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« Cyclists Misbehaving | Main | Louison Bobet: First three time TDF winner »
Monday
Jun172019

Flat Tires: More or Less?

Last week's post about three times Tour de France winner, Louison Bobet, brought up a question about the atrocious condition of the roads back then, and did it lead to more punctures? From my own experience and my memory of it, I would say, no.

Back in the 1950s and prior top that, the Tour de France went over the same mountains as they do today, but many of these same roads were unpaved dirt, or at best, tar and gravel. Many of the minor country roads in England were periodically sprayed with hot, wet tar. Fine gravel was then spread over the tar and a steam roller would press the gravel into the soft tar.
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Passing cars would tend to sweep the loose top gravel to the side of the road where people rode bikes, and much of this fine gravel consisted of very sharp flints. In spite of this, I remember going long periods without getting a flat tire, often as long as a year. I rode exclusively on tubular tires, (Sew-ups in America.) as did all racing cyclists, amateur and pro. There is a reason professional cyclists still ride on tubulars to this day. The ride is superior. I also believe, a good quality tubular tire is less prone to puncture. 
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You never get a pinch flat for a start. For those who don't know a pinch flat is when a tire is low in pressure and the wheel hits an object like a rock, or the edge of a pothole. The bead of the tire is forced away from the rim and the inner tube then blows out though this gap in the form of a bubble. The bead of the tire then snaps back to the rim, pinching or trapping the inner tube between the two. A pinch flat is sometimes called a "Snake bite" as the result is two small cuts in the tube, one caused by the rim and one by the edge of the tire.
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Also, on a clincher tire wheel, spoke nipples and the countersunk holes for the nipples, have sharp edges. They are usually covered by a rim tape to protect the inner tube from these sharp edges. But if the rim tape moves over time the inner tube can be chaffed and worn through, or cut on a sharp edge. 
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Both the situations are not possible with a tubular tire. the inner tube is sewn inside the tire itself, and there is nothing to chafe of cut the tube from the inside. It can only puncture if it is penetrated from the outside. A tubular tire can even be ridden flat for at least a few miles. With a clincher you would destroy the tire and possibly the rim too.
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Back in the 1950s and possibly even today, high quality tubulars were made with pure rubber. We would buy our tires ahead of time, and store them in a cool, dark place, like a closet for six months or more. This would allow the rubber to "Mature" and it would become tougher with age.
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Modern tires are made from synthetic rubber, and aging them probably has no affect. I do remember, if I was forced to use a new tubular, because it was all I had at the time, it would seem to puncture in a very short time. 
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Great strides have been made in the manufacture of clincher tires over the last twenty or more years. For the leisure cyclist and even for all but the pros and top amateur ranks, tubular tires are not worth the expense and hassle of maintaining them. But the original question was, did we get more flats back in the day, and my answer was "No," in spite of worse road conditions. Good quality tubulars were probably part of the reason why.
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There was a time when the rules of the Tour de France were that riders had to carry and change their own tubular tire. Later they were allowed to receive help from others, (See top picture of 1951 Tour winner. Swiss rider Hugo Koblet.)
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I have punctured on occasions during a road race in the 1950s and 1960s. It is possible to change a tire and be on your way in a minute and a half or two minutes, if all goes well it is possible in a little over a minute. We did have Co2 pumps that inflate a tire in seconds. (Koblet has one behind his seat tube in the above picture.)
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Road racing in the UK was on the open roads with normal traffic. There was a lead car in front of the race with a large sign saying "Bicycle Race Approaching.(It was rather like a fast moving "Wide Load Approaching.") There was always a long line of traffic held up behind the race, and therefore moving at the same speed as the race. If you could change your tire quick enough, and you made a big effort, you could catch up to the end of this line of cars.
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Cars back then had door handles on the outside that were convenient to hold onto and take a rest. Then it was a matter of ride hard and move up a few cars. Grab a door handle, rest and repeat the process. Door handle, rest, sprint, door handle, rest, sprint, and in a very short time you were back in the race. 
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All very illegal of course, but effective, and without the complication and expense of team support.
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Reader Comments (14)

Very interesting Dave thanks.

