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It has been well over 100 hundred years since the pneumatic bicycle tyre was invented. Dunlop’s association with the invention is so strong that the company’s founder, John Boyd Dunlop, is often credited for the original inception in the late-1800s, however his efforts were pre-dated by at least one other. Nevertheless, the company was quick to commercialise the invention, going so far as to buy competing patents to ensure its success.
The history of the pneumatic tyre is littered with familiar names such as Michelin and Clément. Perhaps the most intriguing is the original “Clincher” brand of tyres made by North British Rubber Company. While the name has entered common use, these tyres only vaguely resembled the modern clincher.
The biggest challenge for early tyre design was devising a way of reliably securing the tyre to a bicycle rim. A self-contained tubular tyre that was glued to the rim was an early and effective solution. A variety of other alternatives, including systems of wires or clips, were devised but all were overly complicated until the introduction of beaded tyres and hooked rims. At that point, bicycle owners finally enjoyed a tyre system that could be easily repaired in the event of a puncture.
Indeed, the bead-and-hook system has come to dominate the contemporary market while the alternatives — tubulars and tubeless clinchers — have become niche products. Be that as it may, the choice of one system over the others still fuels passionate debate based on the strengths and weaknesses of each system.
The ideal bike tyre is light, puncture-proof, and grips well with a long life and reasonable price while providing low rolling resistance and plenty of comfort for the rider. In practice, some of these qualities are mutually exclusive (e.g. light tyres aren’t puncture-proof), so cyclists are forced to compromise on one or more features, depending on their actual needs.
It is easy to view a tyre as a static structure with a single function, namely to contain air and prevent it from escaping, but there is a lot more going on out on the road. Indeed, a tyre is very dynamic, constantly changing shape to accommodate changes in the road surface, the angle of the wheel, and the weight of the rider.
It is for this reason that the suppleness of a tyre is a highly prized trait: the more readily that a tyre can conform and rebound as the wheel moves over the ground, the better its grip, rolling resistance, and overall feel (including comfort).
The choice of materials largely dictates the final weight, suppleness, and durability of any tyre. Lightweight materials typically yield a fast tyre with low rolling resistance and a supple feel, but they will be susceptible to punctures, quick-wearing, and expensive. Heavier, coarser materials increase puncture resistance, are harder wearing, and cost less, yet suffer from higher rolling resistance and provide less comfort.
These principles apply equally to clinchers, tubulars, and tubeless tyres. Indeed, there are far more similarities than differences between the three tyre-systems:
1. All three comprise a woven casing that envelops an air chamber with an outer layer of rubber for the tread;
2. All three make use of the same kind of materials and construction processes;
3. All three look the same once mounted and inflated on a wheel;
4. And all three can be designed to meet the needs of different riding disciplines, performance levels, and pricepoints.
By contrast, the only real distinction rests with how the air chamber is formed and contained by each kind of tyre. For a tubular, that chamber is fully enclosed within the tyre. In contrast, the tyre forms only part of the air chamber for clinchers and tubeless tyres and the rim bed must complete it, where the former depends upon an inner tube, while the latter does not.
Each tyre system requires a dedicated rim design so a rider’s choice of wheels/rims ultimately dictates what kind of tyre-system they can use. Simply put, a tubular tyre cannot be mounted on a clincher rim, and a clincher tyre (tubeless or otherwise) cannot be fitted to a tubular rim. And while it’s possible to fit a tubeless tyre to a standard clincher rim, the only way that it can be inflated is with an inner tube. Similarly, a standard clincher tyre can be used on a tubeless-ready rim with an inner tube, but the only way to achieve tubeless inflation is with a tubeless-ready rim and tyre.
The design of a tubular rim is quite distinct from a clincher since the former lacks sidewalls to hold the tyre in place. As a consequence, tubular rims are always lighter than an equivalent clincher rim. The concave rim bed helps with seating the tyre however the security of the tyre depends entirely on an adequate amount of glue or tape.
The distinction between tubeless-ready and standard clincher rims is much finer, since the two share many of the same features. Thus, the two have the same kind of hooked sidewalls (though hookless rims have started appearing for tubeless tyres) and a rim bed with some kind of valley. The ridges on either side of that valley are normally more pronounced for a tubeless-ready rim than a standard clincher rim.
These ridges mate with the beads of a tubeless tyre to form an airtight seal and account for the distinct snapping or popping noise that is normally heard when inflating any kind of clincher tyre (tubeless or otherwise) on a tubeless-ready rim. Owners may also find that the tyre has to be dislodged from these ridges when changing or repairing a tyre.
