THE REALITIES OF TUBELESS ROAD TIRES
I’ll admit it, I didn’t get excited about using tubeless road tires when they first became available for road bike wheels. I was quite comfortable setting up my tires with tubes, had a go-to tire model that was comfortable, handled well, was plenty durable, seemed fast, and ranked well in rolling resistance tests. I seldom flatted, and when I did, it was an easy fix.
So why try tubeless road tires? Everything I read said they were harder to get on my rims, took a lot of work to inflate and seal, made a mess, had higher rolling resistance than clinchers, and if you ever did get a flat on the road, fixing a tubeless tire was not going to be easy.
Seems that I was not alone. Even though wheel makers were selling more and more road wheels that were tubeless-ready, most road cyclists weren’t ready for tubeless. In 2015, no more than 10% of us were riding tubeless bike tires.
And then, it happened.
Well actually, several things happened.
Tubeless valves with removable cores became the standard valve shipped with new tubeless-ready road wheels. Injecting sealant through your valve once your tire was fully mounted instead of pouring it into your partially mounted tire made for little or no mess.
Rolling resistance tests of tubeless road tires began to show equal or better results than the best clincher tires with butyl and even latex tubes.
Better tire compounds made the leading tubeless bicycle tires for the road as supple and sure-footed as clinchers.
Wider and better designed tubeless road rims and tires made many tires as easy to mount, inflate, seal, and stay sealed as clinchers. They required no more than a standard track pump in an increasing number of cases.
The adoption of wider tires and rims and lower inflation pressure for added riding comfort also made clinchers less attractive. At lower pressures, clinchers pinch flat more easily than when more firmly inflated as the tube rubs against the tire. That negative and the positive of sealant quickly repairing most tubeless punctures made clinchers less attractive.
Increases in inflation pressure from the heat generated by braking on carbon rim was no longer a concern if you were using the increasingly accepted and available number of disc brake wheels. These provide a more consistent seal between the tire and the wheel when the rim’s temperature wasn’t changing the way it does when rim braking.
Finally, a lot of good road wheels started coming not just tubeless-ready or tubeless compatible but “tubeless optimized”. No need to tape; a pre-installed plastic strip covered the entire rim bed. The rims were wider, the beds had a center channel to make it easier to get tires on. Small channels or “bead locks” were added along the edges of the rim bed to keep the tires in place and keep them from “burping” air under hard cornering.
For several years now, most of the investment in tires and wheels has gone into advancing tubeless rather than clinchers. Standards-setting groups have also been working to make tubeless road tires and wheelsets work more interchangeably.
All of this has led to more and more road cycling enthusiasts using tubeless road tires, and more and better tires and wheelsets getting introduced.
For those who have considered going tubeless, those ever-present questions among roadies – do I have the best gear and what is real amongst all this hype – has crept into yet a new area of our cycling consciousness.
I’ve been riding, evaluating, and writing about tubeless road tires and wheels for several years now and trying to separate the tangible benefits from the BS. For this post, I’ve assembled pieces from past ones about tubeless and made major additions and revisions to my tire evaluation and rating criteria.
This post accompanies my new reviews, ratings, and recommendations of the Best Tubeless Tires for road cyclists. If you’ve adopted tubeless road tires, been thinking about it, or had a bad experience that caused you not to want to think about it ever again, you may benefit from my updated and improved explanation below of where things stand now before you buy your next set of tires.
- Road Bike Wheels – How To Choose The Best For You
- The Best Carbon Disc Wheelset
- The Best Carbon Road Bike Wheels (Rim Brake)
WHERE I’M COMING FROM
If you aren’t familiar with this site and my reviews, know that what I try to do is share my road cycling enthusiast’s perspective on gear and kit with fellow roadies. To shield the site and me from the influences of the industry, I maintain policies that help me and my fellow testers keep our independence and allow me to write unbiased, in-depth, comparative reviews.
I buy or demo and return or donate anything I test, don’t go to industry trade-shows or on any supplier-expensed product introduction trips or site visits. You will not see any advertising for cycling products or anything else on this site. I don’t accept articles, announcements or any content paid for or submitted by companies, stores, PR firms, or guest authors, or charge you for any content on the site. I don’t publish new product announcements, don’t regurgitate company talking points about their gear, and keep an arm’s length relationship with suppliers. While I use social media to share what’s happening on the site with readers, I don’t engage in influencer marketing.
