Tubeless Tires. Totally Tubular?
Some used to think the earth was flat, and if you approached the edge, you'd simply fall off, as all good landscapes appear to do. Science prevailed over this theory, when real-world data came to bear, and yet some still held to their belief that the earth was flat. Global Warming, may be rocking established tenets but there are steadfast nay-sayers who will die disputing that science. Whenever debate arouses the worst in us today, the smart money walks away first. You can persuade a reasonable person with facts, and figures -- But some just have to live out their own version to learn. I believe that the earth is spherical, but for some gadgets, I have to take them apart to know how they work. I recently took apart my dryer, and searched for schematic, and instructions on the internet. The predominant advice was that I'd need to cut my losses and buy a new dryer. N+1. I ended up breaking the whole thing down, and re-assembling it, in a few hours, and spent nearly nothing to fix it. Unfortunately Videos never seem to disappear from the web, and so as we pile more data on top of them, their helpful relevance becomes obscured like a pile of junk-mail concealing your refund check. It gets daunting to shuffle through the mess. Even if you are careful you may lose something important between the pages of a Catalog, before you recycle the mounting junk. If you're cautious, you'll find the notice to renew your insurance, or find the property tax bill between an AARP invite, and a Frontgate catalog just before they foreclose. Within the dark chasm of the internet, finding a useful video may be far more difficult, as the virtual paper mounts. As search results profile who they think you are, the "True You" won't find what you want right away, (if ever). You will find what "they" want you to see, and they want you to get tubeless tires. I'm thinking that some day people will pay big money for "Search" which correlates to what one wants, and that day is coming soon. I'm imagining a "concierge search" which we willingly pay for, to filter a result unbiased by retail, or politics.
I've recently looked up tubeless tires to see what people find by way of helpful tutorials, as they endeavor to sort this one out for themselves. Naturally there is some valid pro and con -- And results vary depending upon the glowing device used, and the search history of it's MAC address. I've found tutorials for how to convert to tubeless, how to mount them, and how to fix them..., and never found them biased toward the lowly inner tube. Nobody was trying to convince me to stick with my inner tubes. I found bed-of-nail testings, and a gauntlet of drivel from the early tubeless days, showing darts and ice-picks, and a slow rolling tire curing itself instantly from a hundred stab wounds, as if by divine intervention. Most top search returned videos with more views than I could imagine were real. I found ways to convert to tubeless, and endless drivel about rim-strips, fluids, and methods, all spinning a myth that Tubeless is "The Answer". So convinced was I, that when done searching, I'd converted to the idea that when the messiah comes, she will lift us out of misery, and bring us all a bottle of "Stan's fluid". Perhaps some-day, we will bleed tubeless tire fluid. Although, I suppose we (kind-of) do now.
I'm not going to lie to anyone here, but I will go out on a limb and state that Tubeless (while nice) may be a false prophet. To vet Tubeless properly by a standard that we could all agree upon, I'd have to begin with the weight game, and move through the "No Flat" myth, before we arrive at what makes a good tire. Through the maelstrom of fact and fiction we would doubtless land upon Tubes vs Tubeless doing battle, one with wings and one with horns, like any allegorical poem unfurls, most will find the result to justify their position. Much like any body politic, some would side with a group, and become deaf to the story the other's are listening to. This is one of those stories, where fair and balanced won't account for much, as one's mind-set slams the door behind it's decision. To begin, we should look at history. The first Bicycle tires were steel bands wrapped around wooden spoked wheels on Velocipedes, which were not quite bicycles, but for brevity were their direct antecedent.
