HOW TO REPAIR (AND WHEN TO REPLACE) YOUR BIKE TIRES
There’s a reason behind the old adage “keep the rubber side down”. Your tires are your connection with the ground, which means they’re your primary source of control—or lack of control. If you think about it, your handlebars, suspension, and overall mountain bike geometry are mostly just accessories designed to put your momentum in the right place for your tires to do their magical, grippy thing.
While tires are a wear component and designed to be replaced every so often, there are a few things you can do to maximize their life span. And if you’re unlucky enough to get a significant cut or tear in your tires, it’s not necessarily game over—there are some useful tools and techniques you can use to repair moderate damage and keep yourself rolling.
How long should tires (and tubes) last?
There’s not necessarily an easy answer for this one, as it largely depends on where you ride, how often you ride, the rubber compound used in the tire, and even how the tires are stored. Everyday riders may go through multiple sets of tires in a season, while more occasional riders can make them last for a couple of years.
Many riders will try out several types of tires before finding their perfect match, and end up with several sets of tires in their garage. (If you’ve got tires sitting around that still have good tread left, consider selling them on Geartrade to keep another rider out on the trails!)
Rubber tires will likely last longer in a climate-controlled garage or basement than an uninsulated outdoor storage shed. It’s best to store unused tires hanging up, rather than crumpled up at the bottom of a parts bin. Tires can crack if they’re compressed or kinked during storage, especially in an environment with severe temperature swings.
As for tubes, they can last a good long time if stored properly. (We’ve seen seasoned bike commuters show off a 10-year-old tube with dozens of patches like a badge of honor.)
Protip: in the event of a flat when riding a bike with tubes, we prefer to install a backup tube, and then patch the flatted tube at home later. It’s a lot easier and less frustrating than attempting a patch repair on the side of the trail.
Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash
When should you replace your tires?
It’s time to retire a tire when the tread is visibly worn, the rubber is cracked and dried-out, or if there’s an unfixable puncture or cut that causes constant flats (particularly in the sidewall). Note that for many people, it’s common to wear out your rear tire more quickly than your front tire. Locking up your rear brake isn’t recommended as a go-to cornering technique, but it happens from time to time. Those skids can really take a toll on your tire tread, so pay attention to your knobs and watch for obvious signs of wear on both the center and side sets.
Can you repair a damaged bike tire?
Sometimes, you’ll end up with a puncture more serious than your average thorn—one that leaves a visible hole in the tire, and air hissing out concerningly quickly.
If you’re using tubeless tires, this might mean you’ve got a hole too big for your tire sealant to take care of on its own. Fortunately, there are some handy trailside tools that can plug a puncture in just a few seconds. Tubeless repair kits generally contain tire plugs and a small reamer tool you can use to jam one into a hole in your tire. After (carefully) removing the applicator, the plug should remain behind and react with your sealant to fully seal the puncture. Trim off any excess plug that’s sticking out and the repair should last for a while.
Remember that these tubeless repair kits only work if you’ve got enough sealant in your tires, so check if you can still hear a bit of a sloshing noise when you shake your wheels back and forth. If not, it might be time to top off your sealant.
If you’re running tires with tubes and sustain extensive damage to your tire, it’ll probably put a hole in your tube at the same spot. To avoid getting another flat after you install a new (or repaired) tube, you’ll want to apply what’s called a tire boot. It’s possible to buy these with pre-applied adhesive, so you can stick them inside a tire during a field repair. It’s also possible to manufacture one in a pinch from a dollar bill or an energy bar wrapper. The point is to give your tube a bit of protection from pinch flats by the area of the tire that’s been punctured.
Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash
What about more permanent repairs?
After you make it back home, it may be possible to secure a more permanent fix. If you’ve used a tire-repair plug on the trail, it’s smart to add a few drops of vulcanizing solution to ensure the plug repair holds.
If you’ve got a bigger puncture or slice, it can still be possible to repair. Remove the tire (and thoroughly clean out any sealant, in the case of a tubeless tire). You can then use a small piece of vulcanized rubber to create a patch inside your tire, and secure it with some rubber cement or shoe-repair goop. You can find pre-cut patches, or just buy a roll of rubber from an auto-parts store and cut some into various sizes yourself.
Be sure to lightly scuff the area around the repair with a bit of sandpaper to give it the best chance to adhere, and apply your adhesive liberally. Once it’s fully dry, you should be able to use the tire as normal again—just keep an eye on things and understand that you’ll probably have to replace it eventually.
What should you do with old bike tires?
If your old tires are too worn out to pass along to a fellow rider, be sure to dispose of them properly. Don’t just chuck them into the garbage—the rubber in most tires contains chemical additives that makes them a less-than-awesome addition to landfills.
Fortunately, rubber from old tires can be safely reused in a number of applications, plus plenty of DIY projects. Just know that unless your city specifically allows rubber in curbside recycling bins, you’ll probably need to make an extra trip to recycle your tires. Most auto-tire shops can take old bike tires off your hands, or you may be able to drop them off at your city’s municipal recycling center.
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TJ Parsons is a semi-reformed snowboard bum who now has a semi-adult career as a professional writer and creative. He's a self-proclaimed perpetual intermediate who thinks the outdoors are for everyone, and who wants to help dismantle gatekeeping and elitism in outdoor sports. When he's not squeezing brain juice into a keyboard, you'll find him riding boards or bikes throughout the Intermountain West.
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