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Tubular Tire Installation
Repairing a flat One of the most engaging people I met while working at The Bicycle Center in Santa Cruz, California, was Laurence Malone. A five-time national cyclocross champion and veteran of the Coors Classic and numerous other big-time bicycle road races, he’s also a gifted writer and story-teller.

My favorite yarn he told me had to do with bicycle tubular tires (also called “sew-ups” or “tubs”). Laurence was on a US team competing in a stage race in South America where the roads are sometimes hardpacked dirt with ravines on the sides. During one mountainous stage Laurence came hurtling down a hill, banked hard into a corner and rolled both tubulars off the rims.

Now, Malone is such a talented bicycle handler that he created a sensation in European cross events by bunny-hopping the 18-inch-tall barriers, something unheard of previously. For this feat, the Euros dubbed him the American Kangaroo.

But even leaping Laurence couldn’t remain upright when those tubs let loose. He fell onto his side and shot sideways toward the road’s edge and a cliff-like dropoff. Luckily, he stopped just in time to avoid the plunge and certain disaster. Naturally, he managed to get going again and finish the stage anyway.

At the race’s end he turned his mount over to team mechanic Bill Woodul (now in the US Bicycling Hall of Fame), who quite understandably, was mortified to hear what had happened. Thinking that it’s all just in a day’s work, Laurence was surprised by Woodul retort: “Laurence, there ain’t no way those tires would’ve rolled had I glued ’em on right in the first place!

There are lessons to be learned from this story. First: Bill Woodul was a stand-up guy for taking the blame. And two—what we’re concerned with here—tubular tires don’t always stay put. In fact, even in the Tour de France, the most important professional event, sew-ups roll. Which tells you that there’s a darn good chance that even if you do everything right, in an extreme-enough situation, such as bombing down an alpine pass, the sew-ups may still come off.

Your best chance of prevention is to follow a careful tubular installation procedure. Here’s what I recommend:

What You’ll Need:

  • good tubular tires (this is crucial because crummy tires can be very difficult to seat properly, often wear prematurely and develop glitches such as the base tape separating from the tire)
  • glue (clear or white glues are easier to use and less messy than red ones; my current favorite is Continental)
  • plastic baggies
  • used sew-up rims or wheels
  • bicycle cone wrench
  • medium emery cloth
  • acetone
  • spoke or piece of wire
  • flux brushes (available at hardware stores for next to nothing)

1. Stretching tires. Installing new tires is easiest if you stretch them first. A handy way to do this is to keep some used rims or wheels around to be used as stretchers. By storing new tires on rims, the treads will be ready when it’s time to install new rubber on your good wheels and you won’t have to wait for the new ones to stretch on your main rims. New tubs can be tough to put on rims.

Some folks recommend hanging the tubular over one shoulder and putting a knee through the bottom loop of the tire and then straightening your back as you push with your knee to stretch the tire (don’t overdo it or you may damage the tire). I prefer to grip the tire with my hands about a foot apart and pull to stretch that section. Then I repeat this around the entire sew-up. Either approach will make it easier to slip a new tire on a rim. If you have trouble getting the new tire on the rim, use the technique described in step 7.

2. Removing tires. Usually, tires can be removed by hand. If not, you may need to resort to tire levers, wiggling them beneath the base tape and prying to free the tire. Either way, be careful not to separate the base tape from the tire, which complicates removal and means extra work if you plan to use the removed tire as a spare. (The best glue for adhering loose base tape is liquid latex—but it’s getting difficult to find; try a carpet cleaner.)

3. Cleaning old rims. It’s almost never necessary to remove old glue. All that’s needed is a smooth, even surface for the new tire. A good way to shape the old glue and knock off any dried blobs is to mount the wheel in the frame (or a truing stand if you have one) and spin the wheel while holding the the curved end of a cone wrench on the rim. The wrench will act as a shaper and carve and clean the glue bed.

If your rim is caked with old glue you can chip it off with a scraper tool but it'll take a little time and focus. You can also chemically strip the glue but then be sure to get all the stripper off or else it may prevent the tire from adhering to the rim.

4. Cleaning new rims. The problem with just-built wheels is that there’s often grease or oil still oozing from the rim’s nipple sockets and this can compromise the rim glue’s integrity when you go to mount the tire. Avoid problems by donning gloves and thoroughly cleaning the rim surface with acetone, which cuts lubricants fast and evaporates immediately. (Work outside to minimize the fumes’ effect.) When the rim has been chemically cleaned, give it a light scouring by sanding with emery cloth, which will increase the rim’s purchase on the tire. Finish by cleaning it again with acetone.

You may want to give the tire base tape a little roughing up with emery cloth too, if it seems too smooth.

5. Gluing the rim. Place the wheel(s) in the bicycle frame or a truing stand. Open the glue tube by reversing the cap and pushing it back onto the tube to pierce the seal. Because glue can separate during storage, slide a spoke into the glue tube and stir well. When it’s mixed, carefully go around the rim and apply a dab of glue between each pair of spoke holes.

