Tubes, Mousses or Tubeless – which is best?
Go back thirty or so years and this headline would make no sense whatsoever. You put inner tubes in your tyres and you ate mousse when you went somewhere posh for dinner.
But fast-forward to the club meetings and racetracks across the world today, and the fight between the proponents of both old and new technology is a regular and passionate one. While half the riders will swear that there’s nothing wrong with air in a rubber tube that has worked since the 1800s, the other half will be totally sold on the new tech that provides puncture free riding in all conditions. But it’s not even that simple as now a proportion of both camps are turning to tubeless systems, mixing them with both tubes and mousses like some tyre-based swingers party.
So what ‘s the best thing to fit your scoot? Cheap and cheerful tubes or something that can’t be flawed by a single nail? We had to investigate …
TUBES, MOUSSES OR TUBELESS?
As technology goes, the humble tube has been there right from the start. The earliest tube system was invented by Scottish engineer Robert Thompson in 1845, before cars were even invented and hence was used on horse-drawn carriages. It was actually far more advanced than later systems, comprising of multiple small inflated tubes within a canvas tyre, thereby making it far more resistant to punctures than later versions. Robert Dunlop developed a pneumatic tyre in 1888 for bicycles that was to be hi-jacked by car manufacturers, and cars continued to use inflated inner tubes separate to the outer tyre for almost 50 years.
Modern tyres for both cars and road motorcycles use tubeless tyres, with tubes being ditched in favour of a tyre that forms a seal onto the wheel. But for off-road bikes this proved impossible due to the lower pressure being run in the tyre, so inner tubes were maintained for all but the very top end factory machines, with riders varying the internal pressure to change the amount of rubber on the track and hence the grip.
Modern options for inner tubes include standard, heavy duty (HD) and ultra heavy duty (UHD) which, as you’d imagine, increase in thickness which in turn decreases the possibility of punctures, both from compression and penetration.
Although you might think they have been around for longer, mousses have only been around since 1984. Developed by Michelin for use on motorcycle endurance races such as the Paris Dakar, the Bib Mousse as it was known – named after Michelin’s mascot Bibendum – was constructed from a ring of butyl honeycomb foam, the holes in which were filled with nitrogen. Although harder to fit, the mousses gave a ride that was all but identical to that of inner tubes, but crucially without the possibility of punctures on these punishing and long races.
This protection from the result-robbing potential of a punctured inner tube meant that in a relatively short period of time other sports were experimenting with using mousses. Now looking through a paddock of any professional motocross championship you will find few top ranked riders that will trust their final positions to an old-fashioned tube of air. Mousses may have their disadvantages, but none of them compare to a championship wrecking DNF.
A range of companies now make mousses and you can find different densities of foam that equate to different pressures.
In a way, this headline is misleading as in reality the only tubeless system on the market for dirt bikes does still use a tube, but not in the same way as a conventional inner tube.
Developed nearly ten years ago by American firm NUE-Tech, the Tu-Bliss system provides a way of effectively making conventional tyres into tubeless tyres. An inner tube, not unlike a bicycle tube, is inflated to 100 psi inside a circular rubber u-shaped band. This forms a seal onto the bead of the tyre, locking the tyre like 360-degree rim lock, and making a second chamber between the rim and the tyre that can be inflated to whatever pressure you want for the best grip.
What is clever about this system is that even if you have zero pressure in the outer chamber, the tyre will not shift on the rim. Although it still can be punctured, that will not end your day.
While the Tu-Bliss system is popular with enduro riders, it’s not been adopted widely within the motocross community with anything like the enthusiasm as mousses, despite having stunning reviews from Motocross Action when the system first came out.
As tyre inflation systems go, the idea of putting individually inflated balls into the tyre rather than an inner tube seems leftfield to say the least. But that has not stopped riders such as Cody Webb and Paul Whibley using the system and taking off-road championships on them.
Invented by racer Wade Summers back in 2003, the Tire Ball system uses multiple chambers within the tyre, all of which can have the pressure altered with a valve like that on a football, meaning that the overall pressure in the tyre can be varied. Pump them all to 8 psi and the overall tyre is thus at equivalent to 8 psi.
Although the technology is sound, Tire Balls have not been the game changing success that Summers might have hoped. They are widely used on military applications and in off-road quads and utility vehicles, but as regards motorcycles – you’d be hard pushed to find many people using them compared to the vastly more popular mousses.
THE PROS AND CONS
There is one major advantage to running tubes, and that is cost. Tubes are vastly cheaper than any of the other options if you take just the purchase price into consideration.
The second if that of weight. Compared to mousses, tubes contribute significantly less unsprung weight to both ends of the bike than a mousse, even if you choose ultra-heavy duty that are about 4mm thick.
Normal tubes can also be repaired at the side of a trail with a conventional puncture repair kit, but for the HD and UHD options this is not as likely to work as the patch will be much softer than the inner tube. More often, riders will carry a spare tube and simply replace it. A front tube can be used for front and back wheels.
Compared to the other methods of inflation, tubes are relatively easy to fit on the side of a trail and without a tyre-changing frame. Which is a good job considering …
Punctures. That’s what you risk with tubes that the other systems get around. And while you can still mend them or change tubes, if you get a flat during a race you’ve lost straight away, and on a trail ride it will crimp your day and that of your mates. Oh and having mended one puncture does not mean you cannot have another two minutes later. And another …
You can reduce the risk by using a tyre sealant liquid, but this is less use for rips or valve tears.
