Issue 03: Road Tubeless

Why Isn’t Everyone Riding Tubeless

In the Seattle area too, we’re mostly riding tubeless or tubular.

If you ask the average road rider what the most important advances in cycling technology over the last few years had been, you’d be likely to hear about 11-speed shifting, electronic groups, and hydraulic road brakes.

What you’re less likely to hear about is the miraculous improvement to cycling that is road tubeless. This is probably the fault of the manufacturers. It took years for companies to come up with a standard system that was shared between companies and when that finally arose the companies didn’t exactly pour money into marketing these new wheels. Add to that a lack of available tires (there are just a few tubeless tires on the market) and some customer misconceptions (“if I flat I’m screwed”) and you’ve got a game-changing technology that flounders.

Tubeless tires aren’t exactly new in cycling, they gained traction (pardon the pun) in mountain biking where the larger surface areas of the tires and rims made an airtight seal possible. Road tires, with their higher pressures and smaller beads, proved technologically trickier.

Once the companies figured out how to make a tubeless system that could also accept a clincher tire for use as a tube tire the game changed. Tubeless tires should have taken over (at least in the clincher space) but they’re still languishing.

The Benefits of Tubeless

To understand the advantages of tubeless tires it’s best to look at the problems with tubeless and with clincher tires, and why another system helps the rider get a better riding experience. Tubular tires date back to the early days of cycling and have evolved very little. A tire is sewn around a tube and that sealed combination is glued or taped onto the rim.

Tubular tires are resilient and are not prone to the pinch flats that occur with clinchers (more on that in a moment) and even if they do flat the rider still has some control—provided the glue or tape holds the wheel to the rim.

For racers, there’s a weight saving in the tubular tire and combined with the lack of pinch flats the tubular tire has long been the primary choice for competition.

Clincher tires are separate from the tube and the tire holds the inflated tube to the rim, hooking over the tube and attaching to the rim via a bead on the tire and a matching channel on the rim. Clincher tires are easier to mount (they don’t require glue) and to remove. The inflated tube holds the tire in place and in the case of a flat the tire can easily come off the rim and the flat fixed.

Since the tube is free to move inside the casing of the tire, it’s prone to pinch flats, a flat caused when a bike goes over an obstacle and the surface of the inner tube becomes compressed between the tire and the rim and the surface of the tube is torn. This is by far the most common source of flats in clincher wheels. Here, then, is the brilliance of tubeless systems:

A tubeless tire uses a similar system of bead-and-channel to create a connection to the rim, however the system in a tubeless tire is air-tight. This enables the tire itself to act as the pneumatic cushion for the bicycle when filled with air. An air-tight Presta valve prices a way for the tubeless tire to be inflated.

As a rule, tubeless tires should be sealed with an additional chemical sealant, a thin latex (or other material) layer that hardens when exposed to air. This is the same idea behind commercial flax fixers used in the automotive world, and the sealant helps prevent air leaks from the Presta valve, the rim or from any minor nicks and punctures the tire might receive.

Since there’s no inner tube, there’s no chance of a pinch flat. Because the tire is not glued to the rim, it’s easy to remove. And if something comes along and punctures the tire, a rider can simply remove the air-tight Presta valve and put a standard tube inside the tire, converting it from tubeless to clincher.

The secondary benefit of the system is that it’s safe to ride at lower tire pressures, as is possible with tubular systems. Reduce the pressure in the tire and the ride becomes more compliant and comfortable. In adverse weather (rain, snow) lower tire presses equal more traction and better handling.

But where with a clincher system reducing the pressure increases the chance of a pinch flat, with tubeless there is no greater risk.

The downside of tubeless installation is that it’s necessary to “snap” the wheel onto the rim—the air-tight bead has to completely mount the rim or else air will leak. This is done easily with a compressor or CO2 cartridge, but is a process that’s not always understood by the user of tubeless tires. In practice, it’s easy to mount a tubeless tire. Put some soapy water on the bead of the tire (that helps it slide on, and helps seal out air) and set the tire all the way around. Use the compressor or cartridge to inflate the tire until a popping sound happens (the sound of the bead catching) and then deflate the tire, fill with sealant and refill the air.