The strict requirement for a dedicated rim means that there is no easy way for consumers to experiment with different tyre-systems unless they have access to a suitable wheelset. With that said, if an owner is using standard clinchers in conjunction with a tubeless-ready wheelset, then all that is needed is some suitable rim tape, tubeless valves, sealant and a set of tubeless tyres to test the appeal of the system.
Some will argue that a specific tyre system offers a better quality of ride than another, however differences are typically a matter of nuance, and very much dependent on the materials employed. Any tyre that is light and supple will provide a smooth, quick ride with sure grip, regardless of the tyre system.
As mentioned above, all three systems make use of the same kind of materials to create the casing and tread of the tyre. Nylon is typically used to weave the casing, while rubber is always used for the tread. Some manufacturers may make use of novel materials such as Kevlar, Vectran, cotton or silk, but these can be viewed as refinements rather than significant deviations from what has become a time-proven formula.
The casing is woven from a choice of threads: the finer the thread, the higher the thread count (measured as threads per inch, tpi). A course casing typically comprises 60 threads/inch (tpi) while fine casings can comprise up to 320tpi. Tyre casings with high thread counts are typically lighter and suppler than low thread counts, regardless of the tyre-system.
The bicycle tyre industry makes use of a multitude of rubber formulations to refine the overall feel and performance of the tyre. For the majority of tyres, the tread is fused with the casing of the tyre by vulcanisation (a process that involves heat and curing agents). The result is a very robust tyre, but because vulcanisation hardens the rubber, these tyres tend to be stiffer.
The alternative is to use adhesives for attaching the tread to the casing. Handmade tubular racing tyres and so-called “open tubulars” (that are otherwise standard clincher tyres) typically eschew vulcanisation so as to maximise the suppleness of the tyre.
As for the tread of the tyre, there is very little data to suggest that a pattern has any effect on the grip of a road tyre. What is more important is how supple the tyre is along with the air pressure chosen by the rider.
All three tyre systems make use of puncture-proofing materials, more or less, depending on how important the final weight of the tyre is. These materials tend to make the tyre stiffer, so they are used sparingly for racing tyres. By contrast, robust commuter-oriented tyres offer greater puncture-resistance due to the generous use of puncture-proofing belts and materials.
There is no such thing as a puncture-proof road tyre. Of the three systems though, tubeless tyres are the most robust since the system is extremely resistant to pinch-flats and the sealant automatically repairs minor breaches. Nevertheless, large holes and cuts in the sidewalls will defeat the sealant to deflate the tyre.
Tubeless tyres have found enormous favour amongst off-road riders since they can be used at low pressures (<40psi or 3bar) for extra grip and traction without the risk of a pinch-flat. For the road cyclist though, this feature doesn’t hold much appeal because the terrain is relatively uniform and there is no need to run low tyre pressures.
While tubeless tyres are more likely to appeal to road riders that like to venture off-road, they aren’t an absolute pre-requisite for exploring unpaved tracks and gravel roads. After all, the risk of pinch-flats can be mitigated to
some extent by using larger tyres unless low pressures are required. The extra tyre volume will also add comfort to the bike.
For most cyclists, the utility of any of the tyre systems depends upon the ease of installation and repair. In this regard, conventional clinchers trump all other systems in terms of simplicity and familiarity.
Tubular tyres are very labour intensive to install and generally benefit from a degree of experience. For the uninitiated, it’s a daunting task. Adhesive tape has simplified the task somewhat but the system remains an ungainly one to repair out on the road. Tyre sealant and/or super-glue can be used as short-term remedies however neither are as robust as carrying a spare tubular.
Installing a tubeless tyre for the first time is just as challenging as a tubular. The rim bed must be sealed, the tubeless valve correctly seated, and adequate sealant added to the tyre. While it is possible to inflate a tubeless tyre with a hand- or floor-pump, an air compressor is a better choice.
Even then, not all brands of tubeless road tyres will work with a given tubeless-ready wheel or rim. At present, there is no strict standard for tubeless-ready rims and tyres, and there is little guidance other than anecdotal evidence to help the consumer.
Once installed though, tubeless tyres promise a long service-free interval, however the tyres can’t be ignored until it’s time to replace them. The sealant within slowly dries out over time, so while the tyre remains sealed, a puncture won’t be repaired. Thus, extra sealant should be added every few months.
Punctured tubeless tyres can be repaired on the roadside with a standard inner tube. It can be a very messy business though as the sealant makes the tyre very slippery to handle. Riders should carry some kind of boot for repairing the kind of large hole or cut that will defeat the sealant, remembering that adhesive material won’t work with a tyre that is coated with sealant.
Finally, it’s worth noting that all tyres should be inspected semi-regularly for cuts, embedded debris, cracking rubber, and fraying sidewalls. The wear of the tread should also be monitored: once it becomes squared-off then owners should consider new tyres; otherwise the sudden onset of a series of punctures (not pinch-flats) is normally a reliable indicator that it’s time to replace the tyres.
