Clinchers with a tube, tubeless tyres with sealant or glued-on tubulars all have their place in cycling, but which is best for triathlon? We give you the verdict.

When it comes to wheels and tyres for your road, TT bike or triathlon bike, there are three options: traditional clinchers with an inner tube, a tubeless setup with sealant and the pro-cyclist favourite of glued-on tubulars. Each has its pros and cons, so it can be hard to know which is best for triathletes. We break down the differences between each type.

Clinchers with a tube

Clincher tyres use a wire bead that hooks inside the rim with inflation provided by a traditional rubber or latex inner tube. In almost all cases, this is the setup that will come with your bike, whether it’s designed for road or triathlon. Being the most common setup, you’re also most likely to find last-minute spares at an event expo or from neutral service during a race.

Clinchers are the standard spec on the majority of road and triathlon bikes.
Clinchers are the standard spec on the majority of road and triathlon bikes. Photo: Melkhagelslag, Pixabay

The popularity of clinchers and investment in technology by tyre manufacturers means that the difference in rolling resistance – energy lost due to constant deformation of the tyre over the ground – is now negligible between a good clincher and a tubular tyre, which has traditionally been the gold standard for racers. However, due to the tube, there might be a little extra weight compared with tubeless and tubular options.

rolling resistance is the energy lost due to constant deformation of the tyre over the ground

When using clinchers with an inner tube, tyre pressures need to be relatively high to help avoid pinch punctures – pinching the inner tube between the rim and tyre when going over a pothole for example. This means a little less comfort and a modicum less grip than that of a tubeless setup.

Pros:

  • Universal compatibility
  • Easy access to tyres and tubes
  • Simple changing procedure in case of a flat
  • Cheaper than tubeless or tubular
  • No messy sealant or glue to deal with

Cons:

  • Takes a while to change
  • Requires higher pressure so can be less comfortable
  • Tube means a little more weight

Tubeless tyres

Like clinchers, tubeless tyres use a wire bead that creates a tight seal between the rim and the tyre. Because of this, only rims and tyres both designed for tubeless use are compatible with one another. If you’ve recently bought a bike, check whether your rims and/or tyres are already tubeless ready – many manufacturers now provide this setup as standard but supply the wheels with a tube in situ.

Schwalbe tubeless tyre - Pro One.
Schwalbe has really embraced tubeless tyre technology with its Pro One range. Photo: Schwalbe.

To set up tubeless, a valve is secured directly into the rim and the tyre is fitted. Sealant is then poured into the valve and the wheel is spun so that the sealant covers the entirety of the interior tyre and rim surface, creating a seal that will hold the pressure of inflation. This not only reduces weight but the sealant will also close punctures up to around 5mm, which covers the vast majority of everyday road punctures from thorns, sharp pieces of flint or small shards of glass for example. This means you’ll only need to add a little air if some has escaped due to a small cut – and even that isn’t usually necessary to get you back to transition.

Going tubeless also means you can safely run lower tyre pressures, increasing comfort without the worry of pinch flats. However, it’s essential that the tyre is seated properly upon inflation – and double-checked if you’re reducing pressure to fly to a race with your bike – otherwise, the tyre will ‘burp’ losing pressure and sending sealant spewing everywhere.

Tubeless tyre sealant will close punctures up to around 5mm

On the downside, the sealant won’t fix bigger gashes in the tyre – though finding the puncture is easy as it’ll be the area with sealant on the outside of the tyre. In such cases, you have a couple of options. First, you can carry a spare tube just as you would with a clincher – you’ll also have to remove the tubeless valve from the rim in order to use it. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can use an emergency tyre boot – such as the Park Tool TB-2. Clean sealant from around the gash on the inside of the tyre, stick on the boot and it should hold pressure.

In either situation, the tightness of the interface between the tyre bead and the rim means it can take some serious strength, effort and several tyre levers to get the job done – which may also affect your race time more than a simple clincher tube change.

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Built-in protection for small punctures
  • Lower pressures for more comfort
  • Can use a tube if needed

Cons:

  • Compatible rims and tyres required
  • Setup can be a messy process
  • Extremely challenging and longer to change a tube
  • Sealant needs refreshing every three to four months

Tubular tyres

Tubulars are a one-piece solution that combines a tyre tread with an inflatable tube which is glued onto a tubular-specific wheel rim. ‘Tubs’ have long been the choice of professional cyclists, but then again World Tour riders have their own mechanics to go through the arduous glueing process every time a rider gets a flat.

Tubular tyre
Tubular tyres – although popular amongst cyclings World Tour riders they are not best suited for everyday triathlon. Photo: Glory Cycles, Creative Commons.

Once lauded for their superior rolling resistance and low total weight, clincher and tubeless technology has pretty much closed the gap. In fact, with tyre manufacturer Schwalbe announcing in 2019 that its tubular production would cease entirely, the days of the tubular seem numbered.

If you do get a flat with a tubular, it’s pretty much race over. A foam solution like Vittoria Pit Stop (also suitable for inner tubes) might let you limp back to transition, but after that, the tub will need pulling from the rim and put in the bin.

Pros:

  • Very light
  • Low rolling resistance

Cons:

  • It’s a long walk back to transition if you get a flat
  • Specific rims required
  • Tubs have to be glued
  • Limited availability
  • Expensive
  • Can’t fix a puncture on the spot

So which is best?

Of the three tyre options available to triathletes, a tubeless setup is a clear winner. Low weight paired with low rolling resistance plus added comfort and grip from lower tyre pressures covers all the performance angles for training and racing.

With the sealant’s ability to close smaller punctures – often without you even realising the tyre has been pierced – while also being able to use a boot or tube in worst-case scenarios, it’s also a very versatile choice that’ll add to your mechanical confidence during your triathlon. Of course, you’ll need tubeless compatible wheels and tyres for this to be an option in the first place.

Second place goes to clinchers. Low rolling resistance means great performance while changing a tube is usually pretty straightforward in case of a puncture. If you’ve already got a set of race wheels and don’t want to upgrade yet, clinchers are still a great option for both training and racing.

Last, and in this case, least, is tubular. The expense, inability to fix flats on the road and need to glue the tyre to the rim make it a bit impractical and a little outmoded in these days of tubeless technology and advanced clincher tyre performance – especially in triathlon where neutral support isn’t following in a motorcade.

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