Some changes in cycling have been big, brash and blatant. The move from skinny tubed steel frames to large diameter aluminium and carbon was immediately obvious to anyone looking. No one, even casual riders can miss the jump to disc brakes on mountain bikes, commuter cycles and, finally, road bikes (take that UCI!). The migration of road shifters from down tube to bar can even be picked up by non-cyclists. Suspension forks and shocks on off roaders are so in-your-face that kids know the difference. There is, in fact, a long list of cycle innovations that have, perhaps, been more aesthetic than effective.

Often it has been the mountain bike that has led the way in the ‘look-at-me stakes’, so it might surprise many that one of the most profound changes in the way bikes are put together since the turn of the 20th century, has been almost invisible to the naked eye and has happened mostly on mountain bikes.

Since John Dunlop’s work in 1888, bicycles had moved away from solid wheels and embraced pneumatic tyres, paving the way for all motorized road traffic to this very day. The system is simple, yet effective. A hollow outer hoop of hardened rubber is clinched onto the lipped edges of a metal (or carbon) rim. Between the two is a tubular loop of expandable rubber which can be filled with air via a valve that sticks through the metal rim via its inner edge and is held safely away from any rolling surfaces. The inner tube of expandable rubber (commonly known, of course, as an inner tube) presses against the hardened outer loop, providing it with a supple structure that allows the rider’s weight to be supported, terrain to be negotiated, grip to be maintained and (most importantly compared to the solid tyres that the system replaced) comfort to be offered via the inherent give of air and rubber combined. Push more air in to create a harder, faster rolling surface, let it out for more grip & comfort. Simple.

The system, however, is not flawless. The whole set is vulnerable to air loss via five main outlets. First, the inner tube is not actually completely air tight. Small amounts of air leak out constantly through the rubber itself, as it is ever so slightly porous. This is especially true at high pressures – at 120psi, an inner tube can lose around 5psi per week. As pressures lower, the amount of air forced out reduces, until levels usually stabilise at around 10psi. The valve can also leak. The rubber/ metal seal is robust, but not infallible. Again, higher pressures = faster leakage.

Next come the two types of puncture. External infractions occur when sharp objects pierce the hardened rubber tyre and then easily tear through the soft inner tube. Thicker rubber can counter this, but that adds weight and slows the bike down as well as negatively affecting handling & comfort. Manufacturers also add Kevlar and other protective casings. Again these affect the characteristics of the tyre and, ultimately, nothing is foolproof. The problem is actually worsened at higher pressures, as there is less give in the system when a sharp object encountered the surface of the tyre. Also, there are blowouts, also worsened under higher pressures.

You can run lower pressures but this brings on a whole new problem, the dreaded pinch puncture or ‘snakebite’. When the tyre strikes a hard edge, such as a kerb, lip of a pothole or a deep rut, the rider’s weight forces the tyre against the rim. This compresses the inner tube in such a way that it is unable to resist the incoming force and its soft rubber becomes trapped between two (much harder) surfaces, causing it to cut or burst and often creating two thin parallel cuts (where each side of the rim has met the tyre) resembling a snake bite (although more commonly only one side actually gets cut due to uneven nature of the forces being applied). Again, increasing tyre pressures to a high enough level can almost eliminate this problem, but at the expense of comfort, grip and (as above) infraction punctures.

So what to do? Surely punctures are just part of life and that’s that! Or perhaps not.

For a great many years, there has been an alternative. Hand stitched tubular tyres hold air without the need for an inner tube. The tubular or ‘tub’ needed to be glued in place to the rim to prevent the rotational forces ripping the valve out and really sharp objects could still cut through, but the rubber could be thicker (in the absence of the weight of the inner tube) and the performance could be really ‘dialled in’. The downside were the cost and waste. The hand stitching process is expensive, with experts charging up to £100 per pair to patch and repair punctures and new sets being as much as £400 a pop. A single tear writes off a tyre. A lot to pay to be free of pinch punctures. So, for most people, inner tubes remain the only option.

