by Dr. Larry Preble
January, 2012

“Whoa! How did that happen?!” I had never seen anything like it-not the hole, of course; I had seen those before. This one was big, about a quarter inch in diameter in the front tire, but even this was not without precedence. No, what was truly astonishing is that this large hole went all the way through the tire, but the tube had not burst, even under full pressure! We were standing in the Yellow Lot downtown waiting to start the Thursday Morning ride. “Nita, I’m going to have to change out that tire before we go anywhere.”

Ever since I had a front tire blowout doing 30 mph on a tandem, I’ve been more diligent in checking for tire damage before beginning a ride. That blowout on the Mammoth Cave century ride was still painfully fresh in my memory. It had been just over a month prior and had cost my riding partner a broken clavicle. That time, it had been a sharp object in the road which caused the blowout. The tire flopped around so violently that steering was like skating on ice. I managed to get the bike slowed to less than 10 mph before the front wheel became so unstable that ditching was unavoidable. I had a choice of falling left onto the pavement or right onto a soft grassy embankment-I chose the grass. What I thought was a fairly gentle slide through the grass left neither a scratch on the bike nor on me, but my poor stoker hit the embankment hard enough with her right shoulder to snap her collar bone in two. To her credit, Nita’s only request at the hospital after the accident was that I not give up on riding the tandem. With that kind of spirit, how could I deny her request? Even so, I was feeling some “survivor’s guilt.” It may have been an unavoidable accident, but I couldn’t help but feel the weight of responsibility. 

My riding partner couldn’t wait to get back on the tandem. Unfortunately, the standard upright position offered by her Santana Sovereign made it too painful for her, but there was another option: Nita also owned a “Rans Screamer,” a bright yellow recumbent tandem that offered a semi-reclining position and handgrips down by her hips where she could comfortably ride in the stoker position with no pressure on the shoulders.  After clearing it with her orthopedic surgeon, she eagerly took to the rear seat on the Rans Screamer. “Are you sure the Santana tandem shouldn’t have been called the ‘Screamer?’” I asked. “Hopefully, there will be no screaming on this bike.” So began the long weeks of recovery.

At the Yellow Lot, with a new hole in the Screamer’s front tire but with the tube still
under full pressure, I needed to let the air out to remove the tube. As I yanked the tube out, something else came spiraling out with it, something I had never seen before. It was a long strap of slick, tough, black plastic, sandwiched between the tire and the tube. I called my friend Perry over. Perry rides 10,000 plus miles a year and has seen almost everything. “Hey Perry, what the heck is this thing?!”
Tire punctured by stiff wire, but not the tube!
Tire punctured, but not the tube!
Mr.Tuffy, Bicycle Tire Liner
“That’s a tire liner. I have used them when riding really rough roads over long distances. They don’t weigh much and offer a lot of protection against flats.” I had never heard of such a thing, but it obviously had worked. The gaping hole in the tire hadn’t even fazed the liner. Only the tire had to be replaced, so the tube was reusable. Apparently, the previous owner of Nita’s recumbent had installed the liners. We never even knew they were in there.

I was intrigued. “Perry, if I wanted to buy some of these for my other bikes, what should I look for?”

“One brand name is Mr. Tuffy. Some of the bike stores carry them.”

I went on-line and read the reviews. I also talked to the local bike shop personnel to ask their opinions. I would have thought the opinions would be a slam-dunk in favor of tire liners but was surprised to find some controversy. Of course, many thought tire liners were great, but some folks, mostly racers, were opposed to carrying extra weight in their tires, so I checked the specs. The liners only weigh 32 grams for the ultra-light version, seemingly a small price to pay. Besides, long distance endurance riding is my specialty, not racing. Others claimed that if you installed them wrong, they could rub the tube and perhaps actually cause a flat. “Hmm, something to consider,” I agreed. Eventually, I decided to give it a try and bought liners for every bike I ride.

That was June, 2010. That may not seem so long ago, but I am an avid rider; in that 18 months I’ve logged 14,529 miles. So, here’s the startling fact: in 14,529 miles of riding, none of my tubes have had punctures. I have had a valve stem break off (from old age, I think) while pumping the tires in the parking lot, but that doesn’t really count. On the road, my tubes have survived everything from tacks, to piercing bits of wire, to shards of broken bottles and even embedded road cinders-Indiana uses those nasty cinders in the wintertime to increase traction on slick roads, but they have the consistency of ground glass!

People ask if I think they should buy the liners. Really, that depends on the rider. If you don’t get many flats, why bother? I also doubt that tire liners would protect from extreme sidewall damage or from a pinch flat. So, avoid those potholes and keep the tires inflated to the proper pressure. If your specialty is high performance sprints over the short haul, perhaps tire liners are not for you. Thirty-two extra grams in a tire might make a difference. But, I ride rough roads in all kinds of weather. I don’t much care to hold up a group while changing a flat on a century ride, and there’s nothing much more miserable than fixing a flat in the freezing cold or in the rain. In 18 months, I have worn out a few sets of tires but have reinstalled the same old tubes along with the same tire liners. You could say, I’ve made friends with Mr. Tuffy.