You hear someone touting the superiority of tubular tires on almost every group ride.
Someone asks someone else what they recommend in the way of race wheels, and although the brand will vary, there are generally three constants: carbon, deep section and tubular. Then the discussion shifts to tubular tire brands and how best to mount them.
Oh, and this part is not only about the convenience of the new adhesive tapes or the importance of using as little glue as possible (even though three layers on the rim is generally recommended). No, it's also about being aware that the bottom layer of a tubular is itself held to the rest of the tire with adhesives, some of which may be incompatible with certain glues.
Just as you notice the listener becoming intimidated by the thought of mounting tubulars and changing flats, the advice-giver quickly switches from the practical issues to the performance arguments:
- Tubulars provide lower rolling resistance
- Tubular wheelsets boast lower overall weight
- Tubulars corner better
- Tubulars are safer in the case of a flat tire
- Tubulars are less prone to pinch flats
- Most pros use tubulars
- And everyone's favorite: Nothing compares to the "feel" of a tubular
I am here to reassure you that despite the arguments above, you do not need to use tubulars. After months of interviewing manufacturers, elite riders and equipment experts of all kinds, I am convinced that if you are more fit than a competitor, you will beat them (or vice-versa) regardless which tire system you use. However, this article is not about which system is better; it's about which system is better for you, and why tubulars do not make sense for the overwhelming majority of riders.
I'm not anti-tubular. I run a great set of tubulars on a deep-section wheelset that live on my TT bike, because when I was looking at aero wheels, I figured every hundredth of a second counted. I had a pro mechanic triple-glue my rims over three or four days with ultra-thin coats of an excellent, compatible tubular glue and likewise prep my expensive tubulars with a very thin coating.
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: