Tubes versus Tubeless

Most mountain bikers these days are familiar with tubeless tires. If you’re not running them yourself, you’ve seen the ads in magazines, or have buddies that have made the switch. What a lot of people don’t know though, is why they’d want to go tubeless in the first place.  What’s in it for them? I’ve been using tubeless tires for a few years now, so I’ll give you some of the pros and cons of converting.

Tu-be or not Tu-be
Tu-be or not Tu-be

Tubeless Tire Benefits

Traction

One reason to go tubeless is for the traction benefits. Since there is no tube to pinch flat, you can safely run lower pressures to flatten out the tire for more contact with the ground. Additionally, without the tube in there, the tire seems to feel a bit more supple than with a tube at the same pressure. It’s a subtle feeling, but one you notice.

Rotating Mass Reduction

Depending on how you setup your wheels, you can shed grams of rotating mass. The best way is to start off with rims that are tubeless ready. These rims are designed to be leak proof, so you can get away with just running lightweight tubeless rim tape. With the addition of just 2 or 3 scoops of sealant, a valve stem with a rubber gasket on the inside, you have a wheel that is noticeably lighter and more responsive. If you plan to convert non-tubeless ready rims, your results will vary. You may have to run a special rubber rim strip to get the proper seal. These rim strips are basically a trimmed down tube; a valve stem connected to a rubber strip that goes over the spoke holes (in addition to sealing tape that covers the spoke holes beneath the strip). You’ll still end up with a wheel that is a little lighter, but not as much as with the preferred method.

Flat Protection

Flat protection is another area where your results may vary. If you watch the video on the Stan’s Notubes website, you’ll believe that you’ll never have to worry about flats again. They run over beds of nails and stab the tires brutally, and each time the holes instantly seal. The tire itself makes a huge difference on flat protection though. I’ve had good luck getting pretty much any tire to seal properly on my rim and hold air. When it comes to flat protection though, I’ve had different experiences. I’ve pulled goatheads out of one tire and watched it instantly seal. On another tire, I pulled a small desert peach spine out when I got home from a ride, and sealant proceeded to geyser out all over the living room. The tire casing was probably just too thin on this lightweight tire, and there wasn’t enough rubber to close the hole back up.

Out on the trail, I’ve probably seen just as many tubeless tire flats as tubed tire flats. We don’t usually ride near thorns, but there are some sharp rocks that will tear a sidewall. Tubeless tires don’t seal up when they get a sidewall tear. This means you still should carry a tube with you. If you get a tubeless flat out on the trail, you have to pull out the valve stem or rim strip to install the tube.

Which tires do you use for use for going tubeless?

UST (Universal System Tubeless) – UST Tires are specifically designed to be tubeless. They have a thicker casing, and are able to seal good and withstand punctures. The downside is that they are a lot heavier, so you will not realize the weight savings.

TCS (Wilderness Trail Bike’s Tubeless Compatible System) – WTB has recently introduced a TCS line of tires. They weigh somewhere in between a standard tire and a UST tire, giving the rider a tire that will probably seal better without a lot of excess weight.

Standard – Most people I know, myself included, have just used standard mountain bike tires. Some claim that wire bead tires seal up better, but I’ve had no problems with folding beads either. As I mentioned above, your flat protection may vary. Not all standard tires will seal up though, so this may be an area you have to experiment with.

Some cons of going tubeless

While your bike will handle great with tubeless tires, there are some things to consider before making the jump.

Cost:  A quart of Stan’s Notubes sealant runs about $20.  I recently did four 29er wheels and had just enough sealant.  Unfortunately, the last tire would not seal.  It was old, and the bead seemed to have too much gap on the wheel.  Most of the sealant was wasted during the attempt.  Sometimes you get an instant seal and you think you have the process down.  Other times you can’t figure out what the problem is, and you end up with sealant all over the garage floor (don’t attempt in your living room!).   Also, the sealant (the Stan’s I’ve used), only lasts about 3 months before you need to refresh your tires.  They’ll still hold air, but flat protection is pretty much gone since the sealant is dried up.  If you have multiple bikes, you may want to just convert your main ride to tubeless, and just use tubes in the other bikes.

