Cyclocross season is here! It’s time to dust off the cowbells, find out if last year’s skinsuits still fit, and order fresh embrocation cream. It’s also time for hot laps at the park, fall colors, and waffles. Lots of waffles. Along with ‘cross season, comes the inevitable debate about tires. Which tread is best? What pressure is best? Which brand? And the ultimate question, should I use tubular tires instead of clincher or tubeless tires?
My answer to that question used to be “no”. But then I tried tubular tires. And I’m really glad I did.
But before I go any further, let me say that tubeless tires for CX can be great. I raced on tubeless tires for a few seasons without too many problems. But when I started having regular tire issues, I looked more seriously at tubular tires. I learned that most of the reasons I was told to avoid a tubular wheelset were more mythical than real. When I finally did set up tubular wheels, I found them just as painless as a tubeless set. In many ways the process was easier.
Myth 1: Tubular wheels are more expensive.*
This used to be true, but not anymore. Affordable aluminum tubular wheels are available from reputable builders. I ride on the Revolution Wheelworks 25x (on sale right now for $340). They are well-built, light, and durable. I’ve been very impressed. I rode the wheels at the 2013 Crusher, after struggling to get a tubeless set-up together before race day, and they worked flawlessly. The retail price for the 25x is $490. The NoTubes Iron Cross, an aluminum set in the same weight-class as the 25x, retails at $595.
Myth 2: Tubular tires are more expensive.*
This is true. Clincher cyclocross tires can be bought inexpensively, but they won’t last too long, and can’t be converted to tubeless effectively. Cheap clinchers are fine for training or as back-up, but they aren’t suitable for racing. High-end clincher ‘cross tires are also expensive. The NoTubes Raven retails for $61. The Michelin Mud 2, $55, and the “open tubular” tires from Challenge, as much as $90. The Challenge Fango tubular tire will cost $120. The Tufo Flexus Cubus, the tire I rode at the Crusher, usually costs around $100. So yes, tubular tires are more expensive than clinchers. But the difference in cost is reflected in the quality of the tire.
*Based on MSRP. I know most of you have shop/team deals, or are skilled at finding deals online. I paid $60 per tire on Amazon last year for my Cubus tires.
Myth 3: Gluing tubulars is messy.
Define messy. Is sealant splattering all over the garage, the walls, and your clothing messy? Glue is sticky, but it isn’t inherently messy (neither is sealant). Having the proper equipment makes gluing tires really clean. Rubber gloves, a rag, and a couple of quality glue brushes will keep your tire, rim, and floor clean. Patient gluing will ensure that glue only ends up where it’s supposed to end up, and that cleaning up is a snap.
Myth 4: Gluing tubulars takes way too long.
I’ve known riders who have raced on tires that were glued to rims only 12 hours before a race. So it can be done. It’s probably not recommended, but it’s possible. Glue + tape can also minimize the time needed to install a new tire. But a proper glue job does take a few days. With a little planning however, it’s far less stressful than trying to seal up a set of clinchers the night before a race. I enjoyed the gluing process, and am looking forward to doing it again this season.
Myth 5: Tubular tires are unrepairable.
Tubular tires are nearly as repairable as clinchers. A severe sidewall cut will kill any tire, but punctures are easily fixed with a shot of sealant. And just like tubeless tires, tubular tires can be run with sealant inside for instant fixes. A rolled tubular can be reset, inflated to a higher pressure, and will usually stay put long enough to get back to the pits. While it’s true that the option to “just throw a tube in” doesn’t exist, there are ways to fix a tubular tire when it goes flat.
Myth 6: The hassle!
Properly gluing and caring for tubular tires requires a little homework. But you are a ‘cross racer, so you already have a proclivity for bicycle details. Tubular wheels are not complicated. It’s just rubber, metal, and glue. Talk to a fellow racer who is experienced in all things tubular, and ask them for advice and help. I know you already know someone that would be happy to help you glue tires. Gluing tires enhanced the ‘cross experience for me, giving it more hand-made feel. Cyclocross is a sport that is steeped in tradition. Gluing tires is a part of that tradition, and should be experienced by anyone who enjoys ‘cross.
Now you have no more excuses. The age-old arguments against tubular tires have been flat-earthed. They are obsolete. I made the switch, and I’m happy I did. I still use my tubeless wheels for training and summer dirt. But it’s true what everyone says, nothing beats the ride of tubular cyclocross tires. If you are shopping for new ‘cross wheels, I highly recommend a tubular set. It won’t cost you more money, time, or hassle. But it will give your competitors headaches.