The Bulging Tube

My wife’s bike needed some attention. It’s an old steel hybrid, but she rides it like a road bike — sort of. Anyway, it gets a lot of use.

Lately, I’ve noticed that the tires were showing signs of wear. Heavy wear. They’re excellent tires — an “urban” model called the Session by Fyxation. It’s just that when the bike is ridden as much as hers is, the center tread wears out, and a flat spot appears all around the circumference of the tire. I rotated the back to the front and vice-versa, but then she got a puncture in the front tire. It was worn past the point of replacement. I paid a visit to the bike store where I had bought the tire.

Sure enough, none were in stock. The alternatives the sales person suggested were too race-oriented. I ordered a replacement tire and waited. About a week later, it was in.

Some tires, when they’re new, are the uncooperative sort. That was the case with this one. Those last three to five inches over the rim refuse to seat. I did what you’re not supposed to do — I used a tire lever to get the bead over the rim, checked the seating, and pumped it up.

Or at least, I tried to pump it up. Sure enough, the tire lever had punched a small hole in the tube.

I retrieved another tube from the garage and started the process again. This time, it took even longer, because I was determined to get the bead seated only by using my fingers. Finally, it was there.

Again, I tested the bead to make sure it was in properly. I pumped the tire to 30 pounds and carefully checked it again. Then I pumped it up and put it on the bike.

A few days later, my wife went for a ride in the middle of the day (She works from home — she can do that). I figured that since the tire survived its shakedown cruise, things were well.

Saturday, we decided to get in a quick morning ride before the weather turned foul Sunday morning. I got the bikes onto the driveway and pumped up the tires of my bike. Hers, I let sit. Based on my past experience, her tires wouldn’t need topping off for another week.

I stood in the driveway with my bike, watching the comings and goings at a garage sale down the block while I waited for my wife to finish getting her helmet and shoes on. Suddenly, the peace of a Saturday morning was shattered by a loud bang! At first, I thought the sound had come from somewhere else. But then, I glanced at her bike. Three inches of tire bead were outside the rim.

I brought the offending wheel and tire into the kitchen. “The ride will be delayed,” I said. “Your tire blew.”

“Oh, I was going to tell you about that,” she answered. “When I was riding the other day, I noticed the tube sticking out from under the bead.”

Since she had made it home, she didn’t consider the situation to be too serious. But I showed her the ruined tube, with a half-inch hole where it had blown out.

I retrieved another tube from the garage. This one had been patched, and when I pumped it up, air escaped from a weak seal on the patch. Another trip to the garage for another tube.

As short as her ride had been the other day (less than 10 miles), it must have had the effect of getting some of the stiffness out of the tire. The tube went in easily, and I had little trouble getting the bead over the rim this time. After two or three checks to make sure the tube was staying where it should, I pumped up the tire (a little less than normal) and we set out on our ride.

Except for being cut off twice by impatient drivers who think it’s just fine to stick their cars out into the bike lane when bikes are coming at them at 15-20 mph, the ride was uneventful. I hadn’t had to deal with a tube that peeked out from the rim in almost seven years, so this was a good reminder that those things can always happen.

But I reminded her that whenever she sees a tube sticking out from under the tire, that means there’s no ride in store, and she should have me fix it right away.

Wide Tires

Jan Heine, the publisher of Bicycle Quarterly, has a blog called Off the Beaten Track. In his current post, he discusses a favorite subject of his: wider tires. The question is, how wide is too wide?

Heine has done research into tire width and performance. “It’s a well-established fact,” he writes, “that wider tires roll faster than narrow ones.”

These Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires come in sizes from 25mm to 45mm.

These Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires come in sizes from 25mm to 45mm.

When comparing 21 mm tires to 23s and 25s, he found the 25 mm tires are fastest of that group. Going up in size, he compared 26, 29 and 31 mm tires on a super-smooth asphalt road, and found no difference in their performance. The 31 mm tires were no faster than the 25s, but they weren’t slower, either. On rougher roads, the wider tires rolled faster.

There has to be a point at which the width of tires becomes a hindrance. If so, Heine hasn’t found one up to 42 mm tires, which he informally compared to 25s, and found the wider tires ran just as fast. Even 42s don’t appear to be too wide, he says. And wider tires than that just won’t fit most bikes.

