What are tubeless tires? Everything you need to know
What are tubeless tires? Everything you need to know
The bike’s tubeless tires technology are exactly what you’d imagine from the name – it eliminates the tube and works much like the tires and rims of modern cars.
Tubeless is now the default choice for mid- to high-end mountain bikes and gravel bikes, and road bikes are also gaining popularity.
This guide covers the basics of tubeless tires, with separate recommendations for tubeless bike setups for road bikes and tubeless setups for mountain bikes.
Don’t miss our guides to the best tubeless road tires, the best mountain bike tires, and the best gravel tires.
Plus, if you want to optimize your tire settings for speed, comfort, grip, and puncture protection, we’ve got in-depth guides on road bike tire pressure and mountain bike tire pressure.
If there are any unfamiliar technical terms or jargon, scroll to the end of the article for a full glossary.
What are tubeless tires? How do tubeless tires work?
Tubeless does away with inner tubes
A tubeless tire looks like a standard tube-type clincher, but doesn’t require a tube, and once “seated” (seating is the process of snapping the bead into place), it forms an airtight seal with the rim.
A valve, like the one you’d find on an inner tube, is mounted directly on the rim.
In order for the system to work properly, neither the rim nor the tire will run out of air, so the tire needs to be a tight fit with the rim.
The sealant sloshes around inside the tire and is an essential part of any tubeless setup. Russell Burton/Instant Media
Sealant injected into the tire or through the valve helps plug any tiny leaks. This sealant stays liquid inside the tire and heals small punctures suffered while riding.
Do not confuse tubeless tires with tube tires. Tubulars (also known as “tubs” or “sew-ups”) are a traditional type of tire that are glued or glued to a tubular-specific rim. They are still widely used in road racing and off-road racing, but have largely been replaced by high-performance clinchers.
Tubeless Tires – Advantages
Tubeless setups have fewer punctures, but the potential performance benefit of low pressure is the main benefit of the technology. bike radar
The number one advantage of tubeless tires over standard clinchers with tubes is that they can run at lower pressures without the risk of blowouts.
Flattening occurs when your tire hits an obstacle, such as a rock or the edge of a pothole, and deforms enough to press the inner tube against the rim. This results in a typical “snake bite” double puncture.
Since there is no tube to catch, and the sealant in the tire heals small punctures, a tubeless setup overall is less prone to deflation, so you get the benefits of lower tire pressure.
These include greater comfort, and possibly more grip and speed, although the relationship between tire pressure and performance is complex, so it’s hard to generalize.
Tubeless tires may also have lower rolling resistance and therefore be faster than equivalent tubed tires, but again it’s hard to generalize because there are so many variables, it all depends on what you think is an apples-to-apples comparison.
Still, the widespread belief that tubeless tires roll faster than tube tires is driving professional road racers toward tubeless adoption.
The advantages of tubeless are obvious for mountain bikes and gravel, but for road use the situation is more subtle—many riders don’t think the added complexity is worth the benefits.
Tubeless Tires – Disadvantages
Tubeless can be messy and inconvenient when things don’t go as planned. Jonny Asherford/Instant Media
Tubeless setup and maintenance are inherently more onerous than using tubes, tubeless tires cost more than non-tubeless tires, and you’ll need to keep buying sealant.
Some tubeless tires are easy to install and can be mounted on the rim using a normal pump. However, this is often not the case and some tires are difficult to fit and/or require a dedicated tubeless inflator or air compressor to get in place.
Sealant can be dirty and needs to be refreshed regularly – usually every few months – as it gradually dries out.
Tubeless tires also need to be inflated more frequently than tubeless tires – it is advisable to check your pressure before each ride.
Do I need special tires and rims to be tubeless?
When you’re tubeless, it’s important to make sure you have compatible parts. Matthew Loveridge/Instant Media
For the best and safest results, tubeless requires tires and rims designed specifically for the job. Tubeless tires have stretch-resistant beads to prevent blowing out under pressure, and the shell is sealed to prevent air loss.
Rim designs vary, but usually have a center channel to make tire installation easier, as well as bumps that keep the tire bead locked in place. Most also have bead hooks to help hold the tire, but hookless rim designs are also common and some brands claim these have an advantage.
It used to be common in the mountain bike world – and to some extent also trail/gravel – to run standard tube-style clincher tires and/or standard tubeless clincher rims.
However, with the selection of the right tubeless tires and rims on the market right now, there isn’t much incentive to do this. Results vary widely with a homebrew setup, and it’s definitely not the easiest or safest option.
For road bikes, you should never use a non-tubeless tubeless or try to retrofit a standard tube-style rim. The higher pressures used on the road make this dangerous and the consequences of a failure can be severe.
