Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's Not About the Bike...It's About Wheels and Tires

Buying a lighter bike or wheels is not going to make anyone a stronger rider, and I can “prove” it.

About a year ago, I was researching clincher wheel models, as I was in the market for new wheels. Back in late 2002, I bought my first carbon frame, and building a light bike was a priority. I went with American Classic CR420 wheels, as they were about the lightest clincher wheels I could find. While the AC wheels are indeed light, and the rims surprisingly durable given the miles I have racked up on them, the lightweight hubs are pretty crappy, and the braking performance disappointing. The ride quality isn’t the greatest, they are not that stiff for cornering, and the 34mm rim catches the cross-winds. Despite all this, I purchased another set of 420’s in 2005 (with a “new” hub design.) Once again, I had many issues with the hubs, especially when I tried to use them with 11 speed Campy.

At about the same time that I was going to 11 speed, I was having another bike built, so I would be getting two new sets of wheels. I decided that I had had enough of the AC’s, and searched the internet for info on available clincher wheels, with weight once again a focus. Much to my surprise, the AC wheels were still one of the lightest weight choices, and the other light weight wheels that I read about all seemed to have durability or other issues that made them less than desirable.

From what I could tell, of the wheels with reputations for quality hubs and rims, one could find a light wheel, but not a really light one. It looked like I was going to have to add around a half a pound (227g) to get a good set of wheels. For me to add weight to one of my bikes, I must be convinced that it would make a bike safer or more comfortable. I decided to do a little more research, this time on weight. I’ve always been a little bit of a Weight Weenie, and I think it comes from my backpacking and climbing experiences. When you are going up against gravity with legs only, it seems like you feel every additional ounce on your back. I was curious as to how weight really impacts cycling performance, especially given the marketing campaigns of the cycling industry.

Using some of the online power calculating sites like AnalyticCycling.com and BikeCalculator.com, what I found was rather surprising. Over the length of a one hour climb of 7.5% average grade (quite a steep grade for a climb this length), a 160# rider cycling at a constant 250 watts of power would finish 9 seconds slower for every extra half pound added to either his bike or body. Certainly I understand that an extra 9 seconds is hugely important in certain venues. Considering that a European pro cyclist is potentially set for life financially if they are able to win a hard mountain stage of the Tour de France, it’s no wonder that many of the climber’s bicycles must have weight added to be right at the UCI limit of 6.8kg (14.99#). It’s also no surprise that we see riders pitching water bottles, sunglasses, etc. before that final climb of the stage.

I can be competitive at times, but for me, 9sec/hour/.5# isn’t very important during my “races.” We are only talking about 3 seconds on a 20 minute climb, and there isn’t a climb that long in King County! I guess if it were important, I could just empty one of my water bottles, and lose more than a half a pound.

Of course, if our 160# rider were to weigh 220#, he would finish 18 minutes slower on that one hour climb, and now we are talking differences that really do matter!

All of a sudden, adding a few grams to get a quality wheel with smooth and durable hubs didn’t seem like a sacrifice, nor did the 4 extra pounds that my new Rodriguez steel bike weighs compared to my S-Works Tarmac SL2. I wound up buying a set of Campagnolo Eurus Two Way Fit wheels for the Tarmac, and having a set of custom wheels built at a very reasonable cost with DT 240 hubs using DT rims and spokes for the Rod Bike.

Using my digital scale, my AC wheels weigh 1370g with the ugly AC decals removed, and my DT wheels are at 1455g. The Campy wheels came in lighter than Campy claimed at 1515g. For the extra 85g and 145g respectively, I now have wheels with some of the smoothest and most durable hubs in the business. The Campy hubs even use real ball bearings! Both wheels have remained strong and true, both have superb braking surfaces, and the traditionally spoked DT’s look great with my classic steel frame.

One of the reasons I bought the Campy wheels was for their compatibility with tubeless road tires. I finally got a set of tubeless tires, and now that I have ridden 300 miles over all types of roads on these tires, I can state unequivocally that these are the best tires I have ever used. The tubeless tires have a very supple ride and grip superbly. Initial turn-in to a corner feels a little different, as the tires just seem to flow into a turn. I’ve never ridden tires that inspire more handling confidence. Using the recommended 10-20psi less inflation pressure than I used with my Continental GP4000s tires, the ride is very significantly improved, and if anything they seem to roll faster. According to what I have read, an inner tube causes friction, and the lack of a tube decreases rolling resistance.

People riding with me tell me that the sidewalls “squish” less than with a regular clincher, even running the tubeless at 20psi less pressure. Insuring that the tires are airtight required a different type of rubber and sidewall design, so maybe the sidewall is stiffer? I’ve tried tubeless on both the carbon and steel bike. The difference is most pronounced on my already smooth riding steel bike; it’s almost like I am riding a different bicycle. According to people in the know, tubeless tires have a ride quality similar to fine tubular tires, and both produce a sweet and subtle hum.

