Tubulars: Art, Science, and Ritual

As Keepers Tour crossed from dream to reality and routes over the cobblestones of Northern Europe were sketched out, with it came the familiar tingling in my fingertips and uneasy sensation at the base of my spine as my mind starts its irrevocable journey towards categorizing as mandatory an unnecessary indulgence. I was going to need a wheelset and tubular tires that were up to the job.

The folklore goes a long way towards that justification; Paris-Roubaix is the race where every trick of the trade is exploited to deliver riders safely to the finish. Equipment which usually carries riders for a season or more finds itself in the trash heap after a single day on in Hell – maybe good enough for training but certainly not be trusted for another race. Special wheels are built, and only the strongest tubulars are glued to the rims. Aldo Gios, De Vlaeminck’s mechanic, is said to have aged his tires in his wine cellar to allow the rubber to harden, making them more resistent to punctures.

Ignoring the possibility that there may be some difference in strength, speed, or skill with which the Pros ride over the Cobbles, it didn’t take me long to determine that it wasn’t so much a matter of wanting a set of tubulars for Keepers Tour, but that it was indeed my obligation. I have a responsibility, after all, to the attendees of trip that I not fall off my machine and bash my head open on a cobblestone. Messy, certainly, but it may also frame the event in a somewhat negative light, and I think we’d all like the opportunity to do this again some time. The only way to assure I don’t suffer some catastrophic equipment failure and jeopardize the trip was to build a set of wheels based on the same components the Pros select for the purpose, and line them in the same rubber they choose. Logical, really.

The seduction of symbols was the first phase, followed quickly by the art of building wheels. The final step was to procure the right tires for the job. FMB is perhaps the most revered name in hand-made tubular tires; inspection of photos of Roubaix will reveal the pale yellow or green sidewalls of the FMB Paris-Roubaix tire on many of the wheels bouncing over the cobbles – often rebadged on order to satisfy sponsorship obligations.

I needed a set, naturally.

The tires were ordered in December, as from January onward Francois (of Francois-Marie Boyaux from which FMB takes its name) becomes overburdened with orders from the teams riding Roubaix and indicated he wouldn’t have time to squeeze in an order from a nobody such as myself. They arrived in February, at which point they displaced a few bottles of wine to age in the darkest corner of our basement which doubles as our wine cellar. Having mounted another set of tubs on the wheels in order to bash the bejezus out of the wheels so as to make myself a little less certain that I buggered the wheel building process, they had to wait until this past week to be mounted.

They have not yet been ridden, but they certainly look the business.

[dmalbum path=”/velominati.com/content/Photo Galleries/fr[email protected]/FMB P-R/”/]

Gluing on a tubular tire is a glorious study in patience and settles beautifully in the intersection between art, science, and ritual. And the glue smells distressingly fantastic.

[dmalbum path=”/velominati.com/content/Photo Galleries/[email protected]/Gluing Tubs/”/]

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127 Replies to “Tubulars: Art, Science, and Ritual”

  1. Chapeau Frank!

    While aging them in your “wine cellar” did you stretch them on another set of hoops? This usually helps with the mess of mounting them.

    (OK, a bit of self-promotion here….) I have a set of NOS F20s I build with Sapim Lasers and C4 hubs that would love to have tested on the cobbles. Without being too advertizey (I do not come to V to promote my business) If any of the V going on the Keepers Tour want to test them for me, I am sure we could work out a deal.

  2. “And the glue smells distressingly fantastic.”

    I am not surprised. We are a “strange” lot, the V.

  3. @Dan_R
    There is certainly something a bit heady about the glue that adds to the whole process, especially if acetone has been used for cleaning the rims up beforehand.

    @frank
    Nice write up, those do look good on the bike. I’m beginning to see a shop apron as being an essential purchase with all this glue kicking around.

    I was a tad apprehensive about quality of my first attempt at gluing and it was only after racing at the weekend that I’m confident that the tyre is going to stay on the rim. That said, the course was essentially an oval so it may all go horribly wrong when I next go round a left hander!

    La Vie Velominatus has most definately taken hold, it is not enough that my tubs are well attached to the rims but my new found OCDness dictates that I must pull the rear off and re-glue it to ensure the labels are on the drive side.

  4. @Chris
    Agreed, the “high” from glueing starts with prep and can continue through to cleaning too! Is it considered mixing drinks if an ale or pilsner is involved?

    Like any 1st, you will always remember your 1st glue session.

  5. You’re missing a tire, folded & rolled in an old race number and toe-strapped under the seat rails.

  6. @Dan_R
    I’d somewhat uncharacteristically decided to keep the process alcohol free (another change brought about by La Vie Velominatus – I drink so much less than I used to) and by the time Michael Jackson had fucked things up properly, I wasn’t really in the mood for a drink.

