Roadside Repairs Part 2: Fixing a Flat

author : BGTwinDad
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In part two of this series of common roadside bike repairs, we show you how to fix a flat tire. Though if you're lucky, a bicycle repairman will wheel by at just the right time.




Either way, you're stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire. Now what? If you're close to home, you could just walk (I've done that), or if you have a cell phone you could call for a ride (I've done that, too). You could also stick out your thumb, but that could be dangerous (this one I haven't tried). If you're lucky, a bicycle repairman will wheel by at just the right time (I've not been this lucky yet).

There are only two types of cyclists: those who have flatted, and those who will. Even so-called flat-proof tires can be cut by a sufficiently sharp piece of metal or glass. So, you might as well learn how to fix that flat.

Now, there are literally dozens of articles – several right here on – that will tell you how to change a flat. Some of them even have video. One of them was written by me. What's unique about this one? We're going to talk through how to do it where you're most likely to need to: on the road. So, here we are. Tire is flat. You're late. It's probably either blazing hot or pouring rain. Cars are whizzing by. What do we do?

Before You Go
An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Before you even leave the house, there are several things you can do to help prevent flats and to make the repair process easier. First, make sure your toolkit is packed. In Part 1, we reviewed the ten essential things to be carrying with you. Here, we'll be a bit more specific to flat tires, and add a few items that are nice to have. My recommended toolkit for flat repair is (in no particular order):

  1. Pump and/or CO2 inflator (your preference)

  2. Tire levers (2)

  3. Spare tube (or two)

  4. Dollar bill

  5. Patch kit

  6. Presta/Schrader adapter (if using Presta-valved tubes)


Make sure that if you are carrying a spare, it is the right size and has the right type valve for your rim. The last time I got a flat (thankfully at home!) I discovered that my spares were tubes for my wife's bike - too big and the wrong valve. Had I been out on the road, I would have been stuck!

Some cyclists swear by the self-sealing goos like Slime. I have two reasons to be less fond of this technology. First, the goo can tend to clog the valve stem, making it difficult to inflate the tube. Second, if the tire is cut instead of punctured, the goo can leak out of the tube. If this happens while you're rolling, the goo can slosh out between the tire and tube, creating a really messy situation when you try to fix the problem.

What I am in favor of is Kevlar-reinforced "flat proof" tires. And, of course, knowing how to fix a flat when it happens. Sure, Armadillos or Gatorskins are heavy and have high rolling resistance, but in training or utility cycling, who cares? It'll just make you stronger, and keeps you rolling longer. Come race day, you can switch to your super-speedy Michelin Pro Race 3s and fly. Since the tires roll differently, it would be a good idea to do a few practice rides to make sure you understand how your bike will handle. "Flat proof" tires aren't perfect, and they won't completely eliminate your chances of getting a flat, but if your goal is minimizing the number of times you'll need to re-read this article, they work very, very well.

Of course, once you're comfortable fixing flats, they become merely an annoyance, so you can go ahead and run your racing tires if you like, and simply fix the flats when they happen. So, just print a copy of this article and roll it up in your seat bag!

First Things First
The first thing to do is to realize that you have a flat. Often it is in fact preceded by the hiss of escaping air or the pop of an exploding tube. But just as often the noise of riding can mask the sound, and all you have to go by is feel. Be alert to the way your bike handles. Often your first indication of a rear wheel flat will be a wobbliness and tendency to fishtail, especially at speed. You may also notice as the pressure drops that the bumps start feeling rougher. Front wheel flats are a bit more obvious and a bit more dangerous. Instead of your rear end fishtailing, the front flat can cause a serious loss of steering control. Blowouts are even worse, and can be traumatic.

In any case, the first thing to do after you've discovered the flat is to get off the bike as soon as possible (or to get up off the ground as soon as possible, whichever is the case). This is important for two reasons. First, with a flat tire, your bike handling - and therefore your safety - is severely compromised, and second, without the inflated tire to support your weight, you are in danger of denting or bending your wheel rim. Once that happens, you are walking or calling for a ride - and buying a new wheel.


To Patch or Not To Patch
The question here is whether to spend time patching the tube on the road, or to use a spare tube and patch the old tube at home. If you've left your spare tube at home, or if it's a very unlucky day and you've run out of spares, you'll have to repair your tube. If the tube is cut, rather than punctured, or if the hole is at the valve stem, you'll have no choice but to replace it. This is why I always carry at least one spare tube. Fortunately, such failures are rare, especially if the tires are properly inflated and maintained.