The next ones were rubber bands adhered to a similar wheel, and invented by Clement Ader in 1868, These tyres must have felt quite a bit nicer than the sketchy steel wheels. Nearly 20 years later, in 1887 the Pneumatic tire was invented, by John Boyd Dunlop for his son's bike, to prevent his headaches from the jarring vibrations of it's forebears. Dunlop couldn't patent his invention as a sketch by another man showed the idea was not necessarily exclusive to Dunlop. Just the same, two years later, Dunlop started a Tyre company and made several improvements. By 1890 Dunlop Tyre was lining their tires with a canvas layer to prevent punctures. Serious cyclists began adopting this tyre for their bikes, realizing great speed control and comfort benefits. In the early days of the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co., Tyres were attached to the wheels using special clamps. In 1891 Edouard Michelin began to make tires which were easily removed preferring to glue them to the wheel. This allowed the removable tire to be serviced, changed and the inner-tube to be patched separately. For forever the venerable 'inner-tube' has made our lives more comfortable, more productive and even more meaningful. Bikes have enjoyed over a century floating on air, held in a cylinder of butyl, wrapped in cotton, and rubber. We've patched them when they pinch, puncture, and pop. We've watched tubes sneak out of the side of our tire before exploding in a flash of talc, unseated by months of neglect. We've watched them get crusty and fuse themselves to a tire to become one body. We have carried spares around the world, and deployed them to make land speed records, and win distance contests. We've paid a king's ransom for a measly inner-tube simply to keep the corner bike shop in business. I once changed 26 flats in one event stage, when someone scattered tacks on the course. A few years later in 2006 Shimano and Hutchinson introduced the first tubeless tire system for bicycles. The largest innovation from this introduction would be the refinement of clincher rim profiles to improve the tire's attachment and seal.
For the thousand flat's I have fixed, I too have had a love / hate relationship with the 'inner-tube'. But it's not the tube's fault, it's the fact that we want light tires, that allows the tube to puncture.
When Tubeless came along, we didn't realize that we'd been driving cars without tubes for decades. We'd never considered how rarely a flat stopped our Holiday travel plans. We seldom considered that Trucks deliver both ways; some with tubes, and some tubeless... We've cursed at Slime, as neon green goo sprayed forth coated we unwitting and frustrated to find a flat in-spite of the liquid preventive. We've cursed at small wet-spots which constantly seem to spew like tiny acne geysers on road and gravel tires.
The special sauce of tubeless is it's ability to deliver lower ridable pressures without pinch-flats. Plain and simply, tubeless gives us the confidence to roll softer tires, but is it "all that"?
It is true that I could ride sew-ups and nearly never get a pinch-flat. It is also true that If I rode Schwalbe Marathons, I would seldom think about any kind of flat. Really I'm not sure that Tubeless is "all that", because I still carry a spare inner tube, and ride regularly with CO2, pump, patch, and boot, just as I have always done. I really don't get less flats with tubeless. If you count the constant ooze from daily city riding, and the need to top-up pressures more often than with tube or tubular... It seems that we get more flats with tubeless, than with tubes. But we are comfortable, picking flakes of glass out of our tread, defined by a hissing white spew.
Here is the marketing plus column for tubeless:
1. Lower pressure
3. Less Down-time
Back to the bed of nails, and the mis-marketing... We tend to tout tubeless as puncture-proof, which is false. We tend to also market it as a massive weight savings over tubes... Which does not always bear out. Take a tire with reasonable puncture resistance, and add a lightweight tube; what's the net? It's generally a round 600 g. Now take a puncture resistant tubeless tire, with a valve stem, strip, and adequate fluid; what's that weigh? It weighs roughly the same. As a matter of fact, the weight of adequate liquid to get some Fat-Bike tires inflated successfully can border on the tube weight, but it is in the larger tires where liquid weighs less than Butyl. Accounting for some seepage and evaporation, I likely have a pool of sticky goo stuck to the low spot of my fat tires rolling them out of balance like a shoe in a dryer. I likely have the same finesse in my Gravel tires, and my road bike. Because of all the tubeless fuss, the de rigueur tubeless fashion seems destined to remain optional. On a mountain bike trip, one would be foolish to pack only a plug kit, and pump. On a Bike-pack trip, it's advised to have all of the aforementioned tools, as well as spare tire/s and tube/s. If we are still carrying a Plug kit, tire boot, needle and thread, fluid, spare tube, CO2, pump, patches and glue, then is it really fair to give so much credit to the tubeless trend?
