Why Pros Ride Handmade Tires

In France, the Tour is one of the rituals of summer. I can’t count how many times during my research I’ve interviewed somebody while the colorful images were playing on TV in the background. Racers, randonneurs, cyclotourists – all enjoy the grand landscapes, the beautiful form of the riders, the drama of the mountains… It doesn’t mean that everybody glorifies the racers, but all admire their skill and courage. It’s encouraging that despite all the challenges the world is facing, the Tour is happening after all.

Much in professional racing has changed over the decades, but one thing has remained the same: Almost all pros race on hand-made tires. In fact, the beautiful tubular tires that FMB makes today aren’t much different from the tires that Fausto Coppi rode over gravel mountain passes more than half a century ago. According to François Marie of FMB: “Today’s tread rubber is a bit grippier today, but the casings haven’t changed much at all.”

Why are tires so important, when we all know that, at high speeds, most of the resistance is aerodynamic?

When a few centimeters make the difference between winning and not even being on the podium, every smallest advantage counts.

Even on the famous climbs, supple tires make a measurable difference. On a 5% uphill, switching from a good mass-produced tire to a handmade one is about the same as taking 1 kg (2.2 lb) off your bike.

(How came to that conclusion? We input the known values for aerodynamics, weight and rolling resistance into www.analyticcycling.com. This shows that a) tires make a large difference in performance, and b) weight isn’t quite as important as we tend to think.)

Probably the biggest reason why pro racers use handmade tires is simple: In the peloton, wind resistance is much-reduced, and rolling resistance becomes the main resistance. If you’re working harder than the others while just riding along, you won’t have much left when an attack goes up the road or the course climbs a mountain pass.

This is even more important in a breakaway: Between pulls at the front, riders need to rest their legs while they are sheltered from the wind. When wind resistance is cut by half, the difference between merely fast and ultra-fast tires is very noticeable.

Why do most pros use tubular tires, when the rest of the cycling world has moved to clinchers long ago. There are many reasons, like the ability to ride on a flat tire if necessary. Even from a performance point of view, tubular tires make sense for pro racers. A tubular isn’t constrained by the rim sidewalls, so it can flex more. This means that a 25 mm tubular gives you the shock absorption of a 28 mm clincher – useful when you’re descending bumpy mountain passes at speed.

For the rest of us, running clinchers that are a bit wider gets the same result. But when a few centimeters in a sprint can win or lose a stage, when a few seconds on an hour-long climb can make the difference between making it over the top with the peloton or getting dropped, the lighter weight and (possibly) slightly lower wind resistance of a 25 mm tubular over a 28 mm clincher are worth the hassle of gluing tires.

And besides that, there is a unique ride quality to the best tubulars – which is why we’re importing the same hand-made FMB tubulars that many of the pros ride. Tubular or clincher – what matters most is a supple casing that rolls fast and gives superior comfort and traction.

Photos: Jered Gruber (race photos; used with permission).

30 Responses to Why Pros Ride Handmade Tires

  1. Scott Bontz September 14, 2020 at 10:05 am #

    You wrote: “Even on the famous climbs, supple tires make a measurable difference. On a 5% uphill, switching from a good mass-produced tire to a handmade one is about the same as taking 1 kg (2.2 lb) off your bike. (How came to that conclusion? We input the known values for aerodynamics, weight and rolling resistance into http://www.analyticcycling.com. This shows that a) tires make a large difference in performance, and b) weight isn’t quite as important as we tend to think.)”

    The article mixes the benefits of tubulars and the benefits of tire suppleness in general, but here you don’t say if the mass-produced tire was clincher or tubular. Which mass-produced and handmade tires gave you the data for comparison? And from that, can you generalize about the difference between good mass-produced tires and handmade tires?

    • Jan Heine September 14, 2020 at 12:14 pm #

      We compared a Continental Grand Prix 4000 S II with a Rene Herse Extralight, because we have rolling resistance measurements for them. The comparison is intended to provide an idea for the magnitude of the performance differences. It all depends on the road surface, the weight of the rider, whether there’s a head- or tailwind and a host of other factors. So in some cases, the extra-supple tire may be the equivalent of 900 g off the weight of the bike, in others 1,100 g. The idea here is that even uphill, a faster tire will make a significant difference.

