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Mountain bike tires: tubes vs. tubeless

If you’re a mountain biker, you’ve probably heard the word “tubeless” a lot lately. Tubeless tires are exactly what they sound like: a tire that doesn’t need an inner tube to stay inflated. So why go tubeless and is it right for you? To help you decide, we’ll answer the following questions:

  • How do tubeless tires work?
  • What are the pros and cons of going tubeless?
  • Should you go tubeless ready or with a conversion kit?
  • Are there any tips to install tubeless tires?

How tubeless tires work

A tubeless tire set up doesn’t use an inner tube. Instead, the tire, rim and valve are designed to stay perfectly sealed to keep the tire from going flat. In many cases, there’s also a liquid sealant added to the inside of the tire that helps plug any air leaks. If you want to run tubeless, you have two choices: you can use tubeless-ready wheels and rims, or use a tubeless conversion kit to make it happen with your existing gear.

Your rim needs to be completely sealed before you start putting the pieces together. That means you’ll need a tubeless valve, which is usually a Presta valve with a seal system; these valves are equipped with something called a removable core (more on this below). You attach the tubeless valve to your rim.

Along with a tubeless valve and your sealed rim, you need a tubeless-compatible tire. Most tires have markings on the side that confirms if the tire is compatible with tubeless set-ups. Brands may have slightly different terminology for this, but there should be some variation of “tubeless” somewhere on the tire. Your tire can also be marked with the letters UST (stands for “Universal System Tubeless”), which is a tubeless standard. If you pair a UST tire with a UST wheel, it doesn’t require sealant to stay airtight (though some people will add some to help with sealing punctures).

For most tubeless set-ups, the last part of the system is the liquid sealant. If something punctures the tire, the sealant quickly fills the area and dries in place so you can keep rolling. Sealants will eventually dry up (or get used up) and will need a top-up to keep on sealing punctures.

Pro and cons of riding tubeless

There certainly are plenty of benefits to going tubeless for mountain biking, but it also comes with a few challenges.

Pros of going tubeless

Why go tubeless? A few reasons why riders love it:

  • Cuts down on flats: Unless you slice your tire open, flats will feel like a thing of the past. The liquid sealant inside the tire will patch any small holes as you ride. Pinch flats usually happen when you ride hard into a sharp object, like in a rock garden; this situation can squeeze the tire and the rim together and create holes in an inner tube. By taking the inner tube out of the equation with a tubeless setup, getting a pinch flat will effectively be impossible.

  • Sweeter corners: With a traditional tire and tube system, you need to keep a certain amount of pressure in your tires to avoid pinch flats. Firmer tires generally mean less grip when cornering. You can run your tubeless setups at much lower pressure without the risk of getting pinch flat. This means that you’ll be able to take corners much faster before your front wheel washes out.

  • Better climbs, smoother rides: Having trouble with a steep tricky climb? Tires spinning out? The lower tire pressure you can run with tubeless increases the contact patch of your tires to help you gain extra traction up steep hills. It also helps take the chatter out of gnarlier trail features (especially on hardtails), so you can roll over rocks and ruts with less bouncing around.

  • Shaves some weight: This one may or may not be true, depending on the various components you’re choosing. Once you take the tubes out and replace them with sealant, you often get a slightly lighter system, but weight savings shouldn’t be the reason why you choose to get rid of the tubes.

Cons of going tubeless

Why stick with inner tubes? Some things to think about:

  • Set-up time: Setting up tubeless can be time consuming and a bit messy the first few times before you get the hang of it.

  • Maintenance: The sealant in your tire eventually dries up and need to be topped up. While this isn’t an everyday job, you’ll need to do this at least every season to ensure your tire seals itself if you end up rolling over sharp blackberry thorns, puncturevine or prickly cactus.

  • Costs more: Smalls things add up. Compared to the price of an inner tube, buying a tubeless valve, sealant, rim tape and possibly upgrading your tire to a tubeless-ready one is a bit of an investment. Whether it’s worth it is up to you.

  • Spare tube required: That’s right, if you end up with a puncture big enough that the sealant can’t fully seal it, you’ll want a way to get back home. For most riders, that means carrying a spare inner tube.

Tubeless ready or conversion kits

If you’ve decided that tubeless is right for you, it’s time to choose how to make it happen. Tubeless-ready components usually make installation easier, but a conversion kit can reduce the amount of up-front costs required. To help you decide what option is best for you, here’s what to consider:

Tubeless ready option

Though tubeless-ready tires and rims can be more expensive, they offer easier setup, and are a more robust and reliable system. Rims that are labelled tubeless ready are generally equipped with an airtight rim tape that’s applied exactly where it needs to be. Bike tires that are labelled tubeless ready are manufactured to a tight standard that improves the seal between the tire and the rim. This makes it much more realistic to use a floor pump to get your tire seated. You’ll still need some sealant to get a perfect seal, but the whole process is much faster, simpler and more reliable.

