It is often said that the quickest way to change the ride characteristics of a bike is to change wheels or tires. Last year I changed the wheels on my CoMotion American and immediately realized a weight savings and performance improvement. This year, I defied common sense and upgraded the wheels on my Seven to tubulars.
Tubular tires (or “sew-ups”) are fundamentally different from the clincher tires the vast majority of people ride. Clinchers rely on an inner tube underneath the tire to provide the pneumatic component that cushions the rider from the pavement. Clinchers are great and I won’t be getting rid of mine anytime soon, but they do come with two trade-offs. First of all, most clinchers tend not to be very supple. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part they ride “hard” or “harsh.” And that brings us to the second drawback. Clinchers can be prone to pinch flats at lower pressures, which means you can’t reduce the tire pressure too much to achieve suppleness without risking a flat. Lastly, if you suddenly lose pressure in a clincher, there’s an outside chance it could roll right off the rim, leaving the rider totally screwed.
For several years, I’ve heard (but mostly read) about the benefits of tubular tires. Unlike clinchers, the tubular tire consists of the tire casing sewn around the inner tube as a one piece unit. Hence the name “sew-ups.” The better tires are made by hand and are much more supple than clinchers. Indeed, they actually describe the tires by thread counts like fine sheets! Most people rave about the ride quality of tubulars, partly because you can run them at lower pressures without risking the dreaded pinch flat. Tubulars are glued onto the bike rim, so there’s no chance they will roll off during a flat or blowout. The one drawback of tubulars is that they are glued on, which means mounting and changing tires takes some attention to detail and is not a quick operation.
Over the winter I began mulling over the possibility of trying a set of tubulars. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on high-end wheels only to find out they did not live up to the hype. I devoted a lot of energy over-researching the matter and trying to find the cheapest way to try this old-fangled technology. In May I took the plunge and ordered a moderately priced wheel set and nice tires from Signature Cycles.
You don’t just pop tubular tires onto the rim and ride away. The tires have to be stretched a bit, the rim glued with contact cement, the tires glued and then everything has to dry a bit. Then more glue. Then you wrestle the tire onto the rim. It takes some experience to get it right. I didn’t want to learn on my own, so I arranged for a coaching session at the shop so I’d learn how to do it properly.
It really isn’t that hard; people make a bigger fuss about it than it’s worth. In the course of two and a half hours, I learned how to stretch, glue and mount the tires. I let the adhesive dry 24 hours and I was off and riding the new wheels.
I knew by the second pedal stroke that there was something different about the bike. The ride quality was noticeably softer, smoother, squishier. The ride was certainly not as harsh as my clinchers. I’ve heard the ride described as “pneumatic” and I’d have to agree. You definitely sense you are riding on a pocket of air instead of a hard piece of rubber. I also noticed that when cornering, the tire conforms to the changes in road surface more than my clinchers, which tend to just bounce over things. I’m definitely happy with my decision to try sew-ups.
I went with a set of FMB tires. They are handmade in France and, as you might expect from something handmade, they are not as cheap as clinchers. But the ride quality is certainly worth it in my opinion. I couldn’t see the point of taking the leap to tubulars and then mounting a set of $30 tires on the rims. I have about a month’s worth of leisure riding and commuting (yes, I commute on them!) on the wheels and have not had any issues whatsoever. Eventually, one of the tires will flat and I’ll be heartbroken about the expense–at least momentarily–but for now I’m really enjoying the new wheels and tires. They’ve certainly changed the character of the bike.
Will I ditch my clinchers?
No way! Clinchers serve a purpose, and for me that purpose would be long rides with limited support or rides on particularly crappy terrain. Since the tubular tire is a one-piece unit, you have to carry a spare tire with you, not just an inner tube. Most people carry one spare and if they double flat on a ride they call a cab. I don’t think I want to be in that position, particularly on a dirt road somewhere; therefore, I’d mount up the clinchers and carry a couple of spare tubes. I also don’t see myself commuting on the sew-ups in the winter; I’ll put the clinchers back on in late fall.