All of the costs, gear purchases, and other expenses related to this site are covered out of my pocket, from donations, and when readers buy something using the links on the site, some which generate an affiliate commission.
With that as preamble, know that I’ve come to love the performance benefits tubeless brings me. More comfortable rides, better handling, and almost no flats top the list of why I’ve converted to tubeless.
At the same time, I know from my own experiences and those readers have shared with me that the adoption of tubeless road tires and wheels for many cycling enthusiasts has not been easy. There are many issues that cause some of you to never try or strongly dislike tubeless.
From what I can tell, our experiences installing and maintaining tubeless road tires have been the key to whether we’ve adopted tubeless, stayed away from it awaiting improvements, or sworn it off for a lifetime. I get that while we all love riding, we adopt new technologies and products differently.
I’m not attempting to convince you to adopt tubeless bicycle tires but rather to inform you about them at a deeper and more honest level than what you see from many sources with an agenda. Hopefully, this will help you make decisions about how well tubeless might suit you and give you a better understanding of what matters most in choosing between different tires.
EXAMINING THE ARGUMENT FOR TUBELESS ROAD TIRES
Compared to clincher tires with inner tubes, tubeless road tires have been promoted for their
1) better puncture protection
2) greater comfort
3) better handling
4) lower rolling resistance
5) lighter weight
While the data I’ve seen, my experience, and physics suggest you can get all of these benefits from going tubeless, they are also all debatable. Depending on your riding situation and what’s most important to you just among this list of benefits and regardless of other considerations, you could as easily conclude that a clincher tire is equivalent or better for you than a tubeless one.
A few examples illustrate this point. I created a list of the lowest rolling resistance tires with puncture belts and a minimum level of puncture resistance from Bicycle Rolling Resistance, one of several labs that do tire testing. While many of the lowest rolling resistance tires on this list are tubeless, both tubeless and clincher tire types are well represented.
Further, in the way they measure it, there are only 3-4 watts of rolling resistance difference for all but the lowest and highest rolling resistance tires on the list of nearly 25 top tires at the pressures most of us will be riding. Puncture resistance differences are also equally small.
Using and maintaining the right amount of sealant in tubeless road tires will close most punctures that would force you to replace the inner tube on a clincher tire with a similar thickness and puncture belt. But, if you aren’t into keeping up with sealant maintenance (or maintenance in general) or you ride on roads where you’re likely to get larger than normal punctures in the bottom or side of your tires, you’ll likely need to install a tube after a puncture regardless of whether you are using a clincher or tubeless road tire.
Comfort and handling benefits follow a similar “it depends” logic. Lowering your tire pressure will provide you more comfort on the road and better handling up to a point. You can obviously lower the pressure of any tire regardless of whether it has a tube in it or not.
However, clinchers are more likely to pinch flat as you lower your tire pressure whereas tubeless bicycle tires won’t have this concern as you search out a pressure that will give you the best comfort and handling. The test data also shows that the difference in rolling resistance also favors tubeless road tires the further you reduce your pressure.
Then again, if you prefer to run your tire pressure at more traditional (i.e. higher) levels, the relative pinch flat and rolling resistance benefits of tubeless won’t come into the equation.
As to weight, I’ve run the numbers on tubeless and clincher tires intended for the same riding objectives. In reality, a) there’s little weight difference between the complete set-up of each (clincher tire and tube vs. tubeless tire, sealant, and valve, and b) the differences are not big enough for most road cycling enthusiasts to notice it on the road. You can see the details later in this post.
So why do I favor tubeless road tires?
As I wrote above, it’s about the relative comfort, handling, and puncture protection benefits they offer me. This is especially the case as I’ve moved from 17C wheels and 23mm tires to 19C and 21C hoops with 25mm and 28mm rubber inflated at 20 to 50 psi lower pressures. (Yep, I used to inflate my clinchers to 100-110psi even though I’m only 150lbs.)
I’ve also developed the skills to install and service tubeless road tires as easily as I do clinchers. And, I expect the tubeless experience and performance is only going to get better because that’s where the competition is between manufacturers now and where the R&D money is being spent.
