Conversion to the Cult of Tubulars
I am not entirely certain what finally pushed me over the edge, but I recently had a tubular wheel set built by my favourite wheel builder, Gilbert Cattoir. The current prognosis after having done about 500 km is that I might be completely hooked.
At the risk of sounding rather quaint in the age where ‘aero’ and ‘carbon’ routinely pop up in discussions about bicycle wheels, my idea of a dream road wheel set has been one built with Ambrosio Nemesis rims and Campagnolo Record hubs. The only thing that held me back from getting a set built was the fact that it would involve the use of tubular tyres. Of course, I had all the concerns about the possible downside of using tubs, like anyone accustomed to, and have bought into the idea of, the benefits of clincher tyres with inner tubes. The upside of clinchers seemed to outweigh their downside, and the downside of tubulars seemed to outweigh their upside. If you have bothered to read this far, then you already know what they are.
A few years ago, when I was anticipating my first entry in the Paris Roubaix Challenge, I had gone to see Gilbert about wheels. He brought out an unlaced Nemesis and told me that this is the rim I should be using. I thought, ‘Dood, don’t tease me. I really want a Nemesis wheel but cannot get my head around the tubs thing. What if I have a flat???’ So, I stuck with clinchers.
Fast forward a few years during which time my priority was grippy but very durable tyres. The Continental Grand Prix 4-Season was at the top of the heap as far as I was concerned. Then I switched to the newly launched Panasonic Gravel King that claimed durability, stickiness and versatility with road surface variations. The Gravel Kings roll much faster and was much more supple and supremely confident going around corners. In other words, they have a much better ride quality at a lower price, and I actually had much fewer punctures. Consequently, ‘ride quality’ bubbled up as one of my new priorities. When the Gravel King got retired because of a large-ish gash, I switched to Veloflex Master with latex inner tube. After 1,000 km on the Masters without flatting once, I decided that ride quality is now my top priority.
Punctures are inevitable regardless of the type of tyre. If I’m going to get a flat anyway, I’d rather get one whilst rolling on tyres with great ride quality, I thought. Life is too short for harsh tyres.
Of course, this got my mind wandering back to tubular tyres and Ambrosio Nemesis. I started reading up on admittedly completely biased views of tubular tyre proponents. They were encouraging, but you need to treat opinions floating around on the Internet, like the one you’re reading right now, with a big pinch of salt particularly since you tend not to know anything about these people. And then, I found out that Greg LeMond always rides tubs. Always has, still does. Everyday.
Ambrosio… a name steeped in Spring Classics history and lore… a fabulous underwear model was born with the same name, under the same stars as me…a fabled Neapolitan bespoke trouser maker goes by a very similar name. Ergo, I really should get them. Amazing how a mind can get incredibly creative in an attempt to rationalise something.
But I think the LeMond story pushed me over the edge: Gilbert, build me an Ambrosio Nemesis / Campagnolo Record / Sapim Race set, please… Et voilà. I didn’t see much point in doing this tubular thing without getting good tubs, so I considered Veloflex and FMB. I decided on FMB’s Paris Roubaix 25. François despatched the tyres to me without delay, and I glued them on using Vittoria Mastik One. I did consider having the tubs mounted by Gilbert or at the LBS, but I figured that I won’t learn unless I did it myself, especially if I need to perform a tyre swap on the road. I didn’t think it was too traumatic actually.
Gerry, to answer your question, yes, the ride quality is ‘da shit’. I think the result will depend significantly on the selection of tyres and rims, and as such, I think that you would end up with a very different impression if you were to use, for example, Tufo tubs. The Nemesis / FMB (inflated to 6 1/2 bar rear, 6 bar front) is so cushy on tarmac that it feels like you’re gliding over the surface.
With 3-cross 32 spokes, I thought that the Nemesis would be sluggish in acceleration, but it’s not. As many veteran wheel builders argue, the spokes don’t weigh much so decreasing the spoke count won’t give you much advantage but instead will only give you weaker wheels. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Nemesis is sprightly, but given that it is a tubular rim, it is not shouldered with all the extra rotational weight that clincher rims have.
What has been a real eye-opener is the way they roll over cobbles and gravel over washboard surface (at 5 3/4 bar rear, 5 1/2 bar front). In a word, wow. I don’t think I can describe it adequately in words, except to say this: when riding with clinchers, the road ahead tends to appear blurred because of the vibration coming from below, but with the Nemesis / FMB, the road ahead appeared clear and defined. I’m referring to the Belgian cobbles rather than, say, the Trouée d’Arenberg or Carrefour de l’Arbre, so I am not claiming that my observation is universally true. That said, the visual feedback is actually quite astonishing. The Nemesis is nicknamed the Queen of the North. The colour of the bike is named after Marquise de Pompadour, and the chief mistress is said to have had a cordial relationship with Queen Marie. It all seems auspicious. That would make me Louis XV, n’est ce pas? OK, maybe not. But I’m a card-carrying member of the Tubs Cult.
For those considering entering the world of tubulars, some practical notes on how to mount a tubular tyre:
Mounting tubs is a daunting prospect if you’ve never done it before. I’ve been there. However, the truth is that it’s not as hairy as one thinks. It just requires a bit of patience because it takes a few days for the layers of cement to cure. As far as mounting instructions are concerned, I found Colin ‘Chip’ Howat’s narrative most helpful. Howat is an engineering professor that has done extensive research on how best to mount tubs using which cement. This piece is very helpful in understading the why, how and what of mounting tubs: ‘Tubular Tires: Adhesives and Practice’. The only step that I would add is to cover the rim’s side walls with electrical tape before you start layering on the cement. Like this: This will prevent excess cement to get on the side walls. The electrical tape is to be removed once the tyre is mounted, revealing a clean set of braking surface.
If you really want to geek out on gluing tubs, then you can read Howat’s other papers on tubular tyre adhesion (Parts 1-4 is the main paper linked in the preceding paragraph). They are not essential reading material, but they might be of interest to thermodynamics nerds. (I didn’t even know that there is a difference between bond and adhesion…)
If you use, or are thinking of using, carbon rims, then you should also read this piece about Continental Carbon Rim Cement. The background is Howat’s previous research on adhesion to carbon rims.
If you find video instructions helpful in visualising some of the bits explained by Howat, here are 2 clips that I found helpful. However, I still think it’s important to read Howat’s piece and treat the video clips as visual aids. Good luck.