Once wielded solely by elite racers, tubeless tires are gaining popularity with more and more riders these days. Car tires made the evolution to tubeless eons ago, so it’s not surprising to see the same shift happening in the bike world. Litetube tires have thick sidewalls that increase tightness without losing pressure. But how do they work?
In order to have a tire without a tube, you need the tire’s bead to lock onto the rim. You also need the tire, rim and seated valve stem to be absolutely airtight. A special sealant is key to making it all work, but litetube tires can also address this issue with little to no hassle.
If you’ve been thinking it might be time to go tubeless, this guide can help. If you have a mountain bike, you can also find tubeless options, though the trend there lags behind what’s happening in mountain biking. Allow us to explain how litetube tires can make tire dynamics so much easier and less frustrating with MTB.
What are Litetube Tires?
As the name suggests, tubeless tires do not use a tube to hold the air inside. Instead, the tires, rim, and valve all seal airtight. Just like car or motorcycle tires. This is known as “litetube.”
To create an airtight seal when the tires are pressurized, tubeless rim and tire beads have a slightly different shape than tubed tires and rims. They interlock with bead-locks or small ridges that prevent the tire from separating fro the rim.
The rim bed, where the spokes and valve stem sit, is also sealed airtight. Usually with a special type of rim tape that forms around the spoke and valve holes. Some tubeless rims have a solid rim bed. These do not require tape.
A special liquid sealant is poured into the tire during installation. This sealant coats the inside of the tires and the rim and seals any micro holes so air doesn’t slowly leak out. This same sealant also fills any holes caused by nails, thorns, and other debris that you may encounter on the road or trail so your tires don’t go flat if they get punctured. Some tubeless tires also use a casing to help keep the air in.
These days, most bike wheels and tires are sold as ‘tubeless ready’ or ‘tubeless compatible’. This means that the rim has a bead lock. The rim bed may or may not be sealed. Tubeless tires have slightly thicker sidewalls to make them more airtight. Consider this checklist:
- You’ll get fewer flats with tubeless- This is the #1 reason to go tubeless. Tubeless tires repair themselves when they get punctured. If a nail or thorn punctures your tire, the liquid sealant inside the tire fills the hole before the air escapes. No more stopping to patch or replace tubes. When you see a bit of white fluid on your tire, you know that the tubeless system saved you from a flat. When you hit a pothole, rock, or another hard object, your tire can compress enough that it hits your rim. This creates enough force to tear a tube and cause a flat. This is called a ‘pinch flat’ or ‘snake bite’. With tubeless, there is no tube to tear. I know of bicycle tourists who have crossed continents without a single flat tire while running tubeless. Imagine traveling 10,000 miles without patching a tube.
- Tubeless tires offer better traction, allowing you to corner better and climb more easily- Because you don’t have to worry about pinch flats, you can run tubeless tires at a much lower air pressure than tubed tires. Usually, about 10 psi lower is safe. The reduced pressure allows more of the tire’s tread to contact the ground. This greatly improves traction. This is particularly helpful while riding on loose or slippery surfaces like gravel, sand, snow, ice, or in the rain. You can corner harder without your tires washing out. You can also climb steeper hills without your tires spinning out. If you ride soft or slippery surfaces often, a fat bike with tubeless tires is a great choice. If you plan to ride in the winter, you can install studded tubeless tires for even more traction on snow and ice.
- The ride quality better with tubeless- When you run your tires at lower PSI, the ride is softer, smoother, and more comfortable. This is because the tires absorb some shocks and vibrations from the trail instead of bouncing around. When you hit a rock, rut, or pothole, the tire absorbs the impact and forms to the shape of the obstacle rather than bouncing off. You won’t feel the bumps as much. This is particularly useful if you’re riding a hardtail mountain bike without suspension.
- The tubeless system is lighter- Whether or not this point is true depends on your setup. Removing the tube cuts about 200 grams from each tire. You add some of that weight back with the tubeless sealant that you put into the tire but the weight savings is still net positive. Generally, tubeless tires and rims are lighter than those designed for tubes. The wheels are the best part of the bike you could remove weight from. Lighter wheels spin up faster and easier using the same amount of energy. You can ride a bit longer and further without tiring out.
- Tubeless tires maintain momentum better- When the tire pressure is lower, the tire deforms when it contacts an obstacle rather than bouncing off. This allows the wheel to keep rolling instead of slowing you down. This improves efficiency while riding on rough surfaces.
- Flats are usually easier to repair- If you get a large puncture or tear in our tire and it goes flat, you can usually repair it without having to remove the tire from the rim. Tubeless tire plugs can repair most punctures or tears. If a rock makes a large gash in your sidewalk, you can sew it up with a large needle and dental floss. Put some super glue on it to help it seal. If all else fails, you can install a tube.
- Almost any tires and wheels can be set up tubeless- With a tubeless kit or a bit of DIY, you can go tubeless with your existing wheels and tires. There is no need to buy any new parts. I’ll outline the process later on.
- Tubeless makes you faster- Because you get better traction, you can take turns faster without washing out. You can also power up steep hills faster without spinning out. When you start from a stop, you can use more torque to accelerate faster without your rear wheel coming loose. This allows you to maintain a faster average speed. This is important for racers.
