Updated: Jun 1, 2021
There are several good blogs that deal with the advantages of going tubeless for mountain bike tires, but few have gone deeper into the discussion of how this really relates to you as a biker.
The biggest advantages of tubeless tires are the following: tire weight advantage, acceleration, speed and control. However, the downsides haven’t really been fully articulated for the biker to consider deeply. First of all, ask yourself the following questions:
What best describes you as a mountain biker?
How good are you with bike maintenance?
What is your current bike setup?
Not tubeless ready
How often do you mountain bike ride will classify you as a Performance Peddler, Seasonal Rider, Weekend Warrior.
The frequency, intensity, and seasonality of your riding are the first factors to consider when determining which way to go on having a tubeless set up or not regardless of whether your bike is brand new or something you’ve taken on many rides. First off, a performance peddler is a rider who is out on 2-3 rides a week or at least does 2-3 indoor riding sessions a week. Performance peddlers are keenly focused on performance and notice even minor differences in their bike’s ridability. These riders are more apt to desire the benefits of tubeless and are more willing to accept the downsides of tubeless which is largely year round maintenance. We’ll get more into maintenance further below.
What is a weekend warrior?
If you only bike one or two weekends a month and are largely out for rides on single track trails you might just be a weekend warrior. The next question here is largely about performance expectations. Some weekend riders are looking to ride hard and punish the trails as they bike off the steam from their daily grind. Often these riders typically don’t get on their bike during the week. This typically means no trainer bike rides at home for the exercise and the higher endurance training. Here’s the fork in the trail where going tubeless may be a more obvious deciding factor for you. If you tend to only mountain bike less than 6 months a year then you’re considered more of a seasonal rider. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, since in many parts of the country weather and trail conditions are a big deterrent.
If you have an existing bike that isn’t fully tubeless then you’ve got some calculations to consider. First, converting to a tubeless setup has multiple implications. First, you may need new rims and possibly tires. Figuring out if your bike is tubeless compatible will give you a sense of how much you will need to spend to upgrade to fully tubeless. Also, you’ll need rim tape and sealant. Managing the sealant if you’re new to it can be a hassle. Furthermore, there is a time component to consider. The maintenance of a tubeless setup requires more frequent work. Think of it as the difference between having a car that needs oil changes and one that doesn’t like a Tesla. If your patience and available time is low, definitely reach out to the technician at your bike show to see what they recommend for your existing bike. If you are only likely to bike one to two seasons a year, switching to tubeless may not be worth the investment and additional maintenance to keep your system running.
Tinkerer Type or Trouble with Tools?
If you consider yourself somebody that likes to tinker with tech and maintain your own bikes, you might not be opposed to the added work required to maintain a tubeless system. Think of it like you’ve decided to bake bread and use a Sourdough Starter. Just like a good starter that needs flour, sugar, and yeast, a performance biking system will require routine additions of sealant and air to keep the system working at optimal performance. Periods of long gaps in use, and spikes or drops in heat, humidity and cold are more likely to impact the health of your tubeless setup. Without adequate sealant and air, a tubeless setup will lose its ability to reduce the likelihood of flats.
Be honest about your skills: A little introspection will help you determine who’s best at maintaining your tubeless bike. Let's face it, not everyone is good with tools, has a full workbench and everything that's required for the job at hand. Without these things it's only natural to feel hesitant. Nobody wants to make their bike perform worse. Even if you don’t consider yourself a true tinkerer, admitting that and then recognizing that maintenance trips to your local bike shop is essential for optimal tubeless performance more than half of the battle will be won.
Isn’t everyone tubeless now?
While it is true that a majority of higher priced mountain bikes $2,000 and above are tubeless compatible, none are sold as fully tubeless out of the box. Why is that the case? The final steps of conversion to tubeless are done either at your favorite local bike shop or by the avid bike tinkerer that has done tubeless conversions before or who aren’t concerned about taking on a new bike project at home. The addition of the right size of tubeless rim tape, sealant and tubeless tire is a manual process that takes hours if not days to get fully right for the rider. After doing the conversion, it typically takes up 1-2 weeks for the conversion to fully settle in and allow all the components (seal tape, sealant, rim and tire) to settle in for optimal performance and adjustment.
