I first became interested in a tubeless road setup last year after some of the good local riders began singing their praises. I was skeptical at first, having the same questions and concerns I still hear today:
- Are tubeless road tires worth the hassle?
- Will they really seal themselves up from small cuts?
- Are they more comfortable to ride than tubed tires?
From my experience so far, the answer is yes to all three. The only real hassle comes with installation, as the tighter bead can be difficult to get over the rim (especially with "office job" hands like my own). Once installed with the proper sealant however, you are good to go. The sealant corrects small cuts and punctures, and the tubeless design itself allows you to run lower tires pressures to achieve a smoother, more controlled ride.
My Personal Tubeless Wheelset
I've been riding the Shimano Ultegra WH-6700 tubeless clincher wheelset with 23c Bontrager R4 tubeless tires (2012 model) since last September. This was my first wheelset upgrade, and it has been nothing but a good experience - the wheels are responsive on the climbs and have stayed true. I've had zero flats and a noticeably smoother ride than tubed tires. In all, including tires, a setup like this runs just over $800. For what it's worth however, I have noticed a definite increase in both performance and joy - two things that usually go hand-in-hand for me at least.
Bontrager Introduces Tubeless Ready (TLR) System
Full Disclosure: I reached out to the guys at Trek and Bontrager and asked if they would send me one of their Race Lite TLR wheelsets to review, and to compare to my Ultegras. They were more than kind in doing so, and after the review (plus or minus a few extra miles) I will sadly be boxing them up and shipping them back to Wisconsin. I haven't been compensated for this review in any way.
Okay, on to the good stuff. I have always been a fan of what Bontrager does. If you've read this blog, you've figured that out by now. So when I heard about their push into the currently niche road tubeless market, I was excited because I knew they would bring road tubeless technology to a much wider market, and in turn make a lot of riders like you and I, very happy. Here's a quick video from Bontrager explaining how their TLR system works - I think we can all relate to the first 40 seconds, I know I can.
Should I be Reviewing the Wheels or the Tires?
The question I have been struggling with is whether review the wheels or the tires, or both. Bontrager's TLR system is unique in that it was engineered with the complete setup in mind, even though the parts can and do work individually. More on that at the end of the post.
So I've settled on reviewing both the wheel and tires, but individually, because I think it is important to judge both pieces of the TLR system on their own merits. The sum of the two will speak to the performance of the overall system. That said, I will be referring back to my experience with my pre-TLR 23c Bontrager R4 tubeless tires and Ultegra wheels, as they are comparable setup in terms of price and intended purpose.
Bontrager Race Lite TLR Wheels
I was first drawn to Bontrager's Race Lite TLR wheelset because I think it most closely matches my abilities and needs as a rider. It's touted as a lightweight, all-rounder type that is good enough race on (not really my bag at the moment) but strong enough to endure lot's of tough training miles on questionable roads (definitely me). In the Bontrager line of TLR wheelsets, the Race Lite falls right between the Race and the Race X Lite (I did ride the RXLs earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed them).
The Race Lites are very close to the same price point as my Ultegras, so I thought they would make for the most interesting perspective for those considering this type of wheelset.
After having the tires mounted at the shop and switching over the cassette myself (yes, I can handle some tasks around the workshop), I did notice a weight difference with the advantage going to the Race Lites over the Ultegras. According to the tech sheets it was only 134g, so not huge, but still noticeable.
Out on the road I really enjoyed the level of responsiveness I felt during quick accelerations and when digging into the climbs. Though they do not have the DT Swiss hub internals like their Race X Lite siblings, the Race Lite's hub performed well - engaging similarly to, if not a bit firmer than my Ultegras. The wider rim also added a greater degree of stiffness, which I'm sure added to the more responsive feel.
These wheels really pass the senses test, meaning they look, feel and sound like more expensive wheelsets - and they honestly perform like one. Thinking back to my ride on the RXLs affirms this, for me at least. There is nothing better than riding a tough hill with panache, coming over the crest, and hearing the loud buzz of a quality freewheel drowning out the sound of blood pulsating in your ears.
Durability: I happened to have an unexpected collision with a skateboard (long story) that sent me flying over the handlebars. The front wheel took the brunt of the impact but stayed perfectly true. I picked myself back up and rode the rest of my route with no problems, except for the expletives running through my head.
I guess this section is sort of mandated by my traditional review format, but I can't really think of much to write. This wheelset is a real value, especially in the mid-level all-rounder market.
If you want to go tubeless on the road (which I think you should), the Bontrager Race Lite TLR wheelset should be at the top of your short list. It is definitely fun to ride, so the decision all comes down to what level you want to jump in at: Race, Race Lite or Race X Lite. As you go up the line you will see a drop in weight and an increase in performance and price - just like anything else in cycling.
My advice would be to stop by a Trek shop and see if you can grab one of the employees' demo bikes and have some fun (sorry shop guys, that's what they're there for).
