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Commuting 101: Flat Resistance

by Richard Masoner

Most of use who regularly commute by bike have put up with flat tires. To avoid flats, a number of aftermarket products are available that promise to reduce or eliminate flats. They add weight to the outside of the rotating tire, but any time and energy lost while cycling is more than made up for in the time and effort expended in repairing a flat tire for those products that work well. I’ve tried most of these products and give my capsule notes below. Please feel free to comment with your own experiences with these and other similar products!

  • Solid or airless tires: This is the only puncture-prevention solution I have not tried. They’re often pooh-poohed by “real” cyclists. Among the few people I’ve know who’ve tried these type of tires, about half hate them, the other half love them. One of the solid tire loves is a friend who tours on Greenspeed recumbent trikes with solid tires! These generally are closed-cell foam in the shape of a bicycle tire. Sheldon says “stay away.” I trust Sheldon’s judgment, but like I wrote I’ve never tried but I’ve heard different things.
  • Plastic tire liners: “Mr Tuffy” is the brand name — I don’t even know if other vendors exist. These are plastic strips that you insert into your tire. It can make tire removal and insertion a little difficult, especially if your tires are already tight, but they work very well. I think the only flat I’ve had with a Mr Tuffy tire liner was when a nail went through the sidewall of my tire. Added weight is nominal.
  • Puncture-resistant tires: These are tires that are either lined with a puncture resistant material (such as Kevlar) or have extra thick rubber. The Kevlar-lined tires are comparable in weight to moderate-weight “training” tires, while those tires with extra material feel like I’m dragging a boat anchor around. Nonetheless, they do the job fairly well. I can’t run over bottle glass and nails with impunity, but they are able to brush aside punctures from the more common threats such as goat heads and automotive glass. I’m a big fan especially of the lined tires such as Specialized “Armadillo” line of tires.
  • Thorn-resistant tubes: These are inner tubes that are extra thick on the surface that’s against the rolling, outside edge of the tire. This is probably the easiest puncture resistance to add, and for many conditions these tubes are an inexpensive and effective remedy.
  • Liquid sealants: This is the gooey stuff you squeeze into your tube. You can also buy the tubes pre-filled with this stuff. I’ve only tried the “Slime” brand, though I know of at least one other brand. Some people swear by the stuff, but in my experience it’s absolutely worthless. It does nothing to prevent flats, and not only that when you do flat you have a gooey mess to clean off of your tube if you want the patch to stick.
  • Spray foam insulation: If you’re ever tempted to pump spray foam insulation from the home improvement store into your tube like I was once, DON’T!. It makes a big mess, damages everything it touches, and it doesn’t work anyway.

These days, I use puncture-resistant tires for my bikes, while my wife and kids have Mr Tuffy liners. They pretty much never get flats, while I still occasionally do. When they happen, my flats tend to be pinch flats because I neglected to keep the tire fully inflated. Where I ride, there are thorny vines, goatheads, and broken glass.

What puncture-resistance products have you tried and what do you like? Please share your experiences either in the comments or in a blog post of your own.

 
Burley nomad 229

39 Responses to “Commuting 101: Flat Resistance”

  1. jason says:

    I use Kevlar type tires on my commuter. I also try to ride in the right hand automobile tire track. I think I have had 2 flats in the last 12000 miles. The last one was then I was riding on the shoulder, in the dark. I ran over a small square of sheet metal with one corner bent up. I know this because I had to pull the thing out of my tire.

  2. Jen (SLC) says:

    I use Specialized Armadillo tires and Slime tubes on my road bike. Goat heads used to take me down, but now I just pull them out and keep on going. I haven’t had a flat since I started using them.

  3. Ed W says:

    A couple of other points about avoiding flats:

    Keep your tires inflated to the proper pressure. It helps to prevent pinch flats.

    As Jason said, ride in the right-hand tire track, not over against the fog line where all the debris accumulates. Likewise for wide shoulders or bike lanes. If it’s covered with debris, don’t go there.

