Fun With Tubeless Tires: Dodging A Bullet. Again.

I’m so modern!

Typically when I return from a ride, I throw the bike in the corner and forget about it until later; sometimes ‘later’ is the next time I ride it. In this case I rode the bike with the tubeless tires and when I got home, I felt the tires: the rear was soft. In no mood to deal with it then, I put it off until the evening. I hate having to deal with bike repair issues when I’m tired but in this case I figured it wouldn’t take too long. I cleaned the tire and managed to pull out flints and small sharp objects embedded in the rubber. Then I felt the air rushing out and knew it was a simple, small puncture. But why wasn’t the sealant working?

I removed the valve core, which was semi-clogged with sealant—another issue I should deal with, and stuck a probe into the tire; it came out dry. Well, that answers that: I had allowed all the sealant to dry up and apparently hadn’t topped it off in recent months hence the leak. With Stan’s Sealant I wouldn’t have been surprised since in my experience I have needed to add Stan’s about every three or four months. But I have been using Orange Seal Endurance since giving up on Stan’s and this stuff lasts much longer, something like eight to ten months. Had it been that long since I had added sealant?

So here are a few words of advice if you’re running tubeless tires and sealant. First, mark down when you’ve added sealant or make a note in your calendar to check it at regular intervals. Despite my best intentions I never do this but I am sure that if my phone nagged me to do it, I would at least give it a second thought before ignoring it!

Second, put in more sealant than you think you need—I mean, a LOT more. That extra weight in your tire? Honestly you won’t feel it. And anyway, it’s going to evaporate more quickly than you realize leaving you with less weight and the joy of experiencing flats again. Also, putting more in means you can ignore it for a really long time until it dries up completely!

Third, just because you’re using sealant doesn’t mean you can forget about your tires. The previous rear tire I wore down to the casing. Was it because I’m a cheap ass? Well, yes partly. But it was also because I had gotten lulled into ignoring it as I wasn’t giving me any problems. I just happened to notice one day while out on a ride that I could see large sections of casing! So look at your tires every now and then. I also do this to pull pieces of glass, wire, and flints out, giving me the satisfaction that running tubeless plus sealant was a good decision.

Back to the flat tire: of course after I pulled a piece of glass out of the tire, the air rushed out as there wasn’t any sealant left in the tire. Adding more sealant was easy. I don’t like to pull off the tire bead and pour it in because it’s just asking to be spilled all over when I try to get the tight bead back on the rim. However the advantage of doing that is I can see more accurately how much sealant I’m adding. Instead I prefer to remove the valve core and attach a tube to the stem to pump the sealant in. Less fuss, no mess. The disadvantage is I have no idea how much sealant I’m adding. So I just pump a lot in because having ‘too much’ is kinda impossible. When I did this and then aired up the tire, the puncture started to spit sealant—thank god it was a tiny puncture because otherwise it might not seal and I’d have a bigger problem. All I had to do now was roll the tire so the puncture was at the bottom. In a few minutes it was sealed. I went to bed. Next day I checked the tire: still hard, so success!

In this case I was probably very lucky either to have had a very slow leak or to have punctured close to home because it certainly didn’t feel soft when I was riding. The last time I made this same mistake I flatted about a mile from home, so it was pretty easy to get back to the manse to deal with it. At least if I had been far from home with a flat and had to put a tube in, I wouldn’t have gotten covered in wet sealant unlike the last time.

Tune In, Turn On, Drop Down

LSD: long, slow distance!

I just installed a dropper seat post, which is not something I would have imagined I would ever do. If you are a road-only cyclist, then “dropper post” is likely not part of your everyday parlance as it has heretofore been a piece of equipment you would find over on the dirt side of things. But now so-called gravel bikes are being touted as the new frontier for dropper posts as companies, ever seeking a new market, are hoping to convince you gravelleurs that you must have one so you can be as rad as possible on the trails. So like fat tires, suspension, hydraulic brakes, and one-by drivetrains we’re seeing adoption by roadies of yet another bit of mountain bike technology. Although I also ride dirt, I’m a relic of another era as I have no suspension, no hydraulic brakes, a triple crank, and only seven cogs in back. Oh, and no dropper post, not even a Hite-Rite.

So what was I doing trying to figure out how to install a dropper post? Roger has been carrying a second e-bike battery on the back of his bike for our longer and climbier rides. That has meant putting a rack on his bike. With the additional length on the back, his arabesque when he mounts or dismounts has to be more pronounced in order to clear all that mishegoss in the rear. So why not just lower the seat to make that a tad easier? Hence the dropper post. On a road bike!

Dropper posts for road and gravel bikes are getting easier to find. Roger’s bike although it does have a sloping top tube, doesn’t have kind of super long seatpost extension one typically sees on dirt bikes. Dropper posts are built for a lot of extension, which is less common on road bikes. But we were able to find a “short” dropper post made by PNW, the Cascade, with just 125mm of extension, which was just short enough to work on his bike. If you’re really old school and your seat post doesn’t stick out much above your top tube, then a dropper post is unlikely to be in your future. Now with the flick of a lever Roger can lower the seat and then be able to get his leg over all his stuff more easily since he’s no longer hurdling an elevated seat.

Never having even seen a dropper post before I dutifully read the installation instructions. It didn’t look hard. And it turned out it wasn’t complex but just fiddly due to the tiny parts requiring a 2- and 3-mm hex wrenches. Working on seat posts is an ugly reminder that there are almost no good designs to be found for attaching a saddle to a post. Almost all of them involve contorting your fingers into the tiny space under a saddle to adjust a nut or a screw and the PNW post was no different. Levelling a saddle also requires the patience of Job. But at least the adjusting bolts could be turned from below the post rather than under the saddle unlike the ancient Campy seat post (and that also required a special wrench). As fate or lassitude would have it, I have the proper tools but they’re not laid out nicely and easy to find. So I have to march all over the shop peeking into bins looking for the correct wrenches; this was not a job for the multitools I usually default to out of sheer laziness. And no home maintenance work would be complete without fumbling and dropping said small parts on the shop floor and watching them vanish into crevices or under a tool chest.

Eventually I got the saddle attached to the new post, sort of. Then I switched over to inserting the post, which was easy for a change. Things got interesting in trying to attach the control lever to the handlebars. Roger’s handlebars are cluttered. He’s got a Spurcycle bell, a mount for his computer and Cycliq light/camera, and then a big, honking control panel for his e-bike. In other words all the real estate is already taken. I had to nudge the bell and the computer mount to create enough room for the lever mount and just barely got the space to squeeze it onto his bars. What was left was attaching the control cable from the seat post to the lever. This is where the small, fiddly parts came in and I needed Roger’s assistance because it required three hands. I could have used a bench vise in lieu of a third hand but that wasn’t nearby, and I needed another hand anyway because the cable had to be pulled taut while I tightened the set screw. Much fumbling and cursing ensued but eventually it was put together. We tested it and it worked—push the lever and we could push the saddle down; release the lever and the saddle popped right back up!

The next day we went for a test ride. The ride itself is a story that I won’t go into except to say that despite seeing the forecast for some rain, we of course went out anyway and just to make it extra fun we didn’t have fenders or extra raingear because it wasn’t going to rain, right? We got dumped on and for good measure Roger then got a flat for an extra kick in the ass. But the post worked as advertised. He was able to pop the lever, drop the post, and dismount like a ballerina!

Fun With Road Tubeless: The Aftermath

No sealant on the floor yet…

When last seen I had managed to crawl back to the manse under my own power, having successfully inserted an inner tube into my catastrophically blown tubeless rear tire while by the side of the road. Not needing to summon a vehicle nor really needing to do anything else other than rid myself of all the slathered, dried sealant, I was sorely tempted to “oh-fuck-it-all” throw the bike in the corner of the shop and just keep riding my now lumpy, thumpy, heavy, and dumpy repaired wheel.

