Award-winning sports Journalist and author
Award-winning sports Journalist and author

Tyres – Rouleur 2010



There was never an issue when it came to tyre choice until the early 1990s. You raced on tubulars, you trained on “high pressures”, unless you were a pro or a top amateur, in which case you trained and raced on tubs. If you were Robert Millar, however, you did it differently: you raced on tubs, and you trained in winter on high pressures with a tub inside taking the place of an inner-tube for a virtually puncture-proof if somewhat harsh ride.

Now, however, the advocates of common sense would have it this way. You have one set of deep-rimmed, factory-built wheels and they take clinchers which are pretty much as good as tubulars used to be. Tubulars are what you ride if you are a track racer – I’ll go into the reasons for this later – or if you are rich and frivolous enough to afford two pairs of factory wheels and to bung away your “tubs” if you have a puncture. But there is a peculiar magic to the tubular that the clincher simply doesn’t have.


Let’s start with what you call the thing. Tubulars have coined a variety of affectionate names: sew-ups, singles, tubs. Tubular itself is perfectly descriptive, while the French use the evocative term [italic] boyaux [end italic], which is more commonly used for guts, both literally and figuratively. Indeed, if you say a French cyclist has [italic] pas mal de boyaux [end italic] that could mean either that he is a gutsy bike rider or he has a cellar full of tubs, or both.


On the other hand, no one has come up with a decent name for the modern-day tyre. It may be technically brilliant, kevlar sectioned, have zillion tpi and zero rolling resistance, but where is the romance if you don’t know what to call it? High pressures, the old term, was presumably coined to distinguish between the slender 27×11/4 tyres club cyclists used and the blobby things that graced more workaday bikes. It’s now completely redundant. Clinchers sounds like a disease (he’s got clinchers poor bloke, but it’s not as bad as shingles anyway), an obscure variant on the Eton wall game (anyone for clinchers chaps?) or a foul-coloured cocktail (mine’s a clincher, shaken not stirred).


Critically, however, there is a huge difference in what you do with them. You buy a clincher (ew, mr editor, must I use the word?). You take it out of the packet and you bung it on the tyre, dislocating your thumbs as you try to fit those damn beads over the rims. You may have a moment of internal debate about the merits of latex over rubber inner tubes (if this sounds like a peculiar perversion it probably is). But it’s a rather soul-less, functional process. I suppose the nostalgics would claim that it is in keeping with a modern age where every second counts, where outcome rather than process is what matters. There is absolutely zero scope for contemplating the item itself.


Compare and contrast with the intricate rituals that precede the magic moment when a new tubular actually tastes the tarmac or the boards. First you have to mature your tub, in much the same way that wine aficionados lay down vintages. You hang it up, stretched out on an old rim, in a dark dry place (and said stetching can be an intricate little process in itself).


For how long? (here comes the knowing glance, the finger alongside the nose) Two years? Five? Fifty? Legend has it, of course, that Eddy Merckx had a cellar full of tubs of varying ages, laid down year by year in neat rows alongside the lined up frames one for each day of the year and the infinite variety of wheels with every spoke count and rim design known to man. It’s a gloriously obscure area, meaning that the greatest mechanics, men such as Julien de Vries, spannerman to Merckx, LeMond and Armstrong, would bring their secrets (and their insanely strong tubular fitting thumbs) with them from team to team.


When eventually the tubular is mature, you move on to another area of mystique, the whole “preparing the rim” area – filing, scraping and generally being unpleasant to the surface which will take the cement. Call up a mechanic and ask him about it, and you will get a dissertation rather than a quick answer. There is the choice of cement or tub tape – no romance or mystique in tub tape, so you go for cement. If you are really pernickety you will have a modified paintbrush so that the cement flows more neatly on to the rim.


There is the vexed question of how many layers of cement you pre-coat your tyre and rim with, and whether you go down the purist’s road of putting a tub with tacky cement on the rim, thereby gluing yourself and most of the surrounding area to said rim. (There is a shortcut you can take which works perfectly well for me, but hey, that’s my secret, he said with a mysterious smile and his finger alongside his nose…) Then finally you can ride the thing, can you? Only once it’s had a couple of days sitting on the rim at race pressure to “bed down” while our Conti or Vittoria makes up its mind whether this where it really wants to be.


So there you have the essential dilemma of the tubular versus those tyre thingies… It boils down to process compared to practicality. Don’t even get me started on the question of how you repair a tubular. (I was shown once and it’s an area of expertise that is beyond me). Tubulars are a labour of love. I was shown around a pro team service des courses once, and it included a locked tubular room, in which, I was told, the head mechanic would shut himself so that he could feast on the smell of maturing tyres. You can’t imagine anyone doing that with those clincher thingies.