WHY YOU SHOULD GO TUBELESS
We show you when, how and why you should wave your inner tubes goodbye
There are numerous benefits to waving goodbye to your inner tubes, if you’re prepared to get messy with the sealant. We explain the pros and cons, and the best type of riding to suit tubeless tyres
Going tubeless is seen as a universally good idea for mountain biking, and it has finally crept into regular road use. In simple terms, tubeless tyre systems use an airtight tyre, an airtight rim and no inner tube.
As well as creating a ‘self-healing’ defence against penetration punctures when you add sealant, tubeless set-ups also protect better against impact punctures from things like potholes and rocks. There’s no inner tube to get pinched on the edge of the tyre as contact is made.
When is tubeless more?
While it’s the major advantage of everyday tubeless use, the penetration puncture aspect is hard to quantify, as the self-healing aspect means you may still get punctures but just not realise it. The only giveaways are that the tyre might be slightly soft, from losing pressure before it sealed, or a spray of sealant up your frame.
The pinch puncture reduction advantages that allow you to run tubeless systems at lower pressures than a conventional set-up are very clear in a more comfortable ride and better traction. While softer will always feel slower than firmer – your brain perceives rattle and clatter as a sign of going fast – the stopwatch or GPS might well say otherwise. With tubeless, there’s none of the friction between the inner tube and the tyre that absorbs energy as they deform over bumps. That generally makes tubeless tyres faster rolling than non-tubeless versions of the same tyre, particularly on rougher surfaces. Presuming you get a well-designed tyre, the bigger the volume and wider the rim, the more obvious the supple feel of a tubeless system is too.
This makes tubeless tyres brilliant for off-road use or anywhere that lower pressures and larger sizes are a comfort and control bonus. We’ve seen their use expand massively with the recent increase in the popularity of gravel/grinduro riding, as Tom Marchant from Hunt Bike Wheels says: “Tubeless is a nobrainer for gravel riding as the lower pressures mean pinch flats are a massive issue if you’re not running tubeless. For road use, it’s more nuanced. Small punctures are instantly sealed and if you get one that doesn’t seal you can plug it in-situ. Tubeless also gives better levels of comfort and grip with lower rolling resistance.”
Roller/drum-based tyre drag testing by bicyclerollingresistance. com, wheelenergy.com and other testing labs show tubeless tyre versions to be faster than even those using superlight and supple, but fragile, latex tubes. Tubeless tyres tend to be slightly heavier than non-tubeless, by around 40-50g, due to the extra rubber needed to seal the carcass, the lack of an inner tube, usually weighing between 100-150g, means the overall system is similar or slightly lighter, even with a generous (40-50ml) slop of sealant.
The ride quality from tubeless tyres has also increased massively, after spending years riding on set-ups that were mostly disappointingly wooden in feel. A few notable exceptions were Hutchinson and Schwalbe, who cracked the supple, small volume carcass trick early, but it’s really only the latest generation
“tubeless tyres bring comfort through the lower pressure and you don’t have the pinch puncture risk. I’ve not had a puncture to fix in 3800 miles” The self-healing aspect means you may still get punctures but just not realise it
tyres from most brands that feel palpably smoother than conventional tyres.
That ability to turn a relatively crude or savagely stiff frame into something far more cultured just by switching to tubeless tyres at lower pressures – or even mimicking the latest ‘suspension’ frames with larger volume tyres – makes the overall upgrade cost more bearable over a whole new frame. Dom Mason from Mason Progressive Cycles explains: “The real value of tubeless fully dawned on me when Josh Ibbett won the Trans Continental Race in 2015 on a Mason Definition fitted with Schwalbe 28mm tubeless tyres. It was a tough course that year with many gravel sections and he didn’t puncture once in 4240km with a fully loaded bike! We now offer tubeless upgrades for all our bikes and the new off-road Mason Bokeh benefits hugely from the low tyre pressures that you can run with a modern, large volume tubeless tyre.”
Andy Jeffries from Whyte Bikes continues: “There are some innovations you just know are the future the first time you ride them. I can’t imagine ever going back. Tubeless tyres bring comfort through the lower pressure and, of course, you don’t have the pinch puncture risk. I’ve not had a puncture to fix in 3800 miles!”