Nah, that’d be too easy!

The tire was old, so old that once I got home and inspected it more carefully that in addition to sporting a ridiculously large gash it also bore a couple of bare spots where I could see the tire casing. This baby was heading for the dumpster.

Ah, the hidden blessings of tubeless tires revealed. With a regular tire you just patch the tube, replace the tube, or replace both the tube and the tire. Yes, a flat is a nuisance when you’re out on the road/trail. But due consideration has to be given to what you’re actually ending up having to do as a trade off for smugly riding your tubeless tires through thorns and broken glass piles with nary a care. Yeah, you have fewer flats and that saves you time and hassle at the time. But as I’ve chronicled the last few years there is a learning curve associated with maintaining and caring for tubeless road tires. The bottom line: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Replacing a regular tire is no sweat: pull it and the tube off, check for something stuck in the casing, and put a new tube in, inflate carefully, then you’re good to go. Even if you’re slow and methodical (or just slow), it’s a task that takes less than ten minutes. If you’re patching a tube too, add five minutes. What I ended up doing to replace this old tire was a lot more protracted and arduous.

It took over a week to get the wheel back into working order.

At home when I deflated the inner tube and unseated a tire bead, lots of sealant came out. Some people save their old sealant and put it in the new tire. Despite my miserly, cheap bastard tendencies there was no way I was going to try to gather up all that mess to reuse. I swabbed up the floor, carefully tossed the tire into the waste basket, and then washed off the inner tube. One positive is that latex-based sealant washes off easily and cleanly with tap water—tube saved for another day. There was sealant all over the rim and dripping down the spokes although I had managed to keep the cassette and brake rotor mostly free of the muck. Wiping off the wheel with paper towels consumed a lot of them and took some time. Then I noticed more sealant on the rim. Where did that come from? I just wiped it off! It turns out there was sealant inside the rim cavity How did it get inside? Maybe from the sealant flowing down the spokes and into the spoke holes? That seemed unlikely.

But I didn’t give it a second thought; if there was a little more sealant, I’d wipe it off and that’d be it. But sealant kept reappearing. I spent a lot of time cleaning the rim well because I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any dried or soon-to-be-dried sealant to interfere with seating the tire bead. This meant carefully wiping the entire rim bed including under the bead hook, which is a tedious task.

A rim has to be sealed completely in order for tubeless tires to work. If your rim has spoke holes, then they need to be covered up to contain the sealant and the air. With a non-tubeless rim you use rim strips to keep the inner tube from being forced into the rim cavity by air pressure. You cannot use regular rim strips with tubeless tires because they’re not airtight. Instead you have to use special tubeless tape to cover all the spokes holes and you need to have the right width tape to match your rim width.

I ended up cleaning the rim at least three times because each time I thought it was ‘clean’, then more sealant would appear in the spoke holes. At that point I began to suspect the rim tape had been compromised, allowing sealant to enter the rim cavity. Rim strips for non-tubeless tires last a long time. I have some old wheels that probably have never had their rim strips replaced. Rim tape for tubeless wheelsets it seems is another matter; the recommended replacement schedule is unclear but apparently mounting and demounting tires does wear out tubeless tape (!). My tendency is to run stuff until there is an obvious failure and although I’d mounted and demounted the old tire several times, I never gave it a thought. Maybe now was the failure.

In order for rim tape to seal it has to adhere to the rim cavity ferociously. If not, say because there was dried sealant or schmutz on it, then the tape won’t adhere well and air (and sealant) will leak into the rim cavity. But I hadn’t had any problem with this tire/rim holding pressure before the flat. And, when I removed the old rim tape I did not see any obvious holes in the tape. So it’s a mystery as to how so much sealant ended up inside the rim. Just to be safe I decided to replace the tubeless tape because I did not want to set up the new tire only to discover post factum that the old tape was no good.

After wiping the rim several times yet again, I set the wheel upright to let the sealant drain out. The next day there was more sealant on the floor. I hung the wheel up. For the next four days I continued to see new sealant pooling around the spoke holes. By around the sixth day it was sufficiently dried up that I was trusting putting new tape on it. Ideally I would have wiped the entire rim down with acetone. But I didn’t have any and although very effective at removing residue it’s quite toxic. Instead I had rubbing alcohol so it would have to do.

That delay actually wasn’t a bad thing because I didn’t have any tubeless tape. I thought I did but a mad search revealed none. If I had, I would have slapped it on immediately and inadvertently left a lot of sealant inside the rim. I ordered a roll of Stan’s tape for $20 (enough for four wheels) and that took three days to arrive. That delay allowed me to let the wheel empty out and dry some more.

With everything now at hand and the rim clean(er) and dry(er) I was now ready to install the new tire. Confession: I’ve never put together a tubeless wheelset before. This wheel came to me already set up with sealant. So this would be my first time (cue “Like A Virgin”). A couple of YouTube videos later I was ready to do it myself.

One more obstacle though: I then noticed that on the rim bed was a tiny sticker that said the warranty would be voided if (1) one used pressure above 90 psi, or (2) one didn’t use 25mm HED tape. So I emailed HED asking if using Stan’s tape would void the warranty—seriously??—and got a surprisingly rapid response the next morning saying that Stan’s tape was fine. Whew.

Installing tubeless tape is very much like installing regular rim strips although with tubeless tape you are advised to apply it tautly. HED also advises applying two layers of tape, which given the tape doesn’t seem reinforced, was a good idea to me. Apparently one wrap of tape weighs about 5-10 grams, so no big deal. I had to struggle a bit until I got my technique down, leading to applying, removing, then applying ad nauseum. Practice makes perfect or in my case, less imperfect. The goal is to have smooth tape covering all the spoke holes and without crinkles or irregularities where sealant and air might invade and then leak out. This stuff is stiffer than regular rim strips so by trial and error I learned that applying firm thumb pressure in the rim well while laying down the tape was important to getting it to adhere smoothly. And of course your aim has to be good, ie. pull the damn tape straight so that it doesn’t meander in the rim bed.

The next step was getting the new tire onto the rim. But before that I had to install a valve and screw it down with a retention nut but not so tightly that I wouldn’t be able to do unscrew it by hand if I got another catastrophic flat on the road. For a Boy Scout medal I then added a bead of sealant around the now seated valve to fill any gaps in the hole in case it wasn’t perfect and let it dry. Now for the tire: to my surprise it was very easy to mount and I got both beads on the rim lickety-split. But no matter how quickly I pumped I could not get it to inflate at all.

So out came the 80-lb. air compressor. Even though I don’t have a dedicated presta valve head on the compressor hose, the regular nozzle puts out so much air that it’s capable of blasting a tire on. In order to blow the maximum amount of air, I removed the presta valve core from the tubeles valve. The tire inflated quickly, the beads immediately snapping into place with unsettling cracking sounds so loud I thought the tire was going to blow off the rim. But it didn’t. Unfortunately I could hear the hissing of air escaping somewhere. I tried this several times and each time it would hold air only temporarily and each time the air seemed to be escaping at different locations around the rim.

Since I had never set up tubeless tires before, I did not realize that this is actually a common occurrence. Roger suggested I add sealant but I was hesitant to do so until I had a good seal because I didn’t want to have more sealant blowing every whichway around the rim I had just meticulously cleaned. But eventually that’s exactly what I did because I couldn’t get a seal despite removing the tire and resetting it a couple of times.

