Tubeless or inner tube for a commuter bike?


When you become a bike-commuter you will learn that there are some essentials you need to consider for your rides and you quickly learn to distinguish what is necessary from what is luxury or nice-to have. Being able to prevent flat tires is essential for anyone on a tight schedule. It’s never good to have a flat, but if it happens in the morning, it can be especially annoying. I am a bike commuter and I am very cautious of getting a flat tire when hitting a curb or running into a pothole. Avoiding flats is not the only goal: I also want to increase my commuting speed and enhance my riding comfort. When I first heard about tubeless tires I wondered if it would be a good upgrade for my commuter bike. A ton of questions came to my mind and I did some research. This is what I have found.

For most bike commuters going tubeless is not a necessary option as it doesn’t offer significant advantages over properly maintained tires with inner tubes, and the tubeless system requires some regular maintenance. The hassle of this periodical care outweighs the benefits tubeless tires can offer. However, there may be some circumstances where the advantages of tubeless can outweigh its disadvantages.

What is a tubeless setup?

Tubeless means that there is no inner tube running between the tires and the rim that contains the air. The air is contained between the rim and the tire.

There are two main advantages of tubeless tires.

First, the likelihood of a flat tire is minimal. The sealant inside the tire fixes most holes without the rider noticing it, and pinch flats are eliminated altogether.

The second main advantage is that you can run tubeless tires at a lower pressure than a normal tire, and this translates to a smoother and more comfortable ride.

Can any bicycle wheel be tubeless?

No. To put tubeless tires on your bike wheel, you need tubeless specific wheels. They are specifically designed to create an airtight cavity when a tubeless tire is mounted on them. Wheels that aren’t tubeless-ready can’t retain air pressure inside. Some wheels come tubeless-ready, which is written on the rim.

Can my commuter bike get pinch flats with tubeless tires?

No, pinch flats are eliminated with a tubeless setup (you can’t pinch flat a tube if it isn’t there). Pinch flats occur on inner tubes when the tire collapses under the weight of the rider and the the rim bottoms out causing the tube to get pinched between the tire and the rim. This happens when you hit a hard object, like a rock, a pothole, a curb or even a tram track. Pinch flats usually leave two small holes on your inner tube about 1 cm apart from each other. This is why they are also called snake bites. The main advantage of going tubeless is that such punctures can’t occur because there is no inner tube that gets pinched.

Is a tubeless setup more comfortable for commuting?

Tires with inner tubes need to run at higher pressures to avoid pinch flats. This translates into some bouncing on cobbles and uneven surfaces. With tubeless you can ride your bike at lower tire pressures, which translates to a better riding comfort on bumpy segments. Most commuters ride decently paved roads, and they would not not feel the difference between a regular tire setup with inner tires and a tubeless setup. If your commute has long segments of rough gravel or cobblestone, going tubeless is a good option to consider.

Can I get flats with tubeless?

Yes, but a tubeless setup is more puncture resistant than a tire with an inner tube. Most tubeless systems contain a sealant, which flows freely inside the cavity and fixes any small hole that occurs on the tire. This often happens without any noticeable pressure loss to the rider. However, a tubeless tire is not immune to all punctures and cuts. Some damages are just too big for the sealant to fix. In this case you will get a flat tire.

How can a tubeless flat be fixed on the spot to get you home?

It is possible to fix flats on the spot if you carry a spare inner tube with you. Installing the new inner tube and removing it at home is a little messy given the slime that freely flows inside your tire, but it can be washed off fairly easily with soapy water.

Can a punctured tubeless tire be repaired?

Most punctured tubeless tires can be fixed with a puncture repair kit. There are some tubeless repair kits available for purchase. There are several tutorials available online that show you step by step how to repair various size and types of damages to your tire.

Is tubeless faster for commuting?

Unfortunately not. Speed isn’t one of the advantages of tubeless tires on a properly paved road.

Can any tire and rim be used to go tubeless?

No. In order to run a tubeless setup, you need a tubeless ready rim and tubeless specific tires. The valve also needs to be prepared in a way that no air can leak through the hole it is fitted into. The fitting needs to be perfectly airtight, and no pressure can escape from the system. Regular tires don’t fit onto the rim with such precision as to have the capacity to contain air inside the cavity.

What kind of maintenance do tubeless tires need?

You need to maintain the correct pressure in the tires and you need to top up the liquid sealant on a regular basis to prevent it from solidifying. This needs to be done even if you don’t get a flat tire. Also, if you don’t use your bike for a few weeks you should still spin the tires so the sealant doesn’t set inside. While this doesn’t seem like much it is very easy to put off hoping that maybe next week you’ll get to it (like lubing your chain or making a dental appointment). This inconvenience doesn’t exist with tires with inner tubes, where pressure is the only thing you need to take care of.

Something else to keep in mind is that tubeless tire beads need to be dealt with with care. If you damage the wall of the tire where it meets the rim when you’re removing it, you may cause harm to it, and it may lead to an imperfect fit and to air leakage.

How can I avoid pinch flats if I run normal tires?

If you want to avoid pinch flats on regular tires you should ensure that you have a good puncture resistant tire running at its proper pressure. Invest in a decent pump with a gauge to keep your tires properly inflated at all times, and check them regularly. A small hand-pump is very handy, but to know the exact pressure you’re running in your tire you need a gauge. A decent tire and a good inner tube should hold good pressure for a long time.

You may not have the same riding comfort if your ride is particularly bumpy as with tubeless, where you can run your tire at lower pressures, which has a shock absorbing effect, but for most commuters this is not really an issue.

Can I use liquid sealant with inner tubes?

You can use liquid sealant in your inner tube, which will heal small punctures caused by road debris, goat-heads or even a snake-bite. Just like with a tubeless system, the sealant in the inner tube needs to be topped up regularly to prevent it from setting. The advantage of liquid sealant in inner tubes is that it is easier to change the inner tube in the unlikely event of a flat tire.

Conclusion

If the quality of the roads you’re riding on is particularly bad, or if your commute or part of it is on gravel or forest trails, then tubeless is a good option to consider. Most commuters won’t see a significant advantage from a tubeless setup because a decent tire like the Schwalbe Marathon or a Continental Touring Plus offer sufficient protection against debris if they are coupled with a good inner tube running at proper pressure. If there isn’t a particularly bumpy or thorny road segment on your ride the inner tube is a better choice If you’re still worried about flats because of thorns or broken glass on your commute, you can always fill your inner tubes with sealant, which will heal any small hole just like a tubeless tire would. In any case, you should always have a spare tube to repair flats in case they do occur.

Enjoy the ride!

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