Should I Go Tubeless? Standard Vs. Tubeless Tires

UST Tubeless
UST Tubless Rim.

From a performance standpoint, tubeless tires are hard to beat. Tubeless tires let you run lower tire pressures. Lower tire pressure is the best way to improve your tires' contact with the ground, and with that comes better bike performance.

With standard tires with tubes, low tire pressure leaves you vulnerable to pinch flats. These are flats caused by hitting an obstacle hard enough to compress the tire so much that the tube is pinched between the obstacle and the rim. Of course, the tire is surrounding the tube and is part of this compression sandwich, but that's not enough to protect the tube from getting bitten. Tubeless tires are highly resistant to pinch flats, so you can run with a low tire pressure without the great risk.

Tubeless tires also absorb shock better than tires with tubes. This is because tubeless don't have the separate force of a pressurized tube pushing against the inside of the tire. Better shock absorption means a smoother ride with less vibration, and ultimately better control. This advantage is noticeable on big rocks and roots as well as small stuff like gravel.

Tubeless Can Reduce Weight

Tubeless mountain bike tires can save a little on weight over standard tires and tubes. While it is tempting to maximize the weight savings and go with the lightest tires you can find, it's really more important to get a tire that will perform well and won't end up forcing you to put a tube in later. No amount of sealant will plug a good cut or tear in a tire sidewall.

Also, don't expect to lose a huge amount of weight. Some systems are lighter, some heavier; it all depends on the system and the tires. The real benefits with tubeless are better performance with lower tire pressures and fewer flats.

Tubeless Has Some Drawbacks

Even with tubeless tires you still need to carry an extra tube and pump. This is because tubeless tires can get flats. In fact, while they're much less likely than tubes to get pinch flats, tubeless tires are just as susceptible to sidewall cuts and tears. Tubeless tires also must seal against the rim to hold any air; if there's a problem with the seal, you have a flat tire. All tubeless tire systems let you put a tube in if you get a flat and you can't get your tire to seal up again. Alternatively, you can patch a tubeless tire from the inside, provided the hole or tear is patchable.

If you try to lower your tire pressure too much, you will be more likely to damage your rim when you hit rocks, and you may feel the tire roll under during hard cornering. When this gets really bad, you can burp air out and end up with a flat, unsealed tire.

Finally, compatibility is a big issue. Choose the wrong tires or rims and you will end up blowing your tires right off the rim either during installation or on the trail.

Use a Sealant

Using an internal sealant is well worth the little-added weight. Tubeless tires still get flats from thorns and other punctures. Typically, it is more difficult to fix a flat in a tubeless tire than a standard tire. Use an internal tire sealant, such as Stan's No-Tubes, for a more robust system and fewer flats. This is still recommended this even if you have tubeless-specific rims and tires.

Non-Tubeless Tires Without Tubes

Many tubeless-tire riders use special tires and rims designed specifically for each other, but it's possible to go tubeless using standard tires on either a standard rim or a tubeless-specific rim. Using a standard rim requires a conversion kit that includes a rubber rim sealer and a foam sealant that you squirt inside the tire. If you use this setup, make sure your tire, rim and kit are all compatible. Also, don't use super-light tires with thin sidewalls. Thicker sidewalls provide better cornering performance, and if you ride in terrain with sharp rocks they'll provide better protection from sidewall cuts and tears.

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