When I arrived to start my work week on Wednesday, a set of fat bike wheels waited in the workshop. The customer had tried to mount his own tubeless studded tires, and had failed, so he brought them to us.
I was not intimidated by the challenge, having successfully mounted more sets of tubeless mountain bike tires than I can remember. The number isn't huge, but I do my best to forget them as soon as I finish. I've had my ups and downs learning about the aggravating and overly complicated technology so dear to some riders. On mountain bikes a tubeless system makes a little bit of sense, as long as the rider is willing to put up with the inconvenience of their installation and care.
I laugh every time I read anything that extols the weight savings of a tubeless system on a fat bike. Really? You're on a 30-pound clownmobile and all of a sudden to you want to pare a few grams? I have mounted at least one set of tubeless tires on fat bike rims, but I believe I got lucky when that went smoothly.
Nothing went smoothly on this week's merry romp through technolemming hell. The tires were not new. The rims were very wide. The floor of them was not well shaped to catch the bead of the big, floppy 27.5-inch casing. Yep. Twenty-six-inch tires five inches wide weren't behemoth enough. We had to go 27.5.
Undaunted by what I did not know lay ahead, I did not rush to begin the job, dealing with a few other things first. For instance, the compressor died last week, and the new compressor was still sitting in the dark, dank basement in a box. So first I had to go down and up and down and up and down and up with tools and a flashlight, figuring out what I needed to hook up the new compressor to the existing system of air lines that feed our several outlets. The new one was ostensibly identical to the one that just died, but the master connection was different, requiring me to scrounge in our many repositories of potentially useful bits and pieces to find one that fit. Some time after lunch I went through my normal tried-and-true procedure, getting the beads onto the rim, hanging the wheel on the arm of the workstand, pouring in the requisite amount of sealant, and blasting it with compressed air.
I applied nozzle to valve stem and got...nowhere.
Demonstrating Bernoulli's principle in action, the flow of compressed air into the cavernous bowels of the floppy tire casing actually pulled the beads away from the sides of the rim. Sensing that it was probably hopeless, I tried several different ways to apply circumferential pressure to the casing to get the skirts of the bead to catch just long enough to get wafted on their way, but no luck. I headed to the Internet for guidance.
Lots of suggestions came up, including spraying a volatile aerosol into the casing and igniting it, seating the beads with an explosion. The success rate looked like about 50 percent, with the other 50 percent leading to variously humorous incendiary catastrophes. No one was doing it for a paying customer.
Videos abound, of course, of smoothly edited best-case scenarios that don't feature pyromaniacs, that make tubeless tires look like simplicity itself to mount and maintain. Kiss my ass.
Out of all this I figured I would try the suggestion to install the tire with a tube in it to set the beads, and then dislodge only as much as necessary of one bead to allow me to extract the tube and only have to re-set the remaining bead. This meant, of course, removing the tire and extracting the sealant that I had poured in when I expected routine success. Time is money, y'all, and when the method works it's pure gold.
We didn't have any 27.5 fat tubes. I figured a 26 would do for this exercise, since girth was of primary importance. Lacking any salvaged fatties, that meant spooging up a brand-new tube with the sealant residue I had been unable to wipe completely from the inside of the casing. I did what I had to do: seated the beads, gingerly unseated the one, dragged the tube out through the gap, and applied the air again. I had already pulled the valve core out, to deliver the maximum volume possible through the dinky barrel of a Presta stem.
The bead looked tantalizingly close, but no matter what I did I could not get it to engage the rim floor and blow the rest of the way out to its proper seat. Lay the wheel on its side, nope. Squeeze it here, there, and there, nope. I tried more positions than the Kama Sutra. I even did some bondage, wrapping a 29er tube around the outer circumference to squeeze everything in evenly.
Closing time came and went. I hung it up so that I wouldn't stomp it into a pretzel. On Thursday morning the battle resumed.
All the tire needed was something to provide momentary resistance so that pressure would build up inside the tire rather than having a rapid stream of air flow through it. I looked around for shaving cream. Various personal care products have accumulated around the shop over the years, so it wasn't too far-fetched. Unfortunately, the can of Barbasol that I could see in my mind's eye remained a mirage. My reasoning was that the foam would provide an ephemeral dam, and the soap would be no worse than the soapy water recommended to lubricate stubborn beads. I wasn't going to schlog the whole casing full of it, although that would be a good joke. I also thought about whipped cream, because the nitrous propellant wouldn't react with the sealant either. But the milk would sour eventually. It might be okay during the cold months, but come spring it would get nasty.
Some mechanics referred to the "split tube" method of sealing a rim. It was conceived to seal non-tubeless rims, but I believed that a variation of it would provide the resistance I needed at very little weight penalty (lol), and without the need to clean and dry the rim to add adhesive-backed tape layers, as many posters suggested. The less I have to depend on glue, the better.
A 24-inch mountain bike tube offered the ideal circumference and width. That meant that I had to do a treasure hunt to find a couple of punctured ones to cut up, because I wasn't going to butcher new tubes for this annoying project. Then I had to cut my two prizes carefully to get strips that covered the area I needed, no more and no less.
I could shove the rubber strip into the casing of the tire already on the rim, and position it beneath the floppy beads before carefully positioning the beads to minimize the gap. I put the 29er tube on it again before I hit it with the air. No good. Resisting the urge to start wailing on it with a large wrench, I lifted it down from the work stand and bounced it lightly on the floor in a couple of places, while attempting to keep the air flow going into the valve stem. Abruptly the beads billowed outward. The tire gradually seated.