CYCLING TECHNOLOGY AND TUBELESS ADOPTION
There’s been a lot said and written about tubeless vs. clincher tires for road bikes. If this seems somewhat familiar to the earlier debate between clinchers vs. tubulars, it’s likely because it also mirrors the arguments we cyclists have had between disc brakes vs. rim brakes, electronic vs. mechanical shifting, and carbon frames vs. aluminum, titanium, and steel frames.
New technology creates debate and draws attention. It’s what opinion setters and writers like to talk about, what product makers like to promote, and what cyclists like to learn about and discuss among themselves.
That’s all good and interesting. But, I’m not going to debate it any further beyond what I’ve written above. Both tubeless and clinchers work. One may be better for your situation and priorities.
I do want to put a different lens on the debate and explain how people approach new technology. This may help you understand where you fit in the broader context of what’s going on and how the tubeless vs. clincher tire evolution may play out.
Some riders embrace whatever is new and seems better than what they’ve been using or doing. Most will join their fellow roadies once things have been proven out at least somewhat. Others resist change as long as they can, perfectly satisfied with what already works for them.
Technology adoption is an intensely studied field of study as it has huge commercial and even macro-economic implications. Researchers have found that each of us falls somewhere on what’s called the Rogers Adoption Curve that explains when people start using innovative products based on new technology.
If you’re not familiar with this line of thinking, here it is. Take a look at the descriptions and see which best describes you.
If you fall on the left side of the curve, there’s a good chance you are already a road tubeless convert. Most Innovators and Early Adopters are likely using road tubeless now. Anecdotally, it also looks like some of the first of the Early Majority types are riding tubeless.
The interesting part, at least for me as one who evaluates, critiques, and recommends cycling products and perhaps you as one who buys cycling products, is how far along this adoption curve we’ll get with tubeless road tires and what percentage of cyclists will end up rolling on them.
I could posit that we didn’t get very far into the Early Majority (EM) with carbon rim brake wheels but that most EMs will adopt carbon disc brake ones as will some in the Late Majority. The declining price for carbon wheels and the slowing innovation and new product introductions of alloy ones suggests that carbon will eventually become the dominant wheelset material when most of us are riding road disc bikes.
Power meters and electronic shifting products are likely both into the late majority but neither have a commanding market share. Because most enthusiasts don’t train using power or don’t care about what their power output is, most aren’t going to spend the money on a power meter. Electronic groupsets provide a lot of benefits that most would like but their price makes for lower adoption rates with every segment of adopters on the curve.
Tubeless road tires? My guess is that it will take until 2022 before road tubeless technology advances to “proven” in the eyes of many roadies as further developments make their benefits more evident and there is no added hassle compared to clinchers. At that point, I expect some in the Early Majority will begin to adopt it.
Even with that and similar to the travails of carbon rim brake wheels, it may take another 2-3 years more before the bad experiences some have undergone recede in enough Early and Late Majority riders’ consciousnesses for road tubeless road tires to outsell clinchers.
So for all of you who prefer to put tubes in your road tires, rest easy, they will likely remain on the scene for many years to come.
EVALUATION AND RATING CRITERIA FOR TUBELESS ROAD TIRES
I first published a comparative review of tubeless road tires in July 2018. Since then, the world of tubeless products has expanded and improved a great deal. So too has my experience with tubeless road tires and wheels and the understanding of how to produce better speed, power, handling, and comfort using them.
In keeping with this, I’ve expanded my evaluation approach and revised my criteria for rating tires to give you better recommendations and ways to make a more informed decision on which tubeless road tires are best for you.
What follows are descriptions of the criteria that I believe matter most and least, in order of their importance.
What Matters Most
1. Aerodynamics of the rim-tire combination – Aerodynamics has always been important in cycling. Our appreciation of its contribution to a rider’s speed and power output, compared to things like weight and rolling resistance has grown and changed the design of bikes, helmets, clothing, components, wheels, and tires a great deal, especially in recent years.
Wind tunnel observations from Josh Poertner, now head of the company Silca and formerly Zipp’s lead engineer during the initial Fieldcrest aero wheelset development around 2010 led to what he called the Rule of 105. He boiled it down to saying that “the rim must be at least 105% the width of the tire if you have any chance of re-capturing airflow from the tire and controlling it or smoothing it.”
