Tubes vs. Tubeless and $500.00 Burning A Hole In Your Pocket

by Robb Sutton

Over the past month, we have put up two polls here on Bike198 to find out how you are running your tires and what the hell you would do with an extra 500 bones in your pocket to blow on bike parts. Let’s take a look at how you guys answered as I attempt to dive into the brain of my fellow riders and interpret the results.

Tubes vs. Tubeless…What are you running?

Tubes vs Tubeless Tires On Your Mountain Bike

When asked the question on what you guys are running…tubes or tubeless…on your mountain bikes, it was literally a 50/50 split. Tubeless ended up winning out by 1 vote which is statistically irrelevant. This is a statistic that I think is favoring tubeless and UST systems over time. If I would have asked this same question 2 years ago, I think the split would be in favor of tubes by a large margin which shows that more riders are starting to run tubeless systems on their mountain bikes.

Tubeless systems (like Mavic UST and Stans) have many advantages on the trail.

  • Fewer flats due to the inability to pinch flat.
  • Increased grip due to the ability to run lower pressures and typically thicker sidewall tires.
  • Decreased rolling resistance because there is no friction between a tube and the tire.
  • Lighter weight when used with smaller tires…again…no tubes.

While there are distinct advantages on the trail, UST and Goo based systems still have disadvantages like having to mess with the goo or having tires that are a lot harder to get on the rim. Personally, I stick with tubes purely because I change out tires too often to mess with the goo on a regular basis on my Stans Flow rims.

Given all of the positives and negatives associated with running tubeless systems, I really think we are seeing more riders on tubeless for 2 main reasons.

  1. Increased factory bikes getting spec’ed with tubeless.
  2. Availability of tubeless rims and tires.

Much like the 29er movement, the tubeless tire on mountain bikes could not gain real traction in the market without a lot of options for riders in the aftermarket…and more importantly…coming spec’ed on brand new bikes. If you look at the showroom floor right now, the majority of the bikes are at least coming with rims that are ready to convert to tubeless if they are not already running without them. As riders buy new bikes and get used to the system right off the bat, I think we will continue to see tubeless take over the tubed world we have ridden in for so long.

If You Had $500.00 Dollars To Blow On Mountain Biking

500 To Burn on Mountain Biking

First, I have to say this poll question all started with a pet peeve of mine that goes on in the bike industry amongst riders and manufacturers. I have found…that typically…the first thing that newer riders want to do is throw money at upgrading the rear derailleur to the latest and greatest from X.0 or XTR regardless of what is kitted out on the rest of their bike. The rear derailleur is a “bling” item that is readily visible to the rest of the riding world at the trailhead, but spending a massive amount of money ($200.00+) on that upgrade rarely…if ever…makes a performance difference on your bike when you add everything up and hit the trail.

Bike manufacturers know this little secret in the industry and that is why you see XT rear derailleurs on Deore kitted out bikes all of the time. They know that a flashy rear derailleur will close the deal even when the wheels on the rig couldn’t even be above $100.00. In the retail/bike bling market…most riders look at the RD.

Given that, I was expecting this poll to swing a different way…but I was wrong. When asked what you guys would do with an extra 500 in cash to blow on mountain bike components, the majority of you went straight for my favorite upgrade! WHEELS!

Your Most Important MTB Upgrade

By far, the best upgrade you can make to your mountain bike has to be a good set of hubs/rims built up by a quality builder. Your wheels directly determine how your bike will act on the trail as they are the link between dirt and the rest of your components including your body. With a better set of mountain biking wheels, you will be able to hold lines better, save more energy (rotational weight is the most important to save and results in the biggest impact in your riding) and put the power to trail faster with faster engagement.

After that…I look towards suspension and brakes as my next upgrades given the rest of the bike is functioning properly.

So there you have it…your poll results…what do you think?


Dan Pennell1 October 26, 2010 - 5:17 am

My derailers are old and beat up and will remain that way but my wheels….. oh sweet wheels. That is where the difference is made. Faster, lighter, and less flex can be done for $500 if they are used.

Darcio October 25, 2010 - 4:15 pm

Great article, rims are really important to up grade, but e RD that is the top of the line is gonna kick your confidence sky high when shifting on heavy load and stuff like that! My c’dale flash carbon 29 came with tubeless ready tires but its gotta a 2×10 X9 RD and of course I’ll put a X0 very soon!

Ride Safe

Mike October 22, 2010 - 7:46 pm

Ok I completely agree with the article and wheels would be the best performance upgrade. But please consider the following.
1.5 years ago you buy a new bike. Just on the edge of the 29er super mainstream. I know it was proven but in 09 there was only 20% of the ameuteur racers were on 29ers. This year, nearly everyone.
So you have a 26″ bike and are progressing in yu fitness an skills hoping to get a new bike in 2 years. Which will be a 29er.
Ok your current 26″ bike which needs to your deraileur adjusted before every ride. Yes the cable was bent as well four times this summer.
Everything else works well. You do have fairly good fluid breaks.
So if you upgrade wheels they would not be transferable to a 29er and neither would suspension upgrade. Oh current bike = hardtail.
So now you have a reliability problem and these components are transferable to a new bike29er. This is what I’m told anyways.
I would love to hear feedback, but it’s just a thought aka my situation.
Feel free to give “you should have” but I already threw down the money.

