Clincher, tubular or tubeless? Wide or narrow? Here's how to select the perfect rubber for road cycling
A shiny new set of wheels is always high on any cyclist’s upgrade list, be it to seek an aerodynamic advantage or in search of low weight, but there’s another key aspect of your rolling stock that’s very often overlooked: tyres.
It’s an odd one, in truth, given your rubber marks your only contact points with the road. Here’s the rub: choosing the right tyre can remarkably affect your experience on the bike, not least when it comes to rolling resistance, responsiveness, weight, grip, comfort and puncture resistance.
Get it right, and your ride can be transformed – it’s remarkable how much impact a new set of tyres can make, at much less financial outlay than a set of hoops.
Interested now? We thought you would be. Here we traverse the world of tyres, from types to constructions and compounds, to help guide you to your optimum choice of rubber.
There are three main types of tyres available to the road rider: clinchers and tubulars, which have been clear and present technology for years, and tubeless, which has gained much, erm, traction in recent times.
Clinchers are the most common tyre setup, and make use of both an outer tyre and the inner tube that is used to inflate it. The tyre is fitted in place via a bead (wired or foldable) that hooks onto the rim of the wheel, while the tube sits inside this with a valve that protrudes through a pre-cut hole in the wheel rim.
As the name implies, the tubeless system needs no tube. In order to achieve a sealed inflation, the tyre and the rim are made in such a way that fitting them together provides an airtight seal, as opposed to a clincher system, which doesn’t.
As a result, special tyres and rims are necessary to have a tubeless setup – although in an increasing number of cases wheels are made ‘tubeless-ready’, so they rim hooks capable of providing an airtight seal and are supplied with rim tape complete the setup. Historically, tubeless has been the preserve of mountain bikers, but is emerging more and more on the road scene too.
Tubulars are tyres that, like tubeless, require a specific type of rim, with the tyre literally glued to it. A tubular tyre has a tube within the construction of the tyre, and as a result the construction of these tyres can be quite complex, despite looking simple on the outside. Tubulars are commonly seen on racer’s bikes, with almost universal use throughout the pro peloton in races.
What are the benefits of clinchers?
Clinchers suit the large majority of road cyclists over tubulars and tubeless because of the general ease at which they can be fitted and replaced, either in the garage or out on the road.
Shelley Childs, of tyre giants Continental, explains: “Clinchers are more easily taken on and off the rim than tubulars, especially on a winter’s day when you’ve had a puncture in an exposed area and need to get back on the road as soon as possible. They also tend to be cheaper to buy, as well.”
Dave Taylor of Schwalbe – another major player in the road cycling tyre market – also points out how easy clinchers are to install, adding that their versatility and the number of options on the market are also key positives.
“Clinchers are available to fit onto many wheel types and sizes, while there are a huge variety of tyres for different applications to choose from, from lightweight road racers to year-round endurance tyres,” he says.
In recent years, clincher technology has improved markedly, Taylor adds, meaning the previous gulf that separated them in terms of performance from tubulars and even tubeless is not as big as it once might have been.
“You now get more efficient rolling, improved puncture resistance, and better grip, and they have become more comfortable to ride,” he says.
What are the drawbacks of clinchers?
Clinchers also have their downsides. While a forced roadside stop to repair a puncture is – thankfully – not as regular as it once was, they do still occur.
When a sharp piece of road shrapnel intrudes upon the carcass of the tyre, it’s then very easy to puncture the pressured tube on the inside, which means a rider then needs to stop to either replace the tube, or apply a patch to the affected area.
This can take time, especially in the cold when your fingers are frozen and rubber can be less pliable.
Taylor adds: “If run at a pressure that is too low, snakebite punctures can happen (where the tube gets compressed and pinched under sudden load), with the potential for wheel damage and/or tyre derailment additional potential issues.”
In worst-case scenarios, when the pressure is run too high, there is also the potential for tube blowouts, especially when combined with flaws in the setup (e.g. not removing flint from the tyre carcass, or running a tyre that is significantly damaged and can’t support the tube pressure.)
