Are Tubeless MTB Tyres The Only Way Forward?

So let’s get straight down to business. Are Tubeless MTB Tyres The Only Option?

The battle of tubes vs tubeless, a battle as old as… uhh a few years ago?

Ok, tubeless MTB tyres haven’t been around long enough to warrant this phrase but you get the point!

This is a question that all new frothing mountain bikers ask. A question that has seemingly been answered with a hands-down winner… Tubeless of course.

But is this true? Is there actually a clear winner in this not so old battle??

In theory, definitely yes. There are solid facts that make running tubeless tyres the best option. The benefit of running lower air pressures for increased traction and fewer punctures are real.

But in practice, maybe the answer isn’t so clear…

I constantly hear that tubeless MTB tyres are the only way to go. And I mean constantly. As a shuttle driver, many mountain bikers ask for my opinion on this topic and they are often baffled at my unique approach…

But let’s forget about me for the moment and get stuck into the who, what, when, where and why of tyres…

Close up of Shimano Am901 SPD Shoes riding around a berm in Glenrock Mountain Bike Trails

What are Tubeless MTB Tyres?

So what are tubeless MTB tyres exactly?

As a basic description, tubeless tyres are pneumatic tyres designed to be inflated without the need for a separate inner tube.

But as a detailed description…

Tubeless tyres look and act very similarly to a standard tyre, though they support one major difference. Tubeless tyres are specifically designed with a ‘bead’ around the edge in order to seal against the rim.

The idea is that when the tyre is inflated, the pneumatic pressure expands the tyre and forces the bead hard up against the rim creating an airtight seal.

But nothing in life is that simple…

Tubeless tyres must be coupled with a tubeless supported rim in order for the bead to seal. These rims have a hook-like edge that the tyre is able to seal against and need to be taped to cover the spoke holes.

A tyre sealant is also used to aid in the beading process, doubling as a liquid puncture repair kit that’s always ready inside the tyre.

Pheww, so there is a bit to consider…

Luckily, most rims these days will be tubeless ready… except maybe your grandad’s ancient hardtail!

pushing tubeless mtb tyres to the limit on a berm on Dam Busters in Blue Derby Tasmania

Why Are Tubeless MTB Tyres Better?

After that exhausting description, why would anyone want to ride tubeless? There has to be some huge benefits for anyone to go through such an arduous task…

And of course, there is.

So what are the reasons that make mountain bikers froth over a tubeless setup?

More Grip – Running tubeless MTB tyres creates an increase in air volume and an option for lowered air pressure, meaning mountain bikers are able to shred harder with maximised grip and control.

No Pinch Flats – Pinch flats become a thing of the past. With no inner tube located between the tyre and the rim, there is nothing to get pinched in the event of a big hit.

Fewer Punctures – As tyres are generally tougher than inner tubes, it requires a day done kind of mistake to cause a puncture.

Self Sealing Punctures – Utilising the benefits of sealant, small punctures and even some small tears will self-repair as long as you keep those wheels rolling.

Less Weight – I know, I know, we are in the mountain biking industry so every gram counts, right?

Removing the tube saves weight, though don’t forget you’ll be adding sealant and rim tape… not quite as hefty as a tube but weight savings are minimal, you’d be crazy to base this decision solely on the grams!

And to cram the above in a nutshell? A tubeless setup allows for more traction and less chance of a puncture than a standard tube setup.

Railing a berm on the flow trail at Dungog Common MTB Park

What Are The Negatives Of A Tubeless MTB Tyre?

As with all things in life, nothing is perfect.

And tubeless MTB tyres are no exception. While the whispers of greatness are true, it’s not often you hear of the downside of going tubeless…

The Costs Add Up – A tubeless setup is more expensive. Period. The extra parts required can add up fast. Not to mention finding a tyre that’s strong enough to withstand gnarly trails will cost a pretty penny.

The Painful Process – Fitting tubeless MTB tyres can be time-consuming and painful. Sometimes beading the seal can seem impossible and without a compressor or Airshot tool, it can be a real arduous task. Not to mention sealant is a bitch to clean up!

Ongoing Maintenance – Over time, the seal will begin to deteriorate and as a result, slow leaks can occur. This is no massive deal, but air will need to be topped up before every ride. Sealant has a short life span also and after 6 months, it will all but dry up. So if you want to ride with the freedom of a handy built-in repair kit, continuous replacement will be needed.

Replacing a Tyre Before It’s Time – If you damage the tyre bead, even if your tyre is only a week old, you’ll be up for a new one. No amount of sealant can save this one!

Damaged Rim’s Are The End Game – If you dint your wheel bad enough, it’s game over. A tyre will never again seal against the dint, no matter how much you try and bash it back into shape. The reality is you’re up for a new rim and most likely a tyre.

Spare Tubes are Still Required – While tubeless tyres are basically self-repairing, this is only to a point. Sadly, dinting your rim is common and so is rock slashes. An inner tube will save you from walking your sorry arse back to the car.

