Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Tubular Tires

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.


Anonymous said...

Good morning Freddy! Getting ready to ride in a few minutes and love reading this before hand. In an interesting note, I was looking for some software cd-roms the other day at work and in a cabinet I found an old VHS of the 90 tour de trump. Poor steve Bauer hit the deck during the time trial as he flies over a railroad track at 30+ and flat the rear tire. He's on tubies and I'd like to think that if he was on normal drop bars, he would have saved it, but I think the high speed and the extreme aero position of the day (650 front wheel) made if all but impossible. Although the video tape had some pretty dry commentary, it was a blast to watch and the old panasonic team looked so PRO walking into the hotel before the race in their matching track suits, adidas sandals, gear bags and oh yes, head bands. Allright, better stop rambling, only been awake for 20 minutes, hope that doesn't sound like gibberish. Oh yeah, conti sprinter gatorskins are a great riding, more durable tubie IMO.

solobreak said...

People always ask me "why is your truing stand covered with aluminum foil?" Now you know why. Unless you're on a team with a mechanic on retainer though, do it yourself or ride clinchers. Nice blog.

josh said...

you've flatted 3 tubbies this season? thats somewhat depressing and impressive. i flat-spotted a tubbie bad enough that the tire had to be retired, and that has taken my tubulars out of commission for the last month. hopefully they will be back up and running in the next week though.

hup hup

Radio Freddy said...

Anon - Thanks for the memories, I remember the days of the 650b front wheel. Ahh..., those where the days - for an unstable and often dangerous TT machine. Thank you for taking the time to add your comments and there is nothing as PRO as the matching track suits and the sandals.

Solo - Thanks for the comments, I am a fan of your blog. After I read your comment, I thought I should have added truing stand to the list of things you can accidently glue to yourself.

Josh - Impressive is the fact that you created such a severe flat spot on your tire that it needed to be replaced. I hope you avioded whatever it was you were braking so hard for.

Anonymous said...

Why ride tubies on training wheels ?I see the logic in racing but for training

Radio Freddy said...

Anon - It is all about the ride.

josh said...

RF - haha. I did avoid what I was trying to miss (thankfully). about 11 bodies on the ground, on a descent, at 45mph or so, coming out of a switchback. In retrospect I braked way to hard, but I panicked and before I knew it, I was skidding. I released the brakes, but the tire had already seen the end of its life. No joke when they say carbon wheels w/ the right pads have really good stopping power.

Unknown said...

So this year I sprung for a set of race wheels. 2nd set ever. The first set were Mavic GL330 rims with Vittoria CX (?) tires? Whatever was the best at the time.

I was a cat 4, and about 4 minutes into a Cat4 crit in Iowa, I ran off the course, attempted to jump the curb, made it, then glanced into the concrete post office wall. So those wheels were ruined.

This year I got a set of Zipp 404 tubular rims and Conti Sprinter tires.

Ruined THOSE on the 2nd ride, after I drove the bike into the world's worst pothole. My wife cried, seriously.

$700 later I have the Zipps back up and running, tires all glued on. I can definitely say that the race wheels make a difference. My training wheels are super durable, with cheap tubes that are heavy. The zipp tubular wheelset has to be at least 1.5 pounds lighter.

Everyone said the ride would be so smooth and soft, but the wheelset definitely feels less compliant, at 120psi (8bar for you guys) than my mavic CXP330/GP4000 23mm training combo.

Is that because of the tires, the rims, or a combo of both?

Radio Freddy said...

Cheifhiawatha - I am in agreement with you, deep section carbon wheels (even with tubulars) feel stiffer than a traditional 32 spoke wheel. To answer your question, I think the ride of your training wheels is a combination of all the factors you listed. I know from tire changes on the same wheels that the Conti GP 4000 is very nice riding tire, not only durable but also comfortable. The deep section Zipp rim has a stiffer vertical ride and the debate over the precieved/actual comfort wages on between sponsors and team management every spring. there was a very interesting article in PROcycling (I think)back in February (maybe) where CSC spent a day destroying Zipp prototypes on a sector of pave in an effort to build a strong, durable, comfortable deep section carbon wheel for Roubaix. Yet, despite their exhuastive R&D, O'Grady won on a traditional 32 spoke, tubular combo.

hog said...