June 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterStephen McAteer

One part of this that's scary is the old-time riders pulling the flat off and sticking a spare on at the top of a climb (as in the photo of Bobet), then doing a high-speed descent. The bond is never as sure with a spare. When I need to put a spare tubular on a wheel, it's always a careful ride home.

June 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterED

Dave, thank you!
great story/stories happy to find out about.
kind regards,
Mircea

June 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMircea Andrei Ghinea

CO2 goes that far back? I never knew that....

June 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Hi Dave,
Interesting about the CO2 pump as there looks to be a Silca frame pump in front of the seat tube (maybe for that second puncture).

June 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

The frame pump is useful for slow leaks, CO2 is for one time inflation (today you can save some air in a cartridge but won't get full pressure with multiple uses).

Today, if you ride tubs, carry both for the same reason. I've ridden all way home on sew-ups with a slow leak, also a very good reason to carry a full-size frame pump, not a mini pump. That way you don't have to tear the tire off, and, as stated in comments, risk rolling a tire.

To me, any time saved using CO2 is nothing compared to the versatility of a full-size pump.

June 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Back in the 50's tubulars were huge compared to what was used in the 80's, 90's and 00's. Back then, most riders raced on 28's, unless they used 25's for TT's. (It's funny that now people are racing on 25's and 28's again.
Modern tubulars lack the "glued on" tread that was standard in the 80's and 90's and earlier. The tread is now vulcanized onto the casing. (non-removable)

June 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBill K

Dave,

Did you keep your aging tubulars inflated? With latex inner tubes, racing-quality sew-ups lose air in a couple days. Do they need to be inflated to age properly?
It would be a hassle to keep pumping them up if so, especially if kept in a cool, dark place, like storing wine.

June 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Be sure to stretch out the tubs, before you use them, as I found out in a 100mile TT in the 1950s, I lost at least 10mins when I tried to mount a new tub I was carrying as a spare, that I had not stretched out to fit first. Cold wet fingers did not help. I now live i goat head thorn country in Parker, Colorado so Sew ups TUBS are just not practical. As I am sure you Dave, also so did during the winter months, I spent many hours sitting by the fire mending Dunlop #3s even got Mom to stitch them a few times for me.

June 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

One other thing that we did, talking about hanging onto door handles, was drafting behind lorries (trucks), even the drivers did not disapprove of this and would give the thumbs up. Lots of fun, but luckily we did not get killed doing that

June 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

The bead of the tire is forced away from the rim and the inner tube then blows out though this gap in the form of a bubble. The bead of the tire then snaps back to the rim, pinching or trapping the inner tube between the two. A pinch flat is sometimes called a "Snake bite" as the result is two small cuts in the tube, one caused by the rim and one by the edge of the tire

Really? I never heard that before. I always thought it was a snakebite because the tire got pinched against both rims (both sides of the rim). It would be super interesting if somebody has super-slo-mo video of a pinch flat happening that way

June 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

So is it the latex inner tube that becomes better at resisting punctures, with aging, or is it the tread ply that becomes tougher, or more pliable?

Resisting flats can be achieved by toughness, or ability to give before breaking, as in a thorn attempting to puncture either the tread or tube inside. Which does aging a tubular accomplish?

Also, as Crump mentioned, stretching a new tire onto a rim before using: Should one leave an aging sew-up on the rim? I read decades ago that each time you take a tubular off a rim you shorten its life.

June 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

That got me suspect too, RubeRad.

Not buying it.
Demand a source.

July 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commenteryo yo

Rube Rad and yoyo,
I stand corrected, there is a better explanation here: https://www.sheldonbrown.com/flats.html
"Pinch Cuts result from hitting stones, curbs, or sharp edges of holes in the road surface. When the tire hits a sharp edge hard enough, it compresses so that it bottoms out. The inner tube can get pinched between the rock and the rim. Pinch cuts usually put two small holes in the tube. This type of damage is sometimes called a "snake bite" because the two holes look like the wound made by the fangs of a snake."
However, I have never heard of a pinch flat with a tubular tire as a sprint rim does not have the sharp edge of a clincher rim.
Dave

July 9, 2019 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

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