Tubeless Troubles 2

My last blog described the most serious type of tubeless trouble I could imagine. I’ve never had the kind of problem poor Bill had. His tubeless tire suffered an explosive decompression, and his tire blew off of the rim and caused a crash. I have been riding tubeless tires on most of my bikes since 2010, and I probably have over 30,000 tubeless miles of cycling. Mostly trouble free too.

Tubeless tires have some notable advantages. You can run them at lower pressure, because the lack of a tube eliminates the ‘pinch flat’ problem. Lower pressure can be more comfortable, and the ride of my Schwalbe tires is first class. Sealant is added into the tire, which will prevent tiny punctures from causing a flat, which is really handy when the goat heads start going to seed.

Today I rode standard clincher tires for the first time this year. I decided to put on a set for my upcoming trip to Italy, because if I have tubeless problems away from home they can be difficult and messy to fix. I rode all of 5 miles with brand new clincher tires and tubes before I got a flat caused by a goathead. My tubeless tire with sealant would have been untroubled by such a tiny thorn, but the tube was no match for it.

Tubeless Tires Fight Goathead Flats.

But not all is wonderful: tubeless tires can be very difficult to install. The bead is made of special material that goes on tight and will not stretch. Once you have wrestled it onto the rim you need to seat the bead. I use a compressor to try to generate the rush of air needed to get the bead to snap onto the rim. It isn’t always easy to do. And for most rims you must install special tape to seal the spoke holes. This tape rarely fails, but when it does it can be startling and lead to a rapid decompression. It happened to me three years ago in the Alps. I have said that only retired people with plenty of time to work on their bikes should tackle tubeless.

My recent troubles started at Mammoth in late June. I was there doing some high altitude riding with some friends. On the morning of our last planned ride my tubeless front tire was flat. I have lots of ways to deal with that, but away from home my solution was to put a tube into the tire and ride it like a traditional clincher. I did so, but I did not like the look of the bead on the rim, and I certainly did not want to pinch the tube and have a blow out going 40 mph down a hill. So I skipped the ride. When I got home I installed a new tire.

The subsequent Thursday I drove to Wallace for the Stockton Bike Club ride, with a different bike. When I took the bike out of my Honda Element, the front tire was flat. Rather than try to repair things I decided to simply drive home. I did a short ride on an alternate bike, and then started to repair the flat.

I could not find anything puncturing the casing, so I got out my compressor and tried to re-seat the tire. I assumed it would snap on and I would be able to find a slow leak which I could then patch. But the air hissed out and the bead wouldn’t seat. When I looked closely I found out why.

There was a hole in the rim, about the diameter of a small nail. It went through the rim, then through the spoke hole and punctured the tape, which must have failed sometime later. Or perhaps the tape pushed out against the hole and eventually failed. Regardless, this wheel is headed for metal recycling.

So 10 days later I am back up at Mammoth planning 4 days of riding to myself get ready for an upcoming Dolomites tour. This time I brought 2 bikes in case of mechanical issues. On the very first ride on the Tarmac, I heard a PSST at mile 30, and sealant was spewing all over the place. But it soon plugged up the hole and I was able to limp back to our base camp.

So the next day I rode the Sampson, and after about 45 miles I noticed a film of sealant on my seat tube, so this tire was punctured too, but not as badly as the Tarmac. We ride quite a few miles along Highway 395, which has a big shoulder. But there pieces of tire treads everywhere, and while you can steer away from the large ones there are lots of tiny fragments of wire that can puncture tires. My friend Bennie had a small wire piece penetrate his tire, so he had to put in a new tube. The sealant did its job for me.

The hole in the Tarmac’s tire was pretty big to rely on sealant, so I put a plug into it and then added some sealant just to be sure. The bike worked fine on the rest of the trip, though I was a little nervous on the descents.

Plugs and patches and sealant sealed small holes are fine for local riding, but on my Italy tour I’m taking standard clincher tires. If something goes wrong I know how to fix it. I won’t need a compressor or have to clean up any messy sealant. And I’ve been fortunate to ride in Europe many times, and I have yet to see a goathead.

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