    Avoid potholes, rough oblique railroad track crossings, or any longitudinal crack in the road that could slash the sidewall of a tire. Cross RR tracks perpendicularly if at all possible. And be VERY wary of streetcar tracks and bridge expansion joints.

    Remember where you saw that patch of glass today, because tomorrow little bits of it will be spread up and down both sides of the road.

    If you like to live dangerously, carry just one spare tube and a CO2 inflator. But if you’re the type who wears suspenders with a belt, carry at least 2 tubes, a patch kit, and a pump. Pumps are useful for thumping at dogs too.

  4. Mark says:

    I also use Kevlar reinforced tires on my commuter. I’ve tried Specialized Armadillos, Continental Gator Skins, and am now using Panaracer Pasela Tour Guards. The Panaracer tires are cheaper than either of the other two brands and I can put significantly more miles on each tire before replacement, the best of all worlds.

    One other flat prevention technique, run a bigger size tire. I see a surprising number of people commuting with 700×22/23c tires. You can significantly reduce your flat rate by going with a bigger tire. I’ve found 700x28c tires to be a good compromise between speed and durability.

  5. Red says:

    I agree with Mark, the 28c is the best for commuting: they last me almost a whole season, I change them only when I get too scared looking at them close-up (cracks and threads and SO smooth!), so generally I change my tires before they start puncturing. I use middle of the range tires, not even sure about what they are made of or if they have kevlar or bevlar or whateva!
    Another thing: I’ve noticed I mostly have flats when my tube bursts because I ran over some alien thing lying on the road (sort of big things like a bloody stone and such) or when I dive off a side-walk too hard for instance, so my advice would be: ride gentle over hard things or help your bike over with a smart yank on the bars.

  6. ScottG says:

    What’s a goat head?

    After every ride, I lift my bike up on each end and spin the wheels, checking that my wheels are still true. Then I gently rest my gloved hand over the tire to rub off any debris that might be embedded into the tire. That way it won’t work itself in further. Takes all of 30 seconds to do.

  7. Patrick says:

    A goat head, I’m assuming, is a big tough “sticker”, or seed, produced by Johnson grass here in Texas. They can puncture a tire easily. I use Armadillos also, have for years. I’m going to try those Panaracers though.

  8. Fritz says:

    Goatheads are the thorny spiky fruit of Tribulus terrestris, the dreaded “puncture vine.” Here’s a photo of my tire after it fell victim to the evil Tribulus vine.

  9. gazer says:

    I go for tougher tire, though my Conti Contact’s weren’t enough for this nail!

    I’ve never had one go through the tread and out the sidewall before. Yikes. Good thing was that it happened right next to the Caltrain station, and I hopped on board to finish the commute home.

    In general, I’ve been really happy with Kevlar belted (or similar) tires from Schwalbe and Continental. If you make sure that glass doesn’t embed itself in the tread, they’re pretty tough – except for the odd sharp nail, but that’s the first in 4 years on this route.

  10. Val says:

    Having lived with goat heads, and now riding in areas covered in broken glass, I am one of those who swear by tire sealant (whatever brand). I have frequently had the experience of riding along and hearing my tire recieve a puncture. The distinctive “pss, pss, pss” as the wheel rotates is hard to miss. As I start to look for a place to pull over, the sound stops. The hole has been sealed, and I ride on, having lost a few pounds of pressure, to be replenished once I arrive. It won’t seal everything, but it’s good for any holes smaller than 1/16″, at pressures below 90psi. I love it.

  11. Logan says:

    I run Armadillos and thorn-resistant tubes on narrow little 700x23c tires and part of my commute is gravel, and I haven’t had a flat in 2,000 miles. AND I run too-low tire pressure. Maybe it’s good luck, maybe it’s good karma, or maybe these products kick ass.

  12. John Comeau says:

    Hi Fritz, thanks for letting me know about the spray foam insulation. I was going to try it before buying solid wheels for my dirtboard.

