Tubeless tyres are coming of age. The latest entrant to the market is from German company Schwalbe, with their new Ultremo ZX Tubeless, which they claim is fastest tyre they've ever made.
Tubeless tyre technology currently divides opinion, but that's the kind of talk that gets us raising eyebrows here at road.cc, so we were keen to test them.
Undoubtedly the most important invention in cycling history has been the pneumatic tyre. Without John Boyd Dunlop's contribution to the world in 1887, cycling just wouldn't be the same. The clincher tyre as we know it was invented by Michelin in 1891, and 122 years later the clincher tyre is still in use.
Today, clincher tyres are still the preferred choice (tubular tyres confined to the pro peloton and weight weenies), but road tubeless, first pioneered by Hutchinson a handful of years ago, is the promising future of tyre technology.
Fed up of getting punctures? Tubeless tyres, with a little liquid sealant in the space vacated by the inner tube, promise to eliminate 99% of punctures. It's been far from a smooth road for tubeless technology, though. There's been too little choice of tyres or suitable rims, delaying uptake. That is quickly starting to change though.
Schwalbe's new tubeless tyre
Based on their top-end race Ultremo ZX competition tyre, the road tubeless version is claimed by the company to be the fastest tyre they've ever made. They've been three years in development as 'it was technically quite challenging to produce a high-pressure tubeless racing bike tyre,' Christian Lademann, Schwalbe's Product Manager tells us.
The tyre looks the same as the regular Ultremo ZX, and is available in 23mm and 25mm widths. Key to the new tyre is a new carbon bead, which Schwalbe reckons makes the tyre easy to install, yet provides the required snug fit with the rim to ensure an airtight seal. Schwalbe make the tyre with a butyl liner and vulcanise it to make a single layer.
This means the tyre is heavier, at 290g, than the regular tyre at 190g. Remember, there's no inner tube, which can typically weigh between 70 and 100g. You do have to add in about 20g for the sealant though, so the weight averages out at about the same as a regular setup. Schwalbe claim the tyre offers lower rolling resistance than their 170g Ultremo ZLX, so weight is not the pivotal performance benefit of the new tyre.
Fitting: A doddle, easy and quick
The key to increasing road tubeless adoption is making the tyres easy to fit. A little time on Google will find you cycling forums filled with horror stories, it's all enough to put you off the idea completely.
These Schwalbe tyres are really easy to fit. In fact, they're just as easy to fit as a regular clincher tyre. It took me all of 10 minutes to have both tyres fitted on the wheels and inflated. I used nothing more than two strong thumbs and a track pump to fit and inflate the tyres.
I fitted the tyres to a pair of Stan's No Tubes Alpha 340 Team 3.30R wheels. No Tubes have garnered a great reputation in the mountain bike world, and they've applied their own bead hook rim profile to these road rims, so they seemed the natural choice for testing road tubeless. They come with a ready-fitted rim tape to make them airtight and 44 mm valves.
First a dry run, with no sealant. The tyres eased onto the rims with only the pressure of my thumbs needed. They recommend fitting the tyres without tyre levers, to avoid potentially damaging the tyre bead. Track pump in place and threaded onto the valve, the tyre pumped up first time. Impressed with the effortless installation, I simply deflated the tyre, unhooked a section of bead, poured in the recommended dose of sealant, fitted the bead and pumped the tyre back up.
I inflated both tyres to the maximum recommended pressure, rotated the wheels in my arms several times to ensure the sealant had worked around the tyre and rim fully. I then left both wheels overnight. The next morning, both tyres were still holding pressure, my pressure gauge revealing no loss of air. Time to ride.
Ride: Fast, supple and grippy, and no punctures
One of the trump cards offered by road tubeless is the ability to run lower pressures without any extra risk of punctures, providing greater traction and grip. I regularly run my clincher tyres at 90/95 psi front/rear regardless of the time of year - the extra cushioning noticeably improves ride quality and is faster as the tyre can absorb bumps and ridges on the road surface. So I naturally inflated the Ultremo ZX Tubeless tyres to the same pressure for the start of my test. After a couple of hundred miles, this turned out to be a good setting, with reasonable compliance and rolling resistance.
Against a regular clincher Ultremo ZX, the ride quality is so nearly identical as to be difficult to tell the difference. The tyres feature the same RaceStar Triple Compound as the regular tyres, providing the same rapid turn of speed, momentum and pace. Grip is fantastic through the corners, especially in the dry, and equally confident in the wet.
There's a good level of suppleness in the tyre, despite the changes to make it tubeless. Ride feel over a variety of road surfaces is akin to the regular tyre, but able to run them at lower pressures proved to boost the level of suppleness. A 23mm tyre is still narrow though and it's on the wider 25mm version that this will likely be a trait more easily exploited.
