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EXCLUSIVE: Tubeless Tires

Are Tubeless Tires Worth It?

By Vernon Felton

If you’ve read my tire article in the most recent issue of BIKE, you may have noticed that we promised to do a Tubeless Tire write-up here on the web. Well, here we go.

A couple years ago I was working on an article regarding tubeless tires for the bike industry’s trade rag (Bicycle Retailer & Industry News). I was asking a PR guy at one of the tire manufacturers why tubeless hadn’t caught on with the public in as big a way as many had expected it to. His explanation was a curious one. He said that the consumer cycling publications had made too many grandiose claims about the benefits of the technology and that some consumers were considerably let-down and soured by the whole experience.

I found this explanation curious as I’d been told by this very same PR hack, back in 1999 (when tubeless first came out) that tubeless tires could leap small buildings by themselves, while reciting (backwards) the lyrics to Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Oh, and when you got home, those same tubeless tires would bake you up an excellent flourless chocolate cake and give you a back rub.

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Back in those heady, pre-millenium days, we (the cycling press) were told all sorts of things about tubeless tires that weren’t exactly, ahem, true (though you never read such grandiose claims in BIKE anyway, because we decided to sit the hoopla out and wait for the results). Well, almost seven years later, the tubeless hype has died down a bit and the over-inflated list of tubeless benefits has lost some air. So, what really are the benefits of tubeless tires? Glad you asked, because there definitely are benefits to going tubeless—just don’t expect chocolate cakes and back rubs any time soon.

Lower air pressure—that’s the greatest benefit of going tubeless. Tubeless tire systems enable you to run lower air pressures without fearing pinch flats. Lower air pressures (down to a certain point, at least) provide you with better traction and a small degree of suspension over rocky terrain. Personally, I wouldn’t ride a hardtail without a tubeless system. But, hey, that’s just me.

Over the years, manufacturers have also claimed that tubeless tires are prone to fewer flats, are lighter than conventional tubed-tires, and so forth. Neither claim is true. You might not get pinch flats, but puncture flats (due to thorns and the like) are still a problem. Since tubeless tires tend to be heavier than standard tires (particularly if you add sealant to the mix) tubeless systems tend to be a bit heavier…unless, of course, you make your own tubeless system using a conventional tire, a rim strip and sealant, but that approach has its own share of downsides (which I’ll get into later).

As the name implies, a tubeless system lacks an inner tube. There are, however, a couple ways to achieve that end. The first is by going with the original tubeless system: UST. The UST standard was developed in a 3-way love fest between Mavic, Michelin and Hutchinson (oh, those crazy French!). At the heart of this system is a rim-bed that features no internal spoke holes through which air can escape. A UST-compatible tire is then mounted onto the rim, inflated to a high pressure (around 60 psi) so that the tire beads lock into the rim and create an air-tight seal and—voila—there you have it. You can now safely lower the air pressure to between 28 and 40 PSI and enjoy the improved traction and control.

Actually, this is a worthy moment to say something about air pressure. I’ve heard people say that they run their tubeless systems as low as 20 PSI. Personally, I think that’s madness (unless you happen to be a 90-pound, 11-year old girl with a really smooth riding style, in which case, you go, girl!). At 20 PSI, you run the risk of denting your rim and/or rolling the tire off the rim during cornering. Personally (and I weigh 180 pounds), I run my tubeless set ups with a PSI range between 30 and 38 PSI) as opposed to the 40 to 42 psi I normally run with a standard-tubed system. While I might be able to get away with running less than 30 PSI in my tubeless tires, I don’t have the spare cash to replace my dented wheels. Besides, I find the tire-roll sensation too severe at that low a pressure anyway.

Reader Comments 
Posted Sun Mar23, 2008, 11:23 AM — By Clement
... the �French� also invented the bicycle ... which all of us enjoy greatly ... Now, that's fair !
Posted Wed Mar26, 2008, 10:03 PM — By Dennis
The French invented the bicycle? That's news to me.
Posted Tue May 6, 2008, 9:58 AM — By Vince
You might take a look here:
Posted Tue Jul29, 2008, 10:42 PM — By Matt
your wordy comments and anecdotes within the article are a waste of any reader's time. i stopped reading your crap after paragraph 3
Posted Thu Aug14, 2008, 5:42 AM — By Greg
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Posted Thu Aug21, 2008, 11:22 AM — By Shaun
Downside #4: UST tires are $20 more per tire on average.
Posted Wed Sep10, 2008, 6:46 AM — By Shezad
Is there Air in Tubeless tiers ,,
Posted Sun Oct 5, 2008, 6:21 PM — By Rob
Interesting bunch of comments. The French most definately did not invent the bicycle. Which individual invented it I can not say, but the 1st was made in a blacksmiths forge in the courtyard of Drumlanrig castle, Scotland, now a venue for a great trail centre. Can't remember the last time I had a normal puncture off road. However, every trip to the Peak District (UK) costs me at least 3 to 4 tubes for pinch flats. That's almost one on every major downhill, so I'm finally going tubeless. Personally I think this is the only reason to go tubeless i.e. low pressures and no flats. Fixing a normal puncture is a peice of cake. UST systems are at least as heavy as conventional systems, sometimes heavier and tyre choice is at present limited with Panaracer and Kenda going no larger than 2.1 for UST Tyres. Maxxis offer by far the best range of UST tyres. Guess I'll suck it and see. Next year I'm running a pair of MAVIC EX823 UST Rims and Maxxis UST tyres at the Megavalanche, Alpe D'Huez. We'
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