Started 2008. Last update: January 2019
See also: the best do-it-all ‘adventure’ tyres
Before you start skimming through this long article, here is my single piece of advice after writing on this subject for over ten years: if you want to ride on tubeless tyres, choose a bike with stock tubeless wheels. Spoked or cast*, they’re designed for the job and ought not leak, unlike some of the methods below with certain tyre/ wheel combinations. That’s why I chose a used, 19-inch cast wheel for my XSR700 project bike (right).
If you choose to try the DIY methods or proprietary systems, I also recommend fitting an inexpensive TPMS (see below).
• A old tubeless HUBB discussion
• Original Yamaha Tenere DIY sealing from 2008
• Cyb’s version of the DIY sealant procedure
• Mounting Tubliss liners to my GS500R
• Using BARTubeless sealed rims on my Rally Raid CB500X.
• Article on running tubeless on Advpulse – mentions mousses and tyre balls
• The short-lived Golden Tyres FTS system
• Related: changing wheel size
• TPMS – long version
* I use the term ‘cast’ genericaly to describe one-piece wheels. Some European manufacturers use forged wheels which are much stronger than cast.
Tubeless Tyres are a Good Thing. Fact.
Having run them on my desert cars, the ease of quickly plugging punctures is an Even Better Thing, even if this practice is considered a ‘get you home’ measure or outlawed in some places. All cars and most modern road bikes run tubeless tyres. To me running tubeless presents major advantages for overland travel, such as:
- Safer: punctures deflate slowly and controllably, unlike a tube bursting and collapsing. This is the main reason to ride tubeless
- Easier: punctures can be plugged by the roadside in less than a minute
- Less hassle: A nail in the tyre (especially in a groove; right) need not mean an instant flat. You can keep riding and topping up for days until convenient to fix properly
- Cooler: with no tube/inner tyre friction, TL tyres run cooler and so last longer (see this vid)
- Lighter: less unsprung weight – where it counts
- No need for bulky tubes or even tyre levers, but should you have a problem, a tube can be fitted
- Many tubed rims have the requisite safety lip (see below), though not always on the front wheel.
Not all bikes come with tubeless wheels but my overarching motivation for converting such bikes to tubeless was to avoid a scenario as pictured left: lost and alone up a creek in the Sahara in 1982. It happened again on a Dakar trip a few years later when I’d been plagued with punctures. If you ride alone in the remote areas you want to avoid inner tube repairs; they’re never easy, especially if you’re stressed by other issues like heat, insects, sand storms or marauding bandits. Tyres have got a lot better since then of course. On a recent trip in Algeria; 12 bikes x 2 weeks x 2000km = no flats.
If you can’t do a tubeless roadside repair, chances are your tyre or wheel are well and truly buggered. I’ve had trips where I’ve crossed borders on two flat tyres for want of an unobtainable tube. With tubeless all I need is a pump and a handful of plugs, spike tool and vulcanising solution – all widely used in the developing countries which comprise the Adventure Motorcycling Zone.
Differences between tubed (TT) and tubeless (TL) tyres
If you’re going tubeless, should you use tubeless tyres? Ideally yes. A tubeless tyre’s inner carcass is coated with butyl to be totally non-porous. Tube type tyres may have some slow porosity and also have a different bead area profile which isn’t designed to give an air tight seal. Also, broadly speaking TL tyres tend to come in 17 sizes for larger bikes; 18s are more for dirt bikes where spokes and therefore tubes (or mousses) are the norm. Rim manufacturers also have no need to ensure that tube-type rims are not porous. If you do use TT tyres on your conversion (most likely due to tyre size limitations or preferences), adding Slime or a similar sealant (right) will help reduce slow leakage (as well as punctures). As mentioned below, whichever tyre type you use, having a rim with the safety hump is important.
IS IT SAFE?
Some Flat Earthers vehemently proclaim that sealing a spoked rim to run tubeless can’t be done. The fact that they’re clearly wrong doesn’t help shake this devoutly held belief.
I’ve yet to read any direct experience, even second or third hand, but some nevertheless claim it’s lethal. When actual reasons are given, the possibility of a tyre coming off the rim at high speed is cited (or perhaps the sealant unpeeling). But were that possible, how is it any different from a tubed blow-out in the same circumstances?
The difference is a tubeless tyre deflates slowly, because the air can only escape around the [typical] nail pushed through the tyre carcass (or even more slowly through poorly sealed spoke nipples or a bad rim seal). When the same happens to an inner tube, pressure can be lost almost instantly as the tube collapses with supposedly dangerous consequences. Sounds lethal and bikes being bikes, I’m sure it can be, but even in all my years of tubed riding I’ve never crashed a bike as a result of a tube puncture (others have).