To add sealant you can either pour it in the tire and then put the bead back on the rim or you can inject it through the valve. I did the latter since it’s easy once the valve core is out and it’s less likely to make a mess. I put in roughly two ounces of sealant, which is overkill for road tires. Then I tried again with the compressor. The beads slammed into place right away and I could see sealant coming out at several locations around the rim on both sides.

Now I had to roll the tire around to get the entire interior of the cavity coated with sealant. If I was lucky the gaps along the rim/tire interface would be small enough that the sealant should plug them up. I did this for about 15 minutes, holding the wheel horizontally and rocking it around to get sealant on both beads. I then left it on one side, came back some time later and set it on the other side. By evening the tire still felt hard. I left it overnight and the tire was still hard. I now had a new tubeless tire installed and set up with sealant on my rear wheel after about a week.

This, I think, completes the demystification process of tubeless road tires for me. I lived through the worst case scenario of an unsealable gash while on the road and I was able to get an inner tube installed and got home. I have also set up a tubeless tire from scratch—actually even worse than scratch because I had to completely clean the filthy rim before I could proceed with an installation. Even if I had had a set of tire plugs with me, I do not think in retrospect that I could have gotten a very good seal, maybe enough to limp home on very low tire pressure but not enough to be a permanent repair (assuming the tire hadn’t already been worn down to the casing). The gash was big enough that I would have needed at least two plugs, maybe three to work.

The bottom line: tubeless or tubed—which is it from now on?
Whatever time I’d saved in not having to repair flats while on the road was long lost in the amount of time I spent dealing with this catastrophic failure. Admittedly it wasn’t that hard to get an inner tube installed. Will it be that ‘easy’ the next time? I don’t know and that uncertainty bothers me. Perhaps with this new tire it will be easy because it went on the rim for the first time without needing to use tire levers. But the clean up and repair afterwards was prolonged, irksome, and just shows how complicated a minor thing like a flat can become. It reminded me of when I used to ride on sewup tires. A good sewup has an unbeatable ride feel. They’re heaven until you get a flat. Yes, you can put on a spare sewup if you do flat and make it home. But the aftermath of a puncture is a major pain in the ass. You have to repair the sewup, which involves removing the sewup from the rim if you haven’t already—a major task with sewup glue, opening up the seam, patching, sewing the seam back up correctly, and then regluing it to the rim. The repairs are time consuming and tedious. When I found someone who would repair my sewups for a fee, I immediately dumped my pile of unrepaired tires on him. When he left the business I stopped riding on sewups. Tubeless tires bring almost as much labor and unnecessary irritation to the table.

There are times when not getting a flat on the road is a godsend—when it’s raining or incredibly hot or when you’re in a place you can’t stop such as a sketchy neighborhood or when there is no convenient place to do a repair. But you have to weigh that against the occasions when a puncture doesn’t seal or only partially seals, the clean up, and the maintenance that tubeless tires require with sealant. I was almost convinced tubeless really might be the best of all possible worlds. Until now. But then again one catastrophic failure in 8,000 miles ain’t too bad. That’s about one per year.

As for ride feel, it’s really a question of what you’re used to and whether you’re that much of a princess. Lots of folks ride on tire/tube combinations that feel to me like riding on wooden wagon wheels, eg. Specialized Armadillo tires with bargain basement butyl inner tubes, and they’re happy with them probably because they’re inexpensive, they don’t get many if any flats, and they require almost no time for maintenance. But if you’re a hothouse flower that moans at the slightest pavement incongruities you’d probably be willing to spend more time and money for wheels that cosset you like fine linens. In my opinion tubeless tires do not provide the princess experience. The best setup I’ve ridden this side of sewups is a traditional tubed tire such as a high-end Michelin or a Rene Herse coupled with a latex inner tube. Those combinations are light and have supple casings that come closest to a silk sewup tire. Unfortunately this means accepting the occasional flat tire while on the road. Tubeless tires mostly free you from that concern but in exchange the ride quality is not quite as good. It’s not bad, just not as good as what I had been used to. When it might rain or I’m going on a ride where there’s a lot of filth, I’ll take tubeless—no questions asked. I don’t want to be doing a roadside repair under those conditions. But in other situations I don’t see the need.

Keep in mind that all of this hassle and rigamarole mostly pertains only if you do your own maintenance and repairs. As our club president David said, “Well, don’t you have people who can do that for you?” Yes, you can always take it to a shop and have them deal with the aftermath. It’ll cost you maybe an hour total of shop time and you’ll have to wait for them to do your repair. It reminds me when Bing once told me that he always took his bike to the shop to fix the flats and he was using inner tubes! Of course he lived across the street from a shop. But if you want to do your own repairs, you may want to stay with inner tubes unless you’re willing to put up with what I just went through or you think you’re just luckier than I am.

Fun With Road Tubeless: When Dreams Come True

On Good Friday, also the first day over Passover, my dream came true or rather my nightmare came true. The Damoclean sword of tubeless road tires is the catastrophic puncture. Well, the string finally broke. Until then I was beginning to believe tubeless road tires were fulfiling their promise…

Pictures are worth a thousand words. Unfortunately I didn’t stop to take any during this ordeal because, um, my mind was on other matters. So you’re getting the thousands of words instead.

Roger and I were heading to Bollinger Canyon for a nice, long ride up a beautiful, relatively untouched canyon to enjoy a bag lunch at Las Trampas Regional Park. As we were rolling on Danville Boulevard I suddenly heard the loud “psss-psss-psss” hiss of a puncture. I thought it must have been Roger’s wheel because I was on tubeless tires. It couldn’t be me, right? Wrong, it was my rear tire. Tubeless punctures rarely make any noise at all and often you are unaware that anything has punctured your tire because the sealant acts so quickly. Once I realized it was me I knew it was very bad juju. And it was.

Sealant was dripping profusely from my wheel onto the pavement leaving a small puddle and I could see bubbles on the tire casing where the air was leaking out. My tire was very soft. Shit. Despite the look of things I was praying the sealant would do its magic. I spun the wheel so the puncture was at the bottom and sealant could pool readily to clog the hole and we waited a couple of minutes. Then I borrowed Roger’s pump—because it’s a much better pump than my ridiculous minipump—and gently tried to inflate the tire. But it wouldn’t hold air and when I pumped I could see more bubbles. This puncture was clearly too large to be sealed by Orange Seal.

My ride was done it seemed. I carry a spare tube and a pump knowing it is theoretically possible to put a tube in a tubeless setup, inflate it, and keep going. But based on my experience with these Schwalbe Pro One tires I was leery of trying a roadside repair. In the past I could barely get the tire on and off the rim even with tire levers at home let alone by the side of the road. I had visions of me a mucky mess covered in sealant, screaming multisyllabic profanities, and hurling broken tire levers into the street. So essentially my repair kit has been more magical fetish than practical.

We agreed Roger would go home to get the car and I would wait to be retrieved. After he left I came to the realization that since I had over an hour I might as well try to get the tube in. The worst that could happen is that I would fail and everything would be covered in sealant, he’d show up with the car eventually and we’d cart this mess back home where I could deal with it properly. Plus I wanted to see if I could actually do it, sort of an experiment of one. The worst that could happen is that I’d have a LOT of cleaning to do later and get another lesson in frustration. So I took a deep breath, thought happy thoughts, and dove in.

My thinking was that the tire is well-used (= frickin’ old—more than six years) and hence stretched out as much as it could. So perhaps I’d be able to get the bead off and back on the rim. When it was new this was nearly impossible.

I was actually somewhat prepared for this eventuality. I had nitrile gloves and several sheets of paper towel to protect myself and mop up the inevitable mess. Fortunately I still had fenders on the bike despite our dry winter and that prevented a fountain of sealant from merrily spraying every whichway—on the bike, on my clothes and into Roger’s face. However the one thing I did not have and that might have spared me this agony was a tire plug that I could have tried to jam them into the tire casing to assist a seal. Suddenly that $60 Dynaplug kit I had rolled my eyes at wasn’t looking so frivolous.

