Tired and Confused?

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Unless you are lucky enough to live somewhere that escapes winter's icy grip, there is a special set of hazards everyone else has to deal with to keep rolling year-round: the cold, the dark, the precipitation, and changes in traction. And winter conditions are a potential hazard on high mountain passes all year. Put them all together, and make way for a new frontier in adventurous riding.

Motorcycle tires have come a long way in the last 30 years. Apart from improved tread compounds and patterns, two major innovations - tubeless technology and radial construction - are now standard on most sportbikes and sport-touring machines.

Tubeless tires in particular offer a number of benefits over the older tire-and-tube system. Reduced weight, lower cost, faster assembly in the factory all benefit the manufacturers, while repairing a punctured tubeless tire - a temporary repair, anyway - is a lot easier than the old fix of having to remove a wheel, lever off the tire and stick a patch on the tube.

Tubeless tires have other advantages, too. In the typical nail-in-the-tire type of puncture, a tubeless tire will usually deflate much more slowly than a tube, which can sometimes lose air very rapidly. It could be the difference between sensing that something isn't quite right with the bike's handling and a high-speed get-off. A punctured tubeless tire may hold enough air for you to get home with a couple of gas station pump-ups, but this rarely happens with a tube.

Why, then, with these advantages, do some motorcyclists still fit tubes when they don't have to?

The choice between tubed and tubeless becomes less clear if you're traveling farther afield. Most dual-purpose motorcycles of the type popular for adventure travel riding use a traditional wheel design laced with spokes. And while in theory it might be possible to seal a typical spoked wheel rim, in practice almost all of these wheels required a tubed tire. The exception is the edge-spoked rim used by BMW. In this design, spokes are attached to the wheel rim edge outside the tire sealing area, not the center. These work fine without tubes.

If you get a puncture in a tubeless tire, though, manufacturers recommend that the tire be replaced as soon as possible. A tire plugged at the side of the road and even a professional vulcanized plug-and-patch repair is considered a temporary fix. More than once I've ridden thousands of miles on repaired tubeless tires, but the thought that the "temporary" repair could let go was always in the back of my mind. A tube, on the other hand, can be repaired (or replaced) with the expectation that reliability will be unimpaired over the life of the tire. And if you were to hit a rock and bend a rim, the seal on a tubeless tire may fail. This is a lot less likely with a tube.

Worried about the idea of fitting a tube in a tire marked "for tubeless application?" It's not usually an issue - though there may be slightly more heat buildup in the tire, it's unlikely to cause a problem. Of course, neither will you easily find a tube to fit a 190-section tubeless sportbike tire.

And if you're traveling in less well-developed parts of the world, finding a tubeless tire repair center to fix your temporary plug repair may be a challenge, whereas removing tires and patching tubes is almost universal.

There are a couple of other considerations, though. Fitting a tube onto a tire/rim designed for tubeless operation may not be as easy as it looks. Tubeless rims have a different bead design intended to make an airtight seal on the tire bead. That means "breaking the bead" to access the tube is usually more difficult. Tubeless rims typically also have a shallower "well" in the center of the rim, which makes it more difficult to remove and replace tires by hand. But it can be done, and a special bead breaker tool makes the job much easier. Using the side-stand of another motorcycle to press down on the tire bead often works too - but that's not practicable if you're traveling alone.

Weighing the pros and cons leads many "off the grid" riders to fit tubes, even on BMW dual-purpose bikes. So when I bought a well-traveled BMW GS last summer, the previous owner had fitted tubes in the tires, and I decided to keep them when I put on new rubber.

Even in my garage with plenty of tools available (but no bead breaker), two of us struggled for a half hour to break the bead on the rear tire; nor was it an easy task to coax the new cover into place. But the front wheel was even tougher. Although the bead was easier to break, the rim well on the 21-inch wheel is both shallow and relatively narrow, making it extremely difficult to lever on the new tire.

So, will you go tubed or tubeless? For the majority of applications where a tubeless tire was originally fitted, I'd say leave well enough alone. But if you plan a solo assault on the Andes, a tubed tire and a patch kit might be a better bet. And carry a bead breaker!