As the dominant tyre system, there is an enormous range of traditional clinchers for consumers to choose from. At the upper-end of the market, there are lightweight handmade open tubulars with folding beads designed for race-day use, and at the other end, there are affordable yet robust commuting tyres with steel beads. In short, a road cyclist can get a tyre at any price.
The range of options extends to inner tubes, where there is a choice of thornproof, standard butyl, lightweight butyl, and latex tubes. The outcome may only be a matter of nuance, but the flexibility of the system has to be counted as another plus.
Tubeless tyres are a relatively new product and as a consequence, there is a much narrower range of products. These tyres are typically more expensive and more difficult to source at short notice. At least one company (Schwalbe) has devoted its energy to developing tubeless road tyres, while others (such as Continental) have ignored this market altogether.
Tubular tyres are generally expensive and can also be difficult to buy at short notice. There is, however, a much wider range of performance-oriented tubulars on the market that allow racers to trim unwanted weight from their bikes while enjoying fast, supple tyres.
Unfortunately, a single puncture is enough to end the life of a tubular, so the ongoing cost of maintaining a set of tubular wheels can be high. Be that as it may, it is possible to buy budget tubulars for training purposes that are pretty robust.
Long regarded as the gold standard for road cycling, tubulars are widely used by professional racers, but elsewhere, this tyre-system has limited appeal because it is difficult and time-intensive to install and repair. Nevertheless, this tyre system offers the greatest weight savings and the most supple tyres of all tyre-systems.
• Lightest tyres and wheels;
• More resistant to pinch-flats than clinchers;
• Very high inflation pressures can be used.
• Difficult to install;
• Roadside repairs are difficult;
• Tubular tyre repair is a dying art.
• Tubular-specific rim/wheel;
• Glue or tape for adhering the tyre to the wheel.
Monitor wear and tear of the tread and casing. Check bonding of tyre to rim.
While it’s possible to buy low-price tubulars the extra expense of the glue/tape always adds to the cost of the tyre. Owners should be prepared to put in the time to learn how to fit tubs for themselves to save on fitting charges; going further and learning how to repair them may also be worthwhile.
Clinchers are popular to the point where they have become nearly ubiquitous amongst cyclists. It’s the ease and familiarity of this tyre system that trumps all other contenders.
• Simple installation;
• Easy to repair;
• Widely available;
• Large range of products.
• Prone to pinch-flats at low tyre pressures;
• Beads add weight to tyres;
• Hooked sidewalls increase weight of wheels.
• Clincher or tubeless-ready rim/wheel;
• Rim tape and an inner tube.
Monitor wear and tear of the tread and casing.
Buyers will find an enormous range of clinchers at every pricepoint. Inner tubes are relatively inexpensive but will be an ongoing cost unless owners are prepared to repair them.
A relative newcomer to the marketplace, tubeless tyres have won extraordinary favour amongst off-road riders for their remarkable puncture-resistance. The number of road-oriented tubeless tyres may be small, but these products have come a long way in a short period of time to match the quality of other tyre-systems.
• Highly resistant to pinch flats;
• Low tyre pressures can be used;
• Sealant provides extra puncture-resistance for racing tyres.
• Difficult to install;
• Limited range of products;
• Messy roadside repairs.
• Tubeless-ready rim/wheel;
• Rim tape, tubeless valve and sealant;
• Compressed air.
Monitor wear and tear of the tread and casing. Top up sealant every few months.
Tubeless road tyres are typically more expensive than the equivalent clincher version. Rim tape and tubeless valves can be counted as a one-off cost but topping up the sealant becomes an ongoing cost. Like tubulars, owners of tubeless tyres should invest in the time and equipment (an air compressor or similar) to save on fitting costs.
It should be obvious from the discussion above that every tyre system has strengths and weaknesses. Thus, the decision on one system over another depends entirely on how it meets the needs of the user.
Overall, the quality of traditional clinchers and tubeless tyres has increased in recent years such that they can offer much of the same performance as a tubular, the historical gold standard for road cyclists. Nevertheless, for those riders hoping to benefit from a truly lightweight wheelset and exceptional tyres, tubulars trump all.
For most riders, conventional clinchers will be hard to beat in terms of ease of installation and repair. The immense range of tyres is another obvious strength, providing buyers plenty of choice. Perhaps the only source of frustration is the susceptibility of the system to pinch flats, but that is largely irrelevant for road cyclists.
Tubeless tyres promise a lot in terms of puncture resistance, however the system is more difficult to install than a standard clincher. In this regard, tubeless tyres largely resemble tubulars, however it is easier to repair tubeless tyre out on the road.