I’m not trying to say I’m the king of old school but few of the recent “innovations” in cycling pique my interests. Tubeless road tires, electronic shifting, road disc brakes, none of this stuff will make it onto one of my bikes anytime soon. So I find it interesting that a friend of mine seems obsessed with the idea of running a tubular wheel set as his all purpose training wheel.
I’m a big fan of tubular tires. But with the exception of my race bike for the track, I don’t use them anymore. My first serious road bike was an early eighties Bianchi with friction shifting and tubular tires. Say what you will about the outdated technology on that bike, I got to experience the delight tubulars offer in the way of road feel and unparalleled handling prowess. I also fell victim to the heartbreak of a punctured tire twenty miles from home. Which has me question what exactly my buddy is trying to accomplish with this foray into tubular territory.
For those who may not be familiar with tubular, or sew-up, tires they are the original tire design. Clinchers are the tire most people think of when they imagine a bicycle tire. The tire has an open casing which hooks onto the rim via a hook and bead system. This allows for easy service of a punctured inner tube.
A tubular has the inner tube sewn into the casing, and must be glued onto the rim. This is a skill that takes quite a lot of practice. Not only do you not want to get glue all over the fresh tire and braking surface, but the tire must be mounted straight. Easier said than done, and I’ve seen plenty of botched glue jobs in my day. Obviously, servicing a flat is also a bit more complicated than on a clincher.
The advantages include a lower rotational weight and better handling. A tubular tire doesn’t have the shoulder a clincher has, allowing for more control further down the edge of the tire. In other words, a skilled bike handler has the ability to lean into a sharper angle before running out of tire. The less speed you need to scrub to corner, the faster you can exit.
Tubulars can also be pumped up to ridiculously high pressures. With the tire glued to the wheel there is no fear of blowing the tire off the hook of the rim. Higher pressures equate to lower rolling resistance, but at a price. Riding on rock hard tires is fine for some riders, but the harsh ride and the tendency to bounce over bumps can make for a less than predicable ride. High pressures also help avoid punctures, as it’s much harder for a foreign object to penetrate a tire pumped up to 160psi.
Few mechanical mishaps can be as disastrous as a rolling a tubular. This happens when, for what ever reason, the glue no longer holds the tire on the rim. This less than desirable outcome concludes with the tire rolling off the rim. As someone who has experienced this, it is a terrible sight to see a tire roll off at speed and know that there is nothing you can do but fall. One of my worst crashes that didn’t involve hospitalization was due to rolling a front tire.
A puncture with a tubular is not an easy fix. Yes, tubulars can be repaired. It is a huge hassle however and not something that can be done on the side of the road. Instead of carrying a spare tube, you have to carry a spare tire. Dismounting a flat and remounting a fresh tire in the middle of a ride is a nightmare scenario. It is a guarantee for blistered thumbs. Sure, you can run sealant to avoid flats. But that effectively negates the weight advantage of riding tubulars. It’s also gross.
I do love the ride and feel of tubulars, but the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages for daily riding. Back in my racing days, I raced on tubulars and never had a problem. If I punctured, no worries, I could borrow a wheel from race support and be on my way. I wish my buddy luck in learning why training on tubulars is a bad idea. Have a puncture free ride, and as always, keep the rubber side down!