      Whether a tire is a clincher or tubular doesn’t really change this. Tubulars are very slightly slower than clinchers of the same construction, but it’s far less than the influence of the casing.

  2. Matt Surch September 14, 2020 at 10:43 am #

    Clinchers are being used in the Tour this year too, however. both with tubes and tubeless. EF Racing is using foam tire inserts in their tubeless (as used in MTB) tires to provide enhanced tire stability in the event of a puncture that doesn’t seal with sealant. The foam inserts protect tire and rim when striking square edges (like a pothole), which reduces both likelihood of puncturing the tire and/or damaging the rim. One or two other teams have used clinchers with latex tubes in a couple cases too. Tubulars are still really nice for a few applications, but quality clinchers, tubed and tubeless, are gaining ground fast as rims are being optimized for aerodynamic performance, unfettered by rim-braking design requirements.

    • Jan Heine September 14, 2020 at 10:49 am #

      Clinchers have been making inroads from time to time. I recall that Miguel Indurain used a clincher front wheel way back in the 1990s. The story was that ‘Big Mig’ was concerned about rolling a tire (coming unglued) during mountain descents.

      As tires are getting wider, the advantage of tubulars begins to disappear. When I raced on 21 mm tires, the difference in traction and shock absorption was huge. With a 28 mm tire, it’s less noticeable. And then you have the sponsors who want to see racers on the equipment that amateurs use…

      They’ll always be on supple casings, though.

  3. PK September 14, 2020 at 10:51 am #

    I always heard that clinchers can come off the rim in a high-speed flat situation and get stuck in the fork crown, launching the rider.

    • Morten Reippuert September 14, 2020 at 12:31 pm #

      Much, much bigger chance for that happening with a clincher or tubular tyre. Tubular are much safer in alle aspects: rolloff, blowoff etc.

      • Matt J. Surch September 17, 2020 at 6:10 am #

        The devil is in the details…. Rim brakes versus disc make a significant difference when it comes to safety of each format. On the road, a minimally glued tire can roll off the rim when braking heats the rim enough. This isn’t really a ‘tubular problem’ so much as it’s a set-up problem. Cyclocross tires are glued on WAY more securely than pro road tires, and this tends to render them almost impossible to roll while riding. But it still happens, and it causes crashes. Road racers could glue on tires super securely – and some have been epoxied onto rims – but doing so with lots of glue increases hysteresis, thus increasing rolling resistance. At least with disc brakes, there’s no heat added to the system, so less glue can work more consistently. Tubes remain prone to being overheated by rim braking and blowing tires off, though when used with tubeless tires, this becomes harder to ‘accomplish.’ Tubeless can be installed really well, and really poorly. There are good pairings of rim and tire, and poor pairings. We’re not yet at a point where it’s ‘brainless’ as with car tires. But it’s coming. I’ve ridden all the formats extensively, and have settled on tubeless for everything 32mm and larger. I’ve completed cyclocross and gravel races on flat tubeless tires, and I’ve crashed as the result of burping them. Those burps were my fault, not the equipment’s….

        • Jan Heine September 17, 2020 at 8:06 am #

          I’m not sure more glue causes more hysteresis. We haven’t measured this, but the more securely the tire is on the rim, the less it moves and the less friction there is. I’ve that, way back, track racers used shellac to glue their tires onto the rims, presumably because the hard shellac has less hysteresis than the rubbery glue. Of course, on a banked track, the sideforces on the tire are much smaller, and there are no brakes…

  4. Kai S September 14, 2020 at 11:01 am #

    are not all but the cheapest moulded tyres more or less manually assembled in its parts and then cured? i mean in contrast to a machine just spitting out the ready-made product??

    i must say i am very impressed about the logistics of the tyre industry, both car and bicycle. yearly world production of some sizes of some models must be counted in hundreds rather than thousands, and still they keep producing them.

    i guess the semi-manual production methods could be a part of the reason this is even possible?

