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Tubeless Tires and Cyclocross

So, I've been reading these articles in CX Mag online about the merits of tubeless tires and 'cross. I'm not sold. At least not yet. Over the last season, I had been able to get some ride time on the Hutchinson Bulldog mounted to Dura Ace wheels designed for tubeless applications. I'm a big fan of Hutchinson tires. Their tread patterns are super fast and I've had great success with them on the MTB, but cross is another animal all together. So, some observations...

  • Tubeless tires ARE NOT tubular tires. Do not confuse the two being the same.
  • Tubeless tires do not allow for the same level of suppleness that a tubular is inherently designed with vis-a-vis its materials in use on their sidewalls (cotton, silk, etc).
  • Now, per above, what does 'suppleness' mean? It's the ability for the tire to bend and allow its tread pattern to stay 'glued' to the earth while you and the bike bend into the apex of the turn you're making. Tubeless tire casings are inherently different due to the materials in use on their sidewalls. They are stiffer to support the nature of the tubeless application itself...e.g. keeping the bead tightly sealed to the rim when running 'reasonably' lower pressures. Tubular tires can achieve their bend because of two main factors: 1) the glue keeping the  center line of the tire in place and 2) the material of the casing which allows for varying levels of flexibility allowing for the bend. This ranges from cotton to silk to synthetics...with varying levels of 'bend-ability'.
  • So with the above said, Tubeless tires when run with low(er) PSIs, therefore have an incredible burping problem in 'cross. I've seen it time and time and time again in races. This is mainly due to the issues above (e.g. stiffer sidewalls + lower air to support the casing in the bead of the rim= burp) and the somewhat naiveté of the rider thinking they can get away with 'tubular like performance' and only filling with ~25 PSI. I just don't think the casings are there yet to support this....

So, these are my opinions for what they're worth. I want to see tubeless systems 'progress' as they will be infinitely easier to work with. It's my opinion though that tubeless does not equal tubular yet and riders should serioulsy consider this.

Reader Comments (13)

I love it when the dudes I am racing are running those tubeless tires...:-)

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkp

I ran the Hutchinson tubeless system this year (at least at the start) and for the life of me could not keep the rear from 'burping' and staying up enough to finish a race. I never had an issue with the front losing air and it worked great all year when called upon. I was used a tubed rim with the Stan's method. Although I was not expecting the same feel/performance as tubies, I gave it a try and am not a big fan for now.

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDouble J

Yo Greg,

I'd never argue that current tubeless cross setups are anywhere as nice as real tubulars for racing. But for training rides, they rock. Being able to run sub 40psi on those 4-5 hour late summer training rides and not sweating the pinch flats is sweet. if i burp a bit too much out of a tire, i'll pull over, pump a quick 5psi back in and i'm rolling again pretty quick.

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAron

To say tubeless setups have a huge problem with burping is like saying tubulars have a huge problem with rolling off. They both happen, but not so much when done right. I don't think the DA/Hutch solution is the best way to go.

Zero burps for me last season, one burp the year prior on a sideways jump that I am sure would have rolled a tubie.

I do think tubulars can give a better ride, but for me, the returns are not worth the extra effort. I sure don't miss the gluing!

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commentererikv

How does that saying go... "It isn't what you do, but how you do it?"

I'm amazed that more folks haven't picked up on it, but the Stan's 29er 355 rim is PERFECT for 'cross. Their bead hook magic makes it much harder to burp tires. I had them down to 22 psi for the snow/ice race in Bear Creek and never had any burping issues at all. I don't have any experience with the Hutch tires, but I've used the Stan's raven, and various Maxxis tires (with rubber rim) strip without any burping issues or flats. Hell, I even raced them in 1 short track over the summer and hit a few jumps with them.

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSchuler

Yup, I use the 355 rim as well. Rocks.

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commentererikv

This is RAD dialog! Hope folks in the industry are checking this out. I fundamentally feel that the technology needs to still mature. I'm down with anything that reduces the mess of tubular installation. Both have risks in failure, with the tubular probably harboring the most catastrophic risk. But as stated above, "It isn't what you do, but how you do it". Even at my 6'2" 180 size, I'm still sticking with tubulars for now.