I was able to get the left bead off the rim but only after releasing both beads in order to get them into the wheel well to create enough slack to lift a part of the bead over the rim. Releasing the beads from the rim hooks means having to get them back in later, which is not easy. If you don’t get them back in, you end up with an un-round wheel and a thump-thump-thump ride home. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to release the right side bead because that would surely result in sealant everywhere. And it did. I could see the tire was full of sealant, not too surprising because I had topped it off with a copious quantity about three months ago in a Boy Scout moment—no good deed goes unpunished. “Release the kraken!”

If you’re not familiar with tubeless tires, you may be unaware that you have to remove the tire valve so that you can insert the valve stem of the inner tube into the rim. However if one screws the retention nut too hard during installation, one may not be able to get it off without a wrench. But this time I lucked out and I was able to remove it. More dripping ensued during all this.

I popped the spare in and then the fun began: trying to get the tire bead back on the rim. It was almost Herculean. The tire bead actually was more compliant now that it was hella old. Yay! But any stretching was negated by the slippery film of sealant on my gloved hands, the rim, and the tire. Boo! Trying to grip the bead was like trying to catch an eel with your bare hands. After a few futile attempts I ripped the gloves off into order to get a better grip, utlized best practices in creating more slack, and tried again. Fail. So I resorted to the neutron bomb of tire repair: using a lever to get that last bit of bead on. This time I succeeded but I wasn’t sure if I had also pinched the tube and punctured it. Prayer ensued. 250 slogging pumps later with my feeble minipump I had a mostly inflated tubeless tire with a tube in it! About a half-hour had passed.

I cleaned myself and the wheel with fragments of paper towel and packed up everything strewn on the ground. I called Roger and told him I was going to ride home and I would call him for a car pick up only if my temporary fix failed later down the road. As I rode away there was the thump-thump-thump of the wheel—part of the bead hadn’t seated properly. But long story long, I got home in one piece not smelling like a rose but like Orange Seal.

Next: the aftermath.

Karoo 2 Setup and First Experience

I’ve been doing some retail therapy the last couple of months, and right at the top of my list was replacing my six year old Garmin Edge 520. 

That GPS was OK in its day, but time has passed it by. The map screens were always atrocious – useless, really – they couldn’t be seen in many riding conditions. Using a route while riding drained the battery in something like four hours. If you research it, you will learn that most Garmins have problems with excessive battery drain when riding with a route. And, loading routes onto the GPS was quite the little adventure. 

But still, the old GPS did its job reasonably well – when it was newer. Then, about a year ago, the GPS’  Bluetooth decided it no longer wanted to connect to my phone, so uploading rides meant connecting the GPS to a computer using a cable. Routing started getting flaky – it would tell me I was off course when I wasn’t off course, and it had trouble recognizing I was on course after restarting a ride after stopping for a while. (Which is how I ended up leading a group of riders the wrong way out of Yountville on this year’s Darth Veeder ride, and why I was asking people “now, how do you go?” as we were pulling out of Castro Valley BART on the Palomares ride.)

Then, there are the never-ending annoyances of Garmin Connect and, software that feels like it was developed 15 years ago and never got significant updates. And, there’s Garmin’s strategy of dealing with customers who have problems – “what, your GPS doesn’t work? So sorry. We’ll be glad to sell you a newer model at a discount. (But we’ll never fix yours, it’s out of warranty.)” 

I decided I was tired of thinking that Garmin was the only way to go (since that’s the brand I started with), and tired of being locked into buying Garmin devices as the only path forward once my Garmin device stopped operating as it should.

I did some research and decided I wanted to give the Hammerhead Karoo 2 a try.

I’m not going to shill for the Karoo 2, but I will say that its huge, bright screen was what seduced me. I’m getting older, and, well, the eyes are going. Wait, what, I’m going to be able to see maps on my GPS again? Wow. What a concept.

The sections that follow are my experiences as I was upgrading from my low-end, six year old device to one that’s brand spanking new and higher end. So I can’t be too hard on Garmin here. But Garmin’s had close to a monopoly on the cycling GPS market for years (OK, I see you, Wahoo). It does feel good (so far) to get out from under Mama Garmin’s thumb.

I’m three rides in now, and so far, very pleased with my new toy. Here are my impressions setting the new GPS up and riding with it the first couple of times.

Powering Up

  • Wow, the packaging is so nice. Did I buy an Apple something or a Google something, ‘cause this feels like it. Yeah, I’m superficial. Nothing like opening up a pretty box.
  • Nice. This thing has a USB-C interface, just like my computer, my laptop, my phone, and everything else I have that’s less than 5 years old.
  • But, oops. They’re protecting the interface with a stupid little black plastic plug? I wonder how long it’s going to be before that gets lost.
  • OK, I started it. Why does this GPS take so damn long to power up? It’s taking as long as the Garmin does. Bleah.
  • Huh? This is an Android device? Wait – I  already know how to use Android! Less of a learning curve!
  • It’s got a touch screen. Yay! Nice upgrade! (I could have had one if I had bought a more expensive Garmin than the 520, so I’m not blaming the lack of a touch screen on Garmin – more on my buying a less expensive Garmin model.)
  • Oh. My. God. That screen. High resolution. Brilliant display. It’s almost as good as my MacBook Pro – at least in these indoor light conditions.

Setup Experience 

  • There’s and Why do I need two accounts, and two sets of login credentials. Weird. Not like.
  • I’m making my way through Karoo’s setup instructions on-line, and they’re pretty good. I’m well-positioned to assess that – I write this kind of stuff for a living.
  • Wow, soooo easy to connect my Hammerhead account with Strava and 
  • Now I’m loading a route, in advance of doing my first ride. All I have to do is go to routes on, click Add, and then supply the URL from RideWithGPS? No “download the route, connect the GPS to my laptop, drag the route to the NewFiles folder” dance? C’mon, Hammerhead, you’re making this too easy.
  • I paired the GPS with my phone. Straightforward and easy.
  • And unlike the Edge 520, maybe Bluetooth is actually going to work on this thing.
  • I also downloaded the Karoo 2 app, but I’m not sure why. The Internet told me to, and it seemed like a good idea.
  • Uh, oh, hardware problem. The Karoo 2 comes with an attachment that you can put on the GPS that makes it compatible with Garmin mounts, but the mount has to be far enough away from your handlebars so that the GPS will fit on your bike. Mine didn’t. So I was either going to have to get a new Garmin-compatible mount or use the Hammerhead mount. I opted to take the Garmin mount off the bike and replace it with the Hammerhead mount. Took me all of 5 minutes, and y’know, I’m klutzy with that kind of stuff. 