Tubeless Ready and Tubeless Compatible
Brands use various terms to designate their tubeless tires. For example, Maxxis uses “TR” for Tubeless Ready.
These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and there is no standardized definition.
For some brands, tubeless rims are just that, all you need to do is insert a valve (which may or may not be included in the wheel), fit a suitable tire, and add sealant.
If the wheel is described as tubeless compatible, then you may also need to install tubeless tape to seal the rim.
In the road world, bikes come with tubeless-compatible wheels, but it’s not uncommon to have non-tubeless tires.
This means that if you want to ditch your inner tubes, you’ll need to buy a new set of tires, among other parts – a substantial additional expense.
Hookless rims are only available with tubeless-specific tires. You can usually install a tube if needed (for example, as a measure to get home – you’ll need to remove the tubeless valve first, of course), but you can’t fit a standard tube tire because it risks blowing off the rim.
Tubeless standards are a bit messy
For mountain bikes, tubeless compatibility is mostly straightforward, but tire designs vary, and some will have more holes than others (hence the need for more sealant to hold the air).
In the late nineties, Mavic created the UST standard (Universal System Tubeless), which only applies to UST-compliant tires and rims.
Built to exacting specifications, these tires are heavier and more airtight than many “tubeless” designations.
Otherwise, you should expect any tubeless-ready mountain bike tire to be used with any tubeless-ready mountain bike rim, unless expressly prohibited by the respective manufacturer.
When it comes to tires, following manufacturer guidelines for safety is critical. Simon Bromley/Instant Media
For road and gravel bikes, things are a bit confusing. Tubeless tire standards are not yet fully established, and you should pay close attention to the rim and tire manufacturer’s guidelines when considering a specific combination.
How do I set up a tubeless tire?
We have separate guides for road and mountain bike tubeless setups, but here are the basics for setting up a tubeless wheel:
Install the appropriate tubeless rim tape according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.
Thread the tubeless valve through the rim tape and tighten the retaining nut.
Work tires on the rim, one bead at a time. If you are pouring the sealant into the tire instead of through the valve, do this before pushing the second bead into place. If injecting through the valve, remove the spool first.
Inflate the tires. Depending on your rim and tire combination, your energy level and the alignment of the planets, this may work with the strong pumping of the track pump. If not, you will need a tubeless inflator or compressor.
What happens when I puncture a tubeless tire?
There are a wide variety of tubeless tire repair solutions on the market. Steve Bell
Overall, you should experience fewer tubeless punctures. The beauty of this technology is that as you ride, the sealant heals small punctures that you sometimes don’t even notice.
Larger punctures or oblique lines require more intervention. Your choices are:
Try a tubeless tire plug kit for repairs
Remove vacuum valve from rim and install standard inner tube
We have a separate guide on how to repair tubeless tires.
Are tubeless tubes worth the trouble?
Tubeless is not a panacea, but it offers many riders a meaningful advantage. Felix Smith/Instant Media
it depends. For mountain bikes, that’s for sure. For gravel bikes, that’s for sure, assuming you want to get the most out of your bike and you do get it off the tarmac.
For a road bike, if you want a performance advantage or suffer from a lot of punctures, that’s for sure, but the difference is less pronounced.
At BikeRadar, we support tubeless extensively, but we recognize that it’s not for everyone, and we certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a bike that’s infrequently used, as the sealant just dries up.
Tubeless Tire Technical Glossary
Bead: The outer edge of the tire next to the rim (the tire has two beads). Tubeless beads are made of strong materials like Kevlar to resist stretching
Bead Hook: A protruding lip on the upper inner side of the rim wall that helps hold the tire bead in place (hooked rims have two bead hooks)
Clincher: A standard bicycle tire design with a horseshoe-shaped cross-section and a bead that pushes into the rim under pressure. Both tubed and tubeless tires are types of clinchers
Hookless rims (or tubeless straight edge): rim designs that omit the bead hook
Sealant: Liquid poured into tires or injected through valves to help seal and repair small punctures
Tubeless Inflator: A device that helps install tubeless tires. Can be integrated into a pump or a completely self-contained tank unit
Tubeless-ready: Specifies tubeless-ready components, but means different things to different brands. “Tubeless Compatible” Similar
Tubeless Tape/Rim Tape: Tape applied to the inside of the rim to seal the spoke holes and the rim joint
Tubeless Valves: Install through the valve holes on the rim and secure with nuts to create a sealed valve. Usually Presta type, but can also use Schrader
Tube-type: Specifies a tire designed for use with tubes rather than tubeless
Tubular: Traditional tire design, glued or glued to specialized rim types
UST: Mavic’s universal system tubeless standard. Many tire manufacturers make UST tires, but only Mavic and Mavic’s licensees make UST rims.
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