Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Tubeless 101: Part 4

Tubeless set ups are not as straightforward as you'd hope.
With this post I am going to end the series on basic bicycle tubeless tire knowledge I use for setting up gravel road tubeless tires/wheels. Some of these tips cross over to mountain bikes and fat bikes, but be aware that things like single wall rims (fat bikes) and "cush core inserts", (mountain bikes) require certain tips and tricks outside of the parameters of my series. For most "basic" needs though, these tips and tricks should suffice. Part One is here, Part Two is here, and Part Three is here. Go back and see these previous posts before asking any questions. Thanks. And......if you haven't already had this drilled into you enough already......

 Tubeless tires are not for everyone, nor do you need tubeless tires in many cases. And also: Tubeless tire set ups are not only more technical and maintenance intensive, but more expensive as well.

Now here's the kicker: Not all tubeless tires fit the rims they are designated to fit, and there is (almost) no way of knowing based upon manufacturers recommendations. 

That's right folks. You may buy a 700c tubeless ready tire, you may have a 700c tubeless ready wheel set, and those tires may not work on those rims. Sound wacky? It totally is, and this has been how things have worked since tubeless tires for bicycles came about. So, how does one navigate the 'wild, wild West' of the tubeless tire/rim world? 

By trial and error- that's how. So, not only does all this tubeless tire stuff cause MORE maintenance, and COST MORE, it may not even work!  Admittedly, this is rarer than it used to be, but it still happens. Reasons are several, but the main ones are:
  • Differences In Wheel Bead Seat Diameter vs Tire Bead Diameter: Tires and rims only have to be off fractional amounts between the two to make things miserable. Stan's rims have their own diameter (slightly larger) and Hutchinson/Vittoria/Mavic/Michelin tires have more UST based diameters (slightly smaller) for tires. Never the twain shall meet. While those are the most glaring offenders, there are others as well. There is almost no information out there at a retail level to protect you from making the mistakes that could cause you a nightmare. 
  • Super-Light Tire Sidewall Construction Leading To Casing Leakage: You may get past the first hurdle only to find that the tires you chose leak sealant through the sidewalls of the casing. This is most notable as a shiny appearance to the tires, and in worst case scenarios, the tire will actually bubble sealant right through the pores of the casing. Sometimes a dosage of more sealant will cure this- but sometimes leaks keep popping up. Beware of tires sporting lightweight claims, XC racing tires for MTB, and certain brands which have histories of doing this. 
  • Tire Tread/Casing Separation: This is a lot less common today than it used to be, but we are still seeing this. Maxxis and Kenda tires have been noted for this in the past. It also will happen more commonly where people use folding bead, non-tubeless tires as tubeless. It usually occurs after you've had the tires a while. The issue is caused by sealant incompatible casing materials which sometimes sneak into a brand's tire casings (or are naturally used in non-tubeless folding bead tires never meant for tubeless set ups) via their factories. If a company changes a factory in the Far East, for whatever reason, this might start happening where it didn't before. Consumers have no way of seeing this coming. 
Use all the resources at your disposal before you jump and buy in.
So, what do you do? Well, as I said, things are not as bad as they were ten years ago, but things are not as straightforward as you'd hope they would be. If you are sitting on the fence yet, here are some recommendations that will help you navigate this minefield more successfully.
  • Use A System: If you have tubeless ready wheels, try to stick with tires from the same manufacturer if they are available. For instance, many bikes come with WTB rims. WTB makes really great tubeless ready tires. Matching the tires to the rims almost always makes for a great tubeless set up. Specialized, Bontrager/Trek, and Giant all have OE spec tubeless ready wheels on many of their bikes and tires to go with them too. 
  • Use Your Local Bike Shop's Knowledge: Got a wrench in your area that knows his stuff and has been around a while? Talk to them and get the knowledge that a guy/gal has that has worked with a lot more tires and wheels than you'll likely ever see in your lifetime. Then, after you gain some hard won knowledge from them, buy something from that shop
  • Research Your Choices: The forums, review sites, and Facebook can be a resource, but extreme caution is advised. Look for trends in commentary, and try to find consistency in comments and advice. Be careful of just wanting your choices to be validated. Cross check with your local bike shop knowledge, and if it is not a systemic approach, double your caution. 
So, let's say you have a tire and the wheels are all prepped properly. Now about mounting those things successfully. You'll know if you are going to have a successful tubeless set up pretty much right away if (a) your tires go on really hard by hand, or (b) if you have to use a tire lever to get that last bit of bead on inside the rim well. Chances are that if this is what you experience, and after you inject some sealant into the tire through the valve stem, that tire will pump up with any old crappy floor pump.

