How to set up tubeless tires

Tubeless tires have eliminated the risk of pinch flats. For riding in really rough terrain, they are a game changer. But like all new technologies, it’s taken some trial-and-error until we figured out how to run bicycle tires tubeless.

Of course, tubeless tires are nothing new. Car tires have been tubeless for decades, but translating that technology to much more flexible and lighter bicycle tires has not been easy. (We don’t want to ride on rubber that’s as stiff and heavy as car tires!) Modern bicycle tires fall into two groups:

  • ‘Tubeless’ tires are covered with a rubber membrane – basically an inner tube is permanently vulcanized into the tire. These tires are airtight. You can just install them, and run them without inner tubes. However, the extra rubber makes them relatively stiff and slow.
  • ‘Tubeless-compatible’ tires are not airtight, and they roll as fast as conventional tires. Their bead has been designed for tubeless installation, so you can run them tubeless – but they require sealant to make the casing air-tight and to seal the tire against the rim. The sealant also will seal small punctures that otherwise would cause a flat. Most Rene Herse tires are ‘tubeless-compatible.’

Key to mounting tubeless tires is the right technique. This is especially important with supple tires. Stiff tires mount easily – just like car tires – because their casing is so stiff that it either touches the rim walls and seals, or it doesn’t.

Supple casings make tires fast and comfortable because they flex easily. This means that they may contact the rim in a few places, and have air gaps in others – making them harder to mount and seal tubeless. They follow the general rule of high-performance components: The tolerances need to be a bit tighter, and working with them requires a little more skill.

It’s not hard to install supple tires tubeless, if you work methodically. Here is how I installed my Rene Herse Extralights tubeless while traveling in Japan, with no access to a workshop and just a few tools.

To mount a tire tubeless, here is what you need: a tubeless valve; a valve core tool; a syringe for injecting the tubeless sealant; sealant; a tire lever; an inner tube; a tubeless-compatible tire. Your rims also must be tubeless-compatible, and covered with tubeless rim tape. It’s good to have extra rim tape on hand.

You also need a pump to inflate the tire. A floor pump suffices, and in a pinch, you can get away with a frame pump. You do not need an air compressor. In fact, if you use an air compressor to make up for problems in tire/rim fit, your tire may blow off the rim later without warning.

For safe tubeless installation, a good fit between tire and rim is extremely important. Unfortunately, many OEM rims are slightly undersize, because that makes it easier to install tires in the bike assembly plants. (Imagine a rim that is slightly oversize. For a factory that needs to mount 10,000 tires a month, spending five extra minutes per tire would be a total disaster. That is why OEM rims tend to run small, and never should be larger than spec. OEM tires are installed with tubes, where a slightly undersize rim doesn’t pose a problem.)

If your tire goes on easily, the rim is undersized. Don’t try to install the tire. It may work fine at first, but it can blow off the rim without warning. If this happens in your workshop, it’s just a nuisance. If it happens on the road, the consequences can be far worse.

If your rim is undersize, it’s not the end of the world – there is a solution. Build up the rim bed with additional layers of rim tape. Some mechanics use Gorilla Tape for the extra layers – it’s a little thicker than standard tubeless tape. (Always use tubeless tape as the first layer on the rim to seal the spoke holes.) The tire should be a slightly tight fit. This makes sure that it seats correctly and doesn’t blow off the rim later.

When installing tires, make sure that the bead is in the rim well (above) all around before you lift the last part of the bead over the rim edge. The well is there to provide slack for the bead – the rim’s diameter is smaller in the center than toward the rim walls. With supple tires and tubeless rims, parts of the bead can end up on the shelf when you mount the tire. Push the bead into the rim well all around the tire – then the last bit of the bead will slip easily over the sidewall.

If you use a floor pump to seat the tire, install a tube first. This seats the beads and gives the tire its shape. Make sure both beads pop into place. Then unseat one bead (the one that popped into place first) by pushing it into the rim well, and remove the tube.

Install the tubeless valve. Don’t forget the valve nut that holds the valve in place. It pulls the valve’s rubber cone into the rim’s hole to create a tight seal. Don’t overtighten the nut: If the valve gets clogged with sealant or the tubeless setup fails, you’ll need to be able to remove the valve on the road to install a tube.

