Cyclocross Traditions, Part 1: Tubulars

There I was, at Competitive Cyclist, reading a review of Rapha Winter Embrocation.  I was only kind of interesting in the Rapha product itself.  I really wanted to learn more about the DZ Nuts InHeat embrocation, since I’m kind of a DZ Nuts fan.  The Rapha review went into some more general discussions about embrocation, so I consumed it eagerly.

When I got done reading, I sat staring at the screen for a minute. What, I asked myself, is the advantage of this stuff over a good pair of knee warmers?  My Specialized Therminal Deflect tights keep me warm and dry. Why bother with this consumable mess instead of reusable warmers?

I think I understand now that cyclocross, like road cycling, is a sport of tradition.  Mountain biking, where I come from, is a sport of innovation.  What doesn’t work dies.  So I started thinking about some cyclocross traditions I was aware of and tubulars came to mind first.  What is the deal here?

Tubular wheels are simpler to manufacture than clincher rims.  I think that, by itself, is the key reason tubulars made sense originally. The tires themselves are easier to manufacture too.  I haven’t bought a mountain bike tire without a Kevlar bead in years, and Kevlar wasn’t even invented until 1965.  Naturally, it should take a while for the material to work its way into bicycle tires.  So the tubular tradition had 80 years of inertia behind it, despite the messiness of the technology.

People claim other benefits for tubulars too.  Lower rolling resistance, a more supple “feel”, the ability to safely run lower pressures without the risk of flatting.  The issue of low rolling resistance is becoming less of an issue with better clinchers.  And for the average cyclist, the minuscule difference is almost negligible compared to body position, body weight or other factors.  With tubeless technologies (especially sealant-based solutions), we have ways of allowing for lower pressures without the inconvenience of tubulars.  All that’s left is the “feel”, and who can argue about what someone “feels”?

I bought tubular tires and wheels this year.  I’ve mentioned them before, so I don’t feel compelled to pepper this post with links for the Neuvation T1 and Challenge Grifo tubulars. The Neuvation wheels have been great, but if I could do it again, I would have spent my money on Stan’s Alpha Road rims and gone tubeless.  Why?

  1. My shop doesn’t stock tubular glue. It would be stupid of them to do so, since I am the only person in the Keweenaw (that I am aware of) who uses the stuff.  Every time I need it, though, it’s a special order.
  2. Point 1 has been an issue every single time I’ve glued, because I have run out of glue.  For a process that takes several days, every further delay is irritating.
  3. I am largely of the opinion that tire choice is important for the best race performance.  I can be basically satisfied with a single tread if necessary (see my reliance on the Specialized Captains, for example).  But cyclocross is so much about the right tire for the terrain, and tubulars are not at all conducive to this.  You  have two choices: try to find an all-around tread that doesn’t completely suck everywhere OR have three complete wheelsets.  Consider the last two cyclocross races I’ve done.  Last November was the U.P. State Championships in Marquette.  It was rainy, snowy, muddy and wet.  We hit singletrack, pavement, mud puddles and grass.  Sherman Cross was last weekend (writeup coming soon, I promise) and it was all grass and pavement.  How could the same tire really excel on both of those courses?  I can’t have 6 wheels so that I have a file tread, a standard tread and a mud tire.  And while a sealant-based tubeless setup isn’t as trivial to swap out at a tube-type tire, it’s a ton easier than the tubulars.  It took me 3 hours to clean all the glue off from the last tires and another 3 hours of gluing to get the Grifos ready.  You can swap out and seal up something with Stan’s in 20 minutes.
  4. If you get a flat with your tubulars, you’re screwed. With tubeless, you just stick in a tube and off you go. I walked 3 miles home during the summer because of a deflated tubular.  I’ve never had to walk home because of a flatted tubeless tire.
  5. Somehow, people are okay with buying tires that are basically incomplete. When I rolled my Grifo, I rubbed a lot of rubber off the sidewall. I don’t think I destroyed the tire, but it’s not the same either. Yesterday, I read an article on CX Magazine about sealing your sidewalls with Aqua-Seal because they are so fragile. So I pay $80 for a tire that requires $6 worth of glue and $3 worth of sealant for the sidewalls? In what universe do I call that a good deal?
  6. Look at the treads of the Vittoria XGs, the Challenge Grifo or just about any other CX tire. Most of them look identical and most of them have very round profiles with no shoulder knobs to speak of. Therefore, they don’t corner well.
  7. Cost. At the end of the day, the average clincher tire can easily be set up tubeless and some even come ready out of the box (see: The Captain CX 2Bliss). Tubulars are immensely expensive. You can run the same kinds of pressures. Will the “feel” be there? I don’t know, but I don’t really care either. I’ll sacrifice some amount of feel for the flexibility and cost benefits.
I think tubulars, even for cyclocross, are a dead or dying “technology”. People are holding on to some outdated notion that the only good tires for ‘cross are tubulars, based on hearsay and popular opinion. I don’t think any of it will last long. Just like tubeless tires have taken over mountain biking, tubeless will take over ‘cross as well.  I’m not necessarily putting my Neuvations up for sale, but you can bet future ‘cross wheel purchases will be aimed towards tubeless.
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