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Tubeless Bicycle Tires
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by John "Tube or not Tube" Allen
with contributions by John Forester and John Schubert
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Why Tubeless?

Pneumatic tires for bicycles have until recent years used inner tubes -- airtight, doughnut-shaped balloons. Motor vehicles used inner tubes until the 1960s, more or less, but over a period of a few years, tubeless tires became near-universal on motor vehicles.

Instead of having an inner tube, a tubeless tire seals directly to the flanges of the rim.

The rim must be airtight. The tire has a smooth seating surface that is pressed outward against the rim flanges by the air pressure inside. The process of mounting the tire requires soapy water or a special, soapy liquid, both to lubricate the tire to get it on the rim, and then to provide both a semi-sealing effect and a slippery surface for the tire's beads to mount on the steps of the rim.

Motor-vehicle rims have large flanges and so it is easy to establish a seal. The much smaller flanges of a bicycle rim make that more difficult. Also, bicycle rims have traditionally had spoke holes that extend through to the well (deepest part of the space between the rim's flanges). Rim tape protects an inner tube from sinking into spoke holes, but has not traditionally been airtight.

Since 2010 more or less, tubeless tires have come into use for bicycles. They were introduced initially as an aftermarket item, though they are appearing now on new high-end bicycles.

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Description of tubeless tires for bicycles

There are two basic types of tubeless tire systems.

A Tubeless-Ready system can use a double-wall rim with normal spokes and recessed spoke holes, though not all such rims are tubeless-compatible. A special air-tight rim strip is used. This system is reported as being reliable on road bicycles with tires designed for a tubeless system, but there have been problems with other tires' rolling off the rim. A tubeless-ready system must use a slimy sealant both to make the initial seal and to seal against small punctures.

A True Tubeless system has a double-wall rim without spoke holes in the inner wall (well of the rim). Special, threaded spoke holes in the exposed face of the rim (closer to the hub) allow installation of threaded eyelets attached to special spokes, or the wheel may be of one-piece construction (usually, carbon fiber). A special wrench must be used to turn the eyelets. As of this writing, this system is sold only as a complete wheelset. A True Tubeless system may be run without sealant, though sealant improves its reliability.

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Advantages and disadvantages

The purported advantages of tubeless tires are  

Disadvantages are:

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The authors' general conclusions

It has been over 50 years since tubeless tires came to dominate the automotive market, and they are only now being introduced for bicycles. That isn't a question of lagging technology as much as it is one of what is most practical.

Top-quality bicycle equipment has become far more expensive over the past few decades, even after adjusting for price inflation. The authors of this article look at today's prices for top stuff and think, "It isn't worth it."  But the bike companies have customers who don't think the way we do.  People enjoy spending ever-more money on their hobbies, pursuing ever-diminishing returns. From wine snobs to folks buying stuff to make their Ford Mustangs go faster, that's how some people behave.

Even if people don't know why, or whether, something is better, it gives them something to talk about, and about which to feel pride of ownership.

The authors of this article developed our tastes in an era when it was possible to maintain almost anything on a bike with a few simple tools.  We took pride in being able to perform minor repairs and complete our day's ride. Today, a torque wrench and the expertise to use it properly are mandatory with the fancier equipment, making a cell phone the preferred tool in case of a problem when out on a ride.

All in all, tires with inner tubes are by far the best choice for bicyclists interested in self-sufficiency and reasonable value for money. This might change with improvements in technology, but that is our judgment now.

So if we are puzzled by the "appeal" of tubeless tires, it's because we are on a different operating system from the intended customers.

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Links

Roadbikerider advice on tubeless tires

Stan's No Tubes installation advice

Jan Heine's article about risks of road tubeless

Heine's article about rolling resistance

The Tubes, "What Do You Want From Life" (video on YouTube)

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