You’re riding in a technical criterium and you lose traction in a corner and crash. You’re riding down a bumpy trail and all of a sudden your tire blows out. You’re riding in a cyclocross race and lose your front wheel on an off-camber turn. Tire choice and setup all play a role in each one of these scenarios and although flats and crashes can still happen with the perfect setup, they can be minimized. Road, mountain, and cyclocross each have a best performance option as well as a most practical option that can be used by anyone.
Road tires should be chosen based upon the type of riding you are doing. Tubulars, where the tire is glued to the rim, are generally reserved for racing as changing a flat on the side of the road is fairly difficult. Clinchers and tubeless tires can be used for both training and racing.
Any tire style is going to have some amount of traction through corners as well as flat prevention but the best performance setup is running tubular tires with sealant inside them. Tubulars have a number of advantages including lower rolling resistance and better cornering capabilities due to their supple nature and construction. They also are less prone to flatting because with clinchers you can pinch flat, where the tube pinches against the rim with a sudden impact, but with tubulars this is very difficult to do. With sealant inside of them, they can also re-seal themselves if you run over small debris such as glass. The downside to tubulars, beside the difficulty in installing them, is the cost.
Whether you are racing or training, the best setup is tubeless tires with sealant. This option requires special tires and rim strips that seal air inside the tire without the use of an inner tube. Not all wheels are no tubeless ready nor can all wheels be set up tubeless but if yours can, this setup will greatly lesson your chances of flatting. Along with the sealant filling any minor leaks in the tire due to glass and other debris, there is no inner tube so you can’t pinch flat. Also, the way to avoid pinch flatting with clinchers is to run higher pressure but with tubeless you can run lower pressure allowing you to corner better as you have more rubber in contact with the road surface. Tubeless will be a bit more expensive than clinchers as well as a bit more involved to setup but once you’re rolling you pretty much don’t have to worry about flatting.
Mountain biking is the discipline where flats are the most common because of the nature of trails being rocky and root filled. Bigger tires help to lessen the chances of flatting but it’s only part of the solution. Fortunately, the best option is also the most practical. Tubeless with sealant for mountain biking has tremendous advantages over clinchers. The first is weight. Because mountain bike tires are so much bigger, the tube has to be bigger as well. Tubeless eliminates the need for one saving substantial weight with both the front and rear. Also, like road tires, eliminating the tube takes away the chance of pinch flatting. Also lower pressure can be run increasing traction in corners and up climbs substantially. Mountain biking has a lot of ways you can flat and with sealant, any thorns, sharp rocks or other small punctures will be sealed without you even knowing you hit something.
Cyclocross is where tire choice has the biggest impact on traction. The surface that is ridden on is constantly changing along with the conditions. In one race alone you can have pavement, sand, mud, and grass all to navigate on the same tires under speed. With road and mountain biking, the surface is generally always the same.
Without a doubt, the best tires to ride for cyclocross are tubulars. They give tremendous gripping ability through the corners with the tread pattern as well as the ability to be run at ridiculously low pressures. They also won’t roll off the rim at low pressures and can withstand small punctures with sealant installed. Like road tubulars, they are more expensive as well as more hassle to install but the upsides are worth it if you have the money and patience.
The most practical tire choice for ‘cross is tubeless. Tubeless has come a long way and is almost to the level of tubulars. You can still run fairly low pressures giving you added traction along with the puncture resistance of sealant. They do run the risk of “burping” particularly in off-camber corners where there is a lot of side load placed on the tires. The only way to avoid this is running higher pressure. Tubeless is a bit more expensive and a hassle to install than using clinchers, but like the road, it is well worth the little bit of extra time and money.
Tire choice is practically endless but using the right tire technology will give you the benefits you need for the riding that you’re doing. If you’re going for performance in races and have the time and money, then tubulars are the way to go for road and cyclocross. For mountain biking as well as for the most practical solution for road and ‘cross, tubeless is the only way to go. There is a bit of a learning curve to getting it set up, but once you get good at it you can do it in practically the same amount of time it would take you to set up a clincher.