So those extra grams you saved going tubeless? You can pack those onto your back instead with a spare tube.

Walking through long grass at Dungog MTB Park in my Shimano Am901 SPD mtb Shoes

The Question Remains: Are Tubeless MTB Tyres Worth It?

With the advantages and disadvantages in mind, I’m sure there’s still one question floating inside your noggin…

Are Tubeless MTB Tyres worth it?

The short answer is yes. Tubeless tyres are the outstanding performer all-round, with more resistance to punctures and better grip.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret… I run tubes.

That put a spanner in the works, didn’t it?

Why on earth would I choose to run tubes when I completely agree with the positive riding benefits tubeless MTB tyres produce?

First let’s talk a little bit about tubes…

Jumping a big gap on Big Chook in Blue Derby while mountain biking mountain biking

Are Tubes Still A Player In The Mountain Biking Industry?

Basically, a tube is an inner lining of rubber (inner tube) that inflates the tyre. It’s that simple. And the list of positives and negatives above can be turned on its head and written again here. But I’m not going to bore you with that… and I can’t be bothered repeating myself!

Instead, let me begin by saying there is a massive myth in the fact that ALL tubes are prone to puncture…

Not all tubes are made the same, and each is designed for different purposes just like a tyre.

So don’t just show up with an attitude of ‘if I run tubes I’ll get a flat’. Because that’s just plain wrong.

Yes, if you chuck a lightweight tube in your tyre and smash down a gnarly descent, chances are you’ll wind up with a puncture. BUT, the mountain biking industry has allowed for this and brought out downhill-specific tubes.

Maxxis makes two hefty tubes for intense riders, the Freeride and the Downhill. The Downhill tube comes with 1.5mm thick walls and the Freeride with 1.2mm walls – opposed to 0.8mm for the hardiest of the regular tubes.

With rubber almost double the thickness, you would expect a tube that is twice as reliable. But in my experience, downhill tubes provide much more than that.

Obviously, super thick walls result in heavy tubes. Meaning this option is not recommended for cross country riders, only those puncture prone downhill madmen.

Like most mountain biking topics, there is two sides to the equation.

While I agree that tubeless tyres support better riding characteristics, partnering yourself with the correct tube and tyre combination will result in an extremely reliable ride.

Candace smashing the gravity enduro trail at Ourimbah MTB Park, showing off her mountain bike skills

So Why Do I Run Tubes?

Let me tell you, the cost of running tubeless adds up quick fast when you destroy two rims in the space of a week…

Needless to say I couldn’t afford to continue.

So something had to change. And while it would have been lovely to stop smashing rocks, I had to be realistic about myself and my riding habits…

And so my new go to is a Freeride tube and a DH casing tyre.

I have found it super reliable and to be honest, I haven’t noticed a decline in performance. The only thing I can say is that this setup is heavy, noticeably in the climbs. But hey, that just adds an element to the training!

I’ve been repping this combo on the rear wheel for a little over a year now and I’m still running the same tube…

Yep, I have only ever bought the one freeride tube, it has outlasted 3 tyres and countless rim dints – some seriously detrimental – but the old girl is still going strong.

In my opinion, that level of reliability is worth every extra gram. I won’t be changing any time soon, even if it means lugging my butt up the mountain is a touch more exhausting.

Smashing a berm in my Am901 SPD Shoes riding around a berm in Glenrock Mountain Bike Trails

Who Will Benefit From Tubes?

If you’re like me and your sole focus is gravity riding, then tubes could be a winner for you as well.

Running this tube setup is great for downhill/enduro riders where pushing the limits are expected and reliability is paramount.

Coupling a DH tyre and a meaty tube means that in the event of a massive blow, big enough to fold a rim, you may not puncture and you can continue riding. If tubeless were installed, you’d be screwed.

While tubeless MTB tyres have the ability to self-repair small punctures, with a burly enough tube setup, punctures are almost a thing of the past.

But this set up is certainly not for everyone. Cross-country focused mountain bikers, where weight plays a massive part in everything, would both hate this setup and have no need for it.

The same goes for trail riders and even riders that chose the chilled lines down the run. The chances of these types of riders dinting a rim are low, meaning this setup would be overkill.

jumping through a rock gap in a dense forest on the new flow trail at Ourimbah MTB Park showing good mountain bike skills

Tubes Vs Tubeless, Who’s The Winner?

There is no real winner. As with most aspects of the mountain biking industry, there are too many variables and variations of riding to have an overall winner.

But if you need an answer after getting through this article… Tubeless would have to take the cake.

It’s hard to look past the performance benefits that come with a tubeless MTB tyre and I would encourage anyone to give tubeless a crack.

Just have a think about all of your options after you smash a few rims, you may end up with a mentality just like mine!

And now for the next question, how do I set up a tubeless MTB tyre?? That’s a story for another post, one I have conveniently prepared earlier, so let’s take a look!

Cleaning a tubeless rim before showing how to setup a tubeless mtb tyre