Review: Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite TLR Road Tire

by Jeff Whitfield on | 0 Comments


Bontrager R3 mounted on DT Swiss rim
Bontrager R3 mounted on DT Swiss rim

Last November, I purchased a set of Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite TRL road tires, opting for the dark brown sidewall version. At the time, reviews were pretty sparse so it was a bit of a leap of faith in going with this tire. Now that I’ve ridden on them for a number of months, it’s time to report on what happened with these tires. Straight-up, while there are some very good things to say about these tires, there's also some bad things.

Why I Chose The Bontrager R3 Tires

The main reason for the upgrade was so that I could switch to a tubeless setup for my road tires. I purchased a relatively inexpensive set of tubeless rims around the same time to accomplish that. On top of that, I also wanted a tire that provided more comfort and better tread while still being relatively fast.

My prior road wheelset was clincher-only running on a set of Continental Grand Prix 5000 tires, which I found to be slicker than snot and rather stiff. They weren’t particularly supple and, regardless of the tire pressure, I could feel pretty much every bump in the road. After a nasty little spill on them, I decided not to ride on them anymore. Instead, they became a dedicated wheelset for indoor training.

Being that I was no longer compelled to ride on slicks, I went with the R3 mainly due to the light tread on them. I darn near went with the Specialized Roubaix Pro which is very similar to the Bontrager R3. Comparing the two, I had a hard time understanding the difference. The width on the Roubaix Pro wasn’t clear. Was it 30mm or 32mm? With a max psi of 90 compared to the 70 psi of the R3, you’d think the R3 would be wider. My guess is that the Roubaix Pro is a 30mm tire with a true width of 32mm when inflated to max pressures.

In the end, the R3 seemed to be a more supple tire thanks to its 32mm width. When inflated to its max psi, it’s actually closer to 34mm, making it a more comfy tire for sure.

So, out with the GP 5000’s and in with the R3’s!

How Easy Is It To Install The R3 Tires?

Installing the Bontrager R3’s was relatively easy. They’re a little tight but, with a little work, I can slip them onto the rims without using any tools. Getting them seated is relatively easy too. Provided that I prep the beads well, a good blast from my tire setter does the trick. After that, pump a few ounces of sealant and off I go!

How Do The R3 Tires Ride?

So, how do they feel on the road? Quite well, actually. Compared to the GP 5000’s, they’re noticeably softer and hug the ground better. The light tread definitely gives me greater confidence when riding on otherwise sketchy road conditions. In fact, the tread is good enough to even hit light gravel roads.

I started off riding at 70 psi but slowly reduced the pressure to around 65 psi in the back and 62 psi in the front. Once I did that, the R3’s immediately revealed their suppleness. I could actually feel the tire giving a little bit in the turns. Rides felt relatively smooth with decent dampening of road vibrations.

Even with the suppleness, they still felt relatively fast. Rolling resistance felt pretty good actually. Granted, the GP 5000 was a faster tire...but it’s a pure slick, not to mention a stiffer tire. Regardless, the R3 still rolls pretty fast even at lower tire pressures.

How Resistant Are The R3 Tires To Punctures?

Being that these are pretty light tires, I didn’t expect them to be super resilient to punctures. They’re rated at 120 TPI which is pretty good. However, even with Bontrager’s claim of the Hard-Case Lite puncture protection, I still managed to get a good puncture in the rear tire.

This was actually my first puncture of a tubeless tire. Somehow I ran over a nail or something. Darn thing was stuck in there with a small metal piece sticking out. I heard a “tink-tink” noise, stopped, and inspected the tire to find that, yes, there was a nail in there. I couldn’t pull it out so I waited and rode home so I could pull it out later. However, within a block from my house, I heard a “SPEW” coming from my back tire. Seems the nail finally went through. Fortunately, the sealant managed to seal up the hole but still kept the tire inflated enough so that I could get home. Amazing how tubeless tires work!

Are There Any Flaws With The R3 Tires?

So, at this point, you would assume that I like the Bontrager R3 tires, right? Not so fast! Now is the part of the review where I add a very, very big “BUT” in the review. I like the Bontrager R3 and I really wanted to continue liking it...BUT, a few problems with the tires occurred recently that changed my mind about them.

