Tube-Free Heaven

Tube-Free Heaven

One not-so-fine summer day in Tennessee hot enough to fry an egg before it hit the ground, my Gran Torino experienced a complete delamination of its right front tire. Considering my velocity was north of 90 mph, the event caused several short-term results. I’m guessing that I exceeded the speed rating of my tires and the sound of molten rubber being slung off the casing and around the wheel well made a sound like a machine gun being shot underwater and caused the whole car to vibrate like it was in a car-sized paint shaker. I narrowly avoided ruining my underwear. Narrowly.

I spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for the tow truck, getting towed and then for the tire to be replaced. None of that is terribly important. However, I spent an hour watching a guy remove tires from rims, lubricate the rims and then mount new tires and hammer on the lead balances. Watching those thick tires pop into position told me all I thought I needed to know about why bicycle tires needed tubes. And why bicycle tires would never be tubeless.

Or so I thought. Now that we all know how wrong I was, let’s just consider that the world has come a long way in 30-plus years, and with it, bicycle technology.

I’ve been riding the Stan’s Avion Pro wheelset for a year now. I’ve encountered a few wheel sets from other companies lately and in some cases have been less than impressed with their stiffness and ability to remain true. Good lord, I thought everyone was pretty well on top of that at this point.

What interested me about the Avion Pro wheels was that the wheels are tubeless, feature a high-quality hubset, axles can be easily changed and the inner rim width is 21.6mm wide. I’ve run these both with quick releases and with thru-axles. Because the quick-release bike was titanium and the thru-axle bike was carbon fiber the difference in the stiffness of the bikes was too great to be able to discern any difference in steering precision due to the axle type. I keep hearing people say how much more precise steering is when quick releases are replaced by thru-axles, and while I’m certain that difference is readily apparent in FEA (finite element analysis), tire selection and inflation still makes a bigger difference in steering precision.

The Avion comes in four versions. There’s the Avion Pro (which I’ve been riding) and the Avion Team. These both come with disc-brake hubs. There are also the Avion Pro R and the Avion Team R, which are rim-brake versions of these wheels.  The Pro is the upscale version of the wheel, with a nicer hub (the Neo Ultimate vs. Neo) and better spokes (Sapim CX-Ray vs. CX Sprint); both are built with alloy nipples. Both the Pro and Team come laced with 24 spokes front and 28 spokes rear.

According to Stan’s web site, the Pro wheelset weighs in at 1520 grams while the Team wheelset tips in at 1610g. The set I’ve been riding was 1518g. Close enough for government work. The rim brake versions are each a bit lighter than their disc brake versions.

What truly differentiates these wheelsets are the differences between the Neo Ultimate and the Neo hubs. The Neo Ultimate has 5-degree engagement rather than 10-degree. The Ultimate has stainless steel bearings vs. chromed. Otherwise, they are quite similar; both have a CNC-machined hub shell, a six-pawl freehub with three bearings, are available with Shimano/SRAM, Campagnolo or SRAM XD freehubs, either with centerlock or six-bolt rotor mounts, and with six axle options for the front and eight axle options rear.

Relative to all the options for freehubs, rotors and axles I see on the horizon, these wheels are nearly future-proof.

The rims are tubeless ready; they still need two full wraps of tape to hold air. I had to use three ounces of sealant to get the wheels to completely seal. Recommended air pressure ranges from 55 psi for a 40mm-wide tire up to 110 psi with a 25mm tire. I’ve ridden these with the 32mm Panaracer Gravel King SK and with the 38mm Specialized Trigger and they’ve been trouble- and flat-free.

The Avion wheels feature a carbon fiber rim that is the same from the Pro to the Team versions. The rim measures 40.6mm deep, 28mm wide at its widest point and, as previously mentioned, 21.6mm wide from bead to bead. The rim bed is rounded for improved aerodynamics. It’s not quite as stable as a Zipp 303 in a crosswind, and I suspect it’s not as aerodynamic, but the overall wheel is stiffer.

