from overheated rims. Of course, overheated rims can cause problems with tube tires, as well, if they get hot enough to pop the tubes.)

But for pretty much all of my normal riding – including the occasional trip up to those same North Georgia mountains, and other, even higher bergs – my trusty older model Dura-Ace rim brakes work just fine for me.

I have them set up exactly as I like them, with engagement pretty far into the pull of my levers, so I can easily “feather” while riding in pacelines and in big groups, from the hooks. And they provide plenty of speed-scrubbing power down any hill or mountain, for that matter.

I absolutely recognize the value and benefits of disc brakes, and I will surely consider them next time I’m in the market for a new bike.

But like the vast majority of other roadies, for the time being I’m totally content using a technology that has worked extremely well for millions of us for decades. Even if there’s something else out there that has traits I’d love to have (hello, electric shifting! You’re on my list, too!), I’m good to go for now with “what brought me.”

The same dynamic seems to be at play when it comes to road tubeless. Just as with disc brakes (a bit of extra maintenance required, different wheels, etc.) and electric shifting (cost, charging, wiring, etc.), there are some “issues” with road tubeless (limited selection of wheels/tires for “true tubeless,” special rim tape, sealant and tight fit for some tubeless-compatible systems).

They all surely have some very desirable benefits – and many riders who use these technologies rave about them. But for most roadies, it’s a choice they simply haven’t made because they’re still good with what brought ’em.

Don’t miss Mike’s and Jim’s tubeless takes, below.

--- John Marsh

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