Heard of clinchers, tubulars and road tubeless tyres, but unclear about the differences between them, and what each is good for? Mat Brett, a former Editor of 220 Triathlon, explains all…
What are clincher tyres and wheels?
Clinchers tyres are what the vast majority of us use these days: tyres with beads around the edge that hook into the rim of a clincher wheel, with entirely separate inner tubes that you can repair or replace if you puncture. Many clincher wheelsets also offer a tubeless ready construction so you swap to tubular.
What are tubulars?
A tubular – or tub – is a tyre with an inner tube stitched inside. The tubular is glued to a specially designed rim, or sometimes stuck there with double-sided tape. If you puncture a tubular, you can often repair it with a Latex-based liquid sealant. Otherwise, you have to take the tubular off the rim, open up the backing, patch the tube, sew it up and stick it back on. It’s a faff, to be blunt.
The combined weight of a tubular wheel and tyre is usually lighter than the equivalent clincher, so the wheel can accelerate a little faster. Plus, you’re very unlikely to get pinch flats with a tub, you can generally use higher tyre pressures, and if you do puncture the tyre is very unlikely to come off the rim. On the downside, the lack of convenience if you puncture means that most people only use tubs only for racing.
Road tubeless is a relatively recent innovation that uses an airtight rim and tyre without an inner tube. You need specific road tubeless tyres and in most cases road tubeless wheels, although you can switch 700c clincher rims to tubeless use with a conversion kit.
You can run road tubeless tyres at lower pressures than most clinchers without the danger of a pinch flat. You’ll also save a little weight over standard clinchers, but the tyres are generally heavier, and you’ll really need to use a sealant to help the tyre seal on the rim and prevent punctures.
Road tubeless tyre choice is still limited and fitting can take quite a lot of patience, but it seems likely that more wheels and tyres are on the way.
Tubulars versus clinchers: which are faster?
If you first consider rolling resistance, the rubber compounds used for clinchers are no longer inferior and, if you use a lightweight latex inner, that’s what you’ll find sewn into a tubular so, no difference there. Also, tests have shown that using tape or poorly applied glue can significantly add to a tubular’s rolling resistance, says Nik Cook.
From an aero point of view, with modern wide rims and correctly chosen tyres, the aero profile of a clincher is far superior to a tubular. However, pick the wrong tyre and you can easily negate those gains.
Weight wise, a like-for-like tubular set-up will always be lighter but, unless it’s an uphill-only event or you’re racing a crit with hard accelerations, aero trumps weight and the clinchers will be faster. You’ve also got to factor in convenience and there’s no doubt that living with clinchers is a lot easier and more cost effective than tubs.
So, why does the pro peloton still favour tubulars? Partly due to tradition and partly because they have team cars following loaded with spare wheels. But the main reason is that you can keep riding on a soft or, in extreme cases, flat tubular which, in a race situation, can be crucial.