So, if wide tires roll as fast, or sometimes, faster than narrower tires, why don’t more cyclists use them? They’ve got advantages besides speed. They give a smoother ride. They use lower pressures, so can resist flats better. They’re safer, because they’re less likely to be caught in a crack or a railroad track. And because they handle rough roads better, they might even encourage cyclists to ride roads that might be avoided with narrow, high pressure tires.

I run 25 mm tires on my bike. I prefer them to the 23s I used to run, mainly because they’re a little more comfortable. I inflate the front tire to around 95 psi, and the rear tire to a bit over 100. They are noticeably cushier than the 23s I had, which had much higher pressures.

I’d love to try wider tires, but the fork of my road bike is narrow at the top, and the 25s are probably the widest tires I can fit. As I look ahead to what my next bike might be (not that I’ll be buying a new bike anytime soon), I think I’ll find something that can take wider tires.

How about you? Do you run tires wider than, say, 25mm? How do you like them? Would you recommend them to other riders? Where is the advantage — speed, comfort, or flat resistance?

Tire Talk

I’m enjoying riding on a new purchase. I finally had to give in and buy a new rear tire. And in doing so, I decided to change my tire arrangement.

For a long time, I’ve been running a Continental Gatorskin 25mm on the rear, and a Vredestein Fortezza SE 23 mm on the front. The reason for this mismatched pair is my basic cheapness. That, and the fact that the Vredestein refused to wear out. It was only after I hit some bad debris that left a noticeable gouge in the front tire that I decided it was finally time to retire it.

That Vredestein — well, I’ve talked about them before. I really liked its unexpected ability to resist flats. That wasn’t one of its selling points when I bought it, but it turned out to be the best thing the tire had going for it. Problem was, it took fairly high air pressure. I ran 120 lbs. in the front tire, and the sidewall said it could take pressure up to 160 psi. But even at 120, the tire rode harshly on the  chip seal roads we have around here. It was not pleasant.

So I decided to replace the Vredestein with another Gatorskin. I run those at 100 PSI, and the ride is better cushioned that way. As you’re already aware, I’m a comfort-seeking rider. Cushioning is important to me.

Now, in keeping with my tight-fistedness when it comes to buying most anything, I shopped around for the best price I could find on a Gatorskin. It’s a fairly pricey tire, but a place I’d bought them before at a good price came through again. Pro Bike Kit of England was carrying Gatorskins at $32, and free shipping to the United States. That’s even less than I paid for Gatorskins at Pro Bike Kit a few years ago, ,when I was pleased at the low price they offered then.

One difference I’m really liking with the 25s on both front and rear is better handling. The wider front just seems to be more stable to me, and I’m attacking curves with more verve than I have done in some time. Maybe it’s just the newness effect — similar to the feeling you get when you finally wash your car. We all know a clear car performs better, right? Hey, I’ve experienced that first hand.

I’ll be watching the Gatorskins to see how well they hold up. While I like their flat resistance, they have tended to wear out sooner than other tires. Will they be able to match the Vredesteins for long life? The front tire that I finally replaced last week was first mounted on my bike in August of 2011. When I retired it, it had 6,748 miles on it. I doubt the Gatorskins will last that long, but you never know.

Patch Party

After my flat tire disappointments the last two weekends, I decided it was time to take action. So this evening, I spent some time at the kitchen table with a couple of patch kits and a pile of tire tubes.

I don’t mind patching tubes, it’s easy enough to do. And I don’t mind riding on them, either. I have in the past ridden on tubes with as many as four patches, and that held together fine. Some biking acquaintances tell me they’ve put on even more — one guy said he was happy riding on a tube with a dozen patches.

It turns out I’ve been slipping in my repair routines. I had several tubes in boxes — not their original boxes — stacked in a cabinet in the garage. I’d marked the condition of the tube on each box, so I was able to grab a new tube to replace the one that flatted on me Sunday. But I like to keep a stock of patched tubes handy. Several of the boxes indicated that their tubes needed patches. Wonder why I didn’t attend to that some time ago?

I carefully examined each tube by eyeball — then inflated them and took them over to the kitchen sink, which I had filled with water. One by one, I submerged the tubes to find the telltale trail of air bubbles that indicated a leak. Some of the leaks were so tiny, they were hard to see — even after the bubbles told me where to look. That’s what happened with the tube I used Sunday. I patched one puncture, but missed another one altogether.