- You can easily switch back to tubes – If, for whatever reason, you don’t like riding tubeless, you can just wash the sealant out of the tires and put tubes back in. This is also nice if you run out of sealant or can’t find any while touring in a remote destination. Just put a tube in and hit the road. Be sure to check your tire for debris before installing a tube. Otherwise, you might get an instant flat.
- Going tubeless is more modern- If you like to use the newest and best gear, tubeless is the way to go. Tubeless tires use high tech rubber compounds. Tubeless rims are engineered to be lightweight and very strong. The auto industry switched away from tubes decades ago. Now the bicycle industry is following.
Pros and Cons for Going litetube
- You’ll Get Fewer Flats: A tire deforms when you hit a hard object like a rock. With a big impact and a tubed tire, that rock and your rim can squeeze together forcefully enough to tear a tube. Whether you call it a “pinch flat” or a “snake bite” (a pair of pinch holes), you’ve got a flat to fix. Switch to litetube tires and you’ll never have to fix a pinch flat again.
- Also, thanks to the sealant put in during mounting, litetube tires suffer far fewer puncture flats. Litetube riders who discover a tire riddled with shiny spots after a ride can smile knowing that their sealant fixed all those thorn pricks on the fly.
- You’ll Get a Better Ride: Many riders report that eliminating the tube gives them a better feel for the trail. In addition, litetube tires can be ridden at a much lower pressure than tubed tires (no pinch flats to worry about), which puts more tire tread in contact with the ground. The result is better traction, especially in corners.
- Running at a low PSI helps maintain your bike’s momentum, too, because tires are able to conform to obstacles, rather than bounce off of them. That also allows a tire to absorb small bumps and trail chatter, giving you a smoother ride.
- You’ll Save Some Weight: The weight you save by switching is hard to quantify because of the variety of ways to go litetube. For starters, eliminating a standard tube can save up to 200 grams. All litetube wheels and tires have an inflation valve and sealant inside, which offsets that weight savings, but the net result is almost always fewer grams overall.
- The upside to even minimal weight savings is that it’s in a rotational component. That translates to less energy expenditure as you ride, so your legs will feel fresher.
- You’ll Spend More Money: Tubeless-ready tires and wheels do indeed cost more. But you also generally get more value for your money. Most brands’ most-advanced offerings are tubeless ready, so when you shop for tubeless components you’re likely to see tires with advanced rubber compounds and wheels that are strong and light.
- They Take Longer to Mount: Installing tubeless tires can be a little tricky. The biggest challenge is getting the tire bead to seat on the rim correctly—the seal has to be airtight. The process requires you to carefully add sealant, then a lot of air in a hurry.
- You’ll Still Have to Carry a Tube: If you do flat on a ride, it means the breach was too big for sealant to self-repair, so the fix is to put a tube in your tire. Thus, you always need to carry along an emergency tube.
- You’ll Have to Mess with Sealant: Adding sealant to achieve an airtight seal between tire and rim is an inherently messy process. And on the rare occasion that a tire gets gashed enough to splatter components and clothing, cleaning off that sealant isn’t a lot of fun.
You also need to add tire sealant periodically after it has dissipated or dried out. This might be every few months in warm climates or once a year if you live in a cool, wet part of the country.
Look for a tubeless designation like “UST” (Universal System Tubeless), the original standard. You’ll also see similar, though different, terminology like “tubeless ready” or “tubeless compatible” from some brands.
UST-designated rims and tires are considered slightly easier to mount, in part because of how well the tire bead locks onto the rim. They typically require less sealant, too, because they are inherently more airtight. UST components are a little heavier, though, which is one reason why alternative tubeless-compatible systems are gaining popularity.
Your current wheels or tires might already be tubeless ready, so double-check before assuming that they’re not. Some top-end bikes come with tubeless-ready tires and rims, though they might have been shipped with tubes in their tires to simplify showroom setup.
Getting new rims and tires is the most expensive way to upgrade, but it also offers the easiest installation and the most reliable bead-to-rim seal. You’ll need sealant and perhaps some valve stems to do the installation, but that should be the extent of your additional expenses.
Convert Your Current Tires and Wheels to Run Tubeless
Almost any combination of wheels and tires can be transformed using a tubeless conversion kit. The setup ranges from simple to challenging, because air can find more places to leak in non-tubeless-ready components.
Conversion kits cost about $70, though you can cut that cost by purchasing components individually. At a minimum, you need sealant, rim tape and a valve. Keep these tips in mind:
- Go easy on the tire levers. Levers, especially metal ones, can kink the bead, creating a leak. If you use them, do so gently and sparingly. For help coaxing the tire bead over the rim, try using a solution of soapy water.
- An air compressor is a huge help. This solves the problem of inflating the tire rapidly enough to quickly seat the bead onto the rim. You can also use a C02 cartridge, but that can get expensive if you do multiple inflations.
- Removing the valve core can also help. Doing this initially helps you fill the tire more rapidly in order to fully seat the tire bead onto the rim. After it’s seated, you can replace the valve core and inflate the tire to the desired PSI.
- Inserting a tube can help. If a tire’s bead isn’t seating well, try inserting a tube. Then leave it inflated inside the tire overnight to help reestablish the tire’s original shape.
If you can change a tire and you can follow directions, you can do this. Don’t despair if you have setbacks, because even veteran bike mechanics encounter uncooperative tires. And you always have the option of taking your tire and wheel to an REI bike shop to have them do the deed for you.