Longtime readers will recall that RBR was the first publication to review the road tubeless system. Thanks to Shimano and Hutchinson reaching out to me, we were able to get one of the first wheel and tire setups and hit the road. That would have been about 2007. I loved the performance of the wheels and tires and raved about them in that first review and in several follow-up stories.
In my review, I explained the many benefits, such as no more pinch flats, a smoother, more comfortable ride that saves riders energy since it reduces fatigue-causing vibrations. And I reported that I felt they reduced rolling resistance, too.
I also touted the safety aspect of being able to ride on a flat tire. One of the reasons some roadies still choose tubulars (sew-up tires),is because glued-on tires don’t come off when ridden flat, like regular clinchers do.
Not that you’d intentionally ride on a flat tire. But, if you flat while speeding downhill, if you can ride on the flat, you can keep the bike up at speed and stop. If you can’t ride on the flat, you have no chance and you crash hard, because the bike slides out from under you. Clincher flats can cause the front end to jackknife, too. To put this in context, only two years ago I had a front blowout on a standard tubed clincher while descending at 35mph. I was in a corner when this happened, and the flat tire made me lose control. My helmet probably saved my life because I hit the deck head-first.
This and the other benefits of tubeless, such as more comfort and improved rolling resistance, are widely understood now.
It’s important to point out that true road tubeless does not require sealant. Sealant is only needed with true road tubeless if you require it because you suffer punctures where/how you ride from thorns, glass and other debris. Flats aren’t that big a problem for me here in California. But I would want sealant if I lived where there are goathead thorns growing next to the road, which I experienced riding in Texas, with daily punctures.
Tubeless-Compatible Is Only Part Tubeless
Tubeless-compatible setups do require sealant and usually special rim strips to seal the spoke holes. Tubeless-compatible is really only part tubeless, because it’s these special rim strips and sealants that can cause issues with tubeless-compatible setups.
My theory is that it’s too expensive and takes too much commitment for companies to figure out how to make a wheelset with rims without spoke holes. So they instead take the short cut of sealant and special rim strips and valves. I’ve arrived at this conclusion because for some time I’ve been trying to find a true tubeless rim to build a tubeless wheel on my Powertap hub (keep reading), to no avail.
Sealant is a tricky thing, though. When you have a flat that the sealant can’t seal, and you have to put in a tube to ride home, you have to figure out what to do with the sealant. Do you just dump it on the ground? Do you carry a rag to soak it up? Do you try to keep it inside the tire as you put the tube in? Do you pour it into your second bottle and try to remember not to drink it on the ride home (D’oh!)?
Some sealant turns into sticky spider webby strings like that Halloween silly string stuff. That makes a big mess to get out of the tire if it bothers you.
I got a cut in a tubeless tire I had put sealant in. My Hutchinson tires don’t require sealant but I wanted to see if it would fix flats. I must have run over a piece of glass, because suddenly, from behind in the paceline, my teammate yelled, “Jim, your tire is squirting crap all over me and my bike!”
I immediately stopped and saw the geyser gushing from my tire. I started to remove the wheel to put in a new tube, but the guy who had hollered at me told me to wait and see if it would seal the hole. And, sure enough, about 30 seconds later, the geyser stopped completely – even though the tire had a 1/4-inch cut right through it. The tire was only slightly softer, too, so I just rode away.
I did have to clean my and his bike off, though!
Tubed Tires’ Best Advantage
I should mention that maybe the best advantage of tubed tires is that you don’t have to top them off as frequently as you do tubeless and tubeless-compatible tires. On tubeless, the tires can lose air between the rim and tire, the special valve stems can leak around the base where they meet the rim – same with the rim strips, and because there’s less air inside, even a little leakage can leave the tires too low.
If you run sealant, the sealant should find and seal leaks, but it doesn’t always do this. You have to shake the sealant before installation, put in the right amount, and make sure it coats all around the inside of the tire, too. You need to remember to spin the wheels every now and then to make sure the sealant is doing its job.
True Tubeless Could Still Catch On
You could think badly of road tubeless because you’re having flats and blame road tubeless technology, when it’s actually the fault of using a tubeless-compatible system. Had you used true road tubeless, you would not have had those flat problems. I know it’s confusing, but I wanted to point that out.
True road tubeless technology offers nice advantages, and in my opinion, even if it hasn’t already, it could still take off and become popular because of all these advantages. Keep in mind that with tubed clinchers, while it’s true that you can ride wider tires and lower pressure to improve the ride, you can’t run as low pressures as you can with tubeless without risking pinch flats. So the tubeless tire has a clear advantage. That’s why tubeless tires have taken the mountain biking world by storm.
In my opinion, all it’s going to take for true road tubeless to catch on is more wheel and tire makers getting on board rather than offering complicated and less-effective tubeless-compatible setups. Though I realize those are needed to retrofit standard wheels and save roadies the cost of buying a tubeless wheelset.
I actually don’t ride those tubeless wheels that much anymore and I haven’t gotten new ones, either.
My D-A wheels are still in great shape and I have a stock of Hutchinson Fusion tires. But, for racing, I went back to riding tubular tires and went to carbon tubular wheels, and the lightness with the performance of tubulars swayed me away from the tubeless wheels/tires. Tubular remains the lightest choice.
I still sometimes ride the tubeless setup on training rides on my TT bike, but not in races. The other issue is that around 2008 I started using a PowerTap hub on every ride and of course, I then don’t have data when I ride my tubeless wheels. Coaches, especially, like data.
So, it’s complicated, but the bottom line is that if I wasn’t racing or training, I would likely ride them. And, I would like to ride a new model to have the latest tech and top ride. I would like to have more tire options, too. And, as I said, I would like tubeless rims to be available for building custom wheels.
Lastly, I also think that you could argue that if tubeless were the standard setup, because you can run the lowest pressures (and, assuming a superior tire selection was available), there’d be no need to go to wider tires in the first place. Interesting to think about.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.