Rouleur Classic

Welcome to the Tub Club

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Photographs: BrakeThrough Media
Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media

Tubulars. I can’t believe it took me so long. I’ve been riding for more years than I care to count, and racing cyclo-cross for nearly a decade. Many times, people have told me about the virtues of tubs. And, not being a total idiot, I did notice that all the best ’cross riders, and not a few road riders, prefer to race on tubs.

And yet I was an idiot: I resisted. Part of it was sheer inertia and laziness. I couldn’t be bothered to switch from what I knew (clinchers). Part of it was defeatist doubt: I didn’t think they’d make that much difference to me, given my level of competition. Part of it was sheer parsimony: tubs were another expense — a new set of wheels, costly tyres and high maintenance costs.

And the last part of it was a kind of self-serving scepticism: I didn’t trust that the cult of tubs wasn’t ultimately an elaborate mass self-delusion on the part of its adherents — like being a Mason, with secret passwords, weird aprons, funny handshakes and a lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo.

But a big dimension of my reluctance was that I was frankly intimidated by the whole parallel universe of tubular knowledge, tubular culture and tubular belief. I was not going to follow the white rabbit down that particular hole, thank you very much. Competitive cycling and its accompanying geekery, nerdism and weeniedom is already enough of a series of receding concentric circles of niche interest and exclusive subculture. Tubs were a step too far, I thought.

Plus the whole notion of sticking tyres on wheels with glue: whoever came up with that? It’s got a pre-industrial quality, like stringing tennis rackets with cow gut, or making golf balls stuffed with boiled goose feathers. There was something primitive about the practice — and atavistic in the earnest insistence of the faithful.

Pretty early on in your initiation into serious cycling, you come across group tribalism, for example: the fanatical devotion commanded by Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM seems comparable at times to the sectarian divisions of the world’s great religions (Protestant-Catholic, Sunni-Shia, etc). And that’s just the initiation. The Way of the Tub is a deeper and more arcane mystery. To outsiders, it seems that a state of true tubness can only be attained by a self-induced trance after exposure to the fumes from volatile adhesives and solvents.

And then there follow the Stages of the Tub. The Stretching of the Tyres. The Application of the Cement. The Adhesion of the “Belgian Tape”. The Mounting of the Tyre. The Alignment of the Tread. The Bedding-Down of the Tub. The Final Inflation. The Going-Off of the Cement. (I’ve actually left off several Applications of the Cement in that account, but as with all ritual, repetition is its essence.)

Of course, you can pay someone else to endure the whole tortuous experience — rather the way that rich people in the Middle Ages paid for indulgences as a kind of remittance that paid off the wages of sin without actually having to, you know, do any of that tedious repenting business yourself. Sort of outsourcing penance. But if I was going to this trouble, then I wanted to experience the ineffable mystery myself; I would become a pilgrim and toil my way to tub nirvana.

So what brought about my conversion? As with so many of these changes of heart, no one single thing, but a confluence of factors: a sympathetic conversation with a trusted friend, one too many experiences of the limits of clinchers in cyclo-cross (the bad-bargain trade-off between traction and susceptibility to pinch flats), the readies for a cheap set of carbon tubular wheels and pricey pair of Cléments … and the instructional YouTube video.

The YouTube instructional video has revolutionised my life. I’ve learned everything from how to use a chainsaw and chop down a tree without it falling on me to how to solder a copper pipe, to the basics of instinctive archery. You can take your pick of do-it-yourself tubular-mounting videos. By the time you’ve watched two, you’re so blasé about how to do it that you get impatient at the slow pace of the instructor. Watch three and you know it all, and could make a better one yourself: Best-Ever How to Mount a Tubular Tyre Video!

I stopped short of that hubris, obviously. But the rest I did. It went eerily well: I did not end up with cement in my hair, on the ceiling or all over my jeans. The tyres themselves tracked all right and seemed securely glued. But until you ride, how do you know? I had visions of doing a “Lhotellerie” — the unfortunate French rider Clément Lhotellerie who, sprinting at the back of the field in a Soudal Classic race in November, rolled the tub on his front wheel and crashed sideways into the barriers having barely crossed the start line.

It didn’t seem a good omen that his first name and my tyres were namesakes. And as I also learned, the governing body USA Cycling is entitled to fine a rider $50 for rolling a tub. This really seemed like blaming the victim, I thought, as I lined up nervously for my first race.

The tubs didn’t fall off, and neither did I. I even finished a few places higher than usual. My season ended noticeably better than it had started. Was it the tubs? Probably; I can’t account for it any other way, though as you know, new anything can provide a psychological boost that lifts your performance. Sometimes, the quickest way to improve form is to buy some widget you can’t really afford.

But my conversion was complete. That’s why I’m here to tell you: you have to get tubs.

Originally published in 1 issue 53

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