He then mounted the tires and let everything dry and set for 24 hours, then checked them again. Finally, he had me take them out on a ride and then looked them over one last time. Do I discern any performance advantage over clinchers? Not really. For heaven's sake, Chrissie Wellington runs clinchers and they seem to suit her just fine.
The truth is that I bought those tubulars largely out of curiosity. I was also driven by fear—fear of not doing everything I could to be as fast as possible. I don't know if I'd make the same choice if faced with the decision today.
Speaking of fear, tubulars make for thrilling stories, both tragic and exhilarating. I remember watching footage from a Tour de France stage finish in the 1980s where a lone breakaway rider had only a couple of turns to clear before a career-defining victory. Unfortunately, he rolled a tubular off his rear wheel in one of the final corners, went down, and while he waited for a replacement wheel, a chase group came through and was gone.
The reality is that a well-glued tubular shouldn't ever roll off, as long as glue is not allowed extra time to dry out and become brittle. While over-glueing your tires will ensure they'll never roll off, doing so negates any potential savings in rolling resistance. Furthermore, in the case of over-glued tubulars, you may not be able to get them off if you need to fix a flat out on the road. Remember Normann Stadler trying in vain to pry off a punctured tubular while broken Kona dreams streamed down his face?
Most of the pro wrenches, racers and wheel manufacturers I've consulted admit that the performance gap between tubulars and clinchers has narrowed considerably, if not completely. A little more than half of them claimed that nothing feels or corners as well as a tubular. After pressing them on the issue, this is generally what they say:
"Well, I'll be frank with you. If I weren't a sponsored rider/didn't work for a wheel manufacturer, I would probably own a single set of high-end wheels: a mid-to-high-profile, all-carbon clincher. We've gotten to the point where the real-world differences are minimal and all-carbon clincher rims and new, multi-durometer clincher tires really are that good."
Believe in All-Carbon Clinchers
I've been running high-end, all-carbon clinchers on my road bike for the past two years, and I must say that I'm a believer. With the growth in popularity of both cyclocross and triathlon, as well as the increased availability of mountain bike tubulars, it seems that the resurgence of tubulars has ironically surfaced just when clincher technology closed the gap.
This is especially true now that all-carbon clinchers have demonstrated that they can stand up to the rigors of pro road events and prevail. Case in point: The HealthNet Professional Cycling Team presented by Maxxis (a clincher-only tire manufacturer) won four National Racing Calendar titles on Reynolds all-carbon clinchers.