There really are no DOWNSIDES to going tubeless. Here are the tubeless tire conversion TIPS I have learned.
I just converted my mountain bike to tubeless tires. I think this is the seventh set of wheels that I have converted to tubeless between my fat bike, other MTBs, and gravel touring bikes. It was also the easiest, and this got me thinking about passing along what has worked for me - so you can avoid the mistakes I've made in the past converting my bike tires to tubeless.
I am not a competitive, downhill mountain bike racer who is obsessed with ounces of weight. There are TWO main motivations for me to convert my bikes to tubeless tires:
1. While I live in Wisconsin, I make regular trips to the Southwest - especially in the winter months. I enjoy a break from winter and the chance to mountain bike in the breathtaking scenery. But from Texas across to southern California (and including much of desert Nevada and Utah) nearly every growing plant has thorns! The self-sealing properties of tubeless tires overcomes at least 90% of the tiny punctures from cactus and other thorns.
2. I also like to use my bikes for overnight camping trips. Besides weeklong tours like RAGBRAI, I enjoy short trips to quiet backwoods destinations by gravel bike, mountain bike, and fat bike. Nothing spoils a day like a flat tire in the hot sun, being bombarded by deer flies, and keeping an eye out for poison ivy in the roadside ditch. Tubeless tires help eliminate flats from tiny punctures by car and truck tire wire debris, broken glass, and the occasional random nail.
There are other advantages of converting your bike over to tubeless.
Competitive riders notice the reduced weight. Eliminating weight from the moving wheels requires less energy to accelerate and maintain speed. I always feel like the lighter tubeless wheels are like gaining one higher gear! This is as big a benefit for the recreational rider who may be able to ride longer and further.
Tubeless tires also allow you to ride at lower tire pressures. If you ride unpaved roads, you will both have better traction and increased comfort. Gravel riders have a saying, "Smooth is fast." It's counter-intuitive, but this means that softer, smooth-rolling tires will actually increase your speed over rough roads that cause fatigue and pain on rock-hard tires.
I encourage you to complete the tubeless conversion process yourself.
Removing your wheels, installing tires, adding tire sealant, and monitoring your tire pressure are basic skills that every rider needs. In the process, you will gain the confidence to tackle longer rides and help others when they suffer a flat!
Step One: To convert to tubeless tires, first make sure that your tires and rims are "Tubeless Ready".
Chances are that your bike was not sold with tubeless tires and sealant installed. Bike brands normally ship new bikes with inner tubes. The new bike may have "lived" in a box for many months before you took it home. In addition, the manufacturers know that most riders will never convert their tires to tubeless so inner tubes are installed as standard equipment. So the first step is determining if the stock tires and rims are Tubeless Ready.
Unlike the standard tire and inner tube, a tubeless-ready tire has a bead that locks into the matching groove in the tubeless-ready rim. If this is the case, both the rim and tire should have markings or labels. Another clue is when you let all the air out, the tire remains locked onto the rim. If in doubt, check with your local bike shop. A knowing eye can tell at a glance if the rim and tire have the required interlocking designs of a Tubeless Ready package.
In most cases it's safe to assume the rims and tires AREN'T Tubeless Ready. I purchased one bike that had tubeless-ready rims but conventional tires. (I guess they were cutting a few dollars in cost? Yes, you can run tubes in both types of tires. This also means that you should keep your inner tubes for spares in case of a major tubeless flat!) IF you have tubeless-ready rims but the stock tires aren't tubeless-ready you will need to buy a new set of tires. You need BOTH the rims and tires to match to make the conversion to tubeless.
IF you need to buy a new set of Tubeless Ready tires (or are installing new tires with a different width or tread pattern) I strongly recommend that you FIRST reinstall the inner tubes.
New tires have either been folded in the package or hanging on a peg. They are not round and full of wrinkles. You will save a lot of headaches later if the tires have first been seated on your rims. Pump up the tires to the maximum pressure and leave them for a few days. Even better, ride them for a week or two. Inflate and deflate the tires a few times to stretch the casings and form a tire lock on the rims. With a little time and patience, Step Four below will go mush smoother!
So we have determined that your new bike has Tubeless Ready rims and tires - but it is also currently equipped with inner tubes. This is where the conversion begins to fully tubeless tires.
