I am not a racing God. Indeed, when the Battle of the Beach organisers asked competitors to submit their applications for seeding I rather jokingly responded by asking to be seeded towards the back. Right at the back if possible. I’d hate to get in the way of other who are a bit better than me. I do it for the love of cycling in all its forms. And given my lack of innate ability it seems odd that things like weight, simplicity and whatever noun I decide to ascribe in relation to tubeless wheels matter to me at all. But they do. They make riding off road a better experience for me. Actually, a lot of what I discuss here makes on road more pleasurable as well. At least until it’s Summer (best bike still under wraps).
This piece is as much about the evolution of the bike pictured above as it is about the installation of two very fashionable pieces of tech, namely the 1 x drivetrain and tubeless tyres.
I’ve owned the XLS for over a year now. It’s a tidy little cyclocross bikes. It ticks many of the right boxes. Built from scratch you can get a decent, lightweight, competitive bike. Mine was not built from scratch. It arrived with a SRAM Apex groupset (36/46 chainset) and Avid BB7 cable operated disc brakes. Those are not the original wheels.
The first changes I made were to the BB7 brakes. I hate them. Don’t get me wrong, they work perfectly well but do require some adjustment to keep them working properly. They’re a bit heavy and, to be honest, we’ve moved on. There are 3 viable alternatives in my view. The first was to go full hydro. That’s a problem. The first point is that it would have cost £400, and that’s just for starters. Because the entry level Sram hydro shifters are 11 speed I’d have had to upgrade the 10 speed components as well. That option was out on the basis of cost.
The other two options were far more straightforward. Just change the brakes. The choices, for me, were TRP Spyre SLC (full cable actuation) or TRP Hy Rd (cable hydraulics). The latter are excellent. I used to have them on my road bike. But that’s morphed from a gravel racer type thing into a full on carbon superbike. They’re a very clever brake indeed. The cable end pulls an actuating arm which squeezes the hydraulics. It’s not full on hydraulic feel but a pretty good approximation. They brake very well, give good modulation and feedback and the pads wear evenly.
The TRP Spyre SLC are not as good, but given the use that they were intended for, good enough for me. And they work very well. Indeed, I’ve only just changed the original pads which had worn well and never seen me grabbing the brakes in panic.
Setting the Spyres up is extremely easy. Pull the cable through, tighten. Loosen off the frame bolts, grab the brake, tighten the bolts. At that point it SHOULD be centred. If you get any rub it’s easy to fettle.
The next step was wheels. The Planet X ones were ok. Decent hubs (probably a Novatec clone), heavy single gauge spokes and good rims. I did a deal with a chap and in came some lighter Pacenti SL25. Eventually they moved to another bike and in came those Pro Lite. You’ll have seen my review of them elsewhere. They continue to impress.
And that’s how matters were. Until a week or so ago.
The first step was a drivetrain change. The thing is, for off road, for CX and, pretty much for commuting, you don’t need two chainrings. One is enough. You can do away with a front mech, you can lose some cabling, you can remove the lever on the shifter if you really want. You lose some weight. Which is nice. But it’s not much. You do get a bit of simplicity though.
So, off came the chainrings from my SRAM Apex chainset, and on went this:
It’s an Absolute Black Narrow/Wide 5 Bolt 110 BCD 42 tooth single ring. What makes it special? Well, have a look at the teeth, you’ll see that they alternate in their profile. One is narrow, one is wide. The theory here is that it helps keep the chain on, subject to some other things. Essentially the wider teeth are filling the gap in the chain and helping it to remain secure. They’re also slightly taller and protrude further into the chain. Removal was easy, and the bolts on the chainset proved to be the correct length for fitting the new ring back onto the spider.
But, a new ring is not enough. There are two methods of ensuring that the chain stays on. The first is a traditional chain guide. The second is a better rear mech. And by better I mean one with a clutch. This is what I ended up with.
