The mountain bike is a rolling irony. It is built to be strong and durable, able to handle your weight, jumps, crashes, and tough obstacles like rocks, roots, and ledges. And yet, the part of the bike that actually touches the mountain — the business end of your bike — is invariably a thin, soft, and permeable slice of rubber.
At least, I think it’s ironic. Maybe it’s just unfortunate. That Alanis Morisette song screwed up my understanding of irony for pretty much ever, by going through a list of things that were clearly merely unfortunate and calling each of them ironic. Now I second-guess myself any time I call something ironic, for fear of pulling a “Morissette.”
No, I’m pretty sure I was right. A bike built to handle anything a mountain can dish out that ultimately relies on air and a flimsy patch of rubber is a reasonable example of irony.
OK, let’s move on.
Today, I have several random things to say about flat tires.
How to Make People Think You Are MacGyver’s Dumb Cousin
One of the first times I ever went mountain biking, Dug and I encountered a guy who was stuffing tall grass into one of his bike tires. “I read in a magazine that you can do this as a way to get your bike home,” the guy said. Dug and I agreed with him that this was a very clever way for him to repair his bike.
Then, as we rode away, leaving the young man to stuff his bike tire full of grass in peace, Dug looked me in the eye and said in a very serious voice: “Don’t ever do that.”
“Why, doesn’t it work?” I asked.
“I have no idea whether it works,” said Dug. “It doesn’t matter. It looks completely retarded.”
I Take Steps Toward Avoiding Flats
For years, I used one particular technique to avoid flats: I ran my tires at high pressure. While this didn’t do much for avoiding punctures, it did reduce the number of pinch flats I got (a pinch flat is when you hit something hard enough that your tube is pinched between your tire and rim, puncturing the tube with what looks like a snakebite).
Then I discovered Stan’s Notubes. Basically, this setup lets you convert a traditional wheel and tire into a tubeless wheel. A special rimstrip seals to your tire, and a small amount of liquid latex seals off punctures before the tire even goes flat. In theory, you’re protected from both pinch and puncture flats.
I remember the first time I got a puncture with my Stan’s setup. There was a brief “fizzt” as air escaped, a little liquid latex squirted onto my legs, and that was the end of it. The puncture was defeated. I never even had to get off my bike.
I was in love.
Or rather, I was in love until I raced the Tour of Canyonlands that year. On the first downhill, I hit a square rock, good and hard. The seal broke and all the air instantly burst out. I tried getting the latex to seal up again, but no luck. I had to remove the rimstrip, drain out the latex, and put in a new tube before I could continue.
By the time I was ready to ride, I was both in dead last place, and covered in liquid latex goop.
I Am a Slow Learner
Of course, a freak accident like this can happen once to anyone, right? So of course, I didn’t abandon the Stan’s setup.
Or rather, I didn’t abandon it until the exact same thing happened to me when I was racing the Brian Head Epic 100 later that summer. I’m not sure why Stan’s always chose to fail on me during races, but it did.
Stan and I are no longer on speaking terms.
Additional Observations on Getting Flats While Racing
I have never timed myself, but I’d guess that on an average day, I change a mountain bike tube in about seven minutes. I’m not particularly fast.
When I get a flat while racing, however, I work much faster, and therefore take approximately twice as long to fix the flat. My fingers shake with anger and adrenaline as I try to undo the zipper to the seatbag. I fumble trying to pull the tire off the rim. I forget to check the tire for thorns. I put the wrong tube — the one that I just pulled out — back on the rim. I put the wheel back on the bike backwards.
All while telling myself (out loud), “Be cool. Calm down. Take it easy. Clumsy oaf.”
As hard as I am on myself, though, I’m much harder on others. About 90 miles into the Leadville 100 one year, I came across a guy with his wheel off his bike, working on a flat. “Everything OK?” I called out, assuming it was.
“No, I need help,” he replied.
I stopped, asking him what was up. He had a flat and his pump was broken. I loaned him mine, then anxiously fidgeted for what was probably 15 seconds while he pumped. Then I jumped on my bike and said impatiently, “The pump’s a gift. I’ve got to finish this race,” and took off.
I can be a real jerk.
Road Flats: Not an Issue
I used to get flats on my road bike all the time. Since I’ve started riding on Specialized Armadillos, I have not had any more flats. At all (the flats I got on my fixie were with the tires it came with; the fixie now has Armadillos).
That said, Armadillos do have their problems: They’re heavy, they have poor road feel, and they’re difficult to get on and off the rim. I happily live with all those flaws, though, because I can confidently ride through broken glass, in fields of molten lava, and over tire shredders.
The Perfect MTB Tire Setup?
As Racer set me up with a loaner bike for the Leadville 100 last year, he told me he was extremely confident that I would not flat. The sweet spot setup, he said, is a tubeless rim and wheel (ie, a rim and wheel that are designed to be tubeless, not an aftermarket tubeless add-on), with a little Stan’s Notube goop rolling around inside, just to catch little punctures. And sure enough, I didn’t get a flat.
Which means, of course, absolutely nothing.
I would be willing, though, to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on an MTB wheel/tire combo that was light, had great traction, and practically never flatted. If such a thing exists.