Before you inflate the tire, seat the bead as far around the rim as possible, starting at the valve.

Pull the tire upward and move the bead outward, until it sits on the shelf next to the rim wall.

Continue until the tire is too tight to pull upward. The remaining air gap is small and furthest from the valve. It will seal as the pressure pushes the tire outward.

Inflate the tire ‘dry’ without sealant at first. That way, if you need to remove the tire to add more rim tape, there won’t be messy sealant inside. Pump quickly to build up pressure faster than the air escapes.

Watch the tire as it seats. On the left, the line molded into the tire sidewall is still hidden by the rim wall. The bead hasn’t emerged from the rim’s well yet. Keep pumping until you hear a loud ‘pop’ as the tire seats.

On the right, you can see all of the line that is molded into the sidewall. Make sure it’s parallel to the rim edge all around the tire. Check this on both sides. If it’s OK, then the tire is seated on the rim.

If the tire doesn’t seat, take it off, and add more rim tape to create a tighter fit and smaller air gaps. If you use an air compressor, the tire should seat easily. If you need huge blasts of air to seat the tire, then the rim is too small. Build up the rim with extra tape, rather than risk a blow-out in the future.

Now the tire is inflated and looks great, but air will escape through small cracks and microscopic holes. To seal the tire, add sealant. Let out the air and unscrew the valve core. The beads will remain seated. (If a bead comes unseated now, it wasn’t properly seated in the first place.)

Turn the wheel so the valve is neither at the top nor at the bottom of the tire, where sealant would spray back out of the valve. Shake the sealant vigorously for a minute, so the solids are in suspension. Don’t skimp on this step! Otherwise, you’ll just inject colored water into the tire, and it won’t seal.

For our Rene Herse tires, we recommend Panaracer’s Seal Smart. It seems to seal the supple sidewalls better than other brands. When mounting the tires in the photos, I was in Japan, and Panaracer’s sealant had not yet been released. I couldn’t find our second choice, Orange Seal. So I used Stan’s. It worked fine.

Make sure to use enough sealant. Wide tires have a lot of surface area. To seal properly, you need about 90 ml (3 oz) – one to one-and-a-half of the bottles shown in the photo.

Replace the valve core. When I installed the tires tubeless in Tokyo, I didn’t have a valve core tool. A small adjustable wrench will do the job in a pinch.

Inflate the tire again. Since it’s already seated, this will be easy.

Close the valve. Now the tire looks ready to roll, but the sealant must still be distributed to seal all the microscopic gaps. Just riding the tire isn’t enough to stop all the tiny leaks.

There are different techniques for distributing the sealant. I’ve found this one to work best, because it methodically works the sealant into every part of the tire and rim interface. Make sure you have enough room. Don’t hit the ceiling, furniture, or your head. (Don’t ask how I know!)

Hold the wheel steady (left), so the sealant collects at the bottom. Quickly move the wheel upward (center). Centrifugal force will keep the sealant right under the tire tread. Hold the wheel over your head (right), still slightly tilted away from you. Now the sealant runs downward, covers the sidewall, and seeps into the gap between tire and rim.

Rotate the wheel a few degrees and repeat. (Start with the valve at the bottom, so you have a reference point.) Once you’ve worked all the way around the tire, turn the wheel around, and repeat on the other side. Now your tire is ready to ride. Riding it immediately will help distribute the sealant further.

If your tire loses air overnight, check it like a leaky inner tube. Often, you can hear and feel the air escape. Hold the tire so that gravity pulls the sealant into the leak. If it doesn’t seal, there may not be enough sealant in the tire.

Now your tubeless tire is ready to roll. Enjoy the ride!

