I’ve been getting to grips with tubeless riding for approximately a year now. I have come to like it but the learning process hasn’t been without frustrations and pains in setting up and operating a tubeless system for randonneuring/audaxing and gravel riding. After about a year of coming across problems with the approach, and adapting my system, I am finally satisfied that I am getting a real payoff from using tubeless tyres for road cycling.
I hope this blog goes some way to giving you more information to structure your choices, and maybe some other points of interest to make your cycling more enjoyable, so you spend more time turning pedals and less time stood on roadsides doing annoyed cycle fettling.
Why you hate tubeless reason 1: I can’t seat the bloody tyres
The actual setting up of tubeless, when googled for, yields all kinds of ‘secret tips’ youtube videos. Compressors, weird high-pressure charging tanks, and soapy water galore. Even putting a tyre on with a tube, leaving it to stand in the airing cupboard for a day, has been suggested.
All kinds of tricks can be employed to persuade a reluctant tyre to seat on a rim, from extra rim tape to special tubeless inflater pumps. In my experience, the strongest option is to skip all this and take the time to research a tyre and rim combination that needs no special tricks.
For instance, when I got my new bike, supplied with Halo GXC Vapour wheels and Schwalbe G-One Speed tyres, they would not mount no matter what I did. But a set of Clements (now branded as Donnelly) went up with just a track pump.
In another wheelset, using 700c DT Swiss 411 DB rims, Panaracer Gravel King 32mms would refuse to mount no matter what I did. But swapping these for 28mm Hutchinson Fusion 5s, they went on without any fuss.
Take the time to get a good tyre and rim combo, and you’ll never need to touch an air compressor as long as you live.
Reason why you hate tubeless 2: The sealant doesn’t work
One of my frustrations with tubeless when using 28-32mm tyres was that sealant didn’t seem to reliably plug punctures. Certainly it did slow their deflation, but the ‘reliable self sealing’ promises of the marketing men would always elude me.
The self-sealing dream can come true for you, but here’s the rub – especially if you’re a heavy rider with cargo, in my experience, the system will not work optimally with conventional ‘sports cyclist’ road tyres. If you’re a willowy 65kg or even less you may find 28mm or even 25mm tubeless works satisfactorily, but it was certainly not my experience. The internet is awash with videos of 25mm tyres self-sealing from attacks with pins, screws, samurai swords or whatever else, but this doesn’t account for what happens to the tyre when 100 kg of rider, bike and cargo starts banging down the road on the thing.
The secret to resolving this is taking a leaf out of the cyclists of yesteryear, and moving to wider tyres. I use the same sealant (OKO magic milk hi-fiber, an artificial latex-based sealant with microgubbins to plug up holes) as I had with my 700c 28mm and 32mm tyres, but now with 650bx42mm tyres, and the performance difference is night and day.
Many people’s tyre clearances will top out at around 30-32mm. It doesn’t necessarily mean that tubeless isn’t worth doing, but certainly, if you have the space and your aspirations are purely recreational cycling, I really urge you to go big. The marketing men might call them ‘gravel’ or ‘allroad’ tyres but whatever name they go by, wide tyres tame scrapy, nasty roads like nothing else. Would you enter a crit race on them? Probably not, but I can tell you for free that I have zero interest in riding on tyres narrower than 40mm ever again.
Reason why you hate tubeless 3: The sealant *still* doesn’t work and putting a tube in is a nightmare
Sometimes even with wide tyres, sealant won’t quite do the job. My mistake, for a long time, was too-easily accepting defeat and putting in an inner tube, trying to not cover myself in too much muck in the process.
I later started using tubeless plug kits (variously called ‘worms’, ‘anchovies’ or ‘bacon strips’), but they performed inconsistently. I would find that I could insert the plug OK, but the seal was often unreliable. I would either be riding on an uncomfortably-squirmy tyre, or worse, put in a tube, then clean and patch the tyre with a tubeless repair patch when at home (for more on tyre repair, read this).
My riding has been transformed by using dynaplugs. The cost may seem high, but the convenience is on another level. Without having to use your surgical skills in pushing worms through holes, using bradawls/reamers, super glue, or whatever else, one just stabs the tool in, pull it out, and trim off the outstanding plug. Job done. The dynaplug, in my experience, provides a far better quality of repair than the conventional anchovies, because it’s a single strand of worm which is pinned firmly in place on the other side of the tyre carcass by the brass tip of the plug. Yes, I still carry inner tubes in case of a catastrophic sidewall tear, but dynaplugs have eliminated the faff factor from my on-road repairs. It really is just stab, trim, and go.
The up-front cost of the dynaplug kit may seem a little eye watering. All I can say is if you see it in action, you’ll think it’s money well spent.
After a learning process I have learned to love the tech. I certainly don’t think tubeless tyres should be seen as an ‘upgrade’ necessarilly – inner tubed tyres have some commendable advantages in that they are substantially, substantially cheaper (you can get an excellent set of clincher tyres for well under the cost of a single tubeless one), and hold their air much better (do you want to be pumping up the tyres on your ‘town bike’ every morning before you head off?). But for the foreseeable, I plan on having my ‘good bike’ in this configuration. Hopefully some of the lessons in the blog can make it easier to live with for you, too.
An excellent resource on all things tubeless is Malcolm Borg’s excellent website. Knowledge galore!