Comfortable, subjectively fast and grippy in the dry, but badly let down by poor wet-weather grip.
I’ve been riding road tubeless tyres for the last few months, and it’s time for a review.
First, a clarification: ‘tubeless’ refers to a system popular with mountain bikers, where the tyres attach to the rim with a bead, similar to a clincher, but without a tube inside. This is as much a review of tubeless road tyres as a concept than the Atom tyre specifically.
The supposed benefits include greater reliability, better road feel and comfort, and more grip, because you can run them at lower pressures without increasing rolling resistance, and there’s no chance of pinch flats.
They require specially designed rims that don’t let air out, or standard clinchers that have been converted using a ‘tubeless conversion kit’.
So, what happens when you get a puncture? Well, tyre manufacturers recommend you use a liquid latex sealant inside the tyre, which is forced out through puncture holes and seals them up.
Tubeless is popular with mountain bikers, where the ability to run lower tyre pressures is a huge advantage, and the whole system seems mature, but tubeless road tyres have struggled to gain much traction (haha – sorry) in the market, and only a few tyre manufacturers have released tubeless road tyres. Hutchinson was one of the first.
As it happens, my Shimano Ultegra wheelset is tubeless compatible. After riding them with standard clinchers for a couple of years, I decided to see what this tubeless malarkey is all about.
I chose Hutchinson’s Atom tyres, which are the lightest of Hutchinson’s tubeless models, because until I can afford a better set, I race on these wheels.
Installing the tyres is a similar process to installing clinchers. You need a special set of valves, which sit inside the rim with a rubber bung (because there isn’t a tube). The bead is tighter and stiffer than most clinchers (it needs to be, to create an airtight seal) but a bit of patience, finesse, swearing and brute force and we were away.
The difficult part is getting the tyre bead to sit properly on the rim before you start inflating them, otherwise the air just rushes out everywhere and the tyre never inflates.
After mucking around with my floor pump for half an hour and getting nowhere, a trip to my local Discount Mega Hardware Chain Warehouse to buy a cheap air compressor sorted it.
The air compressor “blasts” the tyre bead into place. You’ll know it’s sealed when the tyre makes a loud CRACK.
At first, I tried the tyres without sealant, to see how well they would hold air. The rear wheel was great, I probably lost about 10psi every few days. The front was losing air much faster, so I decided to add some liquid sealant.
I’ll come back to the sealant later.
All in all the first installation was relatively painless apart from the need to use an air compressor.
The Atoms are pretty slick, narrow, and seem to roll quickly. The current vogue for wider 25mm tyres has been ignored – if anything the Atoms come in narrower than 23mm.
I started out running them at 90psi, as recommended for my weight (just over 70kg) compared to my usual 120psi for clinchers. There’s definitely less road vibration, but they certainly don’t feel sluggish. However, I felt the tyres felt a little too squishy under hard cornering, so I added 10PSI and I’m happier with the ride.
In dry conditions, the Atoms feel great – grip is plentiful and predictable. I feel confident throwing them into hard corners and fast descents. I wasn’t super keen on their narrow profile, but I’ve raced criteriums on them and pedalled through corners at 45km/h without a second thought, so I’ve accepted that.
They’re also comfortable, and feel (and this is purely a subjective judgement) fast. During races and training rides I’ve found myself rolling downhill faster than heavier riders with more aero wheelsets, which never happened with my old Rubino Pros.
In the wet though, they are awful. Even at relatively slow speeds, I have trouble feeling where the ‘let-go’ point is, which really doesn’t inspire confidence. I even pulled out of one (very wet) criterium because I felt so unsafe when cornering. I’ve tried them at different pressures, but every time I ride them in the rain I feel like a giraffe walking on marbles.
Strictly for good weather, then.
As it happens, one of my regular training loops is along Yarra Boulevard, a few kilometres NE of Melbourne’s CBD. It’s a quiet road with rolling hills and plenty of space for bikes and the occasional car, and extremely popular for Melbourne’s cyclists.
Unfortunately, over the last few months there’s been a lot of sabotage along the Boulevard. Someone has been throwing hundreds of carpet tacks on the road, causing lots of punctures.
A few months ago I was the victim of one of these tacks in my front tyre.
The tack was in my tyre for a couple of kilometres before I stopped to see what was making a noise, but there was no significant loss of pressure until I pulled it out. I see that as another advantage compared to standard clinchers with tubes, which usually deflate very quickly when pierced.
So, what do you do when you get a puncture, if there’s no tube to replace?
The short answer is: use liquid sealant in the tyre, and hope the puncture repairs itself.
As I removed the offending spiky bastard from my tyre, I could see the huge hole it had caused and air leaking out. The sealant did nothing.
Thinking quickly, I rotated the wheel so the hole was facing downwards, so the liquid sealant would be covering the hole. Voila! Some latex squirted out, but the hole was soon blocked and the hole sealed. I lost some pressure, but not enough to hurt my ride.
I managed to ride 20km home without so much as a second glance, and a large tack is about as extreme a test as a road tyre is expected to cope with, so I was pretty pleased with this experiment.
However, over the following days the tyre continued to leak air slowly. I suspect the slow leak was because I hadn’t added enough sealant, and this turned out to be true.
At first, using the tyres without sealant, I had noticed slow leaks from the tyres (probably from around the bead). Over a couple of days the tyre would lose about 30-40PSI. Between this and my puncture experience, I’m convinced that sealant is a must when using tubeless tyres.
Installing sealant can be a messy business. The instructions on my tyres suggested adding it by pushing aside the tyre’s bead and just pouring sealant into the tyre.
My attempts to do this only resulted in pouring liquid latex all over the floor, all over myself, and almost none in the tyre where it was aimed.
A much easier option is to use a large syringe and inject the sealant through the valves. Valves with removable cores are ideal for this – I invested in some from Effetto Mariposa (the company also makes a popular sealant). This made the whole process of adding sealant a lot quicker and less messy.
So, if you’re going tubeless, factor in the cost of sealant and some added equipment to install it.
I’m reasonably sold on the concept of tubeless tyres, as I think the efficiency and puncture resistance are great, but there are caveats. If you get a puncture that is too much for sealant to fix, you can install a tube, but this will be messy because of the sealant.
There’s also some maintenance required to keep the sealant topped up.
Then there’s the racing. Until I can justify a set of race wheels, these are my training and racing tools. Switching tyres is harder with the much tighter bead and sealant sloshing around, and that might be a problem.
As for the Hutchinson Atom specifically, I’m not able to fully recommend them. In dry weather, they’re comfortable, grippy and fast. But the wet weather handling problems are an absolute liability. I’m going back to something a bit wider and with a better compound for wet weather. Whether that’s another tubeless option, or tried and tested clincher, I haven’t yet decided.
If you’re interested in trying tubeless tyres and have compatible wheels, by all means give it a go, but I would suggest buying a different tyre. The Atom has too many flaws to recommend it.