Ask Nick: Tubular trash, Benotto bliss, budget upgrades and tubeless safety

Tech editor Nick Legan answers questions on thin bar tape, bang-for-buck upgrades and tubeless safety

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Editor’s Note: VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. His column appears here every Thursday. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.

I have a question about tubular punctures on pro teams. What happens to the punctured tires? Do they all get gathered up and sent to some skilled old lady somewhere in Italy who patiently un-sews them, repairs/replaces the tube and puts them back into circulation? Certainly, you don’t throw away a $100 tire because of one repairable hole. Do you? — Scott A. Wells

I hate to admit to this, but they are trashed. In some cases, teams actually cut the tire and keep the valve stem to prove to sponsors that they’re going through tires and not hoarding. If it’s a tiny pinhole puncture, mechanics might throw some sealant in them and use them as spare tires for when the riders go training at races on tubular wheels. But even that is rare.

Again, pro cycling is anything but ecologically sound. In the name of performance, there is a lot of waste. With large budgets and big sponsor allocations, it’s all about ensuring the riders’ efforts aren’t wasted. That means that a bike must be kept reliable at all costs. It goes even farther than tossed punctured tires, though.

You’ll really hate to hear my next bit of information: often tires are thrown away before they even puncture. Because pros are putting in so many miles, tires on race wheels actually have a chance to wear out before they puncture. But the amount of wear allowed by a given mechanic varies. Some, at the first sign of tread wear, will replace the tire to help prevent on-the-road punctures.

I got back into road riding this year after 10 years of mountain biking. The last time I wrapped bars, Benotto Cello was the tape of choice. Now there are tons of tape types. I grabbed one recommended by my shop and it’s way too thick for my taste. What are the pro riders using now? — Dave

Handlebar tape has come a long way since Benotto (though none of it looks quite as good as the translucent yellow Benotto I used to use on my Trek 460). Most tape is quite elastic, so before you throw away the tape you have, try rewrapping it. With a bit more tension, the tape will stretch thinner. You can also wrap with less overlap for a thinner overall diameter. If this is still too thick, try fi’zi:k’s Microtex tape. It’s nice and thin, wraps well and holds up nicely. If you ride a fi’zi:k saddle you can also color coordinate. I’ve also really liked Bontrager’s Race Lite Grippy tape and Salsa’s Gel Cork tape. Lastly, Deda’s handlebar tape is quite thin. Avoid anything with the word “Roubaix” in it. That’ll be going the other direction.

As someone who needs to work with a budget for component upgrades, what provides the best return for your money? Is it better to buy new hubs/bottom bracket with better bearings or spend the money on lighter wheels? — Carl

It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re talking longevity and durability, I would recommend focusing on bearings. If you’re interested in better performance, you’ll want to look at weight and aerodynamics. Bearings don’t make up that large of an increase in performance when compared to a more aerodynamic rim shape or a well-fitted jersey or skinsuit.

When it comes to upgrades that make a real-world difference, I would say that money is always well spent on contact points: saddles, handlebars, grips or bar tape, gloves, helmets, pedals, shoes, and shorts. These are items that you physically interact with and if something is bugging you or adding discomfort to your cycling equation, it needs to be remedied. I had a bike once that I wanted to like more than I actually was. After changing the handlebar to a preferred model, suddenly I was smitten.

After that, I would encourage you to up your level of maintenance. The average cyclist can feel the difference of high-performance cables and better tires after riding lower quality versions. When I’ve grown a bit weary of some of my bikes, I throw on a new set of tires and some fresh bar tape and fall in love all over again.

What’s the word on road tubeless? I’ve been riding Shimano Dura-Ace wheels and Hutchinson Fusion tires for a few years and have been happy with it. But I haven’t raced on it. I had a friend race the Gila with the same setup and he had a catastrophic blowout coming down the Sapillo. Now I’m not so sure about tubeless. Obviously there are a lot of factors in play (tire pressure, possible damaged bead during installation, road conditions, weather), but it’s in my head a little. How can I know if my road tubeless setup is safe for racing, high-speed descending, hot temps, etc? — Isaac Dancy

The only way to know if a tire/rim combo is safe to ride is through careful installation and regular inspection. I wouldn’t hesitate to ride road tubeless in any condition (which is a good thing as it’s on my Harvey Cycle Works travel bike that I have with me here in Germany for Eurobike). I don’t know all the circumstances surrounding your friend’s blowout, but I’m sure that it could have been prevented. Those may sound like harsh words, but then the consequences are high. I don’t mean to pick on your friend, but it amazes me how much attention bike racers will give their training, their nutrition and their pre-race routine while ignoring a major part of the equation: their bikes!

What makes a pro team mechanic a pro team mechanic is actually very repetitive in nature: inspection. By paying daily attention to a bike, a good mechanic can prevent virtually all on-the-road problems. Crashes happen, but they shouldn’t be caused by mechanical failures.

USA Cycling used to ban riders from competitions if they rolled a tubular tire and caused an accident. While this may seem harsh, I wholeheartedly agree with such measures. If you don’t look after your bike, you are a liability in a peloton.

Ok, rant over. But really, you should be just fine riding road tubeless if your tires and rims are designed to work together and properly installed. Have fun out there!

An American in France

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