Doing it all the hard way...

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tubeless lessons learned so far

                                      At the food stop on the Ellensburg Fondo
Cycling is steeped in both tradition and mystery.  We love innovation yet we resist change. We signal other riders with an elbow flick. What is an elbow flick you ask?  I won’t tell you.  Such is cycling.


Into this world that operates on tribal knowledge and secret handshakes enters the tubeless tire. It is an awesome technology that is great as is with even more future potential.  Good luck finding any significant collection of wisdom on the subject.  Discussion threads must be taken with a degree of caution.  Reviewers can be aloof either because they want to keep some secrets to themselves or because they don’t want to expose their lack of knowledge. 

Several of our band of merry men have become early adopters of the technology.  Perhaps in violation of a secret code we have shared our successes and failures with each other.  Thus amongst ourselves we have amassed a bit of collective knowledge.  

Our body of experience includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • I’ve seen McWoodie pry a chunk of glass out of his tire with a 3mm Allen wrench then spin the tire to get it to seal and ride away.
  • I pulled a roofing staple out of my tire and rode off with almost no loss of pressure.
  • I’ve pulled off a tubeless tire (to refresh sealant) and noticed several tiny cuts that had sealed without me even knowing. 
  • An unnamed brother had a tire (that turned out not to be a tubeless tire) blow off the rim when he was inflating it showering both he and his garage with sealant.
  • El Chefe’ spent a weekend riding harsh gravel on tubeless 28mm wide Sectours when 35mm Ravens or 38mm Triggers or even 40mm Nano’s were far more appropriate.  Mr. T and I kept waiting for the attack of the flats.   It was as if he had a guardian angel.
  • Feral Dave has pulled a nail out of his tire rotated it so the leak was at the bottom, held it for thirty seconds and then rode on without any further thought. 
  • I have run my gravel bike tubeless from the start and have had only one flat in over a year of hard riding.  Pretty much too good to be true but also not that unusual for Tubeless.

We have eight or so guys riding Tubeless on multiple bikes for the past one to four years.  Let’s go out on a mathematical limb and call it about twenty years of combined Tubeless experience.

In no particular order here are the tips, tricks and lessons we have learned:

