Lennard Zinn Technical FAQ: Tubular v. Tubeless for the pros, getting that special bike

Tubular vs. tubeless for the pros; getting that special bike

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Dear Lennard,
I am confused at the continued use of tubular tires by professional road cyclists, especially during the spring classics in Europe. It puzzles me that road cycling seems so far behind the basic technology that automobiles use. When is the last time anyone saw a tubular car tire? It seems odd that Formula 1 racing uses tubeless tires but not professional road cycling.

I have several sets of very expensive tubular road wheels, but I rarely use them. Why? Because I feel more secure riding my 2-way fit wheels mounted with tubeless tires, which (even without sealant) never go flat.

In fact, I don’t even bring an inner tube with me in case I flat, just some foam sealant, which, over the past two years, I’ve never had to use. The other benefit is that they can be inflated at lower pressures, which roll smoother (and I bet faster) than my tubular tires. Also, on descents, tubular tires often melt the glue that attaches the tire to the wheel or over-heat the inner tube, which can also cause a flat.

Tubeless tires never have this problem. Lastly, one can’t argue any longer that tubular wheel sets are lighter. Carbon clincher wheels are being built by many companies now. Take a look at Lightweight’s clinchers, which can easily be used for tubeless tires without rim tape. Can you please explain this conundrum?

Dear Richard,
While I agree with you on every point except the wheel weight comparison, I think that the most fundamental reasons for the persistence of tubulars and the dearth of tubeless in top-level road racing have to do with sponsorship, tradition, and weight.

Unlike Formula 1, top pro bike racers are using equipment that any of us can go out and buy. F1 teams, on the other hand, have one-offs made of practically everything on the cars. Pro bike teams ride what their sponsors want to sell to us, and the fact is that not many wheel or tire manufacturers have embraced tubeless road tires. For a team to use tubeless road tires, it would have to have a wheel sponsor making tubeless-specific wheels (Shimano, Campagnolo, Fulcrum, Stan’s or DT Swiss), and have a tubeless tire manufacturer as a tire sponsor (Hutchinson, Bontrager, Maxxis, or Specialized; the Specialized Turbo TL is made by Hutchinson), and there are none like that.

Until the many wheel sponsors like Zipp, Mavic, Reynolds, Bontrager, Ambrosio, FSA, Vision, Easton, SRAM, ENVE, HED, etc. make superlight road tubeless wheels comparable in weight and performance to carbon tubular wheels and join forces with tire companies making tubeless road tires, which would have to include many companies like Vittoria, Continental, Schwalbe, Michelin, Kenda, Challenge, Veloflex, Panaracer, Vredestein, Ritchey, Tufo, Mavic, Zipp, etc., you won’t see many tubeless road tires on top-flight professional teams.

Tradition also plays a role, since mechanics and riders understand tubulars and know that all of the most important road races in the world are generally won on them. Superstition is a powerful thing, and so is the allure of technology that has been tried and true for many decades.

Finally, nobody is more of a weight weenie than a superlight pro road racer. Any of you who read my review in the VeloNews print magazine of carbon clincher wheels knows how far they are from attaining the weight of superlight tubular wheels, why they can never attain that, and why you wouldn’t want to ride one that did.

Dear Lennard,
I read your comment in your recent column about Cipollini frames and have a question for you. How does a team choose a frame that they will use during cycling season?

I have seen names that were out of sight for a while and now have returned, like Bottecchia, part of LeMond’s outfit back in the late 80’s, and now the Aqua & Sapone team’s bike.

By the way, I have tried to get a team replica, but no one in USA knows where to get one. Can you give some light regarding their distribution and manufacturing, are they also built in Taiwan?

Dear Carlos,
Here is the response to your question from the director of Bottechia:

I am Diego Turato, the general manager of Bottecchia Cicli. To answer your questions, Bottecchia is a company of Esperia Group. The bikes are all assembled in Italy, some frames are produced in Italy, like EMME 2, and some other in Asia.
Here is a brief presentation of our company:
Bottecchia is an historical brand, increased a lot during the years, till to become one of the most popular and well known bicycles brand all around the world.
Our wide range satisfies every demand, as it includes TRK, city, children, BMX, folding, cyclo cross, electric, MTB and, above all, road bikes. Thanks to the last one, our visibility increased a lot during the last two years, as we became the technical sponsor of a famous professional Italian team “Acqua & Sapone”, which rode the Giro d’Italia in 2010 with our SP9 and 2011 with our Emme 2.
We produce about 70 models and our stock has around 10,000 pieces always available to guarantee the maximum availability to our customers. We cover all of the Italian national territory and have distributors all around Europe and outside the Old World; we have distributors in Australia and Japan. This is why we would like to expand our products and brand into your country, even because we constantly receive some requests from the USA end-users and dealers, which are interested on our bikes and would like to know where they can buy them in the USA.
You can also have a look to our web-site www.bottecchia.com where you can find our 2011 catalogs.
Diego Turato
Bottecchia Cicli SRL


Dear Lennard,
I saw this in your previous column: “the rim is true except about five spokes in from the valve stem it flares out on each side a millimeter or two. I don’t recall hitting anything hard but since I am heavy compared to most; maybe it’s just part of the deal.”

It might be a good idea to suggest checking for rim wear. This guy could be about to experience a catastrophic failure?

Dear John,
Good point. It is very wise to check for that. Also, the Rim Rench tool I showed last week is best used for taking out dings that have bent the rim walls inward rather than have flared them outward, as this one had done.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.