Clinchers can also, in some cases, weigh more as an overall system, due to the use of both tube and tyre (and especially in wire-beaded tyres), while rolling resistance can be increased, stems from friction between the tube and tyre.
“One extra drawback is that clinchers cannot be ridden flat,” says Childs. “However, realistically this is only really a downside for racing cyclists, who might otherwise choose a tubular setup.”
What are the benefits of tubeless tyres?
Tubeless tyres provide advantages in speed, comfort, grip and puncture protection, says Taylor. “They avoid the friction between tyres and tubes, which reduces the rolling resistance even more than with super light competition tyres,” he says.
“Tubeless tyres can also be used with a lower inflation pressure for additional comfort without compromising performance, and snakebite punctures a thing of the past. The lower running pressures bring clear advantages in comfort as well as more control.”
At the same time, tubeless systems provide a high level of puncture protection, due to the use of liquid tyre sealant that is injected through the valve hole once the tyre is fitted, lining the inside. If the tyre is punctured, the sealant solidifies at the puncture location, resealing the hole very quickly and keeping you rolling.
Additionally, the danger of blowouts is reduced, according to Taylor. “A sudden loss of air pressure by burst tubes or valve tear off is not an option, because there is no tube,” says Taylor. An additional benefit is that, in a worst-case scenario and you do puncture when running tubeless tyres, you could install a tube inside a compromised tyre and use it as a clincher setup to get you home.
What are the downsides of tubeless tyres?
On the face of it, tubeless seems a no-brainer to use – however, it’s not quite that simple. In fact, not all brands are convinced, with Continental refusing to back the technology entirely, citing that the claimed benefits aren’t as clear cut on a paved road.
Childs points out: “Studies in Germany still show the top tube-type clinchers as leading overall when tested for all performance factors.
“Additionally, fitting is still an issue on some tubeless tyres, as is air retention, but these factors should be overcome in the short to mid-term [as more research and development is carried out].”
Because of the fine tolerances between rim and tyre to ensure an airtight seal, it can also be more difficult to install the tyre to the rim, as well as to remove it. On top of this, each setup generally requires more time and equipment to put together, with kit like sealant, specific valves, rim tape and so forth required to go tubeless. Some tubeless tyre and rim combinations also require an air compressor or tubeless-specific track pump like the Bontrager TLR Flash Charger to get a seal and inflate.
Additionally, the range of tubeless tyre options is nowhere near as comprehensive as it is for clinchers. As Tom Marchment, of tubeless wheel specialists Hunt Bike Wheels explained to us in our dedicated guide to tubeless technology, there hasn’t been a concerted push from the industry to adopt the system, although it is becoming more visible.
“Clinchers and tubular technology has served road cycling well for years, so there hasn’t been much in the way of a demand [for tubeless],” he says.
“You also have to think about the learning curve involved with adopting a new approach. Manufacturers need to invest the time into developing the technology, but probably won’t do this until a desire to invest time into learning the system is expressed by the rider.”
What are the benefits of tubulars?
Naturally, as evidenced by the continued widespread adoption by the pro peloton and many amateur racers, a tubular setup offers some benefits.
“Ask a pro and they will almost always tell you that nothing beats the feel of a tubular when taking corners at high speed during criteriums and circuit races, despite recent evidence that [top-level] clinchers could be faster in a straight line,” says Continental’s Childs.
Taylor agrees, pointing out that some pro riders claim benefits in improved feel, better comfort and smoother cornering. However, there are more tangible benefits, too.
“Even with a flat, the tyre stays on the rim and can be ridden carefully to the point when a service vehicle gets to you,” he says, explaining one of the key reasons why tubulars continued to be used almost exclusively by pro riders.
“Tubular tyres also reduce weight on a wheel. As a rim designed to take a tubular tyre doesn’t need pressure-retaining sidewalls, it’s easier and lighter to construct, with the tyre itself weighing approximately the same as a folding tyre and tube clincher combination.”
What are the downsides of tubulars?
As Childs alluded to, tubulars are now not thought to be the fastest tyre setup in terms of rolling resistance. Taylor agrees, adding that some clinchers roll even faster, while adding that the fitting process is the most labour-intensive of the three tyre constructions. He adds: “Sticking the tyre onto the rim with glue is much more awkward than fitting a clincher tyre.”
Childs explains further: “The process involves using messy cement and takes a few hours of waiting time [for the cement to dry and seal the tyre to the rim].”
Naturally, the insinuation here is that this is fine if you have a team mechanic doing it for you while you rest up ahead of the next day’s racing, or has readily-glued spares available, but not for the general every day road cyclist.
Additionally, tubular tyres aren’t as easy to repair as a clincher or a tubeless setup. As Taylor points out, while smaller defects can be repaired with puncture protection liquid, a serious puncture, and certainly a blowout, would require the changing of the whole tubular tyre. As a result, it’s clearly not suitable for club runs where a team car isn’t present to service the rider.
On top of this, they’re also not the most cost-effective option: “The manufacturing process is more labour-intensive when it comes to the tyre itself,” says Taylor. “This means the cost of manufacturing tubular tyres is always more expensive.”
How are tyres constructed?
Looking at the most common setups for every day riders – clincher and tubeless – a bicycle tyre consists of three basic elements: the bead core, the carcass and the rubber tread, with some including an added puncture protection layer.
The bead core of the tyre determines its diameter (e.g. 700c) and ensures a secure fit to the rim. It consists of a wire bundle, although with lighter-weight folding tyres, the wire is replaced with a hoop of aramid fibres.
The carcass is what Schwalbe’s Taylor refers to as “the framework” of the tyre, and provides the tyre’s necessary stability, and can be made of rubberised cotton or nylon.
The rubber compound of a tyre is the part that makes contact with the road surface, and consists of several components, including between 40 and 60 per cent natural and synthetic rubber, 15-30 per cent filler (such as carbon black, chalk and salica), with the remainder consisting of agents that aid the life and dexterity of the tyre, and help the tyre to ‘vulcanise’ (see below).
A tubular tyre, on the other hand, has no bead core because it is glued to the rim, rather than fixed in a rim hook or recess. Instead, the carcass and compound of the tyre is stitched to form an enclosed system around a specific tube, including a valve, which is then glued to the tubular-specific rim.
When building clinchers or tubeless tyres, the rubberised cotton or nylon is folded around the beads, with the central area housing anti-puncture material if it’s to be used. A rubber compound strip is then added. The tyre is then cooked in a sized mould – the ‘vulcanisation’ process – which gives the rubber its qualities for use and dictates the final shape/pattern etc.
Building a tubular is more labour-intensive – hence the added cost – in part thanks to the lack of bead.
Textile threads are spun by looms around a drum, before a latex-based resin is added as the drum heats and cures the resulting fabric. It’s then cut to size, a tube is laid on top and stitched inside and a stitched casing finishes the seal. The tyre then has layers of protective latex coatings added to it, with a layer of glue on top to which the tape is applied. And that’s just the casing.
You then need to layer up the rubber compound, complete with puncture protection belt, before a moulded press heats the rubber to form the tread. Finally, the two parts are glued together.
What about puncture protection?
As explained above, during the build process, materials can be added on top of the basic casing fabric before the tread layer is added, thus giving extra protection.
“For Continental road tyres, materials like Vectran and Duraskin are very popular for puncture protection,” says Childs. Other brands have their own names and constructions for these layers, including Michelin’s Amarid+, Schwalbe’s GreenGuard, Vittoria’s PRB and Specialized’s Armadillo technology, to name a few. “Tyres with these layers therefore tend to cost a little extra,” Childs adds.
What else effects the performance of a tyre?
The density of the carcass fabric is crucial here and is expressed in EPI (Ends Per Inch) or TPI (Threads Per Inch). Bicycle tires can have a huge range of EPI ratings, including 20, 24, 37, 50, 67 and 127 EPI, with larger numbers typical for TPI counts.
