Tires and Tubes and Trouble

In my last post I alluded to a series of unfortunate events that resulted in me sagging twice in the van; first on a long descent and later for nearly an entire day. Here is the tale.

On our 3rd day of riding, we started out by climbing the Col d’ Izoard, and on the descent I heard a ‘pop’ and a ‘hiss’ and my rear tire went completely flat. Quickly. Since I was going about 35 mph and the road was pointing downhill at about 10%, this was a revolting development. But I was able to slow and stop safely. Thank the prayer candles.

Col d' Izoard Summit, Just Before My Tire Troubles Began

Now to understand what happens next, you need to know that I was using ‘road tubeless’ wheels and tires. This system works just like a car tire. There is no inner tube. The beads of the tire snap into the rim as the tire inflates, producing a virtually air tight seal. Then a small amount of liquid sealant is added inside the tire, which completely seals the rim and offers protection against small punctures. The system works really well. In 5 years and about 10,000 miles of riding road tubeless, I have never had to fix a flat during a ride. In fact, one time I did get a small puncture and sealant came shooting out of the hole, but after a couple of rotations it stopped and I had plenty of pressure to complete the ride.

I examined the tire and expected to see a major puncture, but the tread was perfect and there was no hint of a hole. The bead also appeared intact. I couldn’t figure out what had happened.

So for the first time on the road, I executed the tubeless fix: I put a tube inside, pumped up the tire and heard the satisfying ‘pop’ as the pressure seated the bead into the rim, reinstalled the wheel and went on my merry way. Actually not so merry; the next climb was the Col de Vars, just as hard as the more famous Izoard. But I made it up and down and then up the ‘Col de Hotel’ to our accommodations in Barcelonnette. This latter Col deserves some mention; it was advertised by our guides as being about 4% and about a mile long. It turned out to be 2 miles and averaging 8%, and for most of it my Garmin showed 9%-11%. At the end of a long day (64 miles, 8,400 feet) there were a few good natured grumbles at the lack of accurate information about how we getting to our showers. But we finally arrived without falling over.

The next day we climbed the Cime de la Bonnette, 9,200 feet at the top and the highest through road in France. The climb is 15 miles long and ascends over 5,000 feet. And on the descent my rear tire blew out AGAIN! This time I was going a little slower because the road was twisty, but it was still nerve wracking. And this time I simply couldn’t remove the tire, probably because there was a tube inside taking up space I needed to work the bead off of the rim. The van had already passed me, but our guide  Gerry was on his bike trailing the group. He stopped we ascertained that we weren’t going to be able to fix the problem on the road. There was no cell phone coverage to contact the van, so Gerry rode down to the next regroup point and then sent the van back to pick me up.

It turned out that my friend Russ also had some tire issues on the descent, so he ended up in the van with me and neither of us got to do the Col de Hotel on the return trip, We took some ribbing from the others about that.

After lunch, I actually had to use a knife to cut the tire off of the rim. I assumed that there had to be a small cut I couldn’t see, and the tube eventually worked its way into the cut and then popped. I have had this problem before with a standard tire/tube set up, and only discovered the cut under good light wearing my good glasses. I purchased a spare tire from my guides, put in a tube, pumped it up and put the bike into the storage room.

That night, before we went to dinner, the tire was FLAT! This was becoming a fiasco. I assumed that I had pulled the bonehead move of pinching the tube between the tire and the rim. After dinner we fixed it again. The next morning the tire seemed fine, and of course as I descended the Col de Hotel, I had ANOTHER BLOW OUT. That makes 3, all downhill.

Tires and tubes do not fail this way unless something is wrong, and I finally determined the culprit; the rim tape had failed. Tubeless wheels use special tape that creates an airtight seal between the tire and the spoke holes. Failed tape would explain the initial tubeless blowout as well as the subsequent flats, as the tube worked its way under pressure into the spoke holes and eventually went pop.

Even though we identified the cause, the solution was not so simple. We didn’t have any spare rim tape. We tried black electrical tape, which worked for the rest of that day, so I got to do the lovely Col de la Cayolle and the less lovely Col du Valberg. My Garmin displayed a temperature of 102 degrees on this one, and I literally crawled up well behind the others. I even stopped twice, and not because of cramps. I almost never do that, but I was really suffering.

The next day heading down from Valberg, I hit a small invisible stone, and when we stopped and I looked at my tire I saw the tube bulging out of a small hole. So I almost had another blowout. This was terrible luck. I finally had a tire/tube/tape combination that seemed to be working and now I have to disturb the equilibrium because of a cut in the sidewall.  I changed the tire with another spare from the van, but it the process I must have shifted the tape, because after descending another 2 miles I got yet another flat.  John and I tried to fix it, but we were in a hurry and we pinched the tube. That was it, I gave up and got into the van.

France is cycling crazy and one might think there would be a bike shop with rim tape in Valberg, but there wasn’t. I was completely out of ideas. We had one more day of the tour and I didn’t want to spend it in the van. Our guide John offered to load me his rear wheel. I told him I didn’t think it would work. It was a 10 speed hub and cassette, and my levers and cassette ‘go to 11′, just like the guitar amp in Spinal Tap. But we put his wheel on my bike, and it did shift. Sort of. Sometimes I had to click twice to change the gear, or shift up, then down to get rid of some rattling, or sometimes I would hit the lever and nothing would happen until I hit it again. However, I actually could get into all the gears, so even though it might be a little noisy I could ride the last day.

11 Speed Levers and a 10 Speed Cassette Got Me to the Med!

Ride we did, 82 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing and finishing with a long descent into Nice, through dense and chaotic traffic and roundabouts and along the Promenade beside the blue Mediterranean Sea to our final night’s hotel. After a shower and a very nice dinner and some wine I started to feel relaxed enough to put my tire trouble tension aside. The trip home the next day went smoothly even though it took over 23 hours from the time I left the hotel until I arrived home to my very excited dog Luke.

I can’t blame candle failure for mechanicals, and as long as my skin and bones are intact they are doing their job and keeping me safe. So next time I travel I’m going to include some rim tape in my small kit of handy tools and spare parts, to give the prayer candles some help with the minor stuff.

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  • Blog Author

    Rich Freggiaro

    Richard Freggiaro is a Stockton area native who grew up on his family’s farm. After an nine year detour to Davis for College, Washington DC for work, and Iowa for graduate school, he returned to San Joaquin County and spent the next quarter century farming with his father. He has been married to Diane for 31 years. He is (mostly) retired which leaves him plenty of time to ride each of his 4 bikes, and he is an enthusiastic and passionate cyclist. Read Full
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