Tubeless vs. Tubular

Posted by on May 8, 2012 in Bike | 3 Comments

For any cyclocross racer, the question of tires is an ongoing, perpetual question. An eternal round. Different courses call for different tread patterns and tire pressures. Various weather causes various tire conundrums. As such, ‘cross racers are maniacal in their collection of wheels and tires. Spare wheels for the pits, spare wheels for sudden weather, spare wheels for the pre-ride, spare wheels for the spare wheels. To say nothing of the brand of wheels and tires being used. Underlying the debate about tread and pressure mysteries, is the ultimate cyclocross discourse: tubular vs. tubeless.

For the serious ‘crosser, there is no debate. Tubular wheels, without question, are the only real way to race cyclocross. Anything else is, not only offensive to the Tradition of Cyclocross, but also insanely ineffective. No self-respecting ‘cross racer would ever be seen on anything other than carbon tubulars. It’s Just the Way It is.

But tubeless tires have come a long way. Tubeless is now standard on a mountain bike. Inner tubes? What are inner tubes? Oh right. Those folded strips of rubber that we carry in our jersey pockets for good luck. While tubeless is ubiquitous on the mountain, it’s hardly that way in ‘cross and on the road. But it’s becoming more prevalent. NoTubes builds a high-end series of tubeless road and ‘cross wheels. Hutchinson, among a few others, are selling tubeless road tires. It’s a very primitive trend, but it is growing. More and more narrow tires are neither tubular, nor inner-tubed. They’re tubeless.

Well. So what?

If tubular tires offer a better ride, what does it matter if another inferior design is catching on? It doesn’t. Unless of course, tubeless wheels can match, or surpass, the quality and comfort of tubular wheels. Can they?


I don’t have any experience with tubular tires. None. Unless you count watching other people suffer through numerous flat, rolled, and ripped tires at ‘cross races as experience? I’ve been told that nothing can match the soft, controlled ride of tubular tires. I’m sure this is true. I’ve thought seriously about investing into a pair of tubular wheels. But whenever that possibility arises, I balk. My mountain bike upbringing, and the ongoing success of (and faith in) various tubeless set-ups cause some of my skepticism. But the impractical learning curve is also partly to blame. I don’t know the first thing about gluing tires onto rims. Scratch that. I do know the first thing: hire someone else to do it. Which would work once or twice, but eventually I would need to learn the voodoo of the glue. Which might be fun. But I might get frustrated enough that instead of gluing tires, I’d just sniff the glue until I passed out.

Tubeless it is.

But tubeless cyclocross tires aren’t exactly trouble-free. Unlike the mountain bike world, which allows for an almost infinite choice of tire/rim combinations, tubeless ‘cross is fickle, picky, and unreliable. The known working tire/rim combinations are few and limited, which can cause great consternation among the Different-Tire-For-Every-Course contingency. Me? I’m not too picky. My riding skills are mediocre, as is my ability to decide which tires are better for different conditions. And anyway, a tire well suited to mud isn’t going to make me any better in the mud. Likewise, a fast rolling tire won’t actually help me roll any faster. I’ve been content to find a working tire (an “all-rounder”) and rim (inexpensive, durable) combo, and to ride it every day. Training, racing, dry, wet, what really is the difference?

But in the back of my mind a small, nagging thought has lingered…

“Am I missing something?”

Maybe tubular wheels really are the gold standard? And if so, are they worth the learning curve, the glue, the expense?

Yes, of course!

But only for the True ‘Cross Rider. I’m a hack, remember? A mid-pack hack. I secretly curse the rain. I’m terrible in corners. I can’t bunny hop. I’m a dirt bag in a sport made for smooth, clean-shaven, fashionable people from Rotterdam, Brussels, or Portland. Not from Utah. ‘Cross is a sport meant to reward skill and class. I have neither. My brutish approach to the game is crude and clumsy. Class? No, I don’t have class. But I can throw an elbow, and trip over barriers. I drink Diet Coke, instead of designer coffee. I use DZNuts embrocation cream, rather than something from Rapha or Mad Alchemy. I ride a crass, American branded bike made from Chinese carbon. I train and race on the same set of  inexpensive aluminum wheels with cheap, low-thread-count clinchers from mass-market, big-box manufactures like Bontrager or Specialized. I’m not worthy to use tires made by companies called Dugast, Tufo, or Vittoria. I don’t even use cantilever brakes! I’m unfit for the luxury of tubular wheels.

But maybe not for long.

I can change my ways. If Adam Myerson, tattooed and melodramatic, and can ride tubular wheels, maybe a mountain biker from Utah can as well? I can learn. About Belgium. About frites. I can learn who Sven Nys is, and how to say a few phrases in Dutch, or French, or New English. “Heeft u lijm uw eigen banden?” But until then, I’ll continue to get by with aluminum clinchers. Unsexy, but reliable. Like a good dog. Instead of rolling tires off my carbon rims, I’ll burp them off aluminum wheels; which is a rather telling metaphor for the tubeless/tubular debate. One rolls. The other belches.

But then, I’ve always enjoyed a hearty burp.


Image: John Shafer



  1. mark
    May 8, 2012

    If tubeless works for you, go with it. I suffered too many rolled and burped and flatted tires, so I went with tubulars. At first is was a mixed bag until I found some tires that worked for me (read: indestructible but not particularly supple). Now I’ll never go back.

  2. AK
    May 8, 2012

    Coming from a road perspective, tubulars have always been the way to race for weight, suppleness, low rolling resistance… Standard clinchers have come a long way – you can get 320tpi “open” tires now that are very soft – run them with a latex tube and voile, you have a supple light race set up. But then the big difference is the wheels. because of the open structure of clincher wheels and the brake surface – clincher hoops are generally heavier compared to tubular wheels which are inherently stronger because of the closed box section. I think there will be some big changes in the future with disk brakes – this should enable a lighter wheel design, since you don’t have to worry about the heat dissipation or braking structure on the wheel. combined with an open clincher and latex tube – you’ll probably have a set up every bit as good as a tubular. Regarding tubeless road – these tires are generally heavier and not as supple (and you are not looking for the lowest possible pressure on road), but I’m guessing that technology will improve also.

    I don’t know if any of this translates over to CX. In my meager 2-season-mid-pack-amateur-CX race experience, I’ve used both tubeless and tubular (interestingly, the set ups are the same weight). I’ve burped and flatted on tubeless, I’ve never rolled. I also don’t have any tattoos.

  3. Ed
    May 8, 2012

    Tubes rule!


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