Tubeless vs Tubed And How To Choose The Best Tires For Gravel Riding

It could be argued that tires are among the most critical bicycle components, and their setup significantly affects the ride quality and the overall reliability of any type of bicycle. Things like tire rubber compound, volume, air pressure and tread pattern directly affect traction, braking, stability and rolling resistance. When tires fail, they’re often one of the more frustrating mechanical issues to deal with on the road or trail. If you break a chain or a derailleur, you can often limp your way home (or to the bike shop) with a quick temporary fix. On the other hand if you suffer, say, a rather large tire sidewall cut, your likelihood of staying on the bike is greatly.

I am a longtime tubeless convert. Years on the mountain bike on rocky and technical trails have convinced me that the benefits of tubeless tires for off-road riding are unquestionable, including:

  • Smaller punctures are sealed quickly by tubeless sealant, often without you even noticing them.
  • Traction and ride comfort are greatly improved.
  • You are able to run lower tire pressures which really allows the tires to stick better to the contours of the terrain.
  • Pinch flats become a thing of the past (although there is a risk of rim strikes with lower pressures).

While all these advantages are recognizable for the high-volume tires of mountain bikes, I’ve always been rather doubtful about whether or not the same benefits are apply to the much narrower and lower volume road tires. Gravel bikes bring an several in-between sizes that combine elements of road and mountain bike tires, with some gravel tire sizes now often approaching mountain bike-like territory in terms of volume. With this in mind, there is no doubt that gravel bikes would also be able to reap the rewards of tubeless setups.

The tubeless world is not without its problems, though. All the benefits without any drawbacks would be too good to be true. Some of the frustrating things about tubeless are:

  • Some tire/rim combinations can be troublesome to and setup reliably.
  • If you break a spoke you have to remove the tape for repair, then replace with new tape and reseat the tire and replenish sealant.
  • For obsessive tire changers: if you’re not careful with how you use your tire levers, you can easily pinch or cut your rim tape, requiring replacement.
  • Sealant dries up and needs topping up and frequent replenishment.
  • You still have to carry a tube! Sidewall tears do happen to tubeless tires and sealant can’t seal those.
  • When your tubeless setup fails and you have to put in an inner tube, it’s a rather messy process with all the sealant inside.

That being said, tubeless tire and rim technologies are getting much better in terms of ease of setup and reliability. You do need to pay attention to wheel and tire choice in order to have a fairly trouble-free tubeless experience. Even if you have the best frame, latest and greatest gravel wheels and put lots of cash into making sure you have what you believe is the best components for your bike, the wrong tire choice can result in a lot of frustration on your rides, so it is best to choose an appropriate tire width and rubber compound for the type pf terrain you ride. Keep in mind that, if your riding conditions or terrain changes, tire choice might need reconsideration to keep your setup as reliable as possible.

One of the things you should consider doing is matching your rim width to tire widths. Additionally, pick high-quality rim tape, tubeless valves and sealant. Two of the most popular sealant brands are Stan’s and Orange Seal. Both companies now offer several variations of their original formulas with properties to match different riding needs and conditions, and products from both companies work very effectively. In my experience, Orange Seal seems to be very good at coating the inside of tires with porous sidewalls, resulting in a better overall seal that reduces the need for frequent air pressure top-ups, while Stan’s Latex-based formula seems to seal larger holes with slightly more effectiveness. Note that if you have a latex allergy you might want to avoid latex-based sealant formulas.

Buying the right gravel tire

As previously mentioned, the main consideration when shopping for new gravel tires should to be the type of terrain you will be riding. Are your gravel roads smooth and lack potholes and loose surfaces? If yes, then you probably don’t want a tire with aggressive tread that will add rolling resistance. Conversely, if your usual routes have loose gravel, sharp rocks and lots of potholes then choosing a tire with more robust sidewalls and a more pronounced tread will allow you to ride with more confidence on this type of road surface.

Your frame tire clearance is a very important factor in determining your optimal tire size. Not only does the tire needs to fit when inflated to riding pressure, but also also leave some room in the event of your tire picking up mud or debris that could rub againt the frame and cause damage especially on carbon fiber frames. Optimal tire widths for mixed terrain rides are 32-35mm. If your rides are mostly on loose gravel surfaces, you may benefit from larger volume tires in the 25-43mm and up range.

The rougher and looser the road surfaces, the more aggressive your tire’s tread pattern should be. Some tire manufactures offer various tread versions of the same tire model to suit different road surfaces, like the Panaracer GravelKing range of tires.