It’s also possible the DIY element puts some off, but to me DIY has always been a part of what’s now called ‘adventure motorcycling’, long before you could outfit an overland bike from an online calalogue.
Think about it. What’s the worst that can happen compared to an inner tube blowing out on a 100mph bend on Kilimanjaro? After a DIY conversion you may get an annoying slow leak from an imperfect seal which, if unmonitored, may lead to pressures dropping low enough to cause rim damage on a rocky trail or a highway pothole. And when the rim gets dinged you lose the tubeless seal until that dent is knocked back out. I know because this all happened to me following my DIY conversion in the Tenere.
Meddling with tyres is understandably seen as a risky practice, but how many of us have ridden long highway miles on ‘road-legal’ knobblies like Michelin Deserts or MT21s and have actually felt safe on fast, busy, wet roads? It’s not something I like to do anymore because I suspect emergency braking on such tyres could have much more lethal consequences than sealing spoked rims to run tubeless tyres.
TPMS – IT IS SAFER
You can now buy a TPMS for your motorcycle for just £35 on ebay. A tyre pressure management system is composed of two valve caps with sensors communicating wirelessly with a display mounted on the bars and wired to the battery. Result: real-time tyre pressure monitoring. Many people find that DIY or other conversions like Tubliss and in my case, BARTubeless lose pressure. This is one gadget I wish I’d had on my Tenere in 2007, if not all my desert bikes over the years.
Read the long version.
As adventure motorcycling evolves, more and more flagship models are running ‘adventure-look’ spoked wheels with a 21-inch on the front but designed to run tubeless. (The Africa Twin is a baffling exception.) Manufacturers do this because spoked wheels are perceived to be a lighter and a signifier of ‘off-road adventure’. On a CRF450R motocrosser, sure; on a quarter-ton Adv battleship? I don’t think so. Give me a do-it-all 19-inch cast front wheel any day.
Actual spoked tubeless wheels
Making a spoked tubeless wheel rim is complicated and expensive but it has been done for years, right back to the midd 80s X-LM (left), and almost certainly before that. Recent bikes which come with them stock include the BMW 1200GS, Aprilla Caponord, Suzuki V-Stroms, Yamaha XT1200Z, KTM V-twins, Triumph Tigers and Explorers (above left) and now 1200 Scramblers. Even Honda’s oddball X-ADV scooter (right) has small spoked TL wheels. There’s a partial list here.
The big picture below of a 2005 Caponard shows the two main ways of spoking a tubeless rim. On the rear: BMW-style ‘outboard’ spokes on a flange. The front uses a less well triangulated ‘inboard flange’. For many years trilas bikes have used tubeless rims with an inboard flange and usually running 32 spokes.
Note that such wheels on bigger bikes including the current BMW 750/850GS twins (left) – can be heavier than same-sized cast wheels. Weight is saved by not using inner tubes but additional unsprung weight on any wheel is the last place you want it as it takes more force to get that mass turning, more brakes to slow it and better suspension to control it.
You could buy rims from those bikes to fit on your hub, but new, expect to pay hundreds. You could try and hunt down a used TL trials rim, but of course they will be suited to lighter bikes with no bigger than WM3 (2.15”) rims and which are usually 32 spoke. Most road bikes are 36 or more. When changing the spoked rim you’re guided by the number of spoke holes the hub. Missing out a few spokes to make a standard 36-spoke hub use a 32-spoke trials rim is a bodge too far.
Branded or otherwise, it’s hard to find less expensive spoked TL rims off the shelf. The only ones I’ve found are on Ali Baba or on the left: something called Chinese Risun outboard tubeless rims in 17 and 18 inches and just $60 a shot. Problem is, you have to order 200 plus units.
Otherwise, tubeless rims are more commonly solid cast wheels and also have a lip (see image left) to locate and help seal the tyre bead securely on the rim. This lip is also considered a safety feature which stops the tyre coming off the rim should it deflate drastically on the move.
But it also makes removing and mounting the tyre without bead-breaking tools difficult. It varies from bike to bike and tyre to tyre. Certainly Yamaha XTs have long had such safety rims on the rear wheel, even though the bikes always came with tubed tyres. Out of interest, this disproves another urban myth: you can only stick a tube in a TL rim to ‘get you home’ because it will eventually rub on that lip and explode with terrible consequences. Well clearly not on a stock tubed Tenere with a lipped DID rim on the rear since the mid-1980s (left). I know because I remember putting that bike on a crate with the rear tyre removed, sticking it in gear and ‘hand-lathing’ off that safety lip so that I’d not get stuck in the desert trying to break the bead to fix a puncture; and as importantly remounting it properly with – back then – just a bicycle pump. All this faffing is why we like tubeless.