“In principle, the more close-meshed a carcass is woven, the higher the quality of the tyre,” Taylor says. “A dense carcass is important for low rolling resistance and good riding properties. At the same time, puncture protection increases, because carcasses with a high strand density are difficult to puncture through.”
However, he also points out that this does not apply to the extremely fine 127 EPI carcasses, because each strand is ‘sheer and therefore quite vulnerable’. He continues that the best compromise for low weight and rolling resistance is around 67 EPI.
There’s also a note of caution, as Taylor warns about misleading EPI ratings: “Often the number of strands of all carcass layers are added together. If a manufacturer indicates a 200 EPI, this has probably come from three layers (three ply) of 67 EPI each underneath the tread. With all EPI numbers above 150, it should be assumed that the figures have been calculated by adding up the strands in all layers.”
Of course, the rubber compound is also vital when it comes to performance, though the makeups and techniques used to arrive at the finished products are a closely-guarded secret for manufacturers.
“Tyres should have various properties that are to some extent contradictory: low rolling resistance, good adhesion, low abrasion, long durability, and so on,” says Taylor. “Good adhesion implies that the tyre must ‘absorb’ a lot of energy while low rolling resistance requires a rubber compound with low energy ‘consumption’.”
As a result, many tyre manufacturers use a double or triple compound construction, whereby specific rubber compounds are used in various areas of the tread, to best suit the demands of that part of the tyre, be it offering additional cornering grip, lowering rolling resistance or improving durability.
What impact does tyre width have?
Once you’ve decided on the type of tyre that’s best suited to your needs, you also need to think about the width you would like. To fit optimally, you need to check your rim width and clearance on your bike frame before buying, as there is a chance that the tyre will not fit properly, potentially operating outside of recommended safety limits.
If unsure, always ask your local bike shop or mechanic, who should know the latest recommendations set out by the ETRTO (European Tyre and Rim Technical Organisation). You can also find tools and conversion charts online to discover the optimum range.
Once you know your optimum range and have checked you bike frame’s limitations, you can set about choosing your tyre width, depending on the characteristics you’re after. As a general rule, road bike tyres have got wider over the past few years, with 25mm now very much the norm and 23mm tyres fast becoming a thing of the past.
“Traditional skinny tyres have always been uncomfortable, but they have always been slower too – unless pumped up very highly when used on a perfectly smooth surface like a velodrome,” says Childs.
“Recently, the market trend has finally accepted the fact that wider tyres are actually faster and more comfortable [in the real world]. The wider the tread, the less energy is used up in the casing deformation with the ground, therefore helping the tyre roll faster.”
Childs concedes that aerodynamics can play a part in overall efficiency after a certain point, as well as the additional weight inherent to a bigger construction, but road riders that may have used a 20mm tyre 20 years ago are now happily riding along on 25mm or even 28mm tyres, ‘for which their behinds are very thankful’.
Taylor goes further, explaining the thinking behind the move to wider tyres.
“At the same inflation pressure, a wide and a narrow tyre have the same contact area. However, a wide tyre is flattened over its width, whereas a narrow tyre has a slimmer but longer contact area,” he says.
The longer, flattened area of a narrow tyre results in greater deformation of the rubber, whereas the shorter but wider contact patch of a fatter tyre has less effect on the rolling direction. In short, the wider tyre is less deformed and therefore rolls better at the same pressures.
The knock-on effect is that you can run wider tyres at lower pressures to achieve the same rolling resistance as a narrower tyre, increasing comfort in the process. This is why even pro racers use up to 28mm tyres for races like Strade Bianchi on Tuscany’s white gravel and Paris-Roubaix on the pave.
However, 25mm has become the standard for pros in the vast majority of races, sitting in the sweetspot between rolling resistance, comfort, aerodynamics and weight.
“The bicycle becomes much more agile [with a lighter tyre],” Taylor says. “This becomes clear very quickly when you ride in a fast group of cyclists and when you have to accelerate rapidly from 20 to 40 km/h after a sharp turn in order to keep up with the others.”