There are a few things to explain there. Ignore that lock. That’s not the clutch. The lock is there because the mech is more powerful than normal and you may need to pull the cage forward and lock it out to remove the rear wheel. May need to, I didn’t find it all that powerful in reality though the lock is a tidy feature to have. No, the real magic occurs in the roller bearing clutch section. Essentially it creates friction to stop forward momentum of the cage while still allowing it to move backwards smoothly. Result? It adds tension to the chain to keep excess slap to a minimum in order to improve shift consistency, lessen the chance of dropping a chain, and greatly quiet noise from the chain bouncing around.
The final step was to install a new cassette with a wider range. So I went from a 11-32 10 speed to a 11-36. And then I had some issues. I’d assumed that my chain length would be ok. After all, my old setup went down to a 36t inner ring, so, given this ring was bigger than the old inner, it would just work. But it doesn’t. You can’t rely on traditional calculators for single rings. Instead you wrap the chain around the largest rear cog and the chain ring, add 4 links, then cut and join. It sounds harder than it is, so here’s a video to show you how.
And, it just works. The drive train is completely silent. Over rough ground there’s absolutely no chain slap at all. Shifting appear to be precise and smooth. It’s worth noting here that I’m using a SRAM MTB mech with SRAM road shifters. They work well together because of SRAM’s exact actuation ratio. That means that every mm of shifter movement moves the rear mech the same distance. There’s no gearing or conversion going on. It also means that you have a wide choice of SRAM mechs. Remember that the movement of a SRAM mech is determined by cable pull and the limit stops. So, provided that the limit stops are set correctly you can use a 9,10 or 11 speed compatible mech with your 10 or 11 speed shifters.
Cost? Well, actually minimal. The chainring I got from a mate for £25. Same mate sold me the mech for £20. I bought a Shimano XT cassette for £32. Cost to change was under £80. Sale of old parts realised me the same sum. Net cost £0. Compare that with the cost of a Rival 1x drivetrain which would be north of £600 (though admittedly with hydraulic brakes). So, if you want to convert fairly cheaply and easily to 1x this is a good way of doing it. SRAM are also bringing out a new NX range of components and the rear mech for that is likely to be very cheap indeed.
Time will tell whether I’ve got my gearing right but, initial impressions are that I have 5 suitable CX type gears at the lower end (including a climbing gear that is slightly easier than what I had before) and 5 usable road gears at the top end. Indeed, while I won’t be winning any bunch sprints in 46/11, at 90 rpm that gear ratio is good for almost 27 mph. It’s pretty much the same as running a 50/13. And easily good enough for even a fairly fast paced club run. There are less ratios, clearly, but I don’t currently feel that there’s much of a gap. Particularly on my 20 mile commute. Indeed, it’s all surprisingly lovely. I don’t know whether 1x is the future of drive trains, but there’s not an awful lot missing. Would I want it on a hot summer’s day for a pure tarmac based blast? Probably not, but since I’m N=3 then it doesn’t matter too much.
And that’s the first part of the experiment done. The next part is tubeless.
Tubeless tech has been around for years. Your car has tubeless tyres. We’ve all been driving on them since about the mid 1950’s. And it’s all pretty easy to set up. You need a wheel which is capable of being completely sealed, a way of getting the air in (i.e. a valve attached to that sealed unit), and a tyre capable of dealing with it all. How it goes about this is a little different to normal. Most normal bike tyres hold onto the rim of a wheel by virtue of the bead. It hooks into the inner groove inside the wheel.
The theory is that you need tubeless rims and tubeless tyres to make the switch. The theory is that, as least as far as the UST standard is concerned, there’s a better connection between the bead and the rim hook. It’s one more thing to prevent your tyre coming off. That’s the theory. But it’s possible to convert rims and tyres into tubeless with some practice, trial and error. Some work, some don’t. The main things that contribute to the capacity to run tubeless are a good sealed rim and a non porous tyre. It’s better, in theory, to use a tubeless tyre as the sidewalls tend to be more durable than a tubed tyre.
