Thursday, March 15, 2012

Classics Leadout Part 2: Tubular Time

It’s all about the ride.  Everything else is secondary—an afterthought.  Feeling the road hum underneath me is all there is—everything I need to get motivated to throw a leg over my saddle.  The ride is everything. 

That video sticks in my mind.  What a sport this is—how romantic.  My favorite part of that video is the tires.  Maybe it’s the mechanic in me, but seeing those sew-ups get hammered all the way to the rim is really something.  Most road cyclists cringe when they see that.  They are used to the pinch flat that follows an impact like that.  It’s surely Pavlovian.  To me, it’s a beautiful sight.  One of the oldest technologies in cycling conquering what is a nuisance to most riders—with their cutting edge carbon clinchers.  The fact of the matter is, most modern technology would not—nay, could not—survive those cobbles. 

Tubulars have been around far longer than clinchers, yet 98% percent of riders ride on clinchers 98% of the time.  It’s time to change that.  Why? Because it’s all about the ride. 

Pros use tubulars year round for many conditions, but nowhere is tire choice and pressure more important that the cobbled classics.  They run large sew-ups (27c at least) at low pressures.  This is the only way that these races are survivable.  Tubulars, and their fantastic ride quality, make all the difference. 

Now I’m not going to spend time enumerating the many performance benefits of tubular—lower weight, less rolling resistance, etc.  They are sundry and worth considering, but for today, it’s all about the ride. 

The ride of tubulars is celestial.  Imagine the most supple racing clincher you have ever ridden and then exponentially increase your enjoyment.  Like floating on air (well, technically you are on pneumatic tires! I’m a nerd), you’ll be surprised at how noticeable the difference will be when compared to your usual set up. 

So by now you are almost assuredly sick of me yapping about how great tubulars are. You’re retorting,

“Scott, just wonderful ride quality does not a perfect tire make! What about flats? What about the cost? What about all the glue? It’s so messy.  I don’t want to ruin my new skinny jeans!”

I’m with you.  I hear you.  No one likes a ruined pair of new skinny jeans less than this guy.  So have no fear—you are about to be quelled like no one has ever been quelled before. 

Flats are everyone’s main worriment with tubular tires.  The truth is, with practice and some well developed thumb muscles, tubular flats can be changed faster than a clincher.  That’s right, FASTER.  The key is knowing how, and being prepared. 

Cadence's glue of choice: Vittoria Mastik' One.
Carrying a pre-stretched, pre-glued spare tubular tire is the key here—and before you even think it: it’s not as bulky as you think.  After you have stretched the tubular for at least 24 hours, put a thin coat of glue on the base tape and let it dry for at least 24 hours.  Then check out my step by step pictorial on how to roll your spare about as small as a regular tube:

With all the air out of the tire, lay the tubular out with the valve at one end. 
Position the tire so that the base tape faces up and the tire casing down.
Fold the tire opposite the valve and start rolling from that end.
The way you start the roll will effect its overall shape, start short if you want the tire to be round, or oblong for an oblong roll.  
Continue to roll the tire with the base tape facing in.
Keep the roll tight, and both sides of the tire close together, as it will produce a smaller finished product.
When finishing, be careful not to stress the valve at an odd angle--it can damage the tire.  It should tuck neatly in between the two sides of the tire.
The finished product!

Rolling the tire in this way prevents any dirt or road grime from getting into the glue.  Most people then use a toe strap to attach the spare under your saddle.  You also will want to include a burly tire lever in your jersey pocket, or bundle it in the toe strap with the tire to assist with removing the old tubular.  You can scrap your old saddle bag.  You will not need it anymore.  Plus carrying a tubular spare makes you look so freakin’ cool. 

When rolled well, a spare tubular is only slightly bigger than a spare tube.  No inconvenience at all!

For the rest of the ride, though, you will have to be very cautious rounding corners.  Even though the tire is pre-glued, a tire changed on the side of the road is always more likely to roll—which can cause a serious crash.  We want you to be safe, so just cool it. 

So there: flats are not a problem.  So what about cost?  Well, I’m not going to beat around the bush here: tubulars are more expensive—but not nearly as much as people think.  Since you don’t have to worry about pinch flats, you just have to avoid road debris.  This is just about being smart about when and where you ride tubulars.  Obviously winter and bad weather is out.  Before you head out consider the road conditions where you will be riding.  Make your tubular your exclusive fair weather wheelset, and your tires will likely last quite a while—thus cutting down on your cost. 

From road to cross, we glue a lot of tubulars at Cadence, so we keep a large stock of glue and supplies.
Use your head when choosing a tire.  Don’t get the super thin silk track tubular.  It will flat on the road.  There are good quality tubular that are quite durable (the Vittoria Pave comes to mind), and these tires will be your best bet for everyday use.  Also be careful not to confuse the token “cheap training tubular” for a really great durable tire.  They often ride just as poorly as a training clincher—voiding all the benefits of running tubulars.

I openly admit that in terms of cost, clinchers win out.  You have to pay a little extra for the best ride in the world.  Deal with it.  Let’s finally move our discussion to the glue—and your jeans.  I love gluing tubular tires.  Like wheel building, it connects you to the many generations of cyclists that have come before you.   Carefully applying the glue all the way to the edge of the rim—but without getting any on the brake track—can be a very Zen experience.   This feeling might be attributed to inhaling the fumes of the glue, but I prefer to call it Zen in the Art of Tubulars. 

The coats of glue should be thin, but cover to the edge of the mounting surface.  

Gluing takes practice, but is a simple task.  Getting the entirety of the process right is what leads to good bond between tire and rim, so no shortcuts should be taken.  Mounting the tire has a technique all its own, and sometimes—unfortunately for many cyclists—requires ample thumb and upper body strength.  There are plenty of resources available that give you a complete run-down in detail of the process of gluing and mounting a tubular—so I will spare you those words here.  This one is my favorite, and this is how I was taught to do it. 

So as you can see, tubulars aren’t the inconvenient time-sucking money black hole that everyone makes them out to be—and I am not suggesting that you get rid of your current wheels to exclusively ride tubulars.  They have their place.  I think this place, however, should be more often and in more situations than most people realize.  Don’t be scared of the tubular tire.  It is your friend and it just wants to give you a good ride.  And that’s what it’s all about, right?


  1. Thank you! I was wondering how to stash my spare pre-glued tyre!

  2. There is lot of articles on the web about this. But I like yours more, although i found one that’s more descriptive.
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