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Home > News > How to Install Tubeless Tires

How to Install Tubeless Tires

2020-08-14

You`re railing that descent, nailing every line and feeling like a world champ, when suddenly you smash a wheel into a big square-edge rock. Quite literally, you can feel the air go out of the ride. Not much kills the stoke from a great spin quicker than a flat tire. This is why tubeless tires are increasingly popular for all kinds of cycling. These setups use a liquid sealant instead of an inner tube to hold air. As a result, they offer better protection against all kinds of flats and enable you to run lower pressures than tube-type systems, increasing traction and creating a more comfortable ride. In the event you do get a puncture, tubeless tires are also more likely to stay attached to the rim, which is safer.

But ask most riders about going tubeless and you`ll encounter a litany of horror stories about setup. Why are some tubeless installs easy and others a multi-hour thrash session punctuated by merchant-marine levels of cursing? In short: manufacturing standards and tolerances. Wheels and tires from different brands vary ever so slightly in actual size, so a tire that fits great on one wheel is an overly tight nightmare on another. The good news is that this is slowly improving. Because manufacturing standards are getting better, with stricter tolerances, it`s now much more likely than even five years ago that you`ll be able to install and seat tubeless tires on the first try with a standard floor pump. Here`s a step-by-step guide.

Glossary of Terms
Rim Tape: Special, impermeable tape that seals a metal or carbon-fiber rim bed against air loss, especially around the spoke holes. You`ll see people using all manner of cheap DIY approaches (Gorilla Tape is popular), but we recommend using actual tubeless rim tape. It`s not that expensive, and it`s far better suited to the task.
Bead Lock: The part of the wheel rim that holds a tubeless tire in place. If you view a tubeless bead lock`s cross section, it has a special shape-a square sidewall with a small bump on the inside of the rim bed. The matching tubeless tire bead is pressed into the bead lock by air pressure, where it seats, or locks, securely. The bump prevents the bead from blowing off under pressure, and it reduces the likelihood that it can come loose if the tire goes flat.
UST: The original tubeless tire standard, created in 1999 by Mavic, Hutchinson, and Michelin. Instead of sealant, it used an impermeable layer in the tire casing to hold air. As a result, it was extremely heavy relative to modern systems. Today it`s superseded by tubeless-ready technology.
Tubeless Ready: Refers to any tire and/or wheel rim that is manufactured so that it can be installed as tubeless just by adding sealant. For tires, this means that the bead has a tubeless-ready profile, and that the tire casing can be made airtight by adding sealant. For rims, it means that the rim bed is sealed against air loss (either by being solid material or through the addition of airtight rim tape), and that the bead lock has a tubeless-ready cross section.

Tubeless Compatible: You`ll sometimes find this designation on rims or wheels that have the proper tubeless bead-lock profile but which need the addition of airtight rim tape to become tubeless ready.


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What to Buy
Tubeless-Compatible or Tubeless-Ready Wheels and Tires
You`ll need tubeless-compatible or tubeless-ready wheels to start. This is governed by the rim profile itself (see the glossary, above). Most gravel and mountain-bike wheels these days are compatible; road bikes are not always so. But in any case, check manufacturer specs.

A warning: Do not under any circumstances try to make a wheel that is not listed as tubeless compatible into a tubeless system. If you`re lucky, all that will happen is the tire will blow off the rim in your garage and spray sealant everywhere. If you`re not lucky, the tire will hold just long enough for you to go on a ride, and then it will blow off, likely causing a crash. The same goes for tires: the bead on non-tubeless-ready tires will not hold securely in the bead lock and can blow off without warning.

Tubeless Rim Strips or Tape
Many higher-end wheelsets are tubeless ready right out of the box. For others listed as tubeless compatible, you`ll need to seal the rim bed (namely the spoke holes) with airtight tape. Good brands are Silca, Stan`s NoTubes, and WTB. You`ll need to match the tape width to your rim width.

Sealant
This special elixir typically features very small solid particles of rubber or latex in a liquid suspension. When you`re riding, the particles slosh around the inside of the tire, where they find and plug small leaks. Good bets are Muc-Off, Orange Seal, and Stan`s. Buy an 8-to-16-ounce bottle. Sealant doesn`t dry out in the bottle over time like it does in tires, and you may want some extra in case the initial installation doesn`t go smoothly. Some bottles of sealant come with a measuring cup; if yours doesn`t, you`ll need a cup that has measurement markings in ounces.

Valve Stems
Tubeless tires use special valve stems that create an airtight seal on the inside of the rim bed to prevent air loss. The rubber grommet that forms the seal sometimes has to be matched to the profile of your wheel`s rim bed (so-called universal valves claim to work with almost any system). The best valves have removable cores. Industry Nine, Muc-Off, and Stan`s make good universal valves with removable cores.

Tubeless-Ready Tires
The sealant`s job is to plug holes, but it won`t seal a non-tubeless tire. More important: non-tubeless tires don`t have the specially shaped bead to lock to the rim. We`ll steer clear of recommendations here. Tires are personal and, for gravel and mountain-bike riding especially, the best choices are highly geography- and conditions-specific. Ask around for what others in your area use and trust.

Tools
You`ll need a floor pump, sturdy plastic tire levers, a valve-core remover (a very small and inexpensive wrench), a clean rag, a small paintbrush, some rubbing alcohol, and an old cup for soapy water.

Optional: Sealant-Injector System
These are big syringe-like devices that install the sealant directly through the valve stem. They`re fairly affordable ($10 to $30) and long-lasting. They`re also easy to use and much less likely to spill than the simple plastic measuring cup that comes with most bottles of sealant. Some have a needlelike attachment that can also be used to pull sealant back out of tires-useful if you`re swapping tires or want to store a bike for winter without letting the sealant congeal. Stan`s makes a basic system, but I prefer the KOM or Mil-Kit versions (note: Mil-Kit`s system is more expensive but comes with universal valve stems).

Optional: Tubeless Inflation System
These are basically reusable air chambers that you pressurize with a floor pump, then place over the valve stem and use to inflate the tire quickly. They`re helpful because seating tubeless tire beads to the rim often requires a high volume of air delivered fast, and floor pumps can struggle to do that. Brands include Airshot, Mil-Kit, and Specialized. But these items are designed for one task only, which may not justify the price ($50 to $100) if you use them rarely. If you`re only installing tubeless tires on rare occasions, you can also use a conventional CO2 inflator system to seat beads. Many people use standard air compressors of the sort you need for home-improvement projects.
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