Lightweight and Reliable are generally at odds, and it's never been more true than how this applies to tires. If we could ride the same reliable steel-belted radials as our car's run-flats, then we would for certain suffer for speed, but never catch a flat. A dutch bike fitted with Schwalbe's venerable Marathon tire will likely see no more than a flat per annum, and some never. The weight penalty for the daily driver, means never needing to walk home. Never being stranded, and never struggling to free a chain-guard, fenders, drum-brake, and greasy chain, makes the trade reasonable. I have seen the same tire roll (daily) for over 6 years flat-free in the war-zone of my city. My tubeless seem to grab a flat three times a year per bike, regardless.
It's all weight ratios right?.. When we are counting grams, we cannot expect a worry-free solution. The weight savings will bare out more beneficial as the tire size goes up, but for the average 700/35 diameter, the clincher sporting a light inner-tube, vs. tubeless fluid, is lighter, if more prone to flatting.
Here are the numbers:
Good Tire: 490 g
Tube: 60 g
Net 575 g
Good Tire: 490 g
Basic Valve stem: 18 g
Tubeless fluid: 2.36 oz 66 g
Net 599 g
Most marketing looked like a sadistic ritual acupuncture, but perhaps their creators thought we were stupid and needed to see the bad guy get shot several more times, just to underscore that he got his just deserts. In the end, no matter how may times you see a nail in a tire, you should wince for each and every one, because once this happens, tubeless of tube-d, it will typically mean some down-time. If you have ever hit a water pipe with a screw or nail, you will note that it never matters too much when the screw goes in, but what happens when it's pulled out.
Should anyone get the mistaken impression that I don't prefer tubeless, let me address that right away. I do. We have already addressed the first two accolades of tubeless, 1. Low Pressure, I agree that lower rideable pressure is valuable and that it's something which a Tubeless system has over a tube, but we also note that a Tubular Tire, AKA a "Sew-up" almost never pinches flat as well, and that is some ancient technology which still outperforms nearly everything in real racing today. You could say the Michelin sew-up is king.
2. Lighter. In the basic set-up for a road-bike tubeless doesn't save much weight if any over a tube, or tubular, but it does improve weight over a tube at larger balloon and fat-bike tires.
3. Finally we have less 'down-time'. In the stricter sense, we have less down-time if we get less flats, and walk less. This will depend upon your mechanical skill-set, ride style, and your environment. Mechanically if you are not adept you may suffer from poor execution on setting up your tubeless system, and so if you feel you may need some help, please find that. It is no less important with tubeless than with tubes, to know how to maintain, change, and fix a flatted tire. Everyone should learn this and know it cold, before they stray too far from home, lest they remain a burden upon their better equipped friends. In a light-weight set-up, If you have a properly executed Tubeless set-up and you maintain adequate tire pressure, riding as the products intend, then you should get less down-time, than with a tube. If you hear a hiss, and see white shit spraying from your tire, don't stop instantly in a pack of others, and if it's not flat, but hissing, you'd do well not to stop at all, because the liquid needs the centrifuge to push gloppy bits to the hole to seal it up. If you can fix a flat, roll-out a puncture elegantly, and you don't mind losing air more regularly, struggling to open a gummed up valve which glued itself shut, then you should have a bit more up-time.
In all cases, you will still need to bring a back-up tire and tube, patch and a boot for any big trip. You will also need to know what to do with a pump, and when a pump is best, compared to CO2. As dusk sets on a lonesome road, and you've exhausted yourself and three CO2's trying to re-seat a dry and stubborn tubeless system while being eaten by mosquitos, in the hot July sunshine, you will trade your first born for an inner tube, and the skill set to remember how it works.
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