Friday, May 11, 2007

Do tires matter?

Yes.

Thanks for asking.

I purposefully don’t write much about bike components for two reasons: 1) talk about bike components makes most people less likely to ride bikes, and 2) I don’t care.

I can’t even tell you what components I have on my own bikes. On my 10-speed, my derailleur works very well. I know it’s Shimano. But I couldn’t tell you more than that. I don’t care.

But I am into tires for two reasons: 1) they keep you from crashing, and 2) they keep you from getting flats.

Who wants to ride a bike if it doesn’t get you where you’re going? Or even worse, leaves you stranded. Or really worse, leave you in a bloody heap on the ground. Of course nobody wants to crash. Roads are slippery and it rains, but in general most tires do a very good job of keeping you from wiping out.

But flats happen to everybody. If you can remember the second-to-last flat tires you got, you get too many. Tires go bad from time, use, and sun. There’s no better way to prevent getting flats than to buy a new tire.

Tire liners aren’t bad either. That’s a thin strip that you put between the tube and the tire. In fact, most tires should have tire liners (I don’t have them in my high-pressure thin tires). Will tire liners help you? Well, I think of the punch line from the joke about a man who was hit by a car. A crowd gathers and from the back an old lady shouts, “Give him an enema!” “Lady, he was hit by a car, how is that going to help?” There’s a brief pause before the lady quietly notes, “It can’t hurt.”

Anyway, last time I bought a new tire, Andres at the wonderful Bicycle Repairman Corp bike shop (42-11 35th Ave in Astoria/Long Island City (718) 706-0405) downsold me on a Michelin Speedium. I’m always charmed with businesses that downsell you. I think this tires costs $20 as opposed to the $50 I was willing to spend. He wanted me try it out. I did. He thought I’d like it. I didn’t. I was hoping to. Because maybe I have been wasting money on expensive tires.

This tire was on the rear wheel of my blanch road bike. Eventually I noticed that when breaking hard, my rear wheel was losing grip with the pavement and going in a (controlled) skid too quickly. That can actually be kind of useful. The skidding sound quickly alerts the pedestrian who just walked in front of you. And skidding a rear wheel sounds much more dramatic than it is. But still, I prefer more stopped ability.

I was back in the bike store because my rim was dented from a previous incident. Nothing major, but a noticeable bump when applying the rear brakes. When it comes to man thwacking your wheel with a old hammer, nobody does it better than Andres. I mean I’ve got a hammer, but he's got the finesse. I told him to switch tires while he was at it.

I went back to my preferred tire and am going to put the Michelin on the rear wheel of my fixed gear. That’s the one place where you actually may want a tire to skid quickly. One part of breaking on a fixed gear is being able to lock the rear wheel. It’s not easy to do (and hard on your knees) if the tire won’t let go the road.

I’m sure there are lots of other good tires out there, but I’ve stuck with Continental since my fixed-gear building friend recommended them to me way back in the 20th Century. They’re good tires and they’ve always been good to me. I like Continental Grand-Prix 4000s (formerly the 3000). I would also be happy with the Continental “4-Season.” But the bike store stocks the 4000 so that’s what I got (size 700 x 23). Very good puncture resistance, good grip, fast, light. That’s what you want in a tire, in that order.

The downside is they cost $45 each. But new tires will pay for their cost if they prevent just a few flats. And the hassle of a flat is far greater than just the cost of fixing it.

For non-racing bikes, fatter, lower-pressure tires are cheaper, anyway. Part of the expense of tires goes into making the skinny tires withstand 120-pounds-per-square-inch pressure. For most bikes, you can nice new tires for $10 to $20 each. If you’ve got the money (and already have a comfy seat), it’s the best thing to spend your hard-earned bike money on. It can’t hurt.