My favorite part of the bicycle is the wheel. I find its roundness satisfying, the cross pattern of spokes elegant, the science of a tension meter grounding, you might agree that the whirr of a freehub is intoxicating too. From the outside looking in, many assume that the skill required to build or repair a wheel is rooted in witchcraft or wizardry. It’s just math, math, and a little bit of common sense.
Bicycle components that were hard to find last year and remain so are tires, tubes, and wheels. In this week’s blog post I will focus on the longevity of tires and tubes and how that rubbery stuff protects your precious wheels.
Tires come in all sizes, with a bazillion different tread patterns, dozens of different rubber compounds, each boasting qualities from fast rolling to sticky. Generally speaking, softer rubber provides better traction and wears down more quickly. Harder rubber is faster and more durable. Big lugs are generally better suited for loose soil and rocks, smaller lugs for hard-packed trails. With a seemingly infinite number of variations and patterns.
MAXXIS tires from left to right: MINION DHF, MINION SS, and AGGRESSOR
Most tires can be used with or without a tube. It is common for mountain bikes to be built with a “tubeless setup.” A tubeless setup is achieved with a tubeless-ready tire, a taped rim, and a special valve stem. In lieu of a tube, tire sealant is added to the inside of the tire. The sealant is viscous and slides around inside the tire. When a tubeless tire gets a small puncture the sealant fills the hole and stops the leak, most of the time. A smart rider will carry a spare tube with them in case they earn a puncture too large to be filled by sealant. Many riders agree with the bold claim on the sealant’s label that it “virtually eliminates flats.”
Imagine that tires are shoes. You probably have different shoes for different pursuits. For those of you who endure the sport of fat biking during our long winters, you already understand the benefits of a wide, low-pressure tire: Traction! A fatbike can be set up with tire pressure in the single digits. Tire pressure at 9 psi on a rim several inches wide makes for some seriously kushy grip on ice and snow, fat bike tires are like snowshoes, they float on snow but not very quickly. Antithetical to that, I inflate the tires of my road bike, which are 23mm wide, to 110 psi, think of rollerblades faster than walking but not very forgiving on bumps and hopeless in sand. For mountain biking a desirable tire choice and air pressure is between 2” and 3” wide with a pressure set between 20 psi and 35 psi; for the purpose of this silly analogy imaging a hiking boot or a trail running shoe.
Tires wear over time. One way you can slow the disintegration of your rear tire is to learn some more advanced riding techniques. Many riders go downhill by just dragging their rear brake constantly. This is detrimental to the longevity of your pads, rotors, AND your tires. You can burn through 100 dollars worth of rear tire in one afternoon if you don’t let that wheel roll. Learning how to ride faster on descents, means less brake and wheel dragging, more fun, and spending less money on replacement parts. Let me be clear, don’t just go faster, learn how to ride faster. I don’t have any tips or tricks for a broken collarbone, and if your collarbone is broken you can’t even be a trail runner.
Your tires are for traction, and they protect your rims. Rims can become damaged in a myriad of ways; most commonly when a tire is not inflated adequately. Rolling over a rock at speed for instance compresses the tire, and if there isn’t enough air you’ll hear a thud or a crack, and often get a flat. A bent or broken rim is a bummer, in pre-covid times most replacement wheels could be purchased for less than $500, or a rim with a rebuild would have been an option for about half that. Things are just hard to find, spokes are sold out in common sizes, rims are unavailable, and while there are some wheels available, the chances of them being compatible with your axle, driver, and desired use are slim.
So here’s what you can do to extend the life of your tires and protect your wheels.
1. Check tire pressure before every ride. Don’t just squeeze the tire with your hand, use a pressure gauge. If you are out all day doing laps off the chair lift, check your tire pressure multiple times during the day.
2. Consider taking a lesson with one of our instructors at Grand Targhee, or asking an experienced friend about line choice and how to effectively use your front brake (this is a double win, longer life for brake pads and your rear tire won’t shred as quickly.)
3. Don’t ride your mountain bike on the pavement! I know you need to get out and pedal because you feel grumpy and don’t have time to drive to the trailhead. Seriously. Hot pavement grinds your knobby tires down so quickly. See if you can find some gravel to pedal on instead.
Thank you for reading! We have awesome floor pumps for sale at Habitat in town. We are open from 10am until 6pm 7 days a week. Check back next week for our final blog post on the subject of maintenance and longevity.
Images and words by Carolyn Keefe