I was getting pretty used to the R3’s and was content to keep riding on them till I wore them out. However, during a recent ride, I noticed that my back tire kept going low less than an hour of riding. My first thought was that it was due to the nail puncture that happened weeks before. The thing is, if that was the case, then I would have seen sealant leaking from the hole itself. Plus, the back tire had plenty of fresh sealant in it, no more than a few weeks old. So, no, something else was happening.

I had pumped the back and front tires to 66 and 64 psi respectively. After 45 minutes, I stopped and checked the pressure. The back was down to 62 psi with the front down to about 59 psi. I pumped both back up and continued riding. After another 45 minutes, I checked again and, like before, both tires were significantly lower, worse actually. Definitely had to cut my ride short and get back home.

After getting back home, I cleaned up my bike and set aside the wheels so I could test the tires. I filled up my sink with some soapy water and dipped each tire in, rotating them slowly, so I could see where the leaks were occurring.

What I found blew my mind. The front wheel revealed some sweating through the sidewalls in certain parts. In fact, you can see it clearly in the video below:

If you look closely, you can even see some air bubbles coming up from the other side as well. My initial thought was that I needed to just replace the sealant but, after testing the rear wheel, that theory quickly changed.

The rear wheel was actually worse. Initially, I thought it was just the stem, since it had a bit of a leak as well. But, after rotating the wheel, I noticed similar sweating but worse. The rear wheel was sweating like a race horse! Check it out:

So, what is happening here? Well, based on my research, it’s actually normal for a tubeless tire to leak a bit through the sidewalls, especially if it’s a tire with a relatively thin sidewall. Since tires are made from threaded casings, those threads tend to fracture a bit on the sidewalls, which is why it’s common to see some sealant leaks on the sidewalls. However, the sealant is supposed to fill up these leaks. It’s not uncommon to lose 1-2 psi of pressure within a few days or even a week.

But that’s not what’s happening here. I’m losing 1-2 psi every 30 minutes! And it’s not like these tires are brand new. I’ve ridden a number of rides on them over the past few months so you’d think they’re be well broken-in. Clearly, there’s some sort of defect with these tires that is causing severe sweating of air near the edge of the rim. Worse, the sealant isn’t filling these leaks like it’s supposed to.

My theory is that once the tire is broken in a little the threads between the main part of the sidewall and the bead start to tear a bit. In fact, if you look at the picture below, you can see that there’s a textured part that runs between the smooth part of the sidewall right up to the end of the bead:

Close-up of Bontrager R3 sidewall
Close-up of Bontrager R3 sidewall

That’s the part of the tire with a serious design flaw. That one part of the casing doesn’t appear to be designed to allow the sealant to get there. As such, when the tears happen, air can get out resulting in a slow leak of each tire.

Now, some have advised online to simply try a different sealant. I use Stan’s NoTubes sealant and, while I could try Orange sealant or the like, I’m not going to even try. Why? Because in my opinion I shouldn’t have to. A well designed tubeless tire should work reasonably well with the most common brands of sealant. I shouldn’t have to use a specific brand of sealant in order to use these tires.

It could very well be that they just don’t work well for the rims I’m using. I ran them on a set of DT Swiss R 500 rims which, to me, are pretty standard rims. I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t work. Besides, where it’s leaking at isn’t really even part of the bead, which has me really confused. I could very well simply have a defective set. But the way it’s happening has me suspecting it’s more of a flaw in the design of the tire.

Warranty Return And The Switch To A New Tire

In the end, I found the Bontrager R3’s to be defective in design. As much as I like the performance of these tires, the fact that they leaked so badly off the sidewalls near the bead makes them impossible to use. Again, I may have been issued a defective set but, honestly, I’m not sure if I even want to find that out. My confidence in these tires is broken. Bontrager would have an uphill battle in convincing me to try their tires again. I just don’t like the idea of having a set of tires fail on me during a big ride. Fortunately, that didn’t happen with these. I discovered the problem early on and am now working to remedy the problem.

So, what am I doing to solve this? Well, I'm switching tires and going with a different brand. I’m now in the market for another road tire. Bummer. Fortunately, thanks to Bontrager's warranty, my local bike show agreed to give me in-store credit. They didn't have the tire I wanted so I had to order it online. In time, I'll reveal what tire I went with. But first I gotta get them and ride on them a bit before posting a review.

So, should you go with a Bontrager R3 tire? Well, yes and no. If the problem I had was just a defect or has been solved with current productions of the tires then, yes, I would recommend the R3. If not, no, I would stay away from them and look elsewhere.

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