Bike Tires and How to Fix Flat Tires

This is the second of a series of posts about mission bikes by Shaun Gogarty, founder of Pedal With A Purpose.

When the Rubber Meets the Road

Bike Tire photo by Mr. T in DCRecently I saw someone on a bike, in a white shirt and tie, cruising down the street all alone. It took me a while to realize he was a missionary, because his companion was so far behind him, struggling to keep up.

Was the one in front a “seasoned” and strong senior comp? Did the one behind have a crummy bike? Is an expensive bike better or faster? There are many variables in how fast you can ride a bike. But one often overlooked variable is the lowly tire.

Even if you aren’t a runner, you would undoubtedly see the flaw in running a marathon in a pair of boots. Unfortunately, when it comes to mission bikes, missionaries don’t seem to use the same logic when picking tires.

Road Bike Tires Will Be Best for Most Missionaries

Lets face it, mountain bike tires look cool.  The huge width and big knobs sticking out in all directions make your feel like you could ride over anything just like a monster truck. The problem is those monster trucks get about 7 miles per gallon. Similarly, when you ride mountain bike tires, they suck the “fuel” quickly out of you! If you need to pedal over the tops of cars, then a beefy mountain tire is great.  But most of your contacts are in a town, on a paved road.

Bicycle racers use narrow, almost smooth tires because they require less energy to pedal. A first look at a skinny road tire might make you wonder if it will even stay “attached” to the road.  In fact, it is more evenly in contact than the knobs of a mountain tire.  Additionally, the flex in a road tire as it hits the road is far less than the softer knobby tire.  This “stiffness” and “smoothness” allows the road tire to roll easier on pavement, taking less energy from the rider. The downside for a road tire is that they are typically a harder/bumpier ride (i.e. less “protection” for you and your metal rims).

One missionary summarized it best after riding a road tire and then returning to a mountain tire: “I felt like I was pedaling a tractor.” Ride the one that works best for you while keeping in mind your objectives. Speed comes in a smooth package while comfort will cost you some speed.

How to Fix a Flat Tire

  1. Patch or Spare: Patching on the go is painful, difficult and time consuming. Carrying a spare is really your best bet. But to save space and weight, just carry a “cheap” thin walled spare at all times. You can quickly pop in the spare and take the flat tube home for patching at a more convenient time. Of course, if you have slime in the tube then it can’t be patched – just toss it in the trash.
  2. Tool Kit: Your kit can basically consist of two tire “irons”. These come in all shapes, sizes and materials. While plastic is gentler on your rim, they can break. This is not a time to scrimp and the “right” tool only costs a buck or two more. So get a heavy, solid plastic lever. Most wheels are attached with a quick release requiring only your hand. However, some bikes have nuts and you need a small crescent wrench. One other tool is a pair of latex gloves. When you take a back wheel off you will get greasy. Shaking a new contacts hand with a greasy hand can make a real first impression.
  3. CO2 or Pump: You have the flat fixed, now you need air in it. While the number of available, cool little hand pumps is in the 100’s, they can all be ignored for one wonderful invention: the CO2 inflator. These use compressed CO2 (think paintball gun) to inflate your tire. Don’t get a fancy or expensive one. Buy one that uses non-threaded cartridges so you can buy a cheap box of replacement cartridges at Wal-Mart. Learn how to use it and it will take you 10 seconds instead of 10 minutes to inflate your tire.

Avoidance: How NOT to Get a Flat

missionaries-bikes-mapFlat tires are not too difficult to fix.  However, when your bike is your transportation and you’re dressed in a white shirt, repairing a flat is problematic.  In many parts of the country, flats are a rarity, while in other areas having some flat resistant method is mandatory. Waiting until you are in your mission to see what works well locally is probably your best bet and might save you money. However, here is a quick course on what is available. There are basically four techniques that can be employed to avoid flats:

  • Thorn resistant tires (not tubes).  Several companies sell tires made with materials that resist puncture (e.g. Kevlar).  They do work for most thorns but are quite expensive. One advantage over other methods is they are generally lighter than thick tubes and slime.
  • Thorn resistant tubes. They do help avoid flats from small thorns like “goat heads.” In combination with tire sealant they can be very effect, albeit quite heavy, in avoiding flats. When you put thick tubes and slime in big mountain bike tires you will definitely notice a weight increase.
  • Tire Sealant (e.g. Slime).  This is actually squirted into the tube (not the tire) and seals small leaks from the inside out.  It can be used with regular tubes but works better with thorn resistant tubes.  It adds significant weight and you cannot patch a tube that has sealant in it so you have to buy a new tube when the slime doesn’t seal a leak.
  • Tire liners.  This is a strip of plastic seated between the inside of the tire and outside of the inner tube.  In theory it should work, but often with riding they shift to the side of the tire and so punctures still occur. This is especially true with wider tires.

Regardless of the method, flats still occur. Always carry a pump, patch kit and spare tube and tools to fix a flat. And learn to change a tube, patch a tube, and properly place a tube, tire, and wheel on a bike BEFORE you are on your way to the most important meeting of someone’s life.

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