Okay, now onto the tires. I might have gotten a little carried away, so bear with me.
Bontrager R3 TLR (Tubeless) Tires
While I normally ride 23c tires, I chose to go with a slightly wider 25c variety at the recommendation of the guys at Trek. They also let me know that while they're still quality tires, my R4s from last year were actually built by Hutchinson, while this year's R3s are, "new from the ground up and use a Kevlar bead and different casing to be much more supple than other TLR tires."
I used Bontrager's TLR Tire Sealant in the front tire and Stan's Tire Sealant in the back. The guys at the shop were split on preference, and I did not notice a substantial difference between the two while testing. A longer demo period could have uncovered something, but I can't make a call either way.
The visual difference between last year's 23c R4 and the 25c R3 TLR isn't huge, but it's enough to tell them apart. The real difference was noticed on the first ride out. I made sure to hit every surface from smooth tarmac to a brick road, and everything in between, and I was so happy with the great ride quality and durability. On the three-quarter mile section of brick pictured at the beginning of the post, I noticed a substantial reduction in "bounce" when I hit the roughest sections at speed, meaning the tires stayed better grounded, giving me more control, and in turn power to ride the bricks faster.
I was also happened upon some unexpected road construction and decided to give that a go too. I got a bit squirly on some looser sections, but felt very stable where the dirt was packed by tire treads.
Better speed and cornering were two other features that I fully appreciated while out on the 25c R3s. I just felt like they were faster than their skinnier brethren, even though I did not see a dramatic increase in my average ride speed. Cornering at speed was an area where I definitely realized a positive difference. The tires felt "grippier" through corners, which definitely gave me more confidence and added to the overall handling.
I asked Bryan about why speed and cornering felt better and he explained that because the tires are wider (coupled of course with the lower pressure threshold), they grip the road better and allow for greater power transfer than skinnier tires. He told me that he raced on 25c tires all of last season and noted that added traction and comfort were reason enough to do so.
This one is simple: New, more durable yet supple construction. Super smooth, even on rough terrain. Great performance in terms of speed and cornering that leads to increased confidence. Find more fun a la dirt, gravel, brick, etc.
I can't find much fault with these tires once they are mounted to your wheels. Before that happens however, there are a few issues you need to work through. The first is price. Because of their more technical construction, tubeless tires will run you about 10% more than their tubed counterparts. That brings the Bontrager R3 TLR tires to around $89 each. Pricey if you're used to standard tires, but normal once you make the jump to tubeless (Bontrager does make an R2 TLR tire for around $59).
The second is installation. Like I eluded to earlier, I don't necessarily have the strongest hands, and I fought with these things for quite a while to no avail. My advice - swallow your pride and leave it up to the pros at your local shop, they need the workout. If you do give it a go yourself, have a strong tire lever and a cold beverage handy as Greg mentions in his slowtwitch.com RXL review.
I tweeted my love at first ride and the social team at Trek quickly responded with a very fair assessment: 25c + tubeless = riding a couch with a rocket strapped to it. I couldn't have put it better myself. If you want to go tubeless (and again, I think you should), the Bontrager R3 TLRs are a great way to go, and the direction I will be taking when my current tires are put to pasture.
How to Setup Your Bontrager TLR System
So, if you're starting out like me with a non-Bontrager tubeless wheelset and want to move to Bontrager TLR tires, go for it, they are compatible. Just make sure to select the TLR version, rather than the standard clincher version of your tire of choice. They could do a better job of calling this out, so just be aware when you head into the shop.
Many of the new mid-level carbon Trek road bikes come stock with Race TLR wheels. The Madone 5.9 is the first level where Race Lite TLRs are included. In both cases however, the wheels are not setup tubeless. Not to worry, not only will you have a new bike (or new wheels if you buy those for you current bike), but you will also have a fun DIY project!
The Road TLR Conversion Kit has everything you need to fulfill your tubeless dream, including:
- Two R3 TLR tires
- Two TLR Road rim strips and matching TLR Road valves
- 2oz(59ml) bottle of TLR Sealant, enough to fill two TLR road tires
- Valve tool to aid in the installation of TLR Sealant
- Unconditional Bontrager Guarantee
If you fancy yourself a king of the DIY challenge, pick one of these little guys up and settle in for an afternoon of enjoyment with your tire lever. If you're like me, buy this and immediately hand it to the shop guy and cozy up at the bar/cafe next door. Just make sure to bring something nice back for them as well.
Review: Bontrager Race Lite TLR Wheelset | R3 Tubeless Tires
These wheels really pass the senses test, meaning they look, feel and sound like more expensive wheelsets - and they honestly perform like one.
Written by: Paul Haskell
Bontrager Race Lite TLR Wheelset | R3 Tubeless Tires
Date published: 07/17/2013
4.5 / 5 stars