For more than three decades, road bikes have rolled on clincher tires with inner tubes. They were skinny, fast and relatively easy to install.
They were also prone to getting flats. Glass, “goathead” thorns and potholes were the biggest culprits. Tire manufacturers responded by making heavier tires with layers of Kevlar and other protective compounds, but the ride quality tended to suffer greatly.
A decade ago, advocates for a tubeless system for road bikes began to spread the gospel that forgoing inner tubes altogether would make the tires marginally faster, more comfortable and, with a couple of ounces of high-tech sealant inside, significantly less prone to flats.
Early adopters jumped on board. Tubeless tires quickly became the norm in mountain biking, with their wider tires and knobby treads using much less air pressure. With road cyclists, it has taken millions of dollars in research and tinkering, and years of debating and cajoling, to move the needle.
That may be changing. New tires coming onto the market have tweaked the engineering of tubeless tires, especially with the outer edge, or bead, and made installation comparable to clinchers. They’re also getting lighter.
Tubeless tires deserve a second look in Sacramento, especially in the winter when the roads are often wet and debris tends to stick to tires and trigger more punctures.
Many who have already made the leap to tubeless have become practically evangelical about the benefits.
“I’ve been running tubeless for almost four years now,” said Don Dumaine, a road cyclist and amateur racer with the El Dorado Hills-based Revs Road Race team. “Four of us on the team use tubeless tires and we’re trying to get the other team members to convert. I think it’s a decided advantage. But I’m glad all of our competitors don’t race on tubeless.”
Tubeless tires aren’t just for racers. In fact, those who use road bikes for long training rides, recreational gambits or speedy commuting are likely to appreciate the elimination of most flats.
For testing, this past July I installed a pair of Schwalbe One tubeless road tires, which cost $80 each. They’ve gone 3,000 miles without a flat. During one 50-mile ride near Folsom, I ran over a glass shard, and the tire sealed – after spraying out a bit of sealant – before I even had to stop and look at it. I completed the ride without a hitch and simply topped off my tire with air before my next ride.
Zach Waddle, owner of the Bicycle Business in Sacramento, says tubeless tires are becoming a viable option, especially since “flats are the number one complaint our customers have, hands down.”
Many of those customers are casual cyclists who come to his Freeport Boulevard shop to get their flats fixed. Cost remains a major factor, Waddle says. Most tubeless road tires go for $80 to $100 each – a price point not geared toward casual cyclists when there are plenty of $25 to $50 clincher tires available. The most popular brand is Hutchinson, but more tire makers are entering the tubeless category.
There are two basic ways to get a flat on a road bike. You can run over something sharp and puncture the tire and inner tube. Or you can get a pinch flat by striking a pothole or other jarring bump, which compresses the tube against the rim, creating two small holes that resemble a snakebite.
Because tubeless set-ups don’t have tubes, of course, those pinch flats are eliminated, and most punctures are fixed in an instant with the liquid sealant.
Stan’s NoTubes, which bills itself as the company that “invented tubeless conversion and redefined puncture protection,” has a latex-based sealant that can be poured into the tire during installation. The sealant costs $25 for 32 ounces, which works for 12 to 16 road tires.
The sealant coats the inside of the tire and remains liquid. When there’s a puncture, the sealant is drawn to the hole and quickly fills it.
Led by Stan Koziatek, an inveterate DIY tinkerer and the company’s founder, mountain bikers embraced the technology soon after it came out 15 years ago. Skinny road bike tires, however, require higher air pressure, and it wasn’t until 2006 that a tire for road use – with reinforced sidewalls and heavy bead to prevent them from blowing off rims – hit the market.
“But they were almost impossible to get on,” said Dumaine. “They required multiple tire levers and strong hands.”
The tires improved through the years, but the stigma remained. In late 2015, Schwalbe responded by featuring its Pro One tire, which the company dubbed “tubeless easy.” That refers to the sidewall and bead, which are noticeably more compliant when stretching them over the rim of the wheel.
I installed those tires recently in minutes without any tools. At 235 grams, not only are they 70 grams lighter than the previous One model, but the company’s tests show they have less rolling resistance.
While mountain bike tires tend to be easier to install, both road and mountain tubeless systems often require a powerful blast of air from an air compressor to seat the tire and create an airtight seal. There is a distinct snapping and crackling sound when that happens.
In my testing, I managed to seat two out of four tubeless tires with a standard floor pump at home. With the other two, I was forced to take them to a bike shop with an air compressor and they were seated with ease.
Now comes the next exciting development, at least for serious cyclists who covet something called ride quality – that smooth feeling found only in supple tires that flex over bumps on the road.
Vittoria, which makes high-end clinchers and pro-style tubulars for racing and serious training, is coming out with its first tubeless tire. The news triggered plenty of buzz at recent industry trade shows. The company’s tires are renowned for their 320 threads per inch cotton casing, which provides that telltale smooth and compliant ride quality. The new tires will include a layer of Graphene, a nano-technology that is supposed to make them faster, lighter and stronger.
“The challenge has always been, how do you make a tubeless tire bead on a traditional cotton casing?” said Ken Avery, vice president for marketing and product for Vittoria Industries North America.
Avery noted that Vittoria developed a proprietary process to build what he insists will soon be known as the fastest tire in cycling. The tire will weigh 205 grams and is expected to go on sale in March for $90 each.
“It all comes down to ride quality and speed and efficiency,” Avery said.
For amateur racers and those who simply enjoy a good ride for exercise or transportation, speed is one thing, but the allure of fewer flats and greater convenience is what will likely sway more converts, according to Waddle.
“In the next few years, I think you’ll start to see road bikes for sale at bike shops equipped with tubeless-ready wheels and tires,” he said.