More and more bicycles are coming stock with tubeless-ready wheels and tires. As tubeless technology improves, we start to see more technology trickle down to lower-end bicycle products. It is becoming harder to even find tires that are not tubeless compatible as most companies find it is most efficient to just make everything tubeless-ready. For those running older rims that are not tubeless-ready, swapping over can mean major weight savings and ride quality improvements. Tubeless rims tend to be more modern which means they are wider, bother internally and externally, allowing for a wider tire to sit correctly.
Oddly enough, tubeless technology is not exactly new by any means. The auto industry has been using tubeless technology on cars and motorized bikes for many years. We have now only seen tubeless become more mainstream on bicycles in the past 5 years or so which is odd considering how advantageous it is. The bicycling industry only adopting tired and true concepts from the automotive industry after many years is not a new pattern at all. Pretty much anything new and noteworthy we see on a bicycle has been used on a motorcycle.
But why are tubeless setups so great? There are many reasons. For anyone who spends lots of time on a bike, they know how easy it is to get a flat. Whether you pinch your tube, run over a piece of glass or your tube just decides to give up- getting flats is no fun and a waste of time. With tubeless your rim and tire become much more dynamic. While getting rid of tubes decreases friction and virtually eliminates pinch flats, there is a bit more to it. If your tire does get impaled by something sharp, the sealant in your tire can quickly repair the hole. The sealant can do this so fast you might not even notice that it saved you from getting a flat tire. As mentioned before, tubeless setups decrease friction and increased volume inside of the tire, allowing the rider to run lower pressure. Lower pressure creates a smoother ride which means your wheels will roll faster, making the bike more efficient.
Many people are frustrated by tubeless tire setups for the wrong reasons. Usually, these reasons are the results of cutting corners when piecing together a wheel and tire combination. It is vital that both the wheel and tire are tubeless compatible. However, as technology has recently improved, not all tubeless tires are compatible with all tubeless rims. The next paragraph will explain this. Ultimately, a tire and rim must have the capability to be tubeless in order for success of the entire system. To properly conceptualize it, the system can be broken into three different parts. First off, the rim must be tubeless-ready, properly taped, fitted with a nice valve, and in good condition (no major dents or flat spots). Next, the tire must have the proper sealing and sidewall retention to hold itself and the air inside. And lastly, the correct kind of sealant must be used and checked every couple of months or after a flat.
Recently, we have seen wheel manufacturers creating wider rims that have a hookless bead design. These rims have wider internals, externals, and beads. As we mentioned before, this is directly from the automotive industry. Cars use a tubeless design that is hookless for it allows the tire to sit as it was intended to while maximizing space and increasing strength. But this does add new hurdles to finding good tire setups as there are now tires that must be hookless and tubeless-compatible for a successful setup. Many tubeless tires probably do work with hookless rims, but if the tire is not rated to run hookless you have a greater chance of blowing it off the bead. With a wider bead that does not have a hook, the chance of denting or cracking the rim greatly decreases.
We see bicycle tires growing in size in all disciplines. While road bikes used to have tires that were 19-millimeters only a few years ago, “race” road bikes are now coming stock with 30-millimeter tires. We find this same trend happening in World Cup Cross-Country, Enduro, and Downhill. The perception of wide tires used to be that they were too slow. It is likely true that when a certain width is reached, it does make the bicycle slower, however, when within the boundaries of what is for sale and the sizes used by the professionals-it will only make you faster. There are many studies done on both rolling resistance and human perception of rolling resistance. The results were that low pressure, at a calculated level, was in fact faster. However, riders thought that their bicycles were faster with high pressure due to the noises they heard as the tires rolled on the pavement.
This opens up the psychological side of cycling which plays a very large part in training and racing. Any rider can tell you that looking good and feeling good are one and the same. If a rider feels like their bike is rolling fast and they think they look fast, it’s possible they will feel better when pushing hard for long periods of time, thus making them faster. So there is a medium that must be reached where a bike is fast and a rider feels fast. Most likely this will be different for each individual.
Running lower pressure results in a more comfortable ride for the same reason it is faster. This concept is true for really any discipline of cycling as no surface is ever perfectly smooth. The road is where most people have trouble wrapping their heads around running lower pressure so let’s break down what happens on the road. We know that people are looking for tires they sometimes check the resistance in watts (kilojoules per second). The idea being how many watts a rider will need to put out to maintain a certain speed. Largely this is helpful for people to understand how efficient the rubber will be, but this only takes perfectly flat surfaces into account which really do not exist anywhere but on a fancy velodrome. Taking the same concept of efficiency, but now thinking about how something really hard will actually experience more resistance when encountering an obstacle as it will not conform easily versus how a softer object will be able to smoothly glide over the obstacle without losing as much speed for it can conform around the obstacle. When the tire can gracefully conform around a bump on the road fewer watts are required to maintain a certain speed thus making it more efficient.