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.
Tubeless Tire Benefits
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 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?