Thursday, April 09, 2020

Tubeless Maintenance 101- Part 1

Selection of Orange Seal products for tubeless set ups.
Recently I got a selection of tubeless stuff from Orange Seal to use for Riding Gravel. This got me to thinking about how many customers of the bike shop that had no idea what to do when dealing with a tubeless tire set up. Maybe you are thinking about doing the tubeless dance yourself? Perhaps you are new to it. Maybe it is all old hat to you, but you are curious about what Guitar Ted does? Well, dear reader, read on...... 

First: I think it is very important to understand that tubeless tires are not for everyone, nor do you need tubeless tires in many cases. 

I think this is good to let settle in on your brain. Many shop employees and media wonks are sold on tubeless tires and think everyone should use them, but many people would actually be frustrated and ride less with tubeless set ups. This is because tubeless tires require more maintenance and are technically more challenging than tubed tire set ups, generally speaking. So...why do tubeless tires at all? 

 First of all, it is often not the case at all that tubeless tires are lighter than tubed set ups. Sometimes they are, (most often with fat bikes, this is the case), so don't go tubeless for the lighter weight. That gain- if there is one- is negligible for most bicycles. Do consider tubeless tires if you get a lot of punctures from goat heads, thorns, or if you are sensitive to how tires perform. If you can tell the difference between a few psi less or more, or if you can feel the difference in tire brands/products/models easily, or if you want more traction, a softer ride, and if you crave lower rolling resistance, you'll like a tubeless tire. If none of that registers with you, then those reasons for going tubeless will be lost on you.

Tubed tires, when they are not punctured, require almost zero maintenance. Theoretically, you can run a tube in a tire until the tire wears out, put that tube in a new tire, and probably a third and fourth tire if you never flat. Air up your tires on a regular basis and that's it. Boom! Go ride.....

Tubeless tires require sealant to work, and therein lies the reason for maintaining these set ups.
Tubeless tires, obviously, have no tube in them. They seal up using a system of tubeless tape, a tubeless valve stem, and sealant, which coats the inner casing of a tubeless tire, seals it, and doubles as a way to seal up small punctures. This sealant is most often based upon a formula using latex rubber as the main ingredient, along with some sort of carrier fluid, which in many cases is some form of ammonia.  The carrier fluid eventually dries up, leaving semi-coagulated sealant, dried sealant "skin", or a clump of sealant bouncing around inside of your tire, depending on what type of sealant you have. All that doesn't matter as much as replenishing sealant on a regular basis, and annually cleaning out tires. 

How often do you have to replenish sealant? Well.....that depends. It may only take a month if you use a fast coagulating "race day sealant", or your sealant may last six months. Regular checking is key. Doing this is easy. You can read about how to check your tires for sealant level, the tools I recommend to do it with, and see the "MG Secret Sauce" tubeless goop recipe I often use at THIS LINK.

Checking sealant levels are only one part of the maintenance scheme though. You also need to check your tires for build up, your tape, and your valve stems every year. At least once a year. The reason is that sealant carriers break down adhesives, which is what your tape relies on to seal off the spoke bed of your rims. Sealant often builds up inside a tire, making them heavier, for one thing, but sealant also builds up on valves as well. Sealant can also break down a tire casing from the inside, which needs checking. Finally, air pressure, tire removal/remounting, or time can cause rim tape to fail.

An example of failed rim tape. You can see where the sealant has crept under the tape here.
There are several tips and tricks I can share that will give you an idea of where to go with getting yourself set up to maintain your own tubeless tires. That will come in a separate post. However; I wanted to address something that is becoming a bit more prominent with the wide usage of tubeless tires these days. Something almost no one ever talks about- casing stretch.

If you weren't aware, or maybe you never thought about this before, but tires are basically fabric with a layer of vulcanized rubber over it. In the most basic of terms, that is what makes up your bicycle tires. Sure- it's a lot more complex than that, but for purposes of this discussion, remembering the simple things is all that is necessary here.

Considering the fact that our bicycle tires are, for the most part, pared down to be usable with the least amount of material possible, it should be easy to understand that the forces of air and the chemicals in sealant work together to break down the integrity of a tire over time. This most often is seen as a casing that stretches. Tubed tires don't suffer from this as much due to the reinforcing nature of a tube. But this is also why tubed tires ride stiffer and have higher rolling resistance. Of course, tubed tires won't be adversely affected by sealant either.

You'll notice that a new tubeless tire may be super difficult to mount, but after a few months, you might take that same tire off and it almost falls off the rim. If you had taken the time to measure your tires with a Vernier calipers, when they were first mounted they would measure narrower than after they had been set up for a few days. Casing stretch is the reason for all of that. Each tire will react differently, so it is important to remember that swapping tires back and forth in tubeless set ups will, more than likely, render your tire useless after a while just due to stretch. By the way, fat bike tires are notorious for this issue.

My recommendation is to set up a set of tires and use them for a long time. Don't go swapping tires back and forth all the time, unless you just don't care.  Also keep in mind that despite the fact that you should remove the tires once a year for inspection, the very act of doing so may render your tires almost useless as tubeless tires.

So, going tubeless does come with a LOT of caveats. For many it is absolutely worth it, but again- it isn't for everybody. 

Next: Maintaining tape, valves, and sealant recovery methods I use. 


flying_sqrl said...

Excellent information. I would add an alternative. If the frequency of flatting (in the area where you ride) for you and others is rarely to never, consider letting the sealant dry up. Carry a tire plug kit and know how to use it, and a spare tube if you want. Advantages of this include lower maintenance costs and time, and it’s less messy if you flat and have to install a tube once the sealant has dried up. You’ll have to decide if this works for you. I’ve been running this way for 4 years. Two flats on the trail bike due to rock punctures were fixed with a tube before I had a plug kit. Two flats on the fat bike in winter due to the tire stretch GTed mentioned, fixed with a tube and then tire replacement.

Guitar Ted said...

@ flying_sqrl - You are fortunate. I would hesitate to advise anyone to run wheels/tires after tubeless sealant has dried up. I've experimented with this with varying, inconsistent results. Sometimes it works as you have described. Other times you cannot maintain air pressures for longer than a single ride, and anywhere in between.

As a person who has to be careful on what to advise people to do, for various reasons, I cannot stand behind that which you suggest. But if it works for you......

Skidmark said...

Greets GT, are there any tubeless tires available that are designed to be run without sealant, or sealant optional, like the original UST tire?

Guitar Ted said...

@Skidmark - No, not really. I mean, you mention UST. I assume you know what that meant. In a word- "HEAVY". they did hold air without sealant, and did it well, but to get to that point, due to physics and materials limitations, the tires weighed about twice what a folding bead tire weighed.

And there hasn't been any research, that I am aware of, to make the UST tires any different than they were in the 00's.

Skidmark said...

Yep, thanks. Seems like it could do nicely as a commuter tire, with sealant optional.

blooddoc23 said...

Have you ever heard of putting sealant inside of tubes? I tried this for a year and had no flats. I may have just gotten lucky.

Guitar Ted said...

@blooddoc23 - Not only have I heard of doing that, I have done it myself on several occasions. I ran sealant in my fat bike tubes quite often, and back before I was full-on tubeless I did that with several mountain bikes going back to the 90's.

Slime tubes- Remember those?

blooddoc23 said...

I do!