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.
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”.