We Don’t Need No Steenking Tubes

As promised (threatened?), let’s talk a little bit about tubeless. First of all, who might care? Interested parties include weight weenies, low-pressure advocates and those concerned about punctures, esp. thorns in their MTB tires. Who doesn’t care? Possibly people with enough stress in their lives who don’t need another thing to think about/spend money actuating.

The big advantages of tubeless are two: no tube means less (wretched) rotating mass. No tube also means no pinch flat in low-pressure situations. The addition of sealant to a tubeless system also provides a level of puncture protection.

There are three types of tubeless worth writing home about:

UST was initially developed by Mavic and granted a US patent in 2001. UST consists of an airtight rim combined with an airtight tire. UST has very specific requirements on rim and tire bead shape to achieve the airtight bond at the tire/rim interface. Sealant may or may not be a part of a UST system. UST delivered on the two big tubeless promises: low mass and no pinch-flats. Hassles related to UST include very specialized and often expensive equipment and, at times, marginal weight savings. An air-tight tire weighs more than a regular tire, so…

Stan Koziatek, founder of Stan’s NoTubes, started working on his sealing system in 2000. Unlike UST, NoTubes doesn’t require an airtight tire. Instead, the special sealant makes any tire (with very few exceptions) airtight. The promise of a universal sealant system (pretty much any rim, pretty much any tire) has become more focused. Certain characteristics make for a better tubeless rim (particularly the profile of the rim bed and the “hooks” on a clincher rim) and other characteristics make a tire more or less suitable for tubeless use. Thus a consumer sees many “tubeless ready” rims/wheels and tires. Are you required to use tubeless ready equipment? No law says so, but your life will be easier if you do opt for it. Tubeless Ready is profoundly more popular than UST at Pedal.

Road Tubeless is the new kid on the block and has yet to gain broad acceptance. Road Tubeless has special requirements due to the considerably higher tire pressure compared to mountain bikes. Thus, special tires are required. Right now, Hutchinson is the big player in tires, but other folks are coming out with competing products shortly. Rims are more widely available, but not prevalent. I’ll be honest: we don’t see much Road Tubless at this point. That’s not to say that it won’t take off or hasn’t already in other parts of the world, but it has yet to happen in Kalamazoo.

As we do MUCH more Tubeless Ready than UST, the remainder of this… buncha words… will focus on that method. The number one first step is to make the rim air-tight. For a bona-fide tubeless ready rim, this is pretty easy. Simply take some fancy airtight rim tape like this or this and install as directed. Once the tape is correctly installed, a valve of some ilk must be installed, which is a piece of cake. For a non-tubless-ready rim, the best bet is to install a tubeless kit. These kits include a special rim strip and a pint of sealant. My experience with them has been rather good. Grab a cold one and watch this video a few times. Make it something that appears in your dreams. All the secrets are here.

An aside: a tubeless state, like a Zen state, is best achieved in a stress-free environment. Much like changing a flat, patience and a mind like water are keys. Don’t rush. Be aware of what’s going on. Know and follow the process. If I have a tubeless project that looks remotely stressful, I’ll wait until after the shop is closed (or before we’re open), put on good music and remind myself of all the great things in my life. It’s not that this stuff is hard, but it can be a real bummer if you have troubles and aren’t sure what you did wrong. Instead: know that you did everything right and that a little patience and minor futzing will get you to your destination.

Once the rim is air-tight, our steely gaze turns to the tire. I’ll start with a beautiful story:  I had two identical tires on two identical rims. One of ’em sealed up like crazy and has probably lost 0.05 psi over a month. The other wouldn’t hold air for two days. Frustrating? Yes. Very. I called the manufacturer and said, “Hey. What gives?” In short words, I was told that I was swimming upstream by trying to get a non-tubeless-ready tire to hold air. The tire I was using wasn’t designed to be run tubeless; a really tight tire/rim interface was not part of that tire’s mission. Note that a good interface is possible (see Tire that Held Air Like a Champ), just not guaranteed. I threw that tire on the question mark heap and grabbed a tubeless ready equivalent. BLAMMO! Worked like a charm. A tubeless ready tire is designed to have a tight tire/rim interface that make sealing much more… likely.

So you’ve got your rim and you’ve got your appropriate tire. Now you just refer to the directions and:

  • Soap up the tire and pop it on the bead just to make sure it will (air compressor highly recommended)
  • Install sealant
  • Air up the tire to 40 psi (compressor again highly recommended)
  • Swish around sealant as directed
  • Maybe it’s time to watch the video again
  • Don’t be in a hurry

What equipment do we like for tubeless ready? Many of our customers like the NoTubes rims, particularly the Arch (or Arch EX) 29er. Ryan built a set of road wheels from ZTR Alpha 340 rims, and I’ll be using those rims (with more spokes) to make a set of tubeless cyclocross wheels. Velocity has a few attractive rims. I like the Blunt SL. Many are the good options; these are those with which we’ve had success.

Tires? I’m thrilled with Schwalbe EVO tubeless ready tires. Expensive? Yes. But they pop on the bead very nicely, have very supple sidewalls and a nice selection of tread patterns. I’m confident that your favorite tire brand has a good tubeless ready tire — and we’ll get it for you if you’d like — but we’ve installed a lot of Schwalbe with very limited issues.

After all of this discussion, should you go tubeless? Maybe. Consider the drawbacks:

  • Potential new equipment investment
  • Setup required
  • Still have to carry a spare tube in case disaster strikes
  • Not maintenance free. You can’t put your mountain bike away for months and expect the tires to be sealed and the sealant fresh when you’re ready to ride.


And the upside:

  • Lower rotating mass for the speedy crowd
  • Significantly lower risk of pinch flats for the low-pressure crowd
  • Puncture sealing characteristics

Will it make cycling more fun? I think that’s the question that must be answered.