One day on a long ride, I thought “how nice it would be, if there were tubeless bicycle tires”. I came back home, got a wheel, removed rim tape, and started rolling gorilla tape around it. A few times. Then, I got an old inner tire, cut around the valve, and taped it to the rim same way. I have some spare tires around. Put one on, ran the compressor, and after about 30 minutes and lots of detergent dispersing, my first ghetto tubeless conversion done!
I was so sure nobody thought it before, and was very proud of myself. Then did a Youtube search, and shamefully, lots of videos came up, mostly about ghetto tubeless conversions!
For a long time, I was very happy with my conversion, in fact, I even ordered some fancy latex compounds that claims to seal the tire for air tightness, and claims to seal small holes. Very nice so far.
Then, one day, I probably cornered hard and pressure was not enough, so the tire lost air completely and instantly. Obviously, my small hand pump didn’t help. Walked a few kilometers back home – that was my last tubeless adventure for quite a long time.
I’ ve always been the guy who wants to try out new TECHNICAL stuff, even its risky, expensive, not well tested or uncharted. I’m the one that who quits using a perfectly well serving product to try out a new one, hoping that’s gonna be better.
Wisdom comes by age, if it ever will. I loved the tubeless tire idea, because tubes are heavy, makes tires less conformant, and …everybody uses them. Maybe there is certain wisdom in it that for 100 years, people are using inner tubes. My first experience was not a disaster, though obviously a bad one.
Do we need tubeless tires, after all ?
Tubeless tires are nice-to-haves. They ride smooth, also you save considerable watts both due to better compliance with road and less weight. Everything is way better until you get a flat.
There are great similarities with bike tires and car tires: they are both round and rubber. And that’s pretty much it 🙂 Air tightness in bike tires is one issue; the other being flats. There are, unfortunately, many pitfalls with tubeless tires:
1. With high pressure applications, tire sealants don’t work
The magic of the sealant is, it quickly dries out to plug a hole, in seconds. Meanwhile, you lose air. If the tire is narrow, and the pressure is high, like road tires, sealant fails, because air escapes both fast and quite fiercely – given that the tire already have quite small air volume, it does not work nice with road tires, or some narrow gravel tires with pressures over 40 psi.
With car tires, we don’t need sealants, because they have thick and steel reinforced rubber,sturdy sidewalls and low pressure, which is completely a different, and not an agreeable upon thing on bike tires.
2. Roadside repairs are messy
If you get a flat tubeless tire, the most viable approach is to use an inner tire until you get home, or a nearby service. (if you don’t haul a compressor with your trailer) This is still quite messy, time taking and ugly. The latex compound is sticky. It’s generally easier to fix the tire then cleaning up yourself. Besides, you have to remove tubeless valve first, if you’ re lucky enough to have a viable tool handy. Then, you put your old friend into the rim, and pump it up. Tire is fixed, but now your rim and tire is covered with sticky latex, pulling all the debris like a magnet. And your hands, tools are a sticky mess now.
3. You’ll need a compressor
You need to remove your tires, clean and refill sealant periodically. It’s advised to do this every 6 months, but there is quite a lot of speculation there. I had a one wheelset with 1 year old latex, still going strong. Sometimes, I found that it completely goes flat after 2-3 months. This means, you have to seat, remove, replace tires at least a few times in a year. Floor pumps with added tanks can be helpful, but nothing will replace a decent compressor, at least 25 liters. Some tires and rims can be stubborn; especially if you go ghetto. I successfully converted very old rims and tires which most people had absolutely zero success with it. I’m pretty skillful with ghetto conversions, because I practiced a lot. Say, like a few days, whole day, trying chemicals, techniques, tools which works best. I’m also very determined and incredibly patient with such things, but I don’t expect normal people have OCD with tubeless. So, at least, get a compressor if you want tubeless tires. “Special” floor pumps are not cheap, sometimes more expensive then a second hand compressor.
4. Sealant dries out
Eventually, sealants dry out, sooner or later. My experience is that they become useless somewhere between 3 to 12 months. Sealants are not cheap, and inner tires are probably more cost efficient on long run.
5. Chemicals are not good for tires
Tires are mechanically very durable, but chemically not. I lost a plenty of tires to the UV. Petroleum, or its derivatives destroys tires. Most chemicals are not good for tires, and we don’t know much about tire sealants yet. Brands like Mavic advice against these chemicals, saying they corrode rims and harms tires. It can be a waiver, or a solid scientific fact; I don’t know. I also don’t know and don’t want to speculate that every compound is harmful; this is stupid without some science-backed evidence; but I’m also old enough to see how major companies marketed snake oils, or worse, harmful products for almost anything, including health.
I still want tubeless, so…
I quit tubeless tires a while ago, but I really miss them. I’m busy and maybe a bit lazy these days to build an extra set of wheels, but if I do, I will return back to tubeless, on one spare wheelset. If you have just one bike and happy with the setup, you may get a spare wheelset for cheap, and ride tubeless. The reason behind it is, in a tubeless setup, when you get a flat, it takes too much time to clean up and redo, if you want to do it properly. With bikes, you have to do things properly, because otherwise, you’ll always regret it later.
I was happy with ghetto conversions. I did not had any extra problems then others having wheelsets and tires meant for tubeless. For ghetto setups, tires and rims are important. But without even the most problematic combinations, you can achieve it. It just takes too much time sometimes, and patience.
Ghetto tubeless conversions worked for me quite well, but do not try these with road tires and rims. Besides, I wouldn’t even ride a “proper” tubeless setup out of the box. I’m not convinced about road tubeless.
When new, tubeless conversions are advertised as “lightweight”. They are not. You generally add more sealant in weight then the inner tire, and even worse, this weight rotates with the wheel, which is not nice in any sense. Imagine how much wobble you get on a car rim, just missing a 10gr lead. This is even worse because that sprung weight is closer to tire edge.
Tubeless certified tires are also heavier then our ordinary good old friends. Sealants need a larger area to work better, and in the case of holes, “large area” meaning thicker tires.
To sum it up…
We have to admit that tubeless tires on bikes are chasing a dream that will never come true. The tires that can withstand thorns can never be lighter. We will always need those latex or similar chemicals unless we have lightweight, bulletproof tire compounds, which is very unlikely. Automotive industry is working on it for decades, and their only viable solution is airless tires for now; unless you are OK with super heavy and not so good tires.