The Road to Road Tubeless
Road Tubeless Tech: Thinking of making the jump to tubeless? PEZ-Man Chuck Peña has leapt into the unknown and fitted a set of Pirelli Cinturatos to his Irwin Cycling AON TLR wheelset. Chuck runs through the tire fitting and the potentially disastrous sealant injecting to find the ins-and-outs of going tubeless.
Ready to roll
The Back Story
When I built my Felt FC in 2015, my wheel set of choice was Shimano RS81 C35 (alloy rim with a carbon fairing), which was tubeless ready but I rode it with tubes. Last year, I went to the dark side of full carbon wheels and was fortunate enough to be chosen as an ambassador for Irwin Cycling, riding their AON TLR 38 and 38/58 wheel sets. The Irwins are also tubeless ready (hence the TLR moniker), but I rode them with tubes.
Pirelli tubeless mounted on Irwin
The reason I rode with tubes was because I didn’t perceive enough benefit riding tubeless. In the six years I’ve been back on the bike after 15 year hiatus, I’ve had all of four flats. The first was a sidewall gash that probably wouldn’t have been saved by a tubeless set up (and was probably the result of riding tires that should’ve been replaced). The second was a pinch flat (totally my fault because I probably rushed installing the tube the night before) when I hit a sharp speed bump, which a tubeless set up would’ve averted since there would be no tube to pinch. The other two were punctures due to a tiny glass shard and a staple – the type of punctures that sealant would’ve plugged.
Even though tubeless would’ve saved me on three out of four occasions, I still had my doubts about making the jump. Largely because it seemed like a hassle (hey, tubes are easy!) and the potential mess of sealant (I’d heard horror stories of sealant spraying everywhere).
But when my best riding buddy, Bob Goulder aka The Real Bobke, went tubeless this year and said it was relatively hassle free (not to mention flat free), I decided to go ahead and take the plunge.
For PEZ readers considering going road tubeless, here’s a “how to” in six easy steps.
The best from Pirelli
Step 1 – Rim tape
First and foremost, you need tubeless ready wheels. The good news is that so many current wheels – both carbon and alloy – are tubeless ready.
My Irwins already had a tubeless rim strip installed, but if your wheels don’t, that’s the first thing you need to do. Also, it’s important to understand that there isn’t an industry standard for tubeless rims and tires. So that sometimes means that a particular tire might not work on a particular rim. I think this is pretty rare but something you need to be aware of. I’d read where sometimes when a tire wouldn’t work, i.e., hold air, on a rim that a second layer of rim tape was often the cure. So even though it might be overkill, out of an abundance of paranoia I added a second layer of rim tape.
Tubeless rim strip to ensure the inside of the rim is air tight
NOTE: Some carbon wheels (such as the Campagnolo Bora) are built with internal nipples and a solid rim surface with no spoke holes. If you have wheels like that, then you don’t need rim tape. However, if they’re alloy wheels and the rims don’t have spoke holes (such as Fulcrum), you might want to install rim tape as a precaution because sealant is water based and if by chance any of the anodization wears off, the raw aluminum will be unprotected and the sealant could eventually cause corrosion.
Step 2 – Valve stems
Install the tubeless valve stems, which is easy peasy. You insert the valve stem from the inside of the rim and then screw the washer on the presta valve to tighten down the valve stem to create an air tight seal on the inside of the rim.
NOTE: You have to screw down the washer pretty tight. You might even have to use a pair of needle nose pliers to get it tight enough to ensure you have a good seal. Because I’m paranoid about the idea of metal contacting my carbon rims, I cut a small piece of Gorilla duct tape and put it over the valve stem hole to protect the rim against possible damage.
A piece of duct tape for peace of mind, i.e., paranoia, to protect my carbon rim
Step 3 – Install the tires
Mount the tires (in my case, a pair of Pirelli Cinturatos 700×26) on the rims, which is no different that installing regular clincher tires. OK, there is one difference. There’s no tube! Just be aware that tubeless tires can be notoriously hard to get on a rim (and for some reason, deeper dish rims can be even more difficult. But since there isn’t a tube you need to worry about pinching, you can always resort to a tire lever to get the tire on the rim. Another trick is to put a little soapy water on the rim to make it easier for the bead to slide over it (I was able to get the tire on my 38 mm deep front wheel by hand but needed a tire lever for my 58 mm deep rear wheel).