Tubeless tips:

  • Panaracer Smart Seal has been developed with our input specifically for supple casings like those of our Rene Herse tires.
  • Use enough sealant. When the mechanics at Paul Camp prepped bikes for their press fleet, they put 3 oz. (90 ml) in each tire, because they didn’t want trouble. More sealant makes your tires slower, but if your tire runs out of sealant, it’ll start losing air. If you want to go fast and don’t need to worry about pinch flats, use inner tubes. (Click here to read more about why tubeless tires are slower.)
  • Sealant needs to be topped up at least once a month. Supple tires push and pull slightly against the rim sidewall as the wheel rotates. If the sealant dries out, air will start leaking. Then the tire can suddenly break loose from the rim wall and lose all its air. Don’t ride your tires when there is no liquid sealant left inside – the sealant not only acts as flat protection, but it constantly seals the tire against the rim.
  • Use only new tires for tubeless installation. As a tire is ridden, the sidewalls flex and become more porous, making the tire harder to seal.
  • If you want the flat protection offered by the sealant without the hassle of tubeless installation, you can put sealant in your inner tubes. This also works best with new tires, and you obviously need tubes with removable valve cores. (The tubes we sell have removable cores.) Simply put some sealant inside the tube, and it’ll seal many punctures.
  • Most Rene Herse tires are tubeless-compatible. They are marked ‘TC’ on the tire label. The label on the package also says ‘Tubeless-Compatible.’

Click here for more information about Rene Herse tires.

About Jan Heine

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Rene Herse Cycles, that turns our research into the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
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30 Responses to How to set up tubeless tires

  1. Rod A Bruckdorfer says:

    I initial setup my Grand Bois (650BX42mm) tubeless using a latex sealer 5 years ago. The tubeless Grand Bois produced a smooth ride. I initially set the tire pressure at 35 psi then changed the pressure to 40-45 psi after reading Jan Heine’s articles. I did not like checking the tire pressure each timeI rode and occasionally adding latex to the tires. I also did not like the idea of cleaning out the latex balls which formed over time in the tire. I finally went back to inner tubes after cleaning out the latex buildup in the tires. Cheers, Rod

    • Jan Heine says:

      I remember the growing pains of tubeless. Back then, all the tires weren’t designed for tubeless yet, and neither were the rims. Tires burped or mysteriously lost air. It took a lot of persistence to run your tires tubeless. And like you, many of us found that inner tubes offer more speed and less hassle. Unless you ride on really rough terrain where pinch flats are a constant danger, tubeless doesn’t offer any real advantage.

      However, when the terrain is really rough, tubeless changes what you can do with your bike. There have been a few rides where I was really glad to have set up my tires tubeless, and a few where I really wished I had!

  2. Mike Stead says:

    Great article Jan. Can I add a couple of tips:

    1. ‘De-burr’ the end of the valve core, so You can on screw the brass not completely, allowing the entire valve court to be disassembled. This means that you can easily clean out any blocked sealant on the road should you need to inflate.

    2. Only ever insert the valve core finger tight, only use tools to get it mostly seated there but always do the final tightening by finger. This means you will always be able to un-tighten and remove the valve core with your fingers out in the middle of nowhere. If your valve core has blocked with sealant, and you cannot remove it to unblock it, then you may have a very long walk or a very soft-tyre’d ride home.

    • Jan Heine says:

      Good advice. I’ll add 2) to the main article, because it’s really important.

      • Mike Stead says:

        Noting 2: is only really if use if you’ve also followed 1:

        The Presta valve core hasn’t evolved to support occasional unblocking due to sealant. I see people selling replacement cores for silly money to ‘solve’ this problem. 10 seconds with two pairs of pliers removes the peening, allows the nut to be unscrewed fully, and the core valve to be removed and cleaned in seconds, allowing pumping to recommence.

    • Hans Lellelid says:

      Note that if you finger tighten your vavle core, you can’t use a thread-on pump head (e.g. Lezyne portable pumps) as it’ll unthread the valve core when you thread it off.

      Personally, I install sealant via sidewall and loctite my valve cores. There are a few times that I regret this (typically when trying to re-install a tubeless tire that has bits of dried sealant long the beads, etc.), but generally this is simpler and works fine with a high-volume floor pump.

      • Hans Lellelid says:

        That should have said “I install sealant via popped bead”. I don’t push it through the sidewall 🙂

      • Jan Heine says:

        Unthreading valve cores with Lezyne pumps can be a hassle…pssshhht – there goes all the air that you’ve just sweated to put in with the tiny pump! Somebody should make valve cores that are reverse-threaded, so you tighten, rather than loosen, the valve core when you remove the pump hole.

      • Gunther says:

        Nowadays the first thing I do when buying new tubes is to tighten the valve core with a pliers. Accidentally un-screwing it out in the fields is very annoying.