Then place your finger in a baggie and rest your finger on the rim while slowly turning the wheel. With a little practice you’ll get the feel for smearing the glue just right to leave an even coat that reaches from rim edge to rim edge. Wait about 30 minutes for the first coat to set up and apply a second coat of glue. Push the point of an old pencil in the valve hole to clean out any glue that’s there.

6. Gluing the tire. Lay the tire flat or suspend it so that part of the inside of the tire faces up with the tire resting on the bench. Carefully run a bead of glue about the diameter of a phone cord down the center of the basetape all the way around the inside of the tire. Use a flux brush to spread the glue to cover the entire base tape. As you did with the rim, wait 30 minutes and apply a second coat.

7. Mounting the tire. Don’t attempt to install the tire until the glue is tacky to the touch. Consider wearing cloth gloves to protect your hands and improve your grip. Work on a hard surface, wood or tile, something that won’t stick to the glue. Place the wheel upright with the valve hole facing up, the wheel resting against your shins. Hold the tire so that your hands straddle the valve stem, each hand about 10 inches away. Don’t touch the glue and keep the glued portion of the tire from touching the rim sidewalls.

Lay the tire over the top and front of the wheel and start installation by placing the valve stem into the valve hole. Now, simultaneously, push downward against the floor while gradually lifting and placing the tire on the rim as you work your hands away from each other and toward the floor. Put considerable downward pressure on the tire/wheel. The glue will act as a lubricant helping the tire stretch slightly as you push downward.

As your hands nearly reach the floor, push them toward each other with as much muscle as you can muster. Then lift the wheel and pop on the last section of the tire. If you’ve pushed down hard enough and followed this procedure correctly, there should be sufficient clearance and the tire will be easy to pop on the rim. Best, there’ll be no glue on the tire or rim sidewalls, because it is not easy to clean off.

8. Seating (aligning) the tire. This important step ensures optimum ride quality. Once it’s installed, inflate the tire to about 80 psi. As I said at the outset, quality sew-up tires seat without a lot of wrestling. There are two things you’re looking for: tread that runs straight when you spin the wheel and sight the tread, and even exposure of base tape on both sides of the rim.

For the latter, sight the bottom of the spinning tire and check that the same amount of base tape shows on both sides. Correct imperfections by twisting the tire at the areas that need alignment. Another method is to roll the tire on the ground while pressing down on the wheel with your body weight, which sometimes centers the tire with no further effort. When it's seated as perfectly as possible, let the tire sit for 24 hours before riding on it so the glue can dry.

More tips: Many sew-ups use removable valve cores (look for wrench flats near the tip of the valve), a nice feature because they can be replaced if they get damaged. If yours has the flats, it’s a good idea to check the tightness of the valve by turning clockwise with a small adjustable wrench. You may just prevent a slow leak.

For tall-profile aero rims (like so many of the carbon tubular rims), be sure to get valve extender adapters and install them on your new tubular tires before mounting the tires on the rims. That way you can test fit the tires and make sure the extenders reach far enough through the rims. Also, the extenders give you something to watch as you install the tires to make sure the valves are being installed straight, not crooked. And, you can inflate the tires and make sure the adapters work, too. Vittoria now makes a series of sew-up tires featuring interchangeable removable valves so you can switch out to their longer length if you need them and don’t mind paying a lot for 2 long valves after you’ve already shelled out a bundle for your new tires that accept the valves. Or, just go with Topeak’s, which fit all valves—even standard tube valves, and that feature O-rings for an airtight seal. They’re the best extenders I’ve used.

Vittoria Evo

 

Vittoria Evo valve extender

Topeak's excellent valve adapter

 

Topeak valve extender

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Preparing and Folding the Spare

If you’re new to tubular tires, don’t make the beginners’ mistake of carrying a spare tire and a tube of glue, planning to glue your spare tire onto your wheel on the side of the road when you puncture. The time to glue the spare is at home, before you do your favorite loop. When you have a selection of used tires, carry one of those because it’ll already have a coat of glue on it. Old cement, even if it appears dry, will bond with the leftover glue on the rim securing the tire and you’ll be back in the saddle in no time.

With a new tire, follow step 6 to prepare it for use as a spare but let the glue dry overnight. Then fold the tubular into a neat bundle for storage beneath the seat or in a bag. For a clean job, open the valve stem and start by holding the tire in two places and pulling it taut so that there are two folds with the valve stem at one. Holding it like this, lay it on a bench and ensure that the basetape is facing up. Carefully, roll the tire over on itself pushing out any air as you go. With a few tries, you’ll roll it up into a neat bundle with symmetrical overlaps. It’ll look so professional, you may decide to simply wrap it in the sports page of the Sunday paper and toe-strap it beneath your seat rather than stuffing it in a sock or bag. That way, your riding chums can admire your handiwork.