This maybe a stupid question so I apologize in advance, but in regards to rule #5 "always carry a spare".
If you flat and have a spare, can you just roll the new tire onto the rim and ride home or do you need glue as well?

flahute said...

Hog --

In my experience, you should carry a pre-glued tire, typically a serviceable, but used tire.

Generally, we're talking about a previously repaired flat, or just a tire that is worn enough you wouldn't want to use it in a race, but which still has enough tread to get you home on a training ride. The idea is that the residual glue on both the rim and the base tape will more easily stick, and the chances of rolling the spare on your ride home will be greatly reduced.

Even so, it's still not a good idea to corner hard ... especially if the spare is on the front wheel. Reduced chances of rolling a tire does not mean that it can't still happen ... I've finished rides on a spare tire, and when I got home noticed a significant amount of tire-creep along the rim.

You don't want to take a tube of glue out on a ride with you and attempt to re-glue the spare on the road ... for one, it is a messy job, and a good glue job will take at least a half-hour to allow the glue to tack up a little bit before stretching the tire over the rim.

Tom Ferris said...

Great read, thanks. I hear a lot of people say its nuts to ride on tubulars unless you are racing but I disagree. If you LOVE riding, there is nothing like the ride of a high quality tubular. Its worth the suffering, at least for me!
I just got a used set of wheels and the tires are glued on with tufo tape. I am planning to remove the tape and re-glue. Has anyone here had issues removing the tape from the tire tape? I have heard it is very easy to damage the tire so I am a bit concerned...

Anonymous said...


It's such a pain to remove the tufo tape that someone gave me a set of tubs with the tape still stuck to them. I removed it from one with a scraper, and some care plus a lot of time. Over a year later I haven't done the other, but the residue is so sticky that the one I removed the tape from makes a spare so sticky I have as hard a time taking it off as I would a properly glued tire!

Rick said...

a great read....I have converted to tubies this year and love them so far: Ritchey protocal wheelset w/Ritchey 23cm tires.
My big question is air pressure.
I'm 155ish (pounds) and a CAT IV roadie (Master's Cyclocross). I like to ride them even for training. I've been reading that you can use a lower pressure than clinchers (120 lbs for race day on clinchers Vitts CVO-CX or tubies for me) and you'll get even a better ride and less rolling resistance?
I'd like to some see information to help guide me a bit.
A great Blog....thanks.

Radio Freddy said...


Thanks for taking the time to read, and to leave a comment. The feel and ride of a tubular are addictive. Even after a flat or two one still has the fever. As for pressure, the ideal should vary rider to rider however, I feel I have found the ideal balance thanks to BKW friend George Noyes. I took the pressure George said the PROs favored (7.5 bars front, and 8 bars rear) and tried it myself: wonderful! A few of the bigger riders I know have even tried the same pressure with good results. Give it a try and let me know your thoughts. George has shared a lot of the PRO stories and you can check them out by clicking the "Bring the Noyes" catagory.

- RF

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled upon this post since I am new to tubulars.I just got a uset set of ROlf Vector Pro tubbies. I love them and train in them as well as race (Cat 4 - nothing crazy). I love the ride - like having an air cushion under you at all times. I notice a big difference. My issue is a slow leak on my rear tire. It holds air for 2-3 days but loses pressure (goes down to about 80 psi from 140). Not sure if I should use a sealant or replace the tire (Conti Sprinter with some life left in it). Any thoughts? I'm also considering the Tufo tape but am wary.

Rick said...

Thanks again for the what pressure to run tubies at....I have been running them as suggested (7.5 & 8 bar) and it has been great!
Great grip, fast and comfortable...
Now I need to start looking for 'cross tubies.
Thanks again for the info!