When last seen I had managed to crawl back to the manse under my own power, having successfully inserted an inner tube into my catastrophically blown tubeless rear tire while by the side of the road. Not needing to summon a vehicle nor really needing to do anything else other than rid myself of all the slathered, dried sealant, I was sorely tempted to “oh-fuck-it-all” throw the bike in the corner of the shop and just keep riding my now lumpy, thumpy, heavy, and dumpy repaired wheel.
Nah, that’d be too easy!
The tire was old, so old that once I got home and inspected it more carefully that in addition to sporting a ridiculously large gash it also bore a couple of bare spots where I could see the tire casing. This baby was heading for the dumpster.
Ah, the hidden blessings of tubeless tires revealed. With a regular tire you just patch the tube, replace the tube, or replace both the tube and the tire. Yes, a flat is a nuisance when you’re out on the road/trail. But due consideration has to be given to what you’re actually ending up having to do as a trade off for smugly riding your tubeless tires through thorns and broken glass piles with nary a care. Yeah, you have fewer flats and that saves you time and hassle at the time. But as I’ve chronicled the last few years there is a learning curve associated with maintaining and caring for tubeless road tires. The bottom line: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
Replacing a regular tire is no sweat: pull it and the tube off, check for something stuck in the casing, and put a new tube in, inflate carefully, then you’re good to go. Even if you’re slow and methodical (or just slow), it’s a task that takes less than ten minutes. If you’re patching a tube too, add five minutes. What I ended up doing to replace this old tire was a lot more protracted and arduous.
It took over a week to get the wheel back into working order.
At home when I deflated the inner tube and unseated a tire bead, lots of sealant came out. Some people save their old sealant and put it in the new tire. Despite my miserly, cheap bastard tendencies there was no way I was going to try to gather up all that mess to reuse. I swabbed up the floor, carefully tossed the tire into the waste basket, and then washed off the inner tube. One positive is that latex-based sealant washes off easily and cleanly with tap water—tube saved for another day. There was sealant all over the rim and dripping down the spokes although I had managed to keep the cassette and brake rotor mostly free of the muck. Wiping off the wheel with paper towels consumed a lot of them and took some time. Then I noticed more sealant on the rim. Where did that come from? I just wiped it off! It turns out there was sealant inside the rim cavity How did it get inside? Maybe from the sealant flowing down the spokes and into the spoke holes? That seemed unlikely.
But I didn’t give it a second thought; if there was a little more sealant, I’d wipe it off and that’d be it. But sealant kept reappearing. I spent a lot of time cleaning the rim well because I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any dried or soon-to-be-dried sealant to interfere with seating the tire bead. This meant carefully wiping the entire rim bed including under the bead hook, which is a tedious task.
A rim has to be sealed completely in order for tubeless tires to work. If your rim has spoke holes, then they need to be covered up to contain the sealant and the air. With a non-tubeless rim you use rim strips to keep the inner tube from being forced into the rim cavity by air pressure. You cannot use regular rim strips with tubeless tires because they’re not airtight. Instead you have to use special tubeless tape to cover all the spokes holes and you need to have the right width tape to match your rim width.
I ended up cleaning the rim at least three times because each time I thought it was ‘clean’, then more sealant would appear in the spoke holes. At that point I began to suspect the rim tape had been compromised, allowing sealant to enter the rim cavity. Rim strips for non-tubeless tires last a long time. I have some old wheels that probably have never had their rim strips replaced. Rim tape for tubeless wheelsets it seems is another matter; the recommended replacement schedule is unclear but apparently mounting and demounting tires does wear out tubeless tape (!). My tendency is to run stuff until there is an obvious failure and although I’d mounted and demounted the old tire several times, I never gave it a thought. Maybe now was the failure.
In order for rim tape to seal it has to adhere to the rim cavity ferociously. If not, say because there was dried sealant or schmutz on it, then the tape won’t adhere well and air (and sealant) will leak into the rim cavity. But I hadn’t had any problem with this tire/rim holding pressure before the flat. And, when I removed the old rim tape I did not see any obvious holes in the tape. So it’s a mystery as to how so much sealant ended up inside the rim. Just to be safe I decided to replace the tubeless tape because I did not want to set up the new tire only to discover post factum that the old tape was no good.