    • Jan Heine September 14, 2020 at 12:08 pm #

      There are still some big differences in how the tires are assembled. That’s the main reason why mass-produced tires always weigh more – they need more rubber to protect the casing during the production process. Of course, that extra rubber doesn’t just add weight, it also makes the tires slower and less comfortable.

  5. Larry T September 14, 2020 at 11:07 am #

    http://cycleitalia.blogspot.com/2011/03/tire-wars-clinchers-vs-tubulars.html
    I think the quality of the casing is more important than whether the tires are tubular, clincher or tubeless. I’ve not bothered with road tubeless but have ridden on fine and far-less-than-fine examples of the other two and think life is too short to try to save money buying cheap tires that ride like s__t.
    I may be ordering a set of your 26 X 2.3 Rat Trap Pass tires for an old MTBintoGravelMonster project soon, just for that reason.

  6. Liam G September 14, 2020 at 11:15 am #

    Nice article

  7. Preston Grant September 14, 2020 at 12:01 pm #

    I used tubulars for thirty years from the early sixties to the early nineties, but then had trouble finding good ones, so went to clinchers on all my bikes. I miss tubulars, and I think tubular rims were more comfortable, flexing more for shock absorption than clincher rims. I never had a problem with a tubular tire coming off the rim, coming unglued, except in The Lakes District in northern England on Wrynose Pass at 25% gradient, and the Hard Knott, posted at 33%. With the heat generated from braking, melting the glue, I noticed my front tubular was creeping and starting to bunch up by the valve. Due the steep descent, it was not possible to brake intermittently, so I had to stop to let the rims cool, then descended again very carefully. These days, being an 80 year old plodder, I just take my time, but a set of silk tubulars on Scheeren 8 ounce rims would probably still delight me.

    • Jan Heine September 14, 2020 at 12:06 pm #

      Yes, the shock absorption of old tubular rims is really nice. It’s especially noticeable in cyclocross, where it contributes to the magic carpet ride. (I doubt the high-profile carbon rims feel the same, but you still get the added comfort of the tubular construction itself.)

      I’ve only ridden the Sheeren rims a few times. They were so thin that each spoke hole had a tiny piece of wood to prevent the rim from collapsing under the spoke tension!

      • Rob Kohn September 14, 2020 at 12:16 pm #

        I really liked my Fiamme Ergals as a good combo of weight, comfort, and strength…

      • John C. Wilson September 15, 2020 at 3:08 pm #

        The blocks of balsa or spruce were rammed through the raw extrusion to precisely measured distances. Do that 36 times. And then the extrusion was hooped. The spoke load was spread to the full circumference of the extrusion.

        Created for 1936 Berlin Olympics. Successful enough to be imitated by Weinmann and by Mephisto. Mephisto had clincher versions in both 700 and 650B. If you ever see ‘jantes a blocs’do not hesitate. Or if you see a Weinmann black label. Weinmann and Mephisto also had 24mm wide tubular rims that were amazingly strong and of course had big glue surface. Everyone seems to know about Scheeren and Mephisto and prices are high. I have had Weinmann for as little as $5.

  8. Harry Travis September 14, 2020 at 12:19 pm #

    I doubt bespoke tire makers can inquire on improvements the physical chemical properties of the newest tread compounds. Who knows that after a century there can be significant improvements in quality, not just cost-economies.

    But, what about casings, Jan, including changes in the combination of fibers and how they are woven for the casing?

    • Jan Heine September 14, 2020 at 12:39 pm #

      In the past, the best tire casings were made from cotton or silk. These days, some of the fastest tires use synthetic fibers with no loss in performance. The advantage is that they are more consistent. There have been many experiments with radial tires – cars and most motorcycles switched from bias to radial tires decades ago – but all pro racers continue to race on bias tires.

  9. Henry September 14, 2020 at 12:27 pm #

    Hi Jan, just wondering from your previous post about smaller tires why tdf riders don’t ride 650B since you said they roll faster? Thanks!

    • Jan Heine September 14, 2020 at 12:35 pm #

      Who said that 650B roll faster? This is the first time I’ve heard that. Some claim that smaller wheels accelerate faster – smaller rims, tires and tubes are lighter – but in reality, the effect appears to be too small to make a difference.

