I was asked a question about “venturing into the dark side” and riding tubulars today. As usual, I got silly and convinced myself that what I was writing might be a good manifesto to post here, so…for your toleration, “Why I Ride Tubulars.”
Well, I’ve ridden tubulars for the past 25 years or so, so yes, I’m a fan.
I was sold my first set of tubular wheels by Bob Beck, whose Albany, Georgia bike shop was noted for exceptional bikes and components…so exceptional that he scared away most of his clientele who were simply looking for another gas-pipe contrivance for little Jimmy to propel around the block at Christmas. Bob had TASTE and CLASS. Bob carried Mavic and Campagnolo and LOOK. Bob built wheels. Bob knew John Howard. Bob was AWESOME. (And he could move those 50-year-old legs a sight faster than we 19-year-old layabouts could suspect on the local training race. Bob could HURT you.)
My first set of tubies were Campy Omegas laced to Chorus hubs. Not super light, but superb wheels for a Cat 4 to start strutting around with. Those loose bearings hissed like a cat smeared in lard. Smooooooooth. And they still ARE. They’re a little less shiny, now, but they’re still rolling and still amazing wheels, fit for rolling smoothly on the worst chip-and-seal 1988 Albany had to offer, and probably worse. These WERE and ARE better wheels than my own cycling capability. This has been a consistent theme throughout my life.
From the first, I fell in love. I still recommend bike enthusiasts try a pair, just to have the experience. Why?
1. From a ride standpoint, they’re second-to-none. A nice, expensive tubular has a smooth, supple feel on the road, especially in corners. You never feel “on edge” like you can with narrow clinchers. That ride inspires confidence in corners and on descents. And, you’ll find that you start liking wider and wider tires just because they feel SOOOOO good! Luckily, the old beliefs about narrow being faster are pretty much horseshit, and provably so.
2. Tubulars are expensive, comparatively, in both cost and time. Learning to glue, then wait, then glue, then wait, then glue, stick, then wait again…that’s a bit of a pain when you’ve got a new set of wheels in front of you that you just HAVE TO RIDE. It’s not actually difficult, it’s just a pain. You WILL end up sticking yourself to your garage floor at LEAST once, and until you discover the use of cheap flux brushes for gluing, you’ll be picking glue off yourself for days. Still, you will learn that tubular glue isn’t “glue,” it’s CONTACT CEMENT. Layers and curing are your friend…your sticky, sticky friend.
3. Cheap tubulars can be pretty horrible in comparison to expensive, wide open-clinchers. Cheap tubulars aren’t always sewn straight, so they are sometimes hard to align properly on the wheel, and that’s annoying. Cheap tubulars are sometimes prone to tread separation or base tape separation, which is one more thing you don’t see in expensive brands very often. So long as you stay within some brands and read around a bit, you can figure out what works and what doesn’t…it’s not that difficult, and the penalties aren’t all that great for finding out you don’t like something.
4. Repairing tubulars on the road is pretty much nonexistent. You take a spare and maybe some Tufo tape with you, stick it onto the cured rim, air it up, and go. You’ll get props for carrying a tire in your jersey pocket (which looks pro as hell), but it’s not as convenient as a couple of tubes and some levers. Still, it’s super-pro, and looks count for something, right? Repairing tubulars is something you do with a Velox sewing kit during the long, cold, wet Winter evenings. Your wife knits. The cat sleeps by the fire. You cut, patch, and sew tubulars you flatted last season. Again…SUPER-pro.
5. You’ll be sucked into the lore and mythology of cycling. Yes, you’ll experiment with hanging $200-dollar handmade silk FMBs in the rafters for a couple of years to “age” them. Whatever THAT’S supposed to do. Still, you’ll be connected to the glorious past of cycling greats.
6. If you’re like me, it’ll mean yet ANOTHER set of wheels. And if you have multiple bikes, you’ll end up getting another set for EACH of them, because I’m an idiot.
All that said, you should try them. You should definitely try them. You should try them on a nice, double-walled set of alloy rims with a name like Ambrosio or something-something-“Paris-Roubaix” labeled on them. You should buy the fattest pair of tires that will fit through your fork and stays. You should ride them on a road that is pitted and rocky and awful. You should experience the magic and chuckle knowingly as your friends are scraping along on their 23mm clinchers while their hands go numb.
(But keep some nice clinchers handy, too.)