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Road Wheels and Tires…Clincher or Tubular?

There was a time when you trained on your heavy clincher wheels, and you saved your super-zoot, lightweight, fast, big-bucks tubular wheels and tires for race day. But times have changed…

Nearly all of you reading this article ride on clincher wheels and tires, and I may be the only one in Southern Utah left riding tubular tires, or as they are also called, “sewups.” I’ve even encountered experienced riders who have never even heard of a sewup or tubular tire, although decades ago they were the race standard. When you look at old black and white European racing photos from the ‘40s and ‘50s, quite often you’ll notice racers have a tire wrapped around their neck and under their arms. Those are tubular tires. Everybody raced on them. Actually, most Tour de France cycling teams still use tubular tires, and we’ll discuss why you probably shouldn’t…and why they do.

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Here’s the Cliff’s Notes on the physical difference between clinchers and tubulars. Clinchers, as you all know, are open like an automobile tire. Although there are new tubeless clinchers (a great idea), the majority of clincher tires use a separate innertube, which we will call a “tube,” just because we are rather casual. Tubular tires are closed off where they meet the rim, and usually sewn up (that’s why they’re called sew ups, duh). The tire is enclosed and continuous, much like a hula hoop made from a piece of garden hose. Tubulars also use a tube, which in most tubular tires is separate from the casing, but in at least one brand, Tufo, the tube and casing are bonded together (which makes their sealant far more effective.) And while a clincher tire is pulled onto the rim like an automobile tire is, tubulars are affixed with either glue (also known as rim cement) or a very convenient and tidy glue tape that attaches to the rim and holds the tire on. Brands of tubulars I can recall off the top of my head include Vittoria, Clement, Hutchinson, Continental, Michelin, Bontrager, Veloflex, Panaracer, the aforementioned Tufo, and even Specialized.

There are many advantages to today’s modern clincher tires, and a few important advantages to contemporary tubulars. I’m not strongly advocating one over the other, even though I’ve logged over 215,000 miles on tubulars since 1983; training, racing, and just rolling, but all my wheels are tubular wheels. Clincher and tubular wheels are different, and not compatible. Here are some characterizations of both types of wheels and tires…

conti-competition-tub-cutNewer clincher tires are lighter and have a suppler ride than those of twenty years ago. They approach the feel of tubulars. The differences used to be more dramatic, with clinchers riding harsher, but the gap has narrowed and clinchers are now very comfortable. Clinchers also have good rolling resistance that rivals the low rolling resistance of a good tubular tire. Clinchers are far less costly, too. A decent tubular can be had for $50, but it seems like $60-$100 is more the sweet spot. And you can spend $390 on a Continental Olympic II track tire that is meant to be pumped to 220 psi. Yeesh!! That would buy a set of four tires for your Subaru Outback!

Flats are generally easier to change on a clincher wheel, because you usually just swap or patch the tube and you’re on your way. Changing a tubular takes 15 minutes to an hour (or longer if there are complications), depending upon your experience, patience, and anger management skills. I use sealant in my tubulars, so I rarely have a flat. And that’s good, because when you finally have a flat with a tubular tire, you throw the tire away. Sewups can be repaired, but it’s an exercise in futility, with about a 20% success rate. One small advantage is you can actually ride five or ten miles on a flat tubular, as long as you keep your speed down so you don’t damage an expensive wheel.

There are other intimidating qualities to tubulars that tend to scare away the more squeamish and timid. If a tubular is not glued on properly, it can roll off in a sharp corner, which takes the rider down 99% of the time. I have never had this happen. Also, if you ride your rim brakes on a long descent, you can heat the rim enough that the glue melts and the tire can slip, breaking off the valve stem. Again…99% chance of a crash. This has never happened to me, either. If you mount tubulars properly, there are no issues, but most riders newer to the sport are askeerd of tubular tires.

Tubulars tend to flat about half as often as clinchers, which is good because when you do have a tubular flat, it can be an ordeal. Carry a cell phone, and be on good terms with people who own hatchbacks or trucks. Tubulars are not prone to pinch flats that you can get with clinchers when you hit a stone or a crack in the road. Fewer flats, lighter wheel and tire weight, a slightly more lithe ride, less rolling resistance, etc., are the reasons most pro teams ride tubulars.

