When the Puncture Fairy visits…

A surprising number of cyclists are quite superstitious in at least one aspect: they’re so terrified of punctures that they won’t even say the word, and I find that extremely amusing. I’m not superstitious at all, and have no misgivings about using the word puncture, nor referring to the Puncture Fairy.

For the uninitiated, a visit from the Puncture Fairy results in the dreaded hiss and flat wheel. As I said, in this respect, superstition runs deep.

In 1847, a man named Robert Thomson invented the pneumatic tyre, and therefore the puncture. (Yes, I know most people think John Dunlop invented the pneumatic wheel, but though he wasn’t aware of Thomson’s preceding effort, by the time Dunlop “invented” it, Thomson already had a patent out by several years).

Ever since, cyclists have been been trying to avoid the dreaded puncture. Pre-COVID, most miles I cycled were done commuting, and I used to commute year-round. The first thing you need to understand about cycle commuters is that we’re up against the clock every morning (and often in the afternoon/evening too) so having a puncture on the way to work is not exactly optimal.

Also, my commute included 8 miles of rural lanes, and when cycling home in the dark, in mid-winter, while the wind’s blowing a hooley, causing the sleet to sting any exposed skin, the very last thing you want to have to deal with is a puncture.

Here’s the bad news: unless you ride on solid tyres, you are guaranteed to have a puncture. It’s simply a question of when, not if. The good news is there are things you can do to reduce the risk, and I’ve listed them in no particular order below.

Solid  tyres
Seems a dream come true, doesn’t it? Modern materials resulting in a tyre that’s immune to punctures, while (supposedly) giving you a ride that’s comparable to pneumatic tyres. If only it was true!

Currently, your only real option for solid tyres are Tannus tyres. I’ve not used them at all, so can only go on what others said about them. That starts with the fact that they feel different to pneumatic tyres – some say they feel “dead” – but I have to be honest, that alone wouldn’t put me off.

They do, however, tend to wear flat. A cut-through image of a bicycle tyre shows it has a rounded profile, which is important, given that bikes lean when turning. Tannus tyres tend to wear flat, losing that rounded profile after some time, and that impacts on the bike’s handling in corners. That’s the deal-breaker for me.

Apparently, they’re hard to fit to rims at home, but quick and easy at a bike shop kitted out with the correct tool.
Regardless of any negatives listed above, they have one enormous positive: it’s the only tyre guaranteed to never puncture. If you’re looking for a guaranteed way to avoid punctures, these are your only option.

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Sealant
Mountainbikers often tend to ride with sealant squirted into their wheels. When they get a puncture, the sealant (in theory, at least) is rushed to the hole by escaping air, then seals it. Some MTBers will tell you of only afterwards discovering a small hole through their tyres, plugged by sealant without them even noticing.

There are also a myriad of tales of riders being sprayed by sealant squirting out the puncture, without sealing it, and a quick Internet search might reveal a great many photos of bicycles (and often riders) covered in sealant.

Tubeless wheels
The concept of tubeless wheels isn’t new. With bicycles, tubeless wheels require rims made for purpose, and tyres made for purpose. The difference is the shape of the rim where the tyre bead slots into, as well as the tyre bead itself. Tubeless wheels are filled with sealant, and especially road cyclists who use tubeless wheels will rave about it.

However, sealant doesn’t guarantee a puncture-free ride (though you will certainly have fewer punctures). If you do get a puncture that the sealant can’t fix, then you could simply insert an inner tube. I say “simply”, but reality could be quite the opposite: the sealant can effectively glue the tyre to the rim, and fixing a puncture by the roadside will usually take far longer, and be far more messy – you’ll probably be covered in sealant by the time you’re done!

Puncture-resistant  tyres
For most people, this is the option that makes most sense. Puncture-resistant tyres have built-in kevlar (or similar) layers, adding protection against punctures. At the top of the list is my tyre of choice: Schwalbe Marathon Plus.

Marathon Plus tyres are as close to bullet-proof as bicycle tyres get, but there’s a price to pay: they’re heavier, slower and have higher rolling resistance than tyres of similar size and tread, but without the puncture protection.

Basically, you have to choose between highly puncture-resistant, but slower, or fast, but highly susceptible to punctures. I opt for puncture protection, as reliability is more important to me than speed, but your view may be different.