Italian brand tires made in France
NOTE: I know this seems obvious but … If you’re going to use a tire lever to install a tire on a carbon rim, make sure the tire lever is a sturdy plastic/resin material and not metal. And I wouldn’t use a “cheap” tire lever. I’ve actually broken tire levers trying to get a tire with a super tight bead onto a rim.
The most important thing mounting any tire — regular clincher or tubeless — is lining up the logo with the valve stem for the EuroPro touch and to make people think it’s a tubular
Step 4 – Seat the tires
Probably the “hardest” thing is getting the beads seated on the rim. You are NOT going to be able to do this with a regular floor pump. The one exception may be if you have Mavic UST wheels and tires that are engineered to work together. My friend Bobke was able to get his Mavics to seat with a floor pump. I figured it was at least worth trying with my Cinturatos on my Irwin AONs, but no joy (which was what I expected).
So I took them to my LBS and the guys used a compressor to get the tires seated (thank you Trek Clarendon!) You’ll know your beads are seated when you hear a distinctive “pop”!
If you don’t have a compressor and want to be able to do this at home, there are several pumps that have a secondary chamber that you can pump air into and then release it all at once to create enough pressure/force to seat the beads. There are also canisters that you can pump up with a floor pump that do the same thing. You could also use a CO2 cartridge but that seems like a waste of a perfectly good CO2 cartridge, so something I would only do as a last resort.
NOTE: If you’re not going to add sealant right away after seating the tires, you need to make sure they stay seated. Even though I knew they wouldn’t hold air without sealant (the exception to this may be the new Continental Grand Prix 5000 tubeless tires that have an inner liner that seals the tires and don’t need sealant to hold air), I was able to pump my tires up to max pressure to ensure the bead was sealed to the rim. When they eventually lost air (overnight), I just pumped them up again. The most important thing is not to “pinch” the sidewalls as that will likely cause the bead seal to break.
Step 5 – Sealant
Putting the sealant in the tire was the thing I dreaded because I was worried about the potential mess. Since this seemed like where I was more likely to do something wrong, I did this with Bobke since he’d done it before and could coach me through it.
The first thing you need to do is remove the valve core to be able to inject sealant. This requires a valve core removal tool. But it’s simply a matter of unscrewing it.
Lefty loosey to remove the valve core
As far as sealant goes, I know that Stan’s and Orange Seal are both popular and highly regarded, but I decided to try Effetto Mariposa Caffelatex. One thing that sets Caffelatex sealant apart from other sealants is that it’s a liquid like other sealants but “foams up” when agitated (like the spinning of the wheel) and is supposed to coat the inside of the tire more thoroughly – especially the sidewalls. After at rest for a while, it returns to its liquid state.
How much sealant to use is a function of tire width. Effetto Mariposa actually has an app to determine how much. My Pirelli Cinturatos are spec’ed at 26 mm wide but a set of calipers measured them at 27.6 mm. According to the app, 30 mL for 25mm and 35 mL for 28mm. Since 27.6 mm is almost 28 mm, I went with 35 mL of sealant.
You need a syringe/injector for the sealant. I decided on a KOM Cycling injector because (a) it came with a really nice aluminum valve core removal tool and (b) the tubing was designed to go inside the valve stem and into the rim to inject sealant, which seemed very much “no mess.”
Unfortunately, the tubing didn’t fit through the valve stem gasket to the inside of the rim. I tried injecting sealant anyway, but it mostly spilled out. I know other users have had great success with and love the KOM injector so I’m thinking that the hole in my valve stem gasket is just too small for the tubing. But at least I got a quality tool that I’ll keep!
Fortunately, I could use Bobke’s Mavic syringe/injector where the tubing goes over the valve stem. I was worried that this might allow some sealant to drip out and be a little messy. But that worry was unfounded. No sealant leaked out and the only “mess” was the result of not paying attention to the open tubing after removing it from the valve stem.
Suck it up
Fill ‘er up
A few “pro tips” to help make this process easier:
- ● I used my Park professional wheel truing stand (an older version of the TS-2.2) to hold my wheel as a “third hand” to hold the wheel in place.
● Put the valve stem at either the 7/8 o’clock or 4/5 o’clock position so that when you inject sealant it can flow to the bottom of the tire without potentially coming back up the valve stem.
● After injecting the sealant, slowly remove the plunger from the syringe. When the air seal is “broken,” whatever sealant is still in the tubing will flow out and into the valve stem. This also reduces/eliminates the possibility of back pressure when you remove the tubing and having sealant pulled back out of the valve stem and splatter.
- ● I used my Park professional wheel truing stand (an older version of the TS-2.2) to hold my wheel as a “third hand” to hold the wheel in place.