I hope my efforts have paid off. I’ve got a new tube in the tire of my bike, and a freshly patched tube in the seat bag, ready for use in the future if I need it. And in that cabinet, three other patched tubes in their boxes — labeled “OK.” I hope they stay that way.

How Long Do Your Tires Last?

Thinking back to my experience with buying a new tire, it occurred to me that I had had really good luck with it. According to the maintenance spreadsheet I keep (admittedly nowhere near as thorough as my mileage records), the rear Vredestein had never had a flat. That’s right, never. I retired it because the tread was showing a section about six inches long with thin sipe-like cuts in a diagonal pattern. It was just a matter of time before I wore the tread through to the bare cord — and then I would have a flat.

That’s what happened to the previous Vredestein I’d had on the rear, although I hadn’t been inspecting the tread as assiduously as I do now. It wore down to bare cord in two spots, and I had two flats in two weeks.

Still, that tire lasted me 2,627 miles before I replaced it.

As I said in the last post, its replacement rear tire lasted 3,053 miles.

One of my previous Gatorskins, which I retired in 2010 in favor of the Vredesteins, did even better. It had 3,487 miles. Impressive!

Those multi-thousand mile tires were a nice change of pace for me, because I had had a run of blah to bad experience with tires before then. My spreadsheet shows me that the first two Gatorskins I bought lasted only 1,240 and 1,453 miles before I had to chuck them. And before the Gatorskins, I had a series of tires that just didn’t hold up. Some Hutchinson 25mm tires flatted within the first two weeks I owned them. The Kevlar belt wasn’t much help there. I believe the Hutchinsons barely lasted 1,000 miles before I got rid of them. Some Vittorias were even worse. I had the Rubino Pros. Their tread wore a flat spot rather quickly, I thought, at least on the rear. It was obvious when I ran my thumb across the tread — instead of being a nice convex shape, it had definite edges and was flat in the middle. I had the Vittorias for less than 1,000 miles. Ditto with two different kinds of Specialized tires I owned early on. The Mondos that came with the bike flatted frequently, and I replaced them after just a few months with Specialized All Conditions. But I had a bad blowout on one of those after only a month.

Now, I think I’ve gotten smarter when it comes to taking care of tires. I do inspect them more frequently than I used to do before, but more importantly, I deliberately ride away from problem areas in the road — sand, gravel, glass, other crud. It seems like a no-brainer, and it probably is. But I believe I used to ride through gunky spots more often than I do now. A combination of better riding habits and better tires seems to have contributed to what I consider to be decent tire life.

But is it? Is 3,000 miles a commendable life for a road bike tire? Should we expect no more than 2,000 miles, and be ready to replace when the tires hit that mark? Or should we reasonably expect lots more mileage before it’s time to send the tires to the recycling bin?

What kind of mileage have you gotten from your tires? What kind are they?

Trying to Buy a Tire

My trusty Vredestein Fortezza SE rear tire finally started showing signs of terminal wear last week, and with two longish rides coming up over rough chip seal roads, I decided to get a replacement. I’d been runing 23s, but this time I wanted a 25 for two reasons — the wider cross-section gives better traction, in my estimation, without sacrificing any speed, and they can be run at lower pressures, which means a more comfortable ride.

Problem is, when I hit the bike shops to buy a new tire, the lack of selection flaggergasted me. Here’s a blow by blow account:

Performance: We’ve got a Performance brick and mortar store that’s only a year old and quite nice. Although I wanted 25s, I would have gotten another Fortezza SE, but Performance doesn’t stock them anymore! The other tires they had were all 23s. They stock Continentals — Ultra Sports, Grand Prixs, but no GatorSkins. I moved on.

Bicycle Sports Shop: The big daddy of Austin bike stores has a meager selection. It did have some 25mm Specialized Armadillo tires, which are also renowned for their puncture resistance. But I’ve read that they are noticeably heavier and slower than other tires, and I’ve had some unfortunate experiences with Specialized tires in the past. Still, I decided to come back and get one if my search elsewhere didn’t turn up anything.

Jack & Adams: This store is right around the corner from Bike Sports Shop. It’s a small, cramped place that caters to triathletes, and it was packed with people when I stopped by. If anything, their tire selection was even smaller than the other places. I moved on quickly, figuring I’d head for one of the bike shops up around the university. But first, I remembered that an REI store was on the way. I stopped in.

