Is that new bike actually tubeless-ready? ￼
A beginner's guide to understanding whether a gravel bike is ready to ditch the inner tubes.
A beginner's guide to understanding whether a gravel bike is ready to ditch the inner tubes.
When it comes to gravel riding, we’re huge fans of running tubeless tyres. In fact, we wouldn’t choose to go on a gravel ride without them.
If you’re in the market for a new bike, you may wonder whether it’ll come as tubeless or what may be involved in making the switch. It’s a common question and perhaps one that’s not as simply answered as it should be. In this article, we’ll aim to arm you with the needed knowledge.
Riding gravel with lower tyre pressure provides a smoother ride, more traction, and in many cases, even reduced rolling resistance. However, running lower tyre pressure with inner tubes often means an increased risk of pinch flats. Tubeless setups, however, eliminate the inner tube completely.
Modern tubeless tyres are designed as a system to be used with a liquid sealant that self-seals small punctures and slow leaks, while many larger punctures can be quickly fixed with tubeless tyre plugs. When you combine that with the greatly reduced risk of a pinch flat, tubeless is more likely to keep you rolling problem-free when things are loose, rocky, and/or thorny.
However, tubeless is a more advanced technology compared to using inner tubes, and there’s a bit more of a learning curve along with some basic ongoing maintenance. That tyre sealant dries out and needs replenishing every few months. Tubeless can be frustrating if a problem in the system arises. And compared to the humble inner tube, tubeless tyres cost more. Still, the whole CyclingTips team strongly believes that when it comes to gravel (and mountain biking), the benefits of tubeless far outweigh the negatives.
Do note that this information within this article is equally useful for those wanting to run tubeless on a road bike or mountain bike. Much of the information in this article has been pulled from our complete FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) to tubeless. Indeed, check out that feature if you have further questions related to tubeless.
Tubeless-ready and tubeless-compatible are terms thrown around plenty among bikes, wheels, and tyres, but what does it mean? Unfortunately, there is no clear industry standard for making such a claim. In fact, a bike that is claimed to be tubeless-ready might actually only use a rim that is tubeless-compatible, along with a tyre that is not.
Some brands, such as Giant, with its premium range of bikes, consider ‘tubeless-ready’ to be a matter of just adding the provided tubeless tyre sealant and then you’re ready to ride tubeless without any unexpected expense. More commonly, brands such as Canyon, Trek, Cannondale, Lauf, and many others will typically provide you with almost everything required to run tubeless, except their bikes will ship with tubes installed to make sure the tyres retain air during shipping or when on the shop floor (tubeless setups are great, but they often don’t hold air long-term as well as inner tubes). In these cases, you remove the inner tubes, insert the provided valves, and then add your own tyre sealant – job done and with minimal added unexpected cost.
And then we get into the trickier and sometimes sneakier examples of tubeless-ready bikes – an issue far more prevalent with more entry-level and affordable bikes. Here, it’s common for a rim to be tubeless-ready in its design, but it can’t be used until a tubeless-specific rim tape is installed. This was the case with all the budget bikes at our most recent Field Test. Similarly, as was the case with the tested Vaast A/1 and Ridley Kanzo A, it can be up to the customer to purchase tubeless-compatible tyres, a pair of tubeless valves, and the required tyre sealant – something that could add anywhere from US$130 to US$250 to the cost of the bike.
Ok, so let’s start with the tyres. If a tyre is tubeless-ready or tubeless-compatible, it’ll almost certainly tell you on the sidewall. Almost all brands print some form of identifier logo (e.g: TR, TC, 2Bliss, etc) to tell you it’s a tubeless model with a suitably reinforced and stretch-resistant bead. Conversely, an increasing number of tyres intended for use only with inner tubes (often referred to as a clincher tyre) now state as much.
Worth noting is that tyres claiming to be “tubeless-ready” are intended to be run with a liquid tyre sealant to be airtight. In contrast, a “tubeless” tyre is airtight without the aid of sealant (which we recommend using regardless). If your tyres don’t state that they are tubeless or tubeless-compatible, you’ll need to buy suitably compatible ones before you can ditch those tubes. And just in case you’ve perhaps heard or been told that non-tubeless tyres can be converted, don’t run the risk. Non-tubeless tyres aren’t designed to lock into the rim as well, and even if such a combo seems safe, we can promise that an unexpected blowoff is awfully unpleasant.
