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Adventures in tubeless tire setup

Katie Pothier | Published on 9/5/2023

When you have “too many bikes” it can start to feel like you are always bringing something into the shop. For that reason, I have been making a concerted effort to be a bit more self-reliant with basic bike maintenance. One of those tasks is setting up and changing tires for a tubeless setup.

First words of wisdom are that if you can pay someone else to setup a tubeless tire for you, do it! While it is 100% doable, it will almost always come with frustration and sometimes, those stupid tires just do not want to seat properly! But I had a recent experience where a tubeless tire was not holding air consistently and I had brought it in multiple times, so I figured I was no worse off just trying to muddle my way through it. Below are the steps for setting up a new tubeless tire. You can find videos online of most things but most show a ridiculously easy process and zero headaches so here is a less rose-colored glasses guide:

Step 1: Get the correct tires and the correct width rim tape. Believe it or not, there are still lots of tires out there that are not tubeless compatible (Step 0 would be, is your rim tubeless compatible?). And there are a whole lot of different width rim tapes. The tape needs to fully fit in the rim without interfering with the tire bead but if it isn’t wide enough, it won’t have enough surface area to adhere to before the channel and it will basically lift and allow air (and sealant) to escape into the channel and out the spoke nipples.

Step 2: Mount the tire on the rim (or a spare rim that you have). Yep. Do this before you even start the tubeless setup process because tubeless tires are tight and evil and you will wreck your hard work manhandling the thing onto the rim. So, stretch it out a bit by mounting it. You can let it sit on your deck in the sun for a bit beforehand too. After it has sat mounted for a day or two, remove it for the next step.

Step 3: Clean and prep the rim. You can use soapy water to clean it, but the last step is to use rubbing alcohol which evaporates quickly. Debris and adhesive do not make a good seal, nor does moisture and adhesive.

Step 4: Start on the side of the rim opposite the valve stem hole. Center the rim tape and push down into the channel (pull a little bit for tension, rim tape is a bit stretchy). Slowly work your way around the rim and continue past your start point by about 6 inches. If you are doing a higher-pressure tubeless setup, like a road wheel, you may want to do continue for another lap around. For gravel and MTB, one is fine.

Tubeless setup step 4a
Tubeless setup step 4b

Tubeless setup step 7
Step 5: Get that tape fully stuck to your rim! One of my tubeless misadventures resulted from a CushCore liner pushing into the channel and causing the tubeless tape to lift and then migrating sealant lifting it further. I ended up using a hairdryer to heat the tape adhesive and soften it a bit, while I ran my thumb along the channel and then a tire lever (carefully) along the edges inside the rim (in the same direction that you applied the tape so you don’t work against the overlap seam).

Step 6: Insert the tubeless valve stem by poking a very small hole in the tape at the valve stem location (I’ve used a hot nail for this and have poked from the outside of the rim and made a small indent in the tape and then used that as the guide for the hole location). Then you can guide your valve stem through the small starter hole. Pay attention to how the wedge of the valve stem sits in the channel (some valve stems have a specific orientation direction). On the nut that goes outside of the rim and tightens it in place, there is a little rubber gasket. Do not lose that. Hand tighten the valve stem (do not use pliers as you can damage your rim overtightening it). Word of caution here. This may be optimistic. One of the approaches when having issues seating a tire properly is to mount the tire with a tube, seat the tire, then break the seal on one side only, remove the tube, and then replace with the tubeless valve stem. So if you end up doing that, you will be removing this valve stem in order to use a tube.

Step 7: Now comes the hard part. Get that tire on without nicking that gorgeous rim tape you’ve installed. Pay attention to the rotation direction as you do not want to repeat this step unnecessarily. A warm tire helps. You can even use soapy water to get the last bits over. Avoid using a tire lever if you can as they nick the tape when they slip. There is a tool for mounting a tubeless tire that sits on the rim on one side and then pulls up on the tire (and creates leverage when doing so). That works pretty well but will still do damage if it slips so be careful. If you nick the tape, you probably should just stop and start over. A little nick near the very edge of the tape may be fine but anywhere near the channel is game over.

Tubeless setup step 8
Step 8: Remove the valve core from the tubeless valve stem. Now use a vehicle air compressor or tire inflator on the wide open valve (it’s a Schrader style valve at that point). This is to allow as much air through the valve as possible as you need it to push the tire out of the channel and into the edge of the rim. You should hear loud bangs as the tire bead locks in (multiple times). If your tire is able to get up to pressure, things are looking good! If it is not, and you are using an air compressor and not a floor pump, then you may need to do the tube approach which requires you to remove one side of the tire from the rim, remove the tubeless valve stem, put in a tube, reinstall the tire, bring it up to pressure with the accompanying bangs, deflate, break the seal on one side, remove the tube, reinstall the valve stem, reinstall that side (all while not shifting the other side and breaking the seal), and then attempting Step 8 over.

Step 9: Do a dry fit test. You can skip this, but you may end up with a bigger mess so I’d recommend it. When you removed the pump off of the wide open valve, it will have rapidly deflated. Reinsert the valve core and then pump up the tire to your normal tire pressure. Now see how long it holds pressure for. If it is still firm when you come back to it, you are good to move on. If it is very soft, you are not getting a good seal somewhere and you will likely have to go back to Step 3 (SORRY!).

Step 10: Remove the valve core and inject tubeless sealant into the tire using a syringe. Put in the amount recommended for your wheel size and tire diameter. Reinsert the valve core and then shake, shake, shake it! Inflate your tire now and you should be good but watch for bubbles! A little bit along the edge of the tire is okay. If it is at your valve stem, you can try to hand tighten it a bit more. You can also put it on your bike a go for a very quick ride to help work all of the edges of the tire in fully for the final seal. If you have bubbles at the spoke nipples, then back to Step 3 for you (SORRY!).

I hope you’ve successfully navigated this game of Sorry! And now have a beautiful baby tubeless tire setup to be proud of. If you do not and you have the patience and time, you can keep trying. Otherwise, no shame in handing it over to the professionals so it becomes someone else’s problem. I’m not a fan of tubeless for road tires (way too finicky) but I do think they are the way to go for offroad riding. There are a lot of factors can impact setting up a tubeless tire. Some tires are notoriously difficult to seat. Some tubeless tape is garbage and is barely sticky. When you are frustrated, I want you to know that you are not alone. I have probably made every possible mistake and hit every possible roadblock when it comes to tubeless set up. But. I CAN do it and that is an accomplishment that I am proud of. Good luck! May the odds be ever in your favor!