Fixing a Flat Bicycle Tire

Fixing a Flat Bicycle Tire
There are long hilly stretches of not much along the highway south of Powell River, British Columbia. Riding north along that highway, I had ample time to become very familiar with the dust on the side of the road as I changed Madeleine’s rear tire three times. The grease embedded in the creases of my fingers gave testament to my growing mechanical prowess. By the end of my two week tour of the Sunshine Coast, I was a tire-changing expert.

The key to changing a tire on the road is being prepared. Have the tools you need and know how to use them. The tools are simple: tire levers, spare tube(s), tube patch kit, and a tire pump. This article can help you to learn to use them, but practice is the best teacher.

Step 1: Remove the Wheel from the Bike

If you’re lucky, you’ve got a flat front tire – it’s much easier to remove than the rear tire. For either tire, first loosen the appropriate brake cable so that the wheel can slip between the brake shoes. To then remove the front tire, simply loosen the quick release and pull the tire from the forks.

Removing the rear wheel takes a little more work. First, shift gears so that the chain is on the smallest chain ring and smallest rear cog. Before you do anything else, look carefully at the path the chain takes from the derailleur around the cog. Knowing how it should look will make replacing it easier. After the quick release is loosened, the chain has to be lifted off the cassette before the tire can be removed from the rear dropout. You may need to gently pull the rear derailleur back in order to get enough slack to lift the chain off the rear cog. If necessary, strike the wheel to dislodge it and move it down and out of the dropout. You’ll need to disentangle the chain as you do this. Whew, you did it! Wipe the chain grease off your fingers before proceeding.

Step 2: Remove the Tire from the Rim

Now you need a way to get the tire off of the rim, hence the tire levers in your tool kit. Insert the flat end of the tire lever between the rim and the tire and slide it around the rim a few inches to loosen the bead. With it still in the tire, tilt the lever back and hook the hooked end around a spoke. Repeat with another lever a few inches away. By the time you get to the third lever you should be able to continue running the lever between the tire and rim until the that side of the tire pops loose from the rim.
Next, remove the cap and retention nut (don't lose them!) from the tube’s valve stem and gently remove the tube from the tire. Once the tube is out, remove the other side of the tire from the rim, using the tire levers as necessary.

Step 3: Replace or Repair the Tube

Once the tire is off the rim and you have removed the tube from the tire, you need to either repair or replace the tube. I’m in the habit of carrying both a spare new tube and a patch kit. I can easily use the patch kit to fix a small puncture in the tube, but if the leak is due to a large hole or split in the tube, I’m more likely just to put in a new tube. I’ll also use the new tube if I’m in a hurry or have already repaired the old tube multiple times. Be sure the spare tubes you carry are the right size, and if you have different sized tires, carry tubes for each size. Patch kits are available at any store that sells bike stuff. Many of these kits contain glue that can dry out once it’s been opened, so be sure to check it frequently to ensure it’s still usable. To patch a tube, follow the directions that came with your repair kit (they’re all a little different, but usually pretty simple). Be sure to follow the directions exactly so that the patch stays stuck to the tube.

Step 4: Put the Tire back on the Rim

Once you’ve either unboxed the new tube or repaired the old one, use your tire pump (you always carry one, right?) to add just a bit of air to the tube. You don’t want to fully inflate it, just give it a bit of shape.
Before you put the tube back in the tire, be sure to carefully examine the tire for the cause of the flat. If you picked up a wire, piece of glass or some other pointy object, it may still be embedded in the tire. The cause of my multiple flats was several tiny pieces of glass in the tire that I didn’t look for soon enough. When I finally took the tire to bike shop for repair, the mechanic found the glass by running a towel along the inside of the tire. The towel snagged on the glass and then it could be removed. If you find something in the tire, remove it. If not, hope that there wasn’t something you missed.

Once you’re sure the tire is clean, put the tube back in the tire. Don’t twist the tube or allow it to have bends or pinches. After the tube is in, line up the valve stem with the corresponding hole in the rim and push it through. Use the tire levers in the same way you did to remove the tire (without hooking them around the spokes) to get the first side of the tire back on the rim. In the same manner, get the second side on the rim, being very, very careful not to pinch the tube between the tire and the rim (this will assuredly cause another flat). Examine both sides of the tire to ensure the tube is fully inside where it’s supposed to be and that the valve stem is aligned properly with the hole in the rim. Replace the valve stem retention nut and cap.

Step 5: Put the Wheel back on the Bike

I’ve never had any success with inflating the tire before getting it back in place. It just wouldn’t fit between the brake shoes with air in it. So, reversing the order of steps for removing the wheel, put it back on your bike. Again, the chain will make this more difficult on the rear. Hopefully you paid attention to the way it looked before you took the chain off so that it’s easier to replace it. Once the wheel is in its proper place on the bike, inflate the tire to your normal operating pressure. Don’t forget to retighten your brakes!

I sincerely hope you don’t have to become too expert with fixing flats, but I also hope that you take the time to learn the process before you venture far from home. Knowing how to take care of your bike is vital to staying safe and sound on the road or trail.

Ride safe and have fun!

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