Friday, June 13, 2014

Wherein I pit my wits against inanimate objects and prevail, eventually

A goat head thorn in an all-too-familiar pose.
Sit back as I relate a story of misfortune and disappointment, followed by fleeting success, then more disappointment, and finally an apparent victory. It promises to be either a cautionary tale or a triumphant soliloquy.

After a trip to visit my brother in Albuquerque a couple of months ago, our bikes sat forlorn in the bike barn with tires and tubes pierced by hordes of remorseless goat head thorns. My Monocog was one that had been struck, as evidenced by dozens of thorns remaining in the tires. However, the Monocog had been given the tubeless treatment, in effect inoculated against such an onslaught. I pulled many thorns from the tires, yet left a few in; those that had lost their heads and were difficult to remove. Though the tires had lost some pressure, I aired them up to 40 psi and took a short ride. By the end of the ride, Stan's sealant was seeping and coagulating in the many wounds, while the pressure held. Within a few days, any remaining embedded thorns were neutralized.
Goat head thorns in a WTB Exiwolf tire on my Monocog. Note the embedded thorns near the center of the tire.

The same tire after some inflation and spinning. See the Stan's sealant working its magic?
Julie's bike, a Raleigh XXIX was equally afflicted with many goat head thorns having deflated both tires. The difference from my Monocog was that her bike's tires had standard tubes, which were mortally wounded, with far too many holes to attempt to patch. It was then that I realized I had a half full bottle of Stan's sealant, a roll of Gorilla tape, and the resources to make her bike tubeless. I was veritably beating my chest with enthusiasm in the task.

Beaming in my confidence and full of the desire to impart some fatherly skill to be one day valued, I summoned my ever capable assistant. With relish, she took to tire wrangling as she has done since shortly after her birth.
The seal on that bead stood no chance against this 8 year-old with a Park tire lever. The fact that she counts this dress among her favorites brings a tear of pride to ol' Daddy's eye. 

Feeling for thorns protruding on the inside of the tire. Atta girl!

The rear tire gets the same treatment.
 In short order, we had removed the old tires, cleaned the rims with rubbing alcohol, lined the bottom of the rim channels with gorilla tape, and fashioned some repurposed valve stems from unusable tubes. As I started up the air compressor, it seemed as though we were cruising to completion of the project.
Cleaning the inner rim surface. 

A valve stem in a tube about to be repurposed for tubeless use.

Do-it-yourself tubeless tools of the trade.

Valve stem in place.
It was then, that the whole project took a turn for the worse. Even with the power of an air compressor, I couldn't get the beads to set. I tried every trick I knew. I applied water to the rim and bead to no avail. I wiggled and contorted the tire/valve/compressor nozzle interface with no luck. I emptied tank after tank of compressor air into the tires without seating any beads.

I couldn't understand where the problem arose. With a very similar setup on my Monocog, the process could not have been easier, with the tires holding air confidently on the first try. The Raleigh's tires, on the other hand, refused to cooperate. Both bikes had WTB rims of the same model, though not the same year of manufacture, both bikes had WTB not-necessarily-tubeless tires (Stout 2.3 on the Raleigh, Exiwolf 2.3 on the Monocog), and both bikes had the same Gorilla Tape/reclaimed valve stem rim sealing job. After several attempts, I gave up in disgust. The transfer of fatherly knowledge had been derailed.

After a few days of thinking and scheming, I vowed not to retreat. It was time for the split tube method. I dug up a pair of sacrificial 26-inch tubes that had been patched multiple times along the tread perimeter, which wouldn't make a difference for my purposes. Then my assistant and I got to work, slitting the tubes down the outside seam, then cleaning any talcum powder from the rubber. Next, we mounted the flayed tubes on the rims to serve as giant rim strips to be cut to fit later.

Filleting the tubes along the outer circumference molding seam.

This step must be done carefully to avoid damaging the tube.

A tube, split and cleaned. 

A split tube mounted on the rim; ready for a tire to be installed.

Note that the split tube is centered along the rim channel.

Adding two ounces of Stan's sealant, or what she likes to call the tire's "blood" as it serves the same purpose as plasma and platelets in forming scabs to patch holes. That's a biology lesson right there, folks.

The doctor applies the syringe to a patient.
Again ebullient with our pending success, I started up the compressor. Within a few minutes, discouragement began to set in as the beads still refused to seat onto the rim. I repeated the old tricks, but the outcome remained unfavorable.

This time, I would not be defeated. It was time for a change in tactics, as I decided to bring more insistent methods to bear. A faint whimper might have been audible as the tire met the ratchet strap, but I assure you it didn't come from me. However, maniacal laughter, I will not deny.

With a fresh round of compressed air, the ratchet strap applied a positive force to seat the bead to the rim, and any resistance was overpowered. Victory was ours, as the beads popped loudly into place. We spun and shook both wheels to coat the inside of the tire/tube strip interface with Stan's sealant, and laid them on buckets. Over the next couple of hours we repeated the process, adding air as necessary until a constant pressure held. When all seemed right with each tire, I trimmed the excess tube from the tire/rim junction.

At last, parental knowledge transfer through tubeless triumph was achieved!
Getting medieval on it.

Check pressure, add air, shake and spin, rest on a bucket. Repeat.

Trimming the excess split tube.
I am happy to report that the final outcome has been in service for about a month, without negative relapses. Realizing that many people have experienced similar struggles in the quest for tubeless-ness, this is just one story. However, I hope that it will serve as encouragement to others to persevere in the face of adversity. I, for one, am wiser for the experience, and enjoyed some valuable kid/dad camaraderie.

Next up on the tubeless quest will be an attempt to finally do it the right way, for once, with all officially sanctioned tubeless parts. Stay tuned!


  1. You've learned all the tubeless lessons in very short order. Once you step up to proper tubeless gear, it gets much easier.

    I've found that the split tube method can be more challenging to capture air, as the filleted tube will suggest the tire bead towards the center channel, rather than the bead shelf where a tight fit can be made. But, the split tube serves to make a tighter fit against the rim, as a result of its thickness. The only other solution is several layers of Gorilla Tape.

    Now, I always install a tube in the tire and air it to max psi to properly adhere any tape to the rim surface. This is a lesson learned from leaking sealant at the spoke holes. Once Stan's begins to seep under adhesive tape, it may slowly work its way further. Another benefit of using a tube at this stage, is that you can leave one tire bead firmly on the bead shelf. When finally adding air to the tubeless system, only one side is losing air, as the other is already sealed.

    1. Good suggestion on using a tube to seat the tape. I'll do that next time for sure. Tubeless, once past the setup phase, definitely seems the way to go for long-term trouble free riding.

  2. Nice job, Andy. I've found it best to use a tube with a removable valve core so that the sealant can be refreshed as it dries up. Maybe you did that though? QBP tubes have removable cores.

    1. Thanks, Gary. I thought about removable valve cores, but didn't have any on hand. I'll have to separate a section of the bead to add sealant on these. Good to know QBP are the tubes to seek.

      Hope you're doing well.

  3. I've been thinking about converting my tires from tubes to tubeless (spent over $100 in tubes) in the last two months.. and I'm getting tired of it.

    What was your reason for going tubeless?

    1. It was equal parts inspiration and personal challenge. When it actually worked, and worked well, I was a convert. Saving money is great, but it also saves in the hassle of patching tubes in the thorny areas where I ride.