While the vast majority of cyclists ride clincher tires, tubular tires retain a devoted following of high end racers and cycling traditionalists. Until relatively recently, competitive cyclists raced exclusively on tubular tires. Traditionally, tubular tires offered a dramatic advantage in weight and rolling resistance over wire beaded clincher tires. Recently, tire manufacturers have dramatically closed the performance gap between clincher and tubular tires.
Tubular tires are not susceptible to pinch flats. Pinch flats occur when the tube inside your clincher tire is pinched against an object, such as a curb or cyclocross barrier, and your rim. This leads to air being forced away from the pinched area causing friction that splits the tube. Tubular tires are able to employ a more resilient casing preventing the dramatic air transfer which causes pinch flats.
The feature that draws most cycling traditionalists to tubular tires is their legendary ride quality. Tubular provide a more "floating" ride feel. Corners that may feel rough and jittery to a rider on clincher wheels are often smooth and comfortable with tubulars. While laboratory tests have found little evidence that indicates more efficient performance, those used to the feel of tubular tires have a hard time giving it up for the convenience of clinchers.
As a "niche" product, not all bike tire manufacturers carry a tubular line. Michelin comes to mind as the largest manufacturer lacking a tubular line, Maxxis is another. That said, there are several brands that specialize in tubulars.
Tufo - Tufo doesn't just stand out because of their brightly colored treads, they employ a unique "tubeless" technology. While Tufo's "tubeless" claim might be an oversimplification, in fact their casings are made with a latex lining which enables inflation. Tufo is a popular brand of tubulars due to their bright colors, high quality and range of tires which run from the all-purpose Tufo S33 Pro Tubular Road Tire, to the high-end Tufo Elite Road Tubular Tire. The Tufo Elite 120 Tubular Tire is the lightest tubular we've seen, at 120 grams we recommend it only to track racers.
Tufo is also a very popular manufacturer of cyclocross tires. Cyclocross riders are particularly loyal to tubular tires and Tufo puts a great deal of thought into their 'cross line. The Tufo Flexus Tubular Cyclocross Tire is so popular we have a very hard time keeping it in stock. The Tufo Elite Cyclocross LPS Tubular Tire is also a very highly regarded 'cross tire.
Vittoria - This year I was fortunate enough to follow the Tour of California, the WHOLE race. I spent a fair amount of time poking around the team trucks and bugging the mechanics before stages. One thing I picked up on is that pro's ride the Vittoria Corsa EVO CX Tubular (290 TPI). Teams sponsored by Vittoria ride it, teams not sponsored by Vittoria ride it. Some teams sponsored by other tire manufacturers ride it with a different brand stamped on the side. If pro cyclists not sponsored by the manufacturer go out of their way to use a certain product, it must be something special.
While the performance gap between clinchers and tubulars constantly narrows, tubular tires still offer distinct performance advantages that make them the choice for competitive cyclists. Tubular wheelsets always weigh less than their clincher counterparts. Clincher rims generally add about 200 grams to the overall weight of the wheelset. Tubular tires can also be run at much more varied tire pressure than clinchers, which require enough pressure to secure the bead, but not so much it will blow the bead off the rim. Tubular tires can be run as low as 30 psi for the muddiest cyclocross races to almost 200 psi for those fortunate enough to ride on the smoothest velodromes.
Ultimately, due to the dramatically lighter rims (where rotational weight matters most) tubular tires are going to provide a distinct advantage for many cyclists. The lighter the rim, the easier a wheel spins up to speed. And bike racing is all about acceleration. Once that acceleration has been made, the benefits of tubular wheels diminish, as aerodynamics play a much larger roll in maintaining speed. Comparable clincher and tubular wheelsets will have similar aerodynamic properties.
The benefits of tubulars will be felt mostly by riders that prefer rolling courses or hard climbs, where sudden accelerations from relatively low speeds often decide the race. Riders who shine on the climbs should definitely get out the glue. Flatlanders and time trial specialists might consider sticking with an aerodynamic clincher wheel like the Reynolds 2008 Attack Wheelset. Clinchers will be less expensive and less of a hassle in the long run. Though riders of all shapes and sizes can appreciate the incredible road feel of tubulars.
It is possible to repair the tubes in non-Tufo tubulars by breaking the fabric casing, repairing the inner tube and restitching the tire. WE DO NOT RECOMMEND REPAIRING TUBULARS IN THIS MANNER! Altering the fabric casing of a tubular can seriously impair the ability of the tire to bond with the rim. NEITHER WesternBikeworks.com NOR TIRE MANUFACTURERS HONOR ANY WARRANTIES ON TIRES WITH COMPROMISED CASING, NOR DO WE ASSUME ANY LIABILITY FOR THE FAILURE OF ALTERED TIRES.
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