Thursday, October 28, 2010

Oh No! A Flat Tire!

A commenter mentioned in a previous blog that one of the reasons women may not feel comfortable using a bicycle as a means of transportation is mechanical failure: what happens if you get a flat far from civilization?

Having the luck of the Irish on my side (my right side, actually) I have been extremely lucky to never have suffered a flat on any of my commuting or pleasure rides. I did have a few flats at work, but they are very rare. However, those times that I have flatted, the situation was easily remedied. (I am absolutely positive that I have jinxed myself and will have no less than 8 flat tires this week.)

Fixing a flat is fairly easy, but its one of those things that you don't realize HOW easy it is until you actually do it yourself, and that's the problem. I remember when I was in a bike shop last year (I am not going to mention the name),  a young woman came in and asked if someone could show her how to fix a flat tire. She didn't have a flat tire, she was just trying to take the initiative and learn how to do it herself in case she did end up with a flat tire in the future, and I could sense that she was a little intimidated. The shop refused and instead pointed her to a bicycle maintenance course that she could pay for.  This was a fairly busy bike shop (although, I think I was the only other customer there at the time), and I understand they don't have the time to demonstrate a flat tire fix to every customer, and that they make money on the courses they offer. However, she just wanted help with one particular task, and I could see the frustration in her eyes. I wouldn't doubt that she never returned to that particular shop. It makes me wonder how many other women out there go through the same thing. The only reason I know how to fix a flat tire is because I was lucky enough to have a knowledgable cyclist take the time and show me (and lot of trial and error on my part).

Bicycles are pretty simple, yet fascinating, machines. Keeping them in good working order is also fairly simple, and I hope to outline a few basic mechanical stuff that may come in handy. Today's topic will be flat tires.

It's a good idea to keep a few simple tools with you so you can make basic repairs while you're on the go. My little bike kit contains:
-Multitool (Betty is a nuts & bolt bike and doesn't have any quick releases, so this is a must)
-Patch kit
-Extra tube
-tire levers
-small handpump
-small flashlight
-small penknife
-sharpie (for marking leaky holes!)
-a few zip-ties
-band-aids and alcohol wipes for boo-boos.

Here is a hastily taken photo of my my portable bike kit.

All of these items can fit into a small bag (I just use a ziplock bag) that you can carry with you. Bike shops also sell small bags that you can attach to your bike (usually under your saddle) so its unobtrusive.

At home, I have a small tool collection that I add to whenever the occasion calls for it. Right now it contains:
-A bike stand (this is a little pricey, but it makes doing home repairs sooooo much easier)
-Floor pump
-Extra tubes
-Pedal wrench (I had to change a broken pedal on one of my bikes, this made my life so much easier)
-zip-ties in various sizes and colors
-extra hex wrenches
-more tire levers
-bike grease
-chain lube (wet & dry)
-drivetrain cleaner (sooooo worth the money. I will explain what this is in a future post)
-extra rags
-various extra parts that I've collected along the way

Do you need to buy all of these things immediately? No. I collected these over time depending on which repair I had to make. I do recommend at least picking up tire levers and a few extra tubes for your tires. Very few of those tools I listed are for fixing flats. At the very least I suggest getting tire levers (they are cheap!), a patch kit (also cheap!) and an air pump (depends on what kind you get).

Books I recommend:

-The Chainbreaker: A Rough Guide to Bicycle Maintenance. Besides being a pretty good how-to book, there are also some really interesting stories as well. I love this book.

-ParkTool's Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair: Basically the Bible when it comes to bicycle repair and maintenance.

I also recommend The Bicycle Tutor website for good basic tutorial videos!

Flat Tires

I recommend getting a cyclist friend to show you in person if you happen to have someone handy. Nothing beats learning how to do it than actually doing it, though. So if you happen to be bored one evening and have a little time on your hands, practice! I find a beer or two to be immensely helpful as well. You won't break anything, I promise. And if you do manage to mess it up, you can always patronize your local bike shop and they can show you how to fix a flat while they do it for you. They appreciate your business :)

First, a clarification on terms: Tire refers to the rubber thing that actually touches the road. Tube refers to the inner tube that is between the tire and the wheel, which you inflate with air. Wheel refers to the metal round thing that the tire sits on, and the Rim is the side of the wheel. Got it? Good. Oh, let's not forget the valve either. It's that little metal thing that you attach an air pump to get air in.

Step one: Flip your bike over (or mount it in a bike stand if you have one handy). Slowly rotate the flat tire and examine it. If you can see what caused the flat (i.e. nail, glass, etc) is still in the tire, see if you can carefully remove it.

Step Two: Let out the remaining air. If your tire still has some air in it, go ahead and empty it out. Usually you can just press on the valve (that little metal tube that sticks out of the inside of the wheel where the air goes in) and the air will come out.