    I have one old one-speed bike with the solid wheels for riding through the desert — nothing else will take the mesquite thorns — and the tires on my newer bike have so far resisted the stickers, and haven’t yet had a mesquite bite, so as long as they stay inflated I won’t mess with them. Agreed that the slime is useless in some areas, this desert included. I don’t mind the extra weight and loss of resiliency of the solid tires; I was told it would ruin the spokes faster but I haven’t experienced that yet.

    I wish someone would come up with a do-it-yourself kit to make tubes similar to the closed-cell “solid” tires.

  13. Pax says:

    My commuter bike is an upgraded Trek 820 MB. I’ve ridden the same set of Specialized Flack Jacket 26X2.0 tires for about 4 years through al sorts of road trash, potholes and glass with zero punctures. A very good product.

  14. Pax says:

    My commuter bike is an upgraded Trek 820 MB. I’ve ridden the same set of Specialized Flack Jacket 26X2.0 tires for about 4 years through all sorts of road trash, potholes and glass with zero punctures. A very good product.

  15. Mike in Florida says:

    I have never had a flat while riding. Ever, and I’ve been riding for 30. Now, I’ve woken up to flat tires, but never had a blowout. My commuter is shod with Panaracer Ruffy Tuffys. They are nice tires, but lifespan is pretty short.

  16. John Comeau says:

    Florida (at least South Florida, where I lived for about 18 years) isn’t particularly conducive to flats. On the other hand, I did get hit 3 times by motorists there. I think I prefer flats :^}

  17. Erik says:

    A cheap and dirty (but effective option) used by well-known local Charlottesville bike-nut/guru Todd, is to split an old tube down the belly (cut out the valve) and line the tire with the old tube before inserting the new one. There is some weight gain, but not significant, and there’s the added benefit of reusing something bound for the landfill. I’ve tried the trick on everything from a 26 x 1.5 to a 700 x 23 and have had one flat (pinch) in three years.

  18. Michel Phillips says:

    I started commuting on some old Kenda 26×1.38 tires my brother had lying around, with Mr. Tuffy liners. Repeated flats. After changing front AND rear flats within a mile one night — with my wife waiting for me to get home so we could go out to dinner — I spent the bucks on some 26×1.5 Specialized Nimbus Armadillos. Run them at 80 PSI, smoothish pavement-oriented tread. Only one flat in over a year, and that was a direct hit from a big nail. Highly recommended.

  19. Anthony says:

    I am new to raod biking and it seems that everytime I ride I get some sort of flat. This is so annoying, since I never used to get a flat with my mountain bike. They seem to be mostly pinch flats–riding through small pieces of debris, etc. What am I doing wrong? I have a Fuji road bike with slick tires, and I just ordered some Kevlar tires and thorn resistant tubes to go along with it. Should I be doing something else to prevent these flats? The tubes do indicate that they should be pumped to 120 psi, but how do I know that I have the sufficient pressure (feel, gauge)?
    Please help.

  20. Fritz says:

    Anthony, if you’re getting frequent flats your tires are probably underinflated. Any floor pump capable of going to 120 psi will have a pressure gauge on it. If you’re just using a frame pump or something similar you’re probably underinflating.

  21. Anthony says:

    Can anyone tell me how to inflate a Presta valve? I know that they require a different technique, but I having a difficult time inflating them. Without a gauge, can I tell (by feel) if the tire is inflated to the recommended psi?

  22. John Comeau says:

    I ordered some nu-teck (solid foam) tires for my bicycle trailer and installed them yesterday. Despite having the special $30 tool, it didn’t take long to get them on, and I’ll be testing them shortly. Very light-weight, well-made, and I expect to get years of good use out of them.

    Also, found this article for those who are interested: http://felixwong.com/news/2006/12/air-free-tires/

  23. Fritz says:

    Anthony, To inflate:

    1. Remove any valve cap if present
    2. Unscrew the valve by twisting the tip counterclockwise. DO NOT REMOVE THE TIP COMPLETELY!
    3. After the tip is unscrew, push down on the tip to let some air escape. This breaks the seal in the valve so you can inflate the tube.
    4. Carefully put the pump on the valve, following the directions for your pump (there are different ways to attach the pump)
    5. If you use a frame pump, be careful to brace the pump against your hand or other surface so the valve does not bend or break against the force of your pumping.
    6. Inflate tube. To inflate to 120 psi, you have to apply more than 120 pounds of pressure against the outside of the tire before the tire will deform. That usually means you can push your thumb against the tire as hard as you can with no deformation.
    7. Carefully remove the pump from the valve. Pull straight out so you don’t break or bend the valve core.

    Frame pumps are only for on-the-road repairs to get you going — some minipumps claim a max PSI of over 120 lbs, but you must pump *forever* to get much beyond 80 lbs. As the pressure increasing, you get diminishing returns on your pumping action with frame and minipumps. You really should invest in a frame pump with a gauge.

  24. Mark says:

    You might want to look at the Topeak Morph class frame pumps. They all have gauges and convert to mini floor pump. I’ve spoken to many people who had problems getting their tires up to pressure with other pumps and had no problems with these Topeak pumps. I have absolutely no connection with Topeak, other than I like these pumps.

  25. Anthony says:

    Does anyone have experience with using the small pressure gauges which measures air pressure in both Presta and Schrader valve tubes? I have used the gauge with success on the Schrader valves, but it is more problematic on the Presta valve. It seems as though the gauge does not seat very well against the valve. Any advice? Thanks.

  26. Michel Phillips says:

    Advice: Get a new pump. It will simplify your life. I have a Specialized brand floor pump with a built-in gauge. It has a “switch hitter” head, which means it works with Presta and Schrader valves with no adjustments, no settings to change, no parts to swap out. It cost about $40 at my local bike shop. Serfas makes a similar one, and other companies probably do also. I’ve never tried to go higher than 100 PSI, but it had no problem handling that. It’s a real headache-solver.

  27. Anthony says:

    I just purchased some puncture-resitant tubes,which are 4X as thick as traditional tubes, for my road bike, I have a race coming up in September, and I would like to install them. Is there a downside to using these tubes (i.e., will I lose speed in order to gain an advantage in terms of durability)? I also purchased some Kevlar tires as well. If I install the puncture-resistant tubes and the Kevlar tires simaltaneously, would that be overkill? Thanks

  28. jeff says:

    Have been commuting for about 20. Toured extensively. Tried everything. The ONLY flat-free product I’ve used are the Nu-Tecks. Used a kevlar/tuffy combo for years and while my flatrate was low they always seemed to come at the worst possible times/places. Mine are 700×35 110 psi rated. They’re slow, but sure. Each ride is a workout, no doubt. The next set I get will be 130-150 psi for less rolling resistence. Slickness in wet weather under load turned out to be unfounded or at least overblown. They’re no worse than standard pneumatics…just MY experience. No spoke breakage. Got them earlier this year an have put well over 3000 miles on them…under load in all weather. Getting a new set for winter so we’ll see how they act in the cold. Have a cycling buddy who’s gone thru a major flat streak and he’s going to get a pair for his trainer/beater. I think they’re great for commuters and would recommend them, but make sure your get ones rated at least 30-40 psi over how you run your pneumatics.

  29. Choke says:

    I’m using Slime tire liners and Nashbar self-sealing tubes. Had 3 staples on a piece of cardboard go straight into my front tire at the same time without a flat. It’s kind of tough finding liners & self sealing tubes with presta valves for the tires I use, 700 x 40, though. My girlfriend is using thorn-resistant, self-sealing tubes from Wal-Mart, and she hasn’t even lost air pressure in her tires in a few months. I’m seriously considering using Stan’s No Tubes for my 29er.

  30. Mark says:

    As a mountain biker in Arizona, I learned quickly I needed flat protection. After unsuccessful uses of tire liners (wore out tube, didn’t protect upper sidewall), thorn-resistant tubes (heavy, and didn’t give 100% protection against the thorns, broken glass, or cactus needles out here), and Slime tubes (heavy, yucky green stuff just didn’t seal well, I found.)

