THE TUBELESS TIRE REVOLUTION
Last year  at the Mammoth Mountain, California, NORBA National, Mavic, Michelin and Hutchinson pulled a rabbit out of their collective hats that will be remembered as the redefining moment in bicycle wheel technology. The three tire companies wanted to develop a tubeless tire standard that would insure uniformity in wheel, rim and tire design. Labeled the Universal Standard for Tubeless (UST) the joint venture created a buzz in the industry that made other tire and rim makers scamper to the drawing board.
There was no need to rush, though, because the proprietary features of the UST system are currently licensed to Hutchinson, Michelin and Mavic. Although there is no solid information about which tire or rim maker will jump on board next, the success that the Michelin/Mavic wheels have had on the World Cup circuit hasn’t gone unnoticed. Michelin’s tubeless success has virtually ensured that the other manufacturers will incorporate the UST system.
Or at least the MBA test crew thinks they will. But are we right? We posed that question and a few others to some luminaries in the industry to see just what they thought about the future of tubeless tires. Here is what they had to say.
Maxxis’ biggest contributions to tire technology are its under-400-gram tires and super-light tubes. Its 380 gram Minotaur tire, 91-gram butyl tube, and 10-gram rim strip make for the lightest complete system you can buy. What makes this package even more attractive is its relatively low price, something Maxxis Customer Service Coordinator Michael Kleinheinz is concerned about with the UST. He told us Maxxis has wheels from Mavic and is doing some testing and exploring the technology, but there are no tire designs yet. He believes in the tubeless concept but feels most average Joes won’t pay that much for the current system. “For it to really succeed, the price has to come down,” he says.
While other tire makers are considering the impact of the UST, Panaracer has been working on developing its own version of a tubeless system. In talking to Jeff Zell, Panaracers North American Manager, it became clear that a tubeless tire was a high priority for Panaracer. Panaracer, however, is pursuing a different format than the UST system. “We believe tubeless is the future, but the problem is getting a product that everyone can use, something that is not rim-specific and doesn’t weigh more than a standard tube and tire system,” Zell said, noting that Panaracer has done a lot of testing and even developed a tubeless tire, but the tire isn’t quite where Panaracer wants it to be. In a perfect Panaracer world, the cost for a tubeless wheelset would be equivalent to a Shimano XTR-level wheelset and could be standard-equipment on $800 bikes. Zell continued by saying that he thinks Mavic’s system is very good, but the “specific stuff” is a drawback. He thinks tubeless will be the next big thing once everything is right and someone makes a tire that works on a standard rim.
If you want the straight scoop on something, Tioga’s Jeff Holt is your man. He told us that the UST is great for cross-country racing, but in downhill, the tires get so many gashes and holes that it is a horrible idea. “Compare three bucks for a new tube to $50 to replace every gashed tire. I’m not saying we aren’t playing with it,” Jeff said. “As a company, we will pursue it. I would want it to work with any rim, though, so the consumer doesn’t have to buy new wheels.”
Cannondale’s race effort is supported by both Mavic and Hutchinson, so we were eager to see how this might cross over to the production line. We talked to Bicycle Product Manager Steve Metz to see what the deal was. He told us that currently Cannondale specs the tubeless system on only one model, the $2699 F3000 SL, because most of Cannondale’s upper-end models are disc-brake specific.
Steve Blick of GT Bicycles was to the point about tubeless: no one at GT has even tried Mavic’s system, but they are eager to. “As for spec’ing it on a production bike, if it was a racing model and the team was using it, we would do it because we are a racing company. It is definitely part of the future, but right now we have no plans to put tubeless tires on a production bike.”
Geax tires already has UST tire prototypes the MBA wrecking crew knows, because we held them in our own mitts. Geax officials told MBA that the tubeless tires weren’t ready for the media to test…yet. Geax developed its UST tire mere months after Mavic debuted its wheels. Mavic wasn’t pleased with the Geax tire because of licensing agreements between the three main UST players.
With the creation of Specialized’s new Armadillo technology, a guaranteed no-flat tire, we suspected that Specialized’s tire department might be looking ahead to tubeless. A quick call to Specialized product development guy (and tire specialist) Al Clark proved that our suspicions were correct. Al said Specialized is indeed looking into the possibility of Armadillo technology for tubeless applications. He said there is no question that Specialized could spec’ tubeless tires as original equipment on future bikes, as long as it could be done at a reasonable price.
This story wouldn’t be complete without input from Mavic, the French wheel maker responsible for all this tubeless stuff. We put Mavic’s American Marketing Manager Steve Driscoll under the lamp to get the final word on tubeless technology. He had some interesting things to say.
“We gave them [Michelin and Hutchinson] a year from the release date and then all tire makers can make tires for our rims,” Driscoll said. “There is no fee for tire manufactures, just small rules they must follow, like putting the UST logo on the sidewall. We will help them by furnishing design information on the bead and lip to make it work.
When questioned about the future of tubeless, Driscoll seemed confident that tubeless will indeed dominate the marketplace, for racers and recreational riders. Driscoll believes that tire technology will improve based on the UST concept. Tire makers will reformulate the rubber to make it more puncture-resistant.
WHAT WE LEARNED
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