By controlling or smoothing the air, it continues along or sticks to your rims to reduce aerodynamic drag and give you lift like an airplane wing. At less than 105%, air diverts away from your rims and you get limited aero benefit from those 40mm and deeper carbon wheels you and I spent so much on.
The technical and market success of Zipp’s Fieldcrest wheels and those from HED developed at the same time and drawing from findings that went into a patent that engineers from the two companies co-authored showed the way for carbon wheelset designers and suppliers across the industry. The Zipp and HED rim shapes were imitated and later advanced following the Rule of 105, often using the popular Continental Grand Prix 4000 tire in the design effort, to develop aerodynamically competitive wheelsets.
Of course, the computational fluid dynamics or CFD that wheel designers use today allows them to test a wide range of variables to come up with the most aerodynamic wheels. That said, many leading wheelset and tire companies still acknowledge the importance of the rim to tire ratio in getting the fastest setup.
Note that in his 105% calculation, Poertner was measuring the actual width of the tire once installed and inflated on a rim and not the labeled size on the packaging or side of a tire. The actual installed and inflated width is almost always wider than the labeled size, usually in the range of 1-3mm depending on your tire and rim choice.
What about where you measure the width of the rim, as some rims vary in width from the brake track to the center? Poertner writes about applying the rule “almost anywhere on a deep rim.” Further, he describes the trade-off between rims that are wider and offer better aerodynamic efficiency when the width is focused on the brake track vs. getting improved handling and reduced crosswind effect when the rim is widest at the center.
Rim profiles seem to be varying more than ever and now include a fair number of slightly rounded V-shaped rims, blunt nose U-shaped ones, VU shapes or those that start with a V shape at the spoke bed but quickly adopt a parallel or U-shaped profile, and still, some with the toroidal or oval shape the original Zipp and HED aero rims used.
To try to deal with all of this, I’ve measured the rim and applied the rule at the “brake track” (or where one would be on a disc brake rim if it was using a rim brake) and at the widest point when it’s not at the brake track.
There is little to be gained going above 105%, up to 2 watts at 108% from a study sited in Poertner’s post. But go below 105% and you can lose the aerodynamic “free-speed” benefits that can range up to 20 watts.
After reviewing numerous reports with different protocols and points of view from Hambini to Zipp to FLO/Anhalt to Aerocoach to a lot of “joshatslica” comments on Slowtwitch – how’s that for range? – I estimate you could lose from 5 to 15 watts with your rim-tire width combination below the 105% ratio if your wheels are in the 40-65mm depth range and you are riding at 20 to 25mph (32 to 40kph). The exact loss would depend on variables like your actual rim to tire ratio, internal rim width, rim depth, rim profile, yaw angle, and more.
This means you can lose somewhere between 20 seconds to a full minute over a 25 mile, 40 kilometer solo ride or time trial course. On a typically longer competitive group ride, distance event or road race, you’re talking about riding at a 5-15 watt higher power level for several hours to keep up with the pack and avoid losing minutes.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not work that hard that long as punishment for picking the wrong tires.
Because aerodynamic drag increases exponentially with speed, it takes you eight times more power to overcome the drag to double your speed. So getting above that 105% can save you lots ‘o watts of effort when you want to go faster. And the faster you go, the bigger the gain or loss from being on the right or wrong side of this rule.
For those of us looking for the “best” tubeless road tires, the challenge living by the Rule of 105 and saving those precious watts comes from picking tires for the wheels we have or are planning to get in a market where the sizes and shapes of tubeless road tires and wheels are both unique and regularly updated, but not always in a coordinated way.
Hookless rims, which I believe we’ll see more of in the next round of wheelset introductions, further complicate your tire options as some tires use bead materials that hold better in hookless rims than others. Tubeless road tires with different diameter beads and rims with different diameter bead locks those beads go into can also cause real installation challenges.
Newly introduced tubeless road tires are inflating closer to their labeled size but still vary in actual width on rims with the same inside width but different outside widths. And, as tires stretch when you ride them more, they also get wider.
Today, as wheelset designers acknowledge that further changes in rim designs are yielding diminishing aero returns, the rim-tire relationship is playing an increasingly important role. To better optimize this and manage the challenges mentioned above, more wheelset companies are making tires intended to work best with their own rims including Specialized/Roval, Mavic, Zipp, Bontrager, and ENVE.
