Making the Switch to Tubeless Tires?
Are you planning to switch from regular tires with inner tubes, to tubeless tires? Then here is what you need to know to make the best decision. We'll start by looking at the pros and cons of tubeless tires, then discuss tubeless systems, then conclude with my overall opinions...
Benefits of Tubeless Tires
There are numerous benefits offered by tubeless tires, which is why so many people are converting from the standard tire and tube setup.
First, and most prominent, is the decreased risk of flat tires. Since there is no tube, pinch flats are literally impossible with tubeless. Flats from punctures are also less likely, because punctures up to 1/4" can be sealed immediately if you are using a sealant inside the tire.
Building off the flat tire resistance, a big benefit is the ability to run very low tire pressure. With tubes, you couldn't run low pressures because it increased the liklihood of a pinch flat. But if pinch flats are a thing of the past, you can run the tires as low as you want, sometimes at 20 psi.
That lower tire pressure leads to a better ride quality, plus increased traction, which is great for loose terrain, wet roots, and most singletrack.
Finally, by removing the tube, it's possible to save weight. This isn't always the case - sometimes tubeless setups are heavier - but it's possible to run a very light tubeless setup.
Drawbacks of Tubeless Tires
Unfortunately, there are still a few drawbacks to tubeless setups.
The first is the price. If you don't have tubeless compatible wheels, you will need to buy new wheels and tires, or at least a conversion kit. The conversion kit is only $55 or so, but new wheels and tires will be expensive - $350 to $1000. And if you choose UST tubeless-ready tires, expect to pay double the price of a typical tire.
Second is the setup time. Since tubeless tires need a tight seal, they are usually difficult to install. If you use regular tires with a conversion kit, it will take some time to install the conversion kit and then get everything configured without leaks.
Third, repairs are more difficult. If the tire is damaged, it will either need to be patched or replaced. And if the damage occurs while out on the trail, you'll have to install a tube temporarily to ride home. (So you still have to carry a spare tube and pump!)
Fourth, sometimes there are fewer options available. Back around 2004, when tubeless wasn't as prevalent, there were only a few models of tubeless-ready tires. But by 2007, virtually every tire was available in normal and tubeless versions.
Tubeless Tire Systems
There are two main options for tubeless tire systems, but these systems can be combined in certain combinations to suit your specific needs.
Option #1 is the standard UST setup. With this setup, you will get a UST-compatible rim and tire, which are made to be tubeless-ready from the start. (You can identify these rims and tires by the "UST" sticker or stamp.)
These rims and tires are airtight and require no sealant to work properly, although you may still wish to use sealant for the flat tire prevention benefits.
Option #2 is the Stan's NoTubes conversion kit. This allows you to use your normal rims and tires for a tubeless setup. You will add a special rimstrip to your wheel, and dump some special sealant into the tire, which will make everything airtight.
This option requires more setup time, but it is cheaper than buying new wheels and tires that are UST compatible, and it is often lighter than a UST setup (a big plus for XC racers.)
However, a UST setup is usually sturdier. For example, UST tires are thicker, making them more durable than a standard tire. That thick sidewall also makes the tires more suited to a tubeless setup, because it helps the tire keep its shape at low pressure. With regular tires and a Stan's NoTubes conversion, the tire's sidewall doesn't have the support of an innertube, so it can fold over on itself.
Some riders choose to use a hybrid of the two systems. They may get a UST rim, but use a standard tire plus Stan's sealant for light weight plus flat protection.
Or they may save money by converting their rims to tubeless with the NoTubes conversion, but then buy a UST tire for the extra durability.
My Overall Opinion of Tubeless Tires
I started riding tubeless tires in 2005, and I've tried different setups over the years, including standard UST and the Stan's NoTubes conversions.
Overall, I love tubeless. I have never had a flat tire while running a tubeless setup, the level of control you feel is amazing, and the low pressures are great for increasing traction.
The main thing I didn't like with the UST system was the difficulty of mounting tires, since you are supposed to do so without tire levers. It's not hard if you do use tire levers, but without them, it can be nearly impossible.
(I had one combination, which was a Mavic Crossland UST rim with an IRC Serac XC UST tire. I could not get it mounted without tire levers, and no shop I took it to could do it without levers, either.)
With Stan's NoTubes, though, it turned out to be quite simple to set up and work with. The only problem I ever had with that setup is having the sealant build up in the valve and hardening like glue. I had to use pliers plus degreaser to get the valve open! That's not so bad at home, but what if I have to air up during a race?!
That said, I wouldn't hesitate to choose a tubeless setup over a regular tire and tube setup.
If you make the move to tubeless, here is how to install a UST tubeless tire, and here is how to convert to tubeless tires with the NoTubes kit.