More than a decade after Hutchinson and Shimano began working on road tubeless designs that eventually launched in 2006, the technology has yet to fully take off for the 700c set. As more and more wheel players and bike brands are jumping in with tubeless and tubeless-ready designs, the chasm is getting deeper between tire brands who say the technology isn't fully baked and those who say refraining from tubeless now is just silly.
We talked to more than a dozen companies on both sides of the fence – and a few who are sitting on it. We also consulted an independent analyst who has tested rolling resistance on 60-plus tires, including clinchers, tubulars and tubeless models.
Those in the pro-tubeless camp are relatively unified about their claims: fewer flats, potentially lower rolling resistance, a wider range of air pressure. Those who don't offer road tubeless are quick to agree on these benefits for mountain bikes and other vehicles, but offer caution about the transition to skinny road tires. And there are a few players who frankly aren't rushing to produce road tubeless wheels or tires where they don't see a big demand.
Virtually all agreed that producing tubeless road wheels is the relatively easy part; getting a high-performance road tubeless tire that is competitive on weight, rolling resistance, price and user-friendliness is the trick. It's notable that more wheel companies are producing road tubeless products than tire companies (see chart below). While Hutchinson has long championed the system, its rival tire behemoths Continental, Michelin and Vittoria have notably declined from bringing anything to market despite extensive testing. Meanwhile, many of the big bike brands are producing their own road wheels with tubeless or tubeless-ready touted as a selling feature. Every aftermarket 2015 Bontrager road wheel is tubeless ready, and about 80 percent of Giant's 2015 road and cyclocross bikes come tubeless-ready.
Bontrager has embraced tubless compatibility in its road wheels
How it began – and where it's going
"The first test prototype testing began in 2003," said Shimano vice president Wayne Stetina. "The original tubeless road development goal was to evaluate if tubeless MTB advantages could be transferred to the road. Hutchinson approached Shimano for a collaborative effort."
"One of the biggest breakthroughs was Hutchinson's non-stretch carbon bead that didn’t require any thicker bead than conventional folding aramid bead," Stetina went on. "Without the inner tube, a tight aramid bead on a conventional folding clincher blows off the rim around 80psi. Of course this is never a problem for MTB. The reason a narrow bead is critical for the road is that a wider bead doesn’t allow any room between the beads to install a conventional inner tube in the event of a puncture. It also doesn’t allow enough room in the central channel for both beads to drop for easy tire mounting without a tube."
Hutchinson rolled out its first road tubeless tire, the Fusion Road Tubeless, in 2006, with Shimano in lock step offering 7800 Dura-Ace tubeless wheels.
Wheel companies were quicker to follow, with Campagnolo, DT Swiss, Stan's No Tubes and even Giant getting into the game in 2010.
"All our high-end wheelsets have been tubeless since the beginning [of Giant brand wheels] in 2010," said Giant's road category manager Jon Swanson, adding that Giant partnered with Schwalbe for a custom tubeless tire called the Super Swan. Giant does not have its own tubeless tires — yet.
"Making a tubeless-ready rim is relatively straightforward," Swanson said. "The trick of it is the tire. There is heat build-up at the brake track, and the tubeless bead is different from a clincher bead. How does heat affect that bead interface at the tire? That is something we have studied very closely. We are completely confident in our rims, 100 percent, in any condition, no matter how people use their brakes."
At Continental, North American brand manager Brett Hahn says his competitors like Hutchinson are pushing tubeless "for all the right reasons."
"In the automotive and moto worlds, it has been a long time since tubes were involved, and for good reason," Hahn said. "But in those systems, there is something called an engine that offsets some of the factors like weight. We really don’t feel like this [road tubeless] system is fully baked yet. Some of that is because Continental has high standards. For instance, we ensure our clinchers can handle twice the pressure they are rated for. If it says 120psi on the sidewall, it will go to 240psi before it blows off the rim – and the rims usually break before that. To get to 240psi with tubeless, our tire would weigh 350g, and that's not competitive. Also, in all our rolling-resistance testing, a GrandPrix 4000S and a light butyl inner tube outperforms any of the tubeless scenarios."
"It's not that we are against the concept of road tubeless, there is just nobody doing it to the level that we need," Hahn said.
|Company||First tubeless tire||Company||First tubeless wheel|
|Bontrager (Trek)||2012||Stan's NoTubes||2010|
|Not producing tubeless||Reynolds||2015|
|Continental||Not producing tubeless|
Trek and Giant go all in, some wheel companies not far behind
"From my standpoint, both in my job and as a rider, I’m struggling to understand why more people haven’t jumped on board," Giant's Swanson said. "The advantages are there. It’s like road disc brakes, where everyone looks at it from afar and says they’d never do it; then they do, and wonder why they didn’t do it earlier."
