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Pros and cons of tubeless road bike tires

By Micah Ling

Published

Tubeless tires: The basics

What is a tubeless tire and how do they work?

For a long time bike tires were all about the same. An inflatable tube was inside a sturdier rubber outer tire. Two versions of tubed tires exist — a clincher bike tire, and a tubular bike tire.

The clincher is the most common, and if you’re not sure what you’ve used, it’s probably this — they “clinch” to the rim of the wheel with a bead of steel wire or kevlar. Tubulars, on the other hand, are completely round and the tube is essentially part of the tire itself. These are glued to the rim without any beads needed. But with both, pinch flats and punctures have always been annoying issues. Over the past two decades, a new type of tire has taken the spotlight — tubeless tires.

Tubeless road bike tires
Cyclists of all kinds are exploring tubeless tires for better performance and reliability. Tubeless tires eliminate the need for an inner tube. In 1999, Mavic came up with the first tubeless tires for mountain bikes, but today many road cyclists are opting for tubeless as well. With a tubeless setup, puncture flats are rarely an issue. Instead of the inner tube, tubeless tires create an airtight seal using a small amount of liquid sealant inside the tires. When the tire is punctured by glass, thorns, rocks, or other debris, the internal pressure pushes the sealant out and seals the puncture almost instantly. Sealant contains natural or synthetic latex, so the seal that’s made when a puncture occurs, closely mimics the tire itself.

How to set up tubeless tires

Switching from clinchers to tubeless tires can seem daunting at first. It does require a little more work on the front end, but then, but far less work compared to dealing with flat tires. To start, you’ll need the following:

  • Sealant
  • Pump (and air compressor/CO2 if necessary)
  • Tire levers (if necessary)
  • Tubeless valve (if not already included or installed)
  • Tubeless tape (if not already included or installed)
  • Valve core remover (if necessary)

With tubeless, compatibility is key. A tubeless setup requires tubeless-ready (TLR) or tubeless-compatible wheels and tires. Air is pumped into the tires through a tubeless valve that, when properly installed, produces an airtight seal at the valve hole. Tubeless-ready wheels require a non-porous rim tape (such as Stan’s NoTubes yellow rim tape). This rim strip protection will not absorb sealant and will make the rim air-tight. On most tubeless-ready wheels, the tubeless tape will already be installed.

It’s very important that the rims have been properly taped — if they aren’t, your tires will not stay inflated. Also be sure that tubeless valves are properly installed. A tubeless valve looks similar to and operates the same as a standard Presta valve. But instead of being attached to a tube, there is a rubber base on the valve that produces an airtight seal within the valve hole of the rim. Tubeless valves require a nut that threads onto the body of the valve. This nut tightens the rubber base against the valve hole. It should be finger-tight.

From there, mounting tubeless tires is very similar to clinchers and can often be done with a floor pump. But, in order to make sure the tire seals, it’s important that the tire beads are set into the rim’s center channel. Sometimes, if a tire isn’t sealing, it will require a strong burst of air from an air compressor or CO2 cartridge. Another trick for stubborn tires is to seat the tire first using a standard tube. Remove the tube but leave one bead fully seated. Then install the tubeless valve and seat the second bead with the pump or compressor. After the tire is seated it can be inflated for everyday use with a floor pump.

You will need to add sealant to your tires by either the direct-pour or the valve-injection method. For direct-pour, simply pour the desired amount of sealant into the tire before inflation/seating. For valve-injection, inflate/seat the tire, then remove the valve core and add sealant through the valve using a sealant injector.

Over time, the tubeless sealant in your tires will begin to dry out and lose its efficacy, so plan on refreshing your sealant every three months. This bit of preventative maintenance will ensure that your tubeless system is always running properly.

Clincher vs. tubular vs. tubeless bike tires

The pros of tubeless tires

The comfort of the ride

A tubeless setup is usually lighter than a comparable clincher system because it eliminates the inner tube. This decreases overall bike weight, but more importantly, it decreases rotating weight at the outside of the wheel, improving pedaling and acceleration.

Riders can also run lower air pressure in tubeless tires compared to clincher tires because they don't have to worry about pinch flats as much. Pinch flats occur when the inner tube is compressed between the tire and rim during a hard impact. On loose or rough surfaces, you'll have more confidence, grip, and speed by running lower tire pressures. Tires conform better to the terrain when they're at lower pressures. This can even reduce rolling resistance on rough surfaces. Experiment with tire pressures to find your ideal set-up.