It’s easy to do (I’ve done it countless times) and the soapy water can even make it easier to attach the bead on tubeless wheels than on clinchers.

So here’s the summary: tubeless wheels have the pinch-flat protection and low-pressure possibilities of tubular wheels without the gluing necessary to attach them. Flats can be fixed in-the-field with the same spare tube as would be used to fix a clincher.

The ride quality is hands-down better than clinchers and can be tuned to the conditions of the road or the weather without increasing the risk of flats.

And the weight of the systems is starting to come down to the point where some wheel sets (like the American Classic) are under that of the lightest clinchers.

So why isn’t everyone riding them?

Tour de France and Product Spec

There are usually two factors that tend to move product in the bike industry—the amount of money spent by a company to get their products spec’d on bikes and the amount of money spent by a company to get their products seen.

Look at something like the unstoppable wave of 650b mountain bikes about to hit the 2014 show floors and we see an example of how and why a product becomes de rigueur. Builders in Taiwan and product managers decide that they’ve hit the next big (read profitable) thing and deals are made. Pretty soon containers of products are loaded onto cargo ships and we have a new standard.

The tolerances on tubeless wheels is tighter than that on clinchers, so it takes more work to create a great tubeless wheel. With only a few companies making the wheelsets and fewer companies making tires, there’s not enough momentum to get these onto mass market bikes.

Then there’s the issue of getting the word out to consumers, and on that front, the companies are doing a pretty poor job.

For example, during this year’s Tour de France, American Classic ran a continual set of ads that operated under the premise that Bob Roll was working at a local bike shop posing as a French man who happened to look like him, and happened to be called “Robert Rolle.”

For three weeks viewers got to follow along (or more likely completely tune out) while the gag played out. Gosh, that sure looks like Bob Roll! You sure you’re not Bob Roll?

What could have been an opportunity to talk about something as fantastic as the company’s great wheels, or why tubeless rocks, turned into a poorly timed “comedic” bit about why Bob Roll is an irrelevant product spokesperson. Despite the lack of a big marketing push to get people onto tubeless, I’ve been a convert since my first tubeless ride and there’s no way I’m heading back.

Riding the Wheels

My first foray into tubeless came with a set of Fulcrum Racing Zero 2-Way wheels and a Hutchinson tires. I rode more than 3000 miles on those wheels without a single flat.

After the Fulcrum wheels, I spent a season on some tubeless Easton carbon wheels, but I started to miss the braking performance that comes with a metal wheel set.

This season I’ve moved over to American Classic wheels, shedding a few hundred grams and picking up an incredible performing set of hoops.

The American Classic Road Tubeless wheel set weighs a claimed 1219 grams for the set (539g front and 680g rear) though my pair came in about 20 grams heavier.

The black/silver/white look is eye catching, thought it’s not quite right for all bike color schemes, so I’d have been willing to spend more for an all-black or more subdued wheel set. The wheels have ceramic bearings and Ti quick release skewers and use a 3-cross lacing pattern that I find rather sexy.

The wheels are light, and they’re incredibly stiff. The ride fell on these wheels is actually just a touch more tactile than my Easton carbon wheels (though I’d have expected the opposite) though it doesn’t necessarily translate into a harsher ride, just a more noticeable ride.

Because of the tubeless setup, I’m able to balance that feel (and any feel really) by the use of tire pressure. If I’m headed out for a high speed sprint into the hills I can increase the pressure in the wheels. Out for a slog over rough terrain and I’ll dial down the pressure.

Unlike when riding clinchers though I only occasionally top up the pressure before a ride, finding that the wheels only slowly loose air and I’m able to go a week before the pressure is too low for a comfortable ride.