Every company we talked to guesstimated the current number of road riders using tubeless at less than 10 percent, but Giant and Trek (with Bontrager) anticipate a higher number in the near future. Both have good reason to believe this, as a majority of their wheels are now tubeless ready.
"All the aftermarket road wheels Bontrager offers are tubeless ready because we believe in road TLR," Bontrager spokesman Alex Applegate said. "Bontrager wheel and tire teams work directly together to make wheels and tires that are designed to work together. Today we may see 5 to 10 percent of people riding road tubeless ready systems, but 100 percent of the wheels we make are tubeless ready. Tubeless-ready road is here and is getting better every year. We fully anticipate this category expanding in a big way."
Campagnolo launched its 2 Way-Fit Road tubeless in 2009.
"I started out as a total skeptic and have become a true evangelist for road tubeless," said Campagnolo North America's Tom Kattus. "Since I started using them in 2009, I have only had one flat tire and I have worn many tires out completely to the cords. I love the ride, I love the handling characteristics, and I love not getting flat tires; no pinch flats! There are many road tubeless tires available on the market today in a variety of widths and tire compounds to suit just about everybody's needs."
Easton's Craig Richey sings a similar tune. Like many tubeless proponents, he has first-hand success stories, like this one from a recent 900km training camp in Santa Rosa, California, that tackled a fair amount of rough paved and even gravel roads.
"I was riding the Easton EC90 Aero55 wheels with 23mm Schwalbe One Road Tubeless tires; Graham Tutti who also works for Easton had the same setup and neither of us flatted," Richey said. "The roads were pretty rough and just about everyone else at the camp flatted and most people flatted multiple times; one rider flatted seven times. The Schwalbe One tires are not light but they are very puncture resistant and give a lot of confidence descending when combined with our wide, 19mm-internal Aero55 carbon wheels and the ability to run lower tire pressure. Graham, a 43-year-old masters rider on open roads and having to slow up for intersections, was 1sec off the Strava KOM for the 8:13 descent off King's Ridge, which is part of Levi’s Granfondo and a 2012 Tour of California stage."
Easton EA90 SLX is a no-nonsense road tubeless option
Richey also pointed out that Easton's Road Tubeless wheels don't have a pierced rim bed, which he says makes for a stronger system and eliminates the need for rim tape, saving almost 100g per wheelset. "So with Easton tubeless road wheels they work fine with clinchers but are road tubeless when you want it, with no weight penalty," Richey said.
Mavic, ENVE question current merit for skinny-tire road application
At Mavic, brand manager Chad Moore is more in-line with Continental's Brett Hahn, saying the concept is good, but the execution is not yet perfect.
"For the consumer, we are not convinced that this is the right way for manufacturers to solve or improve the problem of punctures," Moore said. "Of course when it is set up properly the benefits are unarguable. That said, for the average consumer the process of setting up a road wheelset to be tubeless is a very difficult and often frustrating process. Road tubeless must have a lot more rubber to be sealed, which makes the casing more rigid and the rolling resistance higher. This is not mitigated by the absence of a tube, despite what many people say. Coming to market with road tubeless, just to keep up with the trends, is not something we do. When we can come to market with something that has consumer benefits and is consumer friendly, we’ll make a push. Rest assured, we are not ignoring this topic."
"Many people running tubeless will say that they never flat with road tubeless. In most cases it is because sealant is being used. If you were to use sealant in a non-tubeless setup, you would also never flat," Moore said. "The biggest benefit of MTB tubeless is the improved traction, control and comfort thanks to the possibility to ride at lower pressure with little risk of pinch flat. This is not really needed on the road, where comfort can be obtained differently. Dirt road riding and ’cross are different of course."
Enve doesn't make rim-brake road tubeless rims, but does have disc rims that work for road tubeless.
"We feel that the true benefits of tubeless are maximized when used with high-volume tires and lower tire pressures," said Enve spokesman Jake Pantone. "The bulk of the requests for tubeless are coming from cyclists that are using a 28mm tire or larger on a disc road, ’cross or gravel bike. Regarding true rim brake and road applications with tires 25mm and smaller? We haven’t seen the demand for this technology. We can make it, but from our experience, it compromises the user experience for the vast majority of our customers who want to run tubes. By compromise I mean that tire installations and removal would be more challenging and require the use of tire levers which currently is not the case on our Smart ENVE System line of wheels."
