Punctures. Or if you’re American, “Flats”. Or if you’re superstitious, The Word That Must Never Be Spoken. (As in, “Hey, we’ve been out all day and we haven’t had a single punctur—- what’s that hissing noise?“) If there’s one thing guaranteed to give you a sinking feeling when you’re out riding your bike, it’s a visit from the Puncture Fairy.
Now, I’m not going to pretend I have the answer to avoiding punctures completely (though some folk do – we’ll come to that another time). Instead I’m going to share some ways you might tip the odds in your favour.
Here at Beano HQ in Hampshire, we’re in the heart of puncture country. All the that lovely rolling chalk downland comes with a price: an infinite supply of sharp fragments of flint embedded in the chalk, washed out of the fields into the road every time it rains. Each flint is a tiny spike waiting for the unwary cyclist. If there’s a way to reduce punctures, the locals round here have tried it.
In a later post I’ll cover ways to throw money at the problem, and I might even get around to how to fix things when all your preventative efforts fail anyway. Today’s ideas, though, are all free or low-cost. I am, as ever, indebted to Bicycle Beano founders Rob and Jane for some of the advice that follows. (Unless it turns out to be bad advice, in which case it’s mine.)
1. The tracks of my tyres
You know those cars you meet, driving down a single-track country lane on their way from nowhere much to nowhere else? Ever wondered what they’re doing there, and why they didn’t take the main road half a mile away instead? Simple – they’re performing a public service for cyclists. Next time one squeezes past you, give the driver a cheery wave and say “thank you”.
Car tyres are very cleverly designed. Any mud, stones and other detritus they encounter gets picked up and sprayed out to the sides. They’re like little street sweepers, leaving two smooth parallel tracks, free of thorns and stones, for cyclists to follow. Use those tracks. Do not ride in all that mud at the edge, and don’t ride down that grungy bit in the middle (you know, the bit with grass growing up through it). You will pick up far fewer sharp objects. On country roads especially, this is the single most important thing you can do to reduce your puncture rate.
2. Beware of the cycle path
Something that follows from the above is this: cycle paths are puncture blackspots, especially the roadside ones. All those stones, twigs and glass fragments being sprayed out by the car tyres? They’ve got to go somewhere. And if there’s a cycle path running directly alongside the road, that’s where they’ll go. Beer bottles get lobbed from cars into the cycle lanes. Tree branches fall into them. In towns, council road sweepers clean the main road surface at intervals, but they never touch the cycle paths. So the average cycle path will be littered with puncture-promoting goodies.
There are, of course, good reasons to use cycle paths, especially if the alternative is a busy main road. But don’t blame me if the Puncture Fairy is waiting for you.
3. Pump it up
Sharp objects aren’t the only way to get punctures. Pinch punctures happen when your wheel hits a large object like the kerb and the inner tube gets pinched between the tyre and the rim of the wheel. They’re often called “snakebite” punctures because they usually appear as a pair of parallel slits in the tube.
You can avoid most pinch punctures simply by making sure your tyres are pumped up properly. That makes the tyre less squishy, so reduces the chances of a pinch. As a bonus, you may also find your bike goes faster for less effort!
All tyres will have, somewhere on them, a recommended pressure, expressed in two different units: PSI and bar. Unfortunately this vital information is usually embossed onto the rubber rather than printed clearly, so you’ll often have to wipe down the tyre and peer at it intensely while shining a torch on it at different angles and muttering “this is ridiculous, I know it’s on here somewhere”. Some will give maximum and minimum values, others just a maximum. As a rule of thumb, for riding on the road you should make sure your tyre is at the “recommended” pressure, or if there isn’t one, within 10 PSI of the maximum. For comfort and efficiency, the best pressure will vary depending on how bumpy the road is and how much you weigh, but for puncture avoidance, you need it pumped up hard.
This means you’ll need a pump with a pressure gauge. I recommend buying a proper track pump – the kind that stands on the floor while you use it. You can get them for £15 or less, or better still, put one on your birthday present list. In the meantime, follow this simple rule: If you can press the tyre in with your thumb, it isn’t pumped up hard enough.
(This doesn’t apply to chunky tyres on mountain bikes being used offroad, but that’s another story.)
4. Let’s play Hunt The Flint
All right, so I’m getting slightly obsessive now, but a few minutes’ work can really pay off. Sometimes sharp objects get stuck in your tyre but don’t cause a puncture straight away. They sit there for hours or even days, gradually being pushed further in every time you ride the bike, until you suddenly end up with a flat tyre long after the incident that caused it.
So, after a ride (especially a mucky one) have a look at your tyres. If you find anything stuck in the tyre, prise it out. I find a very small screwdriver useful for this, but a carefully-wielded knife blade will work. (Probably not that thing on Swiss Army knives for getting stones out of horses’ hooves, though.) Try not to stab the inner tube while you’re in the process of saving it.
If you’re unlucky enough to encounter a lane where the hedges have been freshly trimmed, leaving sharp hedge cuttings all over the roadway, stop and check your tyres as soon as possible afterwards. (Better still, go down a different road in the first place. Or follow the car tyre tracks, where the thorns will have been squashed flat – see (1).)
5. Running repairs
Of course, once you’ve prised that flint, glass or thorn out, it will leave a hole in the surface of the tyre, just begging for another sharp object to find its way in there. You can strengthen your tyre and prolong its life by filling in these holes with a dab of super glue or similar. Some folk swear by “Shoe Goo”, the stuff runners use to repair running-shoe soles; I’ve had some success with this flexible super glue. Don’t worry about accuracy or smoothness: you’ll never notice any slight lumps and any excess will soon wear down to be flat against the tyre surface. Just remember to let it dry before you park your bike, or you might come out next day to find you’ve superglued your wheels to the floor.
That’s it for now. Next time: puncture-resistant tyres, slime, tyres with no innertubes and tyres with no air in them at all.