First Ride

  • Holy crap. I can actually make out what’s on the screen. In bright sunlight, in shade, and everything in between. With or without my sunglasses.
  • The screen resolution is AMAZING.
  • I don’t even mind dark mode on this thing. I’m not a fan of dark mode for everyday work, but it works well with this GPS.
  • Routing worked flawlessly. No “off course” warnings when I wasn’t off course. And it started up right away, no delay at all.
  • Needless to say, I forgot to click start, to tell the GPS to start capturing ride data. It’s a tradition when I get a new GPS, and I forget to do it even when I’m well-acquainted with my GPS.
  • Holy crap again. I can actually see the maps. Maps are useful on this GPS? What a concept.
  • I can see how much battery power I have left. Nice. And I even know where to go look for it, because it’s Android and I know how to use Android. It’s in the upper part of the screen, just like on my cell phone.
  • The climb feature is REALLY cool. The screen shows me how many climbs I have to go on my route, and once I’m on a climb, it tells me how much longer the climb will be, and what the grades ahead are going to be. Sure could have used this on Morgan Territory Road the other day, when I was swearing at the grades and wondering how much more of that damn climb I was going to have to suffer through.
  • So, no more “let’s see, Mt. Diablo is about a 3,600 foot climb, and Camino Alto (which I’ve done a million billion times) is about 300 feet, therefore, the climb ahead is going to be 12 Camino Altos. OK, David, you can do 12 Camino Altos if you pace yourself…down to ten Camino Altos, you can do it…halfway there, so only 5 Camino Altos to go…one more Camino Alto, you can do one Camino Alto…” Yeah, that’s me. 
  • Uh, oh. Cadence and power are not registering. I must have done something wrong when I set up the device. Back to the drawing board on those. 
  • Hey, this thing uploaded my ride to Strava, just like my Garmin used to do before Bluetooth crapped out. And I can even change the ride title right on the GPS to something other than Morning Ride? Sweet.
  • My three hour ride’s done, and I still have 75% power, even though I had routing on the entire way. Nice. That’s the kind of battery life I was hoping for in up a new GPS.

After the First Ride

  • What!? This thing uploaded my ride to RideWithGPS, too? But I only use RideWithGPS for creating routes. Guess it’s OK. I don’t want to take the trouble to figure out how to suppress the uploads.
  • Goodbye Garmin Connect, you piece of crap. So nice to delete you from my phone and my computers.
  • OK, I am able to clean the screen on this thing. I hope that lasts. Seemed like I could never get the Garmin screen clean, I think it had a small amount of moisture in it or something.
  • Apparently I need to set up a ride profile so that I can see cadence and power data, so I set one up. It wasn’t trivially easy. But with the touch screen, it was way easier than doing it was on the Garmin once, (Serves me right for buying the lower-end Garmin.) I got the hang of it. 
  • Multiple ride profiles (different sets of screens) are a nice concept. I don’t know that I’ll ever use any other profiles other than the main one I set up, though.

Second Ride 

  • Oh, dang, the touch screen doesn’t work with long-fingered gloves. Oh, wait, yes it does, I just have to press a little harder.
  • My ride profile was not well set up. The information I’m getting about turns and climbs ahead are covering up other data fields. I’m going to need to redo my ride profile. 

After the Second Ride

  • Revised my ride profile after my first ride. Way easier to work with the second time around. 

So there you have it. Two rides in and so far, I’m pretty happy with the new gear. If you’d like to see it in operation, join me on a ride sometime, and I’ll be glad to show it to you.

Update (Apr 18, 2022)

I just discovered a major problem with the Karoo 2, which is that it needs a WiFi connection to upload rides. That means that even though I’ve established a Bluetooth connection from the device to my phone, rides don’t upload. That’s a downgrade from almost every Garmin, including my low-end 520.

You can either wait till you get home, when the Karoo 2 will connect to your WiFi and the ride will automatically upload, or you can start a hotspot on your phone. Neither is a great option. I’m going to try the hotspot after my next ride, but I’m not real happy after finding this out.

There have been many complaints about this on Hammerhead’s support forum, but so far, the Karoo 2 hasn’t been updated to provide this capability.

Impressions of Fulgaz

Fulgaz on HD television
Now I’m in France!

If you’re familiar with online virtual cycling sites, you know that they skew heavily towards training and racing. You can race against yourself or others, or you can do some kind of structured training such as intervals, threshold training, and the like. The best known of these is Zwift but there are many others such as Sufferfest, Rouvy, TrainerRoad, and Xert. They all pretty much hew to the same idea of simulated racing. Racing online isn’t such a new idea; it actually goes back to the Computrainer in the 1986. But nowadays the level of graphics and online participation is much higher making for a more entertaining experience.

What is mostly lost in all this is a focus on the joy of cycling outdoors. If you’re not into racing or competition, then Zwift and its ilk are less persuasive of cycling indoors. There is likely a historical reason for why these sites dwell so narrowly on competition. Indoor cycling—originally on rollers, then later on trainers, then smart trainers—was a way to get through the winter in parts of the world (ie. not California) that had real winters with snow. The most entertainment you got while spinning away on the rollers was perhaps watching a videotape of a cycling race and imagining yourself riding with the pros. Of course that was after VCRs had been invented. Before and even after the invention of the VCR, a typical “ride” on rollers was a short—maybe an hour—structured workout. There were actually books that provided sample workouts. You also have to think about who would be desperate enough to want to ride indoors. It was the most fanatical cyclists many of whom were amateur racers. (The pros would just go outdoors and cycle or they’d crosstrain.) In any case riding on a stationary bike is boring and that was all the more reason to make it brief and therefore intense to get the most out of your short workout.

But what if you ride because you like being outdoors or enjoy cycletouring? If you like to cycle in beautiful places, then Watopia is a letdown. There are a couple of sites that try to provide a more realistic and immersive experience focusing on the joy of riding: Fulgaz and OpenRoad. Both provide video footage of rides from a cyclist’s perspective trying to replicate the actual experience of riding rather than entertaining you with a game-like ride in a completely computer generated fake world. I don’t have much to say about OpenRoad because it is PC only. It’s not even available on Android whereas Fulgaz is available for Mac, PC, Android, AppleTV, and iOS.

Our setup is an AppleTV box hooked up to a large screen TV. You could use an iPad or laptop screen but I wanted to see how immersive the experience would be looking at a large screen. You can try out Fulgaz for two weeks for free, which is what we did since we didn’t know what we were getting into. It costs $12 per month or $100 annually. We didn’t even use a smart trainer, just a bike on a fluid trainer. With a smart trainer you can have your speed/cadence/power data sent to Fulgaz where it appears on the screen. Conversely inclination data is sent to your smart trainer to increase the resistance to replicate the harder effort of going uphill. You can find the details of how Fulgaz works at its website. You can compare it to OpenRoad if you’re a PC person.

You can download a ride and then view it or just stream it; we did the latter out of convenience. Fulgaz has about 1,200 videos of rides from around the world including a lot of the classic climbs of the Alps and Dolomites. But it also has a lot of other unexpected but interesting rides, for example a ride around Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territory of Australia. Videos are shot by Fulgaz staff but users can also submit videos for curation. This leads to some slight variability in quality but for the most part the video quality is decent to good since Fulgaz provides guidelines on shooting video and also edits and curates everything submitted. Since we were streaming the rides, there was some pixellation but it wasn’t disturbing enough to jar you out of the faux experience of riding outdoor. If we had downloaded the rides instead of streaming them we suspect the pixellation would disappear. Most of the videos if not all seem to be shot using GoPro cameras that are mounted at handlebar level. This makes for a slightly strange perspective but that oddity soon goes away. This doesn’t seem to be the case with OpenRoad videos, at least the ones I can see on its YouTube site. The perspective seems to be almost normal eye level. But that could just be due to mounting the camera above the handlebars rather than below. In any case you don’t see the handlebars or shifters, which is nice. It would be too much to ask those who submit videos to Fulgaz to use a special setup for their submissions. But for Fulgaz’s inhouse videos it wouldn’t.

GoPro camera lenses have a very wide field of view of 170 degrees. This causes a distinct ‘warping’ of your view that leads to a prominent—at least to me—artifact in Fulgaz videos: the camera is mounted to the handlebars so every panning motion is visually exacerbated. I found it at times unnatural but usually got used to it and didn’t notice it except when the bike in the video was turning sharply. This doesn’t seem to be the case with OpenRoad—perhaps they’re using a different camera than GoPro or they set their cameras to a medium field of view. Going into a turn the visual field tilts but you don’t since you’re on a trainer, and since I happen to be prone to motion sickness, the disconnect between what my eyes see and what my inner ear is sensing for balance is occasionally disorienting to the point of me feeling nauseous. This was most noticeable on a couple of videos with a lot of quick, sharp turns—both happen to be on multi-use paths. On roads in the videos this doesn’t happen because the turns just aren’t that sharp.