  1. Make sure you replace the sealant every four to six months.    This advice isn’t new but unlike “Wash, rinse and repeat” you should follow this suggestion.  
  2. There are two main schools of thought on sealant replacement:   The first is to not break the bead seal.   Remove the valve core and get out what you can (or not – using any method you care to try) and just add more sealant.  The second method is to remove the tire and clean the rim bead and clean the bead of the tire BUT NOT THE INSIDE OF THE TIRE WHERE THE SEALANT HAS SEALED HOLES.  Then remount like it is a new tire. Finally the hybrid is to remove only one side leaving the other bead sealed.  Clean the exposed bead and rim and pour the sealant right into the tire and put the bead back in place and re-inflate.
  3. Any time you have the inside of the rim and valve exposed clean out the inside of the valve to get out any accumulated sealant.   I suggest leaving the valve in the rim and removing the core and using a paper clip to fish out any sealant from the rim side.
  4. Sidewalls are the Achilles heel of tubeless.  A gash in the sidewall is the end of a tubeless tire.  You may be able to use the tire later with a tube but sidewall cuts are never going to seal.  If you want to avoid this then run higher pressure.  If the ride de jour will be on some rough terrain go ahead and increase your pressure.  
  5. CO2 is an expensive way to mount a tubeless tire.  Think of it as a last resort.  "I'm miles from an air compressor and if this doesn't work I'm taking up jogging." Often it doesn't have enough volume to seat the bead. Also the CO2 inhibits the sealant from doing its job. Adjust your plans accordingly.
  6. I’ve become a fan of the hack inflator.   Here is the link.   In the next couple years I am sure there will be retail products that are reasonably priced that don’t inspire you to don bomb squad attire prior to use.  Until then I’ll just keep wrapping my inflator with more duct tape and wearing my ski goggles.
  7. If ever you can’t get the tire bead to seal try removing the valve core so you can get more air in faster.  This is especially true of valves that may have accumulated some sealant in them thus restricting the airflow.
  8. Carry a boot along with your spare tube (or two) in case you get a sidewall cut.   If you don’t know what a boot is then ask someone you trust.
  9. If a new tire is proving difficult to mount the soapy water thing works. 
  10. Some rim and tire combinations work better than others.  Before you assume you are a stud consider that you may have just been lucky.   The inverse is also true.
  11. Several rims have a deeper channel in the middle. This is the lifesaver because it gives the bead a place to go so when you are prying off the bead on the opposite side you can actually do it.  One of our brothers has a mason jar full of busted tire levers from trying to pry off a tire without pinching the bead down into the channel when fixing a flat. 
  12. Since Fat Tire bikes have come into existence after the popularization of tubeless most of the rims and tires have been designed with tubeless in mind.   My limited experience has been that getting those to seal is stupid easy.  
  13. The weak link in the fat bike tubeless chain sidewall seal when riding on dirt.  All that rubber and good disc brakes can bring a lot of mass to a rapid stop.  With such low pressure the strain of that hard stop stresses the bead and rim seal because the tire (in contact with the ground) wants to keep going and the rim (in contact with the disc brake) wants to stop.  If the seal breaks free you will lose a bit of air but it will generally re-seal.  Adding a bit more air in these situations is prudent. 
  14. Folks who are much smarter than me tell me they can patch a sidewall and reuse the tire tubeless.  I'm not sure if I believe them........
  15. Tubeless tires are great until they aren’t.  If you can’t get a leak to reseal right away, just accept it and put in a tube. Resign yourself to the fact that the tire change isn’t going to be quick, clean or easy. 
  16. Limping home is more of an option.  Sometimes you can’t get a hole to seal and hold the pressure you want to ride.  You may find you can’t get your tire to seal and hold thirty psi (or eighty five psi on  road tire) but it will hold twenty (or forty on a road tire) letting you ride home and avoid the hassle of putting in a tube.The good news is often at home you can let the sealant cure and the next day you can ride at full pressure. 
  17. Remember the way to get a hole to seal is to find the hole, clear out anything that is sticking in it like a thorn or nail or glass or stale.  Then rotate the hole to the bottom and let the sealant accumulate over the hole and seal it.  Pause for a minute in this mode.  That minute may seem like a long time, since you are kind of doing nothing but it goes by much faster than the ten minutes to put in a tube.  If you need more air keep the hole at the bottom and put in more air.
  18. How do you know you have a flat ?  Aside from the tire going flat you may see or hear something slapping the frame or fork or see or feel sealant spewing out of a hole. 
  19. When repairing a flat during a ride just break one bead's seal. Leave the other in place, don't mess around with the sealant. Just take out the valve, put in the tube, place the boot if necessary, reinstall the bead and inflate the tire. Your hands will not get too dirty and most of the sealant will stay in the tire.
  20. Using tape to cover (aluminum) rims even if they have no spoke holes as a protection against corrosion. Some sealants let some aluminum rim alloys corrode. I have already seen many destroyed rims. So make sure the tape covers every part of the rim where sealant might otherwise touch the rim during use. 
  21. Nothing else is an air compressor.  Air compressors are awesome.  
  22. The Bontrager Flash isn't an air compressor, but it is pretty handy
  23. Because of tolerance issues some manufacturers (and I’m making eye contact with Hutchinson as I say this) have purposely designed their products on the extreme end of the tolerances.  Stan’s seems to make their rims a tad bigger and Hutchinson seems to make their tire beads a bit tighter.  The resulting wresting match is predictable.  Hard to install and remove, but solid once in place.  Schwalbe, Kenda and Clement (who doesn’t really claim tubeless compatibility) fit looser. 
  24. Converting a clincher rim to tubeless is okay if it is the right rim.  DT Swiss rims work well as tubeless rims.  Mavic Open Pros do not make good tubeless rims.  A rim designed to be tubeless is superior.
  25. More air works better.   A tubeless road tire (25-28mm) has a small volume but the pressure is high at 65-95 psi.  A tubeless mountain bike tire (2.0”+) has more volume so you run it at 20-30 psi.   A fat bike tire has huge volume thus it can be run at comically low pressure (3-9 psi) with great results.  A gravel or cross tire features the dangerous combination of small volume (32-38mm) and low pressure.    More volume = better tubeless performance and for 700c rims that mean wider tires. 
  26. Get a handheld pressure gauge and use it.  Other people's pumps read very different from your regular pump and even 5 psi can make huge difference on a mountain bike or gravel bike. 
  27. Everyone I know that is riding gravel keeps going wider and wider each time they replace their tires.   As a group we’ve gone from 32 to 34/35 to 38 and some of us are even running 40’s.  Lower pressure, more traction and fewer flats all sound good to me.
  28. Stan’s sealant works.  Orange Seal works too.  Until I hear of something that is better these I have no reason to look any further.  Orange Seal is orange so it gets my nod.
  29. You have a lot of options when it comes to rim tape.  Stan’s rim tape is actually a commercially available packing tape that you can find on eBay and Amazon but you need to buy a dozen rolls. For my fat bike tubeless conversion I used 75mm wide Gorilla Tape and it worked just fine.  El Chefe’ likes Orange Seal tape.  It all seems to work.
  30. Everything I’ve read says the Stan’s valves are the best.  I have used them exclusively and have never had a valve problem. You may need to get creative when you install a tubeless valve on a single wall fat bike rim but it seems that any of an assortment of creative options works. 
  31. Narrow road rims may present a challenge with valve stem taking up too much real estate inside preventing the tire bead from seating on the rim.  You can file down what will be the outside of the valve stem rubber before inserting it making the rubber more of a rectangle as opposed to a circle. 
  32. When dismounting a tire from the rim always put in the (two) tire levers next to the valve. After you have put the whole bead into the center of the rim. NEVER put a tire lever close to a spoke hole but always in between spoke holes as you might otherwise damage the tubeless tape.
  33. ADVANCED CLASS - RARELY something is defective.  A rim can be defective as can a particular tire. If a tire comes off the rim either in the garage or when riding here is the course of action from the Grand Dragon of Bicycle Maintenance:
    -For a thorough safety check, don proper safety attire (goggles, earplugs) and over inflate your tire.  If your system (wheel plus tire) cannot handle an extra 25-50% load, it’s probably not safe enough to ride.  And if your sidewalls may be worn and weak, this is a good way to find out