    I would imagine that a mix of booze and solvents might give one a truly aweful headache.

  7. @frank
    Out of interest, what brake pads are you using with your Golden Tickets? The pads that came with my bike are truly rubbish and have a tendency to squeal – I may not have got all the glue off the braking surface although it looks and feels clear.

  8. @Chris
    LOL, yeah, in reality, I open the garage door when working with funny fumes. I will sip beer while wrenching on my own stable, but never while working on a customer’s bike – too close to liability…

  9. @Chris

    @frank
    Out of interest, what brake pads are you using with your Golden Tickets? The pads that came with my bike are truly rubbish and have a tendency to squeal – I may not have got all the glue off the braking surface although it looks and feels clear.

    I would recommend Kool-Stop red & black for harsh conditions, but you didn’t ask me…lol.

  10. @Dan_R

    Chapeau Frank!

    While aging them in your “wine cellar” did you stretch them on another set of hoops? This usually helps with the mess of mounting them.

    (OK, a bit of self-promotion here….) I have a set of NOS F20s I build with Sapim Lasers and C4 hubs that would love to have tested on the cobbles. Without being too advertizey (I do not come to V to promote my business) If any of The V going on the Keepers Tour want to test them for me, I am sure we could work out a deal.

    Naturellement, monsieur! Makes for an easy mounting, for sure. Besides, these are so incredibly supple, it’s hard to imagine them ever being hard to get on. The spare is aging/resting as we speak.

    I emailed you about your wheels. I’m sure we can work something out.

  11. Frank, now that you shelled out all the money on your new pair of tubular wheels and tubulars, what are you going to do when (not if, when) you get a puncture which a sealant won’t be able to fix, mid-ride during the Keeper’s tour? How many of your spare tubular wheels will be carried by your team support car? :)

  12. @Chris

    @frank
    Out of interest, what brake pads are you using with your Golden Tickets? The pads that came with my bike are truly rubbish and have a tendency to squeal – I may not have got all the glue off the braking surface although it looks and feels clear.

    Well, I had to switch back to the regular Campa brakes and ditch the TRP’s for a second time due to a clearance issue on the back. So I’m back to standard Record brakes/pads, though I spotted some all-weather pads in the same color as the sidewalls which I simply must have. New Rule: always match your brake pads to your sidewalls.

    As to MJ – you may notice A Sunday in Hell playing in the background of my photos. This is necessary any time one is wrapping themselves ever closer in the warmth of La Vie.

  13. @The Tashkent Error

    Frank, now that you shelled out all the money on your new pair of tubular wheels and tubulars, what are you going to do when (not if, when) you get a puncture which a sealant won’t be able to fix, mid-ride during the Keeper’s tour? How many of your spare tubular wheels will be carried by your team support car? :)

    Believe me, mate, I’ve been tortured, waking up in the middle of the night in a pool of cold sweat to the vision of my wheels hitting the cobbles and immediately going flat. I have one identical spare waiting already, with the promise of a second to be overnighted to Kemmel should it be required.

  14. @frank

    New Rule: always match your brake pads to your sidewalls

    Nein! Koolstop wet-weather pads (perfect for the PNW) are a strange orange/salmon pink color. No way am I going to match my tires to those, or use standard black pads that seem to turn to mush when combined together with water and a downhill.

    You’re looking pimp in the Campa cap turned backwards and the Adi flip flops though, so I’ll excuse that weird rule as coming from huffing too much glue.

  15. @mcsqueak
    Oh yeah, the salmons will be GTG.

    Reference your email, relpied with a bit of over explanation, yet lack of real response to “what do you have in mind.” Note my brief follow up, lol.

  16. FMB Compétition CX Coton 22.5 to test on GP4s — soon. And thanx for a dutiful effort on tyres Frank.

  17. @frank
    @mcsqueak

    @frank

    New Rule: always match your brake pads to your sidewalls

    Nein! Koolstop wet-weather pads (perfect for the PNW) are a strange orange/salmon pink color. No way am I going to match my tires to those, or use standard black pads that seem to turn to mush when combined together with water and a downhill.

    You’re looking pimp in the Campa cap turned backwards and the Adi flip flops though, so I’ll excuse that weird rule as coming from huffing too much glue.

    Those are some sexy tubs sir. Now while I realize this is more or less a dictatorship around here, I’m going to agree with @McSqueek; Stop huffing the glue……….

  18. Forgive me a cruel chuckle as I delight in the notion that I’ve succeeding in making myself seem crazy enough for the possibility to exist that I’m serious about the brake block matching Rule. It’s inspired, of course – but also completely insane. Now that I put it like that, I suppose I can see why…

  19. At the risk being burned at the stake as a heretic – after wearing out the Contis that came on my 404’s I got some Vittoria Corsas from a friend for $50 a piece and I can say with all honesty that they were the biggest pain in the ass to deal with and definitely has me questioning whether tubular’s (supposed) superior ride is worth the hassle for the average Cat 4. If I were a pro that had a mechanic that dealt with such tribulation for me and all I had to do was put up my hand and wait for the team car to take care of things that would be another thing. But I ain’t.

