Yes, You Should Probably Just Get Cyclocross Tubulars

Aug 30 2013

Pile of CX tires

And no, you don’t need this many. // by Patrick Beeson, cc-by-nc

If you’re having a blast on a burp-free tubeless set-up, or have never pinched out on the bell lap/hammered yourself into oblivion on 45psi with clinchers, this post isn’t for you. Tubular tires are not a necessity for racing or enjoying cyclocross. If whatever you’re doing works, and you don’t feel like your tires are holding you back, you just keep on doing your thing. ‘Cross is awesome.

That said, I’m betting that if you are reading this, you’ve probably had some issues with tubeless or clincher set-ups, and you’re wondering if you should undergo the “expense” and “hassle” of “out-dated” tubular tires. The answer is a categorical “yes”.

But what about the mess?

Gluing cross tires is alleged to be “messy”. Yes, I suppose compared to putting on a clincher, it is. But compared to say, making dinner, changing a diaper, installing curtains or any number of other household tasks, it really isn’t. Prepare properly, have the right tools, use a clean, ventilated space, and it’s a pretty straightforward procedure.

You brush on some glue on a couple surfaces. You put on some tape. You brush on some more glue. You shove a tire on. You wait. That’s it. That’s really all there is to it. Yeah, there a zillion more mini-tidbits and considerations, you can read about them in any number of really good online gluing tutorials—my favorite is Mike Zanconato’s—but if you have an uncluttered space, and all the tools you need—glue, tape, several brushes, sacrificial rag, mild solvent, place to hang for drying, your own easy-to-scan notes on the process, etc. — uncluttered and laid out a few feet away, it’ll be easy, and you’ll do fine.

This is not an exaggeration—the first time I glued tires, it took about three hours because I was super nervous, triple-checked directions, and wanted to do everything just right. The fourth glue job took 45 minutes. It’s not that I figured out what corners to cut, it’s that I got the confidence of a reliable, comfortable mental inventory of what needed to be done at what time. My work isn’t crazy perfect—there are still tiny patches of stained sidewalls and occasional glue clumps at the edge of the rim—but I’ve never rolled a tire. And really, that’s what matters.

Can’t the shop do it?

No, actually, they probably can’t. I’d say with all the confidence of anecdote, that about half the tire-rolling I’ve witnessed has been the result of a “professional” glue job—in the sense that a business collected money for it. On the road, tires are narrow, pressures are high, and rims tend to fit pretty neatly. I’ve never glued road tires, but I’m told a coat or two will get it done.

‘Cross is different. Tires are fat and pressures are low, meaning there’s a lot of surface area, stuck to the ground, pulling very hard against the glue, and far less force within the tube shoving the tire against the rim. Compounding the problem, rims are more or less the same width (side-to-side) between the road and CX, meaning more tire and more force have to somehow be anchored to the same amount of rim.

I’m told by people who are really good at this sort of thing that a major reason for the tape and extra coats of glue is to add material, making an effectively wider (diameter) rim that fits more tightly, keeping the tire in place better, both as the glue cures and when full cornering force is applied.

On the off-chance that you’ve got a CX-savvy local shop, they probably can glue it, and do a damn fine job of it, too. But let’s say you flat, or blow a sidewall, or suffer some other mishap and it’s after-hours. Or you’re off racing (or about to race) on the other side of the country. Flats happen, and I think you owe it to yourself to to able to correct them when they do. It’s actually comparatively easy to replace a flatted tubular on <2 year old glue, but again, better tutorials have been written.

rolled tubular

Can’t say it’s a shop job, but it looks like a few I’ve seen. // by Edmund White, cc-by-nc


Testing, testing, testing…

So you’ve glued your tire. Awesome. Go do something else for 24 hours. Seriously. Don’t ride the tire, don’t move the tire, don’t futz with the tire, just leave it alone while the glue gets hard.

You could probably ride around casually on a tire an hour after it was glued—tubular glue/cement is extremely sticky, almost from the moment you brush it on. And short of super-hard cornering, you might not even roll it. But you’ll screw up the glue and I’ll never reach full strength, meaning that when you do go all-in on that off camber, it’s gonna rip right off. No fun.

Once everything is cured, it’s time to test. Testing is actually hard, because you need to simulate race forces in non-race conditions, and you need to do it honestly—if a glue job is going to fail, you 100% want it to happen during a test, not during a race. I like to find a side-hill with tough, grippy grass—flood control embankments are awesome—and running a low psi (~25), ride along the perpendicular to the slope (that is, neither uphill or downhill). Every so often, coast down the hill a touch and jerk the bike back up, being sure to sneak a pedal stroke or two in if the steepness of the bank allows it.

If you do it right, you’ll feel the tires deform, and almost fold over as you punch back uphill. This puts a ton of pressure on the glue, and will let you know pretty quickly if it’ll hold. You can also set out two cones in a flat grassy field, and do loops around them, as tightly and as fast as possible. It assumes you actually know how to corner hard (more on this later) but if you do, this will also put sufficient stress on the glue to let you know if it’ll hold.