There’s less chance of flats

Because sealant takes care of minor punctures, flat tires are far less likely. Though tubeless systems are effective and reliable, they are not invincible.There’s a limit to what tubeless sealant can seal (e.g., Stan’s NoTubes tire sealant claims to repair holes up to ¼”), so sealant is not effective in all situations. Whether you’re on a mountain bike, gravel bike, or road bike, it’s alway best to carry a flat repair kit that includes a traditional inner tube, in case a puncture occurs on a sidewall and cannot be sealed with sealant or a tire plug.

It’s also still possible to pinch-flat a tubeless tire if an impact is hard enough to cut the tire itself. If you are bottoming out the tire against the rim often, your tire pressure is likely too low.

Rolling resistance

Rolling resistance has to do with inertia and will influence acceleration and maintaining speed. As you’d expect, less rolling resistance is faster, and is almost always better! Rolling resistance on road tubeless tires is lower than that of both clinchers and tubulars because the friction between the inner tube and the casing is eliminated.

The cons of tubeless tires

Difficulty of installation

Installing tubeless tires requires patience and can be a bit of a mess the first time around, but once you’ve done it, it gets easier. It’s true that you need to get everything — the rim tape, the sealant, the valve — just perfect. And that can be frustrating at first. But if you take it slow, and make sure that everything is installed correctly, the rewards are worth the effort. One way to minimize mess is by injecting sealant through your valve. Tubeless valves have removable cores to make this easy.

Tubeless tires come with a higher cost

A tubeless setup does come with costs. You need a TLR wheelset and tires, which is an investment. Buying new wheels and new tires just to shave off some weight and avoid changing so many flat tires might not seem worth the money to some. But once you’ve got a tubeless setup in place, most say that it’s far less maintenance. If you’re looking to buy a new bike, keep an eye out for models that come equipped with tubeless ready wheels.

Valve core clogs

Unlike clinchers and tubulars, tubeless tires require valve core maintenance. Because the sealant gets in and around your valve, it can sometimes get sticky and clog, which makes it difficult to add air and maintain desired air pressure. Generally, you should clean your valve core anytime you add sealant.

You need tubeless-ready rims

In order to be tubeless-ready, the rim needs a center channel for easy setup, and the rim walls need to be designed specifically to hold tubeless tire beads. Rims need to have the spoke beds sealed with rim tape. Again, an investment on the front end, with rewards down the road.

How to know which kind of tire is right for you

Where you ride

Choosing the right tubeless tire setup depends largely on where you ride. Bike paths, city streets, gravel roads? Some tubeless tires are made for speed on pavement and some are made for lower tire pressure and/or durability.

The Schwalbe Pro One tire makes tubeless road tire top-10 lists because it’s both lightweight and offers a puncture protection belt to make the tire less vulnerable. The Continental Grand Prix 5000 TL offers low rolling resistance and great grip, but is slightly heavier than other tubeless road tires. The Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite TLR tires roll fast, grip well, and despite being 32mm, they’re incredibly light. The WTB Exposure comes in both 700c x 30mm and 36mm sizes. They’re great for smooth tarmac, and not so smooth tarmac. The Hutchinson Sector is also good for the rough stuff and comes in 28mm and 32mm, depending how plush you want your tires to feel. And then there’s the WTB Horizon, which comes in at 47mm wide, great for even the roughest road commute.

Know your budget

Tubeless road tires range in price from about $40 to $100, so it’s important to assess what kind of riding you’re doing, and what you really need out of a tire. If you’re not racing the Tour de France, you likely don’t need to buy the absolute lightest tires with the lowest rolling resistance. And if you’re not taking on intense gravel, you probably don’t need adventure-ready treads.

Tubeless road bike tires: Yay or nay?

People have been using clinchers and tubulars for over 100 years, so why stop now? After all, tubeless tires aren’t 100% guaranteed to keep you from a flat tire. But, tubeless road bike tires offer greater puncture protection, they’re lighter weight, and offer a lower rolling resistance, which results in a more comfortable, more controlled ride. While those on mountain bikes and gravel bikes flocked to tubeless tires years ago, many on road bikes are also seeing the benefits of fewer flats, lower pressures, and a better overall riding experience.


5 comments


  • Tubeless on road is a waste of time and energy.

