The difference between tubular and clincher tires and how much air pressure is needed

Sometimes when I address cycling equipment it sounds to some like I’m explaining the obvious. But for those who aren’t as familiar with cycling, they have their “ah-ha” moment. So for those cyclists, triathletes, and Tour de France and bike enthusiasts out there who want to learn more about the bike and its parts, this is for you. I recently wrote about tires and air pressure at Versus and posted the full story below:

People always ask me about the difference between “tubulars” and “clinchers” and what the guys at the Tour ride. The follow-up question is always: how much air pressure do they run?Let’s start off by clarifying the difference between a tubular tire and a clincher tire. A tubular tire has the tube sewn into the tire itself as one piece. It is either taped or glued onto a special tubular rim. A clincher is what most recreational cyclists use. It has a separate tube and tire allowing for the separate changing of either one independently of the other. The clincher rim is shaped with a ridge to fit the bead of the tire securely to the rim. Clinchers are significantly more practical for everyday bikers since changing a flat tire is a snap and can be done in minutes on the side of the road. Tubulars on the other hand require a time-consuming process of gluing a new tire to the rim–a black art that can take several days if done “old school”.

The old-schoolers start by ensuring their tires have been properly seasoned in a room held at the right temperature and humidity. Then the tires are stretched for a week or so. To do this, they put them on an old rim to make them easier to manipulate later in the process. Next they apply layer upon layer of glue to the tire, letting it dry 24 hours between coats. They also apply a layer or two to the rim itself, letting that dry the same way. Then, with some serious skill, they delicately place a pretty sticky tire to a pretty sticky rim. The tire is pre-stretched, but it is still very hard to get the tire perfectly centered on the rim without also getting glue everywhere. The greats do it without a drop touching anything but the rim and tire. They then pump up the tire and let that sit for days before feeling it is ready to ride.

Now, why would anyone want to ride a tubular tire if it takes all that work? Well, the answer is simple: the ride and feel are incredible. Plus, not having to include a rim to handle a clincher can make the wheels 300-400 grams lighter as well. Now clincher manufacturers will tell you that the ride of some of the newer clinchers have come a long way and they feel just like tubulars, but tubular users will defend the preference all day long. Over the years, many teams have started using clinchers more at the Tour de France. The mechanics of these teams are as happy as can be that they do not have to glue tires anymore! Gluing tires at the Tour is a full-time job for at least one mechanic.

Given the technical nature of gluing tires and the cost of a good tubular going for around $100, there are not many recreational riders–or even amateur riders–using tubulars. But, there are some nonprofessional old-timers that just can’t live without the feel of a tubular. I am one of them. I love the lightness, the handling and the feel on the road below me. In recent years, they have come out with two-sided tape that makes the process of changing your tire much easier. In the end though, I suppose I am a bit old-school myself. I trust only a couple of people to glue my tires. The last thing anyone needs is the tire rolling off the rim at high speeds after a poor glue job!

Now on to the question of how much air the guys use in their tires. Well, as a rule, about 110-120 for clinchers and 120-140 for tubulars. More air does not necessarily spell less rolling resistance. After about 90 pounds of air pressure, the rolling resistance does not change much. However, harder tires do not incur pinch flats (when you hit a hole or rock and the tire compresses so much it flats itself from the tire squishing itself against the rim) as much and tires tend to lose some pressure through the course of a six-hour stage (unless it is really hot, then they may actually gain pressure), so the mechanics like to be safe and top them off a bit. The more pressure, the firmer the ride, but sometimes that causes too much jarring which is not a good thing.

And there are other factors as well. Some heavier riders use more pressure than lighter riders do and some riders just prefer more or less pressure. One other thing to note is in rain conditions the riders usually lower their pressure just a bit to increase grip on the wet service.


Note: italicized text reprinted from


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