The Avion Pro wheelset goes for $2249 and the Avion Team wheelset goes for $1729. It’s enough of a difference that I’d have to give some thought to whether I was willing to drop an extra $520 for differences that manifest only at the hub. The difference in weight is entirely at the hub, which helps make the case for the Team wheelset. However, the difference in engagement between the Pro and the Team—a whopping five degrees!—is too great to be ignored. My personal belief is that in road riding fast engagement is rarely noticed, but in mountain biking it is huge. In gravel riding? It depends largely on where you live and ride. I’m on and off the gas enough in my riding, and have just enough occasions where I have to stutter pedal through rocks that I’d drop the extra dough to benefit from the better freehub.

In my riding I’ve not had to true the front wheel at all. The rear wheels has needed two tweaks and I wonder how much of the maintenance was a measure of how hard I rode or whether the wheel wasn’t perfectly tensioned to begin with.

There’s a fire road I ride with regularity that is a garbage dump of baby-head rocks. There are a few boulders in there more the size of basketballs, but it’s pretty easily ridable on a full suspension bike. On my most recent trip through there I was, to use a technical term, hauling ass. And I pranged a rock so hard I pulled over, fearing not the worst, but the inevitable. I spun the wheel, listening for the hiss, and feeling the rim for a crack. Once I realized I hadn’t even dented my ego, I resumed my hindquarter transport.

Final thought: As reliable and satisfying as a post-ride beer.

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  1. Chris

    I hate the near impossibility of mounting tires on tubeless rims. Mavic have done some tests where some tubeless tires are actually impossible mount on some tubeless rims. This makes them a real risk to ride in bad weather or evenings. I’d love to hear your take on the new Mavic tubeless standard which are supposed to solve this problem with tight tolerances.

    1. Shawn

      Huh. I’ve never had a problem mounting a tubeless tire. Removing them, on the other hand . . .

    2. Jonathan

      Being tubeless doesn’t make them anymore of a risk than riding tubed tires in bad condition. Riding tubeless, you should still carry a patch kit and a tube, you just lessen your chance of needing them.

  2. Charlie

    it doesn’t make sense to me that Stan’s NoTubes Tubeless “Ready” wheels are not really ready to be run tubeless, but actually need two wraps of tape to be truly tubeless. My Reynolds carbon clinchers were truly tubeless ready without any additional work, as were my WTB wheels. Maybe they should be called “tubeless tape-ready”?

    1. Author

      Reynolds has considerably greater experience making carbon fiber wheels than Stan’s does. I’m unsurprised that their application is a bit more sophisticated. I see this more as a reason to be impressed by Reynolds than to knock Stan’s. It’s really hard to make a tubeless carbon fiber rim and honestly, I wouldn’t want one from just anyone.

  3. Mike

    @Charlie – Stan’s wheels all come complete with pre-installed tubeless tape and valves. Reynolds and WTB both use a tape to seal the spoke bed air tight as well so all three brands are on equal footing in this regard.

  4. Rob

    What’s the supposed benefit of tubeless besides some nominal weight savings, after the sealant, tape, etc. are accounted for? I’m currently at 3200 flat-free miles on the cheapo wheels/tires my Roubaix shipped with…. I want to like this “technology”, but the benefit just doesn’t seem as obvious as disc brakes or even electronic shifting, esp. for a $2k upgrade. What am I missing?

    1. Author

      Really, the improvement comes down to three factors that may or may not be important to you.

      1. Significantly improved rolling resistance
      2. Vastly increased flat resistance
      3. Substantially greater traction due to the ability to run lower tire pressure

      Seriously, the benefits are dramatic. This may merit a whole post if there are enough comments that people don’t see what the big deal is.

    2. Michael

      Y’know Paddy, I’d be interested in an educational piece on road tubeless. I ride tubeless on my mtn and cx bikes, but have stayed away from it on the road out of fear of rolling or burping a tire at speed on pavement. This fear had a good basis in the early days of road tubeless, but perhaps it is no longer well founded. So, something of a how-to and why-to might be useful to some of us.

