Dirty Tubeless

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Last blog was all about road tubeless, where this one will be more and less "controversial" than that one: tubeless for cross (more controversy) and mountain (no controversy).

Let's get the easy one out of the way - mountain bikes. To set up a mountain bike wheel tubeless, you need a mountain bike wheel, a mountain bike tire of the same size as your wheel, rim tape, a valve stem, and sealant. Tape the rim, put the valve stem in, mostly mount the tire, pour the sealant in, finish installing tire, inflate, ride. If the tire is super loose on the rim, add another layer or two of tape. You can use duct tape. Seriously, this one is easy, almost everyone does it, and it almost never causes problems.  Why anyone would want to use tubes on a cross country or all-mountain mountain bike at this point is beyond me.    

Cross tubeless is another bag of goldfish entirely. First let's start at the beginning and ask why you'd want to go tubeless for cross. In any dirt riding, lower tire pressure equals better traction. Period. That's why tubulars are still so popular in cross - you can go wicked low pressure with minimal risk of pinch flatting, even though it's not impossible (you guessed it - I've done it!). The other huge benefit to low pressure is suspension - it smooths out the ride. Which, in turn, increases traction both from keeping the tire on the ground and from allowing you to weight the bike properly.  

The book on cross tubeless is still being written all the time. The leading proponents are the Stan's team, who use Stan's rims (primarily the Grail, currently) and Kenda tires. They use one wrap of Stan's tape and that's it - no strip, no Gorilla tape, nothing. Just one wrap of tape. I overheard Mical (in photo) say she'd used a Kwicker and 22psi in the front at the Night Weasels race, a super muddy, greasy, and always off camber race in which she'd gotten a close second. Jake Wells is pretty good, and he uses the same pressures he would otherwise use on tubulars with his Stan's/Kenda setup.I'm 99% sure she's in Grail rims and Happy Medium tires here

I've got a few different tubeless cross setups I'm feeling out. My favorite has been a pair of Stan's Iron Cross rims with a Stan's Raven tire front and Kenda Small Block Eight rear.  I've raced these at 24 front/27 rear and felt like I was able to ride the bike better than on any other setup. Then I crashed the front into a hidden stump and ruined the rim, along with my shoulder. That setup was perfect for the drought conditions the season started in, but with any moisture those treads are useless.  Totally unrelated to tire setups, I've been running into a lot of stuff this year, at great cost to my personal parts and pieces (knee and ribs at the moment). Currently, in addition to the Iron Cross/Small Block Eight, the Stan's Arch EX/Clement PDX combo is working like a freaking champ. All of these setups are disc rims, but can be closely replicated with rim brake setups.  

The dreaded outcome of cross tubeless setups is of course the dreaded burp. The burp is a momentary break of the rim/tire seal, which allows some amount of air to escape.  It's never good, but it can range between inconvenient and tragic in magnitude. Much like a rolled tubular, best case you are riding gingerly to the pits, worst case you are running to the pits.  Most people who've used a tubeless setup have "found minimum pressure" with a burp. I have. Never in a race, touch wood. I choose to wreck my races in other ways!

So the natural question then is "why tubeless?" When set up well, tubeless cross allows the same low pressures and pinch flat protection as tubulars, with huge flexibility and cost advantages over tubulars. Even at its worst, installing a tubeless tire is way less involved than gluing a tubular, and requires no drying time. If it's Friday and you have a set of dry conditions tires on when it starts pouring at dinner, you have every opportunity to switch tires before tomorrow's race. Tubeless tires also cost about half as much as tubulars. 

I'd rate the chances of disc brake ubiquity as perfect - that day will come. I make no such forecast for tubeless in cross. The very top players, with no real resource constraints and the ability to travel with dozens of sets of wheels, will suffer any inconvenience to enjoy whatever marginal benefit continues to exist. For the rest of us, tubeless is starting to look attractive. With some bugs left to iron out, it's no slam dunk, but there are some pretty resourceful and talented people fighting those bugs all the time.  


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  • Rich on

    Thanks for the reply Dave! It looks like for now I'm stuck on the 340, since I'm still on a rim-brake CX bike; the Grail is disc only. I had heard firsthand about good results with Velocity A23, but looking closer, it looks like the width at the bead hook on the A23 is 17mm, despite the somewhat wider outside measure. Have you heard of any other rim brake rims with success for 'cross? I am hesitant to move away from ZTR, since I have had great success with MTB and road tubeless on ZTR (and honestly pretty good success with the 340s in CX).

  • Dave K on

    A lot of what I've experienced leads me to believe that a wider bead seat width helps prevent burping. A Stan's Grail is 20.3, which is wider than the 17mm of the Alpha rims. So I think my short answer is that the Alpha rims are excellent at road tubeless and the newer designs may be more proficient at cross. Tires also make a big difference – Velo (aka VeloNews) recently tested several tubeless tires and couldn't get them to burp on Grails. The guys they would have had testing that are masters world champ types, so I credit the test. For dirt, I think carbon definitely offers some benefit in ruggedness. I've used Blunts a lot for mtb (actually have one in the cx rotation, which has been a champ as far as tubeless – had the rim lying around and decided to use it to test width theories while waiting for Grails to come back into stock) and they're nice but they do dent easily. In mtb, they hold air just fine dented. The other Blunt I still have looks like it got caught in a shootout and holds air fine, but I wouldn't try that particular rim for cx anymore. Compared to Alpha and Iron Cross rims, Grails have a thicker sidewall, which should help against denting. But a well designed well made carbon rim is going to have a way higher ability to withstand impact than aluminum. Emphasis on well designed and made. Now that my knee works again I'll be doing some more testing myself.

  • Rich on

    Thanks for this post. I thought I'd add my own experience. I'm currently running Alpha 340s with Vittoria XG Pro. I also have a set of Kenda Kommando Pro on my training wheel. Previously I was running Schwalbe Racing Ralph (non-tubeless, first without strip, then with strip). According to Stans, the recommendation for the 340 in CX application is to use the 340 rim strip, so now I do. However even with the rim strip, I have experienced problems with the RaRa, the Kenda, and the Vittoria. I no longer have problems with "standard" burps (straight down force, i.e. remount, causing pressure loss). I do experience roll-off, particularly in a sliding crash or near crash/recovery – the lateral force on the tire, at high angle, seems to be enough to pull one bead out temporarily. These days I'm generally running ~27psi (I'm around 155lbs). The last problem I had in a race let out about 5psi, which frankly probably made me faster :)One thing I'm wondering is if the new Stans rims handle this type of situation any better. Any other thoughts on this sort of tubeless roll-off? I'm happy enough to keep running them now, but when I do need to refresh the wheelset, I will be considering tubulars due to the less than perfect reliability.I'm glad to read details about the NoTubes team's setup.

  • andrea on

    Hey, Guys, I would also recommend Galassi & Ortolani here, they have been making special valves since years. The have a wide range of products, comprising: diaphragm valves, pinch valves, butterfly valves, ball valves, gate valves, check valves & pneumatic actuators. Here is their website http://www.galassiortolani.com

  • Mike on

    NoTubes used to have a ZTR 355 29er mtb rim that had a brake track…don't know if you can still find them. This was back in back in 2010, I knew some people who were using them for cross wheels.The bike currently on layaway at the LBS has Iron Cross wheels, and the bike I plan to acquire next year comes with Grails so I'll get to experiment with both cross and road tubeless, though I still plan to race primarily on tubulars.



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