TUBELESS CONVERSION INDEX PAGE
Started 2008. Overhauled 2019. Updated January 2020
There are ways to convert your spoked, inner-tube wheels to tubeless, but for a travel bike here’s my advice: if you want TL get a bike with stock tubeless wheels. Spoked or more commonly alloy, OE tubeless wheels ought to seal reliably, unlike some of the methods suggested below. And if you go DIY, I’d also recommend fitting a TPMS.
After 12 years this page was getting too long. It’s now split into several sub-pages:
Other pages here
• About Tubeless Tyres and Wheels
• OE spoked tubeless wheels
• Tubeless: professional rim sealing
ª DIY sealing ideas (sealants, tapes)
• DIY sealing a Yamaha Tenere (2008)
• BARTubeless sealed rims on my CB500X RR
• Tubliss and similar spoke-sealing cores
• Mounting Tubliss liners to my GS500R
• The short-lived Golden Tyre FTS system
• DIY sealing an Africa Twin (soon)
• changing TL alloy wheel sizes
• TPMS: full article
• See also: The best do-it-all ‘adventure’ tyres
• Cyb’s DIY sealant procedure – one way to do a proper job
On this page:
• Tubeless Tyres are a Good Thing – Fact
• Why do some bikes have spoked wheels and others alloy?
• Differences between tubed (TT) and tubeless (TL) tyres
• Is it safe?
• TPMS – It is safer
Tubeless Tyres are a Good Thing – Fact
Inner tubes are an anachronism. Cars and any modern road bike with alloy wheels have been tubeless for decades. Even bicycles are now going that way. Running tubeless wheels presents major advantages to motorcycling; all the more so when overlanding:
- Safer: punctures deflate slowly and controllably, unlike a tube bursting followed by the tyre collapsing instantly. This is the main reason to go tubeless
- Easier: punctures can be plugged and reinflated by the roadside in a couple of minutes, as shown right. Not over a laborious hour, up a creek in the middle of nowhere, as above.
- Less hassle: A nail in the tyre (especially in a groove; right) need not mean an instant flat. You can keep topping up for days until convenient to fix properly
- Better mileage: with no tube/inner tyre friction, TL tyres run cooler and so last longer
- Lighter: less unsprung weight
- No need to carry bulky tubes or even tyre levers, but should you have a problem, a tube can be fitted
- Even some tubed rims have the recommended safety lip/bead/ridge (see below), though not always on the front wheel.
My overarching motivation for converting spoked travel bikes to tubeless has been to avoid a scenario pictured at the top of a page: lost and alone up a creek in middle of the Sahara in 1982. It happened several times on a ride to Dakar a few years later, until I had to ride on – and ruin – a flat tyre. And, of course, many times since.
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 heat, insects, onlookers, sandstorms, dangerous radiation levels or marauding bandits. Tyres have got a lot better since the 1980s; on a recent trip in Algeria; 12 bikes x 2 weeks x 2000km = 0 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, a handful of plugs, and the spike tool, – all available in any outback tyre shop in the developing countries which comprise the Adventure Motorcycling Zone.
Why do some bikes have spoked wheels and others alloy?
In the late 1970s ‘alloy’ (cast, forged, mag, composite etc) wheels came on the scene: a cutting edge, maintenance-free and a cool-looking progression from old-fashioned spokes. Whether they actually saved weight was dubious, and certainly some BMW alloys were notorious for cracking easily. Around 1977 Honda’s riveted Comstar wheels appeared on their CX500 and Dreams (left), but they still ran inner tubes.
Tyre technology progressed and, just like car tyres, alloys were well suited to tubeless tyres. Running a spoked wheel with no inner tube, air will gradually leak where the spokes screw into the rim via the nipples. With tubeless, the valve and the tyre/rim interface are the only points of leakage. Tubeless valves (left) have rubber seals, and tubeless tyres have special beads (edges).
Fashion being what it is, two decades into the second millennium and in the midst of an off-the-shelf retro revival, spoke wheels are now seen as cool-looking or signifying rufty-tufty adventure. But knowing that tubeless is safer, manufacturers have revived the innovative idea on Honda’s mid-1980s XL600M (below): make spoked wheels (cool + rufty) tubeless (safer + better). Now your top-of-the-range, fully spec’d ‘adventure’ version of some BMWs, KTMs, Triumphs and maybe others come with spoked tubeless wheels (left) while the lower-spec road-plodders’ version will have boring old alloys.
Spoked wheels do still have a place on motorcycles, most commonly on proper dirt and rally bikes where it’s said they’re lighter, stronger, repairable and flex rather than crack. Tube-type tyres are thinner-walled and more flexible (good for dirt traction) and lighter too (good for racing). But canny dirt racers replace tubes with mousses (left) or similar solid foam inserts which are puncture immune and said to have an equivalent pressure of just 10psi. If they’re running tubes and get a flat they’ll just DNF and push the bike back to the van. It’s not a drama like it can be on the overland.
But even for dirt racers, mousses have several negatives and are not suited to road use; even the firmer ones rated at an equivalent of 20psi. Because the set pressure is still low, on a hot day the tyre flex and heat generated by a loaded bike at highway speeds will see the foam break up or explode (left) in a few hours. And tyres run soft will wear out much quicker than normal. On long rallies like the Dakar, mousses get changed along with the tyres every couple of days. Disregarding the notorious difficulty in fitting mousses without special tools, they’re are clearly ill-suited to long-range motorcycle travel. A forum mousse discussion.
Differences between tubed (TT) and tubeless (TL) tyres
If you’re going tubeless, should you use tubeless tyres? Ideally yes. The man from Michelin told me a tubeless tyre’s inner carcass is coated with butyl to be totally non-porous. Tube type tyres do not have this coating. They also have a different bead profile which was never intended to create an airtight seal.
Also, broadly speaking TL tyres tend to come in 17-inch sizes for larger bikes and tend to be stiffer; 18s are more common for dirt bikes where spokes and 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 TL 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 and TPMS is a good idea.
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 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 first 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 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 2008, if not all my desert bikes over the years.
Read the long version.