Words and photos: Steve Walker
When my mate Neil first showed me his Tufo tubular* mountain bike wheel/tyre combo I thought he was as crazy as a fox who had wandered into a free-range chicken penn. Even though my eyes widened at the sight of the carbon rims, I had my reservations.
A little bit tubby
Having ridden and raced cyclo-cross throughout the winter months on the wheels that require a touch of Bostick, my experience had been that of both joy and sorrow. The joy coming from the low pressures you are able to run in the most hideous of muddy conditions, followed by sorrow from riding on the rev limiter for nearly an hour, only to roll a tyre on the last bastad lap. I still have sleepless nights thinking about the day the rear tub rolled, six months later.
I race ‘cross on tubs because, as it stands, none of the major tyre manufacturers make tubeless ready cyclo-cross tyres. Crazy but true (well I think so). However, tubeless mountain bike tyres are readily available from slow and grippy to fast and dry. All you need is a decent rim, a bit of tape (if your rim isn’t tubeless ready) a few cups of tubeless juice and off you go. I’ve been running tubeless wheels and tyres for the past three years and, I must say, with masses of success. Put it this way I’d never go back to tubes.
Your point is?
If tubeless tyre systems in the mountain bike world are so good and easy to install, then why bother with tubs? What’s the point?
Before we go any further let’s get out the ‘soap box’. Before I tell you what I think, let’s see what Helmut, the main man from Sonic Cycles, the UK importer of Tufo, has to say and why you should take interest in the strange world of tubular mountain bike tyres.
Mini-interview with Helmut from Sonic Cycles, UK Importer of Tufo
Bike Magic: What’s the benefit of tubular wheels over a tubeless wheel?
Helmut: Definitely a weight advantage. Rims for tubs are using less material than 'open' rims. If you are using Tufos you can use their five-minute fast gluing tape for sticking the tubs onto the rim, rather than fitting finger-breaking lever-snapping tubeless tyres and their associated gloopy mess.
BM: Roadies have obviously used tubular tyres since the very beginning and continue to use them to this day. Perhaps do you think it could be more to do with tradition than offering real benefit?
H: Definitely the weight advantage again. Considering the amount of tubulars we sell to an awful lot of people it's not tradition. Personally I have gone back to tubulars, admittedly Tufo tubulars for clincher wheels (I have some nice wheels I don't want to replace).
BM: A little birdie told me (following a visit to the Continental Tyres factory) that team riders felt standard tyres to be faster and that they offered less drag that a tubular set-up. However their pro riders were still going to run tubs in case of a pinch flat at speed. What’s your opinion?
H: Apart from the 'pinch puncture' advantage, the pros also know that with today's deep section carbon rims on road bikes, temperatures caused by braking on long descents can lead to open tyres blowing off the rims. As to feelings about the amount of drag, I believe a test rig would give more reliable results.
BM: Every MTB wheel available from Tufo comes with tyre installed and pre-glued, why is this?
H: When you buy your new Tufo wheel set, you take it out of the box, fit the cassette, top up the pressure, throw the wheels into the frame and go. No brainer!
BM: How long will the glue last?
H: I cannot answer that question precisely, but from personal experience, my tyres always wear out before the gluing tape gives way. And even then it is not easy getting the tyres off. If it's a throwaway I cut the tub and it is easy to pull it off the rim.
BM: What happens next?
H: To install a new Tufo tub will take all of five to 10 minutes. And you can ride straight away, no need to wait 24 hours for glue to cure.
BM: My wheel/tyre expert (Baz from 2 Wheels) knows everything about wheel building and tyre installation. He hates gluing CX (cyclo-cross) tub tyres to road rims. Would he find it easier to work on MTB tub-related paraphernalia?
H: Traditionally CX riders like to use glue for their tub fitting, however with Tufo's system you use tape with a special backing, which gets pulled out from under the tyre. No mess, no fuss and the tub is on straight every time. So yes, he probably would find it easier.
BM: I’ve invested in a Tufo tub system but ripped the sidewall to shreds. How long will it take to fit a new tyre?
H: Get the old tyre off, clean the rim (Tufo make a specific cleaning fluid for this). Dry it. Stick your new tubular tyre on. In about half an hour you’re good to go.
BM: How easy is it to rebuild a collapsed wheel onto a tubular rim if the need ever arises?
H: I would guess if it’s your pal Baz, less than 45 minutes.
BM: Would you (in your honest opinion) say that tubs are for race days only?
H: There is a school of thought that says train on something heavy and fly on race day. Practically if you can afford more than one set of wheels, keep the best ones for race days.
BM: Using half a dozen words, describe a Tufo wheel/tyre system.
H: Light, fast, trouble free and exciting to ride.
BM: Thanks Helmut.
H: My pleasure.
Back to it
If they’re good enough for Nino
Here’s the thing. I approached Helmut to see if I could test the tubular wheel/tyre set up. After randomly watching a bike check on Nino Schurter’s XC World Cup winning Scott 899, and seeing that he was running tubulars, I simply had to try some.
Not so tubby after all
They aren’t. In fact, when weighed via a digital scale, the Tufo wheel/tyre (when combined with titanium Superstar quick release skewers) combo is half a pound lighter than a Mavic Slr/Schwalbe Rocket Ron tubeless set up, pretty impressive. But overall wheel weight isn’t the be all and end all of how a wheel performs on the trail. Flex, stiffness and durability all play a part on your wagon and how it rolls.
The Cherokees are after me
If the Cherokees were after you and your two-wheeled wagon had ‘tubbies’ in then they’d struggle to keep up. The tubular tyres offer a very supple ride characteristic and the rim is virtually flex free. These wheels have done a few XC races, lots of XC rides and smashed up one or two trail centre type venues. No punctures, no mechanical issues, no problem. Big chief sitting bull and his crew didn’t stand a chance.
My wagon’s got a turbo on
The fact is my XC race wagon did feel quicker when I replaced the top of the range DT Swiss Tricon wheels with the Tufo ones. Whether they make a difference overall in an XC race is something I can’t be sure of. I say XC race because that’s where a wheel set of this nature (in my opinion) well and truly belongs. When your lungs are bleeding, your tongue is licking the floor and you feel like you’re about to die then every bit helps (regardless to whether the Cherokees were on the start line or not).
Should you buy these?
If you’re in it to win it (XC racing that is), then rim weights and how the tyre that’s attached to them performs is of the utmost importance. My initial thought towards tubular mountain bike wheels and tyres was ‘What’s the point?’ But I can now say that I know why Nino a select few Elite XC racers are running them.
However, I will say that if you aren’t that fussed about racing and wouldn’t mind spending a month or two sitting around a camp fire, whilst smoking a Cherokee pipe, then you can’t really go wrong with the versatility of a good tubeless set up. You can change tyres with little expense or hassle to suit where you’re riding and the conditions on the day, which I really can’t imagine to be the case with the tubulars. That’s my opinion.
(Chief-of- sitting no bull)
Price: From £626 a pair, available in 26 and 29"
More information: Tufo Alca tubular mountain bike wheels
* If you aren't familiar with them, a tubular tyre is a cylindrical, completely closed tyre that is glued to the rim of the wheel (as opposed to a 'standard' clincher which has a separate inner tube and tyre held in place by a bead running around the tyre that grips a lip running around the wheel - almost definitely the ones on your bike...)