      Our research shows that 650B doesn’t roll slower than 700C, but not faster, either. I suspect that racers use 700C wheels because 650B wheels with narrow tires would be less stable, among other reasons.

      • ZigaK September 16, 2020 at 3:44 am #

        UCI has updated the rules a few years ago, so the wheels are mandatory 700C.
        AFAIK

        • Jan Heine September 16, 2020 at 8:22 am #

          I was surprised to read this, so I checked the official UCI regulations:

          ARTICLE 1.3.018
          “Wheels of the bicycle may vary in diameter between 70 cm maximum and 55 cm minimum,
          including the tyre.”

          So the rules haven’t changed. The current wheels (700C x 25) are about 65 cm in diameter, so there’s plenty of room in either direction. That said, our Antelope Hill 700C x 55 tires would be pushing the limits!

      • Henry September 16, 2020 at 8:48 am #

        Oh just referring to your previous post where you said smaller gravel wheels roll faster. Which was super counter-intuitive since it seems everybody accepts that larger wheels roll faster.

        • Jan Heine September 16, 2020 at 9:30 am #

          Actually, the post just said that smaller wheels roll neither faster nor slower… It’s easy to confuse, but it’s an important difference.

          There are lots things in cycling that have been accepted without really ever testing it. When we first published our tests showing that 25 mm tires roll faster than 20s and 23s – way back in 2006 – it went totally against what everybody ‘knew’ back then.

  10. Reddy Cameron September 14, 2020 at 12:53 pm #

    Jan,

    My sense is that your extra light casings are essentially built from (or made just like) a tubular tire but expanded in size, and instead of a latex tube being sewn in, you have opened the tire to sit in a rim well. The sealant, then, basically takes the place of the latex tube. Am I close?

    In the last thee years, I have some 24,000 miles on your extra light tires. I’ve trained and raced your 35s and 38, as well as your 650b 48s. All slicks, and almost all gravel. I’ve had four flats in all those miles, and once a burp that took me off a podium. I’m personally convinced that a significant part of my racing success is that I’ve optimized my tires and tire pressure. Others bump along, whereas my low pressures let me more smoothly float over rocks and bumps, and the supple casings still let me cruise at speed when the road is smooth. It’s about speed per watt. And your tires, at low pressures (as in 24psi front, 30 rear for my 38s @160lbs rider weight), give me a significant advantage. Thank you!

    • Jan Heine September 14, 2020 at 1:05 pm #

      My sense is that your extralight casings are essentially built from (or made just like) a tubular tire but expanded in size, and instead of a latex tube being sewn in, you have opened the tire to sit in a rim well.

      That’s a pretty good description – yes, the Extralight casing is very similar to what is used on many of the best tubulars. Most of all, we’re glad they are working so well for you!

  11. James Thurber September 14, 2020 at 3:06 pm #

    Been riding tubulars for years. Although I have a clincher wheel set it’s never used. The one difference between my set-up and those on The Tour is that I use Carogna Effetta Mariposa Tape instead of Mastic glue.

    The reduction in labor and time makes it worth while to continue using tubulars. Thanks for an excellent article and agree completely vis a vis high quality tires – especially those fantastic FMB series.

  12. singlespeedscott September 14, 2020 at 6:33 pm #

    What does Rene Herse recommend for gluing. Old Mastik or tape?

    • Jan Heine September 14, 2020 at 6:54 pm #

      I’ve always used Mastik (liquid glue) for my tubulars. When I was racing, tape wasn’t allowed because it was said to increase the risk of rolling a tire.

  13. alexandru.tudose September 16, 2020 at 5:36 am #

    Hi Jan! Awesome articles, really nice reads for cycle enthusiasts!

    I have a question regarding the wonderful Oracle Ridges i am currently running on my 2021 Diverge. They mounted well on the 24mm IW stock rims that came with the bike (i have a minimum of 4mm clearance in the tightest spot), but the stock wheels are rather heavy and would like to change them to a new set that will probably be 25mm IW.

    What is the minimal tire to frame clearance that you would consider acceptable for a tire of this size? Not much mud around where i live. The only article i found on this topic is from long ago and i think it was focusing on road bikes and tires.

    Thank you again!