Part three of this series will show you how to patch the tube, either at home or on the road. If you choose (or are forced) to patch the tube on the road, I recommend the "glueless" patches - the Park GP2 Super Patch Kit, for example. With these, you don't have to wait around an extra five minutes for the glue to dry. You can clean and rough up the hole, slap on the patch, and get moving.

Nuts and Bolts
The actual procedure for changing a flat on the road really isn't much different from changing one at home. The basic steps are as follows:

1. Remove the wheel from the bike.  Be sure you are in a safe spot before you start working on the bike. You should be off the road, safe from approaching vehicles. A nice, flat spot is helpful, and obviously avoid any obstacles such as trash, broken glass, or poison ivy. It's also wise to stay on pavement, gravel, or short grass, so you don't lose small parts or tools while you work.


2. If you can, lay your bike down on its left side, to protect the gear train from damage.

3. Remove one bead (side) of the tire from the wheel rim.  Tire levers help you get the bead over the rim.  Here is how it's done:

Step1: Insert the first lever between the rim and bead. 



Step 2: Pull the lever down and hook it to a spoke.


Step 3: Insert the second lever next to the first one.



Step 4: Work the second lever around the rim, pulling the bead out as you go.



4. Remove the flat tube from the tire, including managing the valve stem. Be sure to check the inside of the tire for the cause of the leak.


5. It's especially important on the road to find the cause of the leak and fix it. If you don't, you'll only re-puncture the new tube. When you pull the tube out of the tire, leave the valve stem in place until you've had a chance to search the tube for the hole. Once you've located the hole, you can then hold the tube back up against the tire and find the spot in the tire where the offending object came from. Take some extra time with this step, and don't stop until you've found the source of the flat. You'll be glad you did.

6. Replace the tube in the tire (either a new tube or the old, repaired tube via a patch).



7. Adding a little bit of air to the tube can make it easier to get it in the tire properly.


7. Replace the tire bead on the rim.  As hard as it is, it's best to use your hands to force the bead over the rim. If at all possible, avoid using the tire levers to roll the tire bead over the rim when re-installing the tire. The lever can damage the tube, again causing a secondary flat.


8. Pinch the tire all the way around, checking for spots where the tube is trapped under the bead. Be very, very sure when you have the tire re-seated that you go around the tire pinching it and making sure that the tube is not caught between the bead and rim. This is a guaranteed, explosive flat once you inflate the tube, so don't skip this step, either.  

9. Inflate the tire. A Presta-to-Schrader adapter can be handy if your only air source is a gas station. Be wary of using gas station air compressors to re-inflate the tire. These are designed to deliver a very large volume of air at relatively low pressure. It is possible to inflate a tire this way, but it is also very easy to blow the tire off the rim.


10. Replace the wheel on the bike. Make sure to properly tighten your quick-release when reattaching the wheel.


A proficient tire changer can accomplish this in as little as five minutes (or less!). Some bicycle clubs even have tire changing contests! I'll leave most of the basics of accomplishing the above steps to the many other articles. However, there are a few important points and tips that I would like to make out here.
The next thing you should do before you go on every ride is make sure that your tires are properly inflated. An under-inflated tire picks up things from the road more easily and is more prone to pinch flats when rolling over potholes and other road disturbances. Check the rated pressure on your tires (usually about 100 psi for road tires) and keep them up there. You'll have better handling as well.

One final thing to do at home:
When you get back from your trip, spin the wheel while rubbing the tire on the pad of your glove between your thumb and forefinger. Inspect the tire as it turns for pieces of glass or rocks that have been embedded in the rubber. Your glove will knock most of them loose. If you miss any, stop the wheel and pick the offending object out. Look for cuts or excessive wear as well. This little operation takes only a few seconds per tire, and can prevent small rocks or glass shards from working their way through the tire as you ride and causing a flat when you least expect it. Now, let's get on the road!

Slow Your Roll
I leave you with this. The key to a good roadside tire change is to be careful and not rush it. You really want to get this right the first time, so take your time and don't miss a beat. You may be somewhat rattled, so take a moment to calm down. Have a quick snack and a drink. Remind yourself that if you hurry, you'll likely mess up and have to do it over. Make sure you've practiced all of the steps at home, so you'll know what to do when the chips are down. This will also give you confidence and reduce your stress level when it counts. If you follow these tips, check your gear, and practice, then a flat will not keep you down for long!


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date: September 16, 2008


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