We all want to prevent punctures. The dull thudding sound, sluggish steering and sensation you’re riding through treacle is all too familiar to anyone who has ridden a bike for a prolonged period of time. You have a flat tyre, which will need attention if you’re to continue your journey. If you’re lucky this will be on a warm summer’s morning and you’ll have a puncture repair kit with you, armed with the knowledge on how to repair it. If you’re unlucky it’ll be dark, cold and a long way from civilisation with no obvious way to fix it. Even worse, this could be during an event.
This experience can be traumatising for some, I’ve even hear multiple people tell me “I used to love riding to work, then I got a puncture, and my bike lives in the shed now”. While we can never 100% guarantee you’ll be puncture free, unless you run solid tyres, there are some simple steps you can take to prevent punctures. Saving you money on tubes and a lot of time in the process.
Buy Better Tyres
This is the biggest single thing you can do to prevent punctures, buy a tyre with better puncture protection. Some tyres can be purchased which a gel inside of them (such as slime tyres), but they are so heavy and slow you’ll want to steer clear of them for serious cycling, so you should instead be looking at tyres with a protective bead.
Most brands will have a nigh on bulletproof tyre (such as the Continental gatorskin) and a super minimalist tyre with no very little or no puncture protection (such as the Continental Grand Prix Supersonic), and many shades of grey between. Many novice cyclists will want to go for the most puncture protection they can their their hands on, which is completely understandable, but it does come at a cost.
The cost comes in weight and rolling resistance. Weight is quite obvious, a 32mm Gator Hardshell weighs in at 445g, so 890g for the pair. Meanwhile the aforementioned Supersonic weighs in at 140g, or 280g for the pair, that’s a whopping 610g difference, or the equivalent of carrying an extra water bottle on your bike. While this won’t have a huge effect on your times, you’d definitely notice the difference if you rode the two back to back.
The second price you pay is rolling resistance, this is how much resistance is created as the tyre rolls down the road. Sticking with our two examples, you lose 19.5w through the Gator Hardshell and only 10.2W through the Supersonic. If someone offered you 10 extra watts to your FTP, you’d probably bite their arm off, so this loss is not to be sniffed at.
Finally, we have grip. Many tyres boasting high levels of puncture protection will be made with a hard rubber compound to make it harder for sharp objects to penetrate the rubber, before it even gets to the protective band under the tyre. This comes at the cost of grip, and you’ll have less confidence going into wet corners as a result. I’ve ridden with people who call Gatorskins as “skaterskins” based on their lack of grip in the wet.
If you are a new cyclist looking to compete in your first event and the thought of puncturing during the race keeps you up at night, then the gatroskins will be fine. You won’t be leaning into the corners fast enough to worry about grip, and an extra minute or two onto your finishing time isn’t going to be a concern, so this might be the right tyre for you.
If you are a high level cyclist looking for every possible gain, and will take your risks with the puncture gods for the possibility of a new PB, then the supersonic is probably the tyre for you.
However, the vast majority of us sit between these to categories. We want to avoid punctures, but not at the expense of performance. Over the course of a 180KM Ironman bike leg the chances are you’ll ride over something which will try to penetrate the tyre at some point, so don’t let the promise of low rolling resistance tempt you away from the pragmatic need for puncture protection. This is one of the few areas I recommend it’s worth spending a premium. Data on rolling resistance for individual tyres can be found at: https://www.bicyclerollingresistance.com/road-bike-reviews
Most bikes roll off the shop floor with very poor tyres on them, so I always recommend someone buys new tyres when they purchase a bike to avoid that inevitable puncture and frustrated trip back to the bike shop.
Replace your tyres when they wear
Like most parts on a bicycle, a tyre will wear and need replacing after a time. The rubber will be slowly worn away after hundreds of thousands of revolutions, and the compound itself will start to harden, creating small cracks which pieces of flint or glass can find their way into. Many tyre manufacturers have a wear indicator on their tyres, so make sure you replace them before they reach the limit. If not for puncture protection purchases, to stop the tyre failing dramatically on you at speed, which could result in injury,
Pull debris out of your tyres
Many sharp objects will find their way into the rubber, only to be stopped by the protective bead. This isn’t the end of their journey though, as there they will sit for the foreseeable future until you pull them out. Left unattended they may make their way through the protective bead slowly over many weeks, months or even years until they reach your inner tube and spoil your Sunday.
To keep on top of this, I recommend you deflate your tyre and check it over very carefully by eye, pinching it wherever you see a hole in the tyre to check if anything is wedged in there. If there is remove it gently with a small flathead screwdriver and fix the hole with a dab of superglue to prevent anything else making its way in there.
Avoid riding in the gutter
When starting cycling it can be tempting to push yourself as close to the kerb/verge as possible to stay out of the way of cars. I recommend against this for a number of reasons, partly because it makes you more likely to ride through pieces of broken glass, wing mirror or thorns which can cause punctures. As anyone who has ridden through Clapham early on a Sunday morning can attest, a lot of obstructions can find their way into the gutter so a wide berth should be given where possible.