It’s important to realise that there’s no “best” option – only a trade-off that suits you best. Just remember that the trade-off you settle for might not suit the next person, and they’re perfectly entitled to choose the option they feel suits their needs best.

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Inflation
Now we’ve looked at the various tyre and/or tube options (well, not all the options – I excluded tubular tyres, as they’re a bit niche, and I completely skipped the different kinds of inner tubes) let’s have a look at how to inflate your tyres.

The very best option is to use a track pump – it has a pressure gauge, and pumps a lot of air quickly, allowing you to easily inflate your wheels to the correct pressure. On the down side, track pumps are also large and you simply won’t be carrying one around with you, on a just-in-case basis.

If you carry a pump on your bike, it will be a mini-pump. These come in all shapes and sizes, with quality varying from “You’re joking” right up to “Superb”. Price tends to be an indicator of quality (to a degree) and if your mini-pump tends to be cheaper than £20, it’s unlikely to be much good. Having said that, just because a mini-pump is painfully expensive doesn’t mean it would be the very best!

There’s another, quite interesting (if rather pricey!) pump option – the MiniFumpa rechargeable electric pump. It’s USB-rechargeable, and will fully inflate two 700c x 23 tyres to 110psi, each in under a minute, but if you’re unlucky enough to have a third puncture, you won’t be able to use it again until after you’ve recharged it.

Finally, there are CO2 cartridges. A 16g cartridge will fully inflate a 700c x 25 tyre in 2 to 3 seconds, and easily inflates a 700c x 38 tyre to 80psi in a few seconds. There are several gotchas to watch out for though, starting with the fact that not all CO2 inflators are the same.

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The problem with cheap CO2 inflators mostly lies in the quality of steel used in the sharp tube that pierces the metal lid of the cartridge, as you screw it on. With very cheap inflators, that tube will rapidly go blunt, and by the 2nd or 3rd cartridge you screw it on to, you may find it extremely difficult to pierce the cartridge and to not waste the CO2.

The next problem lies with the O-ring seals used – cheaper inflators often blow out the O-ring, which means it simply won’t seal around the valve and again you’ll end up with a wasted CO2 cartridge, and still have a flat wheel.

On the other hand, when swapping an inner tube, in the dark, with fingers numb from the cold caused by the mid-winter sleet, being able to fully inflate your wheel in 2 or 3 seconds, then be on your way again is a very useful thing.

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Now I can hear you asking “But isn’t CO2 bad for climate change?” Yes, of course it is! However, we’re talking a single 16g cartridge here. By comparison, a 1.2 litre engine petrol car produces on average around ten times as much CO2 for every kilometre travelled. This means that using 15 CO2 cartridges produce as much CO2 as driving a small car for one mile. If you have 15 punctures in a year, perhaps you should start believing in the Puncture Fairy, and begging her for mercy?

My  personal  preference
As with so many things, there is no universal “best option”. Everything is a trade-off, and you will need to find the trade-off that suits your needs best.

In my case, I ride on Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres – to take the photo at the top, I deliberately let the air out of my front wheel. I also use inner tubes, and I rely on CO2 cartridges.

Recently, I obtained a Velo-Tool CO2 inflator. I cannot give a detailed review of it yet, as I haven’t had any reason to use it, but I can tell you that is seems to be very well made. Unlike most CO2 inflators, this one screws onto the valve, which is good, but you’ll have to be careful that your don’t unscrew the valve core when removing it.

A second potential negative is that the control lever is also made from aluminium, and when CO2 discharges rapidly from a pressured container, it causes a huge temperature drop, with ice forming on the outside. This is why there’s a foam sleeve to put over the CO2 cartridge – to prevent it freezing onto your fingers. I expect there will be a risk of the lever freezing onto exposed skin, and will probably try to find some sort of sleeve to protect me against that.

5 thoughts on “When the Puncture Fairy visits…”

  1. You’ll struggle to inflate a tyre with a 16mg cartridge.
    The standard cartridges are 1000 x bigger than that…
    I run marathon plus on the commuter and tubeless on my other bike. Tubeless is not a complete a answer but you really should try it before you write it off…

    Reply
  2. I think it should be stated that metal tyres levers are sooooo much better that the plastic ones that come in most repair kits. Many road tyres need high leverage and the difference between tyre levers is massive.

    Reply
    • Yes, but the trouble is metal tyre levers can so easily damage alloy rims, so I’d urge people to not use them

      Reply

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