Handy Tips: Beating the Punctures

It seems to be a perennial problem these days, the prevalence of broken glass (or other detritus) on the streets and the subsequent punctures that can result. It’s a pain for the amount of inconvenience this causes, so what can be done to minimise the problem? (or deal with it when it happens…)

Dang...

Dang…

Step one is to try to eliminate the source of the problem from the roads and paths. Christchurch City Council has a regular programme of sweeping main cycleways, but of course it can never be everywhere at once. If you see glass or similar hazards somewhere in the way of cyclists, contact the Council to get it removed (see our previous post about this). If there is a particular safety issue (e.g. forces cyclists to swerve into traffic), let them know too so that they can make it a priority to sort out; they’re usually fairly good in this instance.

Keep a constant look out for glass, etc ahead of you when you’re riding; this is where a sunny day or good bike lights can help make it “shine out” more clearly. Near a construction site, the culprit may be more likely to be stray builder’s nails or screws. If you’re leading some others on a ride and you see some hazard, make sure that you clearly point and call out so that the following crowd don’t plough straight into it.

Note that not all glass is the same when it comes to punctures. If it’s toughened “safety glass”, say from a car window in a crash, then generally it shouldn’t cause too many problems. The main risk comes from ordinary glass of the kind found in broken bottles and side mirrors, which typically produce more hazardous shards.

Not what you want to see in front of you...

Not what you want to see in front of you…

Just to confuse you, some of the fancy new coloured surfaces also incorporate crushed glass or similar shiny aggregates in them. So while you might think you’re approaching a sea of dangerous glass on that green cycle lane, the “sparkle” is probably meant to be there.

So, other than trying to avoid the glass and stuff, how else can you prevent punctures?

    • The simplest precaution is to ensure that your tyres are always properly inflated. Many punctures are actually “pinch flats” caused by insufficient air pressure in your tube; they get squeezed in the wrong place on the wheel rim and… pop! They often look like snake bites, with two puncture holes side by side.
    • Sometimes sharp debris might stick to your tyre and then slowly work its way in later. So about once a week it probably pays to check over your tyres to remove any foreign objects that shouldn’t be there.
    • Rubber is also more likely to be cut (and debris more likely to stick) when a bit of moisture is present, so don’t be surprised if you seem to get more punctures when riding in the wet than the dry (seems like a Murphy’s Law).
    • If your tyres are starting to get thin with minimal tread left, then they’re at greater risk of letting something get through. So make sure you replace your worn tyres before it’s too late.
    • You could splash out on tougher bike tyres. There are all sorts of fancy Kevlar tyres and other toughened materials out in the market. You can even get tubeless tyres, so that you don’t even have to worry about a conventional “flat”. You just have to do the economics of whether the extra cost is worth the saving in time, hassle, and tubes…
    • If you find that punctures (or sometimes just slow leaks) are becoming an all-too common occurrence, consider simply getting some tougher inner tubes. A pair of “thorn-resistant” tubes or similar appear to be well worth the investment in reduced downtime (I’ve seen them for just $12-14 at K-Mart). Unlike my previous regular punctures, since I swapped my tubes to these, the only thing to defeat them has been a 4-inch builder’s nail! Even when glass has got through the tyre, the thicker tube wall often mean that it doesn’t get any further.
    • Still others swear by “self-healing” tubes, which are essentially goo-filled tubes that block up the leaks when there’s a puncture. I tried them once myself and didn’t find them particularly effective (and rather messy). But they might block things well enough to pump up the tyre again and get you home in time before they go flat again (I suppose the sealant leaking out could also be handy to help find the puncture in the first place).

    So if you do get a puncture, what are your options?

    • You could repair the puncture if you carry a little repair kit with you. Typically there’s a special “glue” and various rubber patches to put on the errant cut on your tube. Some now are even simpler, working like pre-glued “bandaids” to just stick on instantly (usually not as permanent as the traditional patch though).
    A conventional bike repair kit: tyre levers, glue and patches

    A conventional bike repair kit: tyre levers, “glue” and patches

    • You could swap out the damaged tube for a spare one. I usually carry a spare tube in my pannier, as well as some tyre levers to get the tyre off and a pump to get it pumped back up again. If time is of the essence, this is usually quicker than repairing the existing tube (which you could do later from the comforts of home). And by the time you’ve put the fifth patch on the same tube, it’s probably overdue to replace it anyway…
    • If you’re really short of puncture-fixing gear on you then I’ve heard people try using newspaper or even grass as a temporary filling in the tyre to at least get home…
    • If you’re near a handy bus route, you could just call it quits and put your bike on the bus rack to get you home or to your destination. Sometimes it’s just easier…
    • If you’re not prepared for one of the above options, then steel yourself for a long awkward walk with your bike (punctured tyres never roll well…), or hope that you can get hold of someone who can give you and your bike a lift. Hmm, I’m an AA member; I wonder if their breakdown service would pick me up…

Now obviously if you’ve never tried to change your tube before or mend a puncture then some practice might be in order before needing to try it out for real in the field. There are a few fiddly bits to getting a wheel off from under the brake-pads and possibly a chain as well. Thankfully there are lots of helpful guides on the internet, like here and here. So study up and have a go; with practice, changing a tube can be less than 10 minutes work.