  5. Wyatt

    I get the experience and difficulty thing Padraig however a company called “No Tubes”, selling a $2000+ wheelset, really needs them to show up ready to roll with “no tubes.” This seems like a bare minimum expectation. And why two layers of tape? Would three be even better? I bet Stans would tell you one layer is all you need. Tubeless bead sockets and tubeless tire beads are supposed to be the pinnacle of compatibility and fit just so–Why do some rim makers, Stans included, suggest adding tape in that area to improve fit? There really is no excuse for the sloppiness. Tire and rim must seat easily and perfectly and then continue to hold air every time, and not because of the sealant (which is only meant to seal punctures)–anything else is a failed system in my book and the reason why tubes have not gone away (which I am all in favor of). Imagine shopping for car tires and having the salesperson explain to you that of the 50 choices in the store, only 4 or 5 hold air well, and even with those it really depends on your rim….

    Sorry for the rant but I had to get that one off my chest. +1 on Mavic comment above–our Mavic rep brought in the new wheels a couple weeks ago. During his pitch he removed and reinstalled tubeless tires on 3 different wheels, with no tools, and then inflated them to perfectly seated with no sealant, using our floor pump. I have had repeated similar experiences with Zipp 30 course wheels. All wheel/tire manufactures would agree that this level of precision is the goal even though so many fall way short of this mark and leave it in the hands of shops to figure out what kind and how many layers of tape and how much extra sealant to use in hopes of making it work. Oops, I apologized too soon for ranting….

    1. Author

      What I failed to point out is that Reynolds, and nearly every other rim on the market, require tape to seal the spoke holes. There are a handful of rims out there that don’t require any tape whatsoever. You’ve got to get the nipples into the rim and generally, they need to go in through holes drilled. The tape isn’t to improve fit; that’s your big misconception. The tape is to keep the air in.

    2. Dusten

      I have had these exact same wheels for over a year now and never had to tape them. I have installed 25mm tires and 35mm tires both with a floor pump, both held air overnight without sealant. Easiest tubeless setups I’ve ever had. I’ve changed tires the night before a ride more than once and don’t worry about it at all. I’m sure the Mavic system is good, I just don’t see anything being much easier or better than wheat I’ve experience with these wheels.

    3. Hans

      I feel like it is worth adding that tape is far easier to deal with if you ever need to replace a spoke than a solid rim bed. I would never buy/build rims without spoke holes. 2 layers of tape (1 layer is sufficient for strictly mtb or cx psi) is easy to apply and light weight.

  6. Mackd

    Forgive me for I still run tubes. If you run latex tubes and normal tape the weight savings is truley nominal. Add that with talcing the sh?$ out of the tube and a pinch flat is non existent almost (and if you rail into something that’s gonna pinch flat you will probably dent your rim if you are running low psi and tubeless).
    Everyone says that they never flat out with tubeless but it’s funny because in race conditions ya hear about it all the time and even see it in the pro xc ranks. Burping is real and happens all the time (especially in cx). I think the set up for tubeless is a PITA especially in those first 24/48 hours of setting up your system and wondering if it’s gonna hold air, burp or even just fold off the rim. PSI wise I run 1 pound more when running tubes and with the playability of latex the rolling resistance is equal (at least in cx). Just saying
    I have my race xc wheel set up tubeless and am way more stressed every time I’m on it vs tubes.. just saying I use both and prefer tubes.

    1. Oggie

      Tubeless tire will most likely survive a thorn type puncture. Tube will not.

      Tubeless tire will have much lower probability of pinch flatting than tube, hence can be run at lower pressure for comfort and traction. Hence they are more reliable for racing than tube. This is not opinion, it is a fact.

      Tubeless tires roll better

  7. chup

    Schwalbe tubeless tape just need one layer even for road use as recommended by Schwalbe themselves.

    I don’t experience blurbing when cornering at high speed (65+ kph downhill). Rims are Roval CLX 32 50 and Schwalbe Pro One 25mm @60 psi.

  8. Matthew

    I would like to +1 the educational piece about being able to run tubeless tires. I have tubeless ready mtn bike wheels but I have not felt the need yet. I want a dropper first!

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