Lessons Learned – My Season on Cyclocross Tubulars

Cyclocross tubulars. The most important upgrade you can make on your cross bike. By simply replacing your pinch flat prone clincher wheels with tubulars, you will be riding faster, cornering better, and floating through the mud like a pro. If you are able to put money into one upgrade this season, make it tubulars.

It was after reading numerous articles and interviews to this effect touting superior benefits that I decided to make the upgrade. I had a couple of seasons of racing under my belt and was eager to make improvements in any way that I could. If one magical upgrade could help my racing, I was game. While I did notice considerable improvements in my bike handling, the switch was not without its setbacks. If you are thinking about going tubular, here are some of the lessons that I learned…

They Cost How Much?

There is no way around it. Cyclocross tubulars are more expensive than clinchers. Not prohibitively expensive, but there is a significant jump in price. For example, a set of Clement PDX clinchers retails for around $80 while the tubular version will run you around $220.  Oh, and don’t forget the wheels. That old clincher wheelset won’t work with the fancy new tubulars and, as with anything in bikes, tubular wheels span a massive price range depending on quality and construction. A cheap pair of alloy wheels could set you back a couple hundred while higher end carbon wheels will be upwards of a couple grand. That said, going tubular doesn’t have to break the bank. A used wheelset/tire combo can usually be found for a decent price. Check locally or through online resources such as the Cyclocross Magazine buy/sell forum for deals. At the end of the season, people typically sell off gear that didn’t see much use during the year, so good deals can be found. I picked up a used Mavic Reflex wheelset in great shape with pre-glued Specialized Tracer tires for $250. Not the lightest set of wheels, but a good place to start.

Changing Seasons

Chances are that the conditions at the start of the season will be much different from the end of the season. In the Pacific Northwest, our season starts in early September and continues into January and we can expect the ground to go from hard packed to heavy mud. Unless you have the coin to invest in multiple wheelsets, you are going to have to choose a tire that suits the majority of the conditions, because once it is glued, it isn’t (hopefully) coming off. There are many great versatile tire choices out there, so this doesn’t have to end up being much of an issue. You can always keep your old clinchers on hand if you absolutely need a different tire choice.

Important supplies
Important supplies – definitely get more glue than I did

Why Do I Feel Dizzy?

So now that you have your new wheels and tires, you’ll need to glue them together. If the wheels were used, they might have old glue caked on. There seems to be varying opinions on how much old glue is fine to leave on the wheel. If the glue isn’t too old, it’s probably alright to leave some on, but if it is looking pretty nasty and gunked up, it is best to remove it and start fresh. This is where some old-fashioned elbow grease, and a lot of acetone will come in handy. Of all the methods out there, it’s what I have found works best for me when removing old glue. The fumes are lethal, so make sure you are in a well ventilated area.

Now time to glue! While essentially you are merely gluing one object to another, a task that most children have mastered by pre-school, gluing tubulars properly is an art. Overall, the process isn’t terribly complicated, but there is a technique used that will mean the difference between a bomb proof glue job, and a tire that rolls off the rim on the first corner. I won’t go into the details on how to glue, as I’m still trying to perfect my method, but there are excellent guides, like this one from Zed Wheels and this video from Cyclocrossworld.com. However, reading about something and actually doing it are quite different. I botched two glue jobs in my first season, even though I was positive that I followed the directions carefully. Practice makes perfect, and it takes a fair bit of practice and patience to get things right. Give yourself plenty of time. The night before a race is probably not the best time to start. Ask around at your local races to see if someone experienced can show you how they do it.

Testing

Once the wheels are attached firmly to the rim, test them out. This is especially important if you bought the tires pre-glued to the rim. It may seem obvious, but this was my first big mistake. I assumed that if they were glued already, I should be good. That was until my first race where my rear tire rolled off the rim and I was shouldering the bike to the finish. Deflate the tire, grab hold and move it back and forth to see if it comes free of the rim. Do not be gentle. You should be able to apply a decent amount of force without the tire coming loose. If it stays intact, things should be good, but get outside and ride them. Rip around on your local trails and put the tubulars through the paces. Play with tire pressure, practice a few remounts at race pace (one of my rolled tires came off during a remount), find some off cambers…basically try to emulate what the tires would go through during a race. If it comes loose, peel the tire off and be prepared to inhale some fumes while you restart the glueing process. This is where a little planning and preparation can save some headaches come race day.

On muddy courses like this, low tire pressure possible with cyclocross tubulars will make a huge difference
On muddy courses like this, the low tire pressure possible with tubulars can make a huge difference

I Thought They Didn’t Flat!

So you have a perfect glue job, you have your tire pressure dialed in, and you are getting that oh so sweet grip in the mud that you have been dreaming about. You are having the race of your life, and then you rip through a particularly gnarly section of the course, and suddenly things don’t feel right. You look down and notice you are riding on deflated rubber. Here’s the thing: while tubulars are not prone to pinch flats, they are just as vulnerable to punctures as a clincher. And when they do flat, it is a huge pain in the ass because not only do you have to reglue a tire, but you also have to buy a new one. As far as I can tell, it’s not worth repairing a punctured tubular. A puncture is something that can happen regardless of tire choice, but with tubulars there is much more work involved. This is where keeping your old clincher wheelset in the pit can save some grief.

So Are They Worth It?

I would say that despite the minor setbacks I experienced in my first season, upgrading to tubulars was a worthwhile endeavour. The first race that I had everything dialed in, the grip I was getting on the loose corners was noticeably different from to what I was accustomed. I felt confident pushing hard in these situations without the worry that I would lose traction and slide out. For me, that added confidence helped improve my overall race. Cyclocross tubulars are by no means a necessary upgrade. Every weekend in the fall I line up against guys that regularly beat me on clinchers. Tires alone do not win races, but for me they helped push my riding to a new level and that made it worth it.

Do you have any tubular tips and tricks? Share them in the comments

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