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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  • Neal on

    Funny story, my very first race bike back in 1990 was a Bottechia with Campy Athena. I washed dishes after school for $5 an hour and saved up $1,000 for this bike as a 15 year old kid. It was light blue in color, chrome stays and fork, campy syncro shifting, white saddle, pretty cool bike back then. I told the shop in Brooklyn (which also sold lawnmowers in the offseason, my dad hooked me up since he sold mowers to them) that I wanted tubulars because I knew that is what you raced on but had no idea what the actual process was to glue tires on. So I had a nice pair of Mavic GEL 330’s laced to those Athena hubs. I remember showing up on a group ride with the new bike and someone noticed I had tubulars and asked me what I would do in case I got a flat since I wasn’t carrying a spare tire. I told them the shop gave me a patch kit and proceeded to show them my kit which contained a sewing needle and thread. They had to explain to me how tubulars really worked and one day to see for my self I pulled the tire off upstairs in my room and then proceeded to glue it back on getting glue everywhere..hands, carpet..all over! Funny looking back at that now..

  • Peter Johns on

    Well, a subject I know much about. Until very recently I rode only tubulars. I have glued more tubulars in more ways than I care to remember. Tape is still better and gluing took a hit with the invention of fast tack. I even still had a tube of glue, until I moved and deemed it was not going to used again. The real benefit to tubulars was their were much more supple and comfortable to ride, and they were. Recent clincher advances made clinchers much better and closed that gap. I have not ridden tubeless yet, but my present clinchers are close to the tubulars I rode a few years ago. I was a holdout for many years. But now most new riders have no idea what tubulars are, much less want to mess with glue or tape. In my next ride I will convert to tubeless, but like my present clinchers they will never be as comfortable as my tubulars.

  • Dan V on

    I like to tell people that tubulars still have two relevant use cases for the average amateur racer: cyclocross and criteriums. The logic being that there are still marginal gains to be had by using them, and in both of those races you’re never too far from a pit with a spare bike/wheels. But I still won’t be using them!



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