By Val Vanderpool
When was the last time you got a flat while riding?
Until this past weekend, I couldn’t remember when I last had to install a tube, bust out a plug kit, or otherwise deal with a tire issue on the trail. What used to be a regular occurrence is now all but a thing of the past thanks to innovations in tubeless tire technologies — and it’s safe to say that none of us miss the days of constant pinch flats, thorn or goathead punctures, and other tire maladies that plagued at least one person in a group on any given ride.
While we can probably all agree that modern tubeless tire setups are one of the greatest innovations in mountain biking — right up there with disc brakes and dropper posts — we also know that like most things, they aren’t infallible, and I was reminded of this on a recent road trip.
Fleeing California after National Forest closures altered our previous plans, my partner Brian and I landed in Flagstaff, Arizona, for the long holiday weekend. Riding technical rocky trails among the pines and aspens is pretty hard to beat, and recent rains meant there was also hero dirt for days. Absolutely perfect weather rounded out this trifecta of awesomeness, and I was giddy to explore the area’s vast web of trails in primo conditions.
Following two days of fun riding, Brian wanted to run up Humphreys Peak, which towers over Flagstaff at an elevation of 12,600 feet. Since the Arizona Trail links trails on the west side of Humphreys with singletrack in the Schultz Pass area, and ultimately the urban trail network, I decided I would ride from Brian’s starting point down to town, where he would pick me up after his run.
I cruised through rock garden after glorious rock garden and wound my way through the pine forest on the Arizona Trail, eventually crossing Schultz Pass Road to access the Schultz Creek Trail, which parallels the road all the way to the edge of town. We had seen this trail from the road, and I was looking forward to three or so fun and flowy miles of downhill-trending singletrack.
About a mile in, I was rolling through a short rocky section when I heard the telltale pop and hiss, a sound I hadn’t heard in I don’t know how many years. I felt the air rushing out of my rear tire, so I hit the brakes and moved off the trail. Sealant oozed out of a nickel-sized tear in the sidewall that was too big for a plug kit. I would have to install a tube if I wanted to continue riding.
For the past couple of years, I’ve carried a compact 29-inch Tubolito in the bottom of my hip pack. Made from what is essentially beach ball material, these tubes are super lightweight and are a fraction of the size of a regular tube. I booted the tire with a foil granola bar wrapper, which stuck nicely in place over the hole with melted chocolate and tire sealant, and installed the partially inflated Tubolito. I struggled a bit with getting the tire back on the rim, and a nice guy from Tucson stopped to help me out. It was now time to add air, so I pulled out my CO2 and began screwing the inflator onto the cartridge. As I did this, CO2 began to spew out from the threads and out the back of the nozzle. I kept turning the nozzle, hoping to get a good seal, but instead, every last molecule of freezing-cold carbon dioxide sprayed out of the cartridge. (Brian and I later figured out that the threads of the inflator were mangled).
I didn’t have a pump, and Tucson guy didn’t have any flat repair supplies on him either, so I thought for sure my ride would end here and that I’d likely have to drag my bike across the creek and up the slope to the road where Brian would collect me in an hour or so. But a couple of minutes later, a rider came flying around the corner. I saw he was wearing a full-sized hydration pack, so when he asked if I needed anything, I said I could really use a pump or CO2 if he had either. Luck was on my side because he had a high-volume hand pump he had never used before — because tubeless tires — which he dug out of the bottom of his pack. I inflated the tire, hoping my tire boot had stayed in place and thanked my savior profusely. I was back in the saddle and riding the five or so miles to Buffalo Park to meet Brian.
Had this occurred farther up the trail where I did not see another rider for about 10 miles, I would have had a pretty long walk out and an even longer wait as Brian descended Humphreys and drove down the mountain to fetch me. This got me thinking about the importance of not only carrying a repair kit but also about how critical it is to maintain it.
- Periodically check over your kit. I don’t know if I would have noticed that the threads of my inflator were schweckled or not, but it’s probably a good idea to inspect or test stuff that’s been sitting in your bag for literally years to see if still works. This goes for tubes, too. If yours has been kicking around the deep recesses of your pack for many moons, it might be time to pull it out and see if it’s still usable.
- Replenish any supplies used right away. I know myself well enough to know that if I don’t do this immediately, I will likely head out on the next ride missing critical things like CO2, a master link, tube, or other consumables.
- Carry backups. I had one CO2 cartridge and a faulty inflator. Had my inflator worked properly I probably would have been fine, but it’s a good idea to have a backup inflation method, especially on longer rides in remote places. I’m going to be digging through drawers in our garage to find the hand pump that will fit best in my hip pack because I often do ride alone or in remote areas. It probably wouldn’t hurt to have an extra CO2 cartridge either.
BONUS: Learn to use what you are carrying in your pack. While I was a bit rusty installing a tube, because it had been a while, I had done it enough in the past to know what to do. But on a recent group ride, I had to use chain pliers on a new multitool to open up a master link, and it took me a minute to figure it out. If I’m being perfectly honest, I hadn’t even looked at the thing before throwing it in my pack and taking out the Wolf Tooth pliers I had used on the trail in the past.
There is a wealth of information out there, including videos that will walk you through how to install a tube and plug a tire, remove and reinstall your wheels, and use a CO2 inflator. Knowing how to do fundamental repairs will help you become a more confident and self-sufficient, and will help you avoid the dreaded walk of shame out of the woods!