QUESTION: Should I go road tubeless? Tubeless has been a game changer on my mountain bike, but I’m hearing conflicting information from other road cyclists about it. Some love it, some hate it. – William N
RBR REPLIES: I think the reason why you’re getting conflicting information is because there are a lot of different opinions about road tubeless, so there isn’t necessarily a yes or no answer about whether you should do it.
One reason people love going road tubeless is that it is very good at preventing flats because of the liquid sealant that you run inside the tire. If there is a small puncture, the sealant typically seals up the hole before you lose much pressure and can just keep riding, rather than pulling over to fix a flat. Puncture protection is one of the biggest selling points if you’re using sealant.
Another great advantage of tubeless for road bikes is that you can run a lower tire pressure without worrying about pinch flats your tube. Lower tire pressures are generally more comfortable, and also (counterintuitively) roll faster than tires with higher pressure, which means that you get increased comfort, speed and grip with low rolling-resistance to boot.
It isn’t all wine and roses though. Tubeless setup with a new tire can be a real pain, and it’s also easy to make a giant mess with the sealant. A cyclist will also need to own wheels that are designed for tubeless tires, because you are in danger of the tire blowing off the rim if it isn’t made for tubeless. (Standard clinchers don’t work and are not safe for tubeless.)
I personally have always needed to use an air compressor during initial installation, because it’s too hard to get a high enough volume of air through the tubeless valve with a floor pump. The first step is to use the compressor to pop the tire bead onto the rim and get an airtight seal. Next, I let the air back out, take out the removable cores and add tubeless sealant, put each valve core back in and air up the tire to the proper pressure. Then I’ll spin it, ride it around the block to make sure everything is ok, and check it in a few hours to make sure it’s holding air properly.
Because of the risk of the tire coming off the rim, the tires and wheels are often designed so that it’s much, much harder to get your tire on and off. So if you do get a flat anyway, from a hole too large for the sealant to plug or from a sidewall tear, you’ll still have to put a tube in to get back home. And since the tires are so tight, it can be near impossible to get the beads on and off the rim with the potential of leaving you stranded if you haven’t practiced in advance to make sure you have the skill to do it.
It’s also a terrible mess if you do get a flat and have to put a tube in, because the sealant is inside the tire and now you have to deal with that as you put in the tube. I’ve even had one instance where my tubeless valves had frozen in place so that I was not able to loosen it and get it off so that the tube’s valve stem would fit through.
Rim tape is another issue you’ll have to deal with and worry about, because the tape needs to be perfect in order for the wheel and tire to hold air at the high road tubeless pressures. It’s often challenging to get the tape exactly centered in the rim bed, and you can knock it out of place if you aren’t careful when you’re prying on tires or trying to get them off.
And there are also issues with compatibility between some tire brands and wheel brands. As an example, I was riding a set of ENVE wheels with Specialized tubeless road tires and learned that they were not compatible and could potentially blow off the rim, so I had to remove them and replace them with different tires. Since then, ENVE has set up an entire page about tire compatibility, and other wheel manufacturers sometimes have similar pages.
For gravel riding and all road riding, where you have bigger volume, wider tires of 35mm and up with lower pressures, tubeless seems to work terrific. At most gravel events, the majority of riders will be riding tubeless tires with sealant, like with mountain biking. As far as tire durability and how long they last, it as been about the same as regular clincher tires for me.
But with small volume, small widths and higher pressure tires like 25mm tubeless road bike tires, there is so little air in the tire and at such high pressure that if the sealant doesn’t plug the hole instantly, you end up losing too much air and you have to stop. With those narrower “pure road” tires, it’s not as clear to me that it’s always better to go tubeless.
If you’ve never had to change a messy sealant flat, or never had trouble getting your tire off the rim or gotten stranded, then you’re probably going to be a big road tubeless fan if you try it. But if you ever get stuck on the side of the road after sealant has sprayed all over you and your bike and the riders around you and you can’t get your tire off to put in a tube, it can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Also, that means you’re still lugging around spare inner tubes, just in case.
Readers, what do you say? Am I being too hard on road tubeless bike tires? What have been your experiences?