Clinchers at the big show? Riders experiment with tires at Tour de France
Training rides in the days leading up to the Grand Départ of the Tour de France often make for good bike gawking. Riders are likely to tinker and experiment during these rides, sometimes with gear they don’t intend to use in a race.
So when I spotted Simon Yates’s Mitchelton-Scott team bike outfitted with Pirelli P Zero Velo clincher tires, it felt safe to assume it was for training purposes only, perhaps to combat the chunky roads in and around Brussels.
But a team representative said that the riders may, indeed, use the clincher tires and wheels during the race. When I asked point blank if Yates would run clinchers during the Tour de France, the representative said, “Maybe, maybe. It’s a possibility.” (The team representative did not give his name.)
It may come as no surprise to race fans that clinchers are back on the menu. Riders have been experimenting with non-tubular setups in recent years. Elia Viviani (Deceuninck—Quick-Step), for example, raced on a tubeless setup at the 2019 Giro d’Italia and won a stage. (Well, sort of. He was relegated after the sprint, granting Fernando Gaviria the official win.)
And time trial specialists including Tony Martin (Jumbo-Visma) have been known to run clinchers during time trials, since they have tested faster than tubular tires.
But here’s the most interesting part: Yates was running Pirelli P Zero Velo tires, which are not tubeless-compatible. In other words, he was running tubes in those tires. (Tony Martin, too, ran tubes in his time trial wheels when he used clinchers.)
While conversations with Mitchelton-Scott staff members suggest they’re confident tubeless setups are the future in the racing world, their arrival is still two or three years out. For example, while Pirelli does offer a tubeless tire – the Cintauro – it is currently considered too heavy for use in the WorldTour.
To be fair, in the consumer world, tubeless tires are already gaining momentum, since they offer lower rolling resistance than tubular tires or clinchers with tubes. And it’s possible to run lower tire pressures, which decreases rolling resistance further.
But most road racers have been put off by reliability problems. While tubeless setups have had a consistent presence on mountain bikes for years, road tubeless has battled problems like tight beads that make mounting extremely difficult, and mixed results regarding air retention. Furthermore, it’s more difficult for a tear in a road tire to seal up since there’s far more air pressure pushing outward, preventing the sealant from coagulating.
Yet it’s important to note the immense progress in the road tubeless realm over the last few seasons. Tire design has gotten better, and there are far more options. Hookless rim systems make the mounting process far easier. As for sealants, that’s still something of a problem with high-pressure road tires. But since tires have been progressively trending wider in recent years — and thus higher in volume — perhaps there’s a reliability epiphany forthcoming as the wide tire/lower pressure combination comes to a happy medium.
So, why exchange tubulars for clinchers or a tubeless setup at all, if there are reliability issues? The often touted advantage of tubulars is that racers can still ride on a tubular even when it’s flat, without worrying (as much) about rolling the tire off the rim. On the other hand, tubular tires are slower, difficult to mount to rims, and more expensive. It’s that first point that needs addressing the most when it comes to racing at the pro level.
Another advantage to tubulars is their light weight. In contrast, tubeless tires can be just as heavy as regular clinchers paired with tubes, since tubeless tires generally require more rubber to create an airtight seal.
So it’s notable that Yates may run clinchers with tubes. It’s very likely he’ll run ultra-lightweight tubes; latex tubes, for example, are pretty feathery and offer lower rolling resistance than a butyl tube. That’s largely due to hysteresis, which you can read about in Lennard Zinn’s explainer, “Where the rubber meets the road.”
Either way, it’s entirely possible that this is yet another moment in the inevitable decline of the use of tubular tires in the racing world. Still, there are enough advantages to tubular tires to keep them around for years to come. As we have seen with disc brake-versus-rim-brake debates, old habits die hard. Disc brakes are creeping into the pro peloton, but rim brakes still reign supreme. For the moment, tubulars still have a firm grasp on the peloton’s immediate future.