Tyres unquestionably have a greater influence on both your riding safety and performance than any other bicycle component. All your power output, braking force and steering input is ultimately mediated by a small contact patch between your tyres and the tarmac.
The amount of money that cyclists can spend investing in the best road bikes and super lightweight wheels can be completely wasted with the fitment of poor specification tyres inflated to miscalculated pressures, so it's extremely important to choose the right rubber for your bike.
Once you have selected a new tyre, there is little you can do to alter its rubber compound properties or tread pattern, but tyre pressure is a crucial variable you do have control of.
An important influence of performance on your tyre’s efficiency and handling is pressure. And the trend is towards lower pressures, which allow for superior ride quality and improved dynamic riding properties – both in respect of braking and cornering confidence.
This is one example of where tubeless comes into its own. Besides the obvious benefit that tubeless tyres are designed to self-seal upon puncture, a secondary benefit to running tubeless tyres is the greater range of pressure adjustment that it offers.
The world is not full of perfect roads
Beyond a smooth velodrome, you are unlikely to encounter a flawlessly true road surface on any real-world training route. Small surface imperfections create reverberations through the bike’s touchpoints (handlebar, pedals and seat), which increase fatigue. Tyre pressure remains the most effective way of absorbing road surface flaws. For many of the same reasons that wider tyres are faster, tubeless tyres can offer lower rolling resistance, which ultimately leads to increased speed, comfort and grip.
For many decades, all road tyres were tube-type, meaning they were fitted with inner tubes. This set an inherent lower limit to tyre pressure due to the risk of pinch punctures.
Hitting a bump and bottoming out a tyre with an inner tube inside would ultimately compress the tyre - and therefore the inner tube - against the rim of the wheel. The result was often that the inner tube would be pinched, resulting in two 'snake-bite' style holes. Hence the pinch puncture is often called a snake bike puncture.
Tubeless tyres, on the other hand, don't feature an inner tube, and therefore, the only thing to be pinched is the tyre itself, which is inherently more durable than a butyl or latex tube, and is filled with sealant. Not only will sealant help the tyre remain inflated and on the rim in the first place, but it will also plug in any holes caused by pinches or sharp debris, by virtue of centrifugal forces and chemistry.
There is also an increased safety element to a properly maintained tubeless setup. While a tubeless setup is designed to seal itself in the event of penetration, a tubed tyre (commonly referred to as a clincher) will almost certainly deflate completely. It would be conceivable to imagine an example in which this could cause a loss of control at speed.
While early tubeless setups were far from perfect and often difficult to fit, as technology has progressed, industry standards have started to conform to a single format and as such, tyre-rim interfaces are becoming easier to set up, more reliable, and ultimately, less of a headache to maintain.
As a greater diversity of tubeless road tyres have become available, it has also allowed road riders to experiment and benefit from lower pressures and the concept has become a far more reliable tyre setup as a result.
A flat tyre is obviously of no use because it has no air damping and creates huge rolling resistance. By the same logic, an overinflated road bike tyre will ride too harshly – fatiguing its rider and being skittish under braking and severe cornering loads on real-world roads.
For a modern road tyre design to behave at its best and most predictable, you require an inflation pressure that allows the casing to shape and conform to the terrain you are rolling over. This small measure of compliance will compound to a less fatiguing ride when you are tallying significant mileages.
If you are doing a lot of hours on the indoor trainer, your fitness might greatly exceed a hand, shoulder and hip fatigue threshold. Your living room indoor training bike always rides perfectly smoothly, which is not a true representation of real-world road surfaces.
One way of reducing your touchpoint fatigue on a road ride when routing over surfaces of varying quality is by experimenting with tyre pressure.
An increase in ride comfort does not have to come at the cost of increased rolling resistance. In fact, better ride quality as the result of lower tyre pressure can support gains in your overall riding experience.
Greater ride comfort will allow you to sustain better peak performance over time, by reducing fatigue due to road surface buzz. Lower tyre pressures make for a comfier and speedier real-world riding experience, and tubeless tyres make that possible.
Better braking and more predictable handling
Aside from the superior ride comfort that tubeless tyres run at lower pressures can deliver, there are also dynamic benefits. Many road bikes are now equipped with powerful disc brake systems, which work a treat in the rain and can sustain impressive lever forces, even on those long Alpine descents.
Lockup is always a fear when having to trim a lot of speed, in a short distance. An overinflated tyre has less ability to absorb overpowering brake inputs, increasing its likelihood to lockup and render the bike unstable.
By running a lower tyre pressure, you increase that slight margin in terms of the tyre’s casing being able to conform and absorb a sudden spike in brake force, without overwhelming its traction profile.
Much the same logic applies to cornering. An overinflated tyre will potentially be too active in its responsiveness, especially at greater lean angles where a modicum of compliance is desirable.
If you roll over a mid-corner bump, a tyre running lower pressure is more likely to absorb the impact and allow you to continue tracking along the desired cornering line. Overinflated tyres can be too responsive to mid-corner bumps and potentially knock you off your intended cornering line, requiring larger corrective steering inputs.
Lower tyre pressured in combination with a suppler casing can deliver a secure and efficient riding experience by allowing your bike to better interpret road surfaces. Tubeless technology has been the enabler of all this.
For many years, the pro peloton has relied on tubular tyres to deliver excellent road surface feedback and predictable handling, but the latest tubeless tyres can do much the same, with the benefit of running at lower pressure.
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