Do Age Groupers Really Need Tubular Tires?

One argument for tubulars is that most ProTour riders still prefer and ride tubulars. With all due respect, we're talking about a racer demographic that was slow to adopt aero bars, threadless headsets and clipless pedals. Even worse, many Pro Tour riders still believe that a slightly lighter, less aero bike is better on a time trial course with just a tiny hill (it's not).

Former CSC, HealthNet and Toyota-United pro team mechanic, Nicholas Legan, breaks tire selection down to three key considerations: safety, performance and value.

"Safety is a double-edged sword in the clincher/tubular debate. A clincher tire will not roll off a rim like an improperly glued tubular can in extreme situations. Often this is due to poor gluing procedure or impatience on the part of the tire installer. In the hands of home mechanics or shop hands without tubular experience, tubulars seem like the riskier choice.

More: Tech Talk: Can You Buy Speed?

"There is a flipside to this portion of the debate though: When a tubular is properly glued, it will not come off the rim, even after a puncture. This is a huge advantage because the rider is not suddenly riding on a bare aluminum or carbon rim.

"Performance—now here's where we get into the slippery world of subjectivity. There are many professionals today who have never or rarely raced on tubulars. That being said, most professional cycling teams still race on tubulars.

"Why? Well, tradition is a part of it, as well as the fact that pro teams employ professional mechanics to deal with wheels and tires. What's more, most of the funding that wheel and tire manufacturers spend is currently directed at clincher technology. With the recent advent of tubeless road designs the options are increasing even more."

More: Buying Time: Which Aero Equipment Offers the Most Benefits?

Which brings us to a nod in Steve Hed's direction, whose new product development efforts warrant tech articles all their own. With the development of HED's Ardennes rim models, 23mm tires -- tubular and clincher—sit lower and rounder in the rim beds, instead of protruding from the rim in a bulbous shape. Sidewall deflection (or flex) is decreased, so that the tires' contact patch with the road is shorter and wider.

HED claims that all those factors contribute to lower rolling resistance, in addition to improved aerodynamics. The rounder shape of the tires acts more like a fairing, transitioning more fluidly into the wider rim interface and along the rim's surface to its nose.

But HED wheels certainly aren't cheap, which brings us to Legan's final angle of his three-pronged argument: value.

"For most riders and racers, clinchers are where it's at for value. A single high-quality tubular can cost as much as the best set of clinchers. Add to the mix the labor costs of having tubulars professionally glued and the fact that an expensive spare tire (and not a $5 inner tube) should be carried when training on tubulars. All this virtually makes riding tubulars a race-only affair, and that's not an ideal situation, either. The last thing a nervous, highly-caffeinated athlete needs is a wheel and tire set up that is foreign to him or her.

More: 7 Steps to Find Your Tri-Specific Bike

"A better solution is an ultra-slick set of carbon clinchers with high-quality tires that an athlete isn't afraid to train on. It's nice to know that on race day you know what your wheels are capable of, what the braking is like, how they react to crosswinds, etc."

And finally, Legan drives it all home with conclusions I share—such as how the choice can positively affect your racing and results:

"Why clinchers? Because they are real-world practical. I only have to carry a $5 spare tube. I don't risk a $75 tubular when I puncture. I also know that I can easily fix them roadside and I have no reason to abbreviate my ride if I flat because I'm worried about rolling a spare tubular. Both tubulars and clinchers have their advantages, but for me, when spending my hard-earned play money, I'll spend it on clinchers. Everything from Paris-Roubaix to NRC titles have been won on clinchers. It will never be my tires holding me back."

More: Bike Buying Guide: What to Consider When Buying a New Road Bike

Active logoReady to ride? Search for a cycling event
  • 3
  • of
  • 3

Discuss This Article