Another artifact you’ll notice is how smooth a cyclist the camera person is. When going slowly uphill we all move the bars side to side but some of us are smoother than others. This all becomes apparent when climbing up a steep hill. When we do it in real life, we don’t notice it. But on camera it becomes very evident as the camera perspective hunts back and forth with each tug on the bars. In one Provence ride the cyclist was a total animal and seemed to be going 20+ mph all the time. When he went uphill there wasn’t any back-and-forth motion since he was going so strongly in the saddle. On the contrary in a ride shot in coast of Japan up a steep hill, the cyclist veered sharply left and right accompanied by some very noticeable yet appropriate huffing and puffing.

You don’t often think about how your brain processes all the motion your eyes are actually exposed to—the bumps in the road, eye scanning back and forth, head turning, etc. But it all is spun into a seamless, smooth experience and you end up not being cognizant of all these actions. On the contrary, the camera movement on the bike is very noticeable. If you’ve ever watched a GoPro video on YouTube of a mountain bike going downhill, you realize just how jarring the experience actually is, yet when you ride downhill in real life your brain factors almost all of that out in creating a smoother experience.

There is also audio so you get to hear the sounds on the ride such as the gear shifts, heavy breathing, cars passing, etc. I found it to be more sensorily immersive to listen to the soundtrack but you can always mute it and/or listen to music instead.

All this nitpicking is not intended as a putdown of Fulgaz. I’ve enjoyed the experience of virtual riding and one gigantic plus is that every day you ride on Fulgaz is a good day—no heat wave, no wildfire smoke, no freezing temp, no rain, no sunburn! Not every video is shot on a grand summer day but you’ll always be cozy in your boy/girlcave. When it’s dreary and pouring down hard outside you can go ride Old La Honda on a pleasant spring day. Speaking of Old La Honda, Fulgaz has quite a geographically diverse set of rides including a lot of the ‘famous’ ascents in Europe and elsewhere. (The Alto de Letras in Colombia is noticeably absent.) There are plenty of rides in Italy, France, Switzerland, and other European countries. Unfortunately there are only about a dozen rides in Japan, a place I love to cycle. But it was fun to revisit the country and ride albeit by video. The Bay Area is represented as well with rides up Diablo, Mt. Tam, Old La Honda, and several others.

So how immersive is Fulgaz? Overall I would say that Fulgaz is a more convincing argument against riding outdoors when conditions are unpleasant—very cold, wet, windy, dark, or smoggy/smokey. If you want to race or ride with others, you can also do that on Fulgaz. It’s just that it’s not the focus of the application. Instead it provides a chance to tour the world by bike without leaving your home or just do local rides when the weather is terrible. With the large screen HD television the experience was generally quite good, probably as immersive as it can be given you’re inside your home. With a laptop or small screen I’m not so sure I’d be as interested in using Fulgaz. If you’re like me and find riding a stationary bike somewhat mentally agonizing, then you’ll appreciate the extra distraction of a large screen. Given that we haven’t been able to travel—we’ve had to cancel three overseas cycling trips and probably will end up cancelling a fourth due to Covid—being able to get a taste of riding elsewhere, especially revisiting actual locations we’ve ridden before, is a very welcome addition. And on days when I just have to get outside I can don the raingear and do an actual ride. I don’t think Fulgaz is going to pull me indoors completely. But it’s nice to have the option on days when I’m wavering on whether to head out into the storm or when the day is full of to-do’s and I can’t find the time to ride before it’s dark.

Plus Ça Change

Goes to 11…

Another day, another product announcement. Sigh. Since we live in the best of all possible worlds, new bike products must be unfettered goods (pun intended). But Shimano’s latest announcement, the new “2021”—really 2022 since you won’t be able to get them until later this year—Dura Ace and Ultegra road groups are sorely testing my faith in the ultimate goodness of God (or at least Leibniz). I’m sure lots of cyclists who can afford to buy bikes with either of these groups will be giddy with delight at their effortless shifting and smooth-as-butter disc brakes. However the announcement left me less than pleased due to three developments, two overtly mentioned and the other not so. The first is that these groupsets are electronic only: no more mechanical shifting. Perhaps that makes sense for Dura Ace since it is mainstay of professional road racing. But Ultegra is more of a bread-and-butter group for the rest of us, especially since Dura Ace prices seem to be going up relentlessly. Online pundits are bemoaning this loss and I would too except that in my experience maintaining a Di2 system has been less work. Cable actuated shifting systems aren’t a whole lot of work in this era but e-systems are even less work! And the less time I have to spend fiddling with a shifter, the more time I have to eat bonbons. What I don’t care about Di2 is the price. Mechanical shifting is fine and it’s a lot cheaper: the Ultegra Di2 groupset now costs as much as Dura Ace did just a few years ago.

The second is that Shimano will no longer be developing rim brakes. You will be able to get new 2022 rim brakes but they are the same old brakes with just a different date stamped on them. The writing is clearly on the wall: Shimano thinks there’s no money to be made in better rim brakes. So they’re now on death row with the execution date not yet announced. If you want Shimano rim brakes on some future bike—like in four or five years—they’re not going to have “Dura Ace” or “Ultegra” on them, more likely “Tiagra” or “Sora”. They’ll probably work just fine but they’ll be heavier, look a bit unrefined, and come with Shimano’s best cheap-ass brake pads. Maybe that will be the time to switch to ee brakes. (But the price: ouch!)

I’m not going to bore you with more rim vs. disc brake polemics. I use them both and both function fine. I like disc brakes when I’m riding in the wet—what, you don’t ride in the rain??—and they allow me to run fatter tires. But I also use “medium reach” rim brakes (what are called medium reach these days used to be the standard size back in the day) with bigger tires and they work pretty well although I really can’t run a tire wider than about 35mm. I like rim brakes because they’re about three-quarters of a pound lighter and are way easier to maintain and adjust. That’s important for DIY mechanics and as I get older I’ve not only gotten crustier but also more impatient with bike repairs that take me more than a half-hour to complete, preferably less than 15 minutes. If you always take your bike to a shop, then it doesn’t make much difference except to your wallet. In any case rim brakes are headed the same direction as spoon brakes regardless of how I feel: the boneyard. On the other hand given how expensive Dura Ace has become it’s soon to be out of reach anyway, so having Tiagra rim brakes is probably going to be just fine along with Tiagra everything else.

The third development flew under the radar. Now that Shimano road groups are going 12-speed, it no longer will be making a cassette with anything other than an 11-tooth small cog. With 11-speed you could get a Shimano cassette with a 12-tooth small cog; when Shimano groups were 9-speed, you could even get a 13-tooth cog. Going to 11 only is a move that SRAM made when it started making groupsets: it never offered a cassette with anything other than an 11. At the time I thought that was stupid and I still do. Most of us use whatever cassettes come with the bike, and being stuck with an 11-tooth cog is realistically no more than a minor inconvenience. I had never used a cassette with an 11-tooth cog until I bought a bike with a compact chainset. My previous experience was a 9-speed bike with a compact chainset; it came with a 12-cog and I thought that was plenty. Did you know that a 50×11 is just about the same gear development as a 53×12? It’s plenty big. The only time I used a gear that big was on some descents, and as I get older I’m less inclined to go ridiculously fast downhill. When I was “fast”—yes, that was quite a while ago—my top gear was a 53×13, which is less quite a bit less than a 50×11, and I rarely used it and I would still go downhill at 40+ mph. In other words, you don’t need a 50×11 to go downhill fast. All you need is stupid bravery and knowing how to tuck. So 11- or 12-tooth cogs are like vestigial organs I just don’t need or use. And I suspect that is true for the vast majority of recreational cyclists.

