If you aren’t using tubeless tires on your adventure gravel bike, you should be. Imagine bombing down gravel descents and across rough ground without concern for flats. Going tubeless is the key to reducing tire issues on adventurous rides. Tubeless lets you run lower tire pressure without fear of pinch flats and essentially eliminates routine punctures. Tubeless tire systems have taken a big leap forward in recent years and are a true game changer for adventure cycling and gravel riding. That said, going tubeless is not without its own challenges. Each wheel and tire combination has its own quirks, and changing tubeless tires is a bit of a process when compared to using traditional tubes. The following tubeless tire tips should help you smooth out the tubeless tire learning curve.
Most modern gravel, all-road and off-road rims and tires are tubeless-compatible. Just add tubeless rim tape, a valve stem, sealant, and you’re ready to go. If you’re unsure whether your rims or tires are tubeless compatible, look for tubeless compatible (TC) or tubeless ready (TR) details on the sidewall or on the manufacturer’s website.
- Rim Tape: Tubeless rim tape is a critical ingredient for creating an air-tight seal in a tubeless set up. There are a few rim designs without spoke holes, which eliminates the need for tape, but the vast majority of rims require tape. There are numerous varieties of tubeless-specific rim tape available. Stan’s tubeless tape is widely accepted as a good option, and I have had very good results with Gorilla Tape. Gorilla tape is more reasonably priced than branded tubeless tapes, but it does require ripping down to the correct width to match your rim. Regardless of which rim tape you choose, careful application is essential. Keep it taut as you apply it, and rub it flat to promote full adhesion. It’s also often necessary to replace rim tape when changing tires, especially if using Gorilla Tape.
- Valve Stems: Choose a valve stem to match your rim depth. It’s far better to go long than to be too short. Long valves give you more stem to work with when attaching a pump. Stan’s valve stems work great.
- Sealant: Like rim tape, there are numerous options for sealant. Orange Seal tubeless sealant has proven to work great in a wide range of temperatures and tires. You can get by with 2-3 ounces of sealant per tire with 700 x 35-45 size tires (more for wider tires), but many riders prefer 3-4 ounces. It pays to add sealant every three or four months as it tends to dry over time.
Tools for Easy Tubeless Set Up
A mechanic is only as good as his or her tools, and a few special tools will set you up for success when going tubeless.
- High-Pressure Pump: Number one for tubeless setup success is a compressor or a tubeless-specific high-pressure floor pump. The Senco PC1010 is a small, quiet and affordable ($120) compressor that works great for tubeless setups. You’ll need a presta valve chuck too. The Prestaflator Mini works great.
- Valve Core Remover: Removing the valve core helps get a tubeless tire to seat by allowing more air through the valve. Wolftooth Components makes a great multi-tool that includes a valve core remover or you can just get a dedicated core tool.
- Sealant Injector or Syringe: You can get by without a dedicated sealant injector, especially if you buy the small Orange Seal bottle that includes an injecting tube. But a syringe with a narrow hose attachment that fits into the valve stem makes measuring and injecting sealant much easier and cleaner than doing so without a syringe. This tubeless sealant syringe and valve core tool combo package (pictured above) works great.
Setting up tubeless tires takes a little practice. It’s not really that it’s difficult; it’s more that it’s a trial and error process that requires some patience given that all tires and rims are a little different. Here’s our list of “best practice” steps for setting up tubeless tires:
- Let your new tire “unfold” from its packaged state. Bends and deformations in a tire’s natural shape will hamper easy set up as will a stiff, cold tire. If it’s warm outside, set the tire in the sun to soften. When it’s cold outside, bring the tire inside where it can warm and take shape. If you have the time, let it reshape overnight.
- Set yourself up for success by starting with clean rims. Remove any old tape, sealant residue, oil, mud, etc.
- Good rim tape application is essential and requires a slow, methodical approach, plus a clean rim as per step two. Start near the valve hole and slowly lay the tape down the center of your rim several inches at a time. Keep plenty of tension on the tape, and smooth it out as you go. Continue the tape right across the valve hole and overlap your start by a couple inches. Some people swear by multiple layers of tape, but I have always been successful with a single layer of tape. Once the rim is covered, continue to smooth out the tape by applying pressure to ensure an air-tight seal.
- Insert the valve stem. You’ll need to puncture the tape at the valve hole to make room for the stem. I always puncture from the inside out. Tighten down the valve stem nut, but do not over-tighten it. You should be able to hand loosen it in the case of a field repair.
- Install the tire without adding sealant.
- Remove the valve core using your valve core tool. This allows a high volume of air to rush into the tire and, hopefully, seat it.
Cross your fingers and try “dry seating” the tire by inflating with a compressor or high-pressure pump. Dry seating before you add sealant lets you test the seal. You’ll know you nailed it if you get a solid inflation with a couple of telling “pops” as the tire bead seats into the rim. This step typically requires inflating to the max recommended psi for your tire to get a solid seat. And if the tire does not seal, you can troubleshoot it without the mess of sealant.
- Let the tire deflate, and add sealant using a syringe or injector hose via the valve stem.
- Replace valve core. *
- Inflate, and take a short ride – 10-15 minutes of riding around is usually enough to help distribute the sealant and create a lasting tubeless seal.
*Alternatively, I often leave the valve core out for the final inflation. This method requires some quick finger work to cap the valve stem and then insert the valve core without losing too much air. Practice makes perfect.
Troubleshooting Tips for Tubeless Tire Set Up
In our experience, the most common causes of a failed tubeless attempt are poor rim tape application or a cold, stiff tire. The telling sign of a rim tape leak is air escaping from the valve stem hole. A leak at the valve stem hole does not necessarily mean the problem is at the valve. It means that air is entering the rim cavity through a spoke hole (rim tape leak) and then escaping through the path of least resistance (the stem hole).
After years of running tubeless tire set ups, here are our top tips for troubleshooting stubborn tubeless tires:
If the tire will not inflate at all – air blows out all around:
- Warm up the tire. Many people recommend warm soapy water to help lube the tire casing to get it to seat. This step can help, but in my experience letting the tire warm up in the sun (or by a heat vent in the house) so it finds its natural shape is more effective and a lot cleaner than the soapy water approach.
- Put a tube in it. This is not a joke. Getting a new tire properly inflated and seated with a tube really helps to shape the tire to the rim. Using a tube has made more stubborn tires seat than other single trick that i have used. Let the tire sit inflated with a tube for 15 min or so. I often put it in the sun (or inside the house), just to keep it supple. Only break the tire bead on one side when you deflate and pull the tube. Then try going tubeless again. If it’s really stubborn, leaving the tube in for a few hours should take of it.
- Clean the valve stem. A clean passage for air is also key. A brand new valve stem should be fine, but if you are using a valve stem that has already seen tubeless sealant, clean it with a spoke (or other pointy tool) while you have the valve core out. A clean valve stem will allow the tire to fill faster, therby seating the tire.
If the tire fills and seats, but it has a slow to moderate leak:
- Double check the rim tape seal. Re-tape, or add a second layer of rim tape. The telling sign of a rim tape leak is air escaping from the valve stem hole. A leak at the valve stem hole does not necessarily mean the problem is at the valve. It means that air is entering the rim cavity through a spoke hole (rim tape leak) and then escaping through the path of least resistance (the valve stem hole).
- Add more sealant and ride. If the tire inflates and seats but small leaks around the tire bead keep it from staying inflated, try adding more sealant and take a short 15-20 minute ride to keep the sealant circulating to stop the leak.
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