Condensed Answer: A tubeless tire can operate with regular inner tubes just fine. People who run a tubeless set-up often have a spare inner tube in their kit for situations when the tire is too damaged for the sealant to close the puncture.
That said, an inner tube is not particularly easy to use with tubeless tires because:
1. The sealant in the tubeless tire is sticky and makes it more difficult to put in a tube.
2. Tubeless tires have thicker sidewalls making it difficult to mount them onto a rim.
Differences Between Tubeless and Standard Tires
Tubeless tires do not have an inner tube. Instead, they’re filled with sealant which seals small punctures in the tire as soon as they occur.
To prevent burping (leakage) during the installation of the tire, tubeless tires have thicker sidewalls (sides) than standard “tubed” tires.
- Tire Bead
The tire bead is the part of the tire that gets hooked onto the rim.
Tubeless tires tend to have tighter beads of a different shape to create a stronger bond and a tighter seal. The extra security is needed because many tubeless tires operate at lower air pressure. As a result, it’s harder to tightly secure the tire to the rim without modifying the bead.
Meanwhile, standard tires operate with inner tubes and thus have to work at a fairly high air pressure, or else a pinch flat may occur (a puncture resulting from hitting the tire against a blunt object). The tube and the extra pressure increase the security of the attachment points and thus there’s no need to shape the bead differently.
- Air Retention
Standard tires as well as tires labeled as “tubeless ready” have permeable tread. This means they would quickly lose air if they don’t use an inner tube or tubeless sealant.
Conversely, tubeless tires have an extra lining that seals the tire tread to prevent the loss of air.
The downside of this approach is that the tire becomes heavier.
Nothing Stops You From Using an Inner Tube
At the end of the day, tubeless-ready and tubeless tires do not have any qualities making them incompatible with a regular inner tube. The user can always remove the tire, install a standard inner tube with a valve matching the hole of the rim, and re-mount the tire.
In the name of accuracy, one also has to specify that a tubeless set-up would become close to useless if it’s not compatible with an inner tube.
The main advantage of tubeless tires is that they’re immune to small punctures caused by tiny pieces of glass for example because the sealant re-seals the tire as soon as it’s pierced.
However, in the case of a large cut, the sealant will simply start leaking out of the tire and fail to prevent air loss.
The solution to such a situation is to patch the tire with a boot (either a homemade one like a dollar bill or a commercial one), install a tube and then re-mount the tire.
For that reason, even people relying on a tubeless set-up always carry a tube and a pump with them, especially when doing long-distance riding.
FAQ: Do I need to add rim tape when using a tube with a tubeless tire?
First, it’s important to explain the difference between tubeless-ready rims and tubeless rims.
Tubeless-ready rims have holes in them for easier access to the nipples. To use them with a tubeless tire, it’s necessary to cover the rim bed with tubeless tape so that the sealant doesn’t leak through the spoke holes.
A tubeless-ready rim will need rim tape to operate with a regular tube only if it doesn’t have tubeless tape already.
A true tubeless rim, on the other hand, does not have holes on the inner side for easy access to the nipples. Thus, it’s not possible for the inner tube to come in contact with the spokes or the spoke nipples. For that reason, rim tape is seen as redundant when combined with a tubeless rim. After all, the only role of rim tape is to isolate the tube from the spokes, nipples and the spoke eyelets and prevent an internally-caused puncture.
FAQ: What are the main advantages of tubeless tires over regular tires?
Tubeless tires have two main advantages:
- Minor punctures are ruled out because the sealant quickly closes the openings. Thus, if a tubeless set-up is done properly, the rider would experience fewer punctures.
- The absence of an inner tube allows cyclists to run the tires at a very low air pressure because there are no chances of getting a pinch flat. (Normally, the only way to prevent a pinch flat is to pump up the tires to moderate or high air pressure.)
Low air pressure tires absorb more irregularities and have greater contact with the ground. Hence why tubeless set-ups are more common for MTB tires.
FAQ: What are the disadvantages of tubeless tires?
Tubeless tires have the following disadvantages:
- More difficult to install than standard models (the installation requires a compressor)
- The sealant contaminates the inside of the tire. The dirt builds up as you add more sealant over time. Also, the installation process can create a mess in the operation room.
- The sealant can damage the valve core’s entrance.
- An inner tube used for an emergency repair of a tubeless set-up becomes unusable for future projects because it’s close to impossible to remove the sealant that gets on it.