Well, not necessarily. In 1999 Mavic launched the first UST, tubeless tyre/wheel combination. In doing so they marked the beginning of an end of more than 100 years of the humble inner tube.

The idea was as simple as the inner tubes it was to replace; a two tier system with a single tyre that beaded directly to the rim via an airtight seal and relied largely upon an inner set of built in ‘humps’ within the rim bead which pinched the edges of the tyre tightly together. By sealing the entire metal rim off from the outside world and creating a tight enough interface between the tyre bead and the rim, air could be kept inside. Add liquid latex to the mix (as did Stan’s in 2002) and not only was the seal enhanced, but any infraction puncture was instantly filled with quick drying goo that essentially formed a new part of the tyre in holes up to 3mm long (bear in mind that the end of a thorn is less than .25mm across).

Best of all, though, was the issue of pinch punctures. They went away. For mountain bikers this was the source of the quiet revolution. Lower pressures offered more grip, enhanced rolling characteristics over rough ground, gave greater comfort and resulted in even fewer infraction punctures. Perfect! Well…not quite. Mavic’s system only worked if the tyre and rim were perfectly matched (later versions do work with other tubeless tyres), but the rim choice remains limited to, er, Mavic with only Hutchinson, Mavic and Michelin tyres working really well.

Enter Stan Koziatek. As mentioned above, Stan realized that advanced liquid latex solutions could be ‘programmed’ to provide an airtight seal in more ‘normal’ rims, provided the tyre itself was airtight enough and the rim was properly sealed. He developed a tape that could run along the spoke bed and keep the air in, while a rubber bunged valve stopped any leakage at the pumping end. He then filled up tyres with latex sealant popped them onto the rim and blasted the air in as quickly as possible via a compressor. The pressure caused the liquid latex to instantly harden at the rim/tyre bead interface, creating a seal around the full tyre circumference. Now there were a great many more tyre/rim interfaces possible, with just the purchase of some tape, valves and sealant. Needless to say, Stan went on to develop ‘optimal’ rim designs to work even better, but he shied away from tyre design arguing, quite sensibly, that tyre companies needed to have some reason to carry on existing and that he didn’t really know anything about tyre design.

This not only further eliminated any infraction punctures, but meant that even lower pressures still could be run to enhance grip. Naturally, there were some drawbacks which prevented this from taking over the entire cycling worked in five minutes flat. Stan’s approach required regular sealant top ups – dried out sealant would not fill the hole made by punctures and pressure dropped all the same. Additionally, all tubeless models were subject to the dreaded burp (similar to a pinch puncture) whereby upon striking a particularly harsh edge or under extreme cornering pressure, in the absence of an inner tube, the seal would break and ‘burp’ a good part of the air out in one go, leaving the tyre no longer properly connected to the rim – fun to watch/hear, rubbish to experience.

Over the years, however, tyre/rim interfaces have improved, longer lasting sealants have been developed and riders have worked out optimal riding pressures for their tubeless set ups (11psi feels amazing, but burps like a windy baby). Come 2016 and almost all high end bikes come ‘tubeless ready’, with some manufacturers (notably Santa Cruz) offering their bikes already set up tubeless upon delivery. The mountain bike world has been converted. Many cyclo cross bikes have followed suit. One major discipline, though, has stayed largely out of the tubeless fray – virtually all road riders still use inner tubes.

This is not without good temporal reason. While MTB tubelessness has been ‘a thing’ since 1999, it took until 2006 for Shimano and Hutchinson to collaborate on the Road Tubeless System and, ten years down the line things remain on a very slow burn.

Which begs the question – why not innovate? In general road racing is at the forefront of technological development. First to use aluminium and then carbon for frames. First to inegrate braking systems with shifting. First to bring in electronic shifting. First to experiment with carbon rims, cranks and mechs. The Grand Tours have seen many of the greatest shifts forward in cycling technology, with the drive to compete and out do the opposition on a global stage nudged further by sponsors and bike manufacturers looking for a new sales pitch. Surely a game changer such as tubeless with greater grip, fewer punctures and lighter weight would be an instant winner.