REI: The well-known outdoors store had a big sale on, and was even more packed than Jack and Adams. In the bike area, I found a big selection of wire bead tires, not so much in folding. The wire beads were either 28mm or 23s. I noticed some brands, such as Serfas, that are not carried in other stores.  I saw a 23 mm folding bead Gatorskin, but also an empty hook labeled with 25 mm Gatorskins. A sales man was nearby, and I asked him if they might have any 25s in stock. He said he was headed back there to check on a tube, and he would look. A few minutes later, he was back — and he had the 25. Since I have an REI membership going back to the 1980s, I got a nice break on the price. The $52 I paid at REI was much lower than the $75-$80 the same tire went for at other stores.

I was happy with my purchase, although I knew that I could have gotten a better deal online. What was bothering me though, was that the tire selection at prominent bike shops wasn’t all that good. Surely not everyone who rides a road bike mounts 23mm tires. And not everyone rides on Continental Grand Prix 4000s, although I know them to be excellent at flat resistance, too — but for $80 each, I wasn’t planning to confirm that on my own.

I floated the idea of tire selection the next day on our ride. No one seemed too concerned — maybe they just hadn’t had to deal with an immediate tire need as I did. Jerry, probably the most experienced biker in the group, said he used to get his tires online from Pro Bike Kit — the big British mail order house. “Now, though, I just do a Google search,” he said, “and I buy from whoever has the cheapest.”

I had a great experience a couple of years ago with Pro Bike Kit myself. Gatorskins for $36 and free shipping to the U.S. Now, they’re up around $46, which is still less than I paid for mine. But I tried Jerry’s strategy, and found Gatorskins for as little as $36 on eBay, at the “Buy It Now” price.

“I usually buy a couple long before I need them,” said Jerry, “and I just keep them around until I do.”

“I don’t think that far in advance,” I told him.

I can see I’m going to have to start. While I was caught a bit unaware of my tire’s current state until I happened to do a close inspection last week, I knew it had racked up a prodigious amount of miles — well over 2,000. (Turns out when I checked, the true total was 3,053!) I think whenever a rear tire gets over 2,000 miles on it, its replacement should be ordered, if not fitted right away. By the way, I’ve had the front for a month longer than I had the rear — that’s 11 months now — and it’s not ready to be retired yet. I have had an excellent time with the Vredestein tires. I just wish 25s were more readily available.

I guess I have plenty of time to scout online deals for one.

Sticky Tires

I was out for a ride with Mrs. Noob the other day. We were doing a Mopac loop, which is fast becoming an unfavorite of mine after riding it lo these many years. It’s just getting too busy. Traffic whizzes by, faster than ever, and thicker than ever. The shoulder is consistently covered with grit and gravel. And yet, it’s a traditional biking route around here, so it’s something most of us do without even thinking about it.

Anyway, I was tootling along, out in front of Pat by a good margin, when I noticed something odd about my front tire. It appeared that something was flapping on the tread with every spin of the wheel. I was concerned, because it looked like a flap of tire tread. And with the poor condition of the road’s  shoulder, I wouldn’t be surprised if something had cut it. It occurred to me that rather than keep riding on a potentially dangerous tire along an  increasingly dangerous road, I’d better check it out.

I slowed to a stop, liften the front wheel off the ground, and spun it slowly. There it was — it wasn’t a flap of rubber at all, but a pebble stuck to the tread. (I use the word “tread” advisedly, because the tires I run have no tread — they’re slicks. But I mean the center of the tire where it contacts the ground.) Somehow, I had picked up a spot of road tar, and it in turned picked up a sharp-edged pebble. I flicked the pebble off the tire with my fingers, and saw that it left a depression in the rubber, but hadn’t cut into it or, more importantly, pushed all the way through it. I gave the wheel a gentle spin again, and found another pebble — smaller this time — embedded in the tire exactly opposite where I’d found the first one. Because of it’s smaller size, it hadn’t made nearly the mark on the rubber as the other one. But two in one go — yech!

By this time, Pat had caught up to me, and I told her what happened. Her tires do have a tread design, and from time to time I have used an awl to pry small stones from it. She shrugged and said, “Well, no harm done,” and pulled around me to keep riding.

When I got home, I grabbed a rag and rubbed the tar hard, trying to make it disappear. My efforts weren’t 100 percent successful, but at least I haven’t picked up anymore potential flat makers.