I don’t have fond memories of wrestling a tire over a 26” rim with a halved 24” tube stretched across it just to avoid the dreaded pinch flat. Fortunately, over the past few years tubeless wheels have become mainstream, mostly due to the increased availability of rim strips and tire sealant as well as the large strides in the quality of rims and non-downhill tires.
Despite this, almost all new bikes still come with inner tubes installed, even those that come with tubeless-ready tires and rims. According to PinkBike, at the 2018 Whistler Opening Weekend over half of the riders still ran tubes in their tires, and it’s safe to say this percentage is likely higher outside of the demographics of mountain bikers that go to Whistler on opening day.
So, should you give tubeless a shot…or stick with standard tires?
TL;DR – The Pros & Cons of Going Tubeless
If you don’t have the time to read the entire article below, I summarised the pros and cons of going with tubeless tires instead of standard tires.
- Cost – it is a little more expensive than standard tires
- It is slightly more complex to install/maintain
- Less weight than standard tires
- Protection from punctures
- Better grip
- Better ride quality
Cons of Tubeless Tires
There are very few reasons not to consider tossing out the tube. From my perspective, the only things to be concerned about are the cost and the increased complication of installation & maintenance of tubeless tires.
As I mentioned above, most bikes still comes with standard tires. However, you can pay to have the bike converted to tubeless tires. Many riders with newer bikes will only have to shell out around $70 for the conversion kit, which is comprised of a roll of rim tape, enough sealant for two tires and the two valves.
Having it done at your local bike shop could get costly as it’s a fairly labor-intensive process, but the conversion is perfectly doable on your own. If you are confident in our bike maintenance abilities, I would actually recommend trying it yourself to get yourself familiarized with the system and to better prepare you for any emergency repairs. However, if you are new to biking and not really comfortable playing around with your bike components, have your friendly local bike shop technician do the conversion for you.
If you have an older bike that you want to convert to tubeless tires, there are some things you need to keep in mind before you get the conversion done. There can be some hidden costs in the upgrade for mountain bikers with plenty of miles on their rides. Old tires, even if the tread is still good, may not lock on to the bead very effectively and their sidewalls thread may have stretched or frayed, which can cause ineffective sealing.
Rims that have been ridden for a longer period of time are also more likely to have dents, which reduce the effectiveness of the bead and the bead hook interface. This can take the option of conversion off the table if the dent is bad enough. That said, even in the case that converting to tubeless would require new rims and new tires, both of these technologies have come a long way in the last few years and a costlier case for upgrading to tubeless may also see you getting lighter, stiffer rims and wider, sturdier tires.
The second downside of going tubeless is the added complexity of working with your wheels, which mostly stems from adding sealant to the equation. The initial setup may not be very messy, but flat tires and tire changes won’t be as clean. One of my least favorite situations is coming home from a ride where you got a flat tire and had to put a tube in your tubeless setup to be able to make it back!
Don’t worry though, there are ways to fix your tubeless tire if you are out on the trail. Check out this quick vid that shows you how:
Pros of Tubeless Tires
The increasing popularity of tubeless tires is not unfounded. I would safely say that tubeless is objectively better than running tubes in just about every performance metric. It’s also great to have the option to maximize the characteristics I’m looking for in a wheel (low weight, flat protection and traction), while at the same time avoiding many of the compromises I was forced to live with while running tubes.
This is an often-underappreciated benefit of going tubeless and is actually what most riders can capitalize on for ride improvement. Below is a table comparing weights on the high end with maximum puncture protection and on the low end with the lightest possible setup, on all three common wheel sizes.
