Tubeless and Non-Tubeless Tires Explained

tubeless tire

Tubeless and Non-Tubeless are both Clinchers

Tubeless and non-tubeless tires are both “clinchers.” Their commonality is how they attach to the rim. They both “clinch” the tire bead to the rim bead, creating an airtight seal in the wheel system. 

Their differences are how the air chambers are formed and contained in each tire and bed of the rim.
Non-tubeless tires use inner tubes to inflate the tires. These tires are the most common type and come standard on most stock bikes, tend to be cheaper, and are reasonably easy to install and fix a flat.

Tubeless tires are relatively new on the market, and as the name implies, they are tubeless and do not require inner tubes. Instead, they use a sealant to form an airtight lock between the rim and tire; the air is added directly into the system to inflate the tire. The benefits of using a tubeless setup are the ability for the tires to run on lower tire pressure, and the sealant will seal any minor punctures and help eliminate flats. A cool and important detail of the tubeless tire system is that you can still use a tube if needed. It is still advisable to carry a spare tube even when running a tubeless tire set up.

To sum it up

  • Tubeless and non-tubeless tires both work with inner tubes.
  • If you want to go with a tubeless tire system, the easiest path is to invest in a tubeless-ready wheelset using sealant to utilize the full benefit of this tire system.
  • If you’re putting non-tubeless tires on tubeless-ready wheels, use tubes. 
  • You can attempt to put non-tubeless tires on a tubeless-ready wheel without a tube, but you better fill it with a truckload of sealant and pray you will survive the ride. Non-tubeless tires have thin sidewalls and will probably blow off the wheel, likely to burp sealant, or more easily tear. This is not a recommended setup.


Why tubeless and non-tubeless can share a hooked rim, but not a hookless rim.

The diagram shows us how each tire attaches to a hooked rim. Both Tubeless and non-tubeless tires are similar in how they attach to a hooked rim. The tubeless specific rims typically differ from the non-tubeless rim as it has a more pronounced bead seat and a slightly different shape with a higher shoulder, which helps make a tighter seal with the tire. Both tubes and tubeless tires have wire beads with an outer lip that runs around the internal diameter of the tire on both sides; when the tire is mounted and inflated on both rim types, the tire bead and rim hook “clinch” together, creating a tight seal.

Hookless Rims

The second type of tire rim is hookless or Tubeless Straight Side; this system works only with the tubeless tires. The rims for hookless have much tighter tolerances in place, as do tubeless tires; they also have no stretch in the bead. This combination creates a secure and safe connection, eliminating the ability for the tire to come away from the rim (which would only happen in extreme circumstances).

What’s in the Bead?

“Folded” Bead Tire
rigid bead tire
“Rigid” Wire Bead Tire

Casing material wraps around a steel wire hoop creating the tire beads (one hoop per bead). The beads are then molded inside the rubber bead lip, providing a firm edge to the bead, which locks into the rim.

Rigid beads use an internal steel wire that is very rigid. Folding this type of tire could cause the steel wire to bend, potentially causing a mounting issue. They are called “rigid bead” tires due to the rigidity of the wire. 

Folding casings utilize a more expensive bead construction and use aramid fiber, replacing steel wire. Using Aramid fibers in bead construction helps achieve a higher level of performance for riders. Benefits of using the aramid construction include: Reducing tire weight and noticeable impact on acceleration, braking, and handling. The fibers allow the tire to fold, which helps in commercial applications for storage and shipping. Casings using aramid bead material are called “folding” casings.

Aramid’s high tensile strength is critical in maintaining a secure and consistent fit on the wheel, at high pressure, and in tubeless applications. Regardless if the clincher system uses a rigid or folding bead, the casing will hold the air pressure with a tube or with a tubeless bead and casing. The tire beads provide the mounting interface and structure of the system.

Tubeless

Tires recommended for use in a tubeless configuration are often called “TLR,” which is short for “tubeless-ready.” The TLR denotes the tire capable of functioning with or without an innertube. The TLR casings feature a strictly defined bead shape molded during the vulcanization process. The bead shape perfectly fits the rim wall to create an airtight seal. If TLR tires are used in tubeless configurations, the rims must also be tubeless-ready. However, if used with a tube, the TLR tire will be mounted and inflated identically to a non-TLR tire. 

Terms

Casing: Tire casing will usually come as either single-ply or dual-ply. The casing itself is the rubber that goes from tire bead to tire bead. Single-ply casings are typically found on road, gravel, and cross country tires. The advantage of single ply is a light tire that conforms well to the surface below.

Dual-ply: as you might guess, two layers of rubber running bead to bead. Dual-ply is used more in mountain bike tires, providing additional sidewall stiffness and improved puncher resistance.

Threads per inch(TPI): The number of threads that pass through a 1-inch square of a tire. The lower the number, the better the tire is against punchers, tears, and more abrasion-resistant. The higher the number, the more the tire can conform to the road for a more subtle and comfortable ride.

Compound: Tire compounds are specialized materials used to create tire treads. Engineers combine different components to develop treads intended for specific disciplines and are manufactured specifically for the intended use and location, ensuring the best tire performance. An example would be a mountain bike tire. The components used would make a more pliable and softer rubber compound on the sides, which results in better traction allowing the tire to conform to the terrain.

Becoming ever more common these days are tires with multiple compounds. These allow the manufacturer to optimize the tire for the intended use and increase the tire’s life span

According to Maxxis US, a “Single Compound is one compound throughout the tread optimized for longevity and performance.” A “Dual Compound is two compounds used within the tread of select tires to offer lower rolling resistance and increased cornering grip.”

Conclusion… clincher tire systems

Tubeless and non-tubeless tires are the two main types of clincher tires used today in the cycling industry. The key difference between these two tire setups is that tubeless tires utilize a sealant agent inside the tire/rim interface and the non-tubeless tire uses an inner tube.

A third tire system is used by the roadies, known as a tubular tire system which requires a completely different rim interface. The tires are a complete system with the tube sewn into the tire, hence the commonly referred to nickname ‘sew-ups’. Tubulars have long been the go-to-tire of choice for professional road, cyclo-cross, and track racers. While tubular tires may be the top choice for professional riders, the clincher tire system is the clear winner for most non-professional riders.


john murphy pro cyclist

John Murphy

The decision to use tubeless or tubes largely depends on the bike and type of riding. On the gravel, tubeless tires are most definitely the way to go. On the mountain bike, tubeless is the clear winner. Do yourself a favor and make sure your tubeless tires are always topped up on sealant. On the road, I haven’t seen tubeless take over yet. It makes sense for running lower pressure, but many roadies still like riding 70+ psi.

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