Ultimately, however, the right width for you depends on where and how you ride, as well as the specific value you place on those four factors outlined above. Either way, the bottom line is racers, sportive cyclists and club riders now tend to use tyres within the 23-28mm ranges, and this is reflected in the offerings that manufacturers make for clincher, tubeless and tubular systems.
So how do you choose the right tyre?
With so many tyre options and permutations on the market from varying manufacturers, as well as potential uses for them, it’s difficult to single out a perfect system and tyre version for you. As Taylor points out, it’s all about ‘application, application, application’, taking into account the key performance factors of each setup combination, and applying it to your situation.
However, here’s our easy four-step guide to help you arrive at the optimum tyre for you.
Decide on a setup: clincher, tubeless, or tubular
This is easier than it may seem to newbies, as unless you’re racing and have the benefit of a quick wheel change open to you, the tubular system is likely to be unsuitable for you. Of course, if you’re racing, the chances are you’re not new to cycling and will be able to understand whether the benefits outweigh the obvious downsides.
A tubeless setup offers purported benefits in reduced weight and rolling resistance, as well as increased puncture protection. However, it can be more difficult to install. Clinchers are a tried-and-tested method, and while arguably slightly less efficient than tubeless (some do argue otherwise), it remains the cheapest and most readily available method and easiest form to install.
Decide on a tyre type
Once you’ve opted for a clincher, tubeless or tubular setup, we recommend analysing the kind of riding you do. If you’re constantly riding poor, gritty road surfaces, ride over very long distances regularly, or cover a lot of miles in a year, we recommend opting for a tyre that claims good puncture protection and a tougher compound. The trick is in choosing a tyre which offers puncture protection and durability, without making it feel like you’re riding in welly boots.
For riders who simply want to go fast, and don’t mind the increased risk of a flat or the need to change the tyre through wear sooner, a lighter tyre will be more suitable.
The prevalent conditions also play their part – opt for an ‘All Seasons’ or ‘All-Weather’ tyre if you know you’ll be riding in the wet regularly, and don’t want the hassle of changing the tyre when the weather dries up. These tyres offer adhesive tyre compounds. Of course, you can always switch between tyres depending on the season for the best performance in any weather – see Michelin’s Power range for a good example.
Decide on a tyre width
Once you’ve nailed down the tyre type you’re after, it’s time to choose the tyre width. This decision can be affected by the wheelset rim width and the clearance your bike frame gives you, as well as the key characteristics you’re after.
Road tyres tend to be sold between 23-28mm in width, although some can be as wide as 32mm. A wider tyre allows pressures to be run lower for the same rolling resistance, increasing comfort with the added benefit of a reduced chance of pinch flats.
However, this can sometimes be offset due to the aerodynamic properties of a wider tyre at high speeds, as well as the slight weight penalty the extra rubber naturally carries with it.
General buying advice
Once you’ve arrived at a choice (or selection of tyres), the next step is obviously to choose one. It’s rare that you can try a tyre before you buy from a shop but you may have friends who use one of the tyres in question, and may let you try theirs out. This will give you some idea as to whether it behaves as you would like.
Read reviews too, of course, but ultimately experience will help you get a genuine feel for what you like and don’t like.
Childs also has some important advice, including that the top of the range tyre offered by the manufacturer may not be the tyre that’s right for you.
“A manufacturer’s top-level tyre will usually be a good all rounder, or sometimes be its fastest model. This obviously has an impact on the construction, which might mean a few extra puncture repair stops during its lifetime,” he says.
“Look for models which offer good performance, if speed is a factor in your decision, but also offers some good robustness also.”
In the Continental range, an example of this thinking is the GP4Season or Grand Prix GT tyres, which Childs claims are more suited to a sportive rider because of their versatlity, instead of a GP4000 S II, which he claims is more tailored for racing and fast training.
Different manufacturers structure their ranges slightly differently, but Childs is also adamant that avoiding the cheapest entry level models is usually good advice, because ‘they will usually not offer any significant puncture protection and will usually be pretty heavy to boot’.
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