If there’s one cycling debate that refuses to defuse, it’s the old “tubulars vs. clinchers” argument. Of less concern to MTB riders, it still manages to invade dirt discussions. Thomas Frischknecht, the great Swiss XC legend, terrorized his peers using 26” tubular tires late in his celebrated career.
For any newcomers, tubulars are the original pneumatic tires, the style that prevailed until well into the 20th century. With tubulars (also known as sewups) the inner tube is stitched into the casing and the combination glued onto the rim. A simpler concept than demountable tires, known as clinchers, they persist even today.
As a student of the wheel, my perspective begins with systems, not with one isolated element. Tubular tires shouldn’t be examined without considering the matching rims. Rim-tire, that’s the system. Lots of valuable time has been wasted arguing the advantages and disadvantages of tubulars vs. clinchers, without mention of the rims required to support each.
Tubular rims are lighter
So, for starters, let’s promise to never forget that a tubular rim-tire combination saves approximately 100g over the equivalent clincher. It’s a cost-benefit situation. If you are willing to forgo the convenience of demountable tires (no glue) with easily replaced tubes you can save substantial rim weight. Rim weight, far from the center of rotation, counts more than non-rotating weight, about twice. So, for tubulars, 100g X2 wheels X2 = 400g of apparent benefit compared to clinchers. Nearly one pound.
Wheel weight is detectable
Secondly, we need to acknowledge how some bicycle features have a disproportionate effect on the rider. The large name on a frame becomes an identity, a club membership that can evoke nationalism or personality cults. An uncomfortable saddle puts paid to any pleasant aspects of cycling. Few can tolerate pain in the crotch for a bit of fresh air. Wheels, in a similar way, have an exaggerated effect on a bike’s feel. Light wheels give a sense of urgency, of potential. They imply endurance and speed. Suffice to say, that 400g of apparent weight savings has a further amplified effect on the ride.
Most tubular vs. clincher arguments speak of rolling friction, cornering potential, flat resistance, and comfort. The argument should rather be the apparent quickness that tubulars offer a bicycle’s feel. Whether that quickness is measurable, depends on the precise situation: the road, the rider, the tire, the tube, the speed, etc. But the impression is there in any case.
Carbon fiber rims need tubulars
A third point that needs mentioning is the technology of composites. Carbon fiber structures are revolutionizing sports from boards, to racquets, to bicycle parts. Their weaknesses include lack of hardness and expensive tooling. Making a clincher rim from composites that’s lighter and stronger than metal rims is proving elusive. Today, there are no candidates. Yet, carbon rims made for tubulars, a simpler and easier shape to make, are among the lightest and most aerodynamic. The mere appearance of composite rims has given tubular tires an unexpected breath of life. Rather than fading into obscurity, they are being used by the thousands because carbon fiber rims require such tires in order to deliver their weight and aerodynamic savings. Please don’t miss this point regarding the current popularity of tubulars.
Smaller makers = more customization
My fourth topic is economic, but not the one you might expect: tubulars cost more, are they worth it? That question deserves discussion but, clearly, makers of tubular tires are smaller and their customers are more performance oriented. Production runs are shorter and a few specialist makers can create products that larger rubber companies wouldn’t consider. A great example is the tradition of Andre Dugast. See my earlier post on the subject. Today, in new hands, the tradition lives on. For a great glimpse into the amazing world of tire specialization, listen to Richard Nieuwhuis, current proprietor of Dugast tires, as he’s interviewed in Belgium’s Cyclosprint Magazine. The magnificent and very specific design features applied to individual Dugast tires will never be seen in an equivalent clincher system only for economic reasons. Clinchers are made in much greater numbers and this territory of customization is semi-permanently ceded to handmade tubulars.
So, in at least four distinct ways, tubulars shouldn’t be directly compared to clinchers. Science tells us the performance difference can be close to zero. Still, many experienced cyclists continue to testify that tubulars offer a riding sensation so different and often so superior to clinchers that they remain preferable, in spite of their inconvenience. Thankfully, any appetite you might develop for tubular tires will find ample supply. Challenge, Veloflex, Vittoria, Continental, and Tufo are among companies with outstanding products and values. Relative to the prices I paid for tubulars in my youth (1970’s, for example), today’s are a steal. For example, you can buy excellent economy tires for under $30 (US price) in the form of a Vittoria Race: $30 for a 220tpi casing with Kevlar™ puncture belt and a total weight of about 350g. That’s a tough combination to match in any clincher. Of course, the best tires are in the $100 (US) range but you can be assured no money is paying for brand as in Armani or Gucci products where restricted supply creates demand and prestige. Tubular tires are handmade works of high craft, but sold for pure function.
Back to wood
My bias is simple. Wood is a fabulous rim material but, as with composites, a truly lightweight high performance wood clincher rim is unavailable. This is the world of tubulars and the combination of tradition, ride quality, value, and beauty is unmatched in any other means of transportation. The current renaissance of tubulars, fueled by composite rim popularity, is perfectly timed for those of us who are nuts about wood rims.