The regular Ultremo was pretty vulnerable with thin sidewalls. The tubeless version is a lot more durable and easily withstands sudden impacts with potholes, something I verified in a recent chaingang when I and the rider I was following both hit the same pothole: he punctured, I didn't. That's not a conclusive test at all, but does indicate their ability to withstand such impacts.
Schwalbe also claim these tyres offer a lower rolling resistance than their 160g Ultremo ZLX. The regular Ultremo was a fast tyre, as our review attests. That's certainly been the case with the tubeless variant, rolling speed is best described as nippy, with a good turn of speed from walking pace to flat out sprinting. They hold onto the Tarmac through the bends and corners with the same tenacity as dried out Weetabix.
What about punctures?
Since I installed the tyres I've not had a single flat. I've been testing them on long training rides, short and hard chain gangs and rides in all weathers, including most recently a two-hour commute in torrential rain. It's rides like that you least want a puncture, not that you ever wish for one, but despite the increased potential for flats in roads rapidly turning into rivers, the tyres proved their worth.
So far then I'm impressed with their performance and resistance to flats. I intend to keep riding them into the winter, and will switch the wheels and tyres over to my winter training bike to build up the total mileage. I'll report back.
Should you go tubeless then?
That's an interesting question, and one only you can answer. I've been impressed with the ease of installation, zero maintenance (so far), lack of punctures and speed and grip of these tyres, as well as the comfort. Tubeless will clearly divide opinion for many years to come, and you probably know already which camp you're in. If you're interesting in going tubeless, these Schwalbe are a great investment, and a good advocate for the technology that some see as having the potential to replace clincher tyres.
On paper, tubeless could easily supplant the traditional tyre and inner tube combination that has existed in cycling for over a hundred years. The key advantage of road tubeless is improved protection against flat tyres. With the sealant you're going to experience fewer flats, making it the ideal choice for year-round cycling in the UK where our roads are generally in a poor state of repair. Most of my punctures seem to come from tiny, extremely sharp flint or glass, they cut straight through an inner tube, but tubeless takes care of them. So for commuting, training, touring and racing, they're an ideal choice.
Despite tubeless technology being commonplace on cars and motorbikes, it isn't being readily adopted on bicycles. There are many reasons for this: the maintenance of road tubeless; setting them up; rim and tyre compatibility (which is getting markedly better every year); and the mess involved if you do have to install a tube mid-ride, are potential pitfalls that a lot of cyclists just don't want to fall into. Clincher tyres and inner tubes are easier to work with, you're never going to have problems inflating a tyre or any issues with compatibility. Spares are easier to come by too. But to many, the inner tube is the weak link in the modern bicycle, and it's a weak link that tubeless eliminates.
Impressive ride quality, speed and puncture resistance, and they're a doddle to fit.
road.cc test report
Make and model: Schwalbe Ultremo ZX tubeless kit
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
Tubeless for road racers. All you need to get you started conveniently boxed as a Tubeless-Set.
2 Ultremo ZX TL tires, 700 x 23c
1 Easy Fit tire lubricant
1 Doc Blue tire sealant 60ml
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Tubeless for road racers. We have worked a long time on this. Now we are really
excited about the benefits.
Extremely fast. No component friction between tire and tube. Radically minimized rolling resistance! (As low as in the super lightweight Ultremo ZLX)
Extremely safe. Virtually excludes sudden air loss. Almost twice as resistant to snakebite.
Optimal puncture protection when combined with sealant fluid: Immediately seals punctures.
Installation:A tubeless compatible wheel and a suitable valve are required. Tire levers should
only be used with care. Before inflating lubricate the tire bead with fitting fluid. The valve must
be located between the tire beads. To inflate a sudden blast of air is required (track pump).
There should be an audible snap when the tire locates on the rim. Deflate and fill with puncture
protection sealant through the valve. 30 ml of Doc Blue per tire is sufficient.
In case of a puncture on the road: Remove valve and install a tube.
Fast, durable and resistant to punctures.
Very durable for a racing and training tyre.
No particular weight saving over regular tyre and tube combination, but offers better rolling resistance and puncture resistance.
Impressive comfort for a 23mm tyre.
The kit is expensive, and you need tubeless-ready wheels in the first place, though a lot more bikes come with tubeless compatible wheels these days.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Impressively fast tyre with all the benefits of tubeless and, so far, non of the frequently advertised downsides.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Speed and durabililty.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
A little more patience is required to correctly install them.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes.
Would you consider buying the product? Yes.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes.
About the tester
Age: 31 Height: 180 Weight: 67
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo cross, commuting, touring, mtb,
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.