By Christopher Cudworth
If you ride a bike, sooner or later you’ll get a flat tire. Most recently, my rear tire picked up a 1″ screw that punctured the tube and buried itself deep along the wheel. I was wise enough to screw it out rather than yank it, thus preserving the integrity of the tire itself. But there was a cold wind blowing and it seemed smarter to call for a ride home than sit out there in the gathering chill and dark changing a flat.
Flats are a part of cycling whether we like them or not. Now that the Spring Classics are taking place in Europe, we hear tales of riders flatting on cobblestones and other conditions that beat the crap out of bike tires. It only makes sense. If all we’re riding is 15mm of rubber it makes sense that something bad’s going to happen sooner or later.
Changing flats is simple for some people. They take the practical engagement in hand and get it done. No sweat. For others (like me) it seems that every change of a flat tire brings new and not-so-exciting challenges that test both brain and soul.
Two seasons ago my tires were getting thin in mid-season from all the mileage I’d been racking up. That’s both a blessing and a curse. When the face of your tires starts to look flat you are definitely at risk for more flats. Yet we move on, seemingly in denial of this cogent fact. We hope against hope to get one more ride out of our worn out bike tires.
When they’re that thin, tires tend to get flat after flat, sometimes within one ride. My personal record is three flat tire changes in a single 40-mile ride.
About the third flat change you start to realize how dumb you are for not getting new tires. Yes, tires are expensive. Good bike tires run between $30 to $70 per tire. Seamless tires run $100. You have to be a masochist to want those.
You have to choose carefully what you ride. Real racing tires are naturally thin to cut weight. Otherwise you have to pedal that extra weight around the criterium or road race. But you sacrifice durability when you choose tire for less weight.
Yet I err on the side of tougher tires. Riding the roads or neighborhoods in training, you need solid defense against road debris, potholes and other things that can screw up your ride.
It’s a similar tradeoff to the one you make in choosing thicker padding for your running shoes. People who hate weight and thick rubber wear minimalist shoes. Yet that comes with a challenge if your stride is not optimally efficient. Then you absorb more pounding on the roads and trails.
With bike tires, it’s possible to purchase them with Kevlar rubber shields on the outside or inside. That adds a bit of weight of course. So bike tire manufacturers are constantly trying to find the right balance between protection and roll weight.
I have decided that less flats is far more important to me than less weight. My reasoning goes like this: Once you get rolling, the weight acts like a sort of Perpetual Motion machine. You’re just rolling along, right?
Of course that’s only true on the downhills. On the uphills you have to pedal every additional ounce of weight up the hill. That’s why cyclists strip themselves down to such light weights for every Tour. That’s why bikes are so light with carbon frames and aluminum or light steel components. It’s all about carrying less weight.
Well, I choose to live with a little less hassle over having the lightest wheels and tires on earth. Sure, I might finish my CAT 5 criteriums four places higher in the bunch sprint if I bought racing wheels and tires. But what’s the point? I race to test myself against others and for the thrill of riding in close quarters. When I nearly tee-boned a guy who fell around a corner it did not matter whether I had racing tires on or not. It was my goal to ride around him, not over him. Sure, I could spring for racing wheels and tires for $1000, but that’s half the cost of my actual bike. It seems extravagant for a 50+ rider to spend that much money at a CAT 4 or 5 level. It just seems silly.
So I purchased some cool new tires with bright red sidewalls to match my Red Rocket Felt 4C road bike. Trouble was, those tires were so stiff around the bead I could not get them on the wheel. So I turned to my cycling mechanic buddy Jack who agreed these were pretty tough tires to mount.
Even he pfffffed a tube because it got pinched in the last stage of putting the tires on. So it fell to me to put the other tire on at home. Based on what I’d learned from watching Jack, (who I’ve seen fix a flat in about two minutes during a ride) I did a better job this time fixing my own rear tire.
Really, you’ve got to look at your ineptitude as a source of comedy at times. That time I fixed three flats in a single ride? I finally ran out of tubes. That meant I had to call the wife of a friend to come get me. My wife was sick with cancer at the time and could not drive. So I
humbly called my friend’s wife to beg a ride home. I’d also forgotten to charge my phone and there was nothing but a red sliver of power left in the battery. I said, “Hi, this is Chris. My phone’s almost dead and I’m out of tubes. Can you come get me out on Burlington Road?”
Her husband is a longtime cyclist and one of my best friends. But he was out of town or we might have been riding together. But his wife knew to bring the bigger vehicle so we could stuff the bike in the back.
When I was all gathered up she turned to me and wryly said, “How’s it going?”
We laughed and I wiped the sweat off my face because it was really hot outside. My water bottle was empty but she’d thought to bring a can of something-or-other which I downed with gratitude. We talked about how the three flats was kind of an allegory for my life that year with job challenges, caregiving and trying to find solace on the road with my bike. And finding none that morning.
“Sometimes life just sucks,” she chuckled.
Or in the case of a flat tire, it blows.
Enjoy the allegories while you can, I say. Whether metaphorically significant or just the product of a screw on a dirty spring road shoulder, flats are what they are. They is what they is. They do what they do.
But it’s up to you to change that. Whatever rolls your way in life. You make the change and ride on.