Ask me anything - what ever happened to tubulars?

Ask me anything - what ever happened to tubulars?

All righty, so we had a big storm yesterday, like much of the east coast did. Wind was out of hand, and I kept checking in on URI's Bay Campus web cam to watch the craziness. Joke was on me, though, as a branch took out a bit of siding on the old chateau here. So I get to fix that later. 

I live and work in a pretty town

There are a couple of more complicated topics that really want some explanation, but today I'm going to need a whole lot of coffee just to get through the basics, so I've picked an easy one. Tim, who is an early adopter of HED's Eroica rims that I'm kind of furious at myself for not having photographed (with green I9 hubs, they're spectacular), is still a fan of tubulars on the road, and wants to know if we still sell any and why the demand for them has gone down so much.

Let me make some easy progress by saying I think we sold one set of tubulars last year. A set of carbon disc cross wheels for Raul. We've always sold more clinchers, even back in the early days, so to have sold more clinchers than tubulars is totally unremarkable. We sort of take it that the situation of selling +/- no tubulars has been inevitable for a while. 

There's no wrong time to post an R45D pic. If you look closely, you can find the median income for boutique bike wheel builders in this shot. It's true!

The benefits of tubulars are: 1. carbon tubular rims can be really really light 2. they don't come off the rim if they flat 3. you can ride a flat until the team car brings you a new wheel 4. cross tubulars have traditionally had unmatched suppleness and ability to be used at crazy low inflation pressure 5. the magical ride quality 6. clincher tires used to really suck

Then come the negatives: 1. gluing them is a pain in the butt (but tape, Dave - tape!) 2. if you get a flat, it's a pain in the butt to get them fixed (but sealant, Dave - sealant!) 3. if you get a flat, there's a perception that it's a pain in the butt to change one (if you ride with Pierre, you will be both amazed at how often he can pinch flat on road bajanks, and how incredibly quickly he can change a tubular) 4. the tires are expensiver 5. is that it?

So the big thing is that basically it used to be that if you wanted to ride decent tires, you had to ride tubulars. Now, it's known that the best clinchers have the lowest rolling resistance of any tires, and the aerodynamic info points to an advantage for clinchers there. The TT Worlds and Ironman World Championships keep getting won on clinchers. At TT Worlds I think it's still a toss up as to who's going to use what, but for Tri it seems like that battle is done and dusted. There will always be hold outs for whom the feel of tubulars will always be superior, but at this point I think it's mostly all in the cabeza. 

No true cyclist ever rides clinchers - just ask Fausto Coppi!

Carbon tubular rims can be really light - you can get to like 280g and have a reliable mid-depth rim. But what does that get you? Mostly it gets you a light rim and not much else.

Gluing is a pain. You will not talk me out of that tree. People will say "but tape, but tape" and yes, sure. Tape. You take a bit of a rolling resistance hit with tape, and I have to assume that if you're using tubulars you do it because you want to go faster, so taking any hit is bad. And if you're racing cross and just use tape, we'll see you on the cover of "Rolled Tires Weekly." The method of proper gluing for cross, yeah...

Fixing a tubular flat means either stitching in a new tube yourself, or having someone else do it, or throwing that tire out and replacing it. You can't patch a tubular. You can install sealant in your tubulars, and that might prevent the majority of flats. If you forget to keep the tires inflated, it will also glue the tube shut and ruin the tire. 

As said, you can change a tubular during a ride really quickly. But you have to have a tire with you in order to do it. Not that big of a pain, but a spare tube is easier to carry. 

Not coming off the rim when they flat is nice. Now we have this no true Scotsman thing we talked about recently where some claim that no true tubeless tire is allowed to disengage from the shelf if it flats. That's quite a higher bar than not coming off the rim! 

Being able to ride a flat until the team car comes to bring you a spare is awesome. At least it looks like it on tv, which is where that happens. 

The benefits in cross are real, if you can afford to have a wheel for every tread you want (or, as many people now do, just use treadier files or a Grifo tread for everything). The proper gluing technique for cross tires is, to say the least, extensive. 

You'd fairly have to indict us as having been evangelical about tubeless for cross way back when. Now it seems that tubeless has indeed come to pass for the recreational cyclocrosser. There are probably fewer per capita burps than rolled tires these days, since everyone follows our advice and picks combos that work now (you people realize that half of what I write is tongue in cheek, correct?), and even if it's not perfect and it's no closer to being used to win the worlds than it ever has been, the progress made with it has been enough to take a massive bite out of the tubular market. 

So I think you would possibly sum up tubulars these days by saying "more pain, less gain." And who wants that? So that's what we see as having happened to tubulars. 

Personally, I just installed a set of 28mm Schwalbe One TLEs on my RCGs to be my everything tires for a while. This is the latest installment in our continuing series on "will road tubeless make me fall in love with it this time?" At this point I can tell you that I think my bike looks as lovely as it ever has with these tires on, and that's as much as I know. I rode them on the rollers yesterday during the storm. Maybe outside today?



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You forgot one serious advantage of tubulars… Right now I can buy more lightly used (1000km or less) Zipp 303 or 404 tubular wheelsets (or other top notch brand that is supposed to sell for $3000) for about $300 a pair than I will ever need.

Julien Meissonnier

Hi Pete – That’s totally reasonable, if using tubulars regularly suits you, then this seems like a good way to go. Even carbon tubulars don’t brake that well (they’re much less likely to melt but they’re the same amount likely to slow down) but that should be manageable.


Ok, I’m a midwestern roadie who also goes to Colorado now and then to ride in the mountains. Rim brakes, no disc brakes on any bike. It seems to me that riding carbon clinchers w/ rim brakes in the mtns isn’t the best idea. At least that’s what I’ve read. But…with carbon tubulars, I can get a deeper & faster rim for the midwest, plus I suppose I can ride them with rim brakes in Colorado without too much worry about a rim meltdown. Actually, this is kind of compelling for someone who can’t fathom disc brakes and wants an all around wheel set that’s light and aero. What say you?


Tom – If tubulars work for you, then vaca con dios. This sure wasn’t meant to be a hatchet piece on tubulars, just a statement of their market position and the reasons that we know of that have caused that. Don’t change what works.


Thing is though – if you know how to glue tubulars, then you can just do it and know it’ll work. With tubeless, there are those tires/rims that you end up in tears because no matter what, it will just not seat or is always flat the next morning because you didn’t sacrifice the correct goat to the tubeless gods. For cross you can use whatever pressure suits your fancy and not burp yourself flat. I’ve done in-the-field tubular flat fixes with the single-serve bottles of Stans, but have never managed to fix a tubeless flat on the trail-side.

I’ve had far more pain and suffering with tubeless in the year that I’ve owned any than in fifteen years of tubulars.


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