Step Two: Remove the wheels from the bike, then remove the tires and tubes from both wheels. Also remove the old rim strip inside the rims.
Thoroughly clean the inside of the rims. You can use denatured alcohol, brake cleaner, or lacquer thinner - just don't use anything that will leave an oily residue like WD-40. Now it's time to convert the rims to accept the liquid sealant. We first need to cover all the holes for the spoke nipples. This requires applying a layer of tubeless rim tape. This tape is thick, adhesive plastic that will create an airtight and water tight barrier over the spoke holes. Don't skimp here and try to use duct tape or packing tape - been there, done that, and suffered because of it. Remember, if the tubeless conversion process fails you will have to start completely over, with new tape and new sealant. That is, DOUBLE the cost, so do it right the first time!
Step Three: Apply the tubeless rim tape. OPTIONAL - without the tires, now is the easiest time to true your rims!
For the conversion process, you need tubeless tape that is 1 millimeter WIDER than the inner width of the rim. Your rims make have labels that state this inner width. If not, simply measure between the inner surfaces. Once you know this width, you can order tubeless tape online or pick it up locally. You are also going to need two tubeless valve stems and the tubeless tire sealant - so order or buy this all at the same time.
Narrower road bike tires in the 700c class typically require only about two ounces (60ml) per tire. Larger MTB tires will require 3 or 4 ounces, and huge fat tires may need even more tire sealant. I have found that most brands of tape are interchangeable. I have also found that most rolls of tape are long enough to go around both of the rims twice.
Now apply the tubeless rim tape to the squeaky clean rims. I like to start the tape three spoke holes past the valve hole, then continue around and overlap the tape, ending three spoke holes past the valve on the other side. The reason is that the valve is the biggest hole in the rim and you need extra rim tape to make sure you don't have a leak there.
The rim tape needs to be laid down the center of the rim. The extra width of the tape allows it to form a deep U-shape from the bottom of the bead cavity on one side across to the other side. You don't want the tape to cover the locking bead area of the rim - just cover all the surface area in between. Use tape that is 1 millimeter wider than the inner width of your rims. Too narrow and you won't have a complete seal; too wide and the tire bead won't hook into the rim.
Apply the tape with as much pressure as you can. Try to stretch the tape so it sticks in the the lowest surface area between the spoke nipple holes in the rim. Stretch and lay about 6-inches at a time, then smooth it down. I find that I can hold the rim between my knees while sitting, and this keeps my hands about waist level for pulling the tape. You can also place the bare rim back on the bike or in a wheel truing stand, if you have one.
Here is a video demonstration of installing tubeless rim tape:
In theory, one layer of rim tape (plus the overlap on both sides of the valve) should be sufficient. The roll usually has enough tape to install two full wraps around both tires. It is easier to lay down one layer, smooth it out, and then add the second layer to eliminate air bubbles in between warps. This is plenty so don't mess up the rims with a third layer.
Next, smooth the tape as best you can. The goal is a tight seal up to where the tire is going to mate with the rim. Smooth the tape down the center, than work upwards along the upper side walls of the rim. Check that the rim tape doesn't extend up into the bead lock area. Trim any overlap in this bead area with a razor knife.
Don't worry about a few wrinkles and air bubbles down the center of the rim. Go around the rim a few times to smooth down the tape. Press hard and use a folded shop rag to cushion your fingers and dissipate the heat of friction. Avoid tearing or splitting the tape over the spoke nipple holes. If you create a tear, cover it with a piece of the left over rim tape - or packing tape.
Step Four: Install the new tubeless valve stems.
Poke a hole in the tape with a sharp pick, then use a round file or tapered punch to form a nice, clean hole for the valve stem. Remove the core from the valve stem. Install the valve stem through the rim and secure with the locking nut on the inner rim. I prefer lock rings that use a tiny O-ring under this lock nut for the best possible seal. Tighten the lock ring with your fingers - as tight as you can without pliers - while pressing down on the base of the valve inside the rim.
Step Five: Seat the tires on the rims.
Install the tires on the rims. Pro Tip: Position the logo on the tire at the valve stem. This is purely cosmetic (although it does help you locate the tire valve at a glance) but experienced bikers will recognize your attention to detail. More importantly, make sure that the tire rotation marked on the sidewall is correct. Your tires have a subtle tread pattern designed for traction in one direction.
