When you first starting riding mountain bike trails, it’s highly likely you started hearing all sorts of specialized words and terms that made no sense to you. It’s also likely that one of the phrases you’ve heard often has something to do with “tubeless tires.” What in the world are tubeless tires, and what are the advantages to running them on your mountain bike?
Tubeless Mountain Bike Tires Explained
The concept of tubeless tires is actually quite simple, though the execution may not be. Simply put, running tubeless tires on your mountain bike is exactly what it sounds like—there’s no tube in your tire. So how do you air the tires up? How do the tires stay inflated?
The first thing you need to know is that to use tubeless tires on your bike, you need to have tubeless-ready wheel rims as well as tubeless-ready tires. Yes, the truth is that you may be able to do a ghetto tubeless conversion on your existing rims using Gorilla tape, but there’s no guarantee the setup will work. Feel free to learn how to do a ghetto conversion on your wheels—especially if you’re the handy type—but prepare for frustration and failure. It’s literally a hope for the best but expect the worst situation.
The better—and yes, more expensive—option is to either purchase a bike that comes with tubeless-ready rims and tires (many new mountain bikes do nowadays), or purchase new rim and tires that are made for the challenge. Here at NTX Trails, the first thing we do when we get a new or used bike that’s not already setup tubeless is drop it off at our favorite local bike shop and have the mechanics perform the conversion. Most shops will do it for $25-50, and we believe it’s worth every penny.
So, how is it done? In short, special tape is applied to the inside of the wheel to cover the spoke holes and create an air-tight barrier. Then, as the tire is mounted, a special sealant such as Stan’s NoTubes, Slime, or Orange Seal is poured into the tire. Once mounted, the tire is inflated, the bead set, and the wheel spun around in various directions to coat the inside of the tire and rim with sealant. Used properly, the sealant does exactly what it sounds like it should do—it protects against flats by sealing holes and punctures.
Benefit #1: Fewer Flats
The primary benefit of running tubeless tires is the flat protection you’ll gain. Since there are no tubes to puncture, you don’t have to worry about flatting out as often along the trail. With a tubeless setup using sealant, you can pick up thorns, nails, and other potential ride-enders because the sealant will close up the puncture and keep you riding. Of course, there is a limit to how large a hole the sealant will close up, but for most punctures you’ll be able to keep rolling. For those few punctures that bring you to a stop, you’ll probably be able to keep yourself going with a good tubeless plug kit and a frame pump or CO2 inflators.
In addition, running tubeless eliminates the dreaded pinch flat—also known as a snakebite puncture. This kind of flat happens during an impact on the trail where the inner tube gets pinched between the rim and the tire, causing catastrophic holes in the tube. Tubeless makes such punctures a thing of the past.
Just be sure to check your sealant fairly often. The nice thing is that the more you ride, the longer your sealant will last. If you go too long between rides then the sealant can pool up in your tires and harden into a goopy rock. Even in the off-season, it’s a good idea to manually spin your tires around or take your bike for a spin around the block once a week or so to keep the sealant distributed.
Tip: It’s a good idea to carry at least one tube in your saddle bag or taped to your frame when you head down the trail. Tubeless sealant can’t fix everything, and even a good patch kit won’t help if you’ve slashed your tire or gotten a large enough puncture. Having a spare tube may make the difference between walking and riding back to the trailhead.
Benefit #2: Better Traction
A tubeless setup allows you to use lower tire pressures in the absence of inner tubes. What’s the big deal? Lower pressures means a “softer” tire, and a softer tire means more contact with the ground—called a wider contact patch. The wider your tire’s contact patch, the better your traction and grip along the trail. Many riders find they not only have better all-around traction, but can suddenly corner faster with more control, and are able to float over roots and rocks at higher speeds.
The average rider can lower their tire pressure 15-20 PSI when running a tubeless setup. Not only that, but tubeless tires allow for much more variation in pressure. Many riders change their tire pressure based on the terrain and trail conditions they’ll be riding that day. One downside to larger contact patches is that you’ll experience more resistance which can lead to slower rotational velocity. This is where PSI experimentation comes in handy. Play with your pressure until you find that sweet spot that feels just right for you.
Benefit #3: Smoother Ride
In addition, a softer tire can “wrap” around objects along the trail and serves as a sort of added suspension—this is why some riders prefer plus size or fat tires—which translated into a smoother all-around experience. Related to the traction issue above, lower tire pressure allows your bike to absorb impacts, especially in those gnarly technical sections filled with roots and rocks. Your tire is also less likely to lose traction and spin out when attempting technical climbs where you’re applying a great deal of force to your bike.
Use caution and don’t go too low on the air pressure when riding a gnar-fest. Low pressures can lead to rim damage due to impacts to the wheel. In addition, the air pressure is part of what’s keeping your tire set to the rim—go too low and the tire’s bead will possibly get unseated from the rim under enough force. Again, adjust your tire pressure until you find the zone that allows for great traction without endangering yourself or your bike.
Benefit #4: Lower Rotational Weight
While we’re no fan of weight weenies around here, we have to admit that the Laws of Physics still apply to cycling. Why is that important? Because the fact is that the heavier your tires and wheels, the more effort it takes for you to get them rotating rapidly enough to propel you forward. So, while we’re not in favor of spending big bucks to shave a few grams off your bike, we are huge fans of spending the money it takes to go tubeless (because of all the other benefits listed here), which will probably end up shaving some rotational weight from your bike.
Think about it, the average mountain bike inner tube weighs about 0.45 pounds. If you’re running plus size or fat bike tires, then your tubes probably weigh between half a pound to a pound. So, it seems like a no-brainer to spend the money to get all of the benefits listed here AND shave almost a pound or more of rotational weight from your wheelset. However, keep in mind that as you refresh your sealant over time you’re adding more weight to your tires. It’s a good habit to completely scour the insides of your tires after every few sealant refreshes.
Benefit #5: Long-Term Cost Savings
It’s hard to say how much money you’ll end up saving going tubeless, but it’s pretty safe to say you’ll save something. Depending on how much you had to spend to purchase tubeless-ready wheels and rims, it may be a long time before you see any savings. But if you purchased a fairly new bike that came tubeless-ready from the factory, your initial $25-50 investment to get the tubeless conversion done will probably save you quite a bit in the first year.
The average mountain bike inner tube runs up to $10-15 or more, so replacing just two tubes will pretty much justify the expense of paying a shop for the tubeless setup. Plus, the more aggressively you begin to ride your bike, the more likely you’re going to encounter conditions in which tubes would fail. It’s safe to say—based on our own experience—you would probably experience flat tires on about one-third of your rides or more. If you ride a lot, that adds up pretty quickly.
Tip: When you get your tires setup tubeless at the shop, make sure you ask for the tubes that they pull out of the tires. Why buy a new set of emergency tubes when you can simply reuse what you already own?
That’s it for our take on why you should go tubeless. You’ll get fewer flats, better traction, a smoother ride, and both weight and cost savings. What have we missed? Let us know in the comments.
Have fun, ride smart, and keep shredding!