OMG what about different conditions tho?

Yeah—tubular tires cannot practically be changed for varying conditions. Boo-hoo. But the good news is that tubulars are good enough you don’t really need to. For the cyclocross novice, there are effectively two types of conditions—loose, muddy slop and everything else. For muddy slop, you’ll need something hella gnar like a Limus or a Rhino.

The good news is that muddy slop is relatively rare in most places (guessing about 1 in 8 races over the course of my New England-based CX career) so chances are, you have a teammate with muddy slop tires that are underused. If they’re a good teammate (thanks, Colin) and there’s enough time between races, they will let you use their muddy-slop tires and it will be awesome.

Seriously, for all other conditions, from bone dry to moist and slippery, one pair of tires will get it done. I’m partial to Fango front, Grifo rear, but there are a ton other all-around treads that will get the job done. The important part is having the ability to run a range of pressure that let the rubber conform best to the overall state of the course. The “right” pressure for a given day is a highly subjective thing, so don’t be shy about playing around with it during your preview laps.

The parts that do kinda suck

Once you’ve mounted and tested your cyclocross tubulars, I think you’ll find that they are awesome, and that you will want to ride them all the time. I tried this. It turns out it is a bad idea. Definitely put some time in after first getting them to really sound out pressure and cornering grip, but don’t use them as your everyday wheels unless you’ve got a couple to burn through in a season. For all their pinch-resilience, tubulars do tend to fall apart faster, rear sidewalls first. Mount up some clinchers on an existing road wheelset and do your training on that.

Also, tubular rims to tend to be more expensive than clinchers, in that there aren’t really options below $400. I don’t think this is a big deal—for-real tubeless wheelsets start around there, after all—but nonetheless, I’d highly recommend buying used (I ride on 2002 Ksyriums and love it). This means you may have to remove old glue, and unlike new gluing, that does kinda suck.

“Old” glue is 2+ seasons old. It’s still firm, but it’s light-colored, oxidized, and flaky. The tire will still be hard to pull off, but once you’ve removed it, you’ll see vast patches of dry, dead glue, no longer death-gripping your tire to the rim. There are a number of strategies for dispatching this old stuff—wire brushes, heat guns, putty knives, chemicals, table fans—I’ll let you make the call. Regardless, it’s time consuming and no fun, and the rim really does have to be more or less clean before you start gluing again.

A note on your non-tubular experience

As an American Male, I’m inclined to think that I’ve attained mastery of a skill once I can do it without hurting myself or breaking something. So obviously, I thought once I could rip through a ‘cross lap cleanly, I must be a good bike handler.

I’d lean pretty hard in the corners, hit them without breaks, and feel maybe just a little bit pro. Then, of course, someone like Myerson would shoot by me in a terrifying burst of displaced air and torn grass, a few degrees off diagonal and carrying enough speed to barely need a pedal stroke before the next bend.

The point is that “not having problems” doesn’t really qualify you to say you’ve got a great setup with tubeless or clinchers. It’s cool that it works for you and that you have a good time, but if performance and balls-out/clam-out exhilaration are your primary concerns, you might be short-changing yourself.

If you aren’t pedaling all the way through flat, grassy curves, to the point that you can feel your rear tire deform as it’s stressed both laterally and along its tread, while blades of grass dance off it like some velcro-driven machine-gun, you probably aren’t cornering hard enough. If you aren’t bottoming out once or twice through the course of a lap, you’re probably running too much pressure. Same goes for sections that are too rough to pedal—if it’s not so bumpy you’re holding onto the bars for dear life, you’re missing pedal strokes and falling behind.

Tubulars seem, and are widely excoriated to be, an archaic, brute-force solution. This is kind of true, but I also think their deficits are also massively oversold. Gluing up a pair, though more or less unique among bike maintenance tasks, just isn’t that hard, especially in light of the performance advantages on offer.

I’m not saying you’re off-base to be perfectly satisfied with clinchers or tubeless, but find someone who’ll lend you a pair of tubulars and let you rip around on them at 27psi before declaring that you “don’t want to bother with the mess”.

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6 Responses to “Yes, You Should Probably Just Get Cyclocross Tubulars”

  1. Huntie Cakes August 30, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    You def gave em a fair chance Cosmo

  2. Ryan August 31, 2013 at 2:42 am #

    Regarding the installation process.
    The University if Kansas has performed an amazing amount of research on ‘Tubular Tire Adhesive Performance’.

    Link: http://www.engr.ku.edu/~kuktl/bicycle/bicycle.html

    Very insightful stuff in there.

