A debate I often refuse to get into online involves tyre inflation / support systems, primarily because most people online these days simply want to justify why they have what they have and not because they have tried them all and really know what they need. So, I write this from experience, having used all systems and ridden over 500,000 km in the last 15 years on motorcycles, everything from S1000RR road bikes to 300 cc 2-strokes and a bunch of middle weight and heavyweight adventure bikes in between.
This is not a tyre debate either as I am not going to mention tyres after this paragraph; however, tyres do come into it, a lot. Tyres with softer side walls and tyres that are generally less strong in the carcass / side walls will inevitably suffer more punctures at comparable pressures to those that are stronger / stiffer.
Moving onto inflation systems, they all aim at achieving the same thing, offering support within the tyre for the user. This support is also effectively part of the suspension system on the bike. I’m going to share some of my thoughts, pros and cons of each system based on experience and also the types I choose for different scenarios. You can then formulate your own decision on the type you wish to go with.
Let’s first look at the three main and most common types these days, Tubes, Tubeless and Mousse. I will then add the Tubliss system, a much less common system but interesting to include.
Tubes: This is the simplest and oldest variant on the market and is basically a rubber tube that fits inside the tyre and holds air pressure.
- Offer variable pressure for different scenarios
- Available nearly anywhere in the world; everywhere you see motorcycles you can get tubes.
- Easy to carry spares (pack down small)
- Can run extremely low tyre pressures if rim-locks are used to stop tyre turning
- Can be repaired if tyre damage occurs (within limits)
- Can be used in repaired tyres, i.e., if the tyre carcass is damaged and stitched, you can make this work by layering inside of damaged tyre.
- Very good at staying inflated even with cracked or mildly bent rims
- Probably the cheapest and most readily available solution all over the world
- You have to remove the wheel and tyres to gain access to it in order to carry out the repair
- Repairs are not always successful
- Suffer from pinch flats (snake bites)
- Pressure fluctuates with temperature
Tubeless: This is where the tyre and rim create the sealed volume for the air. Essentially the same as a tubed setup but without the tube. Most common on road bikes and big adventure bikes.
- Unsprung weight saving – no tubes
- Small punctures can be repaired from the outside using a tubeless puncture repair kit without removing the wheel / tyre from the bike. This is often much faster
- Offers variable tyre pressures
- Not susceptible to pinch flats (snake bites)
- Rim and tyre both have to be tubeless type / tubeless ready
- Not suitable for low tyre pressures as they typically do not support rim-locks due to seal
- Useless if you get a cut or major damage in the tyre; hard to stitch and reseal the tyre
- Need to carry tubes in the event you damage your tyre or rim
- Cracked or bent rim can cause leaks.
- Pressure fluctuates with temperature
Mousse: A solid nitrogen filled foam insert, no air required. This provides a fixed pressure, usually more suited to off-road between 12 and 20 psi.
- Not susceptible to punctures – No punctures!
- No pinch flats, debris can stay stuck in it and it will keep performing
- Stable pressure, does not fluctuate with temperature
- If serviced and maintained as suggested / recommended, can last for extended periods of time completely puncture free.
- Can handle badly bent, damaged, cracked or even split / broken rims without losing pressure
- Only suitable for certain tyre sizes and rim widths as advised by manufacturer
- Installation process can be complex and requires special tools if not experienced
- Risk of overheating due to weight, speed or incorrect installation / application of use
- If you are using for extended distances, definitely carry a tube in case of premature failure although if operating within limits, normally not required
- Not strictly road legal
- Cost: the price you have to pay for this puncture-free riding
Tubliss: The last system I would like to mention is the Tubliss system. This is an inflated insert fitted within the bead area of the tyre allowing effectively a tubeless main tyre with a rim lock. More suited to small and mid-sized adventure bikes. Personally I didn’t have good success with this and don’t feel I have a need for it today but I like to mention the solution it offers.