Well, despite the great leaps forward of the past, road racing remains inherently somewhat conservative and not a little distrustful of advances being ‘shared’ by other cycling disciplines – not least those mountain bike hooligans out there in the wilderness. The UCI, cycling’s governing body, is heavily stacked with ex-road racers and they, to be blunt, don’t much like mountain bikers or their technologies. Suspension, disc brakes, wider tyres, dropper posts – you name it, if it came from the world of MTB, the UCI does not want to see it on the grand tours until their hands are absolutely forced by the weight of popular opinion.

Then there are the race logistics. Punctures are dealt with via a five second wheel swap – job done. Mountain bike racers can lose an entire race based on one mid-lap puncture, road riders simply drop of the peloton for a minute or so then get shepherded back by their domestiques. Surfaces are prepared to be as clean as possible, minimizing the occurrence of infractions at the highest level and, with tyre pressure in the high 120s, pinch flats are a rarity.

Away from the grand tour, however, there are real appeals to the tubeless system for road riders. First up is the almost total elimination of punctures. Without a support car in pursuit, a flat can make a pleasant Sportive into painful hours of trying to close the gap on the main group. Commutes can turn from a spin to work into a sweaty race to make it before 9am. The curb side of most roads is full of debris and potholes abound on even the quietest roads. Add to this the weight saving (sealant weighs in at less than 1/5th the mass of two tubes) and the draw to tubeless is clear. Without a lead from the ‘top’ of the sport, though, too little has happened and too slowly.

But happening it is. Tubeless options for road bikes are offered by Schwalbe, Vittoria and Maxxis as well as the established Hutchinson and Michelin options. Tubeless ready road rims & wheels by Hope, and Stans are readily available. Stans and Orange Seal have developed lighter weight seals for road use, which dry out for more slowly than earlier options. Pump manufacturers offer overdrive and boost models that reach tubeless pressures as quickly as compressors without needing a trip to the local bike shop. Conversion kits are readily available, affordable and easy to use. Little by little, the road riding market is waking up to the joys of the tubeless experience.

So what else does tubeless offer to road riders other than puncture resistance and weight savings? With ever widening tyres on the market and advanced telemetrics indicating that 27c tyres at 80psi actually perform better than 23c at 110psi, tubeless tyres means these lower pressures are more achievable and desirable. With this comes more comfort and higher grip in corners. Tyres can be designed to perform better in a range of conditions, especially in the wet, where the prospect of aquaplaning remains a concern for many. Rims can also be lighter (as the bead does not have to be as deep) which aids rolling speed. All in, tubeless tyres seem to offer road bikes far more than first meets the eye.

Let’s take a more detailed look at a few of the options shall we?

Rims/ wheels:

Hope Mono RS with Stans Alpha: This lightweight, yet tough all round package features a rim from the daddy of Tubeless, Stan Koziatek on a hub from bike engineering kings, Hope. Tubeless ready beading means the addition of tape and valves gets you ready to pop on a tyre whenever feel.

DT Swiss RR21 Dicut: A great multi-use set of wheels from the Swiss perfectionists. I great set of hubs matches to tubeless ready rims, already taped and prepped. All you need do is pop on the tyres, add sealant and ride.


Schwalbe One: A truly high performance road tubeless tyre. The One, is amongst the lightest tyres available, anywhere and also offers high levels of grip on descents. For competitive cyclists thinking about tubeless – this is THE answer.

Maxxis Padrone: This high performance speed demon, happens to be the lightest offering Maxxis make. This does not stop it have high levels of grip and longevity.

All of the above are available to special order from Biketart – just give us a call.

With plenty of choices out there, do you really want to wait for your next puncture before you think about trying tubeless road tyres? Well, do you?