{Or you could come along to one of the ICECycles bike maintenance sessions and the friendly folk there can help show you through the basics…}

Watch out for the “gotcha”s with punctures, e.g. make sure that whatever caused the puncture in the first place is truly gone from your tyre (hint: a small rag is probably better than your unguarded finger for checking for stray shards!). And check that there isn’t more than one entry wound; if you rode over a real minefield of sharp stuff it could be that you’ve been stung multiple times. Also be careful about using tyre levers to put a tyre back on the wheel rim (could pinch it); sometimes it’s safer to just use your fingers.

After all this advice and the best precautions in the world, sometimes punctures still just happen, that’s life. It’s a small (and hopefully rare) price to pay for the benefits that cycling brings!

 What’s your top tips for dealing with punctures?

 

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4 Comments

  • John McD.
    1 July 2013, 9:30 am

    Great tips, and might look out for the ‘thorn-resistant tubes’ (bit like the never ending gob stopper perhaps?)

    Would also add, to check that a repaired puncture is really fixed. I recently had three in a row, and eventually discovered a piece of glass embedded in the tyre that wasn’t apparent when checking the tyre. So, when you get a flat, find the cause before taking the tyre and tube off the wheel – if it’s not obvious pump the tyre up and mark where the air is coming out and have a good check inside and out of the tyre and tube. Lessoned learnt the hard way!

    REPLY
  • Richard H
    1 July 2013, 3:17 pm

    I would advocate going down the puncture resistant tyres route if you can afford it. I run a CC 26″ fully suspended bike and like to run as narrow a tyre as I can and unfortunately they don’t make thorn proof tubes below 1.9. My first pair were 26×1.5 Armadillo’s and they were a good tyre but after about 4 or 5 years (around 6500km) the sidewalls perished and then as the tread wore out they started to delaminate. I had been running good old CST road tyres before that and after having 10 punctures in a year I thought I would change. I only had one puncture with the Armadillos and that was a piece of wire. I went to some super light Maxxis Detonators (26×1.25) after that and in the 18 months (3900km) I had them on, they lived up to their name “Detonator” I went through 4 tubes and about 5 kits worth of patches! But they were a fast grippy tyre, my worst two trips I punctured twice, the last one both at the same time! I am currently running Schwalbe Marathon Plus 26×1.35, I have punctured once with them so far (metal spike through the side wall), but I am quite happy with them as they seem to be able to shed glass splinters and so far my weekly glass check hasn’t turned up any embedded nasties. On the down side they are a bit on the heavy side, their shape leads to a funny feeling when turning in and you do give away a small amount of grip. Like the Armadillos they are very stiff to get on and off the rim and their construction lends them to seat them selves on the rim, so they can put up a fight and be a bit frustrating if you are taking them off and on regularly. Overall they roll very well (the part I was most concerned about coming from a road bike style tyre) and provide a comfortable ride for a high pressure tyre.

    REPLY
  • Megan
    1 July 2013, 9:21 pm

    I agree with Richard about the tougher tires, the Schwalbes Marathon Plus are good and so are the Continental Touring Plus. If you have a road bike for commuting the Maxxis Re-Fuse are pretty good too. They are more expensive but pay for themselves in the convenience of avoiding punctures. You can get cheaper CST tyres with kevlar strips as well if your budget won’t stretch to the touring tyres.

    When I get a puncture, I will often inflate the tube leaving the valve still through the rim and see if I can find the hole. Then because I know where the tube lined up with the tyre as a reference point, I know where on the tyre to look for the offending piece of glass. I’ll also turn the tyre itself inside out in that area and check for any splits or holes in the inner surface. If you squeeze the tire you will also see any holes or splits from the outside. It’s important to check for the cause of the puncture as if it’s still there it will puncture the replacement tube!

    Be careful running your fingers over the inner or outer surface as those bits of glass or wire can puncture you!!

    If I’m forced to run over glass, I’ll often stop and check my tyres as sometimes you might pick up a bit but it won’t work its way through straight away.

    After my last puncture I replaced my standard tyres with Conti Touring Plus and haven’t had any more. On my previous commuter bike with fairly light Maxxis Detonators I added some of the tubeless tyre sealant used by MTB to my tubes and this seemed to work. You need removable valve cores for this though – with standard tubes this means the schrader or car valves as most presta aren’t removable.

    I carry a spare tube, levers and pump to get me home or to where ever I’m going.

    REPLY
  • ****ing Andrew
    1 July 2013, 10:09 pm

    I’m smitten with my Kenda Kouriers, they had much the same air in them for thousands of kms until I recently swapped the half worn rear for the front, High pressure and great traction in all conditions.

    REPLY

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