More and more cyclocross riders are becoming interested in tubeless tires and wheels, due to the ease of changing tread shapes and puncture resistance when used with a tire sealant.
Tubeless tires and wheels have come a long way since the first riders tried to convert traditional inner tube-type tires into tubeless 15 years ago. Results with that approach varied widely - from success, to "tire explodes the first time you hit a bump" spectacular failures. Unlike those early experiments, modern tubeless tires and rims are much more reliable and consistent with purpose-built tires designed to be run tubeless with sealant now available from every mainstream brand like Donnelly, Challenge, and Maxxis.
Note: tubeless and tubular tires are not the same:
Tubular tires are still the top performers
There is no doubt or debate that tubular tires (not tubeless) are the top performers. Tubular tires are glued or taped onto a special tubular-only rim. They do not interchange with tubeless tires or rims. Elite, professional cyclocross riders and teams almost exclusively use tubular tires for cyclocross, due to their supple feel, grip, and resistance to pinch flats. It's nice to have a dedicated mechanic to maintain your equipment who can simply hand you a new wheel if you puncture.
Tubular tires do, however, require significantly more time and effort to setup and maintain. Destroying a tire means a lot of work, as you have to glue or tape a new one entirely from scratch, which is expensive and time-consuming. What if there was a way to get almost all those benefits with a lower price and simpler setup? Enter the tubeless tire:
Tubeless tires offer ease of maintenance and installation
A tubeless cyclocross tire offers some important benefits. These include:
- The ability to change tires quickly to suit the day's conditions. You can arrive with a mud tire, but change to a file tread in the parking lot. This is impossible with tubular tires - you need a whole second wheelset.
- Huge variety of available tread shapes and styles. There are now excellent tubeless options available for wet and mud, sand, fast, and dry conditions races.
- Ease of repair. Small thorn holes can be fixed on-the-fly using a liquid tire sealant, saving your race.
- While tubeless rims cost about the same as tubular rims, the tires themselves are significantly less expensive - tubeless tires sell for about half of what tubular tires go for. Even after adding tire sealant, tubeless is still less expensive.
With modern tubeless rims and tires better designed than ever, some beads can even be seated with nothing more than a floor pump. Other combinations will need an air compressor to initially seat the beads.
Downsides of tubeless tires for cyclocross
Early "home-brew" tubeless tire and rims setups could "burp" air, especially under heavier, more aggressive riders. This was more common on converted tires and rims that weren't intended to be run tubeless. Now that excellent, more advanced tires and rims are on the market, this issue has largely been solved. If you have a setup that burps during aggressive cornering, it may be time to upgrade to a modern, dedicated tubeless rim.
Another downside is that some tubeless tires could exceed the UCI maximum tire width rule, depending on your rim choice. Tires that are specifically designed to be compliant, such as the Donnelly PDX WC World Cup, have addressed this issue. If you don't race in Elite-level races where the tire width rule is enforced, this isn't a concern.
Tubeless tires also lack the incredibly supple feel of high-end tubulars.
Finally, a tubular setup allows lower tire pressures to be used without the risk of rim damage, which is preferred by elite riders who are pushing the limits of their equipment. On a tubeless tire, you'll need to run a higher PSI to prevent rim damage on obstacles.
Should you choose tubular, or tubeless for your next wheelset?
Should you choose tubeless tires for your next wheelset? For training, it's a no-brainer. Tubeless provides plenty of performance and the ease of repairing a puncture is worth it to have un-interrupted training rides. With a quality tire sealant installed, you can roll right over thorns with virtually no risk of puncture.
For a pure racing wheelset, the choice is less obvious. Riders who are interested in continuing to improve their skills and fitness should look to tubular cyclocross tires for the ultimate in performance. More casual athletes may find that tubeless is close enough and that the benefits offset the downside.
Happy racing and riding, whatever you decide!