|Case: Minimum Weight|
|Tubes (Maxxis ultra-light)||26” Tube : 125g||Sealant (appx 60ml)*||65g|
|27.5” Tube: 145g||Rim Tape||10g|
|29” Tube: 155g||Valve||7g|
|Weight Savings per Wheel||43-73g (1.5 – 2.5 oz)|
|Case: Maximum Puncture Protection|
|Tubes (Maxxis Freeride)||26” Tube : 300g||Sealant (appx 120ml)*||130g|
|27.5” Tube: 310g||Rim Tape||10g|
|Tubes (Maxxis Downhill)||26” Tube : 450g||Valve||7g|
|27.5” Tube: 450g||Total weight||147g|
|Weight Savings per Wheel||153-300g (5.4 – 10.6 oz)|
*Sealant recommendations are the same for all three wheel diameters
The comparison tables show that the argument for weight loss on tubeless tires is situational. The weight weenie setup still saves 100-150g (3.5 – 5.3 oz) of rotational weight, which is significant on what I would assume to be an XC or trail bike. This also comes with a huge upgrade in puncture protection because an ultra-light tube isn’t going to save you from thorns and will almost guarantee a pinch flat eventually. The tubeless setup, on the other hand, will never get a pinch flat and will give you puncture protection.
Being a 90kg (200 pounds) aggressive rider, the case for maximum puncture protection is a big deal to me. I used to run a downhill tube in the rear and at least a freeride tube in the front to minimize (though not eliminate) pinch flats. Converting to tubeless allowed me to save almost a full pound of rotating mass.
Rotating mass has a huge effect on how the bike handles. Losing a lot of rotating mass, especially in the rear tire, is often the reason why lighter bikes have that explosive acceleration when you get on the pedals. Rotating mass also generates angular momentum which resists the change of direction of your wheels once they start spinning fast. Lighter bikes tend to be described as “flickable” in the air and easy to throw around in corners because their wheels are lighter and there is less angular momentum to resist the rider’s input.
Puncture Resistance and Grip
I put these two metrics together because, although your tubeless tires hold air through harsher riding conditions, running your tires softer for more grip will still have consequences.
Riding on tubes is a balancing act between tire pressure and the probability of getting a pinch flat. Running tires hard enough to avoid pinch flats means sacrificing grip. Being an aggressive rider on the heavy side, I had to live with riding with 30+ PSI front and back if I didn’t want to risk a flat. Running tubeless means I can now back off on the tire pressure and get some grip back as there is no tube to pinch when you bottom out a tire on a rock.
What many people forget to mention is that, for a rider like me, I can drop it down to about 25 PSI in the front and 27 PSI in the back to get better grip. However, I can’t just drop it to below 20 PSI and enjoy even stickier tires. This can’t be done for two reasons. First, a tire with low pressure has less force pushing the bead into the bead hook. When the bead lets go of the bead hook or “burps”, even temporarily, you will lose a lot of sealant and air in the tire. Second, your rim (especially Aluminium rims) can only take so much force before it could lead to the bead hook in your rims deforming from a dent and lose its ability to form a good seal with the tire or, with carbon rims, destruction of the rim.
The increasing popularity and availability of foam inserts for tubeless tires is the answer to this problem. It allows you to run your tires soft enough to maximize grip and still protect your rims from most of the hard hits. But this comes at the cost of weight and actually brings the weight of the tubeless setup back to being about the same as a setup with tubes.
I find the improvement of ride quality hard to measure but it’s definitely there. A tubeless tire feels like it conforms to the ground better and your hands will thank for what I can only describe as a ride that is less harsh!
I’m not alone in feeling this way as other riders actually put it above improved puncture protection and lighter weight, as the most significant difference felt from converting to tubeless. Some companies have said this is due to the reduced friction generated between the tube and the tire. This theory is further strengthened by many mountain bikers noting a further improvement of ride quality with the installation of foam inserts, which also have damping properties.
Wrapping Up – Go Tubeless!
There are several strong reasons to go tubeless. For a cross-country bike, it is hard to find another area on the bike to lose 100g+ without spending hundreds of dollars. This, along with the added puncture protection and improvement in ride quality make it well worth the increased maintenance.
For a downhill or enduro rider, the change to tubeless is a massive upgrade in every way, especially when done with foam inserts. A sloppy tire change is a small price to pay for being able to charge in a rock garden with peace of mind. There’s a reason why the trend of tubeless has gained so much traction over the past few years, the benefits are just too good to ignore.