I recently got a flat tire on a road tubeless tire. How is that possible you say? I’d love to tell you it was because Jason slashed my tire with his chainsaw leaving me hapless by the side of the road. But it was much more mundane and humiliating. Whatever caused the puncture was rather small. I never did see it, only the tiny hole it caused. How come there wasn’t any sealant bubbling out and doing its thing? When I got home and took the tire off, I found the sealant was almost completely dried out!
I was initially puzzled—hadn’t I put Orange Seal in there just a few months ago? It turned out it was 14 months ago, which is an eternity when it comes to tire sealant. That’s one of the little maintenance tasks that go along with tubeless: put more sealant in your tires at regular intervals. But it’s also a task that is easy to forget, just as I did. In my case I had been checking at regular intervals when I first set the tires up, about every three months. At the time I was using Stan’s sealant, which is notorious for drying out in just a few months. But after a year the Stan’s was still there, and with confidence my diligence dropped off. I then switched to Orange Seal and checked my tires only once since then. I won’t make that mistake again.
I was fortunate in that I flatted just about a mile from home. I was able to get back to the house riding an almost flat rear tire (sealant also seems to help clincher tire beads bind to the rim). If I had been further away, I would have had to put in a tube. If the sealant were still working, it would have been an ugly mess to pull the tire off and put in a tube. On the other hand the hole was small enough that it surely would have sealed too. And by the way, did you know that tubeless tires tend to be hard to mount because they have tight beads? It’s enough hassle to try to get those Schwalbe tires on when I’m in the shop let alone by the side of the road. I’m not sure I could have gotten a tube in that tire without breaking a bunch of my finely manicured nails!
By the way this experience gave me an opportunity to check the inside of the tire to see how sealant works. Orange Seal consists of a liquid and lots of particles that flow to the puncture and clog it up. I was able to see two boogers inside the tire where apparently I had punctures that sealed. I made sure not to disturb them. It turns out the particles in Orange Seal are tiny little sparkly squares that look like metalic flakes. Whatever they are they seem to work very well at clogging holes.
Well, did I put more sealant in and mount the tire? Nope. I was going to but then I got Lesson Number Two: make sure you have a working air compressor. Air compressor, you say? Yep. Mounting a tubeless tire isn’t always possible with a regular bike pump. Sometimes it is but you don’t necessarily know ahead of time. It depends on the rim-tire combination. To seat the bead you often need a firm blast of air that literally blows the beads into place and create a seal. If you have a tube, the tube inflates and pushes the tire bead into place. But there isn’t a tube with tubeless tires. Nowadays you have three choices: air compressor, CO2 cartridge, or newfangled floor pumps with compressor tanks. CO2 is easy to get and cheap but has one problem: it causes tire sealant to coagulate. So you must do it in two steps: blow the beads into place and hope they stay there and then add sealant. Air compressors are the tool of choice but how many of you have the interest, need, or space for a shop air compressor? They’re moderately bulky and the cheap ones weigh about 40 lbs. They also make a lot of noise. If you’re a tool kind of guy/gal, then you probably already have an air compressor to drive your nail gun or air sprayer. But I’m guessing most of you wouldn’t know an air compressor from a tongue depressor. The third option is rather new. You can now get bicycle floor pumps that have a tank you inflate with the pump. Then you flip the switch to send the compressed air shooting into your tire. Genius. But they cost more than a cheap air compressor. Those floor pumps start around $125 and you can get a really cheap compressor for about $100 and it’s good for other things besides blowing your tubeless tires. But if you live in a SF apartment, the floor pump is definitely the way to go.
In my case I have an air compressor. But first I tried the floor pump because it’s worked before. No go—matter how I positioned the tire it didn’t want to inflate. Plan B was the air compressor. But when I turned it on, it was broken. Then I tried CO2 cartridges and after two failures I gave up and put a latex tube in the tire. I ordered a new compressor but I wasn’t going to wait for it to show up. So now I have a tubeless tire in front and a regular tubed tire in the back. I’m going to try this for a while. Right now I don’t notice a whole lot of difference in the ride. That’s not too surprising to me because latex tubes are very, very supple and give a Cadillac ride. But that brings up issues around maintaining latex tubes. But I’ll save that for another post!