Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: Bontrager Race X Lite TLR Wheelset

The first time I tried tubeless tires was about ten years ago. I had purchased a top of the line pair of Bontrager mountain bike wheels. These were the ones with the Chris King hubs and the ceramic coated rims. These wheels were, and still are, hot stuff, but I wanted to try tubeless. So I marched into my local bike shop and asked what I needed to do to go tubeless. To my surprise, they sold me a pair of simple plastic rim strips that were designed to make my wheels to tubeless compatible. I easily inserted the rim strip, which required no adhesive, and never used a mountain bike tube again. The rim strip goes from bead hook to bead hook, and has the appropriate valve hole as well. And, it is removable and reusable when a spoke needs replacement.

Flash forward ten years, and I have just received a pair of Bontrager Race X Lite TLR road wheels and TLR tires (look for a review of these tires here soon). TLR stands for Tubeless Ready, and they come with the exact same plastic strip as I still use on my Bontrager mountain bike wheels.

And do you know what? It works as good on my road bike today as it did on my mountain bike over the last ten years.

Unlike conversion strips, there is no time consuming installation to worry about, it just pops on. And it only gets easier from there. I then proceeded to quickly install a the included Bontrager tubeless valve and a pair of Bontrager TLR Road tires. In fact, I was able to inflate the tires with a hand pump instead of a compressor.

Some background

The company's namesake Keith Bontrager, was a pioneer in mountain bike tubeless tires. Nevertheless, the company, now owned by Trek, made some early missteps in the area of road tubeless. The company hoped it would find success by re-branding tires from another manufacturer for use with wheels from a third party. When this strategy did not meet their expectations, the old product was pulled and they went back to the drawing board.

Their new TLR line contains three dedicate road tubeless wheelsets, the entry level Race TLR, the mid level Race Lite TLR, and their top of the line Race X Light TLR.

My impressions

Several things jumped out at me about the Race X Lite TLR wheels. At 23mm, the rims are wider than most road clinchers, usually 19-21 mm wide. The result is that the tires have a greater volume and width when inflated. Therefore, cornering is naturally enhanced. There is a reason that road racing motorcycles have such wide tires.

Next, I noticed that while wide, these rims are not very deep or pointy. The 23mm wide rim and and 23mm wide Bontrager TLR tires I tested had a cross section that might look like that of an egg, In contrast, I would describe most aerodynamic clinchers wheels and tires have these days as having a cross section like a big scoop of  ice cream on a pointy cone. So with Bontrager's design, you get a wider, more stable feel without really sacrificing weight.

Another interesting feature of these wheels is what Bontrager calls "Locally reinforced spoke nodes [that] reduce rim weight without sacrificing strength."  Translation: there is extra aluminum around the spoke holes where you need it, and less material between the spokes where you don't.

These wheels feature 18 spoke front and 24 spoke rear DT 14/17 bladed spokes in a straight pull configuration.
The result is that the weights come it at 642 grams front, 798 grams rear, and 1,410 grams total. These is not the lightest tubeless aluminum clincher out there, but they are pretty darn close. And it more than makes up for a few grams here or there by looking very cool! and if that doesn't do it for you, consider that you can replace drive side spokes, the ones most likely to fail, without removing your cassette.

In fact, these are the same Shimano/SRAM compatible, 10/11 speed hubs featured on their Aeolus line of carbon rimmed wheels, which retail for over $2,000 a pair.

Few downsides

I really like these wheels, but I have a few minor quibbles that are worth mentioning. First, it comes with quick release skewers, but they seem a little on the heavy side.Actually, they appear to be the same skewers included on many of their less expensive wheel sets.Therefore, skewer sommeliers out there might not find them to be a very good match for a wheel set of this caliber. I would be just as happy to see these wheels sold without quick release skewers in the same way that most high end bicycles are now sold without pedals. This would save money and allow the rider to choose his or her favorite skewers.

Next, this was actually my first experience with straight pull spokes, and I had an issue. The wheels were almost perfectly true out of the box, and I first went to make some minor adjustments. Note, a little truing is common with new wheelsets, at least those built with metal spokes.

Anyways, what I found was that these straight pull spokes were more prone to twisting when adjusted with a spoke wrench then traditional bent spokes. I was still able to true the wheels easily enough, but some of the blades where no longer pointing in the right direction. I suppose this is an issue for all wheels with straight pull spokes.Note that the Race TLR and Race Lite TLR wheels use traditional bent spokes.

And finally, these rounded, low profile rims probably won't be the choice for those more concerned with aerodynamics than weight. But for my rides in Colorado Rockies, they were perfect.


Like much of the bicycle industry, the team at Bontrager didn't seem to focus on road tubeless technology when it was first introduced. But recently, they have come back to the market in a way that seems like they are here to stay. The Race X Lite TLR wheelset is their top of the line road tubeless offering that combines an innovative design, light weight, and a competitive price.

The race to perfect road tubeless wheels is not over, and the team at Bontrager is trying hard to lead the pack.