Clincher Vs. Tubular, The Inevitable Debate

So, you’re thinking about dropping some coin on a new set of race wheels for next season and you’re starting to get lost in the options. Do you go with tubular tires or clinchers? What the heck is a tubular or a clincher tire anyway? How do you filter the mass amounts of opinions out there between your riding buddies, the blogs and internet sites, and magazines? Well, here it is; a plain and straight-forward description of each type of tire, where it came from, and how each one works. And finally, a few tips on figuring out which one you should choose.

To start our discussion here, let’s go over a bit of the history of the bicycle tire to get a grasp on where the concepts originated from. The oldest know form of a bicycle tire is actually a solid rubber tire made possible by Mr. Goodyear in the 1840’s due to the discovery of the vulcanization process. The solid rubber tire proved functional but left the rider jarred and was difficult to install. When combined with the enclosed tire concept created by an obscure Frenchman made originally from canvas and leather, the tubular tire was born. The tubular tire resolved the ride comfort issue but proved to be unreliable and difficult to repair when a problem occurred. The tire had to be stitched together in order to encase the tube inside the tire casing and was very time consuming to install and replace.

Shortly after that and across the pond from the Frenchman, a Scottish Veterinarian devised the concept of a three part tire system consisting of a separate tire and tube which mated to a wheel made of a metal hoop and spokes. The original design was crude and also a bit cumbersome, but proved that a more user friendly system was possible. Mr. Dunlop’s creation was the basis for the clincher tire design and was soon the standard system for just about everything that moves on wheels.

The clincher tire is what most of us are familiar with. The clincher tire consists of three different parts, just as Mr. Dunlop designed back in the 1880’s. The system uses a tire and rim which connect through a hook and bead interface and surrounds a rubber tube. The bead of the tire is reinforced with either a steel or Kevlar loop and the tire is comprised of layers of cotton casing and rubber. There are currently dozens of iterations of this system, but the basics are similar. As standard equipment on 99% of all the bike sold today, this is the system we are most familiar with.

The tubular, or sew up as it is commonly referred to due to its construction method, is a one piece system where a tire of similar construction to the clincher, is sewn or vulcanized together around the inner tube. Largely unchanged from it’s European ancestors, tubular tires are attached to concave rim sections and are held in place by the pressure in the tube and a gluing process that sticks an adhesion strip to the outside of the rim. Most cyclists are less familiar with the tubular system and the design has evolved to become more popular for racing and performance applications.



Tubular Pros

  • Typically lighter wheel and tire combination.
  • Lower rolling resistance due to higher pressure capacity. (Although this is a bit misleading)
  • Pitch flatting is much less likely due to the rim design.
  • Some say they are easy to change, if you are fully prepared and have practiced the process.
  • More comfortable ride, although this is becoming less of an issue.
  • Works well with the sealant systems and can often be sealed
  • Can be ridden on for short periods when flat.

Tubular Cons

  • Significantly more expensive than clincher tires and tubes.
  • Can be more difficult to change while on the road if you are not familiar with the process.
  • Unreasonable to repair, not-repairable.
  • Complete spare tubular is carried as a spare, which adds weight and is bulky.
  • Caution must be taken when riding a roadside repair. You need to be careful cornering until you are able to re-glue.
  • Improperly glued tubulars can roll off the rim causing a crash.
  • Installation is best left to a good mechanic with experience in tubulars. (Cannon Cyclery!)

Clincher Pros

  • Relatively simple and easy to change when flatting. More familiar process.
  • Tubes are typically repairable and can be patched multiple times.
  • Deeply cut or damaged tires can often be booted or patched as a last resort to complete a ride.
  • Far less expensive to replace than tubular tires.
  • More common and easy to find in remote locations.
  • Easy to carry spare tube and tools for changing a flat

Clincher Cons

  • Wheel and tire/tube combination is typically heavier than tubular systems.
  • Higher rolling resistance due to lower pressure capacity. (again this is a bit misleading)
  • Historically not as comfortable of a ride. Though this is debatable with new tire technology.
  • Pinch flat are possible when installing a tube and when riding due to the rim design.
  • Cannot be ridden on when flat and can be dangerous if a puncture occurs at high speed.

So now that we are all familiar with the two systems of tires, let’s get to the meat of this debate. In order to come to a conclusion as to which tire system is right for you, think through these two statements. If you have plenty of cash to spend on replacement tires and installation, you want the best riding race wheels, and you are looking for the lightest tire and wheel combination, go with a Tubular tire wheel set. If you are a bit more budget oriented, your more concerned about puncture protection than high-speed cornering performance, and you are ok with a slightly heavier wheel set, you should invest in a clincher tire system. Although it may be a bit simplistic to think it really comes down to those three points, it essentially is. By looking at from the perspective of the two statements, you should be able to filter the myriad of wheel options available.

Just as bicycle design and manufacturing has advanced dramatically in the last decade, so has tire and rim design. Currently there are several new technologies making their way into the market that are shrinking the gap between tubulars and clinchers. The full Carbon Composite clincher system has recently re-emerged and is taking advantage of the leaps in manufacturing technology. When combined with a modern performance clincher tire and tube combination, a full carbon clincher system retains the low weight of a tubular rim and gains the cost effectiveness of a traditional clincher. Another new system, with its roots in the mountain biking world, utilizes a tubeless tire and rim combination. When combined with a sealant inside the tire, the system helps to eliminate small punctures and pinch flats while improving the ride quality and road feel of the clincher tire. Although more costly than a more traditional wheel system, many of these new systems may help to meet your need for a fast and reliable race wheel setup.