Atlantis Rob October 22, 2010 - 1:01 pm

It comes down to time and hassle on the tubeless for me. Sure I can change tubes/patch tubes on the trail. But since I ride with groups, that translates into groups waiting for me. Or me getting left behind. Both suck. I’d rather hassle with the tubeless at home once every few months, than flat out 3 times on one very rocky ride (happened to me in september, though 1 other guy had 2 flats and 2 people had 1). I need to order up a tube conversion soon for my rear. Wheels in the new year are the first major upgrade and those will be true tubeless/ust ready. Plus carrying 2 tubes in my pack sucks.

dman October 21, 2010 - 2:28 pm

Am I the only one that doesn’t see the colors matching up between the pie chart and legend? The ‘Wheels’ category looks black, but on the chart it’s gray.

Robb Sutton October 21, 2010 - 2:30 pm

It’s the lighting effect on the graph.

guest October 21, 2010 - 5:35 am

I swear that three of those colors are exactly the same.

MT October 20, 2010 - 5:55 pm

I agree with @Tenbsmith.

How can tubless “Decrease rolling resistance because there is no friction between a tube and the tire”?

Robb Sutton October 20, 2010 - 7:23 pm

See below.

Tenbsmith October 20, 2010 - 3:45 pm

Good point about wheel upgrades being expensive, that is a factor in me staying tubed. More important from my perspective, though I view the advantages of tubeless as real, they just seem too marginal for me to bother with. Especially since I’ve been changing tubes for 30 years and can do it in a heart beat.

Maybe you could further explain the idea that tubeless decreases “rolling resistance because there is no friction between a tube and the tire.” This doesn’t make sense to me. How does friction between tire and tube impact rolling resistance. Technically, harder objects rolling on harder surfaces have lower rolling resistance than soft objects on soft surfaces. Thus roadies ride with high pressure tire to decrease rolling resistance. I would think that a given tire, inflated to a given pressure, would have essentially identical rolling resistance whether tubed or tubeless.

On a related note, Mountain Bike Action magazine argues fairly convincingly that mountain bikes roll more easily with lower tire pressure because there is less rebound when they hit roots and rocks. And, that this rebound effect–which is different than rolling resistance–is often more of a factor than losses to rolling resistance. From this perspective, I could see the argument that tubeless tires ability to run at lower pressure can lead to tire that roll more easily over trail objects (i.e., less rebound), but this would seem to have little to nothing to do with friction between tube and tire and technically isn’t rolling resistance.

Robb Sutton October 20, 2010 - 7:22 pm

When a tire rolls, grips around roots, rocks etc. the tire and tube (no matter now high they are inflated) actually create friction against each other as they are two separate parts. This gets amplified under lower pressures as there is less compression force between the two parts. When you compare two setups at equal pressures (tubeless at 30 psi vs. tubed at 30psi), there is decreased rolling resistance on the tubeless tire due to the fact that there are no efficiency loses due to friction amongst two competing parts.When I say there is decreased rolling resistance between a tubed wheel and a tubeless…that is given that psi is constant.The same holds true for road tubeless systems given psi constant.Basically…the more parts you add to a motion on the bike…the more drag you get. Must like with SS chainlines vs. geared…

Tenbsmith October 21, 2010 - 7:01 pm

I always got how a tubed set-up could have friction between tire and inner tube and tubeless would not. I just couldn’t understand how that friction would translate into rolling resistance. According to Wikipedia, rolling resistance is “caused mainly by the deformation of the object and the deformation of the surface.” I take this to mean that the energy of forward motion is being dissipated through these deformations. In which case, a tubed set up would loose more energy not only from the aforementioned tube-tire friction but also from the extra energy required to deform the tube itself.

I wonder how the increase in rolling resistance associated with tubed set-ups would compare with the increased rolling resistance associated with more aggressive tread patterns? I suspect tread pattern would be a much bigger factor.

Robb Sutton October 21, 2010 - 7:04 pm

More aggressive tread patterns play a MUCH bigger role. I can tell you my Telonix grips like no other tire but you pay for it in having to exert more energy to get it rolling…and keep it rolling.

Robb Sutton October 20, 2010 - 7:25 pm

Also…what MBA says is true when dealing with technical trails. When it comes to highly groomed trails or FSR’s…higher pressure allows for more power transfer to the ground that isn’t sucked up by the tire compressing…so higher pressures are actually faster in those situations.

Tenbsmith October 21, 2010 - 6:06 pm

I agree with this. A highly groomed trail doesn’t have roots and rocks sticking up. I think of the force vector that occurs when a tire hits a rock. That vector could be split into upward and backward components. The backward element is lost energy.

Gregory Heil October 20, 2010 - 1:18 pm

I think one of the issues is that a good wheel upgrade is expensive, meaning $500+ easily. As you mentioned, a RD upgrade, even to a top-level derailleur, is only about $200.

That said, I do agree that throwing so much money at a rear derailleur is pointless, because I personally seem to always be jacking mine up. I’d rather spend less money there (because I have to replace them pretty often) and more on something destined to last like wheels or suspension.



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