Next, you must work out if the wheel’s rim is tubeless-compatible. A tubeless-compatible rim offers the necessary tolerances and rim profile to set up and retain a tyre without the support of an inner tube. Again, many brands will print an identifier on the rim to tell you it’s tubeless-ready (such as TSS or TC). Failing that, our advice is to check the manufacturer specifications for your bike and/or wheel model as that will often provide you with the required information.
It’s also important to note that any increasing number of carbon wheelsets (such as those from Giant, Enve, Zipp, and more) now feature what is known as a hookless rim, where the inner sides of the rim sidewalls are straight edges without the traditional rolled-over tops to help hold the tyre in place. These hookless rims must be used with a hookless-compatible tubeless tyre, whether you wish to run them tubeless or with an inner tube inside.
If you’ve confirmed that your tyre and rim are tubeless-ready, but are unsure if there are tubes inside, there is an easy way to check (as shown in the video above). To do this, deflate the tyre until it is squishy, then partly undo the valve nut on the outside of the rim and try to push the valve body (holding at the side of the valve) into the rim. If you hear air escape, then your wheel is already tubeless. If you can push the valve into the rim with no sign of air loss, then you’ve got inner tubes.
Ok, so you’ve got tubeless-ready tyres and rims, but you’re currently running inner tubes. Let’s move on to the next step.
We’re at the point where things get a little murkier and trickier. Unfortunately, a rim claimed to be tubeless-ready may not be airtight in its provided form, and the only way to know is to take the tyre off and inspect the rim bed.
Some higher-end wheels will feature a rim surface that’s wholly smooth and enclosed, with the only visible hole being for the valve. These are ready for use with tubeless without the need for an additional sealing tape since the tyre bed is inherently airtight.
More commonly at the mid-to-high level, a rim will be fitted with a plastic-looking adhesive tape covering the internal rim diameter. This tape will often have a shiny look to it, it will span from edge of the rim to the other, and it will be stuck to the rim. Most importantly, it should look like it is both waterproof and airtight. This is a tubeless tape designed to make the rim airtight and it’s ready for tubeless use.
Meanwhile, many lower-cost bikes will ship with a flexible and stretchy band that covers the spoke holes in the rim. If your stock rim tape has a woven-like look, looks like strapping tape used to support a box, and/or can be shifted around with your fingernail, then it’s not suitable for tubeless.
That last example will require the stock rim tape/strip to be removed and replaced with suitable tubeless rim tape. There are many different types of tubeless tape on the market, but the general rule is to buy one that’s 1-2 mm wider than the internal width of your rim. That internal rim width will often be marked directly on the rim. For example, 622 x 19C would designate a rim with a 622 mm diameter and a 19 mm internal width, so you’d want to use a tubeless tape that’s 20-21 mm-wide.
Next, you’ll require a suitable tubeless valve, which many newer tubeless-ready wheelsets and bikes now include. If you’re missing this piece, then you’ll need to find a valve that has a rubber grommet that provides a good seal with the shape of your rim’s channel. And like when buying inner tubes, you’ll also need a tubeless valve that is long enough to reach through the depth of your rim and provide enough exposed length for a pump to attach.
Lastly, you’ll need tyre sealant. There are dozens and dozens of options for bicycle tyre sealant which offer closely comparable qualities. Choice in sealants is often a trade-off between how well a particular formula seals punctures (especially larger ones) and how long it lasts inside the tyre before it evaporates and needs to be replenished. Our FAQ to tubeless offers a few specific recommendations.
And once you’ve got all the bits together, then it’s a matter of getting them installed and suitably inflating the tyre. Park Tool offers a good installation guide for this, while our own FAQ to tubeless offers plenty of tips, tricks, and tool advice.
Even for many seasoned enthusiasts, tubeless technology can be confusing and frustrating what with all the various different elements required, and generically describing something as “tubeless ready” just doesn’t provide enough information. Looking into the future, we’d like to see more clarity from the industry on what is required for a specific model of bike to be used tubeless. It doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – this hard.