Thinking of Tubeless? A Quick Guide
tube-less (adj.) without tube.
Getting flats is part of riding a bike. There is really no way around it, just the ability to choose one compromise over another. Do you want to roll faster and get more flats, or do you want to get less flats and roll a little more slowly? Exploring tubeless wheels and tires might be a compromise that interests you.
Running tires without tubes has been around in the mountain bike world for a while. Trail shredders seeking low tire pressures had a real struggle: low pressures caused the tubes to pinch and flat when hitting roots, rocks, and other fun stuff. Removing tubes from the equation meant that the tire had to form an air tight seal with the rim, and the tire carcass had to be air tight also. If the tire punctured, air would still escape, so sealant was added to help seal the tire and keep it that way. The latex solution was a godsend.
With these early experiments, wheel and tire manufacturers jumped on board and sought out optimal combinations. Many different tire and rim standards came out, and the industry still confuses consumers with UST, TR, TC, TCS, and Stan’s BST. There are probably more now than that. You can get a nice tubeless standard overview here.
Eventually, as science confirmed that lower pressure rides faster, roadies wanted to be part of the party also. Road tubeless emerged and is now gaining popularity especially with the whole “all road” movement that’s currently being covered in every bike magazine and website lately. Low pressures, no pinch flats, and the ability of tubeless tires to self-seal when one rides over debris are all wins.
Choose a rim and tires
Once you have decided to pursue tubeless riding, I would highly recommend buying a proper tubeless compatible wheelset and tires. You may already have the right wheelset, look for any one of the designations mentioned above. I would not try a tubeless tire on a standard rim nor a standard tire on a tubeless rim. While any combination will work with a tube installed, they will not all work without. The dangers of a tire rolling off make this a no go for me. I cannot recommend “ghetto tubeless” in good conscience, although I read that people have got it to work. Tubeless tire beads lock into the tubeless rims securely and that is how it’s meant to be. In fact, because of differing standards, some tubeless combos work better than others.
I currently run Bontrager Aeolus 5 wheels and have had success with both the Schwalbe Pro One tubeless and Hutchinson Sector 28's. Both mounted and worked great, the Sector 28's seemingly easier to mount and seal. Your experience and mileage may vary. There are many options available, and I recommend you search for some combos that work. You do not need $3k Bontrager wheels to run tubeless. There are many reasonable rim and wheelsets out there that can do the job. Stan’s, DT Swiss, Pacenti, Boyd, Mavic, and Giant all come to mind.
The first step is to make sure your rim is properly sealed. Whether with a snap in strip like the Bontrager system or tape like most others, the rim has to be air tight (spoke holes sealed) and also built up enough to keep the tire bead locked up and into the rim. A second consideration is that the tape needs to be strong enough to withstand a blow out at the spoke holes. Two or three layers should do the trick. Stan’s and WTB make tape that works well. Make sure to buy the tape that is the right size width for your rims. Find the internal width and add a few mm for the sides. You want no gaps. Start taping a few inches or spoke holes before the valve stem hole and end a few after. Use a wheel truing stand, or simply flip your bike over and use the fork. The only hole will be the valve stem hole. Make as small a hole as possible. Consult YouTube for lots of good tutorials. Road and MTB set ups are not that different in this matter, so find one that you understand. Recap: Tape needs to be edge to edge and air tight with a small hole for the valve stem, so air doesn’t escape there. Period.
Next, install the valve stem and tighten the nut to lock it in place. Some systems have a rubber washer, and some do not. I have had good success with the Stan’s valves on my MTB and would recommend those if your wheels don’t come with valve stems. If you are re-using a valve stem, make sure you get it clean with no gunk inside. You will need lots of air flow soon. Old sealant will mess this up, so clean them out. The cores are also replaceable, and I always keep a few around to replace bent or rusted ones. They are dirt cheap. When you store your bike and wheels, some prefer to keep the valve at the bottom (upward facing) so that any sealant flows out of the valve stem.
Mount the tire as you normally would, just skip the tube part! If this goes easily, you’re lucky. Because of the tight fit required for tubeless, the tire is often a bear to mount. Your mileage may vary, but there are some tips you can utilize. Try to get the tire bead in the center of the rim. The channel should allow you some room for wiggling the last bit of tire over. Secondly, try soapy water along both sides of the tire bead. This will help the tire slide over the lip and seat in the rim. Rubber palmed mechanic’s gloves can help also. If you get all but the last four or five inches and simply cannot get the tire on, don’t worry. Use more of your palm to roll the tire onto the rim. You can also use hand sanitizer gel to lube up the inside of the tire bead and slide it on. The alcohol will evaporate quickly.