  3. urchin September 13, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

    Can’t help adding my usual coda on CX equipment choice. I always hate to see cat 4 (is it 5 this year? whatever) racers show up with carbon this, carbon that, and 2-3 sets of tubulars. For each of these, how many are there out there who are pretty interested in the sport, but just couldn’t put together a ‘respectable’ bike? I have no beef with the stance that tubulars have vast advantages over clinchers, and I’ll leave the whole tubeless thing to someone else. BUT, if you’re talking about a first-time CXer, or a first time bike racer who has had no interest in the other disciplines, it’s kind of a scam to get them believing they’ll be blown off the course if they don’t have tubulars. Taking a road wheelset you already use for something else and throwing a pair of Mud2s on there really lowers the barrier to entry vs. insisting on a few hundred dollars (at least) worth of new wheelset and tires, plus the task of learning to glue them. The feel of tubulars is plush and aesthetic and genuinely faster, I am told. You got no beef there. There’s just no reason to give anyone the impression that you might as well stay home than show up with a solid set of clincher tires. Hey, maybe you can even get a chance to experiment with a few brands and treads that you can switch on race day before moving on to the good stuff. /rant.

  4. Jacob October 2, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Cosomo, I commented the last time you posted on this topic (http://cyclocosm.com/2011/10/tubeless-for-cyclocross-the-complete-saga/#comment-22684), and am back now: older, wiser, poorer, and significantly more scarred, to agree with you. When we last spoke, I had just glued up my first set of tubulars. They worked great. I raced well for me, had fun, and was converted. Several aborted training rides, a couple courses that didn’t suit me, and a bad race line choice later, I was frustrated and looking for something to blame, and decided I’d had enough off replacing $80 tires after 2 races. I went back to tubeless.

    I bought a pair of Stan’s Alpha 340s and tubeless-ready Specialized Captain tires. I trained on them, did a couple ultra-cross endurance / gravel events, used them as pit wheels, and rode them in a sloppy wet masters race, which I promptly won. Declared myself a tubeless convert. Bought another pair – Alpha 400s – to have a race and pit setup. This was my go-to race quiver, and it was gonna rule.

    And then all hell broke loose. Almost all of our early season races (like most places) are on hard, dry courses. These courses feature lots of hard grassy cornering. I was convinced, after some successful training runs and a good masters practice race, that my tubeless tires were solid. 3 burp-filled cat 1-2 races, 4 crashes, and 1 broken helmet later, I realize I need to reconsider that position.

    My conclusion: a tubeless wheel and tire setup can work very well, under a wide variety of circumstances, most of the time. The problem is that it is most prone to failure – and is in fact extremely prone to failure – at exactly the time that you need it the most: under hard cornering while deeply committed, at race pace. Cornering loads at 10/10 in a fast race on dry ground just do not compare to any other scenario, and you can’t know you have a failure-proof setup until you get there. Once a failure happens once or twice, confidence in tire adhesion falls off a cliff, with a corresponding plummet in race results. Dive into that downhill, off-camber 180, feel the tire deform, squirm, and give, and then watch what happens to your lap times (if you manage to keep yourself off the ground) and the guy in front of you (if you can still see him).If you can’t trust your tire’s grip in that situation, you can’t compete against fit, experienced cross racers. Period. Maybe some people have reached that performance level with tubeless, but for me, running a tubeless-specific tire on a wheel made by a company with “no-tubes” in the name, it just aint happening.

    For me, tubeless cx as a go-to cx race wheel just doesn’t work. For everything else – road, gravel, training, ultra-cross – sure. Racing? Nope. Grifo/Fango, forgive me for forsaking you. I’m back. For good.

  5. andrew haines January 2, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    Um so I am not going to get into tubulars until next season and even them only if my level of fitness improves as I do not foresee that much in terms of seconds per lap being lost based on my 6 races of experience and ability to handle the bike. That said I have noticed the lack of people up the front of the races I have been running clinchers.

    What would be cool if cyclocosm of course has the time and inclination to do so (maybe you could get a wheel builder to supply you wheels as a sponsor, cafe roubaix?) would be to create a youtube video evaluating lap times, possibly corner speeds, entry, mid corner and exit followed by timed sprints over certain distances. To make it scientifically accurate you could use the same well ridden course and get the riders to do metered efforts (via wattage and heart rate) that they can replicate again and again and in similar wind. The Clinchers would be that the tyres would have to be the same brand and tread as the tubulars (challenge grifo?), using identical wheelsets and frames from rider to rider to ensure that there are minimal variables to muddy the data.

    But maybe it would be to time consuming to get reliable data as you would have to know how the rider is distributing his/her weight over the bike and their actual weight would have to be measured before each test by the same scale.

    Though again I am sure theres something I may have missed in my attempt to find answer of what is faster?

    Did I say the weather would need to be consistent before during and after each test?

    Are there just to many variables to find good data?

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Tubular Wheel Myths Busted | Grizzly Adam.net - September 10, 2013

    […] Cyclocross season is here! It’s time to dust off the cowbells, find out if last year’s skinsuits still fit, and order fresh embrocation cream. It’s also time for hot laps at the park, fall colors, and waffles. Lots of waffles. Along with ‘cross season, comes the inevitable debate about tires. Which tread is best? What pressure is best? Which brand? And the ultimate question, should I use tubular tires instead of clincher or tubeless tires? […]

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