Fun With Road Tubeless, The Finale

[courtesy of Jan Heine’s blog!]

This is probably the final update on my experience with road tubeless tires.

Although the rains had ceased a couple of months ago in July I still had fenders on my bike. Normally I’d have pulled the fenders by May but we had some late spring rains that delayed that minor maintenance. Then we did a ride where copious marine fog made the roads wet under the trees and I was glad to have the fenders. So they stayed on even longer. I used to be a weight weenie and fenders were relegated to my commuter bike. The bike I’d ride for pleasure was almost always stripped down to the minimum of baggage.
Back in the day I used to look quizzically at Jerome’s bike because he always carried a handlebar bag plus other stuff on his bike. Why would you carry all that? It just weighed you down and made you slower. As for fenders, skip them—I’d just wipe the bike down after a wet ride (if I wiped it down at all). But if you were to look at my bike now you’d see a veritable laundry list of “Boy Scout” items—front and back lights (with battery packs), saddlebag with not just a tubes but multitool, patch kit, nipple wrench, quick patches, tire bolt, chain tool, spare battery; a bento bag with more stuff, a bell, a full size bike pump (no CO2 or minipump for me!). Oh, and like Jerome I often ride with a small handlebar bag that has more junk in it—pen, wipes, Advil, Swiss Army knife, pickle juice, emergency snacks, sunscreen, lip balm, crash kit, electrolytes, bike lock(!), etc. etc. In other words I’m completely fredded out these days thinking that the bike-ocalypse could happen on any ride. One day I weighed it all and it was like four pounds of extra “essential” stuff. It’s true that we become our parents when we get older, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll hitch a Green Egg grill and tow it so I can cook up a really good lunch on my rides!
Which brings me back to those fenders: so what that they add a couple of pounds to my bike? I’ve already drunk the Fred Kool-Aid, plus they keep grime off of me and most of my bike. It’s just one more chore to take them off and put them back on.
However if you’re using road tubeless tires those fenders actually come in handy. If you have a puncture, all that sealant doesn’t get flung all over you and the rear of your bike. In a momentary brain infarct I decided to remove the fenders anyway. Maybe I was thinking I’d go faster and make up for my lack of conditioning. Maybe I was engaged in magical thinking—I’ve come to realize that that’s most of the time—and thought that I just wouldn’t need them with a dry summer ahead. In any case taking off the fenders was not laborious although it did induce me to spend more time than I wanted or should have cleaning the bike after this wet winter. The next day Roger and I went out for a really nice ride—perfect weather—and when I got home I noticed the entire rear of the bike was coated in dried sealant. I’m not talking about a little sealant, I’m talking about so much sealant that it dripped to the bottom bracket and formed a hanging booger underneath. I was half tempted to say oh-f**k-it and in frustration just leave it a mess. But after cleaning the bike the day before, damned if I was going to let that shit stay there. I checked the tire to make sure it wasn’t a really bad puncture (tire plug time?). The tire was actually quite hard and when I checked the pressure it was down only a few pounds. Whoa, all that sealant got out and the pressure was still really good! Definitely a plus. Inspecting the tire I couldn’t find the puncture—a mystery. Usually there is sealant dried around the puncture but apparently just riding along scraped away the remains on the outside.
What are my thoughts on road tubeless now? As you know I’ve learned using road tubeless tires is not without negatives. It’s not quite obvious that they can be messy—messy to set up and messy if you have a puncture. If you’re fastidious in your bike maintenance, you’ll potentially find that the time and convenience you’ve saved in not having to fix flats and repair tubes either by the side of the road or at home is somewhat offset by any cleaning up you’ll encounter as a result of a puncture. If you don’t care how your bike looks, then sealant muck on your bike will just blend in with all the other wheel spray you’re letting fester there and road tubeless will definitely a big plus. But if you like a clean rig, you’re going to find some of that saved time offset by wiping sealant spray off your bike. Mind you, it goes everywhere.
Which brings me back to the fenders. With fenders sealant is not going to get on you or your bike. When I took the fenders off I did notice that there was dried sealant all along the inside (which I dutifully cleaned off!) from the past winter. So I had some punctures that I didn’t even know about. But if you’re in your weight weenie stage there is no way in hell you’re going to ride with fenders. But consider this: PRO isn’t just having a pristine, well-kept bike—PRO is riding that beast in all conditions including rain. So when people with $8,000 bikes tell me they don’t ride in the rain and would never put fenders on their bike, I wonder. Yes, even pros use fenders in training. The fenders are going back on the bike to join the rest of the junk that’s living there. But at least I won’t have to clean the rig up as often.
I must confess I’m torn: if I weren’t using tubeless tires I wouldn’t leave fenders on this bike. So for the dry season that’s a trade-off for me. I’ve had at least four punctures that have given me pause. The first one had sealant spraying everywhere (it was pre-fenders); the second wouldn’t seal with Stans and I had to switch to Orange Seal; the third was when the sealant all dried out and I flatted; and now this one, no impact at all on the ride but boy, what a cleaning job afterwards! There is one situation I have yet to encounter: the puncture that’s so bad you have to put in a tube and maybe a tire bolt as well. I’m dreading that because wet sealant is really messy, which is why I now carry latex gloves and paper towels. (No, I’m not planning on giving someone a prostate check “in a roadside emergency”.) They’re to wipe off the inside of the tire and the resulting mess, which is unavoidable regardless of where you are when it happens.