I’m not advocating riding in the middle of the lane, but don’t be afraid to move a bit further out. It also prevents you getting squeezed by motorists, and gives you room to swerve if something appears in front of you.
Keep an eye out for hedge trimmings
In Britain we are lucky to have many of our roads lined with hedgerows, which local councils and farmers will maintain to ensure they don’t cause problems for traffic. This is normally achieved by driving a tractor with a special attachment along the road, leaving the trimmings on the road. This is necessary work to keep the road safe for all traffic, but the chances of thorns finding their way into the road are very high.
If you see lots of greenery on the ground next to a rather pristine hedge, it’s worth riding further out into the lane in an effort to avoid thorns where possible. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but it’s a sensible precaution to take where possible.
Be careful in wet conditions
While I don’t want to put people off riding in the wet as I think it’s an important part of a rider’s development, the likelihood of a puncture is increased. This is not only because the water can act as a form of lubricant helping a sharp object penetrate your tyre, but heavy rain also washes sharp objects onto the road in the first place.
There isn’t a huge amount you can do here except make extra sure you’re prepared to fix a puncture, and maybe take an extra spare tube.
Tubeless tyres do a great job at preventing punctures. They work without a tube (as the name suggests), instead simply using pressure to hold the tyre to the rim, with a thin layer of sealant inside.
This helps prevent punctures as if the tyre is nicked, the hole will fill with sealant (normally spraying some around for a couple of seconds in the process) allowing you to continue your ride as if nothing had happened. This is the perfect solution for many, so why don’t more people run them?
They require special wheels. While most manufacturers now provide a ‘tubeless ready’ wheel of sorts, if you bought your bike before 2018 the odds are it isn’t tubeless ready. You’ll also need special tubeless tyres. If you have a perfectly good setup and don’t have issues repairing punctures, it’s probably not worth the investment.
Tubeless is fiddly, no-one can deny that. You will need a special kind of pump which stores up air to blast into the cavity at high pressure and help the tyre sit on the rim. While an experienced mechanic can get them setup pretty quickly, the rest of us can spend a lot of time and curse words, on getting a tubeless tyre installed. You have to remove the tyre, scrape off the sealant and apply fresh stuff intermittently as well, so it’s not a fit and forget solution.
If the hole is too big to be sealed, you can find yourself in real trouble. If the hole punched through your tyre is too wide for the sealant to form a new seal, air and sealant will continue to pour out until there is nothing left inside the tyre and you’re left helpless at the side of the road. If you have an inner tube and the kit required you can install the tube as a get out of jail card. It’s worth pointing out that clincher tyres can fail on you in a big way mid ride as well, it’s just less likely.
Top up Your Tyre Pressure
When you hit a pothole your tyre is compressed dramatically. If you are running a low tyre pressure, this can result in your tube being trapped between the rim and the road. Thus will normally result in the rim puncturing the tube itself, giving you two large, parallel cuts in your tyre, known as a snakebite (or pinch) puncture. If your tyre has a good amount of pressure inside it, the chances of the rim making contact with the road (or the bottom of the pothole to be more precise) are drastically reduced.
This means topping the pressure in your tyres up at least once a week, to a pressure which works for you. Deciding on the correct tyre pressure for you is worthy of a lengthy article in itself, but it’s a tradeoff between an overly harsh ride from a high pressure, and the risk of snakebite punctures from a low pressure.
Remove the Source of the Puncture When Changing Tubes
If you suffer a puncture, it can be very easy to make the swap, hop back on your bike, then in a matter of minutes find yourself with another flat tyre. There is a tiny chance you’ve been catastrophically unlucky, but it’s more likely that you forgot to remove the cause of the original puncture. If a thorn has made its way through your tyre and pierced the tube, but you fail to remove the thorn, it’s only going to do the same thing to the next tube you put in.
To prevent this, when you remove the tyre, take the time to find the sharp implement. If you can’t see it by eye, you can try very gently running your finger over the inside of the tyre to see if you can find it. Every now and then we have phantom punctures where there is no evidence of the sharp object, but more often than not it will still be stuck in the tyre.
Ensure your Rim Tape is Sitting Properly
The rim tape is what sits underneath your inner tube, and protects the tube from being pinched by the spoke holes, which sit on the rim itself. If the rim tape isn’t sitting as it should be, this can expose the inner tube to the sharp ends of the spoke hole, which will inevitably result in a puncture sooner or later.
While I would dearly love to be able to provide you with a way to guarantee a puncture free cycling experience, it’s just not realistic. If you follow the above tips then with a bit of luck this should dramatically reduce the chance of you picking up punctures. If you suffer with repeated punctures, it may be worth taking the wheel to your local bike mechanic and ask them to check for any abnormalities, but more often than not, it’s simply the cycling gods taking exception to you.