It is possible to seat the tires to the rims with just a hand pump. But it is MUCH easier to accomplish this task with an air compressor. You need a quick blast of air to expand the tire 360-degrees around the rim and mate the bead. A thin 700c tire may only require a series of vigorous pumps with your floor pump - don't even try using a little frame pump. Larger 650B tires and all MTB tires need a huge volume of air to seat the bead.
With the tires installed on the rims, attempt to seat the bead BEFORE you add any sealant! You want to get the tires to lock onto the rim before you start adding messy fluid!
I use an air nozzle to add the blast to the rim. No threaded connection - I just hold the nozzle over the valve stem - with the inner valve core removed - and give it a blast for ONE SECOND. The tire will inflate like a balloon and either lock onto the rim or blast air from the circumference of the tire. If the tire locks onto the rim, give it one more short blast to make the lock even tighter. As mentioned above, if you have ridden the tires with inner tubes, the casing will be nice and round and the bead already stretched to match the rim.
At this point, the tire is mated to the rim but uninflated. You can simply stand the tire on the workbench - but try not to place too much weight on the tire that will force it into an oval and break the rim lock. If you can find something to hang the rim from, even better. I have clamped a wood slat in my vise to provide an easy support for large rims and remove all the weight from the loose tire. You can also hang the rim from a length of cord.
This all takes a few seconds. The tire will inflate and deflate as soon as you remove the air gun from the valve stem - or it will leak the air from around the tire bead. DON'T get carried away and continue to blast the rim with too much air or it could overinflate and blow off the rim - possibly ruining the tire or potentially injuring you! BE CAREFUL!
Step Six: Add half the recommended amount of tubeless sealant.
If your tire expanded and grabbed the bead lock you are ready to proceed with adding the liquid tire sealant. If there is no bead lock, go to Trouble-shooting below. Shake the bottle well because the important solids will have settled to the bottom. Then use the application syringe to draw out HALF of the recommended volume. If you bought the sealant in a small squeeze bottle you are ready to add it to the valve stem.
You are going to be added liquid to a flat tire and there is nothing preventing the liquid from spilling out. You need to position the rim with the valve at the bottom. Double check to insure that the tire is still evenly positioned around the rim. Either insert/attach the tube from the syringe to the valve or press the squeeze bottle to the valve stem and add the liquid.
With the first dose of sealant added to the flat tire, next carefully use the compressor to inflate the tire and seat the bead. Again, the tire will inflate and lock onto the rim. As soon as you remove the air gun, it will deflate but this process confirms that the tire is sealed around the rim.
If you have a good seal, carefully add the remaining tire sealant. Now you are ready to install the valve core. Thread the core snugly into the valve stem, then unscrew the top of the Presta air valve. At this point, I prefer to use my floor pump instead of the compressor. I connect the hose to the valve stem and pump vigorously while watching the gauge. If everything is working properly, the tire will lock and the pressure will rise steadily. Pump up the tire to about 75% of the maximum pressure. Next, examine both sides of the tire and note any obvious leaks where the sealant is bubbling out. Hold the tire flat and rotate it around and around, sloshing the sealant against the leaks on the inside. Turn the wheel over and slosh the sealant around the other inner rim surface.
If you only have a few tiny bubbles popping up where the tire meets the rim, the sealant should do its job and clog the leaks. Rotate the tire vertically and horizontally a few times. If possible, set the tire in the hot sun to help seal tiny leaks. Then it is best to install the wheels on your bike and go for a short ride, just around a few blocks. This will make sure that the sealant gets evenly coated on the inside of the tire casing. When you put the bike away, hang it off the ground if possible. First inflate the tires to full pressure while it is being stored. Don't be surprised that the pressure is low the next time you go for a ride. It make takes a few cycles of inflation to fill every tiny air leak, especially in tires with thin sidewall casings.
But if the air is gushing out of major leaks around the rim or at the valve or spokes, go to Worst Case below.
Here's a video that shows the sealant and inflation process - in the BEST case scenario! Note that I prefer to cautiously add only half the sealant until I'm sure the bead is going to lock. Then I add the other half, and inflate only with my floor pump to prevent a huge mess and wasted, expensive sealant.
