Why gravel roads made me a believer in road tubeless

Ditch the tubes where the pavement ends

Road tubeless has been around for a while now and response from riders — including many of us at BikeRadar — has been lukewarm at best, but if those roads are dirt and gravel... I am all-in on tubeless.

Mountain bikers have for years gravitated to tubeless like hipsters to a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and for good reason. Self-sealing punctures, improved grip and comfort, and no risk of pinching a tube make it a no-brainer. The same arguments go for the latest crop of adventure and all-road bikes that are rolling on 32mm+ rubber.

For normal road tires, it’s taken me a little longer to work out the kinks and really see the benefits. Pinch flats are seldom an issue with normal-width road tires. Punctures do seal, but often only at a lower pressure than you'd like, as 110psi is often more than a thin sealant can handle. (We've had better luck with Orange Seal than Stan's and other brands for high-pressure seals.)

We've had good luck using Orange Seal on road tubeless tires
We've had good luck using Orange Seal on road tubeless tires

Road tubeless certainly can be fast, though. BikeRadar's lab testing at Wheel Energy found the Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless to be faster than everything else tested, including heavy hitters like the Conti GP 4000SII, Specialized Turbo Cotton and Michelin Power Competition, when it came to rolling resistance.

With those positives, there are also plenty of negatives. Just getting a road tubeless tire on the rim and holding air is considerably more involved than a standard clincher. In fact there is a technique to mount the tire; you start opposite the valve stem and make sure the first bead in the rim is down inside the central channel, otherwise you’ll never get it on the rim. By nature, tubeless tires need to fit tight to hold air, and even when you do everything right you might snap a tire lever or two and utter expletives to the point your elderly neighbour knocks on your garage with soap in hand ready to ‘wash your mouth out.’

Then you have to get the tire to seat, which can be done with a high volume floor pump and can replace an interval workout in your training plan, but the process is considerably easier with a compressor or one of the many flash pump/chargers, whether it be of the homemade variety or store bought. On top of that it can be messy should you happen to blow a tire off a rim and pretty scary too when the bead violently snaps into place.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather be scrubbing dry sealant off my frame than replacing a tube on the side of the road
I don't know about you, but I'd rather be scrubbing dry sealant off my frame than replacing a tube on the side of the road

Despite the mess, danger and stubbornness of road tubeless, I’m still all aboard the tubeless train and it’s for one simple reason — gravel. No not on a CXer or one of the all-road adventure bikes, just on a road bike, either my personal BMC or whatever I have on test.

Since I’ve ditched the tubes wherever possible, I’m yet to flat on the groad

I love riding my road bike on gravel, so much so that I’ve even worked out a loop with a few miles of gravel that I can do in about an hour at lunch. There’s something particularly exciting about taking a road bike somewhere it was never designed to go.

Many of us at BikeRadar love exploring unpaved backroads and or 'groads', and this is the arena where road tubeless really shines. Where I live, on the Gold Coast in Australia, the gravel roads are far from pristine. You come across everything from veritable boulders sticking out of the road at the apex of a corner, to loose descents and off camber washboard sections that will just about shake your eyeballs out of your skull.

But even beyond the extremes of the groad conditions, it's pretty typical for dirt roads to see extreme steps, where there is a noticeable smaller traction coefficient as well as a rougher road surface, i.e. more rolling resistance. Being able to run lower tire pressures to achieve more grip can be a godsend as there are few things more disheartening than your rear wheel spinning out when you’re at max effort, but at the same time trying to tiptoe up a loose climb.

Our testing with Wheel Energy showed a tubeless tire to be the fastest
Our testing with Wheel Energy showed a tubeless tire to be the fastest

Even still, the biggest benefit I’ve noticed is when I’ve ridden the same stretch of road on the same bike and the same wheels with tubes and then again on a tubeless set up, my body is noticeably less tired when I get home and this is likely a combination of two reasons. 

First, being able to run a tubeless tire at a lower pressure means it can conform to more of the road surface imperfections rather than bouncing off them, meaning your body has to absorb less.

Second, there is measurably more rolling resistance riding on dirt than pavement, which can make you feel a bit bogged down. Over time, your core and back get tired, your cadence gets slower and before you know it, you’re just riding slow. While rolling resistance varies from tire to tire and again based on your weight and tire pressure, less rolling resistance in the tire set up, even if it is only a few watts over an hour, makes a big difference.

Since I’ve ditched the tubes wherever possible, I’m yet to flat on the groad (knock on wood). That said, I have returned home quite a few times to find the back of my bike covered in dry sealant, meaning I punctured and didn't know it. I don't know about you, but I'd rather clean sealant off the back of my bike at home than change a tire on the side of the road.

The equipment choices are getting better too. Most wheel brands offer tubeless compatible rims nowadays, including some good options in carbon. Most tire makers have jumped on board the tubeless bandwagon, the only notable holdouts being Continental and Michelin.

Whether or not you agree with me likely depends on where you live and ride. If you’re somewhere where goatheads are ubiquitous, you're probably already on tubeless and I’m preaching to the choir. For a lot of riders, where the roads are generally good, tubeless may not be worth the hassle.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try it and make your own assessment, but don’t go in expecting fireworks. But, for those who like to venture off the beaten path, go tubeless, I say! You've got nothing to lose but your flats.

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