Oh and for the jumping on tubulars part, enjoy:

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreg K

Hey Greg,

I think the key here, is that the two setups are in fact different, and that once you approach them that way, the tubeless design shines a bit more. I'm not completely sold on them either. But ran some converted Velocity rims last year, with Stan's and Hutchinson Piranhas. I think the stiffer sidewalls that keep the tubeless tires from being as supple as a tubular, is what makes them nice in the ridiculously sharp-rocky spots in the Colorado Front range. They smooth out the ride, yet the side walls hold up much better than tubulars.

As far as burping, I think it's all about practice. I had some initially, but once I figured out the range I could run my tires in, it all but disappeared. It's not any worse than the guys that run tubulars at 20psi and then are shocked when they roll off the rim.

Different tools for different jobs... but I think they'll continue to come along

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBigBadBri

Nice link Keller! I'm all for having a nice set of doubles somewhere in a CX course. Not that I'm a great jumper, but I'll give it a shot. Might as well throw a barrier in the middle of the double just to keep things interesting!

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSchuler

I race on tubulars, so I haven't used tubeless, but your assessment seems to match what I saw and heard this year. Lots of burping and worrying whenever the pressure was dropped too low. As one of the commentators said, saying tubeless set-ups burp a lot is like saying the tubular tires roll-off a lot. Well with higher pressures there's less burping, and less roll-off for both ... but then what's the point other than weight? (Conscientious gluing can prevent roll-off, there's not much you can do to prevent burping, is there?) If you need higher pressure as a preventative you might as well run a lightweight clincher set-up. You'd have a better selection of tires. From what I've seen and heard from tubeless users I don't think this is going to be the "thing" for cross. Road, and mountain bikes, perhaps, but not cross.

But that's just my opinion, and I haven't used them. But why would I? As messy as people think tubulars are I think they are less hassle than tubeless, from what I've heard.

March 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSurly Bastard

Tubular tires & all that goes into them is a right of passage for a CX racer. You can never appreciate true CX until you've inhaled hours of tubie glue fumes while drinking a great Belgie beer(a hwhole other thread I won't start), & raced on less than 30 psi. Only then will you appreciate cross for what it truely is...a LABOR of love.

March 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScottyD

We've done a couple of Stan's setups (w/ the 355 rim) and they seem to be less problematic than a simple Stan's conversion. We've also found more or less success with different tire combinations, presumably due to variances in bead size/shape between manufacturers. For example, the Hutchinsons (which of course, are designed for tube or tubeless use), Kendas and Maxxis all seem to play well with the Stan's rims, whereas Michelins and Vittorias (just to name a couple, not picking on `em) seem more prone to burping, esp. at lower pressures. That's a highly unscientific observation, BTW...

That said, I still prefer tubulars. It's already been pointed out, but the ride quality of tubeless systems just isn't quite there, and I don't think it will ever be there, for a couple of different reasons. First, many tubeless specific tires put a butyl coating on the inside of the tire to minimize air loss through the tire. I don't know this as "gospel truth" but I'd be REALLY surprised if this process did not add to the tire's "stiff" feel independent of pressure. Even if you're using a "standard" (tube-type) tire with a Stan's conversion, there is still the question of contact patch: tubular tires have a basically round cross-section, while tube-type tires have a more oblong/oval shape. So, the contact patch of a tubular remains pretty consistent, even under cornering loads (ie, leaning for example), while the contact patch of a tube-type tire changes under varying loads, and consequently changes how the tire responds and feels ("ride quality") through corners, in addition to the effects of casing material (and suppleness, etc.) and pressure. The more supple materials generally used in tubular tire casings also enhances subtle changes in pressure that are somewhat deadened with stiffer casings.

I think that for guys who like to swap tires for conditions, don't have a plethora of wheelsets hanging about, and don't like the process (or even the thought) of gluing tubulars, tubeless can be nice option. *Nice*, but not AS nice as a tubular wheelset, which of course is not as nice as multiple sets of tubulars, all on nice carbon rims, mmmmm...

Again, this is all highly unscientific (but empirical!) observation, along with a large dose of opinion...


"I love the smell of Mast'ik One in the morning... It smells like................. Huh?"

March 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLane

Lane: THANK YOU! Thanks for taking the time to document your experiences. Proving yet again the M & C tribe is the raddest on the intertubes.

March 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreg K

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