Most semi-serious serious cyclists you talk to will be gear-heads of some sort… I think we’re all guilty of a little gear lust. After all, who doesn’t want the crispness of the new SRAM XX components, or the bling of a Crank Brothers wheelset. But until I started racing with some level of regularity I didn’t realize that most of the gear talk surrounds only one component on the bike… The most discussed, the most contested, and arguably the most important component on the bike… The tires.

Now, either I’m a ‘bad’ cyclist, or I’ve just been fairly fortunate with my choices. I’ve never really experimented with tires. I always just got what I thought was a good tire and rolled with ’em (pardon the pun ;-). Now that I’ve been immersed in the race scene for a while, I’m realizing just how crazy cyclists (especially cyclocross racers) are about their tires. I’ll leave the pandoras box of tread pattern for another post (I find many times it just comes down to personal preference), but today let’s focus on tubed vs. tubeless tires.

For the purposes of differentiation, the basic anatomy of a regular (tubed) wheel & tire can be broken into 4 main parts:
Tire Anatomy

  1. The wheel – The thing with the spokes on it ;-)
  2. A rim strip – Meant to cover the holes where the spokes exit the rim & protect the tube)
  3. The tube – A thin rubber carcass to house the air, often made out of butyl rubber or latex)
  4. The tire itself – Comprised of three distinct parts:
    1. The beads – The edges of the tire, the beads are what holds the tire onto the rim
    2. The carcass – A thick woven shell between the beads that gives the base form and structure to the tire (usually made out of nylon or a polyamide)
    3. The tread – Surprisingly the rubber coating on the outside of the tire has very little, if any structural importance, it’s there mainly to protect the carcass and determine some sort of tread pattern to aid with grip.

Tubeless tires simply remove the tube in favor of a more robust bead, so the air can then be contained between the rim and the tire, rather than relying on a tube to contain it.

For many on the tubed side of the fence, there’s a perception that the hassle and mess of going tubeless just isn’t worth it, and for many on the tubeless side of things have forgotten of the benefits of running tubes.


The case for tubes

Ease of use – Anybody who’s mounted a UST (Universal Standard Tubeless) tire knows that it isn’t the easiest process in the world, getting them on and off are a delicate balance between brute strength and finesse. You almost always end up frustrated in some way… Regular tires on the other hand can almost be swapped entirely by hand. If you’re a rider who likes to change tires often, or likes to swap rubber depending on the conditions, traditional tires may be a better choice. I’ve been swapping UST tires fairly frequently and have managed to get it down to a bit of a science, but mounting a tubeless tire will never be as easy as a regular tire.

Compliance – Because standard tires have an inner tube to help retain the shape, form and structure of the tire (as well as contain the air), the tire itself can afford to be a little thinner, especially in the sidewalls. One big benefit that comes along with this reduction in material is that regular tires can deform a little bit more easily over terrain and in corners. Usually this means a larger contact patch with the ground, resulting in a more stable, controlable bike with more predictable handling… The major problem with this is to accomplish this type of behaviour you have to run a lower tire pressure, which drastically increases the risk of pinch flats (essentially when your tube gets caught between the rim and something hard, like a rock or root).

Weight – Because of either more robust rims, or the weight of a conversion kit and sealant tubeless systems tend to be very slightly heavier than their tubed counter parts… Though in my opinion the benefits of tubeless override the slight weight penalty.


The case for tubeless

Air pressure – Probably the single most compelling reason to go tubeless is the ability to run lower tire pressures. Though tubeless tires aren’t usually as compliant as regular tires, the lower pressure give you a nice even contact patch with the ground with zero risk of pinch flatting. Depending on the rim/tire combo you may run into some trouble with the tire ‘burping’ air during high speed, or high torque cornering, but a solid sealant kit should reduce that risk.

Rolling resistance – Less moving parts (ie. no tube) = less friction = lower rolling resistance… Though they might be a little heavier, they’re still going to feel like they’re moving more easily. Though you may not notice this at high tire pressures, it’s definitely something I can feel at a lower psi.

Puncture resistance – This isn’t really so much a by-product of tubeless tires as it is the result of using some sort of sealant solution (which is usually recommended with tubeless systems). I’ve run both the DT Swiss and Stan’s kits and though the DT Swiss kit did the job and was lighter, Stan’s is bombproof. It’s what I’ve been running for ~5 years and I have yet to flat or burp air out of my tire, regardless of the tire pressure I’m running. It’s also worth noting that I was running UST tires, which are a little bit more robust to start with – If you choose to run a tubeless conversion kit with regular tires, you may have a different experience, as the tires (especially the sidewalls) are thinner.

A number of other fun videos can be found on YouTube, or you can have a look at the installation videos on NoTubes.com as well.


Another thing that seem to crop up against tubeless tires is the inherent messiness involved. Having mounted tubeless tires countless times on my rims I will admit there’s definitely more work involved and I definitely wouldn’t want to do it indoors, but I’ve never really had any problems with a mess.

Ultimately the choice is yours, but in my opinion, unless your going to be needing to consistently swap tires, there’s no compelling reason to keep tubes in those tires. In the end, there’s a case for both, though personally I don’t think I’ll ever be going back to tubes, and now that there are 29er/700cc tubeless rims on the market it’s only a matter of time (and money) before I migrate my cyclocross and road set ups to tubeless as well.

I don’t have any experience with the new Dura-Ace tubeless rims, but I’ve seen the Stan’s XTR 29er rims in action at a few cyclocross races, and they are MONEY! (especially the white ones)


**Update**

As one of our readers commented on Facebook, I didn’t really touch on the sub-epic battle of full UST rims vs. a tubeless conversion… When I first went tubeless (~5 years ago) it was with a full UST rims (Mavic 817s if memory serves). Generally I found them a little bit tougher and a little heavier than their non-UST counterparts, and though there’s a wide spectrum of UST rims, they’re never going to be as light as a non-UST rim.

With that said, outside of installing the initial rim strip, the management and maintenance of “converted rims” doesn’t really differ at all. You can run converted rims without sealant just like you can run UST rims without sealant… I just wouldn’t recommend it. A UST rim will generally hold your tire a little better and if you’re running without sealant the chances of you burping air, or just slowly loosing air pressure are higher.