Next-gen bike tires won't go flat, because they'll be airless
Bridgestone's "Air Free Concept" tires may represent the future of bicycle tires. Or not.
The most common bike malady, a flat tire, isn't necessarily that hard or costly to repair, but it also seems to often occur at the most inopportune moments, so even if you're prepared with a patch kit, tire tool, and pump, it still requires a bit of time and effort. And if you're not equipped to handle it when it happens, a flat tire can be a real pain in the gear.
However, if your bike tires were airless, as some companies are promising for the near future, then flats could be a thing of the past, as they won't need inflation, patching, or tube replacements. It's not just a fringe manufacturer thing, either, as a major tire manufacturer is looking to enter the market with a new non-pneumatic bike tire within the next two years.
Bridgestone, which is said to be the world’s largest tire and rubber company, is revisiting a tire technology initially developed for cars, with the aim of getting its bicycle "Air Free Concept" tires into production by 2019. While Michelin also worked to develop an airless car tire (the Tweel, which is an available upgrade for lawn tractors now) over ten years ago, and Bridgestone has presented its version at car shows over the last few years, the company's focus on developing an airless bike tire seems to be gaining more traction now.
According to the company, "The “Air Free Concept” is a technology that eliminates the need for tires to be inflated with air to support the weight, using a unique structure of spokes stretching along the inner sides of tires. In addition, the resins that are used in the spokes and rubbers help realize more efficient use of resources."
At first glance, these new tires look a bit odd, but the idea itself seems sound, as eliminating a common pain point for casual cyclists could make bike transportation a bit easier. And if the price was right, investing in a pair of airless tires could work out to be a better deal over the long run, when considering the cost of new tubes and tires, plus the time spent patching or replacing them over the years.
However, a few things came to mind when considering the "Air Free Concept" tire, such as the potential added drag from "spokes" that are more like fan blades than spokes, and the fact that they require a whole new wheel to use. You can't just replace your current bike tire with one of these, as everything from the hub out to the rim is an entirely different system, and because every single bicycle shop on the planet is set up to build and repair conventional spoke wheels that roll on a standard tube and tire combination, getting a new type of tire and wheel to a certain critical mass of adoption might be an epic effort. The Nexo tires look like a much easier sell to cyclists, as they can be fitted to existing wheels, but who knows, with Bridgestone behind this new tire concept, perhaps the company will be able leverage its massive influence to boost adoption rates.
As for me, I kinda like being able to adjust the inflation level on my mountain bike tires to match the riding conditions on the trail, so I would probably steer clear of a tire design that couldn't do that, even with the risk of flats. And as any cyclist who lives in flat tire country knows (goatheads are my personal bicycle nemesis), a tire liner and some goo (True Goo is the shiz) will keep you rolling through most minor punctures, and is a cheap and effective remedy that can be applied to pretty much any bike tire. But your mileage may vary, in which case a non-pneumatic bike tire might just be what you need.