Tubes or tubeless?
In the 90’s I raced triathlons on a DaVinci time trial frame. In search of speed I vainly attempted to keep up with the Jonses (literally) by switching to Tubeless Tires. Why? Today, I cannot name the advantages, and after one season, I switched back to tubes. I still patch my flats to this day, usually after walking my bike home. I have seen it done on the open road, and am confident in my ability to do this myself.
These days, however, I prefer comfort* to speed, and bumpy forest trails to smooth paved roads. My next bike will be a 2020 Surly Wednesday, large, in Blue Monday. But for some reason(s), I have not been able to bring myself make to a final decision and pull the trigger. First it was the matter of the Thru Axel, and now this. The Experts, people who should know better, keep advising me to equip my fat tire bike with Tubeless Fat Tires. Not this again. Why?
Following my own Rule #1, “Don’t doubt the engineer until you have a look at his plans,” I decided to take a closer look.
Surly Bikes puts it this way in their “Surly Tubeless Kit” ad copy, “A properly set up tubeless fat bike tire is like the holy grail of suppleness.” Superlative words, but not the Holy Grail of informative helpfulness. The Surly blog has more info on the kit (and the Edna 4.3″, my tire upgrade-of-choice) here: “Edna 26 x 4.3 tires and the Tubeless Tape Kit”, but no data concerning the costs and benefits of Going Tubeless, in general.
Scott Lamont (a Canadian with no vested interest), of Drenalin Adventures also recommends tubeless tires. In his youtube video “Bikepacking in the snow with my Specialized fatbike. Winter Camping with my dog.“**, just after describing the handling of fat bikes as “not the bulky, klunky bike that they look like they are,” Lamont goes tubeless:
“One tip, I suggest to people, is if you’re going to get a fat bike, go tubeless. This is a fat bike tube [holds tube up for camera], it almost weighs a pound and a half, with no air, just the rubber tube itself is almost a pound and a half. So, two tires, that’s almost 3 pounds of weight that you’re spinning around. Go to your local bike shop. They’ll hook you up. Basically what you’re going to do is, you’re going to drop the tubes and they’re going to put some sealant in your tires, and they’re going to tape up the rims, and the sealant covers all… It’s like a car tire. Car tires, truck tires there’s no tubes in automobile tires, right? They just rely on the sealant aroung the rim. Kind of the same thing with bike tires, except that you need some sealant in there that spins around with the tire just to make sure if there is a pin hole, it gets filled up. It works great for flats. If you run over a thorn, it seals itself up. So, as opposed to a tube, you’d have to take it out and patch it.”
Tubeless Pros and Cons from the Canadian Mountain Co-Operative
What if you run over something bigger than a thorn? Or a number of somethings? How easy is it to repair/replace a truly flat tubeless out on the open trail, compared to patching a tube? How much extra gear would I have to carry? What if I had multiple flats, far, far from the homestead or the nearest shop?
With a fully stocked patch kit, it would be no problem. Annoying, but somewhere before bedtime I would arrive at my destination under my own power. Can tubeless tires do that?
Interestingly, MEC does not rank weight saving as a key factor. “Once you take the tubes out and replace them with sealant, you often get a slightly lighter system, but weight savings shouldn’t be the reason why you choose to get rid of the tubes.”
These are the KEY considerations for me:
Cuts down on flats: “Unless you slice your tire open, flats will feel like a thing of the past.“
Better Cornering: “You can run your tubeless setups at much lower pressure without the risk of getting pinch flat. This means that you’ll be able to take corners much faster before your front wheel washes out.”
Better Climbing: “The lower tire pressure you can run with tubeless increases the contact patch of your tires to help you gain extra traction up steep hills.”
Tight Fit: “Tubeless tires have a tight bead that helps keep the air in, but this also means a tire that is harder to get on the rim – sometimes frustratingly hard.”
Spare Tube Required: “That’s right, if you end up with a puncture big enough that the sealant can’t fully seal it, you’ll want a way to get back home. For most riders, that means carrying a spare inner tube.”
My decision comes down to prioritizing puncture repair over performance. How often do I believe I will be a fair distance away and beyond practical help, where walking home is not a viable option? Once would be enough, wouldn’t it? But, if I had tubes on my rims, a pump, and a patch kit, I could ride home. And what about that tight fit? Is that something I want to deal with 60 miles from nowhere? And I would have to carry a spare tube anyway, not just a patch kit?
Prioritizing the tube’s ease of flat repair over the tubeless’ handling performance, I choose tubes.
How I equip the bike will ultimately depend on the next ride’s risk factors. I will most frequently not be venturing very far afield. So at some point I might own multiple sets of wheels for rides of different risk levels. I considered ordering my Wednesday with tires for the majority of my riding, and put off till later the “long haul” wheelset, especially now that tubeless tires have made flats “a thing of the past.” Why was it the Titanic had too few life boats? “Unsinkable,” right. I will order my Wednesday with Edna 26 x 4.3 tires, WITH TUBES. Hopefully, the extra width will add some cornering and climbing performance, even at the higher pressures required to avoid tube pinch flats.
Rule #2. What’s right for one may not be right for another.
Leave a comment if you learned something, too, or if you disagree. Especially if you disagree.
*Try riding triathlon-style aero-bars day after day, with your upper body weight resting on your elbows and your neck cranked back in order to see the road ahead? #PityTheFool #GregLemond #TourdeFrance1989
**Don’t you just have to trust the words of a Canadian who bikepacks with his hound?