How to: Convert your bike's tyres to tubeless - Top tips on ditching the tubes
Converting your bike to a tubeless set up is one of the biggest and most effective upgrades you can do to your bike. However, it can get very frustrating very quickly due to a number of factors so we've rounded up some tips from WTB and Stan's in order to make the job as easy as possible.
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The ease of a tubeless setup relies solely on your chosen rim and tyre combination. That’s because every wheel and tyre isn’t made equal in terms of diameter. As you could imagine, you could get stuck with a tighter or looser fitting combinations and that’s where you’ll have to employ some sneaky tricks in order to avoid inevitable swears. If you find yourself in either situation, see our tricks section below.
Both the method and the tricks apply to mountain bike and gravel wheels, so regardless of what you ride, this guide will help you reap the benefits of tubeless tyres. If you're curious as to how much a tubeless conversion might cost, be prepared to spend around £50 for tape, sealant (it's always a good idea to buy more than you need) and tubeless specific valves.
How it’s done
First thing’s first, you need your tyre and wheel but before we get anywhere you’ll need to make sure that the tyre tape is in good nick, or if it’s installed at all. Stan's says it's a good idea to check whether or not your rims and tyres are tubeless-ready at all. Tubeless-ready kit to start with will instantly make the job easier. Look for logos such as 'TLR' on Bontrager kit, '2Bliss ready' on Specialized wheels and tyres, or just simply, 'Tubeless-Ready'.
If tape is pre-installed, it doesn't hurt to take a quick glance around the circumference to check for any damage in the tape. A tear in the tape could compromise the seal so if you're unlucky enough to find one it's worth the extra effort to replace it. Stan's recommends a non-porous tape that won't let liquid pass through it.
Before you introduce your chosen tape to the rim, make sure the rim bed is as clean and as dry as it could possibly be. Any debris, dirt or moisture left sat in the rim bed will affect how well the tape sticks and can negatively impact the security of your tubeless set up.
While keeping tension on the tape, stick it evenly around the rim starting an inch or two over the valve hole. Go all the way around the rim until you overlap the valve hole by a few inches (both WTB and Stan's agree with this). Try to keep the tape as straight as you can.
On the subject of rim tape, James from WTB says, "A common mistake we see a lot of people make with tubeless is using a tubeless tape that is too narrow. People think that the tape only must cover the spoke holes, but in reality, that won’t give the most reliable setup. Ideally, the tape will be wide enough that the tyre's beads will actually sit on the tape itself. This way you’ll get the best seal possible, and when swapping tyres over the bead won’t catch the edge of the tape and ‘peel’ it up when sliding it off.
For example, if the inner rim width is 20mm, then using a tape that is slightly wider will give better results. The rim will be measured as a straight line from bead shelf to bead shelf, but the rim valley and contours of the rim increase the distance the tape must cover. For that reason, at WTB we recommend using tape that is 5mm wider than the inner rim width."
Once you’re happy with your taped rim, get the smallest piercing tool you can find and pop a little hole where you’ll then insert your valve. The smaller the hole the better, as long as you can force the valve through. It’s best to allow the valve to form the correct size hole when you push the valve through the tape as it creates a better, more reliable seal. Too big a hole will be likely to compromise your seal so it's best to err on the side of caution here.
A top tip from James at WTB is, "With the valve, it’s important to use a valve that’s compatible with your rim shape, and that it’s free from any old sealant build up. You should also make sure the valve ‘locking nut’ is nice and tight. Pretty much as tight as you can make it with your fingers."
"Now onto mounting the tyre. You'll make your life a whole lot easier if you utilise the rim channel/valley properly. Always make sure as much of the bead as possible is sat in the deepest part of the rim valley. This gives you more room to play with when it comes to popping the final bit of the bead on."
As you get closer to the valve, things will get a little more difficult so this is where you pull out a good, plastic tyre lever if you need to and wrench the thing on, or go back around the rim and make sure the beads are sat in the well (centre) of the rim. If you go for the tyre lever approach and if your tyre/rim combo is particularly tight take a huge amount of care not to tear the rim tape with your tyre lever, that could be game over and you’ll have to re-tape your rim.
Once your tyre is in place, this is where there are a few schools of thought as to how you go about the next steps, but first, give your chosen sealant a thorough shake with the bottle upside down. Stan's recommends this as it spreads any particles evenly throughout the liquid. Then, my preferred method is to slip on all but a small portion of the tyre leaving just a little bit open so that I can pour in a good glug of sealant. Then, I’ll turn the whole wheel so that the sealant runs to the bottom of the tyre and that the open portion of the tyre is at the top. Then it’s time to close the whole tyre up onto the rim.
It is possible to push sealant through a valve after installing each of the tyre's entire beads if you're looking for a more mess-free approach but this could lead to clogged valves.
If you're looking for how much sealant you should chuck into your tyre, Muc-Off recommends 60 to 75ml of sealant for 26", 650b and 700c tyres, 105 to 140ml for 29" tyres and for more heavy-duty use.
WTB also has a handful of tips for what to do once the tyre is on the rim and full of sealant.
- Make sure you are using fresh tubeless tape
- Remove the valve core to allow a better flow of air
- Use a tyre lever around the bead to lift most of the bead into place manually – this works REALLY WELL!
- Make sure both beads of the tire are in the inner rim well and have good contact with the rim
- As a last resort - Remove the valve and use an innertube to seat one side of the tyre, then refit the tubeless valve and continue with normal setup for the 2nd side of the tyre.