Because of the puncture risk you will need to carry spare tubes (or at least a repair kit), tyre levers, pump and pressure gauge, arguably replacing some of the weight that you saved. A 21-inch tube can be used to replace either back or front tyres, but only once!
Just as the main disadvantage of tubes is that of punctures, the lack of punctures is the fantastically liberating advantage of running mousses on your bike. You will never have another puncture again, and you will almost never have to mess around changing tyres on the side of a trail – genius.
Although many might say otherwise, for trail riding mousses are surprisingly long lived and don’t need any care – they are just ride and go. What could you not like?
Straight off the bat, the high initial cost of mousses makes many wince. At £200 for a set, it’s a high outlay if you compare directly to tubes. However they will last far longer than you imagine if you keep them lubed correctly and you don’t do too much road work. Contrary to popular belief they are not illegal for road use in the UK, but you should check in your own country. That said, bearing in mind you tend to fit a tubeless valve just to seat the rim so it looks identical from a conentional tubed tyre, the possibility of your average member of the constabulary spotting the difference or knowing anything about mousses is small.
Fitting tyres with mousses is trickier – it’s almost like fitting a tyre with a fully inflated tube in place, although crucially you cannot pinch puncture it. If you need to do tyre changing a lot, it’s worth getting a tyre changing frame for around £30 or $50 to avoid taking all the skin off your hands.
You can’t vary the pressure in a mousse once bought, although they do soften over time and you can choose different densities. Some people will say you can drill them to vary the pressure, but our advice is to leave will alone. If you need a softer tyre, buy a softer grade mousse …
Mousses get hot on long road sections and can degrade quicker if you do choose to use them in that way. They are also a touch squirmy at high speeds so lay off the loud button on the fast tarmac corners.
The ability to use different pressures is the main reason that you’d choose the Tu-Bliss system over mousses. The fact that you can take the air right down for bucketloads of grip on stony climbs is a popular feature of the Tu-Bliss system, especially when you are using trials type or hybrid tyres.
Second on the list of advantages is that of weight. The Tu Bliss system comes in at more than a pound lighter than a conventional tube and rim lock on a rear tyre, and several pounds lighter than a UHD tube. As this is unsprung weight, this is a major advantage to handling.
Third up is that of the resistance to punctures. Well – not quite resistance – but a reduced effect if you do have one, as the tyre will stay put and can be ridden on flat without spinning on the rim. Punctures can be repaired with a plugging kit and minimised with tyre slime inside.
Tu-Bliss systems do not wear significantly over time, and all the individual parts are replaceable if they do fail.
Top of the list on the Tu-Bliss is the fact that it still can get punctures, and if the plugs don’t work out on the trail, you are fairly screwed unless you can wrestle it off and have tyre levers, a spare rim lock and inner tube to hand – all of which you’ve probably left behind. Ok you can run it flat, but not for very long with any enjoyment.
Cost comes second as the Tu-Bliss systems are much the same cost as the mousses at the £200 / $280 category for both ends of the bike. Pay up and make your choice.
They are initially tricky to fit too, and you need a special tool and knack to do it – all of which isn’t good at the side of the trail.
As with the Tu Bliss system, the advantage to the Tire Ball system is being able to vary the pressure within the tyre to allow the best traction.
As there are lots of individual cells in each tyre, punctures of any one of them has only a limited effect and will not end your day.
Tire balls apparently make for a far softer ride than any of the previous systems, as impacts tend to just affect one cell, rather than all of them. They are also said to offer more stability on the trail as movement and squirming is far less and the tyre is held in place by the multiple air bladders.
While the ability to change the pressure is there, to do it you have to remove the tyre and adjust every single one of the 25 plus cells – hardly easy or quick outside the garage and useless if conditions change out on the trail.
Outside the US, another major disadvantage is that of availability. Their limited popularity means there are fewer dealers and thus replacement may rely on mail order rather than going down to the local race shop.
Cost wise, Tire balls are going to cost you the same as the mousses or Tu-Bliss systems so there’s no cost advantage or indeed disadvantage.
SO WHAT DO I BUY?
MOUSSES, TUBELESS OR TYRE BALLS?
AT A GLANCE
When we asked round the local club, the mix of systems used varied between tubes, mousses and Tu Bliss – no balls at all …
Of the regular riders that were out every weekend, few still used tubes, and the ones that did were well practiced in changing tubes out on the trails, even if that really hacked off the other guys on mousses who were left waiting…
Cost seemed to put off the die-hard tube lovers, despite the obvious advantages to never having another puncture in their life and the disadvantages of constantly carrying tubes and levers etc.
Tu-Bliss are increasingly popular, with the majority of rider fitting these to back wheels only, teamed with a mousse up front. The choice for the rear was often twinned with a trials tyre and was more likely to be the option on tricky and technical trails. Those that use them love them.
For our money, while we really like the Tu-Bliss product, we’d choose mousses all the way as they offer a one stop ‘fit and forget’ option for your tyres – nothing else comes close. They may require a knack to squeeze into your tyres but it’s not impossible and you won’t be doing it often.
As for the cost, for trail riding a set will last up to three years if looked after and lubed on each tyre change so that’s £60 a year – pin money for the peace of mind.