My column of two weeks ago titled “Tubeless, or Not Tubeless? That is the Question” generated more Comments than any of my previous columns, pretty well all of them from roadies who ride – and very much like – tubeless tires.
I appreciate your reasons for embracing tubeless technology (I’ll get to those in a moment), but for most of us, tubeless remains a cycling-related “solution looking for a problem.” Before the Comments section lights up again, let me explain that.
Tubeless Benefits Enumerated by Users
From what I read in your comments – and from others I’ve read previously on the Internet, and heard in first-person accounts – the biggest positive to using tubeless is “puncture prevention.” Followed by some combination of “better comfort, handling, safety and/or rolling resistance.”
I agree that the original concept of tubeless (the Shimano/Hutchinson collaboration) had merit for those who needed its positives. But I didn’t then, and still don’t.
I Just Never Felt the Need for Tubeless
Of course, I don’t know how many flats the average tubeless user experienced when riding clinchers with inner tubes. I can only relate my own experience and decide whether the reported flat-reduction of tubeless is worth it for me.
I average one flat tire per year. Last year I had none. The year before I had two. This year I’ve already had my annual flat. So, for me, flat tires are not a plague as they might be for some riders. They’re not even a blip on my cycling radar.
As for the reported comfort aspect, this isn’t an issue for me either, as I ride 25mm Vittoria OpenCorsa EVO CX on (currently) 24.5mm-width rims with the tires inflated to 70psi front and 80psi rear. I weigh 170-175 pounds.
Those Vittoria tires, with their 320 TPI (threads per inch) carcass are, arguably, the most supple, soft-riding tire on the market. My 25mm wide tires actually measure 28.5mm wide on my 24.5mm width rims, and 27mm wide on my 24mm width rims.
I’ve never felt that the handling, safety and rolling resistance of these tires were in any respect inferior, either. I’ve never in decades of riding on clinchers witnessed a tire blow off the rim (one of the possible outcomes mentioned in one comment). And the previously mentioned suppleness, combined with the wheels I build to my own exacting specs, provide wonderful handling and roll like the tide (if I might borrow a certain college football team’s fight song).
So, for me, there is no incentive to convert to tubeless.
Dead End? OK, I Should Have Said ‘Non-Starter’
In my column I made the comments: “So what is the future of tires and rims for recreational roadies? Wider rims that allow us to use lower pressures are a big step in the right direction, but collectively, cyclists simply haven’t embraced tubeless. It seems clear that most riders simply do not want to deal with the extra muss and fuss of using a system that requires extra work, different products and, potentially, a gooey mess in the process. Can we hope that the industry abandons the dead-end tubeless system?”
A couple of responders didn’t like my “dead-end” comment. “Velocite” wrote, “I think it’s a little ridiculous to say road tubeless is a dead end.” “Rphandler” wrote, “Tubeless is not dead end, it is open end. Tubes are dead end.”
To be fair, I probably should not have used the term “dead end.” Non-starter would have been more accurate.
The facts are indisputable that tubeless, for road tires, has been poorly accepted since its introduction, and it shows no signs of gaining traction. It’s simply a technology that has not caught on with the masses.
RBR has now done two reader polls on tubeless usage.
Let me summarize those results: On the “yea” side, 13% currently ride tubeless, and 9% are considering it. Another 4% tried tubeless and switched back to clinchers. 72% fall somewhere in the range of “never thought about it” to “No way. Too much trouble.”
The Industry Itself Has Not Embraced Tubeless
In short, it didn’t catch on when it was first introduced (the Shimano/Hutchinson collaboration, i.e. true tubeless), and it hasn’t caught on in its various MacGyver systems of tape and sealing liquids (tubeless-compatible).
There is no accepted industry standard for rim design for tubeless, tire bead design or sealing fluid. Everyone is freelancing. Until there is a design consensus it will only ever get fringe acceptance.
(You could argue that this same dynamic is what held back road disc brakes for so long. The manufacturers finally brought together the “heads of the families” and hammered out a standard. And now road disc is increasingly catching on.)
A while back, an employee of a large bike shop reported to me that only 10% of new bikes get set up for tubeless, even though almost all of them come “tubeless ready” from the factory. He also claimed that maybe 10% of customers’ bikes coming in for repair have been converted to tubeless.
I wonder why bike makers don’t have the conviction to set themup as tubeless before shipping them out? You’d think that might be a way to introduce the tech to riders. But they don’t do it.
And even the bicycle tire industry hasn’t embraced tubeless. About 70% of tire companies do not produce a tubeless tire – and that percentage includes the major cycling tire players: Michelin, Continental, and Vittoria. The number of tire makers producing tubeless has hardly, if at all, increased over the years.
Go With What Works for You
I have no doubt that road tubeless is a boon to those of you who, in the past, have suffered lots of flats, and that it provides the other benefits tubeless riders noted, as well.
But for most of us, and the numbers speak loudly, we’re just not interested.
What it comes down to is this: We should all choose the technology that provides us with the benefits that we need, at the cost we’re willing to pay (in terms of price, ease of use, etc.).
Like almost everything having to do with bikes, we all arrive at a “value” for such things as components and accessories based on a uniquely personal calculus. One rider is perfectly willing and happy to pay $15,000 or more for a new bike, while another rider may think that buyer is insane, and that the bike is worth nowhere near that price.
The same process is in effect all the way down to cables and spoke nipples. If road tubeless is your choice, great. If clinchers and tubes are your choice, great.
Go with what works for you!
Mike Tierney writes The Wheel Builder column for RBR. He is a life-long cyclist from the UK who has spent most of his adult life in Canada. Mike has been a passionate home wheel builder for the past 52 years and specializes in taking the mystery out of wheels and wheel-building for Newbies. Hundreds of cyclists have built their first wheels with online help from his wheel building website, MikeTechInfo.com. Send your questions about wheel building and wheel maintenance to Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click to read Mike’s full bio.