Variety of tires – If you’re someone who likes to experiment with a lot of different tires, it will be probably be too much of a pain and cost prohibitive to frequently change your tubeless tires.  When going tubeless, it’s best to find a set of tires you like and go with them.

You need an air compressor – I was able to once install a tubeless tire with a hand pump, but I think I just got lucky.  Using an air compressor to quickly blast the bead into the hooks of the rim is usually what is required.  If you don’t own a compressor, you’ll have to rely on a buddy that has one if you need to put on a new tire.  Don’t forget to purchase a Presta to Schrader converter for your valve stem when you go to use the compressor.  These converters are usually up on the counter at your local bike shop.  Hand pumps work fine though once the tire has been installed; the compressor is only needed for installation or if the tire bead seal has been broken.

Messy – As I mentioned above, you will probably at some time get sealant all over the garage floor during installation.  Also, when it’s time to add sealant or change tires, you need to scrape and brush all the old hardened sealant out of the tires to reduce build up.

Compatibility – Not all rims and tires will work.  You may have to purchase additional rims and/or tires.

Skill – Installing a tubeless tire is harder than installing a tubed tire.  Once you get the method down for installing a tubeless tire, it isn’t too hard, but it doesn’t always go easy.  After a few installations though, you’ll start to figure out some tricks to help the process along.  I recommend doing the installation with an experienced friend the first time.

I hope this post has answered some of your questions about going tubeless.  If you decide to give it a try, I think you’ll like it.  Have you already gone tubeless?  What have your experiences been?  Has anyone used a different sealant than Stan’s Notubes?  How did that work?

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8 thoughts on “Tubes versus Tubeless

      1. I went “ghetto gorilla tape” tubeless (look it up on Youtube) and have had great success with it. I also did the WSS (Wade’s Secret Sauce) DIY tubeless brew (found on the MTBR.com forums under the “Best Tubeless Brew” in the 29er forums), an alternative to Stan’s sealant, with great success.

        Here is what I found:
        1) There are three types of “tubeless” rims – UST (which with a UST tire should require no sealant to mount and air up), Tubeless Ready (which with a Tubeless tire may require some sealant but will easily mount just about anything), and BST (which is what Stan’s NoTubes rims are). Depending on the “bead hook” style this will play a large role in your success.

        2) UST, Tubeless Ready/Compatible, and Standard tires – ALL can be mounted tubeless with varied amount of success. Those tires that are “Standard” or “Tubeless Ready/Compatible” may “weep” before they fully seal. This is due to small holes in the sidewall of the tire that will require time to seal. However, they may never seal and the amount of “weeping” will be dependant on your tires. I have a WTB Moto Rapter 29″ tire that constantly weeps a small amount (sidewall looks wet or oily all the time). While the tire has sealed and holds air perfectly, it does constantly weep so it will need a refill on sealant more than others. WARNING: Some tire manufacturers’ state on the packaging that using sealant with their tires will void the warranty. So be away that if something does happen to your tire you may not be able to “warranty” the item.

        3) DIY is not that hard and can have benefits. I am a proponent of trying something DIY if it is not cost prohibitive. In my research, I found that using a DIY “brew” for the sealant has worked just as well as the actual stuff supplied by CaffeLatex, Stan’s, or the like. In doing this I spent approximately $35 on the components and supplies and was resulted in 80oz (4 times what Jeff’s bottle has) of sealant. The reasoning behind this brew is that the DIY stuff has small chunks of rubber (think pebble size or sand sized) that will help in sealing the holes along with the sealant. While the Stan’s style sealant has the latex based “sauce,” it does not have any true mass to seal larger holes. This size difference in the sealant is where I believe the “brew” is superior because the small pieces of rubber will work in conjunction with the sealant (again latex based) to plug the hole then seal.

