For many years, the option for road cyclists when it came down to tyre choice was simple - clincher with an inner tube or tubular.
The clincher was the most popular, and it’s the set up most of us are familiar with - a traditional tyre encasing an inner tube that when inflated, seats the tyre on the rim. Simple, and much easier to change a flat or switch tyres completely within 5-10 minutes - depending on your bike mechanic skills.
Tubulars were viewed as the pro’s choice (or wannabe pros!). A tubular tyre, sometimes known as a 'tub', is a one-piece tyre and tube combination sewn together and is glued directly onto the tubular specific rim. Although there are benefits to fitting tubular, such as lighter weight, more supple and better rolling resistance, they also throw up plenty of downsides.
Glueing a tubular tyre to the rim is a painstaking process, with experienced mechanics often taking hours, if not days, to complete what should be a simple task. Replacing a tyre is an even bigger job - the glue needs to be removed completely and requires plenty of elbow grease and solvent use, before starting the process over again.
In fact, the reason why some pro riders still favour them is that they are always followed by team cars and mechanics, with endless supplies of wheels ready to swap, so a puncture isn’t a problem like it would be for an average cyclist.
The drive for tubeless in road cycling was simple - roadies wanted a solution that brought together the weight and rolling resistance benefits of tubular, with the simplicity and flexibility of the clincher set up.
Tubeless tyres haven't been a hidden secret - the technology has been well established in mountain biking for over 15 years. The main benefit for the off-roaders is the ability to run really low tyre pressures without the worry of getting a pinch flat - a common pitfall when using an inner tube.
As the technology has trickled into road cycling, and the demand for wider tyres and lower tyre pressure for better ride comfort has increased, tyre and wheel manufacturers have poured greater resources into developing tubeless. The result has led to some tubeless tyres being on par with tubular tyres regarding rolling resistance - read our guide to CADEX race tyres, one of the lightest and fastest tubeless tyres available.
The growth in popularity of tubeless tyres in road cycling recently has been massive - even some pro teams have made the switch. But what exactly are they and why and how do riders use them? Read our guide below to find out.
What Are Tubeless Tyres?
Visually tubeless tyres are similar to clincher tyres, but there are a few subtle differences. One of these is the tubeless specific bead design, along with an airtight coating on the inside to create an airtight seal. A few years ago, the choice of tubeless road tyres was pretty slim. However, the majority of the big tyre manufacturers are completely on board with tubeless, so there's a wide selection to choose from and chances are your favourite brand develops a tubeless option of the same clincher tyre.
To run a tubeless system, it's essential to use tubeless compatible rims. We would not recommend using a tubeless tyre with a rim that is not tubeless compatible as the tyre won't seat correctly and therefore won't create an airtight seal.
The reason it’s essential to use a tubeless compatible rim is that they have a different profile to a standard clincher rim, including a deeper central rim which helps to seat the tyre. A new development in road cycling uses a 'hookless' rim design - these rims have no grooves on the inside of the rim wall, making them only compatible with selected tubeless tyres.
The benefits of hookless are a significant weight reduction, strength increase along with aero advantages and maximising the inner rim width without going too wide on the outer rim width, providing more support for modern tyres. Although hookless rims are tubeless dedicated, you can fit an inner tube as a temporary fix should you get a puncture while out riding. However, using a conventional clincher tyre with an inner tube won't be compatible.
The sealant is a specially designed liquid that sits in the tyre and when exposed to a high amount of air pressure - for example, when the tyre is pierced - coagulates to block the air escaping. It plugs any small holes that appear in the tyre and therefore preventing total tyre deflation, also known as a puncture.
You will also require a tubeless specific valve. Tubeless specific valves have a rubber seal around the bottom as to not let any air out. They often have a removable core as well, which allows the sealant to be poured into the tyre. They are available in both Presta and Schrader forms, so any track pump can be used to inflate a tubeless tyre.
There are numerous benefits to using a tubeless system:
Tubeless tyres can be used with less pressure than standard clincher tyres because there isn’t an inner tube.
Without an inner tube, the chance of ‘pinch flats’ punctures is no more. Pinch flats occur when an object like a rock or pothole completely flattens or 'pinches' the tyre against the rim. In this scenario, an inner tube is unable to absorb such an impact and would likely puncture, whereas a tubeless tyre can flex around the obstacle and absorb the impact.
As a result, running lower tyres pressure means a more comfortable ride as the tyre is absorbing more of the lumps and bumps in the road.
Running tyres at lower pressure create a larger contact patch with the ground, therefore increasing the grip of the tyre.
The sealant within a tubeless tyre provides an effective way of combating the event of something piercing the tyre. The sealant immediately clogs the hole preventing too much air escaping and in the majority of cases, allowing the rider to continue riding.
Once an inner tube has been pierced however and the air begins escaping, it's not possible to ride and it must be replaced or repaired.
