We get a lot of questions about tubeless mountain bike tires here on Singletracks, so I thought it was time to put together a tubeless guide. I’m not going to get into specific brands and components, but instead give you an overview of the various systems and point you in the right direction so you can choose what works best for your budget and riding style.
This is the big question: why go tubeless? There are several advantages to losing tubes. I’ll cover the general theory here, but there is a lot more detailed information out there on the web if you search for it.
Lower tire pressure: Without a tube you can run lower tire pressures without worry of pinch flatting since there’s no tube to pinch. The lower pressures will allow the tire to more easily conform to the ground, providing a more comfortable ride and more traction, as well as lower rolling resistance.
Less rolling resistance: This could be an entire post all by itself, so I’ll try to keep it quick and simple. Rolling resistance is caused by the interaction of the tire and the ground. The first thing you need to get out of your head is the old school roadie theory of high tire pressure equaling lower rolling resistance. We’re not using skinny smooth tires on a smooth hard surface. We’re using fat knobby tires on an uneven, bumpy, sometimes soft and loose surface where the physics are different. When you hit a bump the wheel either moves up and/or the tire deflects around/over the bump. This deflection requires energy, and that energy is robbed from your forward momentum, slowing you down. So the less energy it takes to deform the tire, and the less forward momentum becomes upward momentum, the less forward energy you lose. Using lower tire pressure is the easiest way to allow the tire to deform over irregularities in the trail instead of forcing the wheel upward.
When using tubes there is also friction between the tube and tire, and this friction has to be overcome to allow the tire to deform. By getting rid of the tube you get rid of that friction, and reduce the energy needed to deform the tire. For more reading on the science of rolling resistance check out this page which provides a summary of an article in a German mountain bike magazine.
Fewer flat tires: Without a tube you no longer have to worry about pinch flats since there’s no tube to pinch. In very rare cases you can pinch the tire – but I only know one person who has ever done this. Also since you’ll be using a sealant, any punctures will get sealed up without you even knowing it ever happened. If you do get a puncture the sealant can’t seal, simply install a tube like normal and continue the ride.
Improved ride feel: By getting rid of tubes you get a much better feel for what your tires are doing. The ride gets smoother, faster, easier; you have to feel it yourself to really understand. The tires even sound different!
Less weight: Weight loss is not the main advantage of tubeless, it’s just an extra perk. You may not even lose any weight, depending on which tubeless system you use.
Disadvantages: Installing tires without tubes can be a pain, and sometimes requires an air compressor. So if you like to change tires often, tubes are certainly easier.
HOW TO DO IT
There are three ways to go tubeless. You can convert non-tubeless wheels, use a tubeless-ready system, or use a UST system. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Conversion Kits: Stan Koziatek developed the first reliable and commercially available tubeless conversion kit back in 2000 when he formed NoTubes, and his kits are still the benchmark that all others are measured against. The kit helps you convert nearly any rim and tire to tubeless and retails for around $60-$70, making this the cheapest way to try tubeless since you don’t need to buy new wheels or tires.
Downsides: Kits will not give you the lightest set-up and getting the tire bead seated and holding air usually cannot be done with a floor pump – for that you’ll need an air compressor.
Some rims convert more easily than others, as do some tires. Research before you buy! Some riders have experimented with “ghetto tubeless” set ups, where they fashion their own rim strip of out a 20″ tube. Some have success with this method, but I can’t recommend it personally.
UST – Universal System for Tubeless: UST was developed by Mavic in the late 90′s. It is a tubeless standard, meaning the rim and tire bead shapes are manufactured to very specific specs with tight tolerances and for any product to bear the UST label it must go through inspection and testing to be approved. This means any UST rim is guaranteed to work with any UST tire, but tire selection isn’t great (especially for 29ers) and the tires are usually more expensive because of the approval process. Non-UST tires do not generally play well with UST rims.
UST also has the tightest fitting beads, which makes installation a pain but allows for an extremely secure bead hook which is great for truly aggressive riding (think DH racing). UST tires have an extra layer of air-tight rubber in the casing so they don’t require sealant like the other two systems, but this adds weight and makes the tires stiffer. Most riders will use sealant anyways for puncture protection. I have heard sometimes you can get the tires installed using a floor pump, but sometimes an air compressor is needed. Pretty much every rim and tire manufacturer has UST products.
Tubeless Ready: Tubeless ready is the way of the future I think. Tubeless ready rims basically allow you to use any tire – without tubes. There are tubeless-ready tires as well, with tighter fitting and stronger beads. Unlike UST, tubeless-ready set ups require sealant to make the tires air tight, and the bead shapes vary from one manufacturer to another – so some tires and rims work better together than others. Tubeless-ready tires are often easier to set up than regular tires, usually with a floor pump.
Tubeless-ready systems are generally the lightest option since many do not require the thick rubber rim strip like conversion kits (some use a rubber strip, others use lightweight tape instead) and the tires do not have the extra air-tight layer of rubber like UST. Without that extra air-tight layer in the casing, tubeless-ready tires are more supple than UST tires. Specialized, Bontrager, Geax, Hutchinson, NoTubes, and WTB all make tubeless-ready mountain bike tires. More and more manufacturers are introducing tubeless-ready tires, with Schwalbe being the latest, and Kenda promising some in the near future. But again, most standard tires can be set up tubeless on tubeless ready rims, so there are tons of tire options to choose from.
Tell us about your tubeless experiences in the comments below! What systems have you tried, what worked well, what didn’t work well, etc.