This weekend, Mike set up his first set of tubeless tires. They are Hutchinson Fusion 3s on wheels built with WI T11 hubs, Stan's Alpha 400 rims, and CX Ray spokes with 20/28 lacing. They are a lot like the wheels in the picture below except Mike has reb hubs (color!) and his front wheel has fewer spokes. My first tubeless setup came several years ago on my mountain bike, and now have tubeless setups on road, cx, and mountain.
Mike's reluctance to going tubeless was typical of most people who haven't yet tried it. The typical resistance points are:
1. It's difficult to set up
2. I'll need a compressor to inflate my tires
3. It doesn't offer any real benefit
4. My rims aren't tubeless ready
5. Tire selection is limited
As with many things in life, there is both truth and BS in each of these, so let's take them in order, but first a PSA - for road, YOU MUST USE TUBELESS TIRES. Tubeless road tires have a stronger bead than non-tubeless tires. At the higher pressures you use on the road, there is a serious risk of blowout if you use a non-tubeless tire. Do not try it, do not listen to anyone who says it might be okay. For road tubeless, use road tubeless tires, period, end of story.
ROAD SET UP: Depending on the wheels and tires you are setting up, going tubeless can either be as simple as installing tubed tires, or somewhat complicated. In Mike's case, he's using Stan's Alpha 400 rims, which have a great tubeless interface. Tubeless tires mount, inflate, and seat easily and securely on them. To prep these and similar rims, all you need to do is use two wraps of Stan's tape (or similar) per rim, and install a tubeless valve in each rim. November supplies all Stan's builds with two wraps of tubeless tape and valves pre-installed, so you don't have to worry about that step. When you install the tape, pull hard and stretch it so it conforms to the rim bed and becomes airtight.
While the tires you use for road tubeless MUST be tubeless specific, your rims needn't be. I'm using Stan's rims for illustrative purposes here, just because setting them up is child's play. I told someone a few weeks ago that at this point I could install a dirty t-shirt on a Ritz cracker and get it to inflate and seal, but I've been screwing around with tubeless for a while.
When you're ready to install your tire, wet the inside of the rim with some soapy water. Be generous with the soap, and don't worry about the water, it will evaporate soon enough.
As you see in the pic, this rim has a channel in the middle. When you install the tire, push the tire beads into the channel. This makes mounting the tire much easier. This channel is a big part of the reason why you want to stretch the tape. Mount the tire almost all the way, and then before you do the last bit of the second bead, shake up your sealant and install it. Just pour it in. November supplies Stan's builds with a cute little 2oz bottle of sealant which is plenty for a pair of road tires.
After your sealant is in, rotate the wheel so you don't pour the sealant back out when you're putting the last bit of the bead on, and voila. At this point, you should have no problem inflating the tire with a floor pump. You will hear the bead pop into place, which is normal but can be jarring. If there are any air leaks, you will see bubbles forming there (thanks, soapy water!) so simply shake the wheel to get some sealant there and they will seal up quickly enough.
I've installed road tubeless tires on Rails, Stan's 340s and 400s, Kinlin XC279s, and Pacenti SL23s, and have yet to need a compressor to inflate any of them. If you find that you can't inflate your tires, take a Presta to Schrader converter plug ($2 from a jar on the checkout counter of every bike shop in the world, and you should keep one in your flat kit anyway) and 4 quarters, and head down to the gas station and use their compressor. In the unlikely event you flat on the road, don't worry about reinflation - you'll use a tube then anyway.
I'm something of a chronic flatter, so much so that I've even done the ultra-rare tubeless pinch flat. With tubeless, apart from that one instance, I don't get flats. I also love the way they ride and find a better feel with lower psi. We'll be testing rolling resistance of a lot of setups this week to learn more about that aspect, but reports we've read suggest that there are gains on that front. I've removed a worn out mountain bike tire and found two dozen little sealant asteroids on the inside of the tire - each of them representing a flat that I got but didn't get. It's awesome.
Before using tubeless, I'd never in my life worn a road tire out without getting at least one flat. Since using road tubeless, I've now done it three times.
While tubeless specific rims generally make tubeless installation easier, they are not necessary. Some rims specifically prohibit tubeless setup, and it's best to listen to the rim supplier in those cases. Some rims are also known to have a poor response to sealant. Of the rims I've set up for road tubeless use, Stan's and Pacentis are designed with a tubeless rim bed, but Kinlins and Rails were easy to go tubeless, and none of them have any adverse response to sealant in my experience.
It's true that a lot of tires aren't yet available in a tubeless ready model. In mtb, this doesn't matter even at all - any tire can be used tubeless. For cx, some work better than others (more on this in a subsequent post), but you can find a great tire for any condition that's going to do great as a tubeless tire. For road, your options are a bit limited. There are plenty of great road tubeless tires, but it's a classic chicken and egg deal - the tire makers are loathe to invest in tubeless products when the market isn't clamoring for them, and the market is loathe to adopt road tubeless en masse without all of the favorite tire options available in tubeless ready versions.
We'll check in with Mike periodically to see how he's enjoying his tubeless experience, but personally I'm a convert. I've got my cx tubeless setup so dialed that I have no desire to go back to tubulars. I'm using the same pressures tubeless that I did with tubulars. For road, it's my preferred option as well. For mountain, I think I'd rather go for a road ride than ride mountain bikes with tubed wheels.
Don't be afraid of tubeless. Like any new technology, it takes a bit of getting used to how you do things, but once you do, a whole realm of convenience and performance opens up to you. As we head toward the long slog of cold winter miles where getting a flat REALLY REALLY stinks, check out a tubeless setup and we bet you'll be glad you did. If Mike found it to be as easy as he did, chances are you'll find getting started to be a total breeze.