Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
By Matt Pacocha
Ask your average die-hard cyclo-cross fanatic to comment on the burning social, political or economic issues of the day and you may not get much of a response. Ask, “Tubular or clincher?” and you’re bound to get an earful. Of course, much of what you hear is as likely to confuse as to enlighten.
Old-school Euros will, without a doubt, defend their motto, “Tubulars or death!” North American racers with a mountain-bike background will thoughtfully explain that the tubular’s advantages can be matched by superior rubber technology and the advanced tread patterns of today’s clinchers.
No matter what style of tire you settle upon, the common goal is, of course, optimal traction. In many cases, the question boils down to the course and conditions. In others, it may just be a matter of personal preference. But one thing is sure: The question of tubular or clincher walks a finer line than ever – as long as you’re not talking to a Belgian `cross mechanic.
Using tubulars is as much a question of tradition as a component choice. Each user may have his own system of gluing tires, involving one precise number of coats on the tire and another on the rim. The process may take up an evening or an entire week. It’s a bit of tradition, some magic and a touch of alchemy thrown in for good measure. It’s really all about being in the know.
“You used how many coats on the rim?”“How long did you let those dry?”“Do you really feel safe on those?”
The advantages to tubulars are clear; lower pressures, less chance of the dreaded pinch flat, and the ability to still ride quickly on a flatted tire. But keep in mind that the majority of tubular cyclo-cross tires are made for manicured European courses, smooth grass and pavement with sweeping turns and long off-camber sections.
They’re not cheap, either, with even the most economical tires starting out in the $40-$50 range and growing pricier yet as you approach the Holy Grail of `cross tubulars, the handmade Dugast.
“When it comes to grass and that kind of stuff, nothing rolls better and holds the line like they do,” said Mark Peterson, the manager for Kona’s cyclo-cross team. “The other big reason for tubulars is if you do flat, it allows you to maintain some sort of speed to ride the flat to the pits. The sidewall casing is just so much suppler, but also strong enough that you don’t get a bunch of pinch flats.”
Their disadvantages quickly become apparent, however, when they are taken out of their element. Cotton and silk casings don’t fare too well when the terrain turns rocky, and in wet and slippery conditions the 20-year-old tread patterns can show their age.
“I think tubulars are a pain to deal with on a day-to-day basis,” said Giant’s Adam Craig. “I also think that their archaic tread and compound technology is just masked by the fact that the casings ride so well.”
Nonetheless, on the right course…
Who cares about tradition?
For those of us that do a double-take when someone whispers “sew-up,” or race `cross merely to stay in shape or have fun, the clincher is arguably the way to go.
They are cheaper, easier to use and in many cases provide a level of performance that rivals even the best tubular. Clinchers save us from destroying a $90 tire on its first ride. They allow the single-wheelset racer to make easy tire changes for courses or conditions.
“With the U.S. brand of `cross racing, I think clinchers are totally acceptable and actually have an advantage for a lot of different reasons,” said Tim Johnson of CyclocrossWorld.com-Louis Garneau.
Clincher users save precious brain cells from being killed in the gluing process. Tire manufacturers make tread-pattern selection easy and provide us with cyclo-cross patterns that mirror selections from a mountain bike line.
Michelin offers the Mud 2, a product of the Comp S (now the XCR Dry) and the semi-slick Jet. Geax has the Blade and now the new semi-slick Mezcal. Continental has the Twister and the Double Fighter. All are reasonably familiar to most and help make the transition from fat tires to skinny much simpler. In addition the tread patterns and rubber technology surpass what is used on most tubulars.
Out on the race course, the big-name pros are a divided peloton. The Kona boys are on tubulars, but Johnson and his teammate (and wife) Lynn Bessette have done their winning on clinchers thus far this year. The same goes for Giant’s Adam Craig, who is riding exclusively on Michelin’s clinchers.
Johnson and Bessette are a unique information resource because they are not tied to a specific tire sponsor. They get to ride what they see as the best possible tire for the conditions.
“We can use whatever tires we want,” said Johnson. “I had some friends at Maxxis send me tires. I’ve got some Michelins, and Stuey [Cyclo-crossWorld.com owner Stu Thorne] has got the Dugasts. But honestly, in Gloucester the Michelin Muds were perfect. No question.”
It seems that the differing styles of tires match the differing styles of racers. The key is to match the right racer with the right tire.
“[In] the super snowy round [of the USGP] in Gloucester the Michelins have such a superior tread pattern and tread compound that the rubber actually conforms well,” said Craig. “I think they work better for my kind of riding style because I am a cornering intensive `cross racer and I try to keep speed there. There are some people [on tubulars] who ride slow through the corners with a foot out and look to slip, which they do, and then they ride fast on the bumpy stuff and in the straightaways, so it works out for them too.”
The Kona cyclo-cross team believes that tubulars are a key to speed in ‘cross racing.
“Most of the riders agree that Dugasts tires are the top tire,” said Peterson. “Just about the entire European cyclo-cross field is on Dugasts.”
And the results that the team has garnered this year are hard to argue with – on wet courses and dry, the Kona boys have been tough to match.
Having been around the figurative `cross block, Johnson has his own opinion on the tubular-or-death mentality.
“I think there is a perception that tubulars are the only way to go if you are a high performance ‘cross racer and I think I would have been one of the first to buy into that a few years ago, but now I don’t,” said Johnson.
“I kind of learned a lot about tire selection when I was racing in Europe with the Belgian guys. I would show up on a course with my 32c or 34c Dugasts or Tufos and they would show up with 30c Dugasts or a file tread. I didn’t quite get the choices then; why they were doing stuff like that.”
Johnson conceded that on some courses, especially those in Europe, there is terrain where tubulars are hard to beat.
“Courses with pure long off-camber sections or high-speed off-camber sections, a tubular that is really supple is super beneficial and has a big advantage,” said Johnson.
The answer? Craig thinks he has it.
“I think that a Michelin tread on a tubular casing is the ultimate answer,” he notes.
Our answer: If you have to ask if tubulars are really worth it, they probably aren’t for you. For the weekend warrior, clinchers are clearly the way to go, and the consensus from our small sampling of professionals is that Michelin’s clincher is hard to beat. But on the right course, one that’s nice and bumpy with no sharp corners, a good tubular’s supple performance will send shivers up your spine.
Besides, nothing beats the nostalgic benefits of racing on tires that you spent a week prep’ing and gluing … at least until you have to replace them.
Gimmea brake: Brake options for ‘cross
Do you agree? Disagree? Weigh in on the big issue of the day and vote in today’s VeloNews.com poll (at the bottom, right-hand corner of our home page) and tell us if you like tubulars, clinchers or both. You can also take the more long-windedapproach and drop us a note at WebLetters@InsideInc.com.Letters must include FULL NAME and HOME TOWNto be considered for publication. (Letters may be edited for length andclarity.)