Tubeless tire and wheel technology is not new to mountain, cyclocross or gravel bikes. Road cyclists have been slower to adopt this technology – and I am firmly in this camp – until recently.
I was skeptical at first and didn’t see the need to go tubeless on the road. My rationale was a lack of choice of tire options, the perception that tubeless tires are harder to install and more complicated to maintain than tires, and I know how to change a tube quickly. As a rider who started racing on tubulars and switched to clinchers years ago, I just didn’t know much about using tubeless tires and sealant for my wheels, but I have seen many YouTube videos of sealant incidents and have heard some riders complaining about maintenance issues. .
Although I’m not a weight-weenie and I know that aerodynamics is more important than weight for road cycling I would say tubeless tires and sealant weigh a lot more than tires and tubes. According to my scale, a 28mm Continental GP 5000s ready for tubeless tire weighs 264g; 50ml of latex putty weighs about 50g. A similarly sized Continental GP 5000 with a Vittoria latex inner tube tips my scales at 300g. The combined 28g extra weight in the tubeless setup is insignificant considering the total weight of me and my bike – 81,000g.
Another factor in my reluctance to go tubeless was the lack of options and the availability of tubeless road tires. After the two Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) and Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) won the postponed 2021 Paris-Roubaix race on tubeless tires in very difficult conditions, the nascent road tire technology was both mature enough for widespread use in the professional ranks.
A quick look at the websites of major bike manufacturers shows that tubeless and tubeless-ready wheels and tires are now standard equipment on entry-level bikes costing less than $1,000 and on professional level costing over $15,000. I can run road tires as narrow as 25mm or as wide as 32mm (depending on my bike frame), for use in almost any weather condition or road surface.
Although I generally like to be on the cutting edge of the latest and greatest in cycling technology, I was a late adopter of tubeless tires. These are five things I learned after switching from tube to tubeless tires on my road bike.
1. Tubeless tires cost more than clinchers, but there are plenty of other options
Tubeless tires cost more than comparable clincher tires, but more tubeless tire options are available. While the compound and tread profile may be similar to clincher variants, the sealed carcass and bead of tubeless tires require greater precision and care to produce, and any increased cost is passed on to consumers. I reluctantly accepted that my bike might weigh a few grams more while my wallet a few grams less.
I always want to have at least one complete set of tires for each of my bikes in reserve, so when I see tubeless tires listed for sale, even if I only save shipping or the equivalent of the sales tax, I’m considering buying them.
2. Installing Tubeless Tires Requires Learning New Skills
Fitting tubeless tires is slightly different from throwing a tire on a wheel, inserting a tube in it, and then rolling. I learned and practiced a new process for mounting tubeless tires, which can be more difficult to mount on rims than on tires. The most efficient method of sliding tires onto rims is to fit the tire beads into the center channel of the rim. The first few times I stressed my thumbs and even broke a few tire levers (but not worried about pinching the inner tubes) even applying the pro mechanics’ tips and tricks for mounting the tires to the wheels. I have learned from experience that some tires just have a very tight fit.
I’m 100% successful in getting the tires on the rims with a little patience (and maybe some swearing too) and using a plastic tire iron if necessary. I use a pump with charging chamber which has a maximum capacity of 160PSI to effectively seat tires. I have yet to try using any type of spray application or using a tool specifically designed for tire installation. Put a strip or two of Teflon plumber’s tape around the valve threads where it is held in place by a nut to help prevent air from escaping once a tire is mounted. Some wheel manufacturers maintain a list of favorite tires, as well as tires to avoid, so I make sure I know which tires shouldn’t be used with some of my wheels and research performance alternatives.
It was unavoidable to get sealant on my hands, rims, spokes, tires and floor when swapping tires or filling sealant until I started using an injector to force sealant into the tire through the valve. I always take care to protect my brake rotors and cassette with a rag to prevent sealant contamination.
Admittedly, sealant is more complicated to use than a tube, and I still have trouble getting incredibly tight tires on some rims. But the trade-offs achieved, especially the self-healing punctures offered by the tire sealant, are well worth the learning curve.
3. The inflation of tubeless tires is much lower than tires, but provides a smoother ride
Another benefit of using tubeless tires is using lower tire pressure for better grip and more comfort. Previously used to inflating 26mm clincher tires to 80 psi, I had to realign my expectations for tubeless tires. From experience, I have found that different brands of tires with similar widths require different inflation pressures. I use four less PSI in a 28mm Conti 5000s TR than a comparable Schwalbe Pro One. It might not seem like a lot, but the difference is a big percentage and feels great when riding. Like the latex inner tubes in tires, tubeless tires require filling with air before each ride.
Finding the optimal tire pressure is as much art as science. Start by using a tire pressure calculator, which takes into account my weight, tire size, road surface and weather conditions, then I rode a few rides to assess how my bike handled and how it felt. Asking other tubeless tire enthusiasts for their closely guarded tire pressure secrets can be hit or miss. Through experience, I have learned not to be afraid of under-inflation of tubeless tires of a few PSI – something I never do with tube tires.
4. Tubeless tire repair and maintenance is different from clincher tires
I used to brag that I could replace an inner tube in about two minutes while standing on the side of the road. I was not timed during plug and inflate a tubeless tire, and that’s a skill I’ve only practiced when needed. I always ride with a tire patching tool and some CO2 cartridges, plus a spare TPU inner tube, like a Tubolito, just in case a tire plug doesn’t get me home. I don’t intentionally plan to drill holes in tubeless tires just to practice using a tire plugging tool, but I’ve found from experience that using a road tire plug with a pointed tip works better. Ask friends for advice on tire sealing and also watch some YouTube videos on how to repair a tubeless tire home is my favorite place to learn new skills.
One of the sins of cycling that I remain guilty of is not topping up the tubeless sealant at any time. Different sealant manufacturers provide different recommendations on when to refill tire sealant, which can dry inside tires. Most modern tubeless ready wheels and tires have a sealed interface at the rim, so the main purpose of the sealant is to seal punctures when they occur.
5. I prefer tubeless tires to tube tires
I have two bikes that still need standard tires and tubes, but I much prefer the ride quality and puncture-protected feel my bikes have with tubeless tires. One of the reasons I didn’t switch to tubeless tires earlier was the lack of tubeless tire size and tread options for junkies and hookless bead rims. This lack of options wasn’t a hindrance before, but it was frustrating. Some manufacturers were slow to adopt a standard that offered compatibility for both hooked and hookless bead tires, but now there are so many choices from Specialized, Vittoria, Schwalbe, Pirelli, Continental, Goodyear and others.
There is a tubeless road tire in almost every width, for almost every purpose and in a wide price range.
These are the tubeless tires that I ride
I’ve been a longtime fan of the Continental Grand Prix 5000 clincher tires, so I quickly put the second generation of the tubeless variant on a few sets of my wheels. On the advice of a few wheel makers and also some friends who have more experience with tubeless tires, I also wrapped a set of wheels in Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tires. With even more options available from these two tire brands, I now have more tire choices than axles, which isn’t the worst first-world problem to have.
For a very long time, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about tubeless tires. Before switching to tubeless, I was reluctant and unconvinced by the application for on-road riding. What I’ve learned about tubeless tires is that they provide a more comfortable ride, are great at preventing punctures, have more options than tires, and yes, they cost a bit more and weigh a bit more, but the change is worth it.