The rubber strip, of course, had shifted so that the edge of it was visible in a couple of places at the edge of the rim. In the official split tube method, the rubber strip is supposed to overlap the rim all the way around. The bead seemed to be sealing okay. I was not going to take anything apart in search of cosmetic perfection.
Having perfected my method, it would be a simple matter to install the final version on the remaining wheel, right?
First I had to remove the non-studded tire that the customer had left in place when he threw in the towel. It was full of sealant, of course, of a different color and unknown type, so that had to go. I had to get rid of the fluid in the tire and clean the rim bed. Then the studded tire for this wheel -- the rear -- was as dirty and gritty as it had been since it was pulled off the rim last spring. Great. I cleaned things up a bit and moved ahead happily with my assuredly successful mounting technique. Starting from a bare rim (except for the existing rim tape that I wasn't going to fut with), I could lay in the 24-inch rubber strip before slipping the beads of the studded tire into the accommodating middle of the rim channel. So far so good. I was going to set the beads before I poured in the sealant this time.
Everything in position, I applied the air and heard the now-familiar rush of no help at all, charging through the interior at 120 psi. Clearly it needed a little something it wasn't getting. I picked up the bottle of sealant, which needs to be shaken vigorously for an hour and a half before every application, and every 22 seconds during installation, to squirt a bit along the beads to create what I hoped would be enough surface tension to work. That, combined with the 29-er tube around the outside, and strategic floor bouncing, finally did the trick. Then I had to deflate the damn thing so I could inject the sealant through the valve stem. The whole time I dreaded the sight of the beads pulling away from the rim. Properly seated, they're not supposed to, but tubeless tires are from Hell. Setting them with fire is actually fully appropriate.
It was now about 45 minutes after closing time. This is one reason I eat supper at 10 p.m. so many nights. Get home, light the fires, feed the cats, clean the litter boxes, prep and cook my own food, muck out the email inbox. Then it's off to dreamland some time after midnight, to be dragged across the jagged lava fields of morning when the alarm goes off in the predawn darkness. I knew better than to call triumphantly to report success. One or both of these tires would be flat by morning.
This morning, the rear tire, the dirty one, lay shriveled on the floor. Fortunately, its beads were still firmly in place, even though it, too, had little bits of the rubber rim strip showing under the bead line in places. No worries. I gave it a shake and roll to distribute sealant, put some air in it, and danced with it some more. The other tire had held up overnight. I added more pressure and listened to the hissing so I would know how to tilt it to get the sealant to concentrate there. It quieted. I put them both in post-op recovery for a couple of hours.
What to charge for this messy job that monopolized hours of shop time? My formula for jobs that I don't really like is to push the price up until the customer winces, but pays it. That way I know I'm getting the absolute maximum that the trade will support. Once people become inured to it, nudge it up again, unless I've learned either to like it or to streamline it sufficiently that it doesn't occupy too much time and energy. We gain nothing by giving the false impression that a particular category of service is casual and worth little. It's especially irksome to get pushback on pricing when a customer has tried it themselves and seen what a bugger it is, and they still want it for cheap. Specialty shops suffer from a tradition in which the staff are either fellow addicts who do it for the love -- which at times was truer of me -- or co-dependent sycophants who need approval.
Years ago we used to change the dinky little pneumatic tires on a certain brand of roller ski, that came with solid plastic wheels with a bead seat diameter of no more than three inches. There wasn't anything to hold onto, and you couldn't use tools or you would puncture the tube. Our listed price for tire changes was something like ten bucks. One big moose of a guy was bringing in a tire job a week. I'd finally had enough. The next one he brought in I charged $35 per wheel. His wife picked up the wheels. Not knowing anything about the price he'd been paying, she just forked over and took them home. I waited. The phone rang. It was the moose. He was a bit irate.
"What's with that price?" he asked.
"Why do you bring the tires to us to fix?" I asked him.
"Because they're horrible to work on! My thumbs get all ripped up, it's impossible --"
"Precisely," I said. Right through the phone I heard the light come on in his brain. No more complaints about the price. He could fight his own battles, find someone who would do the job for less, or come pay us to take the pain. We were both relieved when split rims came out, ending the bitter battles with the tiny, evil wheels.
Initially I put a price of $140 on today's tag. Then, checking prices on line, I felt like I might be pushing it, so I dropped it to $120. On a forum I found people complaining about a shop charging $100 to mount a set of tubeless tires. Forum posters love to pour scorn all over bike shops and their service departments. I saw that hundred bucks and went, "damn right! I know exactly where you're coming from." But average prices among the addicts and sycophants run down around $20-$40. They do us all a disservice.
I have no vested interest in tubeless technology working. I see it as a complete pain in the ass for extremely dubious gains for the average rider. But as long as shops are willing to endure the nuisance and riders are willing to learn to do their own work, the tubeless will always be with us. Indeed, I fear that we will soon be unable to buy a decent rim that doesn't have a "tubeless-ready" bead, making regular tube type tires harder to handle for those of us who haven't run off the cliff with the rest of the herd. Is that they right word for a group of lemmings? You could certainly call it a pride. They head for that cliff full of hubris.
The customer made a face when he saw the bill. I didn't stick around while he checked out, but I guess he gave further evidence that he didn't consider it reasonable. Here's the deal: when you get someone to do work for you, you are buying a piece of their life. That's true no matter what the work is. If it was too hard or too dirty or beneath you, or whatever else compels you to get someone else to do it, you are buying another person's time and effort. It's nice when it turns out not to cost a lot, relative to what you thought it should or would.
When I adopted the bicycle as a vehicle both practical and pleasurable, its simplicity was a huge part of its appeal. Don't complain to me if fashionable complexity has made it inaccessible, temperamental, and expensive. It was the market's choice to make, and as far as I'm concerned it did not choose wisely.