While the aero performance of the rim-tire combination is a priority, some of these tires are designed to achieve other performance goals (e.g. better handling and grip) that may result in providing less aero benefit than tires made by those who don’t also sell wheels.
And while updated and emerging ETRTO standards aim for better tubeless tire and rim compatibility regardless of who makes them, that’s clearly not the case yet and can further frustrate your choice for combining individual rims and tires to make the best aerodynamic solution.
I’ve always measured the tires and wheels I test rather than take the width (and weight) claims from manufacturers at face value. To get a better handle on the potential aerodynamic gains or losses of tubeless road tires without doing wind-tunnel testing, I’ve upped my game by measuring as many combinations of tires and wheels as I have available whenever I get a new one of either in for testing.
Needless to say, my hands and shoulders are getting a better workout doing this than anything I’ve ever done on my bike. The results have been quite revealing.
While I share specific rim to tire width ratios in my review of tubeless road tires (here), there are a few key take-aways.
- While 28mm tubeless road tires are promoted for their improved comfort and handling, most don’t abide by the Rule of 105 unless you have wheels with an outside rim width of at least 30mm.
- Most 25mm labeled tubeless road tires meet or exceed the Rule of 105 when installed on 19C rims that have at least a 28mm outside width and on 21C rims at least 29mm wide.
- If your rims are narrower than 27mm and you prioritize speed on your aero wheels, use 23mm tires.
Note that all of this applies to the front rim-tire combination. The rear wheel contributes far less to your aero performance as it shielded by your frame and subject the “dirty” air created by your legs. There’s little aero penalty and certainly, a comfort bonus going with a rear tire a size larger than your front one.
2. Road feel – The quality of the ride or “road feel” you get from a set of tubeless road tires usually comes down to how you experience of their comfort, handling, and grip.
Beyond the tire design, materials, and construction, many factors can play a role in that road feel experience. The tire pressure and the wheelset’s lateral stiffness and vertical compliance play important parts as does how aggressively and fast you ride, the road surface you’re on and the terrain and handling required on your route.
So yeah, road feel can be pretty subjective.
However, the better you like your tire’s comfort, handling, and grip, the more confidence and enjoyment you’ll have riding it and likely, the faster, more aggressively, and longer you’ll ride.
So in addtion to being subjective, road feel is a super important criterion if speed and endurance are important to you and most of our fellow cycling enthusiasts.
To try to make this a little less subjective or dependent on my take alone, I’ve combined my evaluations with those of fellow testers Nate and Miles who have different rider profiles than me and each other to see if and where we share some common experiences on the elements of each tire’s road feel.
And to try to further bracket some of the subjectivity, we did our latest round of tubeless road tire evaluations with 25C size tires, on a half-dozen models of aero road disc wheels, and with a renewed focus on tire pressure.
Tire pressure is probably the biggest determinant of road feel. There’s been a lot of research published in recent years showing how we roadies have historically ridden over-inflated our tires and suffered energy or “impedance” losses as our bodies absorb the road vibrations. These are greater than the losses in rolling resistance when tires deflect and recover to absorb imperfections in the road surface.
Rather than diving into all the testing and science (it’s here if you want to), I’ll simply tell you that getting your tire pressure right will:
- smooth out your ride and save you energy or watts you can use to put into your pedals for more speed over the whole ride, at key points during it, or just to ride longer at a lower power level, and
- increase your speed without expending any additional energy or watts
Now that I’ve hopefully gotten your attention with the word speed which works with roadies nearly as well as, or maybe better than the word sex, let me encourage you to use one of the modern tire pressure charts or calculators at these links from ENVE, Zipp or Silca that guide you to the right tire pressure for you.
Here’s an example of the pressure suggested for one of my recent rides:
As you can see, weight, tire width, rim width, and other factors can affect the recommended tire pressure. Using a guide like this and staying within a few psi of what it recommends, we can more effectively separate out tire pressure as a variable in differentiating between the comfort, handling, and grip between tubeless road tires.
While it’s hard to know exactly what separates the road feel of one model of tires than another, it’s likely that compound, casing dimensions, thread count, layer materials, construction, and other aspects of a tire’s unique alchemy contribute to its ultimate road feel. Research has also shown that a rim-tire combination of less than 105% also negatively affects handling, likely because the tire is not adequately supported by the rim.