Now, it's time to whip out your favourite track pump and pump as if your life depends on it until you hear the beads crack in place and the seam that runs around the tyre is visible all the way around. A handy tip, remove the valve core. It'll allow your pump to deliver more air faster.
Some pumps are more effective than others at delivering the sheer volume you need to seat a tyre so this will affect how easy this step will be. Some pumps won’t even have the power to get the job done, so pump choice is an important factor here.
Finally, give your seated tyre a shake and a spin to spread the sealant all around to seal the tyre, along with any stray leaks. Sometimes, a good and proper ride is needed to properly slosh sealant around enough to seal a tubeless set up so if you're finding that a tyre is slowly losing pressure, it could be worth getting out for a quick spin.
Our Tips and tricks
As mentioned before, not every tyre and rim combo is made equal which in some cases can lead to a pretty tough time when installing tubeless tyres. That's when you'll have to employ some sneaky tricks to get the job done. A tubeless setup also comes with a number of maintenance quirks. We'll cover tricks to sort all of them here.
Clean out gunk new or old with tissue in case of thorns
This is one for if you're trying to seat used tyres. Sealant eventually dries out which can affect fresh sealant's ability to seal a puncture. So, when seating a used tyre, make sure you clean out all of the dried gunk as best you can. While you're there, grab a cloth or tissue and run it around the inside of the tyre. This will point out any thorns or other spikey debris you've picked up, ready to be removed.
Running around the inside of a tyre with a cloth or tissue is good practice even on new tyres as they can sometimes come with a protective coating that'll harm the effectiveness of your sealant.
Generally, Gorilla Tape is a brilliant, cost-effective, and harder wearing alternative to purpose-built rim tapes but it comes with a number of caveats. First off, it may not come in the right width for your rim, meaning you'll have to tear it to fit properly. These torn edges can actually stick your tyre to the bead, making for an incredibly hard tyre to unseat when the time comes.
Even if you've managed to find tape that's the perfect size for your rim, Gorilla Tape's super strong adhesive can still hang onto a tyre's bead, making the tyre really hard to remove and it can sometimes peel away with the tyre meaning you'll need to retape the rim.
Another downside is that it leaves a sticky residue after being removed. As mentioned before, rim tape is best applied to a totally clean surface and it can be a real pain to scrape off all of that leftover Gorilla gunk.
Gorilla Tape at your own risk.
Boil your valves
This one may seem a little strange but tyre sealant can easily clog your valves, especially if you've injected sealant into the tyre through them. Clogged valves then make for an incredibly hard time when inflating a tyre in daily use.
If you're lumped with such an affliction, get a saucepan on the hob and boil the valve cores for 10-15 minutes. This should loosen up any dried sealant and leave your valves free to pass air.
Just be sure to let them cool before touching them.
Soap around tyre bead
This one is great for particularly tight tyres. Mix a bit of dish soap with water in a spray bottle and apply to the beads of your tyre. This will offer a bit of lubrication to encourage those beads to seat a little easier.
If you find air escaping put a little more sealant in
It's not uncommon to find your tyre flat the morning after a tubeless installation and that's often because the sealant hasn't found its way around any stray holes that may naturally be in the tyre and rim. I've found that adding a little extra sealant solves this issue quickly, it can even help seal small tears in the rim tape.
This is something you'll also want to consider if you're using thicker sealants and tyre inserts. Thicker sealants can line a tyre really nicely but leave you without a goopy pool to travel around the tyre and seal any holes. Sealant also coats tyre inserts, so you'll need even more to ensure you've got some flowing around the wheel.
With tubeless tyres being a go-to upgrade for almost every rider, many brands have created tubeless inflator pumps, made especially to make the task as easy as possible. They come in many shapes and sizes at a range of price points but they all follow a core principle (a good example being Topeak's Joe Blow Booster Track Pump and tubeless inflator). They fill a sealed chamber up to high pressure and you blast it into the tyre with a flick of a switch.
Another, more cost-effective option is something like an Airshot or Schwalbe's Tire Booster. You can even make something similar out of a used fizzy drinks bottle but that method is much scarier, and for another article.
A compressor is the pro mechanic's way around the task but tubeless inflator pumps are cheaper and much easier to carry about.
Add more tape
If you've found yourself with a rather loose fitting tyre that allows air to escape underneath the bead, go back around the rim and add another layer of rim tape. This will effectively widen the diameter of the rim and create a tighter seal.
Warm tyre up
This is one if your tyre fits so tight it's a struggle to get on the rim or if you're fitting a tyre with stiffer sidewalls. Before taking on the task, move the tyre into a warm place to make it more malleable.
Heat rim before taping
Many mechanics choose to warm up the rim before applying any tape. This ensures that the tape adheres to the rim more positively, enhancing the wheel's seal. It's easy enough to do, just grab a hair dryer, or heat gun and blast the rim until it warms.
Use a CO2 canister to seat your beads
If you've found yourself with a tricky to seat setup, this is a last ditch effort. CO2 canisters blast a decent volume of CO2 into a tyre very quickly, ideal if you've not got a tubeless inflator pump on hand. However, be sure to replace the CO2 with normal, off-the-shelf air as it permeates through tyres surprisingly quickly. Also, make sure that the sealant you're using is safe for use with CO2, as CO2 can freeze some sealants and affect their ability to seal punctures.
Replace your sealant regularly
Sealant generally has a life of around three to six months before it begins to dry and clump up. The sealant can dry up that'll go unnoticed unless it clumps into balls. Then, you'll feel them as you ride. It's safe to replace the sealant every now and then to keep your tubeless seat up sealed properly and puncture-resistant.