Of Pinches and Punctures
Going all tubeless is not all about no flats and punctures. No system today is 100% flat free and puncture resistance. The terrors on the trail are always apt to puncture and tear the best of the tires when encountered at speed and force. Regardless of your riding style, biking frequency, climate, and trail conditions, if you ride you will eventually get a flat. As a novice, intermediate or advanced mountain bike rider you’ve likely experienced one of the following situations:
Pinch flat or a thorn or puncture type of damage: The pinch flat is best explained as your tire hits something hard and the tube and rim get jammed in a situation where the tube is either off center or torn. The best description is a double tear that resembles a snake like bite or tear to the tube. Not only is this huge bummer, but also in a race situation it can mean more than just your tube is torn. Your race results and potential did not finish (DNF) in the standings is sure to make you want to tear your tube and tie it in knots. Fixing a flat of this kind during a race or often a huge time sink when considering how well a patch kit could handle such damage to your tire. Frankly this makes a standard tube seem like a real weakness. If you have a tubeless set up the pinch flat is far less likely because a hard hit to a tire from a rock or a log is only likely to know some air out of the tire. This situation can be quickly fixed by a CO2 blast to the tire or not too much time if you're riding with a portable pump.
The thorn or tear type puncture is also the other common culprit of tire damage. Fortunately, both tubeless and tube tires have improved over the past 5-10 years in ways that mitigate this challenge. For the tubed tire, some have graduated to buying a lightweight latex self sealing tube or using a slime type additive. The slime additive has its drawbacks in that the slime tends to add extra weight to the tube. With any additive, maintenance is an important factor. Simply adding slime one time is not enough. This is due to the fact that the slime can dry out, seep out if you’re hitting a number of thorns and as a result not provide 100% protection at all times. The self healing tubes as a result have become more reliable recently and seem to be the go to choice for the economic buyer. However, making sure your tubes haven’t been stored in sub-optimal conditions like extreme heat, cold, humidity or dryness. Tubes don’t last forever, and weather conditions tend to reduce their shelf life, performance, and ability to resist the damage from direct hits from a rim or a thorn.
Serious mountain bikers and racers know that responsiveness and performance on the trail matter most to them. First, a tubeless tire can naturally be inflated to lower pressures without the heightened risk of pinch flats as described above. Being able to ride at lower pressures between 20 and 25 PSI means that a higher surface area is able to come into contact with the trail. This increased surface area means the rider will have more grip and traction on the trail. Secondly, let’s say we take a typical 29 inch tire for a mountain bike setup and it’s been converted to all tubeless. When completed, the decreased weight and mass of the entire tire when the tube is removed means less overall mass and resistance to push up a hill. To put it plainly, imagine having two tires that you want to roll up a ramp. One has a tube inside and the other has none. If you applied an equal force to each, the tubeless will always go further assuming it’s total mass is still lower than the tubed tire. Therefore, the laws of physics dictate that getting up hills for a mountain biker with lower mass and resistance will be easier with a tubeless setup. Overall, we may only be talking about a weight difference of 300-400 grams between one setup and another, but that difference matters when you are talking about its impact on the ability for a rider to get the maxim result of peddling on a lighter tire than a heavier one.
Downsides of Tubeless
Tubeless conversion cost: There are always downsides to any alternate system. The biggest ones for tubeless systems are maintenance and conversion cost. Let’s take the example of a brand new high performance mountain bike which is tubeless ready. Your local bike store is likely to charge about $25/tire for the conversion if you purchased the new bike from them. However, if you purchased the bike from another shop the expense could be as high as $80 to $100 depending on parts and labor. After the conversion is done it will take about 1-2 weeks for the new setup to reach its optimal level of performance where the valve, sealant, and tubeless tires are all at peak performance. Adjusting tire pressure in the first week or so won’t be out of the ordinary especially as a new rider adjusts the pressure in the new tires to accommodate their local trail conditions. If you are in the less fortunate condition of having a mountain bike that doesn’t have tubeless ready rims or tires you will be looking at a heavier investment. To get a full assessment of this cost it’s best to bring your bike to your favorite local bike shop to get a deeper look at what your setup is.
Maintenance Minding: Regardless of your riding profile of performance peddler, weekend warrior, or seasonal rider, a commitment to maintenance is a must. For the seasonal rider who may keep their bike out of use longer in whether they are in a hot, humid, or cold environment, the amount of maintenance may seem unreasonable to you. The less you ride on tubeless setup, the more likely the advantages of such a system will become disadvantages. Insufficient and dried up sealant can be the death of any good tubeless system. To deal with this make sure you know whether you are a great tinkerer or better at bringing your bike to the local shop for its seasonal maintenance. As bikes continue to become more sophisticated, once you become a tubeless fanatic your best bet may be to treat your ride to a quarterly maintenance program at home or at your favorite bike shop.
Feeling Unsettled Still?
If you've still got questions, that's totally normal. Consider the service tech pros at Louisville Cyclery. They’ll help you decide what’s the best approach based upon your riding style, current biking setup, and overall comfort and commitment level to maintenance.