After wiping the rim several times yet again, I set the wheel upright to let the sealant drain out. The next day there was more sealant on the floor. I hung the wheel up. For the next four days I continued to see new sealant pooling around the spoke holes. By around the sixth day it was sufficiently dried up that I was trusting putting new tape on it. Ideally I would have wiped the entire rim down with acetone. But I didn’t have any and although very effective at removing residue it’s quite toxic. Instead I had rubbing alcohol so it would have to do.
That delay actually wasn’t a bad thing because I didn’t have any tubeless tape. I thought I did but a mad search revealed none. If I had, I would have slapped it on immediately and inadvertently left a lot of sealant inside the rim. I ordered a roll of Stan’s tape for $20 (enough for four wheels) and that took three days to arrive. That delay allowed me to let the wheel empty out and dry some more.
With everything now at hand and the rim clean(er) and dry(er) I was now ready to install the new tire. Confession: I’ve never put together a tubeless wheelset before. This wheel came to me already set up with sealant. So this would be my first time (cue “Like A Virgin”). A couple of YouTube videos later I was ready to do it myself.
One more obstacle though: I then noticed that on the rim bed was a tiny sticker that said the warranty would be voided if (1) one used pressure above 90 psi, or (2) one didn’t use 25mm HED tape. So I emailed HED asking if using Stan’s tape would void the warranty—seriously??—and got a surprisingly rapid response the next morning saying that Stan’s tape was fine. Whew.
Installing tubeless tape is very much like installing regular rim strips although with tubeless tape you are advised to apply it tautly. HED also advises applying two layers of tape, which given the tape doesn’t seem reinforced, was a good idea to me. Apparently one wrap of tape weighs about 5-10 grams, so no big deal. I had to struggle a bit until I got my technique down, leading to applying, removing, then applying ad nauseum. Practice makes perfect or in my case, less imperfect. The goal is to have smooth tape covering all the spoke holes and without crinkles or irregularities where sealant and air might invade and then leak out. This stuff is stiffer than regular rim strips so by trial and error I learned that applying firm thumb pressure in the rim well while laying down the tape was important to getting it to adhere smoothly. And of course your aim has to be good, ie. pull the damn tape straight so that it doesn’t meander in the rim bed.
The next step was getting the new tire onto the rim. But before that I had to install a valve and screw it down with a retention nut but not so tightly that I wouldn’t be able to do unscrew it by hand if I got another catastrophic flat on the road. For a Boy Scout medal I then added a bead of sealant around the now seated valve to fill any gaps in the hole in case it wasn’t perfect and let it dry. Now for the tire: to my surprise it was very easy to mount and I got both beads on the rim lickety-split. But no matter how quickly I pumped I could not get it to inflate at all.
So out came the 80-lb. air compressor. Even though I don’t have a dedicated presta valve head on the compressor hose, the regular nozzle puts out so much air that it’s capable of blasting a tire on. In order to blow the maximum amount of air, I removed the presta valve core from the tubeles valve. The tire inflated quickly, the beads immediately snapping into place with unsettling cracking sounds so loud I thought the tire was going to blow off the rim. But it didn’t. Unfortunately I could hear the hissing of air escaping somewhere. I tried this several times and each time it would hold air only temporarily and each time the air seemed to be escaping at different locations around the rim.
Since I had never set up tubeless tires before, I did not realize that this is actually a common occurrence. Roger suggested I add sealant but I was hesitant to do so until I had a good seal because I didn’t want to have more sealant blowing every whichway around the rim I had just meticulously cleaned. But eventually that’s exactly what I did because I couldn’t get a seal despite removing the tire and resetting it a couple of times.
To add sealant you can either pour it in the tire and then put the bead back on the rim or you can inject it through the valve. I did the latter since it’s easy once the valve core is out and it’s less likely to make a mess. I put in roughly two ounces of sealant, which is overkill for road tires. Then I tried again with the compressor. The beads slammed into place right away and I could see sealant coming out at several locations around the rim on both sides.
