Life on a bike was simple, back-in-the-day. Tyres had a steel bead and a rubber inner-tube. You inserted one inside the other, faffed about a bit getting the tyre properly seated on the rim and then rode it around for a little while before having to remove the whole ensemble to repair a puncture. Rinse and repeat, as they say; getting punctures was the price we paid in order to ride bicycles. Because of this, I bet most of us could still repair a puncture blindfolded.
Yet, there is a better way, an even easier way, and one that all but eliminates the sort of punctures that plagued our childhood cycling adventures.
Welcome to the modern world of bicycle tyres…
Clincher, or normal beaded tyres
Those old-fashioned tyres with steel beads are still widely available and they are still the most common type of tyre that is fitted to new bicycles. Why so? Because it’s a cheap solution to a problem the cycle manufacturers will never have to face; after all, they aren’t going to ever have to repair the punctures you’ll inevitably get, are they?
While the tyres are cheap and widely available in every country on the planet - as are the inner tubes you need to make the whole thing work - the inner tubes are prone to punctures, either from pinching the inner tube between the edge of the wheel rim and the road when you hit a pothole or big stone, or from nails and thorns physically penetrating the carcass of the tyre and holing the inner tube within.
Repairing the inner tubes is simple as long as you’ve got a puncture repair kit. You’ll also need a set of (usually three, although two will do at a pinch) tyre levers to remove the tyre from the wheel rim, and a pair of strong thumbs to get it back on. Fitting and removal is therefore pretty straightforward, even if it can sometimes demand a fair bit of strength in your hands and fingers.
And while you can get puncture-resistant tyres, they aren’t, in my experience, vastly better than the standard item at resisting either pinch punctures, or punctures caused by sharp objects.
Oh, and some of the more expensive tyres you can buy have their beads made of a material other than steel, which lets you fold them up. This makes it much easier to carry a spare tyre if you’re taking one on a long ride or extended cycle tour.
Speaking of which, if you’re out touring, or even just riding locally, then it’s easier to carry a couple of spare inner tubes than to repair a punctured one at the roadside. Just pop one of your spares on your bike and carry on, safe in the knowledge that you can repair the punctured tube at home later with the radio on, a mug of tea within easy reach, and no cars whizzing past you while your cycling companions tut with impatience…
The cycling accessories you need
Tubular tyres, or ‘tubs’ as they’re often called, are sealed tubes that are essentially a combination tyre and inner tube. They’re glued or cemented to the wheel rim, which makes them very light as there are no steel beads to add weight.
They’re also a bit more puncture resistant than the clincher tyre and inner tube combination, but are a real pain to repair when you do get a puncture because you need to remove the tyre from the rim to do so - and it’s glued on, as you’ll recall.
You also have to cut open the stitches that hold it together, and then re-stitch it back together if you want to reuse an old tub. Because of this, it won’t surprise you to learn that a lot of cyclists simply throw their old, punctured tubular tyres away.
This means that tubular tyres are really off limits to anyone other than a fully-fledged, hard-core, die-hard cyclist who lives in Lycra and eats nothing but energy gels.
However, there is a third way.
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Tubeless tyres are, as the name suggests, a kind of hybrid tyre that seats on the rim like a clincher tyre but doesn’t have a separate inner tube, relying instead on a tight seal between the wheel rim and the tyre to keep air in, although you do have to add a liquid tyre sealant to help things along.
This use of tyre sealant does two further things: it adds weight, but that’s okay because it also helps prevent punctures by sealing small holes as soon as they appear.
Nor can you get ‘pinch’ punctures because there is no inner tube to pinch. The result is a tyre that is highly puncture resistant.
Fitting is a bit long-winded, and you’ll need rims that are appropriate for their use. If you don’t have a set of rims that were designed from the ground up for use with tubeless tyres, then some tubeless tyre kits come with a set of sealing tapes that covers the spokes and do a pretty good job of converting standard rims to ones that are compatible with tubeless tyres.
You will also need to squeeze or pour in the correct amount of tyre sealant after you’ve put the tyre on the rim. You then add air and either ride or rotate the tyre and wheel assembly to distribute the sealant evenly around the inside of the tyre. There are plenty of excellent video tutorials on YouTube but this is the best I’ve seen.
Drawbacks are few. Aside from the added weight - and that’s really not that bad - you’ll need to top up the air in the tyres more frequently than you will for either of the previous two tyre designs, maybe adding a few strokes from your bike pump every week or so.
Make the most of your electric bike
Bike tyres: conclusion
If you ride infrequently, or don’t mind mending punctures, then the standard, century old tyre-and-inner-tube combination will be fine. It’s cheap, easy to set up and needs no special skills to remove and replace.
At the other end of the scale, those of you who knock out a fast 100-mile ride before lunch will be familiar with tubular tyres and probably wouldn’t consider fitting anything else.
For the rest of us, tubeless tyres are a real blessing. Sure, you have to splash out on a new set of tyres to enjoy their benefits but the almost complete absence of punctures makes this by far my favourite set up.
If you doubt your technical skills, then your local bike shop would be only too happy to advise you on the tyres that would best suit your needs and then fit them for you.