But to convert the spoked rims to tubeless this lip is actually a good thing and, just as 20 years earlier, my 2008 Tenere had them on the back wheel. The front rim was normal which is a risk when converting to tubeless. But can it be any worse than a tubed tyre puncturing? Tubed tyres deflate faster and therefor more dangerously than tubeless tyres, so even without the safety lips or humps on the front, with tubeless you’re already ahead. But, as I found, you can get slow leakage along the seal.
Pictured left: the top rim has no sealing lip; the lower rim does. Note also the angle of the tyre bead interface surface; the lower rim with the lip is flat which helps make a better seal. The upper lipless rim is curved and lipless – making it easier to change by hand. I think my 2008 Tenere sealing problems where because the rear wheel was like the lower rim – good for tubeless. The 21-inch front was like the upper rim; less good seal. This interesting and regularly updated page by R. Fleischer gets right down on motorcycle rim profiles. So does this GoldWing page in comparison to car tyres and the clearly different forces involved. It’s something to consider when blithely converting rims designed for tubes tyres to run tubeless. Inspect your rim profile closely. In 2017 when I considered sticking Outex tape (see below) on my WR250R to seal the rims, I saw both stock rims lacked that lip.
Yes the lip can make breaking and remounting the bead when removing the tyre by the roadside more difficult (get a passing car to drive over the tyre), but the whole point of tubeless is you don’t need to do this until you’re replacing a tyre. Unlike punctures; usually that is not done by the roadside out of the blue.
PROBLEMS WITH 21-INCH FRONT WHEELS
For some reason tubeless 21-inchers have a bad reputation with holding their air, and outfits like Woody’s in the US who convert other spoked rims sizes, don’t do 21s last time I looked. Could it be the relatively narrow tyre profile of a 21-incher in relation to its height (for the same average tyre carcass thickness) allow it to ‘cave in’ under hits where a wider front – typically a 19-er – will take a hit ‘flat’ and maintain the seal? Is that why my 21″ Tenere front failed? And is this why the old BMW F800GS had tubes (front 21″) while the same era ‘650‘ and ‘700‘ versions I used in Morocco had 19″ tubeless on the front? Probably not.
I spotted an ancient Honda XLM the other day which reminded me that 21-inch tubeless fronts did exist way back in the 1980s. I ran with one on my first Sahara tour (left, 1988) and recall no tyre problems, but I don’t recall if the owner fitted tubes for the tour.
Would a Tubliss liner work better on the front? I think so and that, along with keeping tabs on tyre pressures, is why my 2008 DIY sealing was possibly not good enough. Could the Slime have undermined the mastic’s seal? I don’t think so. Would a lipped stock tubeless rim off an old XLM work better? Must have done if we were riding
tubeless on sand back then. I tried 19-inch Tubliss liners in 2012 and they’re now sold in 21-inch.
In late 2018 Triumph launched the Scrambler 1200, a bike with a tubeless 21-inch front wheel (left). Clearly they must feel confident it will work, potentially even on the dirt at lower pressures.
Tubeless sealing systems for spoked rims
To run tyres without tubes on a bike with ordinary spoked rims you need to seal the point where the spokes screw into the rims through the nipples. Then you also need to fit a tubeless valve (right); that at least is the easy bit. Here are the various ways of doing it, both proprietary and DIY.
TUBLISS AND SIMILAR CORES
Systems like the US-made Tubliss liner (below) are made for dirt bikes running low-psi. They are not approved for highway use in the US by the manufacturer, mostly probably due to homologation issues rather than safety. But I know people who’ve run Tubliss for years on the road with no problems. The main limitations: they’ll only seal properly on WM3 rims (2.15”) or narrower, and they only come in 21, 19 and 18-inch sizes. So like they say: most suited to dirt bikes where such rim widths and sizes are the norm.
Tubliss and similar work by fitting an inner tube-like ‘core’ (‘HPC’) which inflates up to 100 psi to push and seal the bead of the tyre firmly against the rim and so sealing off the tyre’s air chamber from the spoke nipples where leakage occurs – the key to converting wire wheels to tubeless. The core is a thick, plastic highly pressurised non-elastic tube, but it’s kept away from the tyre sidewall or tread where punctures come through.
Years ago I fitted a pair to a GS500R project bike running custom 19″ spoked rims. Click the link. Short version: lube the possibly hard-to-fit core with 303 Protectant (right: £15 a pint; same as Armor All in the US). It’s much slippier and longer-lasting than soapy water which is good for the HPC inside. Then run Slime, Stans or similar to ensure sealing (about the same price as 303 but you can MYO). Me, I wasn’t convinced they’re suited to long-range overlanding compared to other simpler systems because of the need to maintain the very high 100-psi pressures in the red HPC using humble mini-compressors. You also need to drill another hole in the rim for the HPC valve/rim lock; no one likes doing that.
Long Tubliss thread on advrider; mostly dual-sporters. Some get on with it, some don’t.