Then just reinstall the valve cores.
All of the above (just Step 5) took about an hour (for both wheels) because (a) I was taking my time to make sure I didn’t f*ck up and (b) I (actually Bobke) was taking pictures for this article. But the next time (and there will be a next time), it will probably take me 30 minutes tops.
Step 6 – Pump it up!
Finally, just do it what you do with any other set of tires… inflate them. You will notice some sealant “leak” between the tire and the rim. This is perfectly normal as it is filling any minuscule gaps that need to be sealed. Just wipe the sealant off. And then spin the wheel so that the sealant fully coats the inside of the tire.
Some sealant leaking out after inflating is normal, which is better than having it spray out
If you’re old enough to remember Blood, Sweat & Tears: Spinnin’ wheel got to go round … Spinnin’ wheel, spinnin’ true
I initially inflated my tires to 110 psi (max pressure is 116 psi) just to make sure they were inflated and (out of paranoia) to make sure they were seated. From what I’ve read about others going tubeless, you’ll know they aren’t seated when you pump them up because sealant will spray out everywhere. This is the reason Step 4 is so important!
Just wipe off the excess sealant
It’s all about the ride
As this is written, I have just over 100 miles riding tubeless but I’m already sold on them. Not for their flat prevention (fingers crossed that I actually wear them out without flatting), but for their ride quality. I had previously ridden Pirelli Cinturatos with tubes since this June (about 2,600 miles). The difference riding them tubeless is nothing short of remarkable. It’s about as close to the ever elusive feeling of riding tubulars (what I used to ride exclusively way back in the day when I was still racing). The best way I can describe the ride is that it’s a sensation of floating on the tarmac. My mate Nick Clark, who owns LBS ProBike FC and is still riding tubulars, agrees with me — he finished 3rd representing Australia in the 1993 Worlds Men’s Junior Road Race and raced professionally for Chazal and Petit Casino AG2R so probably knows a thing or two about tires.
Always a privilege to ride and hang out with my mate, Nick
Contributing to the ride quality is the fact that tubeless tires can be run at much lower tire pressures than regular clinchers (especially with more modern rims that have a wider internal width – my Irwins are 18mm). I was riding the Cinturatos with tubes at 80 psi rear and 76 psi front (already on the low side for clinchers). As tubeless, my starting point is 76 psi rear and 72 psi front. Riding over small bumps, indentations in the road, and chattered pavement are smoothed out. You can still feel the “hit” but it’s much softer and you’re more in control. Not only do lower tire pressures increase comfort, they also increase grip.
What’s really remarkable about an almost tubular ride quality is that this is with tires that aren’t really considered “performance” tires per se. With a 66 tpi casing, the Cinturatos are not the most supple of tires. They’re more of an “endurance” tire designed for puncture resistance and high mileage. And in terms of construction, they’re probably on the “beefy” side for a road tire since they’re designed to withstand the rigors of gravel riding. So imagine what riding tubeless would be like on a set of tires that are all about minimizing rolling resistance and going fast?!
The future is tubeless
At least my future is tubeless and I’d recommend taking the plunge to PEZ readers who are still riding clinchers. Near tubular ride quality at a fraction of the cost and without the hassle and mess of gluing tires. Plus flat protection against most of the common causes, i.e., small sharp object penetrating the tread.
And the pros are beginning to embrace road tubeless. Alexander Kristoff won Gent–Wevelgem riding Vittoria tubeless tires (but experienced flats at Paris-Roubaix with tubeless). Peter Sagan was spotted riding Specialized tubeless tires at the Tour Down Under. And the Deceuninck – Quick-Step team has lined up riding Specialized tubeless tires at several races (including Fabio Jakobsen winning stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California riding tubeless). As with disc brakes, it’s probably just a matter of time before we see more and more pro riders and teams on tubeless tires.
King Kristoff winning Gent-Wevelgem riding road tubeless tires!
Finally, there’s this deciding factor: No more saddle bag to carry a spare tube, tire levers, and CO2 cartridge. Yes, cue up Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”!
PEZ contributor Chuck Peña is a former weekend warrior racer who now just rides for fun and coffee (as well as the occasional taco), but every once in a while manages to prove Fausto Coppi’s adage true: Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill. He lives in Arlington, VA with his wife (who is his favorite riding partner), his daughter (who takes great joy in beating him at golf all the time, but at least he’s still faster on a bike), and their dog (who is always there to greet him when he comes home from a ride). You can follow him on Strava, Twitter, and Instagram.