Browsing an article about mountain biking technique recently, we were surprised to read the phrase, "…for those of you who still haven't gone tubeless…" Well, that's us, and we'll admit it stung a little, being the gear-forward geeks that we like to think we are around here. So a project was born, and if you're a noob like us wondering (1) why tubeless, and (2) how tubeless, read on.
First, why tubeless? Queue the reasons: less chance of a flat (especially pinch flats), ability of sealant that remains in the tire to plug small punctures, lower pressure equals less bounce and larger contact patch for better traction on climbs and corners, less weight (bc no tube, duh), and the aforementioned softer ride. Done x6.
On to the how, but first the deets: last summer we retired our ancient but still rockin' Gary Fisher Sugar 3+ full suspension, and upgraded (sidegraded?) to a Co-op Cycles DRT 2.1 hardtail. We liked the single chain ring, disc brakes and 27.5+ tire size but missed the butt-saving grace of a rear shock, and read somewhere that the low pressure of a tubeless setup makes for a more comfortable ride. The DRT 2.1 was already equipped with tubeless ready Scraper i45 27.5 rims and Ranger 2.8 tires, both from WTB, but for some reason it had a tube. Game on.
A little basic research told us two things: first, because our WTB rims and tires were tubeless ready we just needed tubeless valves and sealant for our conversion. Second, Stan's NoTubes is crazy popular for their tubeless conversion and maintenance products, so we reached out to them and they were nice enough to send us their tire sealant, valves and a DART kit – more on that last item later. Stan's also provides a must-read FAQ page and a metric ton of helpful videos (we mostly used this one) to get you up to speed on what you'll be doing. You'll probably spend more time studying how to do the conversion then actually doing it.
Basically it goes like this: remove wheel, pop one tire bead off, pull tube out, insert new valve, put bead back on almost all the way, pour in sealant, finish putting bead on and air up. As usual, the devil is in the details:
- Take the wheel off your bike, and clean the wheel so that debris doesn’t fall into rim like it did for us. Yeah, we're that lazy.
- Let the air out. If you have a removable core (with flat spots on either side of the threads) this is fast with a tool like Stan's NoTubes Core Remover. Need a funnier version? Watch this guy.
- Break the tire bead on both sides, even though you'll only remove one sides bead entirely off the rim. After the beads are broken, move the beads to the center of rim into the concave drop channel that runs all the way around the rim like the trench on the death star; this will give you more slack to remove the one side that you need to. Our tires were a bit of a pain; we ended up laying the wheel on the floor and standing – carefully! – on the tire. Using our favorite Pedro's Tire Levers to get one side of the rim did not go smoothly either; we had to insert, pop, move, and repeat for a foot or so along the rim, at which point it got much easier. Some tires will be like that.
- Remove the old valve nut (it should be only finger tight), pull the old valve out and remove entire tube. Make sure the tire's hot patch (a visible patch that's part of the tire manufacturing process) is over the valve hole; insert the new valve and tighten the nut.
- Squirt some soapy water on the rim to ease the process of replacing the bead. Don't worry, it won't affect anything. Starting opposite the valve, replace almost all the bead on the rim. You can use your hands if the bead came off easily or use a tire lever like we had to. Leave about a foot or so of bead off the rim so you can…
- Hold tire vertical and rotate gap to the bottom so you can pour in the sealant, about 4oz for each of our 27.5+ tires. Replace the last section of bead and check that the bead is truly on the outside shoulder of the rim all the way around, especially at the valve, or air will escape when you go to…
- Inflate! Some folks say you need an air compressor, but we just used a plain old floor pump and it worked fine. There was a very loud pop when the tire seated at the end, and we inflated to about 18psi. There is an accuracy issue with inflation readings at lower pressures, so it might be advisable to get a pressure gauge that specifically reads lower pressures.
- Holding the wheel vertically, bounce it around the circumference of the wheel to distribute the sealant, then turn it horizontal and let it sit flat on a 5 gallon bucket or something for about ten minutes per side.
- You can squirt/brush some soapy water on the outside to look for air bubbles; you might see some until the sealant plugs all the little escape holes, and you might have to go back and add more sealant in the next few days – easily done buy removing the valve care, squirting it in and re-inflating – but you should be good to go.
We went out immediately after converting and rode hard singletrack for a couple of hours. The tires held up fine, and our only issue was learning to manage the vastly increased stopping power. In fairness, we're still getting used to the lesser amount of force needed for hydraulic disc brakes combined with a fat, aggressive tire like the WTB Ranger, so it shouldn't have been a surprise when we panic-braked after a hard bobble and went over the handlebars. Lesson learned: one finger braking it is.
The bottom line: the process took more time to learn than to actually do, even with the few difficulties that we encountered. Having ridden for over a month on tubeless, we're sold and not looking back. The traction for both stopping and going is seriously increased, the ride comfort is noticeably better, and we're farting rainbows. OK, the last was just to check if you're still paying attention, but yeah: go tubeless with Stan's NoTubes, you'll have no regrets.
One last note: prepare to repair. We carry both a spare tube and a CO2 inflator on longer trips where we won't want to hike-a-bike out. CO2 can potentially cause problems with sealants because the cold can make the sealant ball up and lose effectiveness. Stan's recommends using the CO2 to get home, then refresh your sealant. Stan also sells the DART tool repair kit for tubeless tires, which we'll review when we've had cause to use it. The DART is basically a bacon strip style repair kit like the ones we've used successfully on car tires for years.
Check out Stan's NoTubes products at www.notubes.com