The Swedish T-Lock system is very similar as far as I can tell: the same non-elastic core (blue, left) presses the tyre bead against the rim with very high pressure (110psi) to seal the tyre’s pressured chamber from the leak-prone spoke nipples.
The kit includes a separate rim band (green) and, if I understand correctly, the blue tube utilises the rim’s valve hole. This means that unlike Tubliss with its two valves, the tyre must be filled with Slime-like sealant before final mounting and then pressurised by spiking the tyre carcass with a needle and then letting the sealant plug that hole. This seems to imply that you set the tyre pressures once. To reduce pressure you’d have to puncture the tyre briefly, and to increase you’d have to spike-and seal again. Even more than the Tubliss, T-Locks are intended only for motocross use, as the website’s imagery implies. Clearly not at all suited to overlanding.
ALPINA SEALED SPOKE NIPPLES
The Italian Alpina system left (click to enlarge and read) individually seals each spoke nipple with a rubber o-ring, and is sold for many road bikes and so must be considered road legal.
The benefits of this system (as well as the high-pressure core systems, above) is that spoke tension can be adjusted while maintaining the tubeless seal – how often do you do that on a decent rim? The permanently sealed bonding systems shown below may not work so well doing this, but as we know we’re usually talking very small turns of the nipple to adjust tension, and should a leak develop it can be re-sealed.
PERMANENT HARD POLYMER SEALING
An idea I tried in late 2015 on my Rally Raid CB500X was a polymer sealing from BARTubeless, also from Italy (left). A bit like the 3M sealant, but professionally applied – you need to send the wheels off to Italy. In the UK, wheel specialists Central Wheel Services near Birmingham will do two wheels for you for £300. I saw no air loss in 2000 miles, but over a couple of months there was some leakage – quite a lot in fact. More about them here and here.
PERMANENT VULCANISED SEALING
Central Wheel in the UK now do a version of the BARTubeless spoke sealing (a service tnhey also offer. They call it Airtight. Hopefully it’s both cheaper and takes less long, as it’s done in house rather than sending off to Italy.
All I know is what I can read on the left: a thick rubber rim band is vulcanised into the well, sealing off the spokes. Because it is vulcanised – a form of rubber ‘heat welding’ – rather than just glued like Outex etc (below), you’d hope the seal will be more secure and permanent.
They tell me the only restriction is that the band can only be applied to a 3.00-inch (WM5) rim or bigger.
It’s my hope to try out this system on a rear wheel which CWC are building up for my Himalayan project bike.
Beautifully forged Italian Kineo tubeless rims. For a Transalp that’ll be at least €1000 each please.
OUTEX PADS AND TAPE
I belatedly came across Outex sealant tape which a mate has been using on his TTR for years. As with many of these DIY methods, some get on with it, some don’t as this post shows. CWC used to sell it but stopped due presumably to reports of unreliable results. Basically it’s a set of sticky pads for each spoke nipple, a very sticky and wide doubled-sided tape applied into the rim well with as few creases as possible. And then a thicker protective tape over the top. Application video below; a higher-res video here. Costs from £90 to £125 in the UK which seems a lot. As mentioned, I was about to fit it to my WR, but stopped once I saw my rims lacked the safety hump I go on about. Take your time they say, to try and get all the air pockets out. Using an inner tube patch roller rasp (right) helps; you often get them with better puncture kits.
DIY BATHROOM MASTIC
Way back in 2008 I bought the new XT660Z Tenere for a research trip in Morocco. I asked on Horizons if sealing the well of the spoked rims (left) was a good idea. The reason you can’t just remove the inner tube from a spoked rim is that air would slowly leak out where the spokes come through time rim.
The discussion concluded it was do-able and had been done. I like to experiment with new ways of doing things, so I went ahead.
Full DIY XT660Z article here.
GLASS SEALANT DIY
Another DIY suggestion uses glass sealant, being meticulous with your pre-cleaning and patient with your sealant curing – see below. Sounds similar to Cyb’s process at the top of the page.
1. Glass (windscreen) sealant (right) which you can find in any hardware store.
2. 16″ Harley inner tube on ebay. 1″ smaller that our wheels to make it tight fit.
3. Glass cleaner or oven degreaser.
4. Loads of spare time…
• Clean the wheels with the degreaser/cleaner, wash with water to make sure that any chemical is washed off. Wait for a day in dry, clean environment, blast of air if indeed, a great help.
• Apply the sealant to each spokes, wait for a day to cure, apply another layer, wait again.
• Apply sealant to the inner part of the wheel. One layer for one day, do it twice then wait until it’s completely cured.
• Cut HD inner tube to size so it covers the inner part of the wheel. Cut a hole for the valve and you’re good to go.
Have I missed any ideas? Let me know.