Don’t be afraid to use a tire lever, just be careful not to damage the tire bead or the rim. Crank Brother’s Speedier Levers (reviewed on this blog elsewhere) are great for this last step. Be extra careful if you have carbon rims. The nice thing about tubeless is that you do not have to worry about pinching the tube getting that last bit on.
You may have noticed that I did not mention starting at the valve or at the far end. I have found that one side doesn’t naturally work better than the other. I find that on my Aeolus wheelset, I get better results starting at the valve and working away from it making sure the bead is properly seated. On my mountain bike, it works better the opposite, starting across from the valve and working toward it. Figure out which one works for you. One expert says valve, the next says away from valve, I say it can very from wheel to wheel.
Get the tape right
Slip tire over
Use palms to roll the tire up over the rim
Use soapy water or hand sanitizer to lubricate the tire bead
Be smart, but not afraid to use a tire lever or two.
Utilize any advice on mounting tough tires that works for you and your set up.
Many people have stated that they simply go to their local shop and get the tires mounted. I agree that this is a good idea for the tape and such, but I just want to put it out there that even though my tubeless tires have self-sealed on the road, if you ever were in a situation where you needed to throw a tube in to get back home, you need to make sure you can mount your tire. Some of the tubeless tires are tough, and if you have weak hands or stink at mounting tires, you may be calling for a ride if you cannot mount them for YOUR first time on the road.
After the tire is on the rim, you will need to inflate it. I always try a dry run before adding sealant. If I can get close or get it completely sealed, I know that it is going to be a great set up. You should hear pops as the bead snaps firmly into place. Soapy water can help seal the bead and also shows where air is escaping from the set up. If the tire does not inflate, try to trouble shoot, especially looking at the valve stem area. Sometimes the rubber seal around the valve stem inside the tire will hold the bead up and out of the channel it needs to sit into. Visually inspect your tire and rim.
It is often hard to get the airflow needed from a floor pump to mount the tire, although different combinations can often be done this way. You really must pump hard to get the airflow you need. I have a compressor and I usually give it a nice blast of air out of that. I remove the valve core so that I get the maximum airflow. You can also try a track pump, a CO2 cannister, or a tubeless charger (or booster). The tubeless chargers have a storage tank that you inflate by hand and then can release a large airflow all at once. They are relatively cheap, and I would consider one if I didn’t have a compressor. Bontrager, Schwalbe, Topeak, and a few others make them.
Once you see that the tire will fully seat and hold air, add your sealant through the valve stem. I already have the core removed, so I simply use a syringe to put 2-3 ounces into each tire. Most brands of sealant have a syringe or nozzle that will work. As far as sealant goes, I have used Orange Seal and Trucker Co brands with success, but there are many others on the market. Read some reviews, but I have had no problems with the two above. The Finish Line and Muc-Off brands just came out with two new formulas of sealant that look quite impressive. The sealant will not only seal the tire in case of a puncture, but it also forms a barrier around the tire bead to keep air in.
Once I have added the sealant and replaced the valve core, I inflate the tire again with the valve stem down near the floor, so the sealant is held in the bottom tire bead and does not leak all over. I usually inflate the tire to close to the rated maximum pressure on the tire. You should hear pops as the bead snaps firmly into place. Then, once it is aired up, I spin and bounce the tire around to get it to distribute the sealant all over the bead. Let the tires sit overnight and check to see if they held air. You will experience a little more air loss overnight than you have experienced with your butyl tubes, but it should not go completely flat. I always check pressure and inflate my tires after they sit overnight.
With your new tubeless set up, you should experience the ability to run lower pressure (10 psi less ballpark) and have no pinch flats or disastrous punctures. Most punctures should seal themselves, although sometimes you will get a latex shower as air pressure forces the sealant out rapidly from the spinning tires. Rarely you will get a hole too large to seal, but it does happen. Look for any number of tubeless “worm” plug kits. These allow you to push a piece of rubber into the hole forming a new seal. They work well. In my seat bag, I still carry a standard load: a multi-tool, one tube, two CO2s, a Speedier Lever, and an inflation head for training rides. For races, I take the bag off and carry one CO2 and the inflation head in the middle pocket of my jersey.
I have enjoyed road tubeless for quite a while now, and I rarely am stuck on the side of the road changing my own flats. Other’s flats…maybe? I enjoy the lower pressure, and in at least one race over the course of the last year, it has saved me from not finishing. I am a big fan, and if you pay attention to tire sales and eBay, you can find great tubeless tires for about the same price as their “tubed” counterparts. Schwalbe and Hutchinson tires have worked extremely well for me, and there are many other brands to experiment with out there.
Campus Wheelworks has a lot of knowledge on the tubeless technology, so I would recommend them locally. Not all shops are open to the tech, so you may want to do some research before going shopping.
Good luck, and good riding!