Road cycling has changed greatly in the past decade. We have the majority of bikes now using disc brakes with wider wheels and tires, and we are seeing bikes get lighter and even more aerodynamic than ever before. One thing that has taken the road bike world by storm is tubeless tires, and in this article, we're going to tell you what it is and break down the advantages and disadvantages of this new technology.
In bringing together the real science around tubeless wheels we have taken a great deal of information from the www.bicyclerollingresistance.com website. If you want to get comprehensive data around your tire choices and set up, this website is invaluable. A pro membership, which gives you access to more comprehensive data is only a few $$ and the information is priceless!
Note we are talking about hooked tubeless here, we do not believe the very low pressures required for road hookless (to stop the tire blowing off the rim!) are of any benefit to road riding.
What is a Tubeless Setup?
Like many other things, such as disc brakes, tubeless technology has been passed down from mountain biking. Tubeless is a system where you have sealant instead of an inner tube filling your tire. This sealant allows your tires to self-heal while riding and also means you can run lower pressures without the risk of pinch flats.
As a wheel company, a question we get asked often is what are the advantages and disadvantages of running tubeless. In this article, we're going to tell you everything you need to know so when it comes to riding your road bike you can pick the right system for you.
What are the Pros of Tubeless Tires
Tubeless has a lot of advantages, and if you're considering them, here are the advantages you can expect to get.
A tubeless tire can run at a much lower pressure than a typical tire with an inner tube. This can improve the traction on the road and off-road without the risk of getting pinch flats. Running lower pressures can also increase the comfort while riding your bike because it's much better at absorbing bumps and rough roads. (But, see note on performance below)
One of the best things about tubeless is the tires have the ability to self-heal when you get a puncture. Providing that the damage isn't too bad to the tire, you can continue rolling, and the sealant will block the hole. Then you can either carry on with a slightly lower pressure or stop and pump your tire pressure up.
Easy to Repair
Let's say you have a puncture and the sealant isn't able to fix it. Instead of having to change a tube, you can use what they call a tubeless plug. This is a small device with small strips of rubber which you push into the tire to help it seal. After plugging, you pump it back up, and it should be ready to go. If the hole is too big and you can't plug it, you can still throw a tube in.
When you take into account the weight of a wheelset, you don't often think about the tires and the tubes. You can't ride without tires, but you can ride without tubes. The average weight of a road bike inner tube is roughly 120g, and the sealant is roughly around 30g. This saves you roughly 90g per wheel, so 180g in total on your wheels which is incredible weight saving.
Less Rolling Resistance
Another incredible feature of a tubeless system is that you get much less rolling resistance. When you use inner tubes, you get friction between the inner tube and the tire's casing, creating rolling resistance. You don't get this when using a tubeless system, so you eliminate a decent amount of rolling resistance, making you faster.
What are the Cons of Tubeless Tires
Although on the surface, tubeless might seem like the best idea ever, there are some things we would recommend thinking about before going out and buying all the parts you might need. These are the disadvantages of tubeless tires.
Tubeless setups save you money on replacing inner tubes, but they are not cheap to set up. The first thing you will need to consider is whether your wheels are tubeless-ready. If not, you will need a conversion kit. Secondly, are your tires tubeless compatible? If not, you will need to invest in some, which are typically more expensive than a regular tire. Then there are other things to worry about, such as tubeless valves. You will also need sealant, which needs replacing if it runs out or dries up.
Using inner tubes is a very simple process, and setting up a set of wheels doesn't take long. When it comes to tubeless tires, they are a little more complicated to get going. Firstly you will need a boost pump with a chamber for most tubeless tires. Then you will need to seat the tire, insert the fluid through the tubeless valve and ensure that air is not leaking. Even after all this, they might still lose air and will need a good ride to seal completely.
It can get messy
When you have tubeless tires and get a puncture, it doesn't always seal. Although incredible technology, the system can't take huge gashes in tires. In this scenario, you will need to put a tube inside wherever you may be. This is quite a messy job, and when you get sealant all over yourself and your hands, it starts to dry and gets sticky. Note also if you travel by plane and have to deflate your tires things can get very messy, very quickly and re inflation can be a problem at the other end.
How much does it cost to go tubeless?
Going tubeless, as mentioned before, isn't the cheapest system to use, but it does come with many benefits. A question we are often asked is how much does it cost to go tubeless? Here's our breakdown for going tubeless if you already have tubeless compatible wheels or tubeless rim tapes already installed.
The total comes to roughly $315. Which is expensive, but it can add to your riding, especially if you are a fan of rough surfaces and get punctures often.
Is Tubeless Faster?
If you're going to invest in a tubeless conversion, is it going to make you faster? Well, most people say it does feel quicker. Statistically, it should be because you have slightly lighter wheels with less rolling resistance. There's a lot to take other factors that come into it, but generally, compared to a typical clincher with an inner tube system, yes, it should be.
But this come with one huge caveat. We are going to go against popular opinion here and tell you that lower pressures, that tubeless allows to to use ARE NOT NECESSARILY FASTER. What we have said above is valid assuming you are running the same pressures, e.g. around 80- 90psi in a 25-28mm tire. Referencing the website listed above, dropping from 100psi to 60 psi on the same tire increases rolling resistance 20-25% on a smooth road surface.
Running a tubeless system is an good way to go. It's going to make your bike lighter, save you from punctures, and it's very easy to fix if you have any issues. It does cost more, but we do see it as an upgrade to a traditional inner tube system. Do we recommend it? Yes, on balance we do, but have a tube around just in case!
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