    Inverse137 on

  • I run tubeless on the front and tubes in the back so I can sit on the fence.

    kevin on

  • Bryce summed it up nicely: Tubeless on road bikes are mostly not worth the hassle. I ride lots. I use traditional clinchers and tubes. I get maybe 1 or 2 flats a year, most often because I am trying to squeeze a few more miles out of a worn tire. The thing I dislike the most are the tire-mounting difficulties that have come with these “tubeless-ready” rims that now proliferate. Everything is now super-tight and you absolutely must have the proper “technique” down pat to get your tires on these rims, even if you are using tubes. And “comfort”? Just use supple tires like those offered by Rene Herse Cycles, the wider the better. The “industry” has taken a beautiful, simple machine and turned into into a car— tubules tires, disc brakes, electronic shifting. Most of this is unnecessary and expensive complexity that has limited benefits to most cyclists. Ok, time or me to return to my Luddite cave now.

    Hoogle Da Boogle on

  • Industry mech. here. Competed as road and track rider since early ‘80’s, did some mtn bike racing as well. A push-back on old-school tubulars being lumped together in the article with clinchers, as being equally prone to pinch flats; actually, not so much, since the rim bed does not have two sharp braking sidewalls digging into the encased (sewn-in) tube. Plus, the tube has a full wrap of tire casing, plus a glued-on cloth rim strip, between it and the smooth tubular rim surface. Punctures, sure. (retro-riders don’t miss the spectre of overheated glue from long downhills, a rolled tire, and the ‘snake pit’ pile of ‘sew-ups’ that can only ever be trusted as a cautiously ridden spare, if the owner was even one to actually pull the tape, undo the stitches, and repair the tubular. But, that’s the way-back machine…) The initial design goals for tubeless were I’ve felt intended at the outset to be for improved riding characteristics: that is, to allow lower pressures for a better ‘footprint’ on secondary surfaces, increasing traction and reducing rough feedback from bumps; all this enhanced by no concern for pinching a tube. And so, a performance upgrade became also a ‘flat-reducing’ technology. Not flat-proof, though, as the author allows. The sealant required to help seal the tire-tape-rim chamber has the additional benefit of sealing most holes made by penetrating objects. You can see this work, with the hissing sound vanishing within one or two revolutions, and just a tiny ‘burp’ of escaped sealant to show for a now, ‘non-flat-event.’ In fact many customers don’t even realize how many flat events they’ve gone through because it becomes opaque to a rider who doesn’t even have to stop. So, a cool benefit. But, some of these same riders question why the ‘magic of tubeless’ still results in soft tires after a time interval: partly because they aren’t vigilant about pumping up their tires before every ride, and since they don’t know how many punctures really happened, they forget about topping off lost sealant. This is a learning process, but marketing dialogue around tubeless has held up the ‘magic’ as being a bit more hassle-free than it really is. The compatibility range as a commenter noted causes issues for riders (and mechanics) performing tubeless set-ups. This has improved over time, but there are still issues that many customers wish they had known about before they embraced the technology as if it were a perfect silver bullet. 1. Many riders do not get the pleasure of riding their set of tires fully to ‘retirement age.’ As time goes on, tire beads stretch, and often, successive attempts to get moderately used tires to reseat, turns into an unhappy circus of massaging the tires, diligently locating the beads in the rim valley, and giving up on the home floor pump after endless frustration trying to get to that happy ‘pop’ sound. (that we used to dread with tubed set ups.) Many customers like to swap a certain set of rubber between two sets of wheels; these folks soon discover that this shouldn’t be left until the last minute. Riders come to the bike shop needing to add air with the compressor. There, the mechs grab the wheels and think to do a quick blast, only to find that the customer has one of the bedeviled set of tubeless tires. Either poor combo, or poor rim tape, or, as I’ve often seen, a pair of tires with decent tread left, but after many hours of being inflated; the semi-used tires’ beads are now inconsistent and the tires just won’t ‘take’ after many attempts to inflate and seat them. Even after replacing the valves, (with due care not to bodge the hole in the tape for the valve), even after trying fresh tape. The blissful carefree tubeless experience hits a snag. This is all in someone’s garage, or at a shop. Imagine what happens out on a ride if a gash happens (boot the tire, plus insert a traditional tube—ah, after cleaning up the messy sealant…) Or, a bead comes dangerously unseated due to failing to give air pressure attention before every ride. (That last is more critical with tubeless. Because a traditional tube acts as a ‘jack’, pressing the tire bead against the rim, and minimizing ‘unseat’ events by comparison, tho’ yes, pinch-prone by contrast. While