Ironically before I started playing with tubeless tires the only thing that would get me to phone for a ride home was if my bike became unrideable from having a broken derailleur hanger, a trashed wheel, or some such thing. You would think that tubeless tires would reduce my concern about needing a rescue. But I’ve found instead that my concern has gone up. Years ago Roger and I were riding the tandem in the Solvang Century and we flatted the rear tire. Upon inspection—and to my embarrassment—it turned out the tire was so worn that we had worn it down to the inner tube! Hey no problem: I put a tire bolt over the worn-out spot and slipped in a new tube, which shows you that with standard inner tubes you really can handle just about anything. (We probably could have ridden that tire all the way but we found at the next rest stop that we could buy a tire. So we replaced it in just a few minutes.)
So what am I saying? Doing roadside maintenance on tubeless tires can be much more tiresome and frustrating than with regular tubed tires. But with tubed tires you are guaranteed to be doing roadside repairs whereas with tubeless this is going to be rare. But if it does happen to you, it will likely be not just a minor inconvenience like the flats you’re used to having but a major PITA. And a mess. And, if you like a clean bike but eschew the weight of fenders, then you’re going to have to weigh the one against the other because you can’t have both with sealant.
For now I’ve put more sealant in the tire and the fenders are going back on. But I am leaning more towards going back to lighter and better tires with latex tubes instead of running tubeless. Then I could ditch the fenders during the dry season (but why bother?) The ride is definitely better with other tires, eg. Michelins, than the tubeless Schwalbe Pro Ones (although Schwalbes are better than average) and I have some misgivings about the independence I may give up by having a set up that’s less friendly to roadside repairs. But I do like that I can ride on these wheels with a much reduced likelihood of a flat. But let’s face it: I’ve been riding bikes for almost sixty years and have fixed literally hundreds of flat tires. It’s second nature to me and merely irksome that it happens at all.
So although my experience with tubeless is improving as I learn more how to work with this technology, I have to ask, “Is this really an improvement?” and the answer is a mixed one. If someone told me today that tubeless road tires stuff went out of existence, I’d shrug my shoulders and ‘whatevs, bro’. If you’re coming to cycling now and growing up with road tubeless, then maybe you’d have a different reaction. Do I feel the same about other bike technologies? No, I don’t. For example, when indexed shifters came along and especially brake/shifter levers (“brifters”), I was sold even though I had grown up with non-indexed downtube shifters. I immediately recognized that the convenience far outweighed any inconvenience or extra weight that this technology would introduce. For me brifters are a huge improvement with no serious downside, so I’m no curmudgeonly retrogrouch. I don’t feel the same about tubeless tires, at least not yet. It seems to me that with road tubeless the trade-offs are serious enough that you are going to have to think about your individual use case and what you are willing to tolerate. For me it’s nice to have fewer flats to repair. But the prospect of a serious tubeless failure out on the road still gives me pause. I do like a clean bike and since I don’t mind the weight of fenders, having to use them with tubeless tires isn’t enough of a deterrent to completly drop tubeless for now. And of course during the rainy season having to use fenders is a joy rather than an imposition. And fixing a flat in the rain? No thanks. Been there, done that (a few dozen times).
Lastly keep in mind that burping tubeless tires is a real but low possibility and as I mentioned in the last post about tubeless tires burping high pressure road tires can mean a crash due to the sudden, immediate deflation of your tire. In my case I’m very light and have 25 mm wide rims with 30 mm tires. I run my tires at 40-60 psi depending, and those medium pressures reduce the risk of burping and catastrophic failure. But if you have narrower rims, narrower tires, and thus have to pump them to higher pressures, you need to be careful.
So there you have it—after almost three years of playing with road tubeless my curiousity has been sated and this technology—for me—is not a must-have but a mixed bag. Maybe you’ll feel otherwise if you try it. It’s a plus if you either don’t know how or hate to repair a flat tire. But tubeless tires do not eliminate flats nor do they make your cycling life problem-free. You will still have flats, just fewer of them, and your maintenance shifts from one task to another. So you are losing perhaps the inconvenience of more minor repairs by the side of the road and having to pray you don’t have a total tubeless failure that will guarantee you’ll be screaming at the gods for the shit show you’re having to endure.
I will say that if you’re a slob, then road tubeless is probably the way to go. You’re not going to clean your bike anyway, so a layer of latex sealant on top of yesterday’s wheel spray, tar, and filth is not going to give you pause. Just be prepared to call for a ride when that day comes when your tubeless tire is hopelessly hosed and you’re miles from home or a friendly bike shop.

What’s up next? I’m going to experiment with Tubolito tubes, a 38 gram inner tube. Back to weight weenie…