The tubeless wheel/tire setup is an awesome option for cyclocross and I think they are here to stay. With a properly set up system, a rider can gain lower rolling resistance, lighter weight, better control, and amazing flat resistance. The tubeless system was pioneered for mountain biking, has been bridged to road use with success, and now many cyclists set up their CX ride with a tubeless system.
What is tubeless?
A tubeless system typically involves a clincher tire whose bead is secured into the hook of the rim wall and can hold air without the need for a tube of any kind. This system may or may not involve sealants and other materials such as rim strips to help secure the tire bead in place.
Counting tubeless, there are three options for the cyclocross rider: tubular, clincher w/tube, and tubeless. I think that for the price to performance ratio and relative setup time, tubeless is the best option of the three and here is why…
Tubeless offers options, many options. With a tubeless setup, there are many choices for tires and rims already available on the market. Many tire manufactures such as Vittoria, Kenda, WTB, and others are offering clincher tires that are tubeless compatible. This typically means that the tire’s bead is manufactured with a thicker, more consistent bead shape, and has a thicker sidewall for added security and stability. With these tires, riders have extra assurance that their system will hold during the demands of cyclocross, but a tubeless specific tire is not necessary. Thus, the tire options are vast.
Also, tubeless specific rims are available, such as Stan’s No Tubes, which offer a specially shaped rim bed to hold the tire bead securely and resist “burping”. But, even a standard double walled rim can be converted to run tubeless. So again, many options for wheels and tires exist. This allows the budget-friendly racer to have his choice of tire for course conditions even though he/she may only have one wheelset. This is something that the tubular rider cannot do.
Installation is also not difficult. Even with installing new tape, a tubeless tire can be set up in 30min easily. Though playing with sealant can be messy, it is still easier to work with than tubular glue. There are also many sealant choices on the market. Stan’s No Tubes is the original, but there are also options from Café Latex, Orange Seal, and Joe’s No Flats.
Performance is also great with a tubeless system. One can have far lower rolling resistance than a standard clincher/tube setup, more psi range (you can run as low as you would for tubulars and not pinch flat), and the sealant inside the setup will seal up punctures as you ride.
There are few cons with a tubeless system if setup properly, but some certainly exist, especially with the conversion kits, or cheaper make-do setups.
With the straightforward system that consists of a tubeless specific rim, tubeless specific tire, and sealant, your system can be lighter than a standard clincher/tube setup. But, if you use a conversion kit with a rim strip, and/or if you use rim tape like Velox to build up your rim bed, you will likely end up with a system that is as heavy if not heavier than a standard tubed system.
This leads to our next issue… compatibility. Tire/Rim compatibility can sometimes be sketchy. You can have a well-taped rim and a tubeless specific tire, but still have burping issues if your rim bed is not properly shaped or built up.
Next, one must consider upkeep. Tubeless tires need to be removed from the wheel, cleaned, and resealed every 6 months or so. For cyclocross, the season barely lasts 5 months so this may not be a real issue for most, but you still must observe and maintain fluid levels throughout your season.
Again, with the right equipment, there aren’t many cons… But if you do not have a clincher system that is already prepped for tubeless, consider a conversion kit (heavy) or latex tubes (light). My take on latex tubes here.
For the versatility, performance, and ease of use of tubeless systems, I think they are a great option for the casual rider, aggressive rider, or weekend warrior who is ripping up the local CX scene. With any setup however, you must make considerations of what will work best with budget and commitment level. If you want great performance at the best price possible, tubeless is it.