3. Rolling Resistance – Tire makers mix some combination of organic polymers, man-made synthetic materials, silica, and who knows what else, all to reduce the friction and improve the grip from tires when they are doing their thing on the road. The less friction, the less energy required for the tire to return to its shape (aka “hysteresis”) after it deforms or deflects from the unevenness in the road surface. All of this goes into lowering a tire’s rolling resistance.
On the other hand, a compound that returns the tire to its shape a little slower provides better grip and handling. Some tires use a lower hysteresis compound in the center width of the tire to provide low rolling resistance and a higher hysteresis compound in the sides of the tire to provide better grip and handling when you are leaning into turns.
So there are trade-offs between rolling resistance and the handling and grip parts of road feel.
Rolling resistance has become a popular decision criterion for many riders these days. With several labs publishing their results, it certainly is very quantifiable (and marketable).
The lower the rolling resistance the better. For example, 11.6 watts of rolling resistance is less and therefore better than 13.8 watts. Simple, right?
Well, rolling resistance tests don’t exist in a vacuum and the number that comes out will vary depending on a lot of factors. It changes depending on the tire width and inflation pressure. Actual rolling resistance outside the lab differs based on the road surface you ride.
Test numbers depend on the surface of the drum used in the lab to emulate it. The width of the rim the tire is mounted on, the weight applied to the wheel, the speed at which the wheel is tested, the amount of sealant or type of tube used, the testing temperature, and the testing protocol all affect the rolling resistance number that a test produces.
So, rolling resistance scores are more relative within a specific testing protocol than absolute between testers or tires.
Allow me to share the fortunately and unfortunately soliloquy I’ve been working through to be able to say which tire has the best rolling resistance, which is second best, etc.
Fortunately, there are some very thoughtful people who focus intensively on rolling resistance and whose results you can learn from. I’ve worked through the published results of most of them for the tires in my reviews to come up with some relative rolling resistance rankings.
Jarno Bierman at the site Bicycle Rolling Resistance (BRR) and the test lab at Tour Magazine (German language, subscription required) regularly conduct and publish independent tests of tire performance and make them available to readers of their sites.
The private service Wheel Energy Laboratory does rolling resistance testing principally for their tire maker clients but has done them for Velo News and Bike Radar for an article each have run in past years. Aerocoach has published results of rolling resistance of various tires mounted on the wheels they make.
BRR, Tour, Wheel Energy, and Aerocoach each test a little differently and produce different absolute rolling resistance numbers.
For example, the original 25C Schwalbe Pro One had a rolling resistance of 11.6, 12.8 and 14.8 watts at 100psi, 80psi, and 60psi inflation pressures respectively in BRR’s tests. They use a 42.5 kg load at 18mph/29kph on a diamond plate drum with a 17C wide rim.
For the same tire, Wheel Energy came up with a 30.2 watt rolling resistance at 80 psi but with a 50kg load on the tire rotating at 25mph/40kph on an unevenly rolling diamond plate drum using a 19C wide rim.
Tour uses an actual road surface section and oscillates two wheels in a pendulum fashion loaded with 110kg which they’ve calculated translates to a combined rider and bike weight of 85kg traveling at 30kph. They come up with 67.4 watts of rolling resistance (or 33.7 watts per wheel) for the original Schwalbe Pro One Tubeless tested at 6bar/87psi. Yet, they don’t specify the rim width used for the tests. Judging from the wheels they were separately testing around at the same time, I expect it was a 17C wide rim.
You still with me?
Unfortunately, unlike the original 25C Schwalbe Pro One, all the current tires that you or I might be interested in haven’t been tested by each of the testers. Further, so that they can determine the improvement in tires from one generation to another, most published testing is being done on 17C rims, far narrower than the 19C, 21C, and even 25C rims that are more commonly being made for road bikes today.
With a few exceptions, the rolling resistance of tires made for a similar riding purpose like those we roadies buy for training or racing and that have a puncture belt are not more than a few watts different (low single digits) within each one these testing protocols.
Fortunately, there’s some overlap between the tires they have tested and from that, I would hope to be able to do some relative rankings not just within but across testing protocols.
Unfortunately, the testers and their unique protocols sometimes but don’t always produce the same relative rankings. Disappointing since rolling resistance varies linearly with speed.
