One of the hot new trends in the cycling world is tubeless tires. From a performance perspective, tubeless tires are hard to beat for mountain bikers, but you will want to do your research and weigh all the pros and cons before deciding to make the switch.
How Tubeless Tires Work
Tubeless bike tires work very similarly to car tires. A tubeless tire doesn’t have an inner tube that inflates inside the tire. Instead, the tire, rim, and inflation valve stay airtight and inflated. Usually there is a special liquid sealant added to the inside of the tubeless tire that helps seal any air leaks.
Pros of Tubeless Tires
Reduces Flats: The biggest advantage of going tubeless is the reduced risk of a puncture or flat tire. Punctures happen when your tire hits a rock, crushing the tube against the rim (called a pinch flat). If there’s no tube to pinch, there’s no pinch flat! The only time tubeless tires go flat is when the tire itself is torn or punctured.
Lower Tire Pressure: Tubeless tires can be used at a lower inflation pressure. Mountain bikers especially appreciate this because it improves ground contact, which offers better traction and helps absorb shock from rough trails. (Running low tire pressure in standard tube tires increases your risk of pinch flats.)
Cons of Tubeless Tires
Set-Up Time: Switching to tubeless tires is time consuming and can be pretty messy until you get the hang of it. The biggest challenge is getting the tire bead to seal against the wheel rim correctly.
Still Have To Carry Tubes and Pump: Tubeless tires don’t get pinch flats but they are still susceptible to cuts and tears like any tire. The upside is that you can put a tube into a tubeless system if you get a flat. The down side is you’re still stuck carrying a tube, patch kit, and pump just like with standard tube tires.
Sealant Is Messy: Tubeless tires have a sealant that helps create the airtight seal between the tire and rim. Adding the sealant to the tire is a messy process.
You will need to top off the sealant periodically because it dissipates or dries out over time. If you live in a warmer climate you’ll likely need to add sealant every few months. People living in cool, wet climates might only need to top of the sealant once a year.
They Cost More Up Front: Tubeless-ready tires and wheels do cost more (currently). But, you generally get higher quality products that tend to last longer, which helps justify the price difference over time.
How to Go Tubeless
There are two options if you choose to go tubeless: you can purchase tubeless-ready wheels and rims or you can purchase a kit to convert your current rims to tubeless.
Option 1: Tubeless-Ready
The tubeless-ready set up is generally more reliable and easier to install, but costs a bit more up front. Tubeless-ready rims usually come with an airtight rim tape and the tires are created to have a stronger seal between the tire and rim.
UST stands for Universal System Tubeless and it’s the original standard for tubeless systems. UST-designated rims are usually slightly easier to mount and typically require less sealant because it is easier to get an airtight seal between the tire bead and the wheel rim. The only disadvantage of UST-designated components is that they tend to be slightly heavier than other tubeless systems.
Option 2: Tubeless Conversion Kit
If you don’t want to purchase tubeless-ready wheels and tires, you can convert your current wheels. Most wheels and tires (especially mountain bike) can be converted. The process is trickier, but it allows you to go tubeless without a big upfront price tag.
Conversion kits sell for about $70 or you can purchase the necessary supplies separately. An air compressor makes the conversion process significantly easier. The process of converting your wheels will likely take a few days total.
How to Install Tubeless Tires
What you will need:
- Rims (wheels)
- Pump (an air compressor makes the job much easier)
- Valve core and valve core remover tool
- Tire levers
- Sealing tape (if converting to tubeless)
If you are converting tires and rims to tubeless, check your tire and rim to make sure it says “Tubeless Ready” or “Tubeless Conversion System” (it will say on the product, in the packaging information, or you can check the manufacturer website). This means you’ll be able to get a good seal between the tire and rim.
Prepare the Rim
Remove any rim strip on the wheel and clean the inside of the rim with rubbing alcohol or acetone. You don’t want any oil or film left on the rim that might prevent an airtight seal.
Apply Sealing Tape
Choose a sealing tape that is the right width for the rim. Too narrow and it will not create an airtight seal. Tape that is too wide will go up to where the tire bead sits and not allow it to create a proper seal.
Begin one spoke hole away from the valve hole (so you lay tape over the valve hole) and evenly lay the tape down the middle of the rim. Pull the tape gently as you press it down onto the rim. Don’t let the tape wrinkle or leave large bubbles.
Lay the tape all the way around until you tape over the valve hole a second time. Gently cut the tape and make sure the end lays flat.
Install the Valve
Use a small Phillips head screwdriver to punch a round hole through the tape over the valve hole.
Insert the valve through the tape and valve hole. Make sure it is aligned correctly inside the rim. Then, install the O-ring (if the valve has one), and the valve nut. Make sure everything fits snugly. The goal is that everything is airtight at the end.
Install the Tire
Check the tire for any arrows indicating tread direction (wheel rotation) and align the tire and rim accordingly. If you’d like to get especially picky, it can be helpful to place the recommended tire pressure marked on the tire right above the valve system for easy reference.
Install one side of the tire rim (bead) all the way around the tire. Install the second bead starting at the valve. Leave a small section of the bead (tire rim) open so you can add the sealant.
Add the Sealant
There are two popular methods for adding sealant.
The Pour Method: Measure out (with a measuring cup) and pour in the recommended amount of sealant. Carefully rotate the wheel so that the sealant stays at the bottom while you move the open section of tire to the top so you can finish installing the bead.
Sometimes a little soapy water can help slide the last little section of bead over the rim. Only use a tire lever if necessary to avoid damaging the rim or the sealing tape. Inflate the tire to the maximum recommended pressure.
The Injection Method: This method requires a syringe, a valve with a removable core, and an air compressor.
Fill a syringe with the recommended amount of sealant. Mount both beads to the rim (the whole tire) and remove the valve core using a valve core remover tool. Inflate the tire to make sure the tire bead is set properly against the rim then inject the sealant. Replace the valve core.
Check to make sure the tire bead is properly aligned all the way around. You may need to deflate the tire and reset the bead.
When everything is properly aligned, spin the wheel around slowly to evenly distribute the sealant all over the inside of the tire. Make sure to do this with the tire lying horizontally and repeat the process on both sides.
Check the wheel every few hours. Add air if necessary and slowly spin the wheel to continue spreading the sealant. This part will take up to a few days.
Now you’re ready to hit the trails with your new tubeless tires!
Have you gone tubeless? What do you think? What advice would you give to those considering making the switch?