The tubular tire is a thing of absolute beauty. It's as traditional and steeped in lore as the drop handlebar itself. It was the tubular tire that carried many of the sport's greatest PROs of yesterday to victory and it continues to be the choice of PROs today.
The PROs continue to use tubulars for both the ride and the security they offer. A puncture at speed becomes less of a hazard since the tire is glued to the rim. For those of us who are not part of the PRO Tour, tubulars work well as a race tire and are a special treat for all those hours of training. The feel and speed of a tubular becomes a boost on race day, providing a welcomed alternative to your training wheels.
The clincher tire has been revolutionized in the last 10 years and it rides wonderfully. But there's something magical about a tubular. I rock the tubulars in the warmer months; after the roads have been washed clean by the spring rains and most of winter's damage has been repaired. I have ridden tubs from the beginning of my love affair with the road and, over the years, I've developed a few tubular guidelines.
Never ride tubulars immediately following a rain - Following even a light rain, the small and sharp debris will be washed from their hiding places in the crags of the road and deposit themselves (usually sharp side up) on its surface. Riding tubulars immediately after a rain all but guarantees a flat. After a rain, opt for the clinchers and do your wallet a favor.
PRO shops will stretch their inventory - The pre-stretch helps with installation and the aging will give the tires a more supple ride. When in doubt, smell the tire. If the rubber remains pungent, wait to use. Do it right, do it like Julian. If your local shop does not partake in the stretch, purchase your tubulars in bulk (four at a time) in the off season and pre-stretch the tires on some old tubular rims away from direct sun and in the cool damp confines of your basement. (Store them right next to your finest wines and your award-winning truffles.) There is some debate over the aging of the tubulars: Julian favors the aging of the tire while Jobst Brandt says this is hogwash. I learned that the ride of the tire is more supple as it ages; however, there's a limit. Age the tire too much and you'll end up with a brittle hoop of garden hose.
Glue them properly - This is always a tough subject and there are many ways to stick a tire on a rim, like glue tape, 3M™ Fast Tack, and trim adhesive. I've always been of the mind to use genuine tubular glue and follow the gluing techniques I learned a long time ago. If you have any doubt in your ability or your knowledge, seek professional help. Screaming into turn four of your local crit is the wrong time to learn that your glue job was sub par. Take it to the local PRO shop and let them work their magic. The confidence you gain will be worth the $30-$45 bucks they charge you to glue some tires. And you won't have to worry about gluing yourself to your couch, your truing stand, or your rear wheel.
Securing the valve - If you are riding a deep section wheel, make sure to test your valve extentions prior to gluing your tire. Discovering a leak at the valve after gluing will be a messy, time-consuming error, and one that can be easily avoided.
Carry a spare - Naturally, you're going to be one of a few cyclists, if not the only one, on a ride with a tubular so it's your responsibility to bring a spare. Again, if you're riding deep section wheels, attach a valve extender to your spare and roll up the spare tightly so that it doesn't monopolize the storage space in your jersey. Another option is the under seat tubular bag. "They're boxy, but they're good."
Brush and glue - Glass and debris on the road are your biggest hazards. Given that a flat with tubs is a high stakes repair, watch for glass and brush your tires after riding through broken glass because this will help remove the sharp pieces before they have a chance to burrow into the latex tube. Check your tires for cuts and holes and apply a touch of super glue to any breaks in the rubber. This will help keep debris from making its way into the tube via the existing holes.
Experiment with pressure - The tubular tire delivers the smoothest, dream-like ride, capable of riding at a lower pressure without risk of a pinch flat and they're comfy, even with 140 psi. However, the extent of a tubular's benefits are not properly realized without the correct pressure. Use a good pump with a good gauge and experiment with the pressure that gives you the best combination of comfort and performance.
Tubulars remain on the fringe of cycling, reserved for those who prefer the ride and performance, appreciate the history, or are willing endure the additional labor of love. Flatting a tubular is a pain in the ass for everyone involved, but with the tips above I've been able to manage the task. Thus far, this season, I've done my best to ride my Carbones as often as possible. I've flatted three times this season and the cost for replacing a tire is damn expensive, but the ride is amazing and there is no sound like that of a hard, out-of-the-saddle acceleration while riding atop a tubular tire.