Step Three: Remove your wheel. This is probably the trickiest part. If it's your front wheel  than it should be fairly easy. If it's the rear, you just gotta maneuver around the rear derailleur a bit. This is where practice makes perfect. Most bikes use quick release skewers rather than nuts & bolts nowadays. This video is pretty instructive if you have no idea what I'm talking about. Sometimes you may have to also unhook the brakes to get the wheel out. This is pretty easy depending on what type of brake you have. I've found that as long as I let all the air out of the tire, it will slide out without having to unhook the brakes. Folks with disc brakes don't need to worry about this.

Step Four: Loosen the tire from the wheel. This is where your tire levers come in handy. Basically you insert one lever between the tire and the rim, lifting the tire lip over the rim (giving you a bit of an opening). Then you can slide another lever in that opening, and then slide it along the entire rim, lifting the rest of the tire lip over the rim.  You don't have to actually remove the tire, just make it so you can get to the tube inside.

Step Five: Grab the tube and pull it out. Mind the valve! It will come out with the tube.

Step Six: I call this the "Blood Test". If you didn't find what caused the flat the first time you visually examined the tire, you need to make sure that whatever it was isn't still inside the tire. If you've left the tire on the wheel, you can do this by feel. Simply (and slowly) run your fingers along the inside of your tire to feel for any pieces of glass or other sharp objects. If you're fingers come back bloody, then you know you found your culprit. HA! Seriously, be careful (this is what the band-aids are for!). You want to make sure that whatever caused your flat in the first place won't cause another one when you fix your tube!

The rest of the steps depend on whether you are going to fix that particular tube or just replace it with a new tube. For purposes of this post, I'll assume you are going to fix it. There are times when simply replacing a tube is just easier (i.e. its dark/rainy out, you just don't have the time or the tear is not fixable).

Step Six: "Over"-inflate the tube. (You did remember to bring a pump or CO2 canister with you, right?) This will make it easier to locate where the leak is, because you can hear the air leaking out. If you can't locate the leak by ear, you can submerge the tube in water and find the leak by where the bubbles are coming out. Once you've located your leak, mark it with your marker (you remembered to bring that too, right?) so you'll know where to place your patch. Let the air out of the tube again.

Step Seven: Use your patch kit (you did pick one up, right?) These come with directions, but in case you lost yours: use the little piece of sandpaper to scrub the area around the leak (this helps the patch to stick).  Then apply the glue to your tube around the leak. WAIT. You need the glue to dry before you slap on the patch. This takes about five minutes. Remove the patch from the backing (the clear plastic stays with the patch for now). Apply the patch over your leak. Press really hard on it. Standing on it is even better. Hold it for at least a minute. Now you should be able to peel off the clear plastic from the patch. If the patch comes off with the plastic, you did something wrong. Try again, but better! Re-inflate the tube to make sure its no longer leaking air. Voila! You have patched your very first flat.

Step Eight: Oh wait. You need to get that tube back in the tire. So go ahead and let out the air from the tube. Not all of it though. It makes it easier to maneuver the tube back under the tire if there is at least a little bit of air in it. Put the valve stem through the hole in the rim, then tuck the rest of the tube back between the tire and wheel.

Step Nine: Using your fingers, work the tire lip back under the rim. This can be a real pain in the ass, especially towards the end. You can use your tire levers to help you out, but be careful that you don't pinch the tube between the tire and the rim.

Step Ten: Put your wheel back on. Remember what you did to get it off? Do that, only backwards. Make sure your quick release is secure! If you unhooked your brakes, make sure you rehook them!

Step Eleven: Inflate your tire.

Step Twelve: Take a step back and admire your handiwork. And your grease covered hands/clothes. You did it!

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but with practice it will become second nature.

Of course the best course of action is to prevent getting a flat in the first place! A combination of careful riding and good tires can help. First, watch out for glass and other debris in the road.  Slow down around potholes and bumps.  You can also buy special tires (like Armadillo tires) that are puncture resistant. I have these on my work tires, and I'm always riding around in crappy alleys and rarely get a flat. They contain kevlar, so it makes the tires a bit stiffer to work with when it comes to changing them, but I like them. You can also purchase tire liners as well.

Always check your tires before you ride. Riding at the correct tire pressure will not only make your ride easier and smoother, but prevent you from getting pinch-flats or doing damage to your wheels. Tires naturally lose air over time. Just give your tires a squeeze before you hop on. The walls of your tire should be pretty stiff with very little "give" to them.

And that's that, when it comes to flats.

Next time, I'll go over some basic preventative maintenance stuff (like chain cleaning/lubing).

P.S. I really wish this post had more pictures.


  1. For me, changing the flat is the easiest part, putting the tire back on the bike is what kills me. Granted, I don't have quick release tires (a security measure) but it's incredibly frustrating to have to line the wheel up perfectly with the brakes. If you're even a little bit off, you can have a frustrating brake situation.

  2. For me too! That is a tricky part. I'm envious of those people that can get a wheel on and off in seconds.