Sorry to put you through all of that but I just wanted to provide you some context and discourage you from picking a tire based a single published rolling resistance number or test ranking for a single source. Unfortunately, it’s just not that straightforward.
Of course, actual rolling resistance outside the lab differs based on the road surface you ride.
With all that said, here’s the really important bit: Because rolling resistance increases linearly or at the same rate as your speed increases while aerodynamic drag increases exponentially, rolling resistance matters relatively less than aero drag starting around 12 miles per hour and increasingly less as your go faster.
This chart courtesy of ENVE shows the relative contribution of each at different speeds.
Of course, aero drag from your wheels is only about 10% of total drag with the majority coming from your body and some from your bike.
But at the speeds we roadies ride, my take-away is that rolling resistance is both less important than aero drag or road feel and there’s little difference between most of the training and racing tires with puncture belts that we use. Putting on too wide a tire that doesn’t meet the rule of 105 on your aero wheels can more than overcome the small differences in rolling resistance between the tires we use.
I’m not suggesting that rolling resistance isn’t important. Rather, I’m encouraging you to put it in the context of the other criteria used to evaluate and choose a tire.
4. Installation – For those of you who have been tubeless converts for several years or those who remain interested but have held off because of some of the horror stories of installation difficulties, I can tell you that a lot has changed for the better in just the last few years.
Newer, wider, deeper road tubeless wheelsets have a center channel in the rim bed that is a few millimeters lower than the rest of the rim bed. They also have “bead locks” or shallower, narrower channels running inside the rim walls where the tire beads sit after the tire is installed and inflated.
Compare the tubeless optimized wheelset on the left with the classic clincher one on the right.
The channel is the key to getting your tires on. At that spot in your rim bed, while the wheel’s diameter is reduced a few millimeters, the circumference is reduced over 3x (or by Pi) more and that makes all the difference in getting your tires on your wheels.
Without using the channel, you probably won’t get your tires on. You’ll blister up your thumbs, abuse the rim beds and tape using tire levers, and likely swear till you are blue in the face.
So, use the channel and make it easy on yourself.
How? As you put the first sections of the first bead of the tire over the edge of your rim, put the bead into the rim channel and then mount the rest of that first bead into the channel as you go all the way around. Keeping that first bead in the channel, mount the second bead over the edge and into the same channel as go all the way around installing the second bead.
If you are having difficulty with the second bead, check to make sure that both sections of beads you already have mounted are still in the channel.
You also want to put the sections of each bead near the valve on last since the channel is blocked by the valve and the tire will sit higher there than if it were in the channel.
IRC created this graphic to show the steps.
Here are two videos that show some best practices for how to install modern tubeless road tires on tubeless-ready rims. They take slightly different approaches, but both work.
This one from ENVE starts with a tubeless road rim and shows you how to tape it and then inflate and seat it before injecting sealant. That’s the approach I follow.
This next one from GCN starts with a pre-taped tubeless road rim and shows how to use sealant before inflating to help you seat your tire bead. This approach works too.
In the next generation of wider wheelsets, we’ll also see more hookless rims. They are less expensive to make and improve aero performance slightly. At pressures typical of what you’d use for 23C and 25C wheels with 28mm tires (less than and probably, a good deal less than 80psi), the bead lock holds the tires in place without concern for the tires coming off the rim.
Emerging standards better define the rim diameter and tolerance for hooked and hookless rims at the bead lock. They also suggest a more current rim width to use in determining tire label sizes. This means that tires should fit more interchangeably with rims and measure truer to size once installed and inflated.
Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. While I hope installation becomes simpler and more uniform as the next round of tubeless wheels and rims are introduced, the current reality is that some tires mount, inflate, seal, and come off more easily on some rims than others. This is important not only when you put new tires on but even more so if you should have to install a tube on the road to deal with a major puncture that the sealant doesn’t fill.
For my tire ratings, I’ve noted which tires are easier or harder to get on and off the range of wheels we’ve tested.
What Matters Less
5. Puncture resistance – Of course, one of the main reasons to go tubeless is to protect yourself against punctures. When you puncture a tubeless road tire, the best measure is how quickly and well the sealant fills it.
This is puncture resilience, the ability of your tire to recover from a puncture.
On the other hand, puncture resistance, the ability of a tire to initially resist a puncture, is important if you have no recourse other than to get off your bike and replace your tube.
