Having recently made the switch to tubulars on my geared bike (aka the coffee shop bike) I had been looking to build up a set of tub wheels for my fixed gear. I was nearly ready to order some rims, spokes and hubs to build up a handmade set. (I've been reading Jobst Brandt's wheel theory book.)
Imagine how stoked I was when I found a new, never glued set of Velocity, DT spoke, Formula fixed/free wheelset on the local Portland Craigslist. Bonus: it was $90! Actually, I drove over the guys house to pick them up and he knocked off another $10 for coming over. $80 for what I estimated to be a $300 set. Ironically, there was a price sticker on the wheels from River City Bike for $300.
Apparently, the dude won these wheels at cross race sponsored by RCB. RCB sponsors the famously popular cross crusade series here in P-town. He didn't want tubulars. I did. Fair trade!
I had been stretching some Conti Sprinter Gatorskins on another wheelset. I mounted those on the back without glue just to take it for a spin. On the front wheel, I mounted Schwalbe Stelvio tires, which was my spare due to a repaired puncture from last week.
I took it for a 30 minute spin around the neighborhood. I rode gently and took the corners nice and easy because again, there was no glue. But, about 30% of the holding power comes from the inflated tire stretching over the rim surface (with the remaining 70% of the grip coming from the glue's adhesion.) So this it totally doable unless you ride like a jackass.
I had been riding cheap Vittoria Zaffiros on my clincher wheelset. They are 25c tires and weigh a ton. When I got on the tub wheelset (same bike of course) the difference was noticeable within a couple of pedal strokes. Spins up faster. Soaks up bumps. Quieter. Best. Upgrade. Ever.
The amazing thing is how the tires make you feel like you are floating over rough roads. Whereas a cheap clincher tires uses thick casing that reduces the flexibility of the casing to deform over the rough stuff, nice tubulars have a more supple casing which allows the tire to deform locally over the imperfections in the road. In other words, tub tires act like suspension to greater degree than cheap clinchers. Caveat: keep in mind that clinchers have really evolved recently and a high quality open tubular constructed clincher (such as Veloflex and Vittoria Open Corsa tires) ride as well as tubulars.
I lost 600 grams of rotation mass with the new wheels and tires. Aside from the obvious benefit of having lighter wheels, tubular tires are rounder in profile so they feel better around the corners. On the other hand, tubular tires are not for the mechanically challenged or the impatient. It takes 3 days to glue, cure and mount tubs the right way. Any less time and the risk of rolling the tire off the rim during a high-speed corner is high. You have to carry a spare tub with you when you ride because a patch kit does not work since there is no access to the inner tube. These are considerations that must be evaluated before leaping to the world of tubular tires but in my experience there has been no greater upgrade than the performance and ride enhancing ride of tubular wheels and tires.
Jobst Brandt FAQ
Park Tools Tubular Mounting Guide