THROWBACK THURSDAY, 2008: WHEN TUBULARS WERE “A THING”

By R. Cunningham

When the peloton streaks past the strip malls and county parks come Saturday morning, most of the riders are mounted up on superbikes that are 90-percent duplicates of the hardware that outfit Pro Tour teams. The missing ten percent? Average Joes roll on clincher tires-top Pros roll on tubulars. There is no clincher substitute for the speed, comfort light weight and cornering grip of tubular tires-regardless of the hyperbole that a tire maker may throw at you. If you aren’t running tubulars, you are riding slower-everywhere.

‘So, if they are so much better,’ one may ask, ‘why doesn’t everybody ride tubulars?’

‘Convenience,’ would be the answer. Clincher tires simply hook onto the inside of rim flanges, whereas tubular tires are glued or taped onto special flangeless rims. The tubes are sewn inside of tubular tires, so the casing must be opened to repair a puncture and then resealed. Clincher tires are easily removed, repaired and replaced. Bike dealers like this, because it takes less time to sell and install tires for their customers (rubber is a substantial part of a shop’s business). Bike dealers hate the hassle-factor of tubular tires. Manufacturers prefer clinchers because they cost far less than a tubular’s price, and they can be installed in a fraction of the time on assembly lines. The price of convenience, however, is a more dead-feeling, slow rolling tire and a substantially heavier rim. True, there are fast-rolling clinchers, but when compared with tubulars, the more apt description would be: ‘less worse.’

Save your energy if you feel like defending clincher tires; I’ll do it for you. Here are the three defendable reasons for not riding tubulars:
A) My mom can’t afford to buy me tubulars.
B) I am perfectly willing to ride heavier, less comfortable wheels in order to simplify my tire repairs.
C) I have multichemical reactive disorder and cannot touch off-the-shelf adhesive compounds for fear of death.

THE CHALLENGE

If you own up to one of the three, you are, unfortunately, an Average Joe-but that’s perfectly fine with us. At RBA, we have to ride what comes stock on our test bikes-and that means we are stuck with clinchers too. In fact, the reason we wrote this article centered on a lunch-ride argument over the benefits of tubulars by clincher-supporter coworkers. To answer the challenge, we called up our friends at EU Cycle Imports, who agreed to build up a very fast tubular wheelset. The deal was: we would each try them on the lunch ride, and if there wasn’t a substantial difference in performance, we would write off tubulars as ancient history and move on towards a future that rolled exclusively on clinchers.

THE WHEELS

EU Cycle Imports builds up custom clincher or tubular wheels using a variety of scary-fast components. Our EUI-4 wheelset was compiled from carbon fiber aero-profile Zipp 360 Pav‚ Private Label rims (392 grams each), Italian-made FRM Team hubs (251 grams without quick releases, 311 with), Sapim X-ray spokes, and 22-millimeter width, Schwalbe Stelvio tires (234 grams). The total wheelset weight without tires is 1180 grams-quite reasonable for wheels that are intended for racing crits and road events, while still being strong enough to train on rough, East Coast highways. The price? Well, you can have a set of EUI-4s for $1750.

THE EXPERIENCE

‘I can’t ride these anymore,’ said the lunch ride’s alpha leg burner. ‘It’s too much like cheating.’ At 190 pounds, the big-ring specialist was a prime candidate for a thumbs-down review, but after a week, the wheels returned straight and without a puncture. Stelvio tires are rated up to 200psi, and roll smoothly at 150. Try that with your flabby folding-bead clincher and you’d be riding a tire that feels somewhere between a solid rubber O-ring or a circular piece of hickory with a strip of electrician’s tape for tread.

Test riders first complained of a wiggly feel at the steering that quickly disappeared after the first ride. This is typical of lightweight wheels, as the rolling inertia is reduced, and thus the wheels contribute less to the bicycle’s straight-line stability. Was there consensus on a performance increase? You bet. The sound of a tubular is energetic and loud, and the tire feels resilient, not bouncy. Even at high pressures, the Stelvios stuck to the pavement far more securely than our experience with clinchers, and there was no comparison when it came to straight-line smoothness and low rolling resistance. It felt like the county had repaved most of the roads on our training loop. It did, however, take a little courage to corner hard on tires that were simply glued onto 17 millimeters of slightly curved rim surface!

THE THEORY

Compress a clincher tire and its tread retains much of its shape, while the sidewalls arc outwards on either side. The rim flanges make the clincher tire flex more like an arch between two solid pillars, which restricts its flexibility and gives it a harsh ride. The tubular, setting on top of a slightly curved rim and sewn into a perfectly round profile, flexes like a cylinder-more evenly around its circumference-which is why a tubular tire can roll over road irregularities without harshness or bouncing, even at extreme pressures. Any bouncing or road vibration that is transmitted vertically through the frame is horizontal movement (your pedaling power) that has been converted into vertical motion (completely wasted energy, unless you are going to the moon). A more resilient tire can grip the road better also, because more of the tread remains in contact with the pavement’s irregular surface.

THE VERDICT

After only four rides on the EUI-4s, Mister Alpha Big Ring purchased his own set of carbon tubular wheels. There isn’t any corner of the riding envelope where clinchers can come close to the advantages of using tubular tires. We have been ruined for life, especially now that we are faced with a lifetime of bike-testing with clinchers. Viner USA says, if 1180 grams feels too heavy, they offer an even lighter wheelset, the EUI-3 tubular, that weighs a scant 1070 grams (with quick releases). We rediscovered why the Tour rolls on tubulars. What about you?

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