    -To confirm the tire is truly mounted and sealed well, whenever possible let your newly installed tire sit overnight.  Check for any loss of air pressure before going for the first ride.


If I have scared you off then I have failed.  My objective was to capture and share our combined learning for your benefit.   If you have been on the fence about going Tubeless I would encourage you to do it.  It is a bit of a leap of faith because you will never know how many flats you don’t get. 

In my experience I have never had a road flat when riding tubeless tires.  That says something doesn't it?

1 comment:

Adam Van Dyke said...

Thanks for the good Tips Dave, sure could have used some of these this last year I've been trying, especially turn hole down, wait and see... Another tip just cause a michelin mud2 can setup tubeless well does not mean it is a good tubeless tire, sidewalls are too thin and supple to ride at tubeless pressures even at my 165# weight, pinch flatting two sidewalls while running tubeless, though not at the same time...Specialized cross tires have so far been very good to me, other than a thorn flat on the trigger 33's while on a gravel ride that I should have turned down and waited on, instead of seeing it not seal, putting in a tube and inflating then pinching the tube ridding down the next gravel hill, doh at least I had one more tube on me and friends on the ride.
And finding a good sweet spot for the terra's for cross, about 23/25 or so has been a revaluation, wow.
Just picked up some Sector 28's on sale but still haven't set them up, the specialized turbo pro 28's with tubes are working good as a winter road tire on the fendered surly cross check so far, but have them as back up or possible tires for Euphrata or Goldendale. Adam V