Tube Vs. Tubeless Mountain Bike Tires
Tubeless tires are gaining popularity with more and more riders these days. Car tires made the switch to tubeless eons ago, so it’s not surprising to see the same shift happening in the bike industry.
In order to have a tire without a tube, you need the tire's bead to lock onto the rim. You also need the tire, rim and seated valve stem to be absolutely airtight. A special sealant is key to making it all work.
If you’ve been thinking it might be time to go tubeless, this blog can help.
Pros and Cons for Going Tubeless
You’ll Get Fewer Flats: A tire deforms when you hit a hard object like a rock. With a big impact and a tubed tire, that rock and your rim can squeeze together forcefully enough to tear a tube. Whether you call it a “pinch flat” or a “snake bite” (a pair of pinch holes), you’ve got a flat to fix. Switch to tubeless tires and you’ll never have to fix a pinch flat again.
Also, thanks to the sealant put in during mounting, tubeless tires suffer far fewer puncture flats. Tubeless riders who discover a tire riddled with shiny spots after a ride can smile knowing that their sealant fixed all those thorn pricks on the fly.
You’ll Get a Better Ride: Many riders report that eliminating the tube gives them a better feel for the trail. In addition, tubeless tires can be ridden at a much lower pressure than tubed tires (no pinch flats to worry about), which puts more tire tread in contact with the ground. The result is better traction, especially in corners.
Running at a low PSI helps maintain your bike’s momentum, too, because tires are able to conform to obstacles, rather than bounce off of them. That also allows a tire to absorb small bumps and trail chatter, giving you a smoother ride.
Tubeless mountain bike tires can save a little on weight over standard tires and tubes. While it is tempting to maximize the weight savings and go with the lightest tires you can find, it's really more important to get a tire that will perform well and won't end up forcing you to put a tube in later. No amount of sealant will plug a good cut or tear in a tire sidewall.
Also, don't expect to lose a huge amount of weight. Some systems are lighter, some heavier; it all depends on the system and the tires. The real benefits with tubeless are better performance with lower tire pressures and fewer flats.
The upside to even minimal weight savings is that it’s in a rotational component. That translates to less energy expenditure as you ride, so your legs will feel fresher.
You’ll Spend More Money: Tubeless-ready tires and wheels do indeed cost more. But you also generally get more value for your money. Most brands’ most-advanced offerings are tubeless ready, so when you shop for tubeless components you’re likely to see tires with advanced rubber compounds and wheels that are strong and light.
They Take Longer to Mount: Installing tubeless tires can be a little tricky. The biggest challenge is getting the tire bead to seat on the rim correctly—the seal has to be airtight. The process requires you to carefully add sealant, then a lot of air in a hurry.
Even with tubeless tires you still need to carry an extra tube and pump. This is because tubeless tires can get flats. In fact, while they're much less likely than tubes to get pinch flats, tubeless tires are just as susceptible to sidewall cuts and tears. Tubeless tires also must seal against the rim to hold any air; if there's a problem with the seal, you have a flat tire. All tubeless tire systems let you put a tube in if you get a flat and you can't get your tire to seal up again. Alternatively, you can patch a tubeless tire from the inside, provided the hole or tear is patchable.
You’ll Have to Mess with Sealant: Adding sealant to achieve an airtight seal between tire and rim is an inherently messy process. And on the rare occasion that a tire gets gashed enough to splatter components and clothing, cleaning off that sealant isn't a lot of fun.
You also need to add tire sealant periodically after it has dissipated or dried out. This might be every few months in warm climates or once a year if you live in a cool, wet part of the country.
Ways to Go Tubeless
Option 1: Get Tubeless-Ready Wheels and Tires
Look for a tubeless designation like “UST” (Universal System Tubeless), the original standard. You’ll also see similar, though different, terminology like “tubeless ready” or “tubeless compatible” from some brands.
UST-designated rims and tires are considered slightly easier to mount, in part because of how well the tire bead locks onto the rim. They typically require less sealant, too, because they are inherently more airtight. UST components are a little heavier, though, which is one reason why alternative tubeless-compatible systems are gaining popularity.
Your current wheels or tires might already be tubeless ready, so double-check before assuming that they’re not. Some top-end bikes come with tubeless-ready tires and rims, though they might have been shipped with tubes in their tires to simplify showroom setup.
Getting new rims and tires is the most expensive way to upgrade, but it also offers the easiest installation and the most reliable bead-to-rim seal. You’ll need sealant and perhaps some valve stems to do the installation, but that should be the extent of your additional expenses.
Option 2: Convert Your Current Tires and Wheels to Run Tubeless
Non-Tubeless Tires Without Tubes
Many tubeless-tire riders use special tires and rims designed specifically for each other, but it's possible to go tubeless using standard tires on either a standard rim or a tubeless-specific rim. Using a standard rim requires a conversion kit that includes a rubber rim sealer and a foam sealant that you squirt inside the tire. If you use this setup, make sure your tire, rim and kit are all compatible. Also, don't use super-light tires with thin sidewalls. Thicker sidewalls provide better cornering performance, and if you ride in terrain with sharp rocks they'll provide better protection from sidewall cuts and tears.
Tips for Mounting Tubeless Tires
- Go easy on the tire levers. Levers, especially metal ones, can kink the bead, creating a leak. If you use them, do so gently and sparingly. For help coaxing the tire bead over the rim, try using a solution of soapy water.
- An air compressor is a huge help. This solves the problem of inflating the tire rapidly enough to quickly seat the bead onto the rim. You can also use a C02 cartridge, but that can get expensive if you do multiple inflations.
- Removing the valve core can also help. Doing this initially helps you fill the tire more rapidly in order to fully seat the tire bead onto the rim. After it’s seated, you can replace the valve core and inflate the tire to the desired PSI.
- Inserting a tube can help. If a tire’s bead isn’t seating well, try inserting a tube. Then leave it inflated inside the tire overnight to help reestablish the tire’s original shape.
If you can change a tire and you can follow directions, you can do this. Don’t despair if you have setbacks, because even veteran bike mechanics encounter uncooperative tires.
The good news is TBS Bike Parts has a wide selection of Maxxis and Schalbe tires in both Tubeless and non tubeless options. Look for the "TR" in the title of any Maxxis tire as that is the abbreviation for Tubeless Ready.
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