- Ability to use very low tyre pressures with bead / rim lock without a tube
- No pinch flats as there is no tube
- Ability to repair punctures of main tyre from outside like tubeless, no need to remove wheel.
- Complex system to install relative to the above
- Only available for certain rim sizes and widths
- Not recommended / suitable for high speed use
- Still need to carry tubes because there is a possibility of puncturing the device itself and this will leave you stranded.
- As with tubeless, if you need to repair the tyre, you would still want to carry a tube as this system won’t work with a damaged tyre repair (stitch for example)
- Cost: a relatively expensive solution
For me, the only three systems I use now are Tubes, Tubeless and Mousse.
I use tubes in my adventure bikes generally. I prefer not to use the ultra heavy duty tubes because they are super heavy and add a lot of unsprung mass which hinders suspension performance and can also overheat in certain conditions. Heavy duty tubes are typically harder to patch successfully as the tube stretches differently to the patch making it hard to stay stuck. Inner tubes are a mix of natural and synthetic rubber. Natural rubber is more pliable and offers better resistance to punctures, but synthetic rubber is cheaper. Expensive racing tubes such as Michelin or other top brands generally have a higher percentage of natural rubber to better form the tire and to prevent flats. I prefer using good quality branded tubes of circa 2 mm (enduro duty) of more natural rubber than synthetic. These are not as light as the light weight standard duty tubes but offer increased resistance to pinch flats, are repairable, and split (destroy themselves) far less easily than the synthetic types.
It’s often hard to know what you are getting and while I’ve travelled around the world I have had everything from cheap synthetic Chinese tubes that cost $1 each because it was all I could get (and paid the price of their shitness), right through to paying extortionate amounts for branded tubes that have always worked well for me and have been patched multiple times before finally rendering them “well used” and throwing them away. Another thing with cheap tubes is that the valve cores can also pull out or become detached when the tyre / tube gets hot. I had a nightmare with this in South Africa. It all comes down to what you want but this is my take on what works for me. Right now I choose to use Michelin tubes, never ultra heavy duty, just the ones mildly better than the basic standard duty tubes. I always carry at least one front and rear tube spare and repair it when I’m on a long adventure. If I’m not going far and am on a bike with 21-inch front and 18-inch rear, I might just carry a front tube as it will get you out of a bind in the rear also if required.
A couple of extra tips, to save luggage weight and volume of luggage I’d often carry just a standard duty spare tube. In extremely remote locations like desert crossings and rides hundreds of kilometers from the nearest tube supply I would always make sure I had a couple of front and rear standard duty tubes and a patch kit with me for security.
Finally, with regard to rim locks while using tubes, I typically never reduce my tyre pressures low enough (less than 18 psi) on my adventure bikes to require rim locks, so generally don’t bother. I feel that while reducing pressure increases traction, it also increases the risk of pinch flats and since adventure riding is not a race, the slight decrease in performance is not important to me. In fact, I would often just run 25–30 psi all the time, front and rear while travelling around the world, whatever terrain I was on, mostly due to laziness and not wanting to change it.
Moving onto my lightweight bikes and race / rally bikes. On all my lightweight bikes, rally bikes without luggage (max 170 kg wet) and enduro bikes, I use mousses. Now it’s important with a mousse to select the right size for the rim / tyre combination you have, otherwise its longevity / service life will be compromised. Likewise the installation and use of correct type and quantity of lubricant / cooling grease is equally as important. Not many sales outfits really understand the differences in type / fit of mousses and usually it’s those that have had the experience from racing that know what works and what doesn’t. I would say 90% of mousse failures I see are due to poor selection, installation or maintenance yet the product always gets the blame. I genuinely have not had a mousse failure in the past five years since I now understand their limits, the installation requirements, and correct applications / use.
In the small enduro bikes for extreme enduro I use a really soft mousse to increase contact patch / traction and where the speeds are typically low on average. For the enduro and cross country races or general training I use normal enduro mousses (Michelin M15 front and M14 rear) and for rally and the heavier bikes I use rally mousses which are larger, stronger and offer increased pressure, stability, rim protection and longevity (Michelin M02 rear and M16 front).