To sum up:

Tubeless Advantages:

1) The huge safety factor of having a tire that is very unlikely to deflate rapidly, and have the beads stay attached to the rim if it does (just like a tubular)
2) The superb ride, handling, and feel (like a tubular)
3) Lower tire pressure increases grip and ride quality
4) No pinch flats (like tubular)
5) High resistance to punctures and the ability to make the tires essentially flat proof by using a light aerosol sealant that adds only 18g/tire. I haven’t done that, but what a great tire for winter and commuting!
6) Punctures will most likely be slow leaks, as the bead remains airtight on the rim, and air only escapes through the puncture hole (like tubular)
7) Ability to fix small punctures (if not using a sealant to instantly do so as the puncture occurs) without having to remove the wheel and with the tire still on the rim
8) A tubeless tire can be patched (on the inside), you can always use a tube if need be, and you can even ride the tire flat in an emergency
9) Less rolling resistance? They feel faster
10) Tubeless tires lose less air overnight than clinchers with tubes
11) All of the advantages of a tubular (except the lighter wheel weight) of a tubular with none of the glue hassles, inconveniences, or expense
12) A small weight reduction (or gain) depending on the tires and tubes you currently use

Tubeless Disadvantages:

1) Higher tire cost than a high end clincher
2) One must learn a new installation process. I’m the world’s worst mechanic, and I was able to mount both tires without using levers, but they are a little harder to remove.
3) It’s possible to run tubeless tires with conventional wheels using a sealant system from Stan’s, but for the full benefit (especially the stay on rim while flat safety) you need tubeless compatible wheels.
4) Durability is an unknown until I get some more miles in. So far, not a single cut.

If tubeless tires are so great, why aren’t they rapidly gaining market share like tubeless mountain bike tires have? For me, the major reason is that I have been waiting for more tire choices. Campy makes three tubeless wheel models, Shimano has at least two, DT makes a set, as does Corima. With those names in the game, one has to think that not only will the other big wheel manufacturers get involved, but that there will be more tire options as well. Only Hutchison (they make the Specialized tubeless tires I am using as well) currently makes tubeless road tires. Nothing against Hutchison, as I have never used their tires, but I would love to see Conti get involved. I just read that Bontrager (Trek) will be selling a tubeless tire, but once again, it looks to be manufactured by Hutchison. Perhaps the other tire companies cannot find a way to design an air tight tire bead without infringing on a Hutchison patent? In any case, I have confidence in Specialized, and the Specialized rep told me that the tire compound was their design, so I figured it’s time to give tubeless a whirl, literally.

Very few people I know are using tubeless tires, but the ones who are all rave about them. A mechanic friend who rides tubular was able to test ride tubeless, and he says that he thinks it’s the way to go on the road, at least for non-mechanics who don’t know how to glue tires! To use an overworked phrase, he thinks tubeless is a “game changer.”

Another reason I think tubeless has been slow to develop is the way that the concept has been marketed. Tubeless tires have had a big impact on mountain biking, and one of the main advantages on the trail is that there is no tube to pinch flat, enabling the rider to use a lot less air pressure to obtain better traction. Somehow, this pinch flatting issue has become a road tire sales pitch. I very rarely flat (knock on wood) in general, but I bet I only get a pinch flat about once every three years, and that’s about once every 30,000 miles for me. The message I have been getting is that the pinch flat protection is the major benefit of tubeless, and that just hasn’t been enough to light my fire. For heavier riders who do pinch flat more frequently, this of course could be a big advantage. I also think the tire and wheel companies have done a poor job in getting the word out about how to install and remove these tires, as well as handle flats.

I suppose Lightweight or some other exotic wheel company makes an absurdly light and absurdly expensive carbon clincher wheel, and if I were competing in long time trials, I’m sure I would have a set of aero carbon tubulars. Out on the road, the real roads, it just doesn’t make sense to me to use a fancy and expensive carbon rim that has lousy brake performance, and can be destroyed in an instant by a rogue bad pothole.

And what about those old AC wheels? I still have them, the hub issues with 11 speed have been sorted out, and I have installed a cassette for steep climbs with a lower gear than I normally use. Switching wheels is easier than swapping cassettes, and I’ll only use this cassette on special days. Special days like tomorrow, when I am headed out to Cougar, Squak, and Tiger Mountains.

Maybe thinking about that 145g less weight will at least make those hard climbs seem easier, even if I now know better!


Chris Gossard said...

Tom wrote: "Of course, if our 160# rider were to weigh 220#, he would finish 18 minutes slower on that one hour climb, and now we are talking differences that really do matter!"

Jeez, why'd you have to bring me up to compare with the skinny dude? ;-)

Tom Meloy said...

Skinny dude? 160# isn't skinny.

SuperLukerBee said...

Maybe if you are 6'5"

BurmaD9547 said...


Mel said...

On wheels: I am very happy with Fulcrum. After demo against Shimano both low end and DuraAce, I was impressed. But then I am still using clinchers.

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