Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Clinchers fight back

Back in the mid-nineties, it looked like tubular tyres were destined for the scrap heap. High quality, lightweight clincher rims like the Mavic Open Pro became the standard while super-light, super-stiff factory-built wheelsets like the Mavic Ksyrium began to take top honours in most races, and all the while, clincher tyre technology continued apace, with manufacturers experimenting with new compounds (often using more than one in one tyre) and puncture proof belts to make clinchers THE choice for serious cyclists.

And then carbon happened.

Carbon lends itself to simple shapes like a tubular rim, which is simply a circular tube with one edge flattened off to allow a tub to be stuck to it. While an aerodynamic, stiff, aluminium clincher rim weighed in at around 475g, an equivalent carbon tubular rim was at least 100g less, and probably stiffer to boot, allowing the use of fewer spokes.

As the nineties became the noughties, carbon became the dominant material in high end road racing wheels and now, as we reach the end of another decade, the majority of racers at any level are riding carbon - tubular - wheels.
Just as the nails were being driven into the tubular coffin, along came carbon and saved the humble tub for another decade.

This rebirth of the tub came at the same time as a rebirth of cycling as cool pursuit, with it's long and varied history. Tubs fit in with the nostalgia for the old days that brands like Rapha hang their coats on. In fact, issue 13 of Rouleur, published by Rapha, has a huge feature in it about tubs. It suggests that gluing on tubs is at once a trip down memory lane while also taking you a step into the future - the wheels they use to illustrate the feature are Mavic's space-age and uber-expensive Cosmic Carbon Ultimates.

My problem is, carbon wheels are mostly a fashion statement. And like most fashion statements, they're not that practical for most of us.
Carbon wheels have notoriously bad braking, especially in the wet; they're expensive to buy and expensive to maintain and repair; they force you into the world of pain that is the tubular tyre.

Tubs have their place, no doubt - it's just that place is a wet Belgian field. Tubs are essential for cross, clinchers can't compete with the traction you can get from a 32mm cross tub pumped up to 20psi. And even if clinchers dcould compete in terms of traction, try running them soft and you'll suffer a pinch flat in five minutes. The only other application where tubs are essential are the cobbled classics, where avoiding pinch flats is essential. But with the advent of tubeless, for how much longer that will be the case is anyone's guess.
Everywhere else, clinchers win, hands down. And the top reason is not price, or practicality - it's grip. Well, it's price and grip. If you want grippy tubs that you can really rail corners on, you're looking at £50 per tub; clinchers, you're looking at more like £20 per wheel. For example the tyres above - both Conti GP4000s - currently costs £49.73 for the tub, and £22.05 for the clincher on Ribble.

As a cross racer, most of my road racing takes place in criteriums where cornering speed is paramount and for me, the grip of a quality clincher tyre combined with the secure braking of a aluminium rim provides a more cost effective, faster combination than carbon wheels and mediocre tubs. And lets face it, most of us ride mediocre tubs. I know that when I came to replace my worn out GP4000s I went for Sprinter Gatorskins more for price and puncture resistance than anything else, and yet they still cost twice that of a good racing clincher.
Finally, the idea that tubs provide a more comfortable ride than clinchers is nonsense in my opinion. Regardless of how the tyre is formed, 110psi feels like 110psi, and that is, pretty harsh.

So tubs, or clinchers? If you've got tub sponsor and a pro tour mechanic to do all the dirty work, tubs are still worth pursuing; if you're an average Joe like the rest of us, clinchers won't let you down.

This post was inspired by Crossjunkie's Defense of Tubs


raggy said...

With it's, imho, superior feel and grip for mtbs could tubeless be the answer to both side's disadvantages?

Andy Waterman said...

The reason tubular carbon wheels are currently so dominant is that it is the easiest way to buld a light, aero, stiff rim. Trying to add a bead hook to allow clincher tyres - be they tubed or tubeless - to a carbon rim isn't very easy and so far, not that many companies are trying it, although it's definitely getting more accepted.
I spotted some tubeless ready carbon corima wheels in the Cycling Weekly office today, which certainly look interesting. Whether they're durable or as light as their carbon competitors I don't know - be interesting to find out.

crossjunkie said...

I roll over and concede - your argument has no flaws (unlike mine!).

'My problem is, carbon wheels are mostly a fashion statement. And like most fashion statements, they're not that practical for most of us.'

That pretty much sums it up and I am guilty as charged. I'm still going to carry on riding tubs on the road though for that nostalgic nod in the direction of cycling history.....

As for cross, the propaganda drive continues to convert all crossistas to the tub world.

Unknown said...

I've read several articles that indicate clinchers have mch better rolling resistance than tubulars, due supposedly to the road glue (track glue wasn't tested, although that would basically make a carbon rim a one tire deal).

I think the wall of a clincher provides a stiffer support than a tubular, even if the tubular is higher pressure.

Unknown said...

Very nice and helpful information has been given in this article. I like the way you explain the things. Keep posting. Thanks.. carbon tubular wheels