Now I mentioned before, it is really important to have the correct rim width. Don’t think you can fit a 140 mousse designed for a 2.5” rear rim in a 990 Adventure with a 3.5 or 4” rear rim just because you are using a 140 tyre. The increased rim width will increase the internal volume of the tyre and reduce the effective pressure causing overheating. Likewise, if you put too much weight (luggage) on the bike, it will compress the mousse more causing premature overheating. It is definitely an important equation to get right.
I only use rim locks on the slower speed enduro bikes with mousses to prevent unwanted rotation in wet low-effective-pressure situations. In the rally bike and larger bikes I find the increased speeds generate a hot spot next to the rim lock due to additional compression each rotation causing inconsistencies / imbalance in mousse performance. Michelin also do not recommend the use of rim locks with mousses providing the correct effective pressure / installation is maintained.
One exception to the above, and a very good test indeed was when I suffered terribly with front punctures in Africa on my travels with Basil Bike, my KTM 732 cc Factory Rally Adventure bike. I got so sick of repairing punctures due to thorns and volcanic rock pinch flats (sharp rocks) that after crashing and breaking my hand I decided to try a mousse in the front. I fitted a Michelin M16 rally mousse inside a Michelin Anakee Wild adventure tyre with plenty of Michelin mousse lube which gave a higher effective pressure than in the rally tyres due to the carcass size, probably about 20 psi equivalent. I rode 8,000 km back to Europe with no overheating issues and no flats; it was quite a surprise to me how well it lasted and is a credit to the product. I would not however fit one in the rear of the bike due to the weight of the luggage, nor would I use any other brand of mousse on the heavy bikes like the rally bikes. I’ve had nothing but bad experiences with anything but Michelin mousses in this type of high speed middle-weight bike.
One final example, I did race my KTM 950 Adventure in the UK Rally Championship and used Michelin M02 and M16 rally mousses inside rally tyres. To increase the effective pressure for the heavy weight of the bike and the speeds involved, I lined the inside of the tyre with an inner tube to reduce the volume and increase the pressure from the mousse. I also ran rim locks as the increased torque and stopping power of the bike required them. They always lasted a race weekend but I replaced them regularly due to the increased rate of deterioration in this application. Also, it is important to note that I fitted the correct size off-road rims to the bike: 1.6” front and 2.15” rear A60 rims were used.
With regard to my thoughts on the use of Mousses in heavy adventure bikes, this video is worth watching: Michelin M16 Front Mousse with Anakee Wild Test – Races to Places -Lyndon Poskitt
Tubeless tyres I only really use on my road bikes, primarily because low tyre pressures are not required and most flats on the road are due to the likes of nails and screws. These are easy to repair from the outside and there is little chance of tyre carcass damage.
To summarise, on my long distance adventure rides covering weeks, months or years with all kinds of speeds and terrain involved, I still use tubes. I love to ride extreme tracks and trails on all my adventure bikes and I have damaged the tyre multiple times having to stitch the carcass (see image below from Peru). Also, I find it easy to remove a wheel and repair a tube and the small time it takes (if the technique you use is good) can be insignificant. I’d also like to add that while on Races to Places, five years travelling around the world on Basil Bike using tubes for 234,000 km (but for the last 8,000 km in the front) I only had a total of 31 punctures, that’s an average of one every 7,500 km. Personally I feel it’s totally acceptable to have to stop and remove a wheel to repair a puncture just once every 7,500 km of extreme adventure riding and tubed tyre setups are the cheapest and most readily available all over the world.
If you’d like to see some techniques on fixing a puncture there is a video that might help you here: A simple puncture repair and some tips along the way…
Final summary: I use tubeless on road bikes, tubes on my adventure bikes and mousses on my enduro and rally bikes.
All the best and happy adventures,