The confidence of tubeless also allows me to bypass a flat, boring route that’s required for many of my road rides and opt instead to ride up a shaded dirt rail-to-trail. The compliance in the tires makes the rough terrain feel relatively smooth. Recently I took out a bike with clinchers and ran the tires at a pressure about 10psi higher than I do my tubeless wheels and when hitting that same stretch of trail I could feel the tire bottom out on the rim countless times on the trail. It’s only by the grace of Merckx that I didn’t flat.

After riding the end of last season and the beginning of this season on the American Classic wheels I got a chance to inadvertently test the company’s customer service team as well as the durability of the wheels.

I headed out for an evening ride with my shop on a rainy, dim summer evening. We pacelined and then climbed, and once my lungs fell out of my body the shop ride split into two different groups with the young lions headed uphill and the shop owner, Glenn and myself packing on more miles.

At some point, after cresting a small hill we passed over some incredibly rough pavement and I hit what I call the “mother of all potholes.” The impact of the crater nearly threw me from my bike but I held my line and pulled up alongside Glenn and told him what happened.

“I just hit a pothole that was so large, and I was going so fast that I’m sure a carbon wheel set would have cracked.” (And having actually cracked carbon wheels before, I’m pretty sure I was right.)

We made a turn and headed toward our homebound route (with about 15 miles yet to go) and I noticed my wheel was out of true. I could feel the brake cable rubbing my leg like a vein blocked by thrombosis.

When I got home I put the bike on the stand to clean it and noticed I could barely turn the wheel through the brakes. And that’s when I saw that the rim had caved under the load. Two small divots on the upper edge of the rim signaled the end of that hoop.

A few things went though my mind at the same time. First was the thrill that I hadn’t ended up face-down on the gravel with a broken carbon wheel. The second was sadness at the loss of the wheelset.

But the third was just an overwhelming sense of confidence in these wheels and in tubeless. I’d taken a punishing blow to the rim and it had defaced the surface but it had let no air out. The wheel was still as inflated as it had been when I started my ride, even though the bead was clearly damaged by the impact.

I was able to ride home (and had I though that the wheel was more out of true could have loosened the brakes to alleviate the rubbing) and had no other issues.

The next morning I called American Classic and got their support guy Clay on the phone. I explained what happened and added “and just so you know I’m not going to say that I was ‘just riding along’ and the wheels failed. I hit a massive pothole.” Clay listened with a compassionate amount of “ohhhhh” noises at the part of the story where I described the pothole and the damage.

Oftentimes when you call tech support to let them know that you’ve done damage to their product, damage that’s outside the standard warranty and clearly rider-inflicted, they could care less. But Clay was sympathetic and helpful and let me know that I had two options to replace the rim.

The first would be to pay $250 and have a new rim sent to my local shop, where they could rebuild the wheel. The second would cost $255 and would involve me shipping the wheel back and having American Classic rebuild the wheel, only that option would take thee to four weeks due to their volume.

I opted to have my shop rebuild the wheel, as they are experts at lacing up wheelsets (and as none of my spokes appeared damaged) and Clay told me to call back when I was at the shop and they’d be able to order the part. All I’d have to do is send a photo of the damage so they’d know that it wasn’t someone trying to get a low-cost rim out of the company.

So as it stands I have a new replacement rim on its way to my local shop and will be back up and riding as soon as that comes in. While having a damaged wheel might seem like bad luck to some, the fact that I didn’t suffer a catastrophic crash makes me feel confident in the wheels. The response on the phone certainly makes me feel confident about the company.

The American Classic Road Tubeless wheelset is around $1300. A second model, the American Classic Argent Road Tubeless has a wider width and as a result, offer better traction and the ability to run a more comfortable ride with wider tires.

For more information visit American Classic.

Ed Note: Tubeless is raced in cross and a good choice. You can’t run as low a pressure as a tubular for the mud and traction, but still have a quality wheelset and tires for most conditions.

Ed. note: After a good run of 42 issues, our magazine app is no longer available, but we’ve archived the content here on our blog.

Also published on Medium.

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