Puncture resistance is a throwback to the clincher world and matters much less in the tubeless one. Not only because of the role of tubeless sealant in filling the puncture but because tests run by BRR, Tour, and Wheel Energy show little difference in puncture resistance between everyday training and racing tubeless road tires with puncture belts.
By my lights, puncture resistance testing essentially evaluates the strength of your puncture belt and the thickness of your side walls. They don’t tell you anything about the puncture resilience of a sealant-filled tubeless tire.
A test that measured whether and how fast a tubeless bike tire resealed punctures of different sizes in the bottom and side of the tire spinning at cycling speeds would be more useful in choosing between them than the small differences in puncture resistance. Another test that evaluated the relative effectiveness of different sealants would be a bonus.
I don’t know how to do those tests but I’m sure or at least hope that some smart tire engineers will come up with something that tests tubeless tire puncture resilience rather than mere resistance.
The most important thing you can do to overcome the inevitable puncture is to make sure you’ve got the right amount of sealant in your tires or that you’ve got sealant at all.
Of course, there are times when a puncture is so large that sealant won’t do the job. Usually, that only happens with a good-sized gash in the side or bottom of your tire or when you are racing on a tire with no puncture belt. For those situations, carrying a tube is still a good idea.
Using a set of all-season tubeless road or cross tires for commuting or on roads full of puncture rich obstacles will give you better puncture resistance than training and racing tires with puncture belts but will give you considerably poorer rolling resistance and road feel.
6. Weight – One of the arguments for tubeless road tires is that they weigh less than clinchers. As I mentioned above, this isn’t the case, at least not comparing today’s everyday tubeless tire set up, which includes sealant and tubeless valves and a clincher with a butyl tube.
Everyday training and racing tubeless road tires with puncture belts come in one of two forms. Tubeless TL tires have a butyl lining bonded into them and weigh, on average, about 290 grams. TLR tires don’t have the butyl lining and average around 260 grams. Add to that another 30 grams for the ounce (30ml) of sealant and another 5 grams for the mid-depth tubeless valve.
Altogether then, you are looking at about 325 grams for a TL tire, sealant, and valve and 295 grams for a TLR set up. (Note that some TL tires are labeled TLR).
As a reference, a top everyday clincher tire like the 25C Continental Grand Prix 5000S II weighs 215 grams. With a good butyl tube inside your Conti tire, you add about 75 grams, bringing the total to about 290 grams.
So, a top clincher and TLR setup are going to weigh essentially the same amount. No diff. A TL one will weigh 35 grams more. If you add 2 ounces of sealant instead of 1 (or 30 grams) as I recommend for 25mm tires, you’ll add another 30 grams.
While it might weigh on the minds of weight weenies, you’d be hard-pressed to tell these differences out on the road. That’s why I put weight in the matters less bucket of criteria.
Sure, if you want to go with a latex tube instead of a longer-lasting, higher-maintenance, less expensive butyl one, you can save another 30-40 grams per tire. Most roadies won’t.
7. Wear – The good news about riding different wheels and tires all the time is that I get to try out and evaluate a lot of new gear and report that out to you. The bad news is that I really don’t get to ride any one set of tires more than 1,000 miles.
Other than a tire that wears quickly or cuts easily within our testing period, I can’t really offer my own opinion on tire wear or whether one model lasts 2500 miles while another goes 4000 miles. Of course, we all ride on different roads, some of which are harder on tires than others so wear is personal thing anyway.
While I and most roadies I know are frugal and are always looking for a good deal, I will always pick a better performing tire over a longer lasting one that doesn’t perform as well. Spending $25 more per tire to get better performance or spending an extra $50 or so to replace better tires even twice as often shouldn’t be a budget-buster for most road cycling enthusiasts.
8. Price – Most better-performing training and racing tubeless road tires with protection belts have a market price between USD$50 and $60 per tire. One or two may sell for $15 less or $20 more depending on a current sale or from a particular store. But, compared to what we spend on our bikes, gear, apparel, food, event fees, etc., tires are a minor cost for such a big contributor to our performance and enjoyment on the bike.
With that in mind, I don’t let the price of tubeless road tires enter into my decision making criteria.
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First published on July 11, 2018. Date of the most recent major update shown at the top of the post.