There's nothing much worse than a puncture to ruin a bike ride, whether it's commuting to work in the rain or a leisurely Sunday ride in the hills. Is it possible to completely avoid punctures? In truth, not really, but there are some things you can do to try and minimise the opportunity for a flat tyre to ruin a bike ride. Here are some tips from the road.cc staff.
Not all bicycle tyres are created equal. Some are designed to be light and fast, some are designed to resist punctures and be durable. Whether you’re riding a carbon race bike or a commuting bike, fitting a pair of tyres with some sort of puncture protection can be a really good step towards minimising your chances of getting a flat.
Puncture resistant tyres are manufactured with materials designed to prevent the penetration of sharp objects, like glass or flint, from slicing through the tyre rubber and reaching the inner tyre. A layer of Kevlar or similar tough material is added to light road bike tyres, and when weight is less of a concern (such as for commuting and touring) an extra layer of rubber is added under the tread.
Puncture resistant tyres will carry a bit of a weight penalty, but if you want to avoid flats, it’s a small price to pay.
The reason you get a puncture is the inner tube being pierced by a sharp object cutting through the tyre, like a nail, thorn or piece of glass. Remove the inner tube and there’s nothing to puncture. Better still, replace the inner tube with dedicated sealant, which can plug smaller holes, and you can virtually eliminate flat tyres. Cars and most motorbikes use tubeless tyres (without sealant) and it's becoming more popular in the road bike world.
Going tubeless can involve a bit more of an upfront investment. You need tubeless compatible rims and tyres, but increasingly new road bikes are coming with tubeless-ready rims, so you might just be a tyre upgrade away from going tubeless. With special valves and a bottle of sealant and a bit of know-how (read this guide) you can ditch the inner tubes for good.
We’re big fans of tubeless here at road.cc - numerous members of the team have done entire winters without any flats riding tubeless.
Inner tubes can vary a lot, from super light latex inner tubes to chunky butyl inner tubes. Butyl tubes are more common, but they’re not all made the same. Regular ones commonly use 1mm thick rubber, but super light versions can reduce the rubber thickness down to 0.6mm, but along with the reduced weight comes an increased risk of puncturing.
Some people claim that latex inner tubes can actually prevent punctures because the material can deform around a sharp object.
“The latex stretches and deforms around the body which is trying to penetrate the tube instead of it trying to resist the body and shortly after being punctured through,” says tyre manufacturer Challenge. “The highly elastic latex material is much more difficult to puncture.”
Latex tubes lose air pressure and need regular topping up, though, and while they are much lighter than butyl tubes, they're more expensive, and there’s no guarantee they’ll prevent a flat. For everyday riding, you probably don’t want fewer punctures to come at the expense of daily inflation.
Another option is to use inner tubes filled with sealant. The liquid contains small rubber particles that dries on exposure to air. It works a bit like a tubeless setup, but the inner tube is filled with the sealant, so easier to fit and less mess involved. There is a weight penalty though. There are some aftermarket products like Slime (tested here) but if you have inner tubes with removable inner cores, you can add sealant to regular tyres.
This solution does add weight to the entire wheel but if eliminating punctures is your key priority, it might be the right solution for you. It would be a good step for daily commuting and touring bikes, where weight isn’t such a high concern. Partner with puncture resistant tyres and you have a pretty good puncture prevention setup.
What if you remove the air cavity in a conventional pneumatic tyre setup completely? Some companies have dabbled with solid tyres in the past, with varying levels of success, and so far they’ve not really offered a serious rival to the performance and cost of regular tyres and inner tubes.
Tannus is one company that is investing in the technology, and we have been impressed with its most recent tyre which offers a surprisingly good ride performance. Fitting is more complicated than regular tyres and makes tubeless look a doddle. But there’s no way of puncturing a solid tyre, so for a commuting bike, a solid tyre offers some advantages.
It’s worth checking the pressure in your tyres. Are you running your tyres too soft? A very soft tyre is more likely to puncture when riding over a rough road and it’s possible to pinch the inner tube between the tyre and rim if you hit a pothole with sufficient force. In mountain biking, this is called a “snake bite” because inspection of the inner tube will reveal two neat holes either side of the inner tube.
The maximum* tyre pressure will be printed on the side wall of the tyre - if you pump them up to that you'll at least know they are not too soft. Having a pump with a pressure gauge is any easy way to ensure the tyres are suitably inflated. Pressure gauges are pretty cheap and a good investment if you do a lot of riding, and removes the guesswork.
(*Not to be confused with the optimum or recommended tyre pressure - sometimes the max tyre pressure and the recommended pressure - the pressure at which the tyre performs best - are the same thing, but often they're not. In terms of a road tyre you won't go far wrong if you pump them up to 100psi and you can easily go 10psi less with a tubeless tyre… That's the potted version, in truth the subject of optimum tyre pressures is a whole other feature.)
If you don’t have a pressure gauge, press the tyre firmly with two thumbs.You can tell pretty easily if it feels too soft by how much you’re able to deform the tyre.
When’s the last time you checked your tyres? A worn tyre is more likely to puncture because there’s less rubber tread on the tyre. Some tyres have wear indicators (small holes) so check these regularly, especially if you do a lot of miles every week, to ensure you’re not riding with worn out tyres.
It’s also worth checking regularly for flint and glass embedded in the tyre. There are two schools of thought on whether you should leave or remove any objects in the tyre. Some say once an object its embedded in the tyre, it’s unlikely to puncture the tube, but some people say you’re just playing the waiting game until it bites the inner tube.
We prefer to remove any we find. Use a pair of tweezers to remove any objects embedded in the tyre and discard in the bin. If any big holes are left vacant, get some superglue and carefully fill the hole.
Avoid riding over gravel or other debris on the road and definitely avoid riding over broken glass. Also, avoid riding through puddles where possible in case they hide potholes. Don’t ride in the gutter of the road as this is where much of the debris lurks that could puncture a tyre as passing cars tend to push all the gravel, grit, flint and thorns out to the edge of the road.
Don’t ride in the rain
You might notice you get more flats in the rain. This is because rain acts as a lubricant and helps flint and glass to slice through the rubber of a tyre. You also tend to find that debris from the gutter of the road and the hedgerows gets washed out into the bit of the road you tend to cycle along.
It's that combination of rain and debris in the road that is the reason you tend to get more punctures in the winter.
We’re joking. Well, half-joking. I know somebody who managed to get a puncture on the turbo trainer (no idea how) so even in the safety of your own living room, you’re never far from a puncture.
Never ever mention the word puncture if you’re about to set off on a ride, or during a ride. Don’t joke about how you’ve not had a puncture in months because next thing you know you’ll be stood by the side of the road fixing a flat. Best just to avoid all talk of punctures and instead talk about the weather or something.
While you can take some prevention against a flat tyre, it pays to be prepared and always take one or two spare inner tubes and a decent pump with you on a ride. You might want to consider a couple of inner tube patches as well, especially for longer rides in bad weather. A small saddle bag can easily be stuffed with enough spares to get you out of a spot of bother and not add much weight to the bike.
Got any good tips you use to avoid punctures?
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.