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Going Tubeless: A 101 Guide

bike tech Nov 23, 2020

Tubeless is a leap of faith for some, black magic for others, or simply that thing that all cars have had since the 50s.

Tubeless is exactly what it sounds like – a tyre with no inner tube inside. It requires an airtight rim and a more robust tyre, which are now both readily available at any bike shop. Starting out in the MTB world, tubeless proved itself in a harsh, unpredictable environment and now is becoming the standard for on road bikes. To get to where we are, a better bead lock between the tyre and rim has been important to nail.

Tubes aren’t so bad, but the main reasons to eradicate them come down to added weight, snakebite punctures (more on that below), heat and rolling resistance.

Here are 4 benefits of going tubeless on the bike.

Benefit #1 Weight

Reducing weight can be an obsession for some cyclists, but rolling weight is important for spin up and fatigue. The holy grail of weight loss is rotating weight and at the extremities of the rotating mass (tyres, shoes, pedals) is where it makes a big difference.

Benefit #2 Punctures

Snakebites are when the tube gets trapped between the rim and tyre during a square hit (think a rock or pothole) and creates two holes (hence snakebite). This type of puncture is eradicated with tubeless, leaving only a true puncture (when a sharp object penetrates the tyre) to ruin your ride (so still carry a tube and CO2 just in case).

Benefit #3 Heat

Heat can be a factor too for tubes. On a hot day, on hot tarmac, internal temp on tyres can hit high degrees. Tubes can fatigue, stretch, expand and reduce, all taking a toll on their integrity.  Add sustained high speed braking on a descent on a hot day and pop… NOT IDEAL.

Benefit #4 Resistance

Rolling resistance is a science in itself. The more resistance, the more effort required and who likes wasting effort?  There’s a whole thing on energy deflection and absorption too, but let’s keep our brains intact here. In short tubeless has less rolling resistance.

 

How do you do it?

What are the advantages? Any drawbacks? All those questions and more answered here…

What does it mean?

Quite simply, going tubeless means relying on the tyre and the rim to hold the air in. Car wheels moved on from tubes decades ago, but only in the last 6-8 years have tyre and rim manufacturers embraced the concept making it practical for the casual user.

How? By improving the tyre itself, the seal where it joins the rim (known as the ‘bead’) and by making it airtight (no loss or air at the spokes).

How is it done?

You can go tubeless two ways, each with pros and cons:

  • Official UST – patented rim and tyre. This was the first tubeless system for bikes and uses a rim with no valve holes and a stronger tyre. No need for sealant or rim strips (more on those below).
  • Tubeless Ready (TR) – Involves 3 things:
    • A tyre that can be run tubed, or tubeless. It’s manufactured to be stronger than a traditional tyre.
    • A rim strip. A type of tape that is tightly wrapped onto the rim to prevent air escaping.
    • Sealant. A latex or similar solution that you pump into the tyre cavity which stays liquid until a hole appears and it rushes to seal the hole by hardening. Also in the ‘Tubeless Ready’ category is the type of rim and the name synonymous with tubeless, being Stan’s. Stan’s rims have a particular profile that lock the tyre on the rim for a better fit, meaning more successful sealing.

Ghetto Tubeless – Any tyre, any rim, a LOT of sealant, faith and mates/beer to help out. It can be done but don’t expect the same results as a UST or TR set up will give you.

So, what are the advantages?

You’ve weighed it up, and you’ve decided that going tubeless is the right choice for your style of riding.

  1. No more pinch flats – if just the thought of no more pinch flats from rocks and ledges makes you want to jump for joy, this will really light up your life.
  2. Maximum control – no inner tube means you can run lower pressures. The tyre itself is what deforms (grips) when rolling over obstacles. Riders going tubeless notice a smoother, grippier ride with max control.
  3. Punctures seal up – when dealing with slow leaks, 3 corner jacks etc, tubeless wins. It simply seals itself up and keeps rolling. Tubes, on the other hand, will slowly deflate, slowing you down and causing damage to the rim if you don’t spot it quickly enough.

Any drawbacks?

Yes, the benefits are exciting, but make sure you read these so you are not looking at it through rose-tinted glasses…

  1. Initial Cost
    1. UST. As we mentioned earlier, if you’re going from standard rims and have your heart set on UST tubeless, it’s going to get expensive (on average, twice as much as TR). Depending on what type of rims you want, it can cost up to $1000 to upgrade both wheels.
    1. Conversion Kit – definitely not as costly as UST tubeless, but you will still need to buy the conversion kit itself, in addition to purchasing sealant when it runs out.
  2. Punctures – No pinch flats, but you can still cut your tyre on something sharp. Yes, you can internally patch it, but depending on the size of the slice you may need to whip out the trusty spare tube you’ll still need to carry.
  3. Power inflators (CO2) – tubeless tyres must seal against the rim. A hand pump generally can’t achieve this, so you need CO2 as an added expense to consider.
  4. Messy sealant = bad. Yes, sealant is amazing when it’s doing its job. But when you consider the points above, it also makes changing a tyre a pretty painful process. Question: What happens to the sealant when you slice your tyre? Answer: It goes everywhere. On you, on your bike bits, all over your cables and mechanical delicates… not the end of the world, but one the ‘show-bike rider’ should consider heavily

Recommendation?

As with anything, there are always good bits and bad bits. The question should always be “are the trade-offs worth it for the type of riding you do?”

To be fair, the inner tube’s failings are many. However, it’s also reasonable to say that if you essentially stick to bitumen or smooth trails, going tubeless may not be the most worthwhile way to spend your money.

Even if you are a DIY addict, always consult your local bike shop – and as always, enjoy the ride regardless of your tubey preference.