    • Alex Nosse says:

      As others have alluded to, installing valve cores only finger tight strikes me as specious advice. If you are going to ride a tubeless tire-equipped bike out into the middle of nowhere, simply bring along a valve core remover in your tool kit, and VOILA! Problem solved! Most of us who enjoy riding off the beaten path are already accustomed to bringing tools with us, and a valve core remover is a very small and light addition to any kit.

      • Jan Heine says:

        I think like everything else on the bike, valve cores should be tightened just right. When we start working on our bikes, we often have a tendency to either overtighten bolts (so they stay tight) or undertighten them (so they don’t break). With experience, we learn what is appropriate for each bolt. Mike is certainly correct that you don’t want to tighten the valve core so much that the valve itself turns when you try to unscrew it. On the other hand, you also don’t want air to leak because the core isn’t screwed in tight enough.

  3. Gary A Cziko says:

    Thanks for the tubeless instructions and tips.

    I have two questions about building up the rim with tape if it seems too small for the tire:

    1. How wide should the tape be? I’d guess from wall to wall of the rim, both shelves and well.

    2. What about using instead two narrow strips of tape covering the shelf on each side of the well but not the well itself (Gorilla tape is easy to tear to custom widths)? Wouldn’t that give the necessary tight fit for tubeless while keeping the tires easier to mount with a relatively deeper well?

    • Jan Heine says:

      Good questions!

      1. You are right, the tape should extend (roughly) from wall to wall of the rim. A tad narrower is fine. Wider isn’t good – if the rim wall gets covered by tape, it’ll affect the seal between tire and rim.

      2. In theory, that would be the best solution, but in practice, the tire will push the rim tape as it slides to the outside and seats. You’ll end up with a mess of bunched up rim tape between tire and seam. Remember that when a rim is undersize, it also affects the well – so even with the extra tape, the tire should be easy to mount. You may need a tire lever for the first installation, but not brute force.

  4. Dr J says:

    Jan, what’s your experience with sealant seepage through sidewalls over time? I’ve never experienced this myself but I saw pictures (somewhere on internet, can’t find it now) with Compass tires showing this issue (Maybe in that case tire installation wasn’t done right). Because sidewalls are so thin and not fully sealed (as you pointed out), there’s a chance that sealant my sweat through the sidewalls. Have you ever heard about such problems?

    • Jan Heine says:

      In many cases, this is probably due to the sealant not having been shaken properly. In some rare cases, it may be that the tire is slightly out of spec: We are trying to make our tires as light as possible, so the casing’s rubber coating is very thin. At the factory, the casing is impregnated in huge swaths of fabric, and it’s impossible to make that coating totally even. With a thickly coated tires, that’s not a problem – there is always more than enough rubber. With the thin coating of our tires, some areas of the casing – meaning a few tires out of a production run – may not have enough rubber to seal. (These tires work great with tubes, in fact, they are the lightest and most supple of the batch.)

      When installing these tires tubeless, why doesn’t the sealant close those pores? I appears that the holes are so small that they strain out the solids and only let the liquid through – they don’t seal. In all my tubeless installations, I have not yet experienced this, but if it happens, we cover it under our warranty.

  5. Keith Benefiel says:

    The Lezyne pump only needs to be threaded on one turn. Air pressure keeps it engaged. My air all fell out the first time, so I’m not at all overzealous about tightening the pump head anymore.

    • Hans Lellelid says:

      Maybe it depends on the valve / valve core, but this has not been true for me in practice. To keep it from coming off during (perhaps vigorous) inflation I’ve needed to thread it on quite completely. At which point it’ll unthread any core that isn’t tightened well or “glued in”. I unthreaded a few before I learned my lesson and just used loctite on my valve cores. Luckily you really don’t need to remove valve cores to add sealant and typically don’t need to remove them to seat the tire. Of course, it’s true that these tires are among the more difficult to setup, so I have had to resort to removing the core to get the necessary amount of air in when reseating used tires.

      But having had several punctures now in Barlow Pass tires that just sealed up with sealant, I definitely won’t run these with tubes.