What I do like—and appreciate more and more as I get older and creakier—is having lots of gears in the middle of the cassette, where I ride a lot, rather than tiny cogs that I almost never use. With the new Shimano groups I’m just getting more of the same: cogs I don’t need. Oh well.

Finally, one other change caught me eye, which is the chainrings offered. The “standard” 53×39 chainset is gone replaced by a new 54×40. That is a damn big ring! Who do you know runs a 54-tooth chainring? Only Pro Tour cyclists and some oddball time trialists. Everyday cyclists need a 54 like a hole in the head. FYI a 54×11 is 133 gear-inches. All I can say is: wow. But hold on there just a minute! At some point Shimano is going to have to produce a 12-speed “junior” cassette. Junior racers (under age 18) have gearing capped at no smaller than a 14-tooth cog. It’s easy to imagine a great 12-speed cassette starting at 14 and giving something close to my ideal set of ratios. How about a 14-15-16-17-18-19-20-22-24-27-30-34? This would have a lot of useful gears in the middle, an excellent low gear, and a reasonable top gear of 54×14 = 104 gear-inches. Sign me up!

When Tubeless Road Tires Are Awesome

I thought I was done expounding on tubeless road tires last September; mostly I was recounting their various annoying aspects because they are usually overlooked in all the hype around The Next Greatest Bike Thing. I’ve been planning to switch the tubeless tires to regular tubed tires after the Schwalbes wore out. The reason for going back to tubes was that I wanted to be able to switch tires back and forth on those wheels depending on where I was planning to ride next, and tubeless sealant would make that a big messy hassle. (Of course the other option would be to spend a lot of money on another set of wheels; then I would have a knobbier pair for fire roads/ pavement and a smooth set for pavement/occasionally fire roads.)

Then yesterday we went for a ride in an area that was replete with street debris. Let’s just say either their street cleaning is infrequent or their residents like to smash bottles. A lot. I ran through a couple of piles of glass but didn’t give it much thought other than to make a note to check the tires later on. With tubeless even that is unnecessary if the tires are still holding air. We made it home and I threw the bike in the corner.

This morning I checked the tires. 95% of the time I don’t find anything. Rather than glass this time I found something else embedded in the rear tire:

I thought it was just a flint since only the head was exposed. When I pulled it out I realized it was an entire nail. The tire had held pressure, which is why I hadn’t notice anything amiss. Of course when I pulled it out, air rushed out. I quickly rolled the wheel so the hole was at the bottom and sealant bubbled out. Within 30 seconds hole was sealed.

So despite tubeless tires having a set of problems all their own, in the usual use case and conditions they work rather flawlessly. I was able to finish the ride ignorant of the puncture and probably would have ridden a lot more with that nail still embedded if I hadn’t decided to be Boy Scout-like and check them the next day.

So despite my trepidations about using road tubeless, there are times when they are truly awesome.

The High Cost of Fashion

If you’re going to dress to be chic, it will cost you. You already knew that, right? Let’s see—Rapha, Assos, Castelli….or Bike Nashbar, Performance, Decathlon? We all want to be PRO and not Fred, so our closets are filled with physical incantations that will transform us into Those To Whom We Aspire. You should not be surprised that this also applies to your bike. Hence the current obsession with hydraulic disc brakes. Setting up and maintaining hydraulic brakes perhaps becomes second nature after practice. But the learning curve is a lot steeper than with old-fashioned rim brakes. Cutting lines and setting the olive and barb, bleeding lines and making sure they’re free of air, to name just a couple of tasks, are probably unfamiliar to most road cyclists while very familiar to mountain bikers at least those who do their own maintenance and repairs.

Nowadays road bikes are getting more complex and the tradition of DIY maintenance and repair is slowly eroding away. Having your LBS handle routine brake maintenance is going to cost you not just because it’s more time consuming but also because you’ll probably need to have it done more often than you would with rim brakes.

The other dirty little secret of hydraulic brakes is that the replacement parts are much more expensive than for rim brakes. I alluded to this in an earlier post but I was incorrect about the cost. I said that rim brake pads and disc brake pads cost about the same and that is not accurate. Top end Shimano Dura Ace brake pads cost a mere $9 a set—$20 for two sets and you have brand new brakes. Contrast that with hydraulic brakes: Shimano replacement pads run about $25-30 for one set. You will also have to regularly change the rotor, which wears out quickly. Shimano rotors run about $60-75 for one rotor. I run through about three sets of pads before I’ve worn down the rotor to the point it needs to be changed and I run through about one rotor per year. So in a year I’ll be spending about $130 on replacement parts for disc brakes. Another way to put it is the per wheel cost: the average maintenance cost per wheel is about $50 for hydraulic brakes but for rim brakes it’s just $9. For me rim brake pad wear is measured in years but rotors and hydraulic disc brake pads it’s months. Of course the unmentioned cost with rim brakes is that you eventually will wear out your rim. But in my case that’s somewhere north of 25,000 miles so the cost per year is really quite small. Of course the cost is less important if your use case warrants it. When I’m going down fire roads those hydraulic brakes are a blessing!

Fun With Road Tubeless, The Finale

[courtesy of Jan Heine’s blog!]

This is probably the final update on my experience with road tubeless tires.