    I will definitely only be riding the tubs in races this year.

  20. Le Frank,

    The wheels look fantastic, minuscule as they may appear when framed by your excessive bodily lank.

    If you are going to look pro, however, remember to look pro in all things, especially when posting photographs. I know where your focus lies, but right there behind you…two straps per pair, placed at the contact points between tips and tails only, unless they are race skis in transit, in which case a third strap just forward of the binding is permitted. Poles always upright and leaning against binding toe-pieces or hanging by the straps from something other than the skis, never strapped to anything, least of all each other. These things are in the same room–the same photograph, even–as your bike…ergo, to the extent that is is possible, they must reflect the same aesthetic.

    Again, nice wheels and nice tubs. Stay smooth; smooth is fast.

  21. Whilst I recognise the seduction of tubulars and the skill it takes to mount them, here in Malaysia we live by the old chinese proverb of “Man who ride tubs, go home in Taxi”. If the potholes the size of a car don’t get you, the glass will. And if your bike skills are deft enough to avoid these, the general road surface that is rougher than a bulldog chewing a wasp will do everything in its power to release all 100psi to the bright blue sky. Every weekend we observe the forlorn rider sitting along the side of the road morosely staring at the leaking tub or shattered carbon wheel that they bought in a moment of credit card madness. If I return to Europe (or miraculously get sponsored and am given my own team car), I will bow down to the art and begin my apprenticeship of learning to mount a set of tubs to a handmade carbon wheel, but for now I’ll be sticking to alloys with a middle back pocket full of inner tubes.

  22. @Dan_R

    @ChrisAgreed, the “high” from glueing starts with prep and can continue through to cleaning too! Is it considered mixing drinks if an ale or pilsner is involved?
    Like any 1st, you will always remember your 1st glue session.

    Fuck I wouldn’t. I think I may have done it once, though I can’t remember (not a good sign) and ended up with a cracking headache. It’s not like mixing cocaine and rohypnol, that’s for sure.

  23. @Joshua
    Aksel, Bode, Lindsey and I all disagree with you regarding the placement of the straps.

    [dmalbum: path=”/velominati.com/wp-content/uploads/readers/frank/2012.03.21.23.07.42/”/]

    As for the poles – they get strapped together for the car ride to the mountain so the little bastards don’t lay in the back and rattle. I will take care to unstrap them upon the return home.

  24. @Cyclops
    Bummer – did you pre-stretch them? Makes a huge difference. Seems like there is some kind of miscommunication here, as everything I know about you makes me believe tubbies and you are a match made in heaven. Down to the slightly different feeling you get from hanging around the open glue can.

    Just be glad you didn’t try to glue the Contis – they are reputed to be ultra fucking hard to get on.

  25. @Jaq

    You’re missing a tire, folded & rolled in an old race number and toe-strapped under the seat rails.

    Hell yeah! Old school rules!

    @frank
    Always seems automatic to spin a rear wheel with cluster on right hand side. Does this happen with everyone else?

  26. @frank
    WHEW, that third picture is quite the podium.

    @Cyclops
    I understand the hesitance to move over to tubs completely. I run clinchers to just ride or train. But for racing or the track, tubbies all the way. I finaly got one of my training partners on a tubs – a set of Zipps, but tubs none the less.

    Er, sorry is that my snob coming out (the Zipp comment)

  27. @frank
    Of course I pre-stretched them. Actually it was a conspiracy. It had been about 25 years since I’d had anything to do with tubs so – silly me – I didn’t realize until I was half way into it that the tube of cement I had wasn’t going to go far enough to complete the job and the to bike shops in town only had the 3m crap that Zipp specifically says not to use. I got my LBS to order me a big tub of Conti glue. After completing the jog I went to air them of and one of the aluminum valve stems broke. I was really pissed until I found out that you can replace the valve stems on the Vittorias. Also I tried everything to get the old glue of the Zipps and nothing worked really well so all in all it was a pain in the ass.

  28. @frank
    Dude, I’m with Joshua. The middle strap will fuck the camber in storage. Not to mention the potential for corrosion on edges and letting the bases breathe. I’m guessing the skis in those podium shots were prepared by a minion for easy hoisting and photo ops. Go to Lindsey’s basement and I bet you see two straps, contact points.

  29. Beautiful article @frank.

    @frank

    @Chris

    @frank
    Out of interest, what brake pads are you using with your Golden Tickets? The pads that came with my bike are truly rubbish and have a tendency to squeal – I may not have got all the glue off the braking surface although it looks and feels clear.