At Clement, a small tire company, Johannes Huseby says the brand believes in tubeless but is starting with higher-volume 700c models.
"We’re still a young company and are taking our new product development one step at a time. Our roots are in cyclocross and gravel and that's where we are focusing much of our attention. We decided we wanted to start with gravel and ’cross for tubeless and likely road will follow," Huseby said. "With a larger-volume tire, one can use more protection and still get a relatively supple feel. As you decrease volume and still add belts and reinforcement the ride quality can suffer. Most higher-end tubeless-type tires made for mountain bikes utilize a significant rubber content in the sidewall which help with sealing, but also with some armoring.
"There are obviously also tires out there with less in the sidewall that are much more fragile," Huseby went on. "For gravel tires, we believe in something with a protected sidewall, so here we offer models with a Kevlar belt bead to bead. This provides added security when one is out in the middle of nowhere. For road tires, as the overall volume is the least and the pressure typically the highest, we have opted to use Kevlar protection under tread, but not bead to bead giving a more supple ride at these pressures."
Michelin, Vittoria and Continental abstain from road tubeless entirely
Like Continental, Michelin and Vittoria do not sell any road tubeless tires.
Vittoria investigated the technology with internal testing, but decided not to push forward. "We do not currently produce tubeless road tires, since the current competitor offerings do not exceed the performance of our proven cotton tubular construction," said Vittoria vice president Ken Avery.
Michelin declined to respond for this column, but staffers in the past have said that Michelin experimented early on with the technology but declined to produce it because the company didn't see the benefit.
Rolling-resistance guru weighs in
Tom Anhalt is a mechanical engineer by trade and a cyclist by passion. He has tested the rolling resistance on dozens and dozens of tires – certainly more than any other individual known to this writer (excluding tire companies who have an obvious stake in the game). He's a sharp dude who has done his homework. So we asked him a simple question: can tubeless tires be made faster than a standard clincher?
"Like most things tire related, the answer to your question is, it depends," Anhalt said. "As with any tire, it all depends on the construction details – casing, compound, puncture layers, width, etc. Here's the thing that the vast majority of tubeless tires (a couple of IRC models being the only exceptions as far as I know since they have a latex-based barrier) have as a disadvantage as compared to a clincher tire, is that in order to contain the air pressure, they almost universally apply a butyl air barrier layer on the inside of the tire. From a Crr [rolling resistance] standpoint, this is equivalent to running a butyl tube inside a clincher tire. So, in that case, you would expect a tubeless tire to perform no better, from a Crr standpoint, than a similarly constructed clincher tire with a butyl tube."
For the record, Anhalt uses clinchers with latex tubes, which offer lower rolling resistance than butyl tubes, and you can use sealant in them.
"Some tire manufacturers have tubeless tires which show a lower Crr than what is purportedly the equivalent clincher model, even when the clincher is run with a latex tube. For example, the Schwalbe IM model tires shown in my chart show exactly that. When I tested those tires, that was completely counter-intuitive. It wasn't until I questioned the Schwalbe rep at the following Interbike did I learn that Schwalbe eliminates the under-tread puncture barrier on their tubeless models since they figure the user will be running sealant. In other words, the nominally equivalent tubeless and clincher models from the same manufacturer are not necessarily constructed equivalently in regards to things which effect rolling resistance."
"The one thing everyone forgets about road bikes is that the use case is fairly unique in regards to most other cycling disciplines in many manners. That's just what happens when you are trying to run vehicles at high speeds with fractional horsepower 'engines' as the power source. Aero matters, Crr matters, weight sort of matters, etc. So, assuming that an appropriate technology for another cycling discipline (or another wheeled vehicle, for that matter) is appropriate for road cycling isn't necessarily a correct assumption."
As to his overall conclusions, Anhalt lines up somewhere in the middle of the tubeless road.
"If you're running tires 27mm or greater, and at lower pressures than typical road tires, and the majority of your punctures are from small, sharp objects like goatheads, then road tubeless tires with sealant may be a godsend in helping to reduce downtime on the road. It's been my experience that with any puncture larger than 1mm across, sealant in a road tubeless setup is not going to prevent the rider from having to stop and do something (either patch the tire, or put in a tube) anyway, and the tubeless beads don't exactly make that process a snap either."
Regardless of your position on road tubeless, one thing is certain: this debate isn't going to end anytime soon.