Now I had to roll the tire around to get the entire interior of the cavity coated with sealant. If I was lucky the gaps along the rim/tire interface would be small enough that the sealant should plug them up. I did this for about 15 minutes, holding the wheel horizontally and rocking it around to get sealant on both beads. I then left it on one side, came back some time later and set it on the other side. By evening the tire still felt hard. I left it overnight and the tire was still hard. I now had a new tubeless tire installed and set up with sealant on my rear wheel after about a week.
This, I think, completes the demystification process of tubeless road tires for me. I lived through the worst case scenario of an unsealable gash while on the road and I was able to get an inner tube installed and got home. I have also set up a tubeless tire from scratch—actually even worse than scratch because I had to completely clean the filthy rim before I could proceed with an installation. Even if I had had a set of tire plugs with me, I do not think in retrospect that I could have gotten a very good seal, maybe enough to limp home on very low tire pressure but not enough to be a permanent repair (assuming the tire hadn’t already been worn down to the casing). The gash was big enough that I would have needed at least two plugs, maybe three to work.
The bottom line: tubeless or tubed—which is it from now on?
Whatever time I’d saved in not having to repair flats while on the road was long lost in the amount of time I spent dealing with this catastrophic failure. Admittedly it wasn’t that hard to get an inner tube installed. Will it be that ‘easy’ the next time? I don’t know and that uncertainty bothers me. Perhaps with this new tire it will be easy because it went on the rim for the first time without needing to use tire levers. But the clean up and repair afterwards was prolonged, irksome, and just shows how complicated a minor thing like a flat can become. It reminded me of when I used to ride on sewup tires. A good sewup has an unbeatable ride feel. They’re heaven until you get a flat. Yes, you can put on a spare sewup if you do flat and make it home. But the aftermath of a puncture is a major pain in the ass. You have to repair the sewup, which involves removing the sewup from the rim if you haven’t already—a major task with sewup glue, opening up the seam, patching, sewing the seam back up correctly, and then regluing it to the rim. The repairs are time consuming and tedious. When I found someone who would repair my sewups for a fee, I immediately dumped my pile of unrepaired tires on him. When he left the business I stopped riding on sewups. Tubeless tires bring almost as much labor and unnecessary irritation to the table.
There are times when not getting a flat on the road is a godsend—when it’s raining or incredibly hot or when you’re in a place you can’t stop such as a sketchy neighborhood or when there is no convenient place to do a repair. But you have to weigh that against the occasions when a puncture doesn’t seal or only partially seals, the clean up, and the maintenance that tubeless tires require with sealant. I was almost convinced tubeless really might be the best of all possible worlds. Until now. But then again one catastrophic failure in 8,000 miles ain’t too bad. That’s about one per year.
As for ride feel, it’s really a question of what you’re used to and whether you’re that much of a princess. Lots of folks ride on tire/tube combinations that feel to me like riding on wooden wagon wheels, eg. Specialized Armadillo tires with bargain basement butyl inner tubes, and they’re happy with them probably because they’re inexpensive, they don’t get many if any flats, and they require almost no time for maintenance. But if you’re a hothouse flower that moans at the slightest pavement incongruities you’d probably be willing to spend more time and money for wheels that cosset you like fine linens. In my opinion tubeless tires do not provide the princess experience. The best setup I’ve ridden this side of sewups is a traditional tubed tire such as a high-end Michelin or a Rene Herse coupled with a latex inner tube. Those combinations are light and have supple casings that come closest to a silk sewup tire. Unfortunately this means accepting the occasional flat tire while on the road. Tubeless tires mostly free you from that concern but in exchange the ride quality is not quite as good. It’s not bad, just not as good as what I had been used to. When it might rain or I’m going on a ride where there’s a lot of filth, I’ll take tubeless—no questions asked. I don’t want to be doing a roadside repair under those conditions. But in other situations I don’t see the need.
Keep in mind that all of this hassle and rigamarole mostly pertains only if you do your own maintenance and repairs. As our club president David said, “Well, don’t you have people who can do that for you?” Yes, you can always take it to a shop and have them deal with the aftermath. It’ll cost you maybe an hour total of shop time and you’ll have to wait for them to do your repair. It reminds me when Bing once told me that he always took his bike to the shop to fix the flats and he was using inner tubes! Of course he lived across the street from a shop. But if you want to do your own repairs, you may want to stay with inner tubes unless you’re willing to put up with what I just went through or you think you’re just luckier than I am.