Tu-Be or No Tu-Be: Is That A Question?

by Allen Daniels, SCI #032
Bowdoin College (ME) Department of Public Safety

Have you heard of this new trend in tires called tubeless?  Are you wondering if they are for you or your department?

We ride year round here at Bowdoin College on the coast of Maine.  We currently run 29+, 27.5+, and 29 inch wheels.  I believe tubeless tires are going to become the standard in the near future for higher-end bikes, whether they be skinny, plus, or fat-tired.

While I believe tubeless will be the norm going forward, they are still relatively new.  There is no shortage of tubeless-ready tires out there, but not all are created equal.  If you choose to follow this trend, be sure to purchase tires from reputable manufacturers that have received good reviews (e.g., Bontrager, Shwalbe, Maxxis, Surly and 45deg North).  This also holds true for rims.  You can make just about any rim tubeless-compatible with rim tape and a skilled hand, but rims designed for this purpose, built by the manufacturer, and prepped by a skilled mechanic are really the best option.  The initial cost is usually around 15 dollars to set up a wheel that is TLR (TubeLess Ready), including and the valve stem, rim tape, and sealant.

Let’s talk TPI (Threads Per Inch) for a moment.  There are generally two numbers you will see associated with TPI:  120 and 60.  These numbers correspond to the durability of the tire, especially the sidewall.  The lower the TPI, the thicker and more durable the threads.  The higher the TPI, the thinner and more flexible the threads.  The 120s tend to have better rolling resistance but are more predisposed to sidewall cuts due to the lower pressure and the subsequent squish.  There is also about a 60-gram difference, with the 120 being the lighter of the two.

Jumping on the Band Wagon

By going tubeless, you can reduce the overall weight of the bike by approximately one pound per tube (for a 29+).  Less weight is always a plus, as pedaling efficiency, rider fatigue, and performance all improve with every gram taken off the bike.  I believe that going tubeless on a plus sized or fat tire enables the tire to move and flex as the manufacturer intended.  I have found handling to be improved as a result of the rider’s ability to adjust tire pressure to match the terrain using a much larger range than the recommended tire pressure (if tubeless specific recommendations are not stamped on the tire). 

Running lower pressure gives the tire a suspension-like quality that gives the rider the sensation of being on a short-travel, full suspension bike.  Lower pressure also allows the tires to “squish”, making the contact point larger and giving the rider noticeably more traction while climbing stairs and hills as well as riding on soft terrain like snow and sand.

Pinch flats haven’t really ever been a major problem for us, but our riders have the space to approach curbs and stairs with some speed, and pinches do happen.  However, the “need” to ascend/descend stairs or curbs is limited, and since running tubeless, we have virtually eliminated pinch flats.

Another benefit is that if/when the sealant does not seal a puncture or cut, you can always throw a tube in and continue on with the mission.  We always carry a spare tube with us whether riding tubeless or not, just in case.  Just be sure to remove and SAVE the tubeless-specific valve stem.

And Now the Negative

Sealant can be a finicky thing and sometimes it just won’t work as intended.  I recommend that you and all your riders become familiar with tubeless tire repairs and techniques so they can deal with any issues that arise in the field.  On our campus, we have our fair share of broken glass and detritus.  If a cut in the tread area or sidewall is so large that the sealant cannot close it, you are left with a tire that needs repair (i.e., with a plug kit or a tubeless tire-specific patch) rather than just a tube that needs to be replaced.   

So to answer the original question:  should you consider tubeless tires for personal and/agency use?  In my opinion, there is no down side to running tubeless tires in either case.  If all else fails, you can always put a tube back in until necessary repairs can be made.

Allen Daniels is currently an IPMBA Security Cyclist Instructor and Officer First Class at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  He is also an Army veteran.  As an avid cyclist, Allen’s enthusiasm is contagious to all around him.  He can often be found checking avalanche bulletins for Mount Washington and Tuckerman Ravine or compulsively checking the latest and greatest bike and ski gear.  He can be reached at adaniels@bowdoin.edu or somewhere in the woods.

(c) 2017 IPMBA.  This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of IPMBA News.

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