Thursday, March 22, 2012

Road Tubeless Review

My rating:  4 / 5 (read more to find out why) 

About two years ago, I got the itch to get new wheels and after some research, I ended up with a pair of road tubeless compatible wheels.  This technology was relatively new to the market at that time, but given that the wheels I decided to purchase could also be used with conventional inner tubes if I wanted to do so, I figured I didn't have much to lose.  For those of you who may be unfamiliar with road tubeless, the two main marketing points for road tubeless seem to be reduced chance of flats and increased comfort.  Some also claim a reduced rolling resistance.  Below I will try to explain through my personal experiences whether or not the technology lives up to the hype.

First, the wheels.  As you may have been able to tell from the picture above, I went with a pair of Campagnolo Zonda 2-Way Fit (as in, can be used tubeless or with tubes) wheels.  Right out of the box, they weighed 1,650g on my Park Tool hanging scale, which was slightly above the 1,580g advertised value (my experience suggests Italian scales are calibrated differently than others, but that is another story altogether).  One of the main reasons for me going with these wheels, other than them being road tubeless ready, was their reported durability as well as the quality of the hubs.  So far, the wheels haven't disappointed in these areas.  As an added bonus, they are nicely stiff and have remained true over the two years I have had them.  Couldn't ask for any better from training wheels.

For the tires, I decided to go with Hutchinson Fusion 2 tubeless tires.  I should mention first that after about two years, I am still on the same tires.  Granted, I have several bikes and wheelsets so these by my estimation have about 1,500 miles on them.  Nonetheless, they still look good and I think I can probably get another thousand miles or so out of them.  

The tires came in at 317g each.  For those interested in a weight comparison, a nice clincher tire weighs around 200-225g and a lightweight (not ultra lightweight) butyl inner tube around 75g.  So there is a slight weight disadvantage, especially when you keep in mind the fact that you will most likely add some sealant to your tubeless tires to avoid those pesky flats.

Mounting the tires the first time was an interesting experience to say the least.  I probably cursed around a hundred times and had blisters all over my fingers, but managed to get them on (the skinny Italian guy in the video put out by Campy makes it look so easy).  The last couple inches, I had to resort to plastic levers.  This is not recommended , but I couldn't get them on by hand so that is what I did.  After getting the tires on, I used a standard floor pump to add air and to my surprise, the tires seemed to seal up right away.  I was planning on adding sealant right away but I left them overnight as an experiment, and the next day the front tire had lost about 30 psi which I thought to be excessive.  The rear lost only about 10 psi.  At any rate, I deflated the tires and proceeded to add Hutchinson's Fast Air sealant both front and rear, hoping that this would help the tires maintain pressure for longer, but more importantly eliminate flats because I really wasn't looking forward to taking these tires off and putting them back on roadside, given the difficulty of mounting them on the first time.

After letting them sit overnight again, the loss in pressure seemed negligible so the sealant seemed to be helping in this regard.  I am also happy to report that after almost two years of riding, I still haven't gotten a flat that the sealant hasn't been able to seal.  I say this because on more than one occasion, I have heard a hissing sound coming from the tires, only to stop after a few seconds.  Once, the hole was large enough where the sealant started squirting out of the hole, but to my surprise the tire was sealed after a few seconds after the tire lost a bit of pressure.  After I pumped it back up, everything was fine again.  For comparison, I seem to get about half a dozen flats or so per year when riding conventional tubed tires (I am a big fan of Michelin Krylion carbon tires and use them at the moment, but also used Veloflex Corsa for a while among others).

As for the claimed benefits of road tubeless, let me go through these one by one:

Puncture resistance:  See paragraph above.

Comfort:  I have to say that the combination of Campy Zonda wheels and Fusion 2 tubeless tires give by far the most comfortable ride I have ever experienced.  I usually pump these up to 95 psi front / 100 psi rear.  For comparison, they were superior to the Veloflex Corsa / Challange latex tube combo I tried out for a while (at 100 psi front / 110 psi rear; they felt a bit squishy at less than these pressures).  They are also superior in this regard, although very slightly, to the Bontrager Race X-Lite tubulars (290 tpi with latex tubes, made by Vittoria) that I also ride on a fairly regular basis.  The increase in comfort is evident on a variety of frame materials (I own aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium frames - you can see them here), with the impact best demonstrated on my aluminum Tsunami frame.

Rolling resistance:  I don't have a way of quantifying this, but they seem to roll well (but I feel not as well as my tubulars).  There are some test results on that suggest they roll worse than some but better than other conventional clinchers.  But let's be honest, even if they rolled slightly better or worse, the difference in speed would be negligible (certainly not enough to matter on training rides).  I personally don't feel (and my computer seems to agree) that I go any faster or slower on tubeless.

Other:  The tires grip and corner well; no issues to report in this area to date.  The tires also seem to be pretty hard-wearing (I expect 2,500-3,000 miles from the rear tire).

Verdict:  The tubeless experiment has been a big success for me.  Other than the issues with mounting the tires on the first time, I am happy to report that the whole setup has been trouble free and performs very well.  I still worry from time to time about getting a large cut that the sealant can't seal, but I am reminded this could render a regular tire useless as well.  For rides far away from home, I still carry a couple inner tubes and CO2 cartridges (and small pliers to help remove the tubeless valve if needed) in case I get a flat that the sealant can't handle, but as mentioned I haven't needed any of these to date.  I have to admit though that I am not exactly looking forward to pulling the tires off and re-installing on the side of the road; though they may have stretched a tad over the last couple years so they could be easier to pull off next time - I just haven't had a chance to test this theory yet.  For instance, this was the case with Veloflex Corsa tires which were a royal pain to mount initially but lot easier afterwards.

So as long as the possibility of needing to apply brute force to mount tires and potential for blistered palms doesn't scare you, I highly recommend road tubeless to everyone (and the Campy Zonda wheels as well).  I gave these a final score of 4/5 due to the potential hassle associated with installing the tires, as well as the possible hassle of removing the valve and having to deal with messy sealant.  Other than that, I find them hard to fault.


  1. Good review.

    Although ultimately subjective I like that fact that you have multiple wheels and bikes with different frame materials that allows you to eliminate some obvious variables.

  2. Thanks. I am actually working on setting up instrumentation (accelerometers and a small portable data acquisition system) and run some experiments, so I hope to have some objective data as well in the near future.

  3. I used some light work gloves with a rubber coating on the palms and fingers from home depot ($4.97) for mounting fusion 3 tires on shimano ultegra 6800 wheels. It took about 2 minutes for each wheel. No blisters on my hands!

  4. This is really very nice and helpful information has been given in this article. I bought a tubeless road wheels last year and that is really amazing easy to use no chances of any puncture.