We’d always recommend dedicated tubeless wheels and tyres for higher road pressures
When is tubeless less?
The most obvious downsides of going tubeless are the cost and setting them up initially. While you can create a workable ‘ghetto’ tubeless system using conventional tyres and a selfsealed rim for low pressure use such as cyclocross, we’d always recommend dedicated tubeless wheels and tyres for higher road pressures, which obviously adds upgrade costs. Tubeless tyres have to be a tighter fit on the rim, which means they can be more of a fight to get on in the first place. Liquid sealant potentially adds a significant amount of mess to set up and when changing tyres, but removable valve cores and kits such as Milkit can clean up the process. Wheel systems that come with tyres pre-installed are very tempting – it’s currently an option from Hunt and JRA and standard on the latest Mavics. The tight fit can also make it hard to safely squeeze an inner tube into a narrower (23-25mm) tubeless tyre if it punctures and won’t reseal/repair. If you’re riding 23mm or smaller tyres, you’re best off sticking with inner tubes.
While they’re a relatively new technology to road bikes, we’ve had 18 years of experience using tubeless on mountain bikes, so learned a few hacks along the way to get you up and rolling.
Road tubeless systems are more refined than the horrors of some past mountain bike set-ups, but if you’re prepared for frustration and mess, anything less is a bonus.
Don’t set up tubeless tyres in your kitchen or anywhere an explosion of sealant would be a big problem. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, as an extra pair of pumping or tyre-pressing hands can be a big advantage.
(1) Fit the first bead (edge) of the tyre into the central well (depressed section) of the rim, followed by the second bead, to avoid stretching the bead so far it won’t fit onto the wheel.
(2) Ensure the valve head is inside the tyre, not poking out though it. Where possible, fit the tyre without levers as they can damage the tyre edge or the rim tape, which can cause leaks.
(3) Starting from the opposite side of the valve, concentrate on squeezing the tyre down around the rim as you fit, creating the maximum amount of slack in the bead for the final fight to get it into place.
(4) Once seated use whatever method you have to get pressure in fast. Be prepared for a serious bang as some beads snap into place.
If possible, removing the valve core helps to reduce pumping resistance and pop the tyre in.
(5) Inject sealant and refit the tyre once it’s snapped into position. If the tyre is struggling to seal, rotate it so that the leak is at the bottom allowing the sealant to get to the right place. Press down on the wheel to squish any gaps, then spin the wheel to circulate the sealant. Take the bike for a five-minute ride to settle all the elements into position. You may need to re-pressurise a few times over the first few days/week as tiny leaks seal themselves.
Tubeless tyres don’t rip as easily between the rim and road, so can be run safely at lower
“Inner tubes are what we’re all used to using, whereas tubeless somehow seems more explosively risky and certainly messier”
pressures. The larger the tyre/wider the rim (internally), the lower the safe pressure. We run 25mm tyres on 17-18mm rims at around 80psi, dropping towards 70psi for 28mm on 19-20mm rims, heading down to 40-50psi for a tough 40mm gravel tyre on a 20mm-plus width rim. Always start high and gradually reduce pressure to find the sweet spot of your preference and your equipment.
Check for cuts or imbedded sharp things regularly. Spin to check for bulges, distortions and wobble and replace when they wear thin. The only extra job is checking whether the sealant is still liquid (slosh it around near your ear) as it will dry out over a few months.
Roadies slow to the cause
There have been technical issues in getting tubeless tyres to work well in typical road sizes, but the biggest reason for the slow uptake, and development, is because you don’t need them on the road. Yes, there are definite tubeless benefits if you can be bothered, but inner tubes actually work fine for most regular road rides and riders. Inner tubes are what we’re all used to using too, whereas tubeless somehow seems more explosively risky and certainly messier. Recent changes in technology – and the trend towards wider tyres and rims – have definitely bought tubeless tech to a tipping point, and we’d now mark a test wheel down if it wasn’t tubeless compatible.
“If the tyre is struggling to seal, rotate it so that the leak is at the bottom allowing the sealant to get to the right place”
(03) (04) (05)
Left Lower pressures increase comfort Right Specific valve kits can make setting up easier Below For road use, you need the proper kit
Regularly check the tyres for cuts or imbedded sharp things
Senior tech ed Warren listens out for plenty of sloshing sealant