I don’t have to worry about compatibility per se. My Pro-Lite Revo are tubeless ready and my new Schwalbe G-One 35c gravel tyres are designed to be run tubeless. Indeed, they are part of Schwalbe’s new “TL easy” range. Ok, we’ll see. Anyway, these are the things you’re going to need. I chose Effetto but other brands are available, the main one being Stan’s No Tubes, of course.
Before I commenced this task I first installed both tyres onto my wheels “normally” that is to say, with tubes. That ensures that the tyres get some shape in them in terms of seating themselves properly in the rim hooks. I only did that because folding tyres sometimes need to find their shape after being boxed. After a day or so riding them that way I removed the tyres and tubes and set about converting them to tubeless. Here I hit a slight snag. The front tyre came off as you’d expect it to. The rear was an absolute bugger to get off the rim. There was some swearing. There was some high level cursing. Deadpool would have been impressed. Eventually I did it. But it was very tightly embedded. This is a good thing, overall, as you can be sure of a very effective seal.
The first step will be to ensure that your rim is made airtight. You do that by installing the rim tape as pictured above. But the first step is to remove your existing rim tape. That’s only there to prevent your inner tube from catching and breaking in the spoke holes. Once done a quick rub down with some alcohol (the chemical type rather than a can of Stella) will ensure that the inner part of the rim is clean and ready for use. Give it a quick dry and then install two entire runs of rim tape. If you want you can add a third for a bit more security. It’s important to get the right size (internal rim width) and to make sure that you don’t interfere at all with the rim hook area. And, yes, you do need to cover the valve hole for now!
Once you’re done with that you’ll need to insert the tubeless valve. Make a small incision in the rim tape where the valve hole is. Don’t make it too big. Then thread the valve through, and secure it the other side with the screw washer. You’ll see from the picture above that the valve has a rubber “bung” on the inside of the rim. When seated against the rim tape that makes the seal. You only have to do the washer up hand tight to make an effective seal. As long as you haven’t cut too big a hole in the rim tape in the first place.
With that done it’s time to seat the tyre. And you do this just like you’d seat any other tyre, mostly. You may find you have to use levers to get the final section on. That’s fine, there’s no inner tube to break or pinch.
And then you’re ready to test. Generally I always try pumping the tyre up without any sealant first. That way you get to check it and don’t waste anything if it all goes wrong. In this case, despite the G-One’s looking like they were just sitting in the middle of the rim bed, they just went straight up and held air. You do need a decent track pump. Some people report not being able to get this to work without a shock pump but the G-One seem very ready to jump on the rim.
I left them for a few hours and they stayed pretty firm. So I deflated them and added the sealant. That involves removing the valve core and adding about 60ml of sealant to that giant syringe that you can see above. Then re insert the valve core and pump up. Spin the wheels a bit to ensure an even coverage inside and you’re good to go.
Result? Next morning both tyres are still pretty much the same PSI as the night before. In use they are pretty lovely whether you’re talking about a tarmac run or a bit of off road action. They aren’t just wide, they’re also high, so that contributes to a nice balloon tyre feel. They feel pretty robust as well. Certainly as robust as my tubed Vittoria Hyper Voyagers. But, of course, overall, the weight is lower. I’ve lost about 100-125g per wheel as a result of going away from tubes.
And that’s it, no fuss, no drama, just a good feeling tyre. I’ll continue to report on whether they stand up to abuse and what types of holes the sealant fills. But I doubt I’ll even be able to tell.
I have to say that my previous experience of Vittoria TNT and Schwalbe One (pre easy tubeless was a nightmare). This time it seems easier. I’m slightly concerned at whether that one tyre sticks in the rear rim as I do want to swap them out depending on the conditions. But we’ll see. Initial impressions are excellent. It’s a shame I can’t really convert my Mavic wheels on my best bike to tubeless without going all ghetto on them. So, in due course, a change to a nice pair of tubeless wheels and some Schwalbe Pro One 25 will almost certainly be in order.