tubeless lacks both the ‘tube-jack’ feature and also lacks a hook on the rim—meaning the low-pressure benefit does still have a base pressure level to respect. For myself I consider 25 psi the lower limit, and even that may be risky depending on the volume of the tire, etc. Ergo, the tight tolerances that make tubeless work. So, here’s a rider having to mess with tires they didn’t plan to mess with much, because, ‘tubeless.” A new convert finds that it is pretty darn hard to lever tubeless tires off of the rim in order to fall back to a tube to limp home with. A fair bit harder than most of their old tubed clinchers. (They didn’t know some mechanics have a little pile of broken blue tire levers under their bench…if the rider breaks levers out on the highway, it matters much, but, it’s good for Uber…)
    It happens sometimes, that a wheelset is passed to several mechs in the back bay, each trying to get some particular tires to reseat. If it’s a troublesome set-up, my go-to is to put toe straps at at least 4 places around the rim before hitting the valve with some compressed air; this often works to help a good floor-pump to seat uncooperative tires, too. Otherwise you’ll sometimes see two mechanics buddying up to massage-and-cajole such a tire to ‘pop.’
    Anyway, it’s all do-able, but tubeless DOES have burdens. And many experienced riders, I observe, are pretty good at fixing regular flats and aren’t pushing their bikes to perform in a way that needs to be running low pressures. Some of them even revert back to tubes, whipping a new tube into place after checking for sharps, and setting off again on a group ride, leaving some tubeless acolytes on the side of the road to pass a wheel around until somebody else surrenders their levers and gets it to come off… THEN dealing with the cottage cheese mess of sealant. Did anyone bring a rag on the ride? Good thing the brakes are disc, because the rim sidewalls are a mess now… All this to say, the benefits of rolling characteristics and puncture belaying of tubeless are real. But tubeless does take more commitment. It is puzzling how often very casual recreational riders are encouraged to embrace tubeless, when what they really should do is get their mechanic to put sealant INSIDE of a tube, and send them on their way. When they finally get a flat (from ignoring their tire pressure and tearing off a valve after low-pressure braking events) they can just get a new, affordable tube replaced, and not pay extra labor for the tubeless circus. How many shops are charging enough for the time it takes to scour out tubeless sealant messes, sometimes with a scotch-brite pad needed along the goobered-up bead, all this taking even an efficient mechanic undue time before they can reseat someone’s tubeless tires onto their other wheelset?
    In competition, at least, tubeless makes more sense. It can nullify a puncture event and save a rider from losing a podium spot or having a poor P.R. For training and recreating, it also makes sense, with longer intervals between puncture events—but I believe we should stop papering over the burdens it brings, and give riders full disclosure: You may not get to wear out your tires before their beads get problematic. Your tubeless ‘magic’ tires will still lose quantities of air between rides, even without an actual puncture. You may be embarassed by how you struggle to use your tire levers on tubeless tires. You shouldn’t lighten your seat bag by removing one of the three plastic tire levers you bought. Carry a little bottle of extra sealant. Don’t rely on just a couple of CO2 cartridges! Repeat inflation/seating attempts will likely run through those—so you do still need to carry a pump. Which may not get certain tire/rim combos to ‘pop’ into place as desired. Carry wipes or a rag along with a spare tube, plus money for Uber, (and a dollar bill for a boot) if you ride further than you care to walk: someday even your tubeless set-up may let you down.

    E Brodie on

  • This subject hits a nerve with me. I understand the benefits of tubeless, and even once sustained a puncture that was immediately stopped short thanks to the Stan’s goop I was setup with. That said, over time, I came to not see tubeless as worth the hassle. What hassle, you ask? 1.) The mess, 2.) the manufacturer (i.e., rim/tire) compatibility issue(s), 3.) the fitting hit/miss issue(s) — sometimes easy, sometimes infuriatingly difficult getting rims and tires to just freakin’ play nice together. Also, for those of us with n+ bikes, tubeless setups tend to loose their grip and deflate after a week or two passes whilst directing your love to other bikes in your stable. With tubes, you just smack a pump down on it after that period and you’re back in the saddle. With tubeless, you have to deal with the mess, maybe add more fluid to compensate for the leak, and HOPE you can get an air tight seal again. Gah! In fairness, as someone who just yesterday tube-flatted in a gahd forsaken neighborhood ten miles from home, I found myself longing for the puncture self-healing only tubeless can deliver, but IMHO, the industry still has a long way to go with standardization and hassle alleviation before I’ll be on board.

    Bryce on


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