Let’s Talk About Tubeless

To tubeless or not to tubeless? The pro-tubeless party suggests that you think of these features:

  • Most small punctures seal themselves.
  • You no longer worry about pinch flats and can run lower pressure for greater comfort.
  • The potential for weight loss, particularly with wider tires, is significant.
  • Modern tubeless works really well in all popular cycling disciplines — road, gravel, cross, city, mountain.
  • Tubeless is now ubiquitous enough that most shops can help you if you get in a bind.

Anti-tubeless people would remind you that:

  • Setup is not as easy as inflating a tube.
  • You really want the two main components — your rim and your tire — to be tubeless. Yes! It’s possible to get non-tubeless stuff to work, but it’s just too risky for us. We’ll only work on systems in which all components are designed to be tubeless.
  • It’s not a forever thing. Tubeless needs attention even if you don’t get a flat. Tubes only need attention when you get a flat.
  • A big rip or tear in your tire will still ruin your ride.

All are true!

Should *you* consider tubeless? If you hate messing with your equipment or taking your bike to a shop, you should pass. Setup can be a drag and you really should add new sealant every 3-4 months. Likewise, if you only ride your bike occasionally, the effort of keeping your sealing fresh might not make sense. If you like working on your bike or enjoy having the latest technology, tubeless is definitely worth considering.

Today I had to put new tires on some rims and thought I’d document the process for posterity.

Things you need: tubeless rim, tubeless tires, rim tape, valves, sealant and a way to move a good amount of air.

Valves come in a variety of lengths. Make sure you get the right length. I realized that these were too short once I’d opened ’em. Drat. Some systems can be pretty fussy about valves. Stan’s valves work great in most situations, but there are those in which something more proprietary is required. Not sure what you need? We’re happy to help.

You want the right width tape. The tape should stretch from bead to bead on the rim. Installing tubeless tape takes a certain knack. It’s not hard, but it’s much easier after you’ve done it once or twice. Remember the goal: making the rim airtight. We’ve had good luck with several brands of tape.

Here’s a picture of a well-taped rim. The tape runs from bead to bead with no unsightly wrinkles.

Some folks get pretty would up about the brand of sealant that they use. Stan’s keeps improving, largely pushed along by the good folks at Orange Seal. I’ve had great luck with sealant from those guys as well as the stuff from Bontrager (now blue!) and Specialized.

There are little touches and techniques that happen once everything is ready to be put together. Ryan and Matt at the Downtown shop like to put a tubeless patch between the valve and the rim tape to create a better seal. I do the same when I remember.

Most folks have the good sense to get the tire up on the bead without sealant, just to make sure it’ll work. These folks will then inject the sealant through the valve to keep the tire on the bead, just in case that first try was a lucky fluke. I tend to slop some sealant in the tire before I install it completely on the rim, having faith that I can get the tire on the bead without blowing sealant everywhere. I have coworkers who equate this technique with voodoo.

Popping a tubeless tire up on the bead requires a big volume of air. Not so much pressure, but volume. You will almost always be best served by removing the core from the valve, as it can really obstruct air flow. Air compressors and presta adapters work great, but I’ve also had really good luck with pumps designed for this purpose, specifically the Bontrager Flash Charger. It’s not cheap, but it’s way cheaper than a big air compressor.

If you just cannot get the tire to jump up on the bead, you might consider adding another layer of tape. This doesn’t always work, but it works pretty regularly.

If the tire is mostly on the bead but won’t quite get all the way up, well, I’m sorry. That can be a rough situation. Soapy water all over everything can help. More pressure can help, but be careful! Some fancy carbon rims will break if you go too high. (I was once told by a manufacturer, “You can take it up to 35. At 36 it’ll come apart.” Tension was very high.) It is really terrible and can hurt a lot if a tire under high pressure comes off the bead.

And then it all comes together and you have something nifty like this:

Just add a bike and ride.