        So, I have officially been “Ghetto Gorilla Tape” tubeless for two months now. I run Stan’s Flow 29er rims (tubeless “bst bead hook” style rims) with a standard, wire bead WTB MOTO Raptor 29×2.1 up front and a standard, folding bead GEAX Saguaro 29×2.2 in the rear. With this setup I have been consistently running in the low 20psi range and even lower without any problems. I do not feel that my tires become squirmy and that the Saguaro does quite well tubeless and running at low pressures. The one gripe that I have is the WTB MOTO Raptor does weep like crazy. While this has not caused any ill effects, I do find it quite annoying to wipe the tire down every week from the weeping. While doing this I was able to get BOTH tires to mount tubeless with a standard floor pump, no compressor required. Now I know this could have been beginners luck but there are a few tricks out there that helped with my success. The main one that helped was the use of slightly soapy water on the bead on the tire and the rim. With the soap in the water it add for less friction while you are attempting to air up the tire and thus the bead can “slide” across the rim channel, while still creating a slight seal with the soap bubbles to allow the tire to seal. Once the bead is hooked I released the air from the tire to ensure that I did not hear it “pop” off the bead and then added my sealant. There are other tricks, like mounting the tire with a tube then pulling only one bead off the wall to remove the tube this is supposed to cause the tire bead to seal much easier.

        On Sunday this last weekend (8/21) I was running my normal loop in Ash Canyon and found that the tires performed quite well, with only one “burp” while I jumped a perpendicular rut in the fire-road and landed hard enough to cause the tire to “burp.” This “burping” is caused from running low enough pressures and having a high enough impact that the bead, in a small area, momentarily becomes unseated and allows air to come off of the bead wall. This did not cause me to squirm, swerve, or in anyway change my line, rather more to laugh as I heard a very loud “BBBRRAAAPPP” come from my front rim. Checking the tire pressure when I got home, I had lost 1psi.

        If there is one and only one recommendation I can give to the person going tubeless, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS SACRED buy the “removeable core” valve stems. In my ghetto tubeless conversion I found much recommendation from other to purchase Q-Tubes band tubes as they come standard with a removeable presta core. With the addition of a $2 hair dye bottle (or you can use a small baby syringe) I was able to completely mount my tire without having to use the standard practice of “leave about 2” to 3” unseated from the rim as you will need to put your sealant into the tire here.” This allowed me to remove the core, “inject” the necessary sealant, replace the core and air up the tire with little to not spillage!!! Stan’s offers the “removeable core” valves for a few dollars more and believe me when mounting the tire this is very much worth the slight cost increase.

  1. That is. I split a 26er tube so it would. Be the rim strip And be wide enough to lie between the rim and tire bead. So when pumped up the Stans goo ended up between the tube and tire

    1. Quinn… part of your problem was that you had the tube inside of the rim. According to what I read on Split Tubeless was that you are supposed to let it hand over the edge, mount the tire as normal and then trim any excess once the bead has seated. If you intentionally cut it so that it would fit inside the rim channel your problem was that nothing was holding the edges of the tube down thus the sealant was able to leak out through the nipples.

  2. I split the tube on the outter seam and laid it open so it was/would be caught between the tire bead and the rim on both sides. So it basically became a tubular and the stans never touched metal.

  3. I’ve made my own rim strips out of 26 inch tubes on my 29er for 2 years about. I never have them hanging out over the edge of the rim. I carefully cut them back with an exacto knife to about a cm under the lip of the rim. I’m riding a pair of non-tubeless American Classic wheelsets and so I have to use tape to seal the rim up. For that I use that ultra flexible lightweight tape you use on air conditioning plenum boxes. Its super sticky, almost razor thin, very strong and super lightweight. It does degrade about ever 6 months when enough Stan’s seeps under the adhesive so you have to replace it. For this I just use sharp scissors and cut the “aluminum tape” as I like to call it into thirds in one solid piece that will wrap around the wheel once and a third for good measure. Don’t do this while you’re drinking brews because you will twist the tape and have to start over.

    When I go to seat the tire and air it up I always, and I mean always wash the outside of the tire with soapy water or use a shitload of windex to wet the area that will seal up. A lot of times it will seal up while it’s hanging from the repair stand with ease. Other times I find I have to sort of hug the whole wheel and try to apply even pressure to the center of the tread all the way around so that there are no gaps in the bead.

    Once you get your groove with this process it’s pretty routine like changing a tube but a tad more messy and a little more time consuming.

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