In the past few decades, clincher wheels have improved immensely, and they have the comfort and rigidity of tubular wheels, albeit usually with a heavier weight. A Zipp Firecrest 303 clincher wheelset weighs 1,625 grams, while the tubular version of the same wheels weighs 1,390 grams. That’s a half pound of rotating weight. The two Campy Hyperon wheelsets I’ve ridden on forever weigh 1,231 grams per pair, while the clincher version is 1,350 grams. A clincher wheelset typically weighs 10%-15% more than its tubular counterpart. Speaking of tubular wheels, if I were to recommend one really good race day choice, it would be the Specialized Roval CLX 40 Tubular R wheelset.

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In the past, most road cyclists have also avoided tubulars because of the frustrating complexity of the mounting process. It’s like learning how to play a musical instrument; you’ll stink for a long time until you practice and eventually get the hang of it. First, you need to have a supply of tires hanging in your garage, curing out of the sun (UV kills tires). I keep two mounted on old rims, stretching, inflated to 100 lbs. so they’re not so difficult to wrangle onto the glued rim. Because I use rim glue tape, removing the old tire isn’t too much of a struggle, although loud cursing seems to help a great deal. I either place the new tire out in my driveway in the sun to soften it up for mounting, or in winter months I’ll put it in a hot clothes dryer for ten minutes. (For some reason, that annoys my wife, especially if I toss the tire in there on top of her unmentionables.) After applying the glue tape securely, I pull the new tire onto the rim, and then make minor adjustments to the alignment until it’s perfect. I remove the valve stem and add some sealant, immediately replace the stem, and pump the tire to 120 lbs. With glue tape, the wheel can be ridden immediately. With old fashioned rim cement, you need to wait a day. I will never use sloppy, sticky, messy rim cement ever again. It’s medieval.

My recommendation to most riders is to stay in the clincher domain, but you may want to have one really nice set of tubular wheels for races or centuries, or just for grits and shins, as they say. If any of you want some instruction on mounting a tubular tire, I’ll be happy to show you in person, but I don’t make house calls. I figure I’ve mounted over 500 of them, and I pretty much have it down. That said, and even though I use tubulars, I don’t ever recommend to anyone that they use tubulars as their everyday wheels and tires because they can be a pain in the posterior. And today’s new clincher wheels and tires are awfully good.

Written by Paul Scarpelli

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3 Responses to “Road Wheels and Tires…Clincher or Tubular?”

  1. Timothy Brogdon on 21 May 2017 at 8:29 am

    Good stuff. I ride both. What about tubeless?

  2. Franz Kelsch on 22 May 2017 at 12:16 pm

    I use both tubulars and clickers. I also used tubeless road tires for a couple years but gave up on those.

    I worked Tech Support for the recent Ironman 70.3 and pulled over to help one rider. He was using tubulars and it would not seal. So I had to call for a SAG for him. Although it is possible to change a tubular on the road, who is carrying a spare tire with them and it would take a lot longer, even if you did, than changing a tube.

    I also use Tufo Tape with tubulars but that does add considerably more rolling resistance compared with glue, according to several sources. Even using Glue, the Continental Competition tubular has a higher rolling resistance that than the Continental 4000 IIs clincher and yet that tubular version is more than twice the price.

    Tubulars do offer the advantage of potentially a lighter wheel. Other than that I am not sure they make much sense for most riders.

  3. Rocco Vaselino on 23 May 2017 at 12:57 pm

    The rolling resistance penalty can be mitigated by increasing tire pressure. Because tubulars are more compliant, the ride is still supple. Minimum inflation on my Tufo tubulars is 125 psi, which is a high minimum. Rolling resistance tests are conducted with all tires inflated to the same pressure, usually 100 lbs., which does not favor Tufo tires. Different tires have different optimum recommended pressure. Cars that I drag raced (on a track, of course) decades ago were usually on tires pumped to 32 psi, but if I ran drag slicks on the back, they worked best for the application at 12 psi.

    Franz, your comments are astute. Thanks.

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