Top Road Bicycle Technology of the Past Twenty Years – Tubeless Road Tires
Tubeless tires for cars were popularized in the ‘50’s. For motorcycles, in the ‘70’s. So, the road bike world felt a bit behind the times when 50 years had passed and we were all still riding on tubes. Heck, even lawnmowers and wheelbarrows seemed ahead of road bike tire technology in this regard. By the year 2000, tubeless mountain bike technology existed. Then again, none of the above were as narrow or held as much pressure as a road bike tire.
Tubeless road finally surfaced in 2006 when Hutchinson and Shimano develop the first dedicated road tubeless system. Even though they were not tubeless specific, many Mavic wheel systems of the time had a rim design that leant itself to tubeless. As soon as I could get my hands on a pair, I mounted up a pair of Hutchinson tubeless tires on a pair of Mavic Ksyrium wheels. That first ride on tubeless road was transformative. The wheels were instantly and undeniably smoother. It was easy to feel the potential of tubeless. It provided a ride quality similar to what had only been available with the finest tubulars without the glue or special rims.
While we didn’t recommend tubeless for everyone, we started putting tubeless tires on client road bikes around 2008. We set-up a few hundred wheels with tubeless road within a few years. We expected tubeless road to take over quickly, the way tubeless had in mountain biking. It felt like the future was coming fast for tubeless, but then it didn’t…
The biggest wheel and tire companies in the industry didn’t embrace the technology for a very long time. In fact, when Mavic was slow to react to the wide rim revolution, we started selling fewer of their wheel options. Other brands were not as easy to convert to tubeless and we found ourselves doing less tubeless road over time, not more.
A number of years later, and assisted by the maturing of the gravel category, more companies finally started to show serious tubeless tire and rim options. However, standards were not established and finding wheel and tire combinations that worked well together consistently was quite a challenge for awhile. I never thought I’d witness experienced technicians spend over an hour installing a tire, but that happened at times not that long ago. Only in the past couple years as tubeless road finally started to establish enough consistency for it to start to become defacto.
As can happen with many major shifts in technology, the shift to tubeless road has been a long journey with some tears along the way. Tubeless tires and rims are becoming more standardized and reaching their full potential in terms of ride quality, puncture sealing capability, serviceability, weight and rolling friction.
Today, even the venerable tubular tire – long the standard of the racer – is quickly losing to tubeless. While such changes can be quite difficult for an industry and users to make, the benefits of tubeless are hard to deny. In the future we’ll likely look back and laugh at how long it took road bike tubeless tires to reach their potential and establish. Today, we just look forward to tubeless continuing to improve and becoming a consistent universal that serves all riders well.