Tubeless conversion kit option

Conversion kits, while sometimes trickier to install, can be a great way to experiment and get most of the same results as a dedicated tubeless tire without needing to pay for major component upgrades.

To convert your standard rim and tire to a tubeless system, you need rim tape, a tubeless valve and sealant. Make sure you arm yourself with patience and, ideally, access to an air compressor or an air tank to help with seating the tire bead when it’s inflation time (see our tips section below for details). Not only does putting your system together takes more time, the process of getting your system completely airtight also takes a while. You usually need to shake your tire and inflate it many times over the course of a few days to get your tire to seal completely. The bonus is that you don’t necessarily need to spend money on new rims or tires.

If you’re working with mountain bike tires, most tires can be used to go tubeless as long as you use sealant. That said, you wouldn’t want to use tires with weak sidewalls.

Tubeless installation tips and tricks

Learning by trial and error can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes learning from others’ mistakes is just as useful (and less frustrating). Here’s a handful of tips and tricks to help make converting to tubeless smoother:

Use real tubeless tape

While you can get some decent results with Gorilla Tape, investing a few bucks in tubeless rim tape can be a smart move for conversions (plus you’ll see some rims labelled “tubeless compatible” that aren’t necessarily taped). For starters, tubeless tape comes is a variety of widths to match your rim width nicely. Tubeless specific tape also has fantastic adhesion, gives a great seal and comes in a thinner profile that helps get your tubeless tire on the rim. Make sure you clean your rim like a boss with isopropyl alcohol before taping.

Tips to get the tire on the rim

Tubeless tires have a tight bead that help keep the air in, but this also means a tire that is harder to get on the rim – sometimes frustratingly hard. Try these tricks (spoiler alert: involves soapy water and elbow grease):

  • Dents, bends, cracks and separation at the rim joint are all issues that will prevent the tubeless system from fully sealing. If you’re using a rim that isn’t brand new, give it a quick inspection before you start – it could save you a great deal of frustration during set up.
  • Getting the first bead on the rim is rarely the challenging part. Getting the second bead on the rim is really where the magic happens.
  • Start at the opposite site of the valve and push both beads as deep in the rim bed as possible and work your way toward the valve. Having the valve side resting on the ground and pushing down with your body weight on the tire can help feed the little bit of slack needed to push the bead on the rim. You didn’t forget to put the sealant in your tire before this step, right?!
  • Still having a hard time? Grab a spray bottle with soapy water and give the tire sidewall a good spray. This should help the bead slip on the rim.
  • If everything else fails, you can use a plastic tire lever to help you push the bead on the rim. Make sure you use plenty of soapy water to lubricate the bead if you go this route. Attempt with care: tire levers can deform the bead, especially wire beads, and make it harder to get a perfect seal.

Tips to inflate the tire

Sometimes, you just need a little boost to get a tubeless tire inflated. When using a floor pump, don’t hold anything back. Pump hard and fast if you want to make this work.

  • If you’re having a hard time, start by spraying a decent amount of soapy water in between the tire bead and the rim. This should help you get a good seal.
  • Another trick is to hang your wheel instead of resting it on the ground. An upright, hanging wheel helps the bead sit evenly on both sides, and it won’t deform like a flat tire sitting on the ground.
  • Still no luck? You can remove the inner core of the tubeless valve to allow for more airflow. By taking the core out, you won’t get as much resistance and should be able to get more air in you tire faster. You just need to ride the floor pump like you’re going for the podium at the EWS.

If you’re still struggling to seat the tire, don’t go back to inner tubes just yet. One tool that’s guaranteed to make the job easier is an air compressor or an air tank. You can bring your wheels to the closest gas station and inflate them – just remember to grab a valve adapter that allows a Presta valve to use air compressor accessories designed for Schraeder valves found on cars. Make sure not to go overboard with tire pressure. Keep the pressure within the recommended range.

A good alternative to getting an air compressor at home is an air tank that can you can fill up to high pressure with your floor pump and release that pressure in one go to seat your tire bead instantly, or a tubeless floor pump.

After all of this, you’re ready to start exploring the world of lower tire pressure, better grip and say goodbye to flats.

Still need a hand?

Give the bike mechanics at your local MEC bike shop a call – they’ll be happy to provide service and get you running tubeless.

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