Tech Report: A quick look at Michelin’s tubeless road tires

With our 2004 Buyer’s Guide entering the critical home stretch, I was hoping I’d be able to dodge this week’s Tech Report, but this press release from Michelin was too important to overlook. As rumored for the past three years, tubeless technology is officially making the crossover to the road. Here are some excerpts from Michelin’s release: Michelin is initially targeting the world of professional road racing in 2004 with three new products: the Michelin Pro Race Tubeless, the Michelin Pro Grip Tubeless and the Michelin Pro Grip Special Paves Tubeless. This year, Michelin-sponsored

By Andrew Juskaitis, VeloNews technical editor

With our 2004 Buyer’s Guide entering the critical home stretch, I was hoping I’d be able to dodge this week’s Tech Report, but this press release from Michelin was too important to overlook. As rumored for the past three years, tubeless technology is officially making the crossover to the road.

Here are some excerpts from Michelin’s release:

Michelin is initially targeting the world of professional road racing in 2004 with three new products: the Michelin Pro Race Tubeless, the Michelin Pro Grip Tubeless and the Michelin Pro Grip Special Paves Tubeless. This year, Michelin-sponsored Division I Professionals road racers will help refine these ground-breaking new products in the most extreme racing conditions, in an effort to make them ready for the consumer market in 2005.

This new tubeless bicycle tire technology was developed in partnership with Mavic, a leader in designing and building world-class wheels, and with numerous European professional road racers. The first Michelin Tubeless road bicycle tires will be available to the general public in 2005, depending on wheel availability.

The Michelin Tubeless concept is based on two components: 1) A tubeless wheel with a special rim designed to hold the tire and bead in position to help ensure air-tightness at high pressure. 2) A Michelin Tubeless tire.

While the advantages of tubeless technology are readily apparent for mountain bikes (ability to run lower tire pressures for increased traction, less chance of pinch-flatting and, in some cases, decreased overall weight), what are the potential benefits for roadies? Once again, according to the Michelin release:

1. Michelin Tubeless road tires help reduce the occurrence of sudden flat tires caused by punctures. Tests with Michelin Tubeless road tires have confirmed that often the cyclist can have several minutes to come to a stop or to continue riding in a race while waiting for a support vehicle, or even to sprint to the finish! Tube-type clinchers or tubular tires, on the other hand, can often go flat in a matter of seconds!

2. Simple to mount: This new design helps reduce the risk of bead unseating due to incorrect fitting and eliminates the risk of pinching the inner tube – because there isn’t one!

While this tubeless technology will only be available to pro racing teams in 2004, Michelin notes that product should be ready for public consumption by 2005. Here’s the three-part, race-only line-up for 2004:

1. Suitable for all kinds of situations, the Michelin Pro Race Tubeless is designed for use in events such as the major cycling Tours. It affords an ideal balance of high performance characteristics, such as grip, rolling efficiency and durability.

2. The new Michelin Pro Grip Tubeless is designed for racing on wet roads, very cold conditions or muddy and uneven road surfaces. It boasts a rubber compound developed for Formula 1 and motorcycle GP rain tires. In other words, all of Michelin’s expertise in racing is concentrated in this tire.

3. The new Michelin Pro Grip Special Paves Tubeless (especially designed for cobblestones) will be available with a section width of 24mm. It introduces an entirely new tread design made up of diamond-shaped points on the central band to break the film of water or mud on cobblestones. The lateral siped tread (previously tested on the rain tires used by Valentino Rossi, 2003 World Motorcycle GP Champion) makes it possible to lean with confidence into the corners in the often-inclement conditions of the classic races of northern Europe.

Those of you who have any experience with UST standard mountain bike tires undoubtably have some questions regarding this technology. I’ll be in contact with Michelin’s Steve White within the next few days to find out more about this innovative technology and just how user-friendly it might be. Some of the questions that come into my mind include:

How easy will it be to seat a tubeless road tire? Mountain bike tires can be notoriously finicky to seat onto a UST rim and often require compressed air or a high-volume pump to create the critical airtight seal. I’m curious how regular riders might be able to patch and reinflate tubeless road tires out in the field. Will the tires be lighter than conventional tires? Because tubeless tires need to form an airtight seal, manufacturers must coat the inner walls of the tire with additional rubber. With mountain bike tires this can add 100-200 grams per tire, often making a overall tubeless system (including rim) comparable in weight to a conventional tire and tube. Will riders be able to run sealant in these tubeless tires? Run a tubeless mountain bike tire without sealant and you’re missing out on a huge advantage of tubeless tires – they are able to seal themselves much more effectively than an inner tube (filled with Slime, for example). Although air volume in a road tire is often a third that of a mountain tire, tubeless road tires might be able to seal themselves quickly enough that a rider might not experience noticeable performance loss. How different will the new tubeless rims be from current technology? Current Mavic rims (such as Ksyrium) don’t have internal spoke holes, which effectively makes them tubeless compatible right now. Will the new rims feature significantly more-aggressive bead locks, or will customers be able to use their current wheels with the new tires?

These are just a few of the questions running through my head as I read this release. I’m sure you have just as many, so shoot yours to be at ajuskaitis@7dogs.comand I’ll be sure to include Michelin’s responses in next week’s column.

As for now, enjoy patching that inner-tube on this weekend’s ride–according to Michelin, 2004 might be the last year you’ll need to wrestle with it.