Although the rains had ceased a couple of months ago in July I still had fenders on my bike. Normally I’d have pulled the fenders by May but we had some late spring rains that delayed that minor maintenance. Then we did a ride where copious marine fog made the roads wet under the trees and I was glad to have the fenders. So they stayed on even longer. I used to be a weight weenie and fenders were relegated to my commuter bike. The bike I’d ride for pleasure was almost always stripped down to the minimum of baggage.
Back in the day I used to look quizzically at Jerome’s bike because he always carried a handlebar bag plus other stuff on his bike. Why would you carry all that? It just weighed you down and made you slower. As for fenders, skip them—I’d just wipe the bike down after a wet ride (if I wiped it down at all). But if you were to look at my bike now you’d see a veritable laundry list of “Boy Scout” items—front and back lights (with battery packs), saddlebag with not just a tubes but multitool, patch kit, nipple wrench, quick patches, tire bolt, chain tool, spare battery; a bento bag with more stuff, a bell, a full size bike pump (no CO2 or minipump for me!). Oh, and like Jerome I often ride with a small handlebar bag that has more junk in it—pen, wipes, Advil, Swiss Army knife, pickle juice, emergency snacks, sunscreen, lip balm, crash kit, electrolytes, bike lock(!), etc. etc. In other words I’m completely fredded out these days thinking that the bike-ocalypse could happen on any ride. One day I weighed it all and it was like four pounds of extra “essential” stuff. It’s true that we become our parents when we get older, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll hitch a Green Egg grill and tow it so I can cook up a really good lunch on my rides!
Which brings me back to those fenders: so what that they add a couple of pounds to my bike? I’ve already drunk the Fred Kool-Aid, plus they keep grime off of me and most of my bike. It’s just one more chore to take them off and put them back on.
However if you’re using road tubeless tires those fenders actually come in handy. If you have a puncture, all that sealant doesn’t get flung all over you and the rear of your bike. In a momentary brain infarct I decided to remove the fenders anyway. Maybe I was thinking I’d go faster and make up for my lack of conditioning. Maybe I was engaged in magical thinking—I’ve come to realize that that’s most of the time—and thought that I just wouldn’t need them with a dry summer ahead. In any case taking off the fenders was not laborious although it did induce me to spend more time than I wanted or should have cleaning the bike after this wet winter. The next day Roger and I went out for a really nice ride—perfect weather—and when I got home I noticed the entire rear of the bike was coated in dried sealant. I’m not talking about a little sealant, I’m talking about so much sealant that it dripped to the bottom bracket and formed a hanging booger underneath. I was half tempted to say oh-f**k-it and in frustration just leave it a mess. But after cleaning the bike the day before, damned if I was going to let that shit stay there. I checked the tire to make sure it wasn’t a really bad puncture (tire plug time?). The tire was actually quite hard and when I checked the pressure it was down only a few pounds. Whoa, all that sealant got out and the pressure was still really good! Definitely a plus. Inspecting the tire I couldn’t find the puncture—a mystery. Usually there is sealant dried around the puncture but apparently just riding along scraped away the remains on the outside.
What are my thoughts on road tubeless now? As you know I’ve learned using road tubeless tires is not without negatives. It’s not quite obvious that they can be messy—messy to set up and messy if you have a puncture. If you’re fastidious in your bike maintenance, you’ll potentially find that the time and convenience you’ve saved in not having to fix flats and repair tubes either by the side of the road or at home is somewhat offset by any cleaning up you’ll encounter as a result of a puncture. If you don’t care how your bike looks, then sealant muck on your bike will just blend in with all the other wheel spray you’re letting fester there and road tubeless will definitely a big plus. But if you like a clean rig, you’re going to find some of that saved time offset by wiping sealant spray off your bike. Mind you, it goes everywhere.
Which brings me back to the fenders. With fenders sealant is not going to get on you or your bike. When I took the fenders off I did notice that there was dried sealant all along the inside (which I dutifully cleaned off!) from the past winter. So I had some punctures that I didn’t even know about. But if you’re in your weight weenie stage there is no way in hell you’re going to ride with fenders. But consider this: PRO isn’t just having a pristine, well-kept bike—PRO is riding that beast in all conditions including rain. So when people with $8,000 bikes tell me they don’t ride in the rain and would never put fenders on their bike, I wonder. Yes, even pros use fenders in training. The fenders are going back on the bike to join the rest of the junk that’s living there. But at least I won’t have to clean the rig up as often.
I must confess I’m torn: if I weren’t using tubeless tires I wouldn’t leave fenders on this bike. So for the dry season that’s a trade-off for me. I’ve had at least four punctures that have given me pause. The first one had sealant spraying everywhere (it was pre-fenders); the second wouldn’t seal with Stans and I had to switch to Orange Seal; the third was when the sealant all dried out and I flatted; and now this one, no impact at all on the ride but boy, what a cleaning job afterwards! There is one situation I have yet to encounter: the puncture that’s so bad you have to put in a tube and maybe a tire bolt as well. I’m dreading that because wet sealant is really messy, which is why I now carry latex gloves and paper towels. (No, I’m not planning on giving someone a prostate check “in a roadside emergency”.) They’re to wipe off the inside of the tire and the resulting mess, which is unavoidable regardless of where you are when it happens.
Ironically before I started playing with tubeless tires the only thing that would get me to phone for a ride home was if my bike became unrideable from having a broken derailleur hanger, a trashed wheel, or some such thing. You would think that tubeless tires would reduce my concern about needing a rescue. But I’ve found instead that my concern has gone up. Years ago Roger and I were riding the tandem in the Solvang Century and we flatted the rear tire. Upon inspection—and to my embarrassment—it turned out the tire was so worn that we had worn it down to the inner tube! Hey no problem: I put a tire bolt over the worn-out spot and slipped in a new tube, which shows you that with standard inner tubes you really can handle just about anything. (We probably could have ridden that tire all the way but we found at the next rest stop that we could buy a tire. So we replaced it in just a few minutes.)
So what am I saying? Doing roadside maintenance on tubeless tires can be much more tiresome and frustrating than with regular tubed tires. But with tubed tires you are guaranteed to be doing roadside repairs whereas with tubeless this is going to be rare. But if it does happen to you, it will likely be not just a minor inconvenience like the flats you’re used to having but a major PITA. And a mess. And, if you like a clean bike but eschew the weight of fenders, then you’re going to have to weigh the one against the other because you can’t have both with sealant.
For now I’ve put more sealant in the tire and the fenders are going back on. But I am leaning more towards going back to lighter and better tires with latex tubes instead of running tubeless. Then I could ditch the fenders during the dry season (but why bother?) The ride is definitely better with other tires, eg. Michelins, than the tubeless Schwalbe Pro Ones (although Schwalbes are better than average) and I have some misgivings about the independence I may give up by having a set up that’s less friendly to roadside repairs. But I do like that I can ride on these wheels with a much reduced likelihood of a flat. But let’s face it: I’ve been riding bikes for almost sixty years and have fixed literally hundreds of flat tires. It’s second nature to me and merely irksome that it happens at all.
So although my experience with tubeless is improving as I learn more how to work with this technology, I have to ask, “Is this really an improvement?” and the answer is a mixed one. If someone told me today that tubeless road tires stuff went out of existence, I’d shrug my shoulders and ‘whatevs, bro’. If you’re coming to cycling now and growing up with road tubeless, then maybe you’d have a different reaction. Do I feel the same about other bike technologies? No, I don’t. For example, when indexed shifters came along and especially brake/shifter levers (“brifters”), I was sold even though I had grown up with non-indexed downtube shifters. I immediately recognized that the convenience far outweighed any inconvenience or extra weight that this technology would introduce. For me brifters are a huge improvement with no serious downside, so I’m no curmudgeonly retrogrouch. I don’t feel the same about tubeless tires, at least not yet. It seems to me that with road tubeless the trade-offs are serious enough that you are going to have to think about your individual use case and what you are willing to tolerate. For me it’s nice to have fewer flats to repair. But the prospect of a serious tubeless failure out on the road still gives me pause. I do like a clean bike and since I don’t mind the weight of fenders, having to use them with tubeless tires isn’t enough of a deterrent to completly drop tubeless for now. And of course during the rainy season having to use fenders is a joy rather than an imposition. And fixing a flat in the rain? No thanks. Been there, done that (a few dozen times).
Lastly keep in mind that burping tubeless tires is a real but low possibility and as I mentioned in the last post about tubeless tires burping high pressure road tires can mean a crash due to the sudden, immediate deflation of your tire. In my case I’m very light and have 25 mm wide rims with 30 mm tires. I run my tires at 40-60 psi depending, and those medium pressures reduce the risk of burping and catastrophic failure. But if you have narrower rims, narrower tires, and thus have to pump them to higher pressures, you need to be careful.
So there you have it—after almost three years of playing with road tubeless my curiousity has been sated and this technology—for me—is not a must-have but a mixed bag. Maybe you’ll feel otherwise if you try it. It’s a plus if you either don’t know how or hate to repair a flat tire. But tubeless tires do not eliminate flats nor do they make your cycling life problem-free. You will still have flats, just fewer of them, and your maintenance shifts from one task to another. So you are losing perhaps the inconvenience of more minor repairs by the side of the road and having to pray you don’t have a total tubeless failure that will guarantee you’ll be screaming at the gods for the shit show you’re having to endure.
I will say that if you’re a slob, then road tubeless is probably the way to go. You’re not going to clean your bike anyway, so a layer of latex sealant on top of yesterday’s wheel spray, tar, and filth is not going to give you pause. Just be prepared to call for a ride when that day comes when your tubeless tire is hopelessly hosed and you’re miles from home or a friendly bike shop.

What’s up next? I’m going to experiment with Tubolito tubes, a 38 gram inner tube. Back to weight weenie…