  6. Rick Thompson says:

    I’ve been riding Snoqualmie Pass EL tubeless on Brevet rims since last June. Noted a few items regarding your experiences:
    1) The tires install easily, no tire irons needed. I initially leave them pumped to 65 psi overnight, but ride at 25 to 40 psi. No problems so far, but you have me worried now they went on too easily.
    2) The sidewalls do weep sealant, but it does not seem to be a problem. I pump up every week or two.
    3) The beads have seated every time by pulling out on the sidewall and going all around the tire. No compressor or tube needed.
    4) Unlike with tubes, the tubeless install always seats perfectly with the molding line just visible. Using tubes previously, this always had to be wrestled into place.
    5) You mention pinch flats, but tubeless has completely solved my goathead flatting problem. There have been zero on the road flats since going tubeless, despite pulling many goatheads.

    • Jan Heine says:

      Thank you for sharing your experiences. The Brevet rims usually have good tire fit. If you can seat the tires with a normal floor pump, the fit isn’t too loose. In that way, not using a compressor is like insurance.

      A slight air loss in almost inevitable with tubeless. In fact, inner tubes also lose air, just a little more slowly.

  7. Andrew says:

    I was going to make the same point as others about Lezyne pumps & removable valve cores. It’s not much fun when the valve core comes out after you’ve just repaired a flat on the side of the road!

    • Derek Z says:

      It is indeed no fun the have a pump with a threaded chuck remove your presta core after pumping up a tire. I now do two things that has stopped this from happening completely. Tighten my valve cores with a valve core tool before inflating (yeah that one is obvious!) and I add a drop of lightweight lubricant to the threads inside of the pump chuck a couple of times a year.

      • Jan Heine says:

        Tightening the valve core is a good idea altogether. It’s surprising how many tubes have valves that leak just because the cores aren’t screwed in tightly. Unfortunately, this can even affect the Schwalbe tubes we sell at Rene Herse Cycles.

  8. Andrew says:

    Thanks for the tip on lubricating the threads indie the pump chuck! I hadn’t thought of that. I use a drop of blue Loctite on the valve core threads, which seems to work fine.

  9. Mr. Dunlop says:

    I will soon be selling an air proof inflatable membrane, that goes inside the tire.
    It will save much faffing about with sealants.

  10. Kevin Smith says:

    I’ll add my tubeless experience based on installing Bon Jon’s Standard on HED Belgium+ rims
    1) I under appreciated the importance of getting the rim tape thickness adjusted to handle tolerances between the rim and tire bead. Adding a 2nd or 3rd layer of tape so that the tire bead does not come loose when the tire is deflated is really important. I’d like to see your rim illustration above show more clearly where/how the rim tape helps to support the seal and bead. It will help folks new to tubeless. Its a tricky issue to understand what the ‘right’ fit feels like. But once you get it – inflating without a compressed air source is doable.
    2) Sidewall sealant weeping – I see this with Orange Seal – both on first install (sealing the small holes); but also after some hard gravel riding where maybe the casing was getting a real work out. It has never been a ‘problem’ in the sense that I notice air pressure loss, but its mainly cosmetic.
    3) I relate to the photo of the sealant explosion! Been there – DON’T OVER PRESSURIZE TUBELESS TIRES! It was a hard lesson coming from traditional roadie approach of rock hard tires, but I’ve seen the light.
    4) Tubeless is not maintenance free and the point about “high performance components, tighter tolerances, and more technical skills” seems to align with my experience. When you get it set up right – it is a wonderful technology for off-road riding.
    5) I’m still enjoying tubes for paved routes or very light gravel.

  11. Paul H says:

    Blog says (emphasis mine):
    To mount a tire tubeless, here is what you need: a tubeless valve; a valve core tool; a syringe for injecting the tubeless sealant; sealant; a tire lever; __an inner tube__; a tubeless-compatible tire

    What’s the inner tube for?

    • Jan Heine says:

      The inner tube is for inflating the tire and seating the beads before you do the actual tubeless installation. That way, you disturb only one bead when you take out the tube, making it easier to seat the bead again without an air compressor.

      • Paul H says:

        I think that’s a bit overkill. Additionally, if you have a very tight tire, a lot of people will struggle to unseat a single side without a) moving the other bead into the well or b) using a tire lever. The former renders the exercise pointless. The latter risks damage to the tire bead.

    • Rod A Bruckdorfer says:

      I have tried tubeless. It works but I went back to an inner tube and tire talc. Of course, I ride roads and well developed trails.

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