Tubular or Clincher?

by art on July 24, 2010

The great debate amongst cyclocross racers is to run tubulars or clinchers on their cyclocross wheels. Lets break it down.

Tubulars:The Good
At the elite level of racing there really is no debate. Virtually none of the top Euro dogs are running clinchers. That should tell you something. The main advantage of tubulars is that you can run crazy low pressure and not worry about pinch flats. Most people think low pressure is only for the mud but that is not exactly true. Last year at the USGP in Wisconsin I was talking to Erwin Verveckan and i asked him if I could check his tire pressure. Erwin is about as cool as they come and he said sure, check it out. I was shocked when my thumb easily touched the rim when I pushed on the top of his Dugast. Since the Wisco course was dry and fast I told Erwin he must have a leak. He just laughed and said “Americans are always running way to much air in your cyclocross tires”. Erwin is not a super small guy, like 175 or so yet he was running 28psi on a fast dry course. I guess it worked because he won later that day. The low pressure helps the tire conform to the terrain and give you maximum traction. It also takes the edge off a bumpy course.

The mega pricey tires like Dugast use silk in the sidewalls which makes the casing super supple. Again this causes the tire to conform to the terrain and stick like velcro. The ride quality of a tubular is really extraordinary and everyone should experience it at some point in their cycling career.

Tubulars: The Bad
Tubulars are not for the racer on a budget. On the low end $60-$80 per wheel, on the high end $140-$160. If you flat your choices are try and find the hole and fix it (something I have never been able to do) or toss it and get a new one. Ouch. A good sealant like Stans will help keep you running but still a sliced sidewall is the end of your tubular. Another thing that makes tubulars expensive is if you want to have tires for a variety of conditions that means you also need complete wheel sets for mud, snow, , etc.. It ads up quick.

Clinchers: The Good
Variety, there are tons of manufacturers and tire patterns to choose from. While the tubular guy has to haul around $3k worth of wheels that take up the entire back of a pick up to match the conditions, the clincher guy (or gal) can pack tires for every condition on a messenger bag. Oh, and at a fraction of the cost.

A flat on a clinchers is as easy as replacing a $3 tube and takes less than 5 minutes. Also clinchers tend to be a little more durable than tubular since they usually have rubber sidewalls as opposed to a poly/cotton sidewall. So for durability clinchers win.

Clinchers: The Bad
OK we know the dangers of pinch flatting so no need to go into that. The biggest downside of clinchers is a bit esoteric. Clinchers just do not have the “feel” of a tubular. Some of it is due to the higher pressure required to ride them and some is due to the materials used but the end result is real. Clinchers just don’t have the feel. Clinchers tend to rely more on the tread design to create traction and there are some very aggressive tread patterns out there especially when compared to the treads offered on tubulars. It is a more brute force answer to the traction question that the finesse and suppleness of a tubular. In this case though my opinion is finesse is the winner.

Conclusion
So which is best for you? For Elite racers there is no debate, tubulars are the only choice. Fr the rest of us it is not as clear. the best analogy I can use is this. Two fisherman of equal skill and experience go out for a day on the river. Fisherman 1 bought his gear at Cabelas and spent a couple hundred dollars. Fisherman 2 went to a guide shop and got top of the line all the way around and spent $5k. At the end of the day they both caught about the same amount of fish and they both have ear to ear grins on their face. Fisherman 1 think Fisherman 2 is a good guy but a bit foolish, all that gear and he didn’t do any better than me. Fisheman 2 thinks Fisherman1 is a good guy but feels sorry for him as he does not appreciate the finer points of the sport and therefore his experience is diminished. Who is right?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

TooTall July 26, 2010 at 3:40 am

I dream of Tubies but I ride Clinchers. This is ok for me as:
1- I am a rookie so increasing my skill, technique and pure fitness will do more for me then going to tubulars.
2- The nice paychecks haven’t come yet so slime tubes and sales on clinchers is where I live.

So until I am in the elite ranks where every second counts or I get a raise, I will use my “cheap fishing pole” and enjoy every second of it.

Cyclocross Wheel Freak July 29, 2010 at 11:42 pm

I run tubulars on all my race wheels, Clinchers for training

ez November 15, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I think that analogy is a bit extreme and that the differences are much more subtle. This implies something deeper and more disturbing: the perfunctory, functional fisherman doesn’t get any sort of deeper meaning because his gear is too cheap. His experience is cheaper because he doesn’t have the old fashioned bamboo rod? Perhaps in this analogy, my vision of a Cabela’s fisherman (and I am not a fisherman, but I have read “The Complete Angler” when I was younger as my long passed grandfather had a copy amidst his very classic looking Garcia reels) is that of someone who wouldn’t appreciate the finer points of the meditative properties of fishing. He’d leave cans of Busch beer around and wear NASCAR ball caps and make jokes about flatulence.

The same is true with bicycles. Elite riders don’t necessarily have a better “zen” of riding because their tires are different. Cycling doesn’t take on a different nature, it’s a very subtle difference.

Perhaps what tubulars really imply is “ego” more than anything else. Ego that can be perfectly acceptable and tolerable if you’re congizant of it. But if you can’t just shrug your shoulders and say “it’s an affectation” than you’re fooling yourself.

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