cycle performance: how to prevent flat tires during your bike ride

Flats happen. But on the road or on the trail, you can do your part in preventing, by being more aware of why punctures occur. Then your riding will have fewer surprises out on the road and trails, with fewer stops to repair a flat.

Punctures come from a variety of sources and can have a distinct characteristic. Not all punctures can be avoided, but by identifying the type you have experienced, you can take preventative steps to avoid them in the future. Here are the most common types of punctures and some ways to prevent them:

Punctures from debris.

Glass, thorns, nails, and other sharp objects penetrate the tire and puncture the tube. These are self-explanatory, and sometimes, even with the best preventative measures, still happen to the best of us. Your best bet is to avoid riding through debris and inspect your tires regularly. Remove any lodged-in objects that can work their way through your tire and puncture it. If you live in an area prone to punctures, like the southwest (goat head thorns) or an urban area with rough pavement and broken glass, you can increase puncture resistance with a tire liner, liquid sealant, or puncture-resistant tire (many cyclists combine all three!).
Preventative action: Use tires, tubes, and/or products with more puncture resistance; avoid riding in areas with sharp debris.

Pinch flats (Snake Bites).

This flat is identified by one or two distinct puncture marks on a tube, as if it were bitten by a snake. These are usually caused by striking something like a pothole or curb with low tire pressure. The tube becomes pinched between the tire and rim from the abrupt impact, puncturing it. These punctures are usually located on the side or top area of the tube. Most people replace their tube after experiencing a snake bite, but sometimes a high-quality patch can allow the tube to be reused.

Preventative action: Keep your tires properly inflated to the recommended pressure printed on the tire sidewall.

Sidewall cuts.

The sidewall of a tire is not designed to contact anything, and is not durable like the tread of a tire. Many times this type of damage unknowingly happens when a cyclist loads his/her bike onto a vehicle, or leans it against something, like a curb, bench, or wall. The sidewall is generally made thin to keep the tire light and supple for good ride characteristics. Unfortunately with sidewall cuts, once they happen, there is no suitable repair. The tire will need to be replaced.

Preventative action: Avoid tire sidewall contact with sharp or rough objects.

Rim punctures.

A hole or cut on the inside of the inner tube, where the tube contacts the rim inside the tire. Causes include: a sharp edge or burr on the rim; an improperly installed or poor-quality rim strip; a spoke that is too long (sometimes more than one).

Preventative action: Inspect the inner area of your rims and sand/file any sharp edges or burrs; use high-quality rim strips that fit your rims properly and are sufficient to handle the maximum pressure of your tires; use proper length spokes or grind down excessively long spokes.

Blowout or Blow-off.

This is where the tire bead blows off the rim. Avoid using lubricants for high-pressure tire installation, like talcum powder or soapy water. Yes, they make them easier to install your tires; they also make them easier to remove, or blow off the rim. Blow-off’s can be frightening to say the least. Most are caused by incorrect tire installation, especially with high-pressure road tires. If the tire bead is not seated evenly, the pressure will push off the tire bead, resulting in a bulging, burst tube. Boom!

Corrective action: After installing a tire and tube onto a wheel, partially inflate to a point where the tire holds its shape on the rim, but the tire bead can still be easily manipulated by hand for adjustments. Inflate to 10-20psi, spin your wheel, and inspect for high/low spots. Hand-adjust by squeezing/pulling the tire on the rim until the bead is seated properly and the tire spins true. If you cannot adjust the bead by hand, release air pressure until you can. Spin again to check it. Only when a tire is seated and straight should you fill it to full pressure.

Even with all the preventative measures taken, flats still happen to the best of us. Keep in mind, as a tire becomes more resistant to punctures, it generally becomes heavier and less supple. Increasing puncture resistance can compromise performance. The key is finding the tire setup for your riding style.

If you do have a flat during your bike trip to Italy, check out the Bike Shop section to find a location near you for supplies.