    I then tried Specialized presta sealant tubes with a much lighter white tire sealant. These weight only about what a thick, thorn-resistant tube weighs, yet unlike the latter, they actually work against big thorns. With a good kevlar-lined touring or thick MTB tire, these will hold air against all but large nails. Larger holes can be patched just like any other tube.

    My last MTB Specialized sealant tubes lasted 6 YEARS, that’s right, 6 years on my mountain bike before needing replacement.

  31. Dan says:

    What is the reason that spray foam doesn’t work? Is it tire pressure? I was looking to repair a rototiller tire that doesn’t need much pressure. It has been sealed to the rim prior to my ownership so placing a tube inside it is not an option. I have tried “Slime” to no avail. I figure that I only have one shot with the Spray foam though.

  32. Fritz says:

    Reasons spray foam didn’t work:

    * The spray foam seems to soften the rubber tube.

    * For on the road repair, there wasn’t a good way for me to remove the valve core to get the foam inside.

    * The foam doesn’t get distributed evenly around the tube — in fact, it just wants to squirt back out of the hole.

    In a workshop with tools you might have a little bit better luck. If you get desperate enough to experiment I’d love to know if you can make it work or not!

  33. George says:

    Air-less solid insert bicycle tubes really work. If you commute to work and must be on time they are a must have item.

    No matter how great the bike rider is any kid
    with a thumb tack can ruin your whole day with air bike tubes.

  34. Dan says:

    Well, it’s been 2 weeks and so far so good. I removed the valve stem and squirted the foam into the tire. I replaced the valve CAP to hold the stuff in and allow it to harden for a few hours. When I went back to see how it went, I removed the cap and the stuff squirted out at me. It was under pressure in the tire. If the crap set under pressure, it would set in the can. I let a fair amount of the foam out, replaced the valve stem and refilled the tire with air, replacing the cap. I checked on it yesterday and it was holding fine.

  35. Fritz says:

    Dan — photos!

    Is the tube hard now or is it still pliable?

  36. ohio biker says:

    I’ve had good experiences with my Serfas FPS tires.
    Since I’ve had them, I’ve not had any puncture flats.
    (I’ve had a couple of pinch flats, but those were
    my fault for not checking my inflation before
    starting a ride)

    I got a couple of thousand miles out of one of them.
    (The FPS was starting to show through!)
    Naturally the rear tire wears much more quickly
    than the front.

    I realize that nothing short of those solid closed
    cell foam tires, are really flat proof. I also
    realize that Kevlar or Aramid by itself will not
    necessarily protect from all insults. One critical
    item is how closely woven the Kevlar fibers are.
    If not closely woven enough, something could
    still poke through to cause a flat.

  37. Steve says:

    I used to use some lightweight wires which were lightly suspended from the brake mounting bolt by lightweight plastic tubing. They were curved to lightly sit on the surface of road bike tires as they turned and would remove any road debries with in a single rotation to prevent flats. They made a very slight rubbing sound when riding but had no noticable drag. I almost never had a flat when using these. Does anyone know where I can buy these? I tried kevlar liners, flat proof tubes, tough tires and they all create large degradations in performance do to the inertia they add at the outer rim.

  38. Gene says:

    I hate flats! I have tried solid tube. Don’t do it. I almost bent my rim trying to put it on. Also slime doesn’t work for me. It just makes a mess and doesn’t seal. lot’s of goatheads and junk where I ride. I like a combo of kevlar tires (I use armadillo) with tuffy tire liners. I tried thorn resistant tubes but they seem to get pinch flats more easily. This combo reduces flats but doesn’t eliminate them. Mostly I get pinch flats now. (I know, watch tire pressure.) But I am still looking for no flat nirvana.

  39. trevor says:

    SLIME worked for me -really well- in colorado where we have tiny thorns called “goat heads” – they embed themselves into your wheel and leave a tiny pin prick hole. But i’d guess for most types of flats slime isn’t as useful. BUT IT HAS ITS PLACE!

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