Going tubeless with a bike: is it worth it?

Once you have bought your first bike, you now need to understand a bit more in detail your bike. It’s quite exciting to go out for a ride but what will happen if you get a puncture? So today we are going to talk about inner tubes – the piece of rubber that you generally inflate inside your tires. But first, do all bikes have inner tubes?

Not all bikes have inner tubes. Tubeless tires appeared in 2000 and are now common on mountain bikes and starting on road bikes. This alternative system does not require any inner tube but you can fit one in case of a puncture.

Let’s see in this article a bit more in detail the differences between tires with inner tubes and tubeless tires. We’ll discuss which system is best for which type of riders and understand the differences.

Do all bike tires come with inner tubes?

Not all bikes tires come with inner tubes. It’s possible to have tubeless tires which can be sealed on the rim of the wheel thanks to their special shape, valve, and the addition of some sealant inside the tire. This sealant will also seal most punctures as you ride.

How do I know if my bicycle tire has a tube?

The easiest way to know if your bike has a tube or is tubeless is to look at the edge of the valve. A tubeless tire is attached to the wheel very tightly (with a plastic-looking cap) to ensure the correct sealing unlike a tire with a tube where it can be quite loose at the junction.

Indeed, no sealing is required between the wheel and the valve in the case of an inner tube. The valve is directly connected to the tube and the air is pumped inside the tube. So the valve is not sealed against the wheel. In other words, if you can push the valve inside when the tire is a little deflated, that means you aren’t tubeless.

Sometimes regular tires have a metal nut that helps mount and inflate the inner tube but nothing like a tubeless valve. The system to join is generally made of plastic, much wider and thicker than the metallic nut of the tube valves.

In the picture below, you can see some examples of valves for tubes and tubeless tires. Presta and Schrader are two different systems of valves, very common on bikes. Presta valves are more common on road bikes and Schrader valves on mountain bikes.

Comparison of tubeless valves with inner tube valves for both Presta and Schrader types

Which bikes don’t have inner tubes?

It’s quite common for mountain bikes not to have inner tubes nowadays. You can mount tubeless tires on almost any bike nowadays. Brand new bikes generally come with inner tubes but it’s possible to find models tubeless-ready, especially with mountain bikes.

Which is better tubeless or with a tube?

Tubeless key benefit is to reduce drastically the risk of puncturing. Its lower rolling resistance can also help save a few watts (2 to 3w on road bikes). On mountain bikes, tubeless tires help to reduce the weight of the bike, but this benefit is not as noticeable on road bikes.

On mountain bikes going tubeless can also save substantial weight, but that’s not true for road bikes. Tubeless is generally seen negatively at first because it’s more complex to set up, and if badly handled can be quite messy. But it really does reduce drastically the risk of puncturing.

The liquid sealant added inside the tire will seal most holes on your tires while riding. The liquid will dry very quickly and plug small holes below 0.24 inches (6mm) easily. On bigger holes, the sealant will not seal the tire and escape, which can be quite messy.

It is very impressive to see the sealant go out the first time you see it. But actually dealing with a puncture in tubeless is possible, you just need to learn how to do it.

However, considering the bigger price of tubeless, they aren’t going to replace inner tubes for the masses yet. The small benefits aren’t going to balance the simplicity of tubes for such a difference in price. It’s more a thing for the pros than for your everyday rider.

Can you put tubeless tires on any bike?

It is not possible to put tubeless tires on all bikes. Indeed, some rims are not compatible with tubeless either because of their design or their material. In such a case, the sealant may not fix the tire properly. Some brands write a note on the rim when it’s not compatible.

Unfortunately, the compatibility information is not always written on the equipment and is sometimes hard to find elsewhere. On top of that, not all tubeless tires are compatible with any tubeless compatible rims. There are unfortunately no standards for neither the rim nor the tire. Looking for compatibility lists on manufacturers’ websites is key.

If you don’t find the information online, the best way to be sure is to test. As the installation procedure of tubeless tires is long and technical, you may not succeed on the first try. Make sure to watch tutorials online (like this one), to be well prepared. Please note that the sealant takes hours and sometimes even days to fill properly all the cavities. It’s much harder to install than tubes.

Hopefully going tubeless will be easier in the years to come since the ETRTO (European Tire and Rim Technical Organization) is issuing updates to the regulations in order to standardize the equipment a bit more.

Can I put a tube in a tubeless tire?

There is nothing preventing the installation of a tube into a tubeless tire. If you puncture your tire during a trip, you can put a tube into a tubeless tire safely. Make sure to remove as much sealant as you can before installing the tube.

As removing all the sealant is not always easy on the road, make sure to disassemble the tire again when you arrive home to remove all the remaining residue.

Why would you like to install a tube in a tubeless tire? Well, while tubeless are hard to puncture, they are not puncture-proof. When they do puncture, the easiest solution is to install a tube to finish your ride.

Regarding what inner tube to install, it’s the same as with regular tires: check the tire dimensions to find out the size of the tube.

How do I know what inner tube to buy for my bike?

The best way to find out what inner tube to buy is to follow this step-by-step guide:

  1. You need to buy the same diameter inner tube as your tire
  2. Your tire diameter can be found written on the side of the tire
  3. Once you know the diameter, you need to check the thickness of your tire
  4. The tire thickness is written on the side of the tire
  5. Finally, you need to choose the type of valve
  6. Valves types don’t require the same hole diameter in the wheel rim, it is best to put the same valve type as what’s already mounted on your bike.

If you install an inner tube inside of a tubeless tire, remember to remove all the sealant beforehand.

Does going tubeless save weight?

With road bikes, going tubeless does not really save weight. In some cases, you can expect to reduce up to 5 oz (150g) per bike. But if you compare it with lightweight tubes, the operation will probably be null. Indeed per wheel, the sealant is between 2 to 3 oz, the tape 1/3 oz, and the valve 1/3 oz.

With mountain bikes, going tubeless will without a doubt reduce the weight substantially, unlike road bikes where it’s negligible. If your setup is really lightweight to begin with, you may even add a few grams by going tubeless.

The only way to know is to weigh your existing material and compare it with the numbers I have given above: 80 to 105 grams considering the sealant, tape, and valve.

Do pro cyclists use tubeless tires?

Some pro cyclists do use tubeless tires, but their adaption is still very seldom. Their presence in competition, such as in Tour de France, increases every year though.

While tubeless tires puncture less often than regular ones, when they do they are harder to ride. There is a danger that they might come off the rim. This can be an issue to stay within the peloton before a tech team arrives and a reason why pros are afraid to adopt this technology.

Hopefully, manufacturers are improving this aspect of tubeless tires every year. Moreover, the standardization across brands should make this aspect less hazardous in the nearby future. Many manufacturers believe tubeless will become the main option for pros in the coming years. That’s why they spend the majority of their research and development on tubeless technologies.

A tubeless ready Vittoria Corsa tire used by pro cyclists.

Technically tubeless tires promise lower rolling resistance and better ride quality. We can see savings of 3w at 25 mph compared to a tubular tire for instance. The only reason we don’t see the pro moving on tubeless yet is the resistance to change because of a fear of reliability.

But pros also did take time to adopt disc brakes and carbon fiber frames. So I won’t be surprised if the peloton adopts tubeless in the coming years after the technology improved.

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