Of course, the one I didn’t try was “do things right the first time.” Still, with at least three and a half correct elements out of five, I got some not-quite tubeless tires to mount and hold air.
This process goes back a few months when I decided that what I needed was a set of hubs to build a new wheelset that would weigh and perform exactly the same as the wheels and hubs I already owned. I drove up to Connecticut, went apple picking, and scooped up a set of 1990s jewelry: M950 XTR hubs and v-brakes.
I’d never built wheels before, though I had always wanted to. I was scared, but I borrowed a truing stand from a buddy and after spending many, many nights dishing and re-dishing, I was done. I got lucky, and a reader named Jonathan not only sent me a bunch of spare spokes he had lying around, but also a spare tensiometer. The process of making sure all the spokes on one side were as tight as the next (and that none of them were overtight) wasn’t just a question of feel.
I followed the wonderful tutorial above from a trials rider in the UK, and things seemed like they all worked out. I just needed to test and see how the wheels worked on a ride. For that, I needed to mount up some tires.
Certainly, I could have just put in a tube and mounted my old tires up and ridden away no problem. But in hunting for lightweight and strong mountain bike rims that accepted rim brakes, I ended up with some rims from a company called Stans. Stans also goes by “NoTubes,’ and specializes in tubeless-ready components. Why have a Stans rim if you’re not going to try tubeless?
The principle of a tubeless tire makes sense. It works just like a car tire. Rather than inflate a tube inside the tire, you mount the tire right to the rim, hit it with a ton of air, and the bead of the tire locks against the inner lip of the rim itself. You take up the inside of the rim so that it’s airtight and you have a perfectly good seal.
The trick to a modern tubeless setup is that you also put some liquid sealant into the tire. The sealant is a latex-based suspension that rushes out of any gash in your tire, then hardens up and seals the hole.
To mount a proper tubeless setup you need a few things:
- Tubeless rim
- Tubeless tire
- Tubeless rim tape
- Tubeless valve stem
- Tubeless sealant
I had ... several of those! I did have tubeless wheels, and my girlfriend had just ordered a big bottle of tubeless sealant. I had read that lots of old mountain bikers just used Gorilla Tape instead of dedicated rim tape, so I went to the hardware store around the corner and grabbed a roll, cutting it to length following this PinkBike tutorial from 2012.
I did not have tubeless tires. I had SimWorks Homages, some expensive pre-issue of the original Panaracer Mach SS tires that were on my Red Bike when I bought it. Sure, this is a tire that debuted in 1997, two years before tubeless standards were even agreed upon, but according to SimWorks, these might work:
A lot of people might wonder if this tire can be compatible with tubeless or not?
To tell you the truth, our answer will be “WE HOPE SO”. The reason is that there are 2 regulations in this tubeless tire world such as β vs VHS kind a stuff. We really don’t know how exactly will fit perfectly or slightly fit into these things.
Which means that you need to try it on.
I didn’t need to be told twice! I had also just seen the following video on tubeless setup how-tos cross my Instagram feed, and it noted that I could just cut up an old tube with a removable valve core and use that instead of a dedicated tubeless valve stem.
So I set myself upon the task of taping up my rim and cutting a little X for my trimmed valve stem like I was in the midst of a really great craft project. I mounted my tire, put in my two ounces of sealant, took out my valve core, and started absolutely hammering away at my bike pump.
Bike shops will do this job with compressed air. They’ll try to sell home mechanics on these kinds of air canisters for blasting big pressures into your tube. Tubeless tires are notorious for needing high pressure to seat the bead properly and make a good seal, and I was warned that my floor pump might not cut it.
At first, things seemed promising. I heart the pong pang PUNGGGGG of the tire locking together with the rim, seating the bead, but the poor thing kept weeping sealant. It’d leak around the valve stem. It’d leak around the spokes. I tried tightening up my valve stem until it pulled itself free from the rubber at its base, and then all my air escaped. I was distraught. I was disheartened. I was defeated, to round out “d” words of disappointment and discouragement.
Did I give up? Of course not! I went out and spent $18 on two tubeless valve stems from a bike shop near me (everything is sold out online in this pandemic bike boom), tore out my old tape, cleaned my rims with some carb cleaner I had lying around, and set myself on another trick.
This adventure-cycling bike shop up in the woods in the Northeast included a tip for mounting tires that are sorta tubeless:
In our experience, you actually need to put a tube in first, seat the tire, then take the tube out, keeping one bead of the tire seated. Then convert to tubeless. Doing this 2 minute extra step will make seating these tires easy.
It had been three days now that I had been moping around my apartment, barely able to even look at my tires, wet with sealant, devoid of air. My fingers were sore from trying to set the bead by hand, squeezing the floppy tire out towards the rim’s edge. For some reason, I felt a breeze in my mind. This was going to work.
Now that I had my correct valve stems, I repeated all my steps. I inserted a tube, giving it a few minutes fully inflated to keep the rim tape tight and the bead set. I pulled it out and replaced the tube with sealant, setting as much of the bead as I could by hand and then putting a pump to the core-less valve stem. With just a few pumps ping ... ping .... KAPING the bead set. It worked on one tire and then the next. I sloshed the tires around, splashing sealant into every nook and cranny where air might escape, spun them around in my hands like some sort of ritual. I was dutiful. I honored the tires. I gave them time and respect, and for the first time, they held air.
A quick test ride to the park on my girlfriend’s bike and back proved it held air, though I’d read it can take a few days for sealant to make things airtight.
I don’t know why it felt like such an achievement to bring my wheel and tire technology up to the level of the mid- to late-’90s. Maybe some of it has to do with the pandemic. Any project I engage in where I can make progress from day to day with a clear start and end feels dramatic. Maybe it’s more personal. It’s satisfying to turn something seemingly insurmountable into a series of manageable steps, even if it took hours of reading old forums about people debating if they needed sealant in their tubeless tires at all. Maybe it’s just demystifying something like this that I can’t help but find satisfying.