Trouble-shooting the tubeless conversion process.
If your tire just blubbers from the escaping air, you have more work ahead. First, inspect the tire to make sure that it is evenly positioned around the rim. Recheck that there are no bumps of rim tape on the inner rim locking surfaces. Make sure that there are no kinks or rubber bumps on the tire bead. You can use small tire levers to pull and pry the sidewalls outward to the rim. Once the tire is even around the rim, don't push it down on the workbench and lose this position. Carefully hang the rim before you try inflating it again.
The next thing to try is spraying the beads on both sides of the rim with mildly soapy water. Just add TWO drops of dish soap in a spray bottle and mist both sides of the tire bead. Sometimes this is just enough to allow the bead to slide evenly around the rim when you blast it with air.
If this doesn't work, the tire is either out of round or just too heavy to make even contact around the entire rim. I have had this problem with fat bike tires (and motorcycle tires.) You can try to add more tension to the tire beads by compressing the center of the tread. I have used a flat canoe lashing strap. You could also use a few wraps of paracord. Others swear by using an old rubber rim strip or a few wraps of electrical tape. Whatever you try, the tension must be exactly around the center of the tire tread to exert even pressure outward to the tire beads. Try spraying the sidewalls again with soapy water and attempt to inflate the tire.
Side note: If you have heavy, knobby bike (or motorcycle) tubeless tires, it's a good idea to pack one of these lashing straps with your tool kit. If you get a flat and loose the bead lock to your rim, this will help reseat the bead after patching your flat!
I have found that it is a waste of time and money to add the tubeless sealant until you get at least a momentary bead lock. Adding the sealant to an ill-fitting, oblong tire is just going to make a big mess and blow the sticky liquid over the wheel, you and the floor. PS. You might also want to wear latex gloves to avoid getting the micro-fibers in the tubeless sealant all over your hands!
With patience, you may be able to identify the spots that are causing the air leaks. Keep pulling and prying the bead against the rim. Try pressing down on the workbench to add tension in the problem area. You might need another set of hands to manipulate the tire, rim, and compressor all at the same time.
Worst case - overcoming tubeless conversion problems.
The tire is seated on the rim but air - and sealant - is leaking from multiple locations. If the tires are leaking badly, the sealant doesn't have a chance of plugging the big gaps. Even if it seals momentarily, as soon as you hit a pot hole or try to increase air pressure, the fragile seal may be broken. At this point, all you can do is start over. You are going to need to remove the tires, then hose off the sealant from the rims and tires. Inspect the problem areas and determine if the problem was the rim tape or a rough spot on either the rim or tire. In the WORST case, you might need to totally replace the offending tire. But before you replace the tire, try reinstalling the inner tube and riding it a few weeks at full pressure.
I will admit that once I came up against a set of original equipment tires that were advertised as Tubeless Ready that simply were not. I wasted hours and dollars worth of sealant before finally giving up. I bought a fresh set of REAL tubeless tires and seated them on the first attempt. (The offending tires were on a bike that I had bought online - otherwise I would have let my bike shop address the problem.)
SUCCESS! You have converted your bikes tires to tubeless. It took effort and expense, but you gained invaluable experience! Now you will enjoy better riding and fewer flats as the long-term payback.
If you have assembled the right combination of products, and if you have prepped all these components, the process of converting your tires to tubeless may take no more time than reading this article! I hope these steps and tips make your tubeless tire conversion quick and easy!
Note: Feel free to mix and match brands (or generic) rim tape, valve stems, tire sealant, and tire tools. For example, I routinely choose Stan's No Tubes sealant but I use a generic syringe and tube that extends inside the valve body. I use whatever rim tape is the best buy. I mix and match valve stems, choosing some based on length and others for the stem color.
Also note that you will need to add more tubeless sealant periodically. Watch when you inflate your tires. Unscrew the air valve and give it a light pop. Anytime you tap the air valve and don't see any evidence of moisture you should consider adding an ounce or two of sealant. Remember that your rubber tires are not 100% airtight and the sealant will dry out over time. I usually add sealant each Spring when I give my bikes the pre-season tune-up, and then mid-season as needed - especially if I notice sealant plugging any leaks.