In a standard clincher system, the friction between the inner tube and the tyre moving against each other adds to the rolling resistance of the wheel. By removing the inner tube, the friction is removed, making the tyre roll faster.
Tubeless setups are commonly lighter than a conventional tyre and tube set up. As the weight-saving is rotational, you'll find that the bike will accelerate slightly faster and climb more efficiently.
For many, one of the main issues is the actual process of making the switch. Setting up a tubeless system can sometimes be tricky because of the tight tolerances of the tyre. However, Tubeless tyre technology has progressed hugely over the last few years, so it's a much easier process than it was even just a couple of years ago.
Another slight disadvantage to some riders is that tubeless tyres tend to lose pressure slightly quicker, so more frequent checks and top-ups are needed before heading out on a ride.
How Easy Is The Change?
Switching to a tubeless setup is certainly worth the effort, and it really shouldn’t be difficult, providing you follow our advice. Ensure you have everything you need and you have the correct componentry – tubeless specific wheels, tubeless specific tyres, sealant, tubeless valve and some rim tape (if required).
If your wheel has spoken holes in the rim, these will need covering with the tubeless rim tape. Ensure you keep the tape taught when applying it so that it completely seals each hole and there are no creases in it. It's a crucial step, so take your time.
Once fitted, pierce the tape at the valve hole and insert the tubeless valve. The valve should have a rubber base which will seal once in place. Now it’s time to fit the tubeless tyre. Every person has their own way of doing this, so do what works best for you. The tyre will likely be very tight, so we’d recommend using generous amounts of bead lube and starting at the ‘6 o'clock position’ on the rim, finishing at the valve.
When the tyre is fitted, it will need seating. To do this, it will require a sharp burst of air to push it into the rim. If it's a brand new tyre, use generous amounts of bead lubricant before starting. Pinch both sides of the tyre around the wheel, so the beads are in the rim and making sure the valve gets placed between the two beads.
In many cases, the tyre can be inflated using a track pump, however, a tubeless specific compressor is a specifically designed bit of kit for the job and we would recommend the investment if you are changing tubeless tyres frequently.
The tyre will make a ‘pop’ sound when its correctly seated, so listen out for it. It may take a few attempts, but it’s essential you ensure the tyre is properly seated as otherwise, it won’t inflate.
Now it’s time to add the sealant. Most tubeless valves have removable cores so that you can then add the sealant. Deflate the wheel and remove the valve core. You should have a syringe with the sealant – draw the sealant into the syringe, fit one end of the rubber hose to the syringe and the other to the valve and squeeze in the sealant to the tyre. Different manufacturers will suggest different amounts of sealant per wheel, but it's usually listed on the packaging.
Replace the valve core and then begin to move the wheel around. Spinning the wheel in your hands will help. The aim is to thoroughly coat the inside of the tyre/rim with the sealant you added. Don’t worry if some seeps out of the tyre, wipe this off the rim.
Once the tyre is seated with the sealant inside, we recommend inflating the tyre to its maximum recommended pressure to confirm that the tyre is correctly seated against the inside of the rim. You can then reduce the air pressure to your preferred riding pressure.
It’s not uncommon for tubeless systems to lose a few PSI straight after installation. We’d suggest giving the wheel a further spin to really ensure the sealant is well spread. The tubeless tyre should hold pressure after 24 hours. It's worth knowing that in a modern tubeless setup, the tyre and rim combination is airtight and the sealant is there purely to assist in aid of a puncture.
Click here to watch a useful video that guides you through the set-up process.
Aftercare & Maintenance
It’s essential to check and replace the sealant regularly. We would recommend a check once a month and a full sealant replacement once every six months (although if you ride in hot and humid conditions, this will be much sooner as sealant evaporates quicker).
For the monthly check, the main thing to look for is whether the amount of sealant has dropped from the recommended amount. We suggest having around 30ml per tyre based on 25mm tyre width, but the bigger the volume of the tyre, the more sealant will be required. For example, a 29x2.3" trail tyre will require 60-100ml of sealant per tyre. A drop in the sealant level can occur due to many reasons, but the most common is because the liquid is plugging tiny holes and being used up without you noticing.
Another thing to check monthly is the colour of the sealant. Standard sealant is a milky white colour, however, over time it will start to discolour to a watery brownish hue. It's important to change the sealant when it's discoloured as it's a sign that it has lost its effectiveness.
Changing sealant isn't a messy job - it's done without even removing the tyre. A tubeless tyre syringe will extract all the liquid, leaving you free to replace using the method we explained above.
So there you have it, a comprehensive guide to tubeless road tyres. With the benefits of better rolling resistance, fewer punctures and less weight, hopefully it's convinced you to ditch the inner tubes if you haven't already. Your local Giant retailer will be able to advise on switching, which you can find using our retailer page.