I've used this slightly modded Bontrager Charger pump several times for tubeless set ups.
In fact, I use a Bontrager Charger pump that was headed for the bin after being warranted as my litmus test. If I can pump up a tire tubeless on a rim with that poor old thing, then anyone can do it. I only modded the pump with a Silca pump head, but otherwise it is its bad, broken down self.

If you cannot move quite enough air to create a seal with a floor pump, then a small air compressor will usually do the trick. A short blast of air through a valve with the core removed generally will push the sidewalls out quickly enough to create a seal. I air up the tire- never higher than 40 psi to seat beads - and then slip the core back in, tighten it, then I finish off pumping up the tire.

If either one of those two things does not happen, I am sorry- but this is 2020. If tactics #1 and #2 fail- then that combination is a failure. Flat out. We should not have to bounce, strap, or do any sort of 'trick' outside of the first two things I have described here to get tires to set up anymore. Conversely, if you cannot even get to this point because the tire won't go on? Major Fail. Plain and simple. You need to try a different combination.

By the way, if your tire blows off the rim, that tire is instantaneously no good. Never try that tire tubeless again. It is unsafe. Period.

Now lets say you get that tire set up. You are not done yet. Take the wheel into your hand, lay the wheel/tire down on its side. Now pick up one end about four inches off the ground. Pivot the opposite end up, then drop it. Turn the tire about three degrees, pick up the other end and drop it. Repeat this process for three revolutions of the wheel, then flip the wheel and repeat. Then- if you can- go ride the wheel in a bike for about 15-20 minutes. This should distribute the sealant around the tire's innards enough to seal the casing and the tire should stay sealed now for a reasonable amount of time.

If you see trouble after this, most often it is related to the valve, valve core, or possibly a porous sidewall. Go back and start over.

Did I mention tubeless tires for bikes are more technical, more expensive, and not as easy as tubed systems?



graveldoc said...

Never tried tubeless and I've read of folks using a tubeless system having a seal failure "out there" and have had to install a tube which they've carried along "just in case". Seems like the habit of taking along a spare tube and/or patch kit is still a good thing to do. Also, if a sidewall gets cut on a sharp rock or object, a twenty dollar bill or tire boot along with that tube will come in handy, too. My two cents worth...

Guitar Ted said...

@graveldoc - Yes, good tips there. Tubeless can seal up smaller punctures, but when the worst happens - and let's be fair, no tube would resist these thing either - a tube in the kit can save the day. I'd add in the green twig pliers trick or an outright set of pliers to your repair bag to help get the probably too tight Presta nut off. I've even gone as far as carrying extra sealant in case your puncture does seal, but you blow out most of your sealant in the process. Then a valve core removal tool would be good to have.

Ah! The joys of being a tubeless tire rider.

And by the way, your boot is EXPENSIVE! I can only afford the dollar bill tire boot in my kit. LOL!! :>)

graveldoc said...

Again good points, G.T. your experience speaks for itself. Though I've never had to resort to a "boot", I seem to recall reading years back that a $20.00 bill is made of a more durable paper and makes a better boot. I know the Park Tool tire boot would work just fine and is immently less expensive. I even carrry a peice of folded over duct tape in my wallet to use as a boot, just in case.

Doug M. said...

Thank you GT for taking the time to document your knowledge of all things tubeless. It can be a confusing landscape, certainly was for me when I jumped in. I've cited and sent links to your older posts on the subject many times over the years. Cheers!

flying_sqrl said...

I would add: It is important to check that the bead is seated correctly/evenly. There is usually a circumferential ridge on the tire sidewall that one can use to confirm this. And if it isn’t seated evenly, mix a drop or two of dish soap with 1/2 cup warm water, unseat the tire by deflating and pushing the beads into the rim cavity and use an old toothbrush to apply the soap solution around both beads. Then air up again. Uneven beads happen about 1/4 of the time for me with MTB tires (older Stan’s rims and new-ish WTB rims)

james said...

If you are having difficulty airing up a new tire installation for the first time, try putting the tire/wheel in the sun for a bit. This will soften the casing and help it pop onto the shoulder of the rim

blooddoc23 said...

That is all great info. You should consider publishing a book. GT's Bike Care and Repair etc.

I have found that if you have the right tire on the right wheel, tubeless is a pretty bullet proof set up, as long as you add some sealant every 3 or 4 months. By the time you need to clean out the tire due to weight, its about time for new tires anyway!

thanks R/