Road Tubeless Tires: Pros and Cons

First in a series
By Bruce Wells updated 2023-12-14

While tubeless tires are standard on MTB bikes and recently standard on gravel bikes, road tubeless still seems to be far from standard practice. While clipless pedals went mainstream in the 80s, and disc brakes are now standard on any new bike, tubeless road tires are not quite there yet. Automobiles have been tubeless since the mid 50s, so road bikes are a bit late to the tubeless party.

Tubeless tires for road bikes have been around since 2006 when Shimano and Hutchinson released road tubeless systems. What has become standard is wheel manufacturers have been making all new rims tubeless-capable for about the last 10 years. So if you have relatively recent wheels, you could go with a tubeless setup.

So why ride tubeless tires?

There are at least five advantages to tubeless tires.

  1. No more pinch flats! Pinch flats occur when you hit a sharp object at speed, think pothole. The object compresses the tire and pinches the tube. When you change the flat, you will often see two parallel punctures on the tube. This is a pinch flat, also known as a "snakebite" because it looks like a snake bit the tube with its fangs. Tubeless tires don't get pinch flats because there is no tube to pinch!
  2. Many fewer flats. Most small puncture flats are self-sealed, so you never realize you had a puncture that would have required a stop and tube change.
  3. Reduction of friction between the tire and the tube. When you ride a tubed tire, the tube and tire are constantly shifting against each other creating fiction that slows you down. Is that friction noticeable? Most people who switch to tubeless tires say yes, the tires seem to roll faster than the same setup in tubed tires. Riders of tubeless tires also report the ride just feeling so much nicer.
  4. No need to inflate them to as high a pressure as tubed tires. Since there is no need to avoid a pinch flat in a tubeless tire, some people like the softer ride of tubeless tires over rougher pavement. This is particularly important for MTB and gravel bikes, as softer tires have more traction in poor road conditions.
  5. Tubeless tires seem to hold air better than tubed setups. Often, you can get by with only pumping them up once every week or two depending on how you ride.

Tubeless Cons

Nothing is perfect, and there are a couple of downsides to tubeless tires.

The biggest problem with tubeless setups is getting them installed initially. I will go over some techniques in later articles. If you are new to tubeless, you might want to get your bike-shop to set them up for you.

The other major problem with tubeless tires are sidewall cuts. A sidewall cut on a tubeless tire will not self seal, as the sealant flows around the tread, not the sidewall. At this point, your options are to insert a tube and a boot, or get a ride back. But sidewall cuts are relatively rare, especially for road riding.

Depending on your rim and tire combination, removing a tire from a rim may be very difficult even if you are using tubes. This is because tubeless compatible rims are made to stricter and tighter tolerances, meaning getting a tire off can be extremely difficult. I find carbon rims easier to work with than alloy rims. If you have tubeless compatible rims, you may have already experienced this problem even with tubes. The benefit of going tubeless in this situation is that you will probably be getting fewer flats and having to deal with getting the tire off the rim in the first place.

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