    Well, I had to switch back to the regular Campa brakes and ditch the TRP’s for a second time due to a clearance issue on the back. So I’m back to standard Record brakes/pads, though I spotted some all-weather pads in the same color as the sidewalls which I simply must have. New Rule: always match your brake pads to your sidewalls.

    As to MJ – you may notice A Sunday in Hell playing in the background of my photos. This is necessary any time one is wrapping themselves ever closer in the warmth of La Vie.

    I’ve been out in the wet with my Nemeses and the braking is just about as good in the wet as in the dry with stock Campagnolo pads on mine — I think it’s the way they treat the surface of the things. Also being a tubular neophyte I got some glue on the rim and although I wish it wasn’t there it isn’t causing the least problem.

  30. I’m a huge fan of the look, the purpose, & the style of low profile, strong rims, sturdy hubs, and tubulars on a modern carbon steed.

    Such a set-up is in my future.

    Good work Frank, enjoy riding those hoops in Belgium!

  31. I’ve already decided that I’ll be racing tubulars for next cross season. Dugast Rhino on the front, Typhoon rear. Probably Chris King hubs. Maybe HED rims (wide)?

  32. @G’rilla

    I’ve already decided that I’ll be racing tubulars for next cross season. Dugast Rhino on the front, Typhoon rear. Probably Chris King hubs. Maybe HED rims (wide)?

    Thinking about doing the same; tubeless is satisfactory but not awesome. I want to hit some kind of goal prior to pulling the trigger, so I feel like I earnt it, ya know…

  33. Total novice when it comes to tubs – two questions. 1) does the glue negate the need for rim tape or is the rim different from a clincher rim? 2)I did some research and there are a few people who say changing tubs are easy on the road; but if you have to let the glue cure on the tyre for 12hrs do you carry a spare with glue pre-applied or do you just whack the new tyre on and hope it doesn’t pop off when you corner?

  34. @brett
    Now everyone intone together, some people in low bass tone, everyone else in high falsetto – the theme opera from Sunday in Hell “PaRis RouBAIX, PaRis RouBAIX, RouBAIX!!

  35. @Nick

    Total novice when it comes to tubs – two questions. 1) does the glue negate the need for rim tape or is the rim different from a clincher rim? 2)I did some research and there are a few people who say changing tubs are easy on the road; but if you have to let the glue cure on the tyre for 12hrs do you carry a spare with glue pre-applied or do you just whack the new tyre on and hope it doesn’t pop off when you corner?

    Tubular rims are different from clincher rims, but you’d never use base tape with a tubular rim.
    Pre applied glue on the tubular, fold the tub together so the base tape is touching the base tape.

    Or, go to weight weenies and read the glueing tubulars thread. It’s over 100 pages long and if you can’t find what you need to know there, there’s something wrong.

  36. Yarp. I was trying (poorly) to discriminate between base tape and tubular tape. which my favorite #, #readingcomprehensionfail means he’d just get more confused reading my response.
    Innit late where you are?

  37. Great article.

    I’ve never ridden with tubs- an aspiration financially out of reach, but i’ll happily read articles all day like that.

    I can’t wait for the reports from the cobblestone classics, keep ’em coming….

  38. Been thinking about it for a while but after reading this article, I need a new set of tubs for my Merckx… It should have been built up with them in the first place. I was always partial to the Vittoria CG/CX back in the day but those have evolved into the EVO series…which isn’t bad, but, for a few more $$ might as well go with some FMB CX’s so Boonen and I can ride together.
    You partial to the Conti glue? I ‘ve used Tubasti then switched to the Vittoria because it was easier to work with… Appreciate any opinion there.

  39. I really must get round to trying tubs one day. If only to see what all the fuss is about.

    I’ll be attacking the cobbles this year with the same combo as last year. Bombproof Hope hubs, Open Pro 2s and gatorskin clinchers. Not the most fashionable set up granted, but perfect for the job in hand.

  40. @Rigid
    Sadly I tend to do that everytime I hit a section of cobbles even if its only 50m long. I am at least keeping it under my breath now.
    Good job really as I hit a cobbled section every ride home from work.

  41. Not sure if this stuff belongs here or in the bikes or in the Keepers tour section. Seven Axiom c.2002. Photo of it being ridden in 2008 P-R sportive, Arenberg forest. If I am being honest, I spent most of the time on the cinder path along the side, it was pure coincidence I was photographed on the casein. Vittoria Paves (27mm) on Ambrosios, 36 hole f and r, built by Pete Matthews.

  42. 2006 P-R sportive. 2 days in hospital and a drip full of antibitiotcs to clear the cellulitis. Ironically happened a long time before any cobbles.

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