Should I Use Tubeless Tires for My Bike?
In recent years, there’s been a noticeable uptick in the number of cyclists using tubeless tires. These have been the norm for many years for automobiles, so it’s not surprising to see them gaining traction among cyclists.
Tubeless tires do come with some distinct benefits, but they’re not the right solution for every cyclist. As a longtime road rider, Coach Darryl MacKenzie has long been hesitant to make the switch.
Should you wait to get on the tubeless trend? Or are these a good option for your cycling needs? We’ll explore the pros and cons of tubeless tires here to help you decide when they may be a good fit.
How Do Tubeless Tires Work?
Traditional bike tires don’t actually hold air themselves. The tire is a shell that provides structure and traction for riding, but it requires an inner tube to actually hold air. That’s why the term “flat tire” has always been a misnomer for cycling — it’s really your tube that goes flat, not the tire.
Unlike traditional tires, tubeless tires hold air directly between the tire and the rim, without the need for a tube. This requires a firm seal between the rim and the bead that runs around the edge of your tire, along with a special liquid sealant. Tubeless tires only work with rims designed to fit them.
There are many benefits to tubeless tires, but the most notable one is that they can drastically reduce the number of flat tires. Especially if you use the sealant properly and ensure your tires are properly seated, road debris is much less likely to cause a ride-stopping flat.
That said, tubeless tires have some significant downsides. The tires are much more expensive when you consider the cost of sealant, special valves and rim strips, so your upfront costs are higher even if you may save on tubes in the long run. You also may want to buy an air compressor for faster inflation, as it’s important to get a quick seal when installing.
The sealant itself is quite messy — one of Darryl’s cycling friends calls it the “snotty fluid.” You have to refill it a few times a year, and if you do get a flat, it can be extremely unpleasant to deal with the mess.
You Can Never Ride Completely Tube Free
Perhaps one of the biggest downsides of tubeless tires is a hidden one: You really can’t leave tubes completely behind. Flats may be less frequent, but you always have to be prepared for them. And when they do happen in the middle of a ride, you’ll need a tube for a temporary fix.
That means you’ll still need to carry spare tubes with you on every ride. Plus, if you do have to fix a flat, inserting tubes into tubeless tires can create more hassle. Although the steps for fixing a flat are still the same, you’ll probably get messy from handling all the sealant inside your tire while trying to insert the backup tube. You’ll also need to be particularly careful when seating the tube in place and inflating the tire, as it’s much easier to pinch a tube on a rim designed for a tubeless tire. If that happens, you’ll be right back to square one — and down a spare tube.
Especially if you’re under pressure to change a flat quickly on a group ride, those extra minutes can add up and lead to frustration.
Are Tubeless Tires a Good Idea?
All in all, that’s a fairly even set of pros and cons for tubeless tires. So how do you decide whether tubeless is a good option for you? A lot of it comes down to the type of cycling you do.
“Tubeless tires work better under low pressure,” Coach Darryl explains. “A leak in sealant under high pressure makes a huge mess.”
Ultimately, that means tubeless tires are a better choice for large tires that can operate under lower pressures (if you prefer lower pressure). That leads to a general rule for cyclists when it comes to tubeless tires:
“Always for mountain, sometimes for gravel, and rarely for road tires,” says Darryl. “It may vary depending on the individual cyclists, terrain and local customs, but this is a good rule of thumb.”
For many cyclists, tubeless tires may be more trouble or cost than they’re worth. But, especially for off-road